The album covers for Broadway musicals, including Kinky Boots
The album covers for Broadway musicals, including Kinky Boots

Summer Tunes: 12 Great New Cast Recordings

Summer’s here, which can mean lazy days at the beach, car trips, plane flights, etc. For musical theater lovers, it’s a time to load up portable devices with favorite original cast albums. Beyond the tried and true, though, there are a host of new recordings that are worth considering for vacation – or stay-at-home – listening.

Three of these recordings feature scores by writers who are taking their first steps in the world of musical theater, including Cyndi Lauper, who picked up a Tony Award for Best Score for her music and lyrics for the Tony Award winning Best Musical of the year, Kinky Boots (Masterworks Broadway).  Lauper’s music for the show, about a guy who’s trying to save his family’s failing shoe manufacturing business with the help of a drag performer, zings with the effervescence that you might associate with her hits like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and it’s delivered by a terrific cast led by Tony winner Billy Porter, and Tony nominees Stark Sands and Annaleigh Ashford (her delivery of “The History of Wrong Guys” is as smile-inducing here as it is in the theater).   One note:  if you’ve seen the show, and find that the pulsating “Sex Is in the Heel” makes you want to hit the dance floor, make sure you buy this one from Barnes and Noble. They are the only ones who sell the disc that has a pair of remixes of the tune, performed by Lauper herself.

Also new to the world of musicals is Trey Anastasio (of the rock band Phish), who with Amanda Green (daughter of the late Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman), wrote the Tony-nominated score for Hands on a Hardbody (Ghostlight Records).  This show, about a group of down-and-out Texans who are enduring a grueling contest in hopes of winning a coveted new truck, has an infectious country-western twang that should set your feet tapping from the first number.

You’ll find the concept recording of John Mellencamp and Stephen King’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (HEAR Music) has a blues and roots sound that creates the perfect atmosphere for an eerie Southern Gothic tale that spans several decades.  This recording doesn’t preserve the production the show got last year at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, but instead brings the work to life as a concept recording with an A-list cast, including singers like Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow, Roseanne Cash, and Neko Case, along with such stage and screen icons as Kris Kristofferson, Meg Ryan and Matthew McConaughey.  There are a lot of options on how to buy this one – from an iBook to a deluxe set to a single CD with just the music.  If you can, go for the deluxe set which includes both the spoken dialogue and songs on one disc as well as a download code for a songs-only version.  The former will be perfect for anyone who wants a really chilling night of listening while the latter will be the one they return to when they’re looking to savor this unique tuner.

Beyond these pop writers who have penned songs just for their shows, you’ll find that pop sounds filling your stereo or earbuds with the original cast recording of Motown The Musical (Universal Music Enterprises).  This show, charting the life and career of Berry Gordy and the seminal record label he created, boasts over two dozen Motown hits, ranging from “Stop! In the Name of Love” to “ABC” to “War.”  The performers, including Tony nominee Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross), Bryan Terrell Clark (Marvin Gaye), and Saycon Sengbloh (Martha Reeves), ably capture the styles and vocals of their real-life characters, and Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook’s orchestrations deftly preserve the original sounds of the tunes, while giving them a new life for performance in the theater.

A pop/rock sensibility also courses through this year’s Tony Award-winning revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin (Ghostlight), and this new production has been given a first-class new cast album.  The disc beautifully captures Matthew James Thomas’ winsome performance and astonishing vocals in the title role and the sultry work of Tony winner Patina Miller, who’s the show’s Leading Player, as well as Tony winner Andrea Martin’s utterly adorable delivery of the classic “No Time at All.”  This new release boasts a host of material that wasn’t captured on the musical’s first recording and a quartet of bonus sing-along tracks, which only make this recording all the more necessary for musical theater fans’ collections.

Most people probably first came to know Schwartz’s musical through productions that they worked on as students, and it’s just one of four new releases that are perfect for younger listeners.  Also notable is the new cast album for the Tony-nominated revival of Annie (Shout! Broadway), where vocal powerhouse Lilla Crawford proves she’s a worthy successor to the musical’s original star, Andrea McArdle, and Australian star Anthony Warlow, who imbues Oliver Warbucks with just the right mix of gruffness and warm-hearted goodness.

Tony nominee Laura Osnes proves she can be just as spunky as the red-headed heroine of this latter show, even while singing like a dream, as she plays the title character in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella (Ghostlight).  Osnes is joined by Santino Fontana, who gives an appealing, vocally robust performance as her Prince, and Victoria Clark, who plays the beguiling Marie (better known as the Fairy Godmother).  For this new version of the show, the original score, which has such standards as “In My Own Little Corner” and “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?,” has been augmented with some lesser known tunes by the R&H team to often delightful effect.

And, if you’d like to give the young people in your life (or yourself) a taste of a more contemporary sound, take a listen to the London cast album for Matilda (from the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has produced the hit in London and New York).  Working from Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name, Tony nominee Tim Minchin has created a distinctive score that captures the book’s spirit.  It’s simultaneously creepy and warm and his lyrics have just right blend of genuine heart and satiric bite.

Alongside these Broadway recordings are a quartet of notable ones of off-Broadway shows, starting with Michael John Lachiusa’s Giant (Ghostlight), which captures the multi-decade sweep of Edna Ferber’s novel with tuneful alacrity.  The estimable company, led by Brian d’Arcy James and Kate Baldwin, traverses the score with aplomb, and this is one that almost seems destined to become a modern classic.

Also worth noting is Dogfight (Ghostlight) from the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which ably demonstrates why you’ll be hearing a lot more from the songwriting team (who also penned Broadway’s A Christmas Story) in the years to come; and Murder Ballad (Yellow Sound Label), by Juliana Nash and Julia Jordan, a show that puts a rock opera spin on a tale that might be found in the pages of a daily tabloid.

Finally, there’s a new two-disc recording of Stephen Sondheim’s haunting tale of obsessive love, Passion (PS Classics).  The set is an aurally sumptuous affair and this set features a superlative trio of principals, Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, and, Ryan Silverman, and their work, along with new orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick, helps to cast this show anew, making the recording a must-have for anyone who cares about musical theater.

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