On Sunday, January 26, the original cast recording of Kinky Boots earned the award as Best Musical Theater Album.
The disc, from Masterworks Broadway, was one of three nominees (the number of nominees is based on how many albums have been submitted to the category). The other two were Matilda: The Musical (Broadway Records/Yellow Sound Label), and Motown: The Musical (UMe).
This must have been a tough category for Grammy voters because each album does such a terrific job of preserving the scores of the shows and, when you think about it, they also have a lot in common. For instance, Kinky Boots represents a Broadway bow for pop singing/songwriting star Cyndi Lauper, while Matilda marks the Broadway bow for its composer, Tim Minchin, a Englishman who’s probably best known for his work in comedy and cabaret. And in both of these shows, you have a lead actor who dresses as a woman.
As for the similarities between these shows and Motown, you only need to listen to the pop stylings in Kinky Boots to know that Lauper’s work can often be a descendent of the work that came out of the hit factory in Detroit. Thinking about all three, too, there’s a decided “spunk” to all of the shows’ leading characters — Lola, Matilda, and Berry Gordy, respectively.
So, kudos to Kinky Boots, and as 2014 starts up, there’s a lot of new show music to talk about, starting with a couple of high-profile recordings.
Just before the end of 2013, Sony Masterworks released the television soundtrack for the NBC event The Sound of Music, which starred Carrie Underwood as Maria. It’s a lovely recording of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, and Underwood acquits herself admirably. You’ll also want to pay attention to Audra McDonald’s stunning “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and Laura Benanti and Christian Borle’s delightful “How Can Love Survive?”
Equally high high-profile is the first Broadway cast recording to be released in 2014: the album for A Night With Janis Joplin (Broadway Records). This Broadway bio-tuner about the legendary singer pulsates and beautifully captures not just Mary Bridget Davies’ exceptional vocals as the title character, but also De’Adre Aziza’s smoldering turn as Nina Simone and Allison Blackwell’s electrifying work as Aretha Franklin.
For something completely different, take a listen to Murder for Two (Ghostlight Records), a goofy, giddy musical comedy whodunit playing Off-Broadway that features some charmingly silly tunes and two marvelously over-the-top performances from Jeff Blumenkranz and Brett Ryback.
A couple of other cast recordings of Off-Broadway shows came out just as 2013 drew to a close. From PS Classics, which has built its reputation on preserving both neglected classics and new American musicals, came the lavishly produced Far From Heaven, based on the 2002 film of the same name about a woman in Eisenhower-era America who discovers her picture-perfect marriage isn’t quite what she thought. Michael Korie’s score evokes the jazz of the era splendidly and the show’s leads, Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, are in top form. To borrow slang from the period, it’s a swell listen!
You can travel a bit farther back in time with Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 (Ghostlight Records). This one takes you into 19th century Russia through a two-disc set that brings Dave Malloy’s sumptuous score right into your earbuds or home sound system.
Other cast recordings worth noting are The Girl I Left Behind Me (Original Cast Records), a wonderful, unique one-woman show (seen on both sides of the Atlantic) in which Jessica Walker takes a tour through the history of women who performed “trouser roles” (i.e. they played guys); and the newly available soundtrack for the 1959 movie musical Li’l Abner (Masterworks Broadway), where you’re transported into the satirical cartoon world of Dogpatch and the dizzy antics of its residents. With the latter, do make sure to pay special attention to “Namely You,” a particularly touching ballad for the title character and his beloved, Daisy Mae.
Beyond recordings of shows that have been produced, there has been a slew of studio/concept recordings. Most notable is Meet John Doe (Broadway Records), in which Andrew Gerle and Eddie Sugarman turn the classic 1930s Frank Capra movie into a tuneful period-sounding musical. It really is a must-listen.
Just as interesting is a release from the U.K. label SimG Records: Van Winkle, Caroline Wigmore’s gorgeous-sounding take on the Washington Irving tale. It’s a lush blend of folk, bluegrass, and gospel to savor.
And, from writer/director Chip Defaa, who has a fondness for all things musical, comes Irving Berlin’s America (Original Cast Records), where more than two dozen Berlin tunes, including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” chart the prolific songwriter’s life and times. A fourth studio recording, Seth Bisen-Hirsch’s Love Quirks (CDBaby), shifts into contemporary songwriting and takes an often amusing look at the dating scene (straight and gay) of today.
Beyond all of these new show recordings, a host of discs put the spotlight on songwriters. Philip Chaffin’s Somethin’ Real Special (PS Classics) more than lives up to its title as the smooth-throated singer pays tribute to lyricist Dorothy Fields and wends his way through classics including “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “The Way You Look Tonight” and some glorious rarities. Fields’ beautifully chosen words shine consistently thanks to Chaffin’s marvelous deliveries.
A host of little-known gems can be found on Lost Broadway and More, Vol. 5 (Original Cast Records). This disc puts the spotlight on the blithe wit of Betty Comden and Adolph Green and the brash melodies of Jule Styne. Nothing on the disc could be considered these writers’ best material, but the chance to hear cut songs from fabled shows like Fade Out/Fade In, Bonanza Bound, and Funny Girl is irresistibly fun and it’s a most welcome release.
For Sondheim fans, there’s Our Time (CDBaby), a beautiful collection of the songwriter’s melodies performed as piano/bass duets by Tommy Cecil and Bill Mays. Their work simultaneously pays homage to their source material and expands on it, often lending a new dimension to some very well-known pieces.
For a more specialized (but nevertheless genuinely satisfying) listen, check out Minding the Score (New World Records), which features some fantastic reproductions of early 20th century orchestrations and arrangements by Harry Alford. This one, featuring the always spot-on Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, is a real treat for fans of old-time music.
Steve Marzullo’s Kiss Me While We Have the Chance (Yellow Sound Label) and Barry Anderson and Mark Petty’s You Are Home (Great White Wax) are two discs that will pull you squarely back into the realm of contemporary songwriting. Both albums feature some terrific Broadway performers (including Tony winners Randy Graff and Frances Ruffelle), and Anderson and Petty also use some British performers. Both discs ably demonstrate why these are writers to be reckoned with. Marzullo has a way of tweaking a melody so that it becomes something surprising while remaining comfortably familiar. As for Anderson and Petty, they fill their tunes with unmistakable poignancy that resonates well after a song has ended.
Finally, there’s a trio of new discs in Broadway Records’ series of live recordings from the swank club 54 Below: Sierra Boggess’ Awakening, showcases the soaring of the Little Mermaid and Phantom of the Opera star, even as it reveals her down-to-earth sense of humor; North of Houston, in which Michael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd, The Who’s Tommy) and his band, Loose Cattle, let loose with some jubilant, twangy sounds that could brighten up even the dreariest day; and Stories . . . From NYC, on which stage and screen star Bebe Neuwirth explores songs such as “Ring Them Bells,” “The Bilbao Song,” and “Invitation to the Blues” with considerable passion and decided flair.
Happy New Year and happy listening!