the covers of cast recordings for Broadway musicals

Show Music Direct: Recordings to Take You to Broadway and Beyond

Tony winners abound in some of the most high-profile musical theater–related recordings that have come out in the past few months.

Let’s start this edition of Show Music Direct with the Broadway cast recording of Fun Home, the Jeanine Tesori–Lisa Kron musical that picked up a lion’s share of the year’s Tonys in June, including Best Musical and Best Director of a Musical, Sam Gold. Released by PS Classics (which had also done the Off-Broadway recording), this new album is both notable and necessary because it includes material that was not heard on the earlier recording and all of the new material that was written for the Broadway version of the show. In addition, there’s one new vocalist on this disc: Emily Skeggs, who joined the company late in the show’s original run at the Public Theater. She’s bright and funny as the college-age incarnation of the show’s heroine, who’s coming out as her dad deals with his own homosexuality, and when her work is combined with the performances from the original cast members (including Tony winner Michael Cerveris and Tony nominee Judy Kuhn), well, it makes for a sublime listen.
The Lincoln Center Theater revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I picked up the 2015 Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, and both Kelli O’Hara and Ruthie Ann Miles earned awards for their performances. You’ll understand why these two actresses collected their honors while listening to the Decca Broadway cast recording of the production. O’Hara’s in perfect voice with such classics as “Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers,” while Miles delivers “Something Wonderful” with stunningly muted passion. Both the show and the recording feature Robert Russell Bennett’s original, full orchestrations that are sounding particularly crisp thanks to Ted Sperling’s excellent work as conductor.

Christian Borle picked up the award as Best Featured Actor in a Musical (it’s his second Tony) for his performance as William Shakespeare in the daffy tuner Something Rotten!, and his delivery of the high-octane “Will Power” proves to be a highlight of the Ghostlight Records original cast album. Other tracks feature his exceptionally talented castmates: Brian d’Arcy James, as an Elizabethan-era playwright who’s tired of being in the Bard’s shadow; Heidi Blickenstaff, as his put-upon wife; and Brad Oscar, who plays the seer who sets the musical’s lunacy in motion. It’s Oscar who leads the company in the production’s big stopper “A Musical,” the tune that musical theater fans will be playing over and over again for years to come.

The year’s Tony Award for Best Choreography went to Christopher Wheeldon for An American in Paris. You won’t be able to see any of the gorgeous dances he created for the show with the original cast recording, but you will get a load of the Gershwins. The show’s a rapturous joy on stage, and this Sony Masterworks album perfectly captures that feeling, both when performers such as Robert Fairchild and Max von Essen are delivering tunes such as “Fidgety Feet” and “Stairway to Paradise,” and when the orchestra, under the guidance of Todd Ellison, sweeps in for pieces like the show’s unforgettable title number.

Beyond these albums, there are also recently released Broadway cast recordings for another five shows that opened during the 2015–2016 season. At one end of the spectrum is the new recording of Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green’s bubbly operetta-infused On the Twentieth Century. Tony-nominated stars Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, and Andy Karl are delights in this musical farce set aboard a train traveling from Chicago to New York, and what makes the album so notable is that it preserves a great deal of the music from Coleman’s comically overblown score that was not recorded when the show was first produced in 1978. Equally fluffy is the new Broadway recording of Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi (released courtesy of DMI Soundtracks). Starring a spirited Vanessa Hudgens in the title role, the production didn’t last long, but it’s great to have this recording because it preserves the silver-throated vocals of Victoria Clark, who played Gigi’s guardian. Equally appealing is Howard McGillin’s suave performance as a man-about-Paris.

At the other end of the spectrum is Broadway Records’ original cast album for John Kander and Fred Ebb’s The Visit. This tuner about a woman who offers to rescue the bankrupt town she was born in (in exchange for, she hopes, revenge on a man who wronged her) brims with the sort of dark buoyancy that the team perfected in shows like Cabaret and Chicago. Hauntingly tuneful, this one stars the legendary Chita Rivera as the woman who makes the unusual request for the townsfolk, and the late Roger Rees as her victim, and both sound marvelous on the album, as do Jason Danieley and Mary Beth Peil.

Broadway Records has also released the original cast album of Lucy Simon, Michael Korie, and Amy Powers’ Doctor Zhivago. This adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s classic novel had only a brief run this past spring, and the recording won’t be to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, Simon, who also penned the music for The Secret Garden, wrote some genuinely interesting melodies for Zhivago, and it’s great to have them preserved on this release.

The last of the Broadway shows to talk about is Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy’s Finding Neverland, which has received a pair of recordings from Republic Records. There’s the original Broadway cast recording that features Matthew Morrison, Kelsey Grammer, and Carolee Carmello, among others; then there’s a starry pop version, Finding Neverland: The Album, that has tracks featuring artists such as Christina Aguilera, Nick Jonas, Jon Bon Jovi, and Jennifer Lopez. Interestingly, it’s the latter album that proves to be the more satisfying listen. Barlow and Kennedy’s eclectic score benefits from the energy of the singers and the reimagined pop vibe that the songs receive on the album.

Turning to the world of Off-Broadway, there is a quintet of albums that musical theater lovers would be well advised to seek out. From Ghostlight Records, there’s the original cast recording of Michael Friedman’s Fortress of Solitude, which played at the Public Theater about a year ago and tracks the friendship of a pair of teenagers during the mid-1970s. The music for this one has a great period feel and is also genuinely theatrical, making it one swell listen. Broadway Records has given us a pair of distinctly different Off-Broadway recordings: First there’s a new cast album for Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s John & Jen, starring Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan, who deliver splendidly in this gentle two-person musical about a woman’s relationship with her younger brother in the 1960s and her relationship with her teen son in the 1980s; the second release from the label is the original cast recording of Nevermore, which relates Edgar Allan Poe’s life story as a kind of creepy Dr. Seuss tale. It’s quite a merry listen. So, too, is Jay Records’ recording of the show Pageant. This one takes a very funny look at the Miss Glamouresse beauty pageant. The gimmick on this one, which has music by Albert Evans and lyrics by Frank Kelly and Bill Russell, is that all of the lovelies are played by guys. It’s camp humor at its finest. There’s also a lot of mirth to be had in Fly by Night. This show has gotten its cast recording courtesy of Yellow Sound Label, and with it you’ll find an oddball romantic triangle unfolding against a backdrop of 1960s New York.

There is also a trio of exceptional London cast recordings that should be taken into consideration, starting with a new recording of Gypsy. At the center of this production and recording is the incredible Imelda Staunton, and she knocks the songs we all know and love (“Some People,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”) out of the park. Beyond her bravura performance, the disc is notable because of some new orchestrations by Nicholas Skilbeck and Tom Kelly. They have that sound we all associate with the classic Jule Styne–Stephen Sondheim score, but there’s a heavier use of piano that gives the whole thing a gloriously old-time feeling. You’ll also want to take a listen to Jay Records’ London cast recording of The Scottsboro Boys. This Kander and Ebb show about a group of African American men falsely accused of rape packed a wallop when it was seen in New York, and with the new recording, you can revisit what makes this musical so powerful: It’s a harrowing tale that’s told with a marvelous combination of sardonic wit and infectious melody. There’s a lighter quality to A Spoonful of Sherman, from SimG Records. This revue serves as a terrific musical biography of songwriter Robert B. Sherman, who with his brother Richard, penned some of the world’s most famed tunes (the Mary Poppins tune that gives the show its title, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “It’s a Small World After All”). Those three are on here, plus many others, including some wonderful rarities. There are also ones by their songwriter dad, Al, including “You Gotta Be a Football Hero.” Listen, reminisce, enjoy.

And to close out this edition of Show Music Direct, there are three important reissues from Sony Masterworks. Two are giddy delights: Howard Crabtree’s deliriously silly Whoop-Dee-Doo and the original London cast recording of Dames at Sea, the wonderful send-up of Busby Berkeley film extravaganzas that’s returning to Broadway this fall. Neither of these had entered the digital age until recently, and musical theater will want to make sure they add them to their collections. The same can be said for the last, and perhaps most important, reissue from the label. It’s the original Broadway cast recording of Woman of the Year, which has a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and stars the legendary Lauren Bacall. The show is based on the Katherine Hepburn–Spencer Tracy film of the same name and focuses on the often-tense romance between two unlikely people: a high profile newswoman and a cartoonist. It’s a treat from start to finish, particularly “The Grass Is Always Greener,” a deliciously catty (for those who know the show, pun intended) number for Bacall’s character and her ex-husband’s second wife (played by Marilyn Cooper who picked up a Tony for this one song).

It’s amazing that in addition to these 21 recordings, by this Friday, you’ll have another two that you’ll definitely want to be checking out. The first is the highly-anticipated original cast recording of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. It’s had New York and the country abuzz since it premiered at the Public earlier this year. As you’re probably aware, the show tells the life story of founding father Alexander Hamilton with a mixture of hip-hop, R&B, jazz and traditional musical theater sounds. Atlantic Records is giving it a two CD-release, so chances are it’s going to be a treasure.

The other album coming out is Anthony de Mare’s Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano. This three-CD set features 37 new compositions based on Stephen Sondheim’s melodies. They come from the likes of Steve Reich, Wynton Marsalis, Duncan Sheik, and Nico Muhly, and based on an invigorating concert a few years back that premiered nearly half of them, this set will be a must-have for Sondheim fans.