|By MATT WINDMAN
In order to properly contextualize this year’s round-up of new cast albums, I recommend checking out Laurence Maslon’s valuable recent book Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America, which tracks (among other things) the history of the cast album from The Cradle Will Rock and Oklahoma! to Hamilton. About 15 years ago, after the Internet had begun to decimate music sales but before the rise of legal downloads and streaming, I believed that the death knell was approaching for cast albums. But while fewer studio recordings of old musicals get made today, and a few new musicals go unrecorded here and there (including recently The Secret Life of Bees), as a result of various industry and technological changes (including less expensive recording methods, not-for-profit indie companies and new investment models), the cast album is alive and well – in digital format as well as limited vinyl editions.
A case in point is, of course, Be More Chill, the sci-fi high school musical, which rebounded from the dead following a tepid reception to its 2015 world premiere in NJ thanks to the popularity of its cast album among teenage social media users, which led to its sold-out Off-Broadway production in 2018 and less successful Broadway transfer – as well as a new cast album with the Broadway cast. Even if Be More Chill could not sustain a successful Broadway run, its amazing comeback story ought to convince the producers of any new musical of the need to produce and distribute a cast album as early as possible during a show’s development process – even if it creates the need for another cast album later on. Interestingly, when the female pop musical Six announced its upcoming Broadway run, its producers noted how frequently its cast album is streamed on a daily basis.
In order to cover as many new cast albums as possible, I am going to break them up into categories.
Revivals: The Yiddish-language revival of Fiddler on the Roof (which is about to end its Off-Broadway run) has produced the most complete (at 1 hour and 54 minutes) recording of Fiddler to date, including not just the entire score (including scene change, dance and exit music) but also many cut songs (which were recorded in English). Whether you love or loath Daniel Fish’s experimental Broadway revival of Oklahoma!, the cast album makes a persuasive case for the production’s scaled-down, bluegrass-style orchestrations. To mark Laura Benanti’s smashing takeover of the role of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Lincoln Center Theater released the tracks of her singing Eliza’s four major solos (likely using the orchestral tracks of the cast album with Lauren Ambrose). Jason Robert Brown’s abstract song cycle Songs for a New World received a terrific new album based on the 2018 Encores Off-Center production.
A less essential new recording of an Encores! production is Cole Porter’s 1930 musical comedy The New Yorkers, which is comprised primarily of second and third-tier Porter selections. For another new recording of a lesser Cole Porter show, there is the studio album of Something for the Boys.) And for an unremarkable recording of a remarkable Cole Porter show, there is the Roundabout’s revival of Kiss Me, Kate.
Legacies: Not long since the untimely death of songwriter Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) due to complications from AIDS, recordings have posthumously been released of his scores for three of his documentary musicals: The Great Immensity (climate change), The Abominables(youth hockey) and This Beautiful City (evangelicals). Undiscovered songs by Jonathan Larson (Rent) came to light in The Jonathan Larson Project, which debuted as a cabaret show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. And speaking of Feinstein’s/54 Below, the late Marin Mazzie (who recently died from ovarian cancer) has been honored with the release of Broadway & Beyond, a live recording of a concert performed by Mazzie and her husband Jason Danieley at the venue shortly before her death.
Jukebox musicals: I prefer the cast album of Moulin Rouge! (with its incessant artillery of snippets of pop songs by numerous artists) over attending the show itself, since it removes the need to endure John Logan’s draggy and dreadful book. My three-year-old son is a big fan of the cast album of Ain’t Too Proud. Since he watched the cast of the Temptations musical perform on the Thanksgiving Day Parade, he has been listening and dancing along to the tracks of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Can’t Get Next to You” on a daily basis. Personally, I think the album is compromised by an excess of narration/exposition in between the songs. Other new albums of jukebox musicals include Jagged Little Pill, The Cher Show and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.
New Scores: Following the original concept album and an earlier live recording, the Tony-winning musical Hadestown has received a lush, two-hour-long original Broadway cast album. Heathers, which played Off-Broadway in 2014, has received a smashing new album based on the revised West End production, demonstrating how superior its score is compared with other new teen-oriented musicals. For those who did not catch its hit Off-Broadway fun at Playwrights Horizons over the summer, A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson’s uncensored and unfiltered monologue of a musical about being a black, gay, struggling musical theater writer and Disney Theatricals usher is well worth checking out. Other new scores to be recorded include Alice by Heart, Half-Time, Beetlejuice, The Prom, Octet, The Man in the Ceiling and The Hello Girls.
Weird Stuff: One of the most fascinating albums of the year is the live recording of David Byrne’s undefinable and spectacular ensemble concert American Utopia, which is pretty different than the American Utopia studio album. My personal favorite cast album of the year may be Co-Op, an 18-minute parody version of Company, devised for a half-hour parody of the DA Pennebaker documentary about the making of the original cast album of Company, which aired on the TV series Documentary Now. In a similar vein, there is Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical, which starred Michael C. Hall and was performed at Town Hall on the afternoon of the Super Bowl. The soundtrack for the industrial musicals documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway contains archival recordings of songs about selling insurance, bread, diesel, Whirlpool, bathrooms and silicone. Gilbert & Sullivan fans are encouraged to check out The Zombies of Penzance, a remake of The Pirates of Penzance with goth-horror lyrics, which was produced by New Line Theatre in St. Louis.