|By MATT WINDMAN
It’s become a tradition for me to write an annual roundup of all new cast albums and other musical-theatrer-related recordings. The bulk of these come out immediately before the Tony Awards, perhaps so they can be sent to Tony voters as an acceptable form of swag. At this point, cast albums have been released for virtually every Broadway musical over the past year, with a few (It Shoulda Been You, Doctor Zhivago, The Visit, Finding Neverland) scheduled to come out shortly.
However, I’d like to start out by highlighting what may be the most noteworthy new album of all, at last for diehard musical theater fans: the first full-length recording of the 1954 musical The Golden Apple. With music by Jerome Moross and lyrics by John LaTouche (Cabin in the Sky), The Golden Apple is an inventive, sung-through adaptation of The Iliad and The Odyssey in which the adventures of Helen, Paris and Odysseus are reset to early 20th-century America.
Produced by P.S. Classics, this is a live recording of a 2014 revival by the Lyric Stage of Irving, Texas with a 43-actor cast and 38-piece orchestra. Although the musical received wild praise in its time, it has been rarely performed since, perhaps because the original cast album was only 48 minutes in length. (Imagine trying to condense another sung-through musical like Les Miz into 48 minutes). This two-disc album preserves the entire operatic score and, in all likelihood, ought to lead to new interest in the musical and future revivals. In fact, it’s surprising that City Center Encores! still has not gotten around to the title.
The two-disc album of the Broadway revival of On the Town marks the first recording of any Broadway production of the musical. Cast members of the original 1944 production did a recording only after the fact in 1960, and the 1971 and 1998 revivals (both big flops) went unrecorded. With the revival’s full orchestra, this album more than does justice to Bernstein’s symphonic score. And as someone who felt as if the show’s comedic charm got drowned out in the Lyric Theatre, I preferred listening to the album over attending the production. Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Elizabeth Stanley and Alysha Umphress all sound wonderful.
An American in Paris is another terrific album, featuring Christopher Austin’s superb orchestrations and Rob Fisher’s arrangements of classic Gershwin songs plus orchestral suites like “Concerto in F” and “Cuban Overture” (which serve as underscoring for balletic sequences). Although listening to the album does not allow one to experience Christopher Wheeldon’s breathtaking choreography, it does permit one to avoid Craig Lucas’ downbeat book.
The Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century is lavish by the standards of the non-profit Roundabout Theatre Company, but not compared to the original 1978 production, which had a far larger orchestra and cast. The two-disc album of the revival preserves the entire score and a great deal of the dialogue, but I am unlikely to listen to it again over the original recording with John Cullum and Madeline Kahn. Also, while Peter Gallagher acts the role of scheming producer Oscar Jaffe with delicious gusto, he lacks the robust vocal prowess of Cullum.
Honeymoon in Vegas at one point looked as if it were going to be this year’s big hit musical, (Remember when Ben Brantley raved about it when it premiered at Paper Mill Playhouse?) Instead, it failed to find an audience and closed quickly, but it did leave behind an album that preserves Jason Robert Brown’s finely crafted score, which combines fabulous comedic numbers with crooner-style ballads for Tony Danza. Personally, I prefer Honeymoon in Vegas (which was not even nominated for the Tony for Best Score) over Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County (which won Best Score and Best Orchestrations).
Plenty of recordings of The King and I already exist, going way back to the original recording with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brenner. Good studio recordings include one with Barbara Cook and Theodore Bikel and another with Julie Andrews and Ben Kingsley. As someone who found Bartlett Sher’s revival for Lincoln Center Theater far less exciting than his South Pacific, and who could barely understand Ken Watanabe’s diction, I can’t say I’m all that crazy about this album. It’s also unfortunate that the overture is truncated here, just as it is in the production.
The cast album of Finding Neverland is still forthcoming, but a concept album where pop singers like Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Jon Bon Jovi and John Legend perform new arrangements was released in early June. The songs (by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy) sound vapid and generic at the theater. Freed of having to serve character and story, they come off better on the album, where the singers also have the freedom to play around with them.
Fun Home received a cast album following its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in 2013, at which point it was unclear whether it would graduate to Broadway. Now that it’s a Tony-winning Broadway hit, it has come out with an updated and expanded version of that album in which Emily Skeggs replaces Alexandra Socha as Middle Alison. Considering how much of the dialogue is preserved on the album, it is possible follow the entire storyline via the album. If you have not yet heard Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s groundbreaking, extraordinary score, by all means, stop whatever you are doing and download the album.
Other new albums from this season include Something Rotten! (which is full of cheery and upbeat numbers), the Side Show revival (inferior to the original album with Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner), Gigiwith Vanessa Hudgens (absolutely pointless), the soundtrack of The Last Five Years (Jeremy Jordan sounds better than Anna Kendrick), the Off-Broadway musical Fortress of Solitude (interesting but problematic), and the Off-Broadway revival of Andrew Lippa’s two-character John & Jen (who cares?).
As a final note, I’d just like to point out that virtually every cast album I’ve discussed herein is available for unlimited listening on Spotify.