In his 20-year career in the recording industry (1990 - 2009) Bill Rosenfield was responsible for over 65 Original Cast Recordings which garnered over 30 Grammy nominations.
As a playwright his play, True Fans recently premiered at the Abbey in Orlando, Florida. His other plays (Let Me, 46 Beacon) have had reading at various theaters around the country. In April of 2014, City Center Encores! premiered his script adaptation of The Most Happy Fella directed and choreographed by Casey Nicolaw.
Bill is the recipient of 2 Drama Desk Awards in 1992 (on behalf of RCA Victor) and in 2002 for Lifetime Achievement as well as a Richard Rodgers Award and a SDC Governor's Award.
Here's Andy's instruction of this week: "Finales - let's pick 5 that we think are the most unusual or daring."
Just what constitutes unusual or daring? People coming back from the dead for a finale should be considered unusual or daring but frankly in musical theatre it happens far too often and too effectively for it to be considered either of those things. Mega-mixes reprising all the great songs that we heard earlier in the evening? That's a posrt-ending device, but it doesn't mean I don't love them. So I'm just gonna go with five finales that I love listening to again and again with the understanding between us that next week their might be five that I love more. Ok?
Candide. This always flawed and frustrating musical has one of the most glorious scores ever written for the theatre. Leonard Bernstein's music and the exquisite lyrics of John Latouche, Richard Wilbur and Dorothy Parker on the 1956 Cast recording are something to be studied and cherished by everyone who loves the musical theatre. I first heard this recording when I was 16 years old and from the magnificent "Overture" forward I was hooked. Did I understand it all? No, of course not, I was only 16. However, when I got to the breathtaking finale "Make Our Garden Grow" I had found a new philosophy of life. How could someone listen to that song with its stunning acapella section (in the pre-Stephen Oremus era) and not stand and cheer? Now that's a finale to change one's life!
Avenue Q. Lately I've been listening to this recording more than in the past. It's easy to dismiss the show as sweet, funny charmer, but part of the reason this Jeff Marx/Bobby Lopez/Jeff Whitty concoction has had such a long life is that underneath it all there is an optimistic view of the world to which we should all subscribe. It's summed up in a characteristically witty manner in the finale "For Now." No one expects to go into a puppet show and find the human condition so sympathetically and smartly illuminated. That surprise is at the heart of this upbeat finale.
Titanic. Well we all knew how it was going to end. The surprise in the tear-filled, emotionally manipulative (in the best possible way) "Finale" is that we come to care about the passengers as a group rather than the specific characters. The show has one of the best opening sequences in Broadway history, but somehow finds a way to evoke that exhilarating opening number in its heartbreaking finale. Instead of the joy found in the anticipation of the journey the finale probes the depth of the grief in the lives that were shattered by the ship's sinking. Maury Yeston's score never fails to thrill me and the "Finale" never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
But enough of tears at the end - let's leave the theatre with a happy buzz. Let's leave wanting to dance our way home and for that we look no further the next two shows:
Kinky Boots. I don't care what you thought about this show, you cannot deny that its Finale sends you out into the night on a high, loving your fellow man and hoping for a better world. Thanks to Cyndi Lauper's upbeat score (with a deep nod to Mr. Oremus for his orchestrations and arrangements), Jerry Mitchell's take-no-prisoners staging and a kick-ass performance by the band and cast, the finale "Just Be/Raise You Up" delivers what any audience wants from a musical. Happiness and a well-ordered fair-minded world in which to live.
Hairspray. Has there ever been a more infectious get-up-and-dance tune written for a Broadway musical than Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's "You Can't Stop the Beat?" I don't think so. Put it on, and I defy you to sit still or not singalong. For a musical which is pretty upbeat from the word go, it's a major achievement by director Jack O'Brien, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell and their fabulous cast to top all that giddiness which preceded it with this pulse-racing finale.
As a rule I'm really not a spectacle guy. My favorite musicals are the ones that are more human in scale and ones which rely more heavily on individual performance rather than budget-busting scenic design. For that reason this is a hard column for me to write.
Nevertheless this is where I admit that I loved Phantom of the Opera the first time I saw it 18 years ago. The sweep and grandeur of the design and the lushness of all those strings in the orchestra-wow. I played the London album quite a bit before I saw it so musically I knew what I was getting when I entered the Majestic Theatre. It was the visual impact that surprised and thrilled me. Strangely though once I had seen it, I stopped playing the recording. The music was ever-present in the world around me, so I didn't feel the need to listen to it on my own.
But let's not go negative here.
So let's move on to Ragtime. The Terence McNally/Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical which miraculously told a dark, human and emotional story of a family confronting change on all sides. It had plenty of spectacle: the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island, Emma Goldman speaking in Union Square, a hostage drama played out in the Morgan library, etc. Yet despite those larger than life production values the essential emotional core of the story retained its human scale. The truth is that there were really too many genuine show-stoppers in the show: "Wheels of a Dream," "New Music," "The Night Goldman Spoke in Union Square," "Back to Before," and… oh, of course, the thrilling opening number "Ragtime." Every show should be cursed with too much caviar.
Show Boat is a great musical. I've seen at least 5 or 6 different productions of it multiple times. I'm always thrilled by it, and because there are so many different "improvements" in the book over the years it's always a different experience. Part of my enjoyment of it is wondering how the first Florenz Ziegfeld production must have been. It's a show that simply can't be done on a shoe-string; it needs size and scale and a great orchestra. It needs to impress in an epic way. The massive over-scale Hal Prince revival in 1994, I think, has put the kibosh on the prospect for another Broadway production within my lifetime. Here was a physical production that exceeded the demands of the script and while deeply impressive was also simply exhausting to witness. The recording of that production is unavailable due to some legal issues, but I happen to like the highly abbreviated 1966 Music Theatre of Lincoln Center recording featuring Stephen Douglass, Barbara Cook, Constance Towers and William Warfield. It offers a spirited performance of the magnificent Jerome Kern /Oscar Hammerstein score featuring "Old Man River," "Bill," and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man".
Wicked. Yeah, Wicked. When I first saw this show in previews I sat there passing judgment: "this doesn't work, that doesn't work blah blah blah" And then Idina Menzel sang "The Wizard and I," and I was hooked. "Popular," "I'm Not That Girl," "For Good"—and let's not forget "Defying Gravity"—are emotionally satisfying. They're funny and/or eloquent and/or show-stopping theatre songs. When Stephen Schwartz gets it right (and that happens an awful lot) he's simply one of the greats. The achievement of a spectacular show like Wicked is that for a lot of the audience they are at first entranced by the lavish physical production and they enjoy the music; whereas for me, it's the emotional truth and intelligence of the songs and the characters that makes it so satisfying. It's that rare show which found the balance between the two.
42nd Street. For sheer Broadway Musical Comedy spectacle there were few shows as satisfying as the original Broadway production of 42nd Street. It was a veritable pageant of one spectacular number after another. The initial opening image of 40 pairs of tap-dancing feet is one of the greatest opening moments of any musical I've ever seen. The sheer propulsive energy and sound of all that tapping is a theatrical thrill of a lifetime. What followed was a series of production numbers utilizing the great Harry Warren/Al Dubin songbook. Number after number, "We're in the Money," "Dames," "Lullaby of Broadway," and "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," were all given their due to meet an audience's expectations of a lavish Broadway experience. The original Broadway cast album—with Jerry Orbach, Tammy Grimes, Lee Roy Reams, Wanda Richert and Carole Cooke—is a joy from start to finish. With that original company the show was a sterling example of a Broadway Musical Spectacular.
Generally speaking I love "Live" recordings. I love hearing an audience react to a show-stopping number or hearing them interrupt a number with applause midway through. It allows me to imagine what is happening on the stage. We're supposed to keep this column about Live recordings of shows or "big concerts" and not discuss cabaret based recordings. So I'll sing the praises of the utterly delightful Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley Unattached - Live at Feinstein's/54 Below recording another time.
Sondheim: A Musical Tribute would qualify as a "big concert". This was the first of a zillion musical tribute evenings to Mr. Sondheim (many of which have been recorded), and despite the fact that it did have some dull moments and erratic performances (mostly cut from the album's initial release) it remains one of the more ecstatic experiences I've ever had in a theatre. And that experience I had on March 11, 1973 (for those of you taking notes) was captured thrillingly on the recording. For me the first hint that the evening might be historic was when Alice Playten and Virginia Sandifur sang their version of "If Mama Was Married." Suddenly hearing it not just as the 10th cut on the Gypsy LP, but on its own with hilarious lyrics and no Ethel Merman waiting to appear on the next track, a song that I had previously sort of ignored sparkled. It was followed in short order by Chita Rivera and "America" and Ethel Shutta belting out "Broadway Baby" one last time. The theatre was on fire, and if you listen to the recording you can almost feel the audience getting more and more hysterical. However, it was the second to last segment for which this concert is most remembered. That was when six ladies took their seats on stage: Hermione Gingold ("Liaisons"), Nancy Walker ("I'm Still Here"), Angela Lansbury ("A Parade in Town") , Alexis Smith ("Could I Leave You?") , Glynis Johns,("Send in the Clowns") and Dorothy Collins ("Losing My Mind"). And one after another each stopped the show dead in its tracks. Because of re-record restrictions on the freshly recorded A Little Night Music Ms. Gingold and Ms. Johns aren't on the concert recording. Still the quartet that we are left with is simply stunning. And as far as I'm concerned no one on earth has ever matched Nancy Walker's rendition of "I'm Still Here." No one. This album captures a key moment in the development of the American Musical Theatre; when it almost became official that musicals were no longer also the pop hits on the radio, that shift in American music culture had been happening for awhile, but that night in the celebration of the arrival of Stephen Sondheim as a bona-fide genius of the musical theatre (and a bow to Harold Prince as well) the world of musical theatre and its place in popular American culture changed forever (for good or ill). And it was captured "Live" for us to experience again and again.
Follies in Concert. It's no secret that I'm a Follies freak. And because I grew up in Boston where it played its tryout engagement I was what we call in the 21st Century "an early adopter." The original cast album of Follies was one of the great disappointments of my youth (that alone should tell you more about my high school years than you need to know). Songs were edited or cut entirely and the quality of the recording itself was messy. This was rectified a few years ago by a glorious re-mastering of the original tapes by Bruce Kimmel for his Kritzerland label. If you can get a copy of it you're in for a revelation. But by 1985, thanks to Thomas Z. Shepard, RCA Red Seal, which had been steadily recording almost anything that Stephen Sondheim had written, sought to right the injustice which had been perpetrated by the first recording of Follies. And so on September 6 & 7 1985 an all-star concert version of Follies was presented with Paul Gemignani conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and it was recorded "Live" at Avery Fisher Hall. The hysteria that greeted every moment of the evening was probably a bit ridiculous and yet totally appropriate. There were big stars from California: Carol Burnett and Lee Remick, Broadway favorites: George Hearn and Phyllis Newman; there was perfect novelty casting with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and then there were two performances by two favorites of mine that qualify as legendary. The first was Elaine Stritch's deeply comedic rendition of "Broadway Baby," which got laughs where there were none, and finally if ever there was a heaven on earth it has to be Barbara Cook singing "In Buddy's Eyes." The joy of those evenings, the twice-in-a-lifetime energy of those nights is all palpably present on this recording. I believe it's this recording which for most people canonized the place that Follies holds in the pantheon of great musicals.
But enough about him!
When the Original Cast Album of Dreamgirls was first released my disappointment—no let's be honest, my anger—at the method in which it was recorded was palpable. Here was a show which was two hours of virtually continuous pulse-racing theatrical energy reduced to a little more than 45 minutes of glossy pop-tunes, still pulse-racing, but of a different kind. I understand the decision that was made from a record company's viewpoint but from a fan's viewpoint? I wasn't happy. When would we ever get the complete Dreamgirls that we longed for? Well we did when Dreamgirls in Concert was released. Finally with a sterling cast that included Audra McDonald, Heather Headley, Lillias White, Billy Porter, Norm Lewis, and Darius DeHaas we had the full show captured from a concert performance offered on September 24, 2001. The evening itself was under-rehearsed, but it didn't matter we were getting a Dreamgirls in all its musical glory. So finally we could hear a complete "Stepp Into the Bad Side" with all that dance music, or the Fashion Sequence which was cut from the original recording. It is by no means a definitive recording of the show, and frankly I don't know what that would be at this point, but it does give the listener a sense of the frenzy that the show creates in an audience.
That sense of what happens to an audience during a show which is a demonstration of spontaneous combustion is evident on the Broadway Cast Recording of Bring in Da Noise/Bring in Da Funk. In the theatre the score for this show (music by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark & Ann Duquesnay, lyrics by Reg E. Gaines) had to play second fiddle to Savion Glover's mesmerizing choreography and George C. Wolfe's volcanic direction. But on disc while Mr. Glover's propulsive choreography is forever present, we also are given the chance to appreciate the beauty and variety of the hip/hop and rhythm & blues score and the additional depth Mr. Gaines's poetry slam lyrics. More than most live recordings of shows, the visceral reaction of the audience at Noise/Funk is something to treasure.
And finally I'd like to talk about the London Cast Recording of Legally Blonde. Though the show had a healthy run on Broadway and a successful tour, I always felt that the Broadway Cast album—while capturing the intelligent wit and musical comedy joy of the numbers and while wonderfully performed by a cast that included Christian Borle, Orfeh and Michael Rupert—suffered from the working-to-hard performance of the leading lady. In London, that central problem was rectified by the presence and star-quality ease of Sheridan Smith and because the recording was made during a live performance you can sense the warmth and connection that exists between Ms. Smith and her audience. So while the recording isn't as glossy as its predecessor to me it's more aesthetically satisfying because it captures the happy theatrical event that the audience experiences.
I'll take "Live" happy over glossy perfection any day.
Frankly, living here in the UK I'd probably only need 5 of them (if that).
Nevertheless, here are 10 songs (and 15 tracks), some depressing, some silly and some comforting to help you get through those heat-driven doldrums.
Let's begin with:
"Something Cool" - I've been racking my brain trying to remember who sang this Billy Barnes classic song on the Mike Douglas Show one weekday afternoon many decades ago. Or maybe it was the Merv Griffin Show? I just remember that when they did, it blew my very young mind. Instead of going with the June Christy original though, I'm going to point you toward this recent version by Judy Kuhn from her album All This Happiness; after all when it comes to illuminating the sad and lonely who is better than she?
"Lazy Afternoon" – The first time I heard this was Kaye Ballard's version on the seriously abbreviated cast recording of John Latouche & Jerome Moross's The Golden Apple. A few years later it was quite famously the title track on a Barbra Streisand album; after which it has become a standard of the Great American Songbook. I really like Vanessa Williams' smooth jazz version on her The Real Thing recording from a few years ago.
"In the Cool Cool of the Evening" - This is a simply great giddy Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer song that was originally performed by Bing Cosby and Jane Wyman in the film Here Comes the Groom. It won an Oscar. I have two versions to recommend to you. The first is the jazz-infused devil-may-care version by Billy Stritch and Klea Blackhurst from their Hoagy Carmichael songbook album Dreaming of a Song. The second is a glistening Big Band arrangement ( by Patrick Williams and Barry Manilow) with Better Midler from her Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook album. I love 'em both.
"Ice Cream" – Let's face it there is no better way to beat the heat than with some ice cream. I think music and ice cream are the only two things that bring happiness to all people the world over. This great Bock/Harnick song from She Loves Me is owned by Barbara Cook either on the Original Broadway Cast Recording or her In Concert at Carnegie Hall album. But I believe the song is currently being sublet with deep respect and affection by Ms Laura Benanti where you can hear her on the fabulous new Broadway Cast Recording of the show.
"Waters of March" – Arguably one of the greatest songs of all time, this Antonio Carlos Jobim classic transcends genres, cultures, sexes, well just about everything. It's been recorded dozens of times by an endless stream of artists from all parts of the world. The first time I heard it though it was breezily performed by the late great Mary-Cleere Haran and was included on her There's a Small Hotel - Live at the Algonquin album. There's a characteristically jazzy version by Rosemary Clooney and John Pizzarelli on her Brazil album and the always accommodating Mr. Pizzarelli recorded it again with his wife Jessica Molaskey on the album Sitting in Limbo, where it's deftly combined with Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" creating not so much a one-act play but a complete philosophy of life. And finally there is a heartbreakingly optimistic version by Nancy LaMott from her Live at Tavern on the Green recording. Play 'em all, trade 'em with your friends!
"Isn't it a Lovely Day?" – This is an Irving Berlin classic recorded over the years by just about everybody: Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald etc. This version is by the wonderful cabaret artist Jane Monheit from her thoroughly delightful recording Home. This song helps lighten the hot summer mood so that we can get to the next number:
"Air Conditioner" – This is Christine Lavin's deeply funny ("It's funny because it's true") song about the lengths some of us "will go/have gone to" to not spend the night without one of civilizations most important inventions. Sutton Foster does a bang-up job with it from her totally refreshing An Evening with Sutton Foster - Live at the Cafe Carlyle recording which brings us to the next track on that recording:
"Warm All Over" – It comes from Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, and Ms. Foster's version of this song accompanied by the sensitive piano played by Michael Rafter, is an indispensable stunner.
Any playlist to beat the heat will inevitably include the Gershwin's "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess so why should mine be any different? But other than Mr. Pizzarelli this list has been noticeably short of men so let's remedy that situation. Here's Steven Pasquale's sultry steamy version from his sultry (and steamy) jazz album Somethin' Like Love.
And as the sun sets on our sunny set of songs what better way to finish up than with the great Barbara Cook's version of Burton Lane and Yip Harburg's "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow from her Rainbow Round My Shoulder recording. The sheer simplicity and honesty of Ms. Cook's singing can make any heatwave a joy to endure.
"I'll take Patti LuPone for $50, Alex."
There are so many genuinely funny women out there who make me laugh either with a raised eyebrow, a dry line reading, a pratfall, an eye roll, or the cagey use of a cigarette that to narrow them down to a list of just 10 proved impossible. Some of them can do all of those things at once: I'm looking at you Linda Lavin!
So I'm just doing A-L this time and when the subject comes up I'll be adding M-Z.
Sometimes it's not about being funny; it's about possessing that certain je ne sais quoi which translates into wit or charm. So what follows is a playlist of special performers who at the very least make me smile and at the most make me laugh out loud.
And of course they're in alphabetical order cause they may be funny but they can also be fierce.
Christine Baranski – "Everyone Wants to do a Musical"
In the midst of the promising mess that became Nick & Nora there were a few things which were delightful. Joanna Gleason's droll Nora, Faith Prince's hapless victim, and Christine Baranski's ego-driven diva. The show's score (Charles Strouse & Richard Maltby, Jr.) is underrated, and this song proved itself a show-stopper during the production's very short run. Ms. Baranski has done very well since then showing off her comedic chops in various places (most notably on The Big Bang Theory) and her dramatic ones on The Good Wife. For me though it's when she's in a musical that she truly shines and makes me laugh and cheer. (Follies at Encores!)
Laura Benanti – "Model Behavior"
I've made no secret of my affection for Ms. Benanti. In the current revival of She Loves Me she is at her best, only topped by her performance in the Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella. It is one of my great regrets that I didn't see her in probably her most acclaimed performance in Jeffrey Lane & David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown because even without seeing it her performance of this song is simply dazzling.
Heidi Blickenstaff – "Right Hand Man"
I probably should've been aware of Heidi Blickenstaff before Hunter Bell & Jeff Bowen's [title of show] but I wasn't. I loved her in that hilarious production and I adored her in the aforementioned Encores! Happy Fella where she proved herself a worthy successor to the great Susan Johnson. (If you don't know Susan Johnson I guess that's ok, but if you do then you know what I'm talking about.) In Something Rotten! she has less to do than I would've liked but she does have a great musical comedy song near the top of the show to which she brings a gusto and humor that pleases me no end.
Carol Channing – "Little Girl from Little Rock"
Before Carol Channing became CAROL CHANNING she was as deft and delightful comedienne as one could imagine. This Jule Styne and Leo Robin song from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes never fails to surprise me with its risqué wit and sophistication. While this isn't my favorite rendition of the song (that would be Marilyn Monroe & Jane Russell on the film soundtrack) it is a reminder of the many times I've watched Ms. Channing in the theatre and roared with laughter.
Marilyn Cooper – "The Grass is Always Greener"
Marilyn Cooper went from being a comedic girl in the chorus with a few lines (Gypsy, West Side Story) to a musical comedy lead (I Can Get It for You Wholesale) to stalwart musical comedy support (Two by Two, On the Town both in 1971) to hitting the jackpot with her less than 12 minute show-stopping Tony-Award winning appearance near the end of Woman of the Year. She landed every line in her scene and she practically stole the whole damn show out from under the formidable Lauren Bacall. (I say "practically" because if I didn't, Bacall would come back from the grave and throttle me.) John Kander & Fred Ebb are great at writing bitch duets but never greater than this one. Listen and laugh!
Barbara Harris – "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here"
It's hard to explain to people who don't know just what the appeal of Barbara Harris is. Few of her film appearances display her special magic, most notably in Nashville, A Thousand Clowns, and The Seduction of Joe Tynan. In truth though, her best film performance and the one that best demonstrates her extraordinary presence is her Academy Award-nominated turn in the otherwise pretty unwatchable Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Such Terrible Things About Me? But if one goes to YouTube there is about 15 minutes of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever from a Bell Telephone Hour broadcast in 1965. Even though the quality of the video is questionable it's a chance to see this fine performer who while she could be quirky, funny, endearing and just as quickly could turn around and break your heart.
Jane Krakowski – " A Trip to the Library"
One of the happiest aspects of the recent revival of She Loves Me is the self-aware smarts that Jane Krakowski brings to the role of the easily-duped Miss Ritter. That would seem to be contradictory, but that twinkle of intelligence in the midst of a "dumb" blonde is Ms. Krakowski's stock-in-trade. Thanks to her television stardom Ally MacBeal, 30 Rock, and the current Kimmie Schmidt, the world has gotten to appreciate her special appeal. She's one of those actresses who lights up a stage and instantly makes me smile. Her rendition of "A Trip to the Library" on the new glorious cast recording of She Loves Me is like so much of that production: perfection.
Linda Lavin – "You've Got Possibilites"
I've written fairly recently about Ms. Lavin and her rendition of this song from It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman. It's a great upbeat character song, and she delivers it like no one else. She's one of those performers who can tell a life story with the shrug of a shoulder. Her recent stage appearances have proven that time and again. Even in minor roles in films such as The Intern she is able to communicate a character's entire life with her middle finger. Linda Lavin =Hilarious.
Patti LuPone – "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens"
Patti LuPone is one of the most hilarious creatures to walk the earth. She's outrageous, brutally funny, and knows no shame and that's just on Patti LuPone Live concert disc from 1993 just before she went over to London for Sunset Boulevard. (And we all know what happened there.) The concert put together with John McDaniel and Scott Wittman is the perfectly balanced showcase for Ms. LuPone and this throwaway song is emblematic of the giddy joy she is always eager to give her adoring audience.
So here's a surprise: In honor of Motown's return to Broadway this week, I sat down to write a treatise on why I don't like jukebox musicals and I was going to get on my high horse about "theatrical integrity" and the importance of supporting original works and stuff like that and, as I was forming those thoughts, I thought: "Well just to be sure let me make a list of those Jukebox Musicals that I actually like…."
In no particular order: Motown, Beautiful, All Shook Up, Ain't Misbehav'n, Crazy For You, Side by Side by Sondheim, Mamma Mia!, And the World Goes Round, 42nd Street, Fosse, Jerome Robbins' Broadway...and then I thought: "Golly, I actually like jukebox musicals…when they're good, that is."
However, with that list above I've given "jukebox" the broadest of definitions so I'm narrowing it down to musical recordings that feature a pop catalog not written for the theatre. And now the list gets significantly smaller.
So I've picked three to discuss (in alphabetical order) they are:
All Shook Up was a show that came to Broadway at exactly the wrong moment. Utilizing the Elvis Presley catalog Joe DiPietro fashioned a funny libretto based in large part on Twelfth Night, and it had a terrific cast led by Cheyenne Jackson, Jenn Gambatese, Nikki M James, Jonathan Hadary, and Leah Hocking. It was that time when us Broadway folks lived in fear of being run over by thousands of jukebox shows (a well-founded fear as it turned out, but we've all made peace with it). The fact is that this was a good-natured musical with terrific arrangements and orchestrations by Stephen Oremus. "C'mon Everybody," "A Little Less Conversation," and most especially "Can't Help Falling in Love" are all realized musically in ways which are both theatrical and true to the spirit of Mr. Presley. And somewhat amazingly the songs were theatricalized to the extent that they sounded like a cohesive score (even though most of us know already know most of them). Happily the show has a solid life in the stock and amateur world. A fun show which was a victim of bad timing.
Among shows currently running I'm a big fan of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Part of my affection for it is of course, generational. Didn't we all break up to the sound of a Carole King album? That doesn't take away the fact that it's a wonderfully satisfying evening in the theatre and a thoroughly satisfying cast recording experience. Much of the credit goes to the sheer star quality of its Tony-winning leading lady Jessie Mueller. She evokes Carole King with her phrasing and the sound of her voice, but she retains her own individual identity. So much so that when I listen to the real Carole King I wonder if maybe I prefer Jessie Mueller's versions of the songs. However, Beautiful also has an advantage over other jukebox shows thanks to Doug McGrath's book which, while full of the expected show biz clichés manages to make you care about its four central characters. And if the structure and character delineation owes more than a passing nod to the structure of Funny Girl (Carole=Fanny, Gerry= Nick Arnstein, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil=Mrs Brice & Eddie Ryan) so be it. The show is staged with assurance and pace by Marc Bruni and the arrangements by Steve Sidwell & Jason Howland come through with vibrancy and style on the recording: "You've Got a Friend," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Beautiful," "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," etc. I love the show and the album.
Movin' Out is one of my favorite musicals. On one hand it was a "Billy Joel's Greatest Hits" evening with those songs played with enthusiasm and style by a great onstage band led by a Billy Joel Tribute singer Michael Cavanaugh. On the other hand it was a startling achievement by director/choreographer Twyla Tharp in bringing an evening-long narrative dance to Broadway. The recording is peculiar because while it was recorded live—for reasons that only record company executives would understand…and dictate (as opposed to the esteemed album producer Mike Berniker)—virtually all trace of the "live" aspect has been wiped away. So a certain energy level of the recording is missing. What is there though is the musical narrative (by Mr. Joel and Stuart Malina) of a dance musical that is completely captivating on its own terms.
This was harder than I thought simply because sometimes there are recordings of terrific shows that are great, but I never play them. The Producers, for example, is a show I saw many, many times, but I've only made it through the recording once. I was simply happier with it "live."
And sometimes the recording is a more satisfying experience than the show itself. A production might have to many distractions such as sets, costumes and lights that don't allow you to focus on the music or it might have all of those pesky book scenes that are just treading water until we get to the next number.
So here in alphabetical order are my 5 favorite cast recordings of the theatrical season just past.
Bright Star. There is a conflict of interest here in that I wrote the synopsis and critical essay for this recording package; however I'm pretty sure it would have made the list no matter what. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's musical has warmth and melody to spare, due in large part to August Eriksmoen's sensitive orchestrations (and a great band to play them). Admittedly a lot of the lyrics don't rhyme or are near misses, but somehow that seems appropriate to this Americana/Bluegrass score. Carmen Cusack makes a stunning Broadway debut in this show and her vocal performance on the recording is a thing of wonder. Whether she's just giving out information in "If You Knew My Story," or runnin' wild as a devil-may-care teenager in "Whoa Momma!" or delivering the eleven o'clock number "At Last," Ms. Cusack arrives on Broadway a genuine star. And the duet between Ms. Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan entitled "I Had a Vision" is simply heartbreaking. A terrific recording.
The Color Purple. I've always been a fan of this Brenda Russell-Allee Willis-Stephen Bray score and felt that it was never given its proper respect.
Thanks to Joseph Jobert's lean orchestrations the show has an emotional intimacy that the original production didn't allow for. This recording of the current revival, should help the score's reputation enormously. The star here though is yet another stunning (see Bright Star above) Broadway debut for Cynthia Erivo in a performance that garnered her a well-deserved Tony Award this year. Having seen her here in London in concert and in other shows I can tell you she's the real deal. Her duet with Jennifer Hudson "What About Love?" and her big climactic number that has audiences jumping to their feet, "I'm Here" - are just two of the highlights of this beautifully produced (by Frank Filipetti) recording. Yes there are still some trouble spots in the musical narrative, most notably in "Celie's Curse," but happily skipping a track is easier than it ever was. It's a beautiful recording of a beautiful show.
Fiddler on the Roof. When I was growing up Fiddler was a Chagallesque celebration of a life left behind, but this production becomes a meditation on what can we learn from the past, and how in today's world that there is still that fear of what people of a different faith can carry. Danny Burstein's performance resonates so deeply because it is so real, and that really goes for everyone on stage who find an emotional truth where once there was delightful borscht belt schtick. A special mention should be made of the musical direction and new orchestrations by Ted Sperling. He has found nuance and power in songs which I've always simply admired but now hear how truly brilliant they are. The production finds the balance of honoring the Fiddlers of the past while opening the door to the Fiddlers of the future. From the explanatory opening track "Tradition" to the re-thinking of "Matchmaker" to a heart-felt "Do You Love Me?" and the exemplary work of the orchestra throughout, this is a Fiddler to treasure.
First Daughter Suite. When Michael John LaChiusa gets it right (Marie Christine, Hello Again, The Wild Party, Queen of the Mist) he's one of the best composer/lyricists around, and when I think he isn't at the top of his game (Bernarda Alba) I feel as if I have failed him in some way. In 1993 he wrote the First Lady Suite an audacious work which depicted aspects of four different First Ladies in extreme situations some deeply dramatic or hugely comic. First Daughter Suite follows the same path with similar uneven and rewarding results. So while I find the second sequence entitled "Amy Carter's Fabulous Dream Adventure" rather tasteless (involving the Iran Hostage situation) and the third story, "Patti By The Pool" depicting the privileged Hollywood life of Nancy Reagan and her (usually) estranged step-daughter Patti, more experimental than successful, those reservations are cast aside for the fourth chapter: "In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried." It's a sort of culmination of everything that Mr. LaChiusa does to perfection. He takes the knowledge of Barbara Bush's baby daughter who died at the age of three and the tense relationship between that Mrs. Bush and George W's wife Laura, along with the elder Mrs. Bush's disappointment in her son and puts them together into a combustible confrontation which is blazingly theatrical and deeply moving. Thanks to sterling performances from Theresa McCarthy, Rachel Bay Jones, and the indomitable Mary Testa and sterling orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Bruce Coughlin, this chapter pushes this recording into my top 5 of the year.
She Loves Me. When asked to describe this show to people the word which most often comes to mind is: "Perfect." Is it great? That I dunno, but it is "Perfect." I first heard this score when I was in my late teens and I loved it. I first saw the show 3 times in one week in a 1977 concert performance at Town Hall featuring Madeline Kahn, Barry Bostwick, George Rose, Rita Moreno and Laurence Guittard. And over the years I've seen at least 5 other productions and it never fails to enchant. And this production is no different. The joyful Bock/Harnick score is as fresh today as it was in 1963, and Joe Masteroff's book continues to amaze me. Scott Ellis has directed it skillfully and imbued it with a great sense of ease and charm. The cast led by Laura Benanti, Zachary Levi, Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel is performing at the top of their respective games. I particularly like the effervescent doubt that Ms. Benanti brings to "Will He Like Me?" or the quirkiness that Mr. Levi brings to "She Loves Me" or Ms. Krakowski's masterful "A Trip to the Library." Strong credit should be given to Larry Hochman's sublime orchestrations under the sure baton of Paul Gemingnani. This is a collection of Broadway's best musical theatre practitioners and they're all at the top of their game. It's a privilege to listen to it.
I'm a pretty optimistic guy and I like to think of myself as someone who, for the most part, embraces change. And yet this short playlist of 5 songs which reflect change and moving (in honor of our Curator Andy Propst's move over the next two weeks) is really pretty depressing.
Moving is always traumatic, even when it's under control. Few of us have the nerve to throwaway boxes of stuff (physical and emotional) that haven't been opened in years and yet we hang on to it. I honestly think that someone should set up a moving business that has the job of losing half of your boxes on the move from one location to another. Yes, valuable things would fall by the wayside but it's all ultimately just "stuff" and we could be free of it. (I say this as someone who has a flat full of programs and theatrical memorabilia: Don't even think of tossing that "Frankenstein: Live at the Palace" jacket into the Charity pile!" )
Hopefully Erik in his playlist will begin with Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and end with the impossibly optimistic "The Sun is Gonna Shine Again" from Bright Star. Because mine starts out with a mother and daughter running from their (comically) murderous mad-scientist husband/father and goes darker from there.
I've written before about my love and affection for Three Bedroom House from Bat Boy: The Musical. Performed by Caitlin Hopkins and Kerry Butler with music and lyrics by Laurence O' Keefe this song is a dream duet for musical theatre actresses. Not only is it a great "moving" song with a driving melody and beat, it also has some of the funniest and most incisive lyrics ever put to paper.
Next up is Benj Pasek & Justin Paul's heartbreaking "Pretty Funny" from the musical Dogfight. Sometimes a song about change is downright painful and thanks in great part to Lindsay Mendez's startling performance this song is not so much about change as it is about the self-realization that must come if one is going to change. The overall tone and craft on display here is the precursor to that internal angst that Pasek and Paul explore so affectingly in the upcoming Broadway entry, Dear Evan Hansen.
After that I certainly need a more light-hearted look at change and when it comes to that sort of thing nothing is as light as the delightful The Drowsy Chaperone with Tony-award winning music & lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison. In that delightful show Beth Leavel (in a performance which would garner her a Tony Award) sings a contractually-obligated (by her character) anthem to endurance entitled "As We Stumble Along," that is simultaneously cliché-ridden, rousing and rather hilarious.
And now back to introspection:
"The Road You Didn't Take" is one of the many mini-masterpieces in Stephen Sondheim's extraordinary score for Follies. It's an insightful meditation on the changes we don't make in our lives. You can take your pick of sterling performances of this song from John McMartin on the Original Cast Recording to the more recent Ron Raines on the 2011 revival recording. If I had to choose my favorite though it's one that went un-recorded (legally): Victor Garber in the 2007 Encores! production. He found the right amount of sophistication, dry wit and selfish middle-aged angst in the song that transformed it from a depiction of regret into something more revelatory, something with a tiny bit of hope. It's a hard, unflinching and uncompromising song; one which can inspire introspection in all of us.
My last song is about change over which we have no control. "Go Back Home" is from one of John Kander & Fred Ebb's last collaborations The Scottsboro Boys. Because they worked on multiple projects and most of them took awhile to be produced, it's hard to say which one of the three—Curtains, The Scottsboro Boys, or The Visit—was their last collaboration. It doesn't really matter, all three have their extraordinary qualities. On the Original Cast Recording of Scottsboro this plaintive ballad is sung by Tony nominee Joshua Henry. I never thought of it as a standalone ballad as it so perfectly suited the situation and moment it had in the show. However, when it appeared as the title track on the Audra McDonald solo recording, I found myself listening to it again and again. Instead of being specifically about being unlawfully jailed down South, it became a reflection on the kind of change that isn't always moving forward, a look back to a time in one's life when things were simpler or maybe just easier to understand.
Now where did I put those pills?
Oh what the hell - let's end on an upbeat note from Dreamgirls inevitably: "I Am Changing." Choose your favorite recording: the magnificent Jennifer Holiday from Broadway, the powerhouse version from Jennifer Hudson on the film soundtrack or my personal favorite Lilias White on the Concert Version 2-Disc set. I was lucky enough to be there that night and for the first time in all my Dreamgirls experience the song became the actual second act show-stopping number that the show always needed. And for a bit of fun, if you can find the Korean Cast Recording the version there is simply terrific (if you speak Korean I'm guessing it's even better) and proves when it comes to power ballads about "Change," there is no language barrier.
"My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Cole Porter ain't talkin' 'bout the ones celebrated on Father's Day. It still amazes me that there was a time when someone could appear on Broadway have a show-stopping number and six weeks later be on the cover of Life Magazine. That's what happened with Mary Martin when she appeared on Broadway in Porter's Leave it to Me and brought the house down in an otherwise kinda forgettable show. Listen to her sweetly sing this saucy ditty and smile.
Ok, now I'll take this week's subject seriously.
The Father/Son relationship and the Son/Father relationship is a complex minefield of emotions. I think it's safe to say 98% of us have our issues and as for the other 2%? There's got to be something going on. But this isn't a self-help column let's talk BwayTunes shall we?
This has been a great year for Sheldon Harnick what with both Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me currently running in glorious revivals on Broadway and a revisal of his (& Jerry Bock & Sherman Yellen)'s musical The Rothchilds (now called Rothschild & Sons) having played off-Broadway earlier this year, I'd say he's in pretty good shape and deserves every accolade that is being thrown his way. In The Rothchilds there is a number called "Sons" in which the Tony-winning Hal Linden sings about what "sons" can do for him and his vision of building an empire; not too much pressure on the kids; it has a driving melody and Harnick's signature intelligent clear-headed witty lyrics. It's a fun sequence in the old-fashioned musical comedy tradition. And while you're there you might as well listen to the horn-laden Overture as well, it has nothing to do with Father's Day and everything to do with a certain kind of Broadway lushness thanks to Don Walker's pristine orchestrations.
"New Words" is a Maury Yeston song which appeared in his musical version of the 5 books of Moses: 1-2-3-4-5 later retitled In the Beginning and for all I know it might have even another title now, that's not the point - the point is the song has been recorded by Brent Barrett on The Maury Yeston Songbook, Laura Osnes on If I Tell You: The Songs of Maury Yeston, and on Andrea Marcovicci's album titled New Words. It's a great parent/child song that starts out sweetly enough and I promise you ends with a sentimental tear in your eye.
Don't put the hankie away just yet, because here comes another one and this from David Yazbek’s raucous score for The Full Monty. This song finds the usually rambunctious Mr. Yazbeck in a more mellow mood, it looks at the inherent and undefinable love a father has for his son and the unknowable power that the son will always have over his father. It's called "A Breeze Off the River" and on the Broadway cast recording it is sung with warmth and conviction by Patrick Wilson. What makes this song so special for me is its point of view. It's not really telling us anything new, but it reveals the vulnerability (whether acknowledged or not) that rests inside of every Dad.
And finally, it all comes down to Barbra, a Boat and fabulous Big note. What Father doesn't want to hear that from his son on Father's Day? Yes, "she was too old for Yentl" but get over it. Michel Legrand and Marilyn & Alan Bergman's "A Piece of Sky" is simply stunning. We spend our lives seeking our Father's approval and many of us are/were lucky enough to get it at some point. And yet at some point even after they're gone, we still strive for it. And in this song with its miraculous last note, Ms. Streisand sings for us all.
The question this year isn't "What is going to win?", the question is "How Many?"
In my lifetime there have only been two years like this, where so many categories are predictable in their outcome. The first was A Chorus Line where it lost in only one category in which it was nominated (Costume Design to Pacific Overtures) and the second was The Producers, which won in every category in which it was nominated.
In that Chorus Line year I didn't think the show had any vulnerabilities in terms of awards and I was pretty much right. The year of The Producers I felt that David Yazbek's score for The Full Monty had a real shot as did Kathleen Freeman's old style vaudevillian performance in the same show. I guessed wrong.
So you should take my feelings about this year with a grain of salt.
While the Hamilton win is a sure-thing if ever there was one. My vote would be for Shuffle Along, a show that I think we'll all be arguing about for years to come.(We're not allowed to argue about Hamilton.) Shuffle did for me what Hamilton does for so many others: it's a reason to love the theatre…for the high that it gives audiences, and for the very ephemeral nature of the show and the theatre itself. There are few more chilling and cruel moments to be had in the theatre than when toward the end of the evening Brooks Ashmanskas in speaking to the company onstage and simultaneously, referring to the audience, says "They won't remember you." In a nutshell, that's what people who commit their lives to working in the theatre commit to: "the moment," that evening in the theatre which might be forgotten by the time they get home or might be remembered for a lifetime. Shuffle Along is the crystallization of what working in the theatre is all about. Something extraordinary that only lasts a moment and that moment makes a creative life worthwhile. Truly thrilling.
Best Score written for the Theatre
Though it isn't "my" music there is no denying Lin-Manuel's achievement with Hamilton. In any other year though Sara Bariellies' distinctive and enjoyable score for Waitress would be a front-runner, and even though some of the bad/non-rhymes kill me, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell's score to Bright Star is the most infectious and enjoyable in many a year. (Full disclosure: I love the show so much that after more than a decade of not writing liner notes I happily accepted the assignment to do so for this show.)
Best Book of a Musical
There's a great line in Urinetown which says: "Nothing kills a show faster than too much exposition." Hamilton proves them wrong. So much information is crammed into Lin-Manuel Miranda's sung-through book that it dazzles the mind. It may not touch the heart, but it's an amazing achievement.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical
I wish it were going to be Zachary Levi for She Loves Me. He's a total charmer. He makes it all look so easy, as he did that in First Date a few years ago, and I thought he deserved a Tony nomination for that. But it's not his year, I think it's a toss-up between Leslie Odom Jr for Hamilton or Danny Burstein for his down-to-earth performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Other Tevye's have done variations of Zero Mostel or Topol, but this is the first Tevye I've seen who isn't "larger-than-life." This one is for real. He's confused and angry and questioning in a very real way about real familial and societal problems. It's a radical performance and I think it's great. I liked Alex Brightman a lot in School of Rock but I felt he was working too hard, and while lots of folks love that in a performer, I'm not one of them.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical
While I think Phillipa Soo is fine in Hamilton her performance is the least of the five actresses in this category. Four of whom would be shoo-ins for the win in any other year. Laura Benanti is at the peak of her form both as a comedienne and as a singer with her thoroughly engaging performance as Amalia Balash in She Loves Me. She wins - hands down. Carmen Cusack's engaging and heartfelt performance in Bright Star accomplishes that rare thing of making someone as jaded as myself say: "Where have you been all my life?" Her seamless transition from a 17-year-old to a 40 year old before our very eyes is a wonder and worthy of a Tony Award win. When I saw Cynthia Erivo in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory in The Color Purple I was astounded. Since then I've seen her in a few other things along the way and she is the real deal. A few weeks ago on Broadway I saw her again in The Color Purple, and it was as if she were performing it for the first time. A great star performance, and stunning Broadway debut. She's gonna take home that Tony. But what about Jessie Mueller in Waitress? She's great. Really great. She is the emotional glue that holds Waitress together. But this isn't her year. Kind of like when Meryl Streep gets nominated and doesn't win, sure she deserves to win, but she can also afford to give others a crack at it. She'll be back for the win soon enough.
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
I thought Brandon Victor Dixon was great in Shuffle Along but so was everyone else, so I'm not sure why he was the one singled out by the nominating committee. The nominations for two of the Hamilton guys, Christopher Jackson and Jonathan Groff are well-deserved. The third guy from the show, Daveed Diggs is the front runner here for his barnstorming portrayal of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Lord knows he's been campaigning hard for it. Is there a benefit, chat show, luncheon, political panel, whatever- that he hasn't been involved with and charmingly so? Enough already. I'm sure he's going to win. I just want him to finally relax. Jeesh. The fifth nominee in this category is Christopher Fitzgerald in Waitress. He's hilarious, touching and joyful in the show, and if it were up to me he'd take the trophy home.
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical
This, too, is an amazing category and all of these ladies deserve the win.
Jane Krakowski for brilliant comic timing and vocal stylings in She Loves Me; Adrienne Warren for wonderful, soulful portrayal of Florence Mills in Shuffle Along; Danielle Brooks for her powerful and humor-filled turn in The Color Purple; and Renee Elise Goldsberry for her passionate, elegant, intelligent performance in Hamilton. She's probably going to win. She's one of our finest actresses (both dramatic and musical) and deserves every accolade that's coming her way. But, for my money Jennifer Simard in Disaster! should win the award simply because she is giving the kind of master class in musical comedy performing for which this category was invented. Every time she was onstage in Disaster! her bits landed. Her performance of "Never Can Say Goodbye" is hilarious. I actually think that any voter who actually saw the show wouldn't hesitate to cast a vote for Ms. Simard. She was that good and if she won, it would be the stuff of theatrical legend. Wouldn't that be great?