Cast albums make the best stocking stuffers.
From Once and Newsies to Nice Work If You Can Get It, the melodic scores of the year's Broadway hits and other theater-tuned releases offer great last-minute gift ideas.
That's specially true if you're looking for something small and inexpensive that delivers a big dose of tuneful entertainment long after the Christmas tree (or Hanukkah bush) is thrown out.
Cast albums make the best stocking stuffers.
From Once and Newsies to Nice Work If You Can Get It, the melodic scores of the year’s Broadway hits and other theater-tuned releases offer great last-minute gift ideas.
That’s specially true if you’re looking for something small and inexpensive that delivers a big dose of tuneful entertainment long after the Christmas tree (or Hanukkah bush) is thrown out.
Start with the most recent crop of Broadway musicals, but don’t overlook on your gift list reissues of classic Broadway cast albums or records by singular show-biz talents from Liza Minnelli and Julie Andrews to Columbus native Michael Feinstein.
An ensemble scene from the Disney musical Newsies. File photo
BROADWAY’S NEW MUSICALS
Once (Sony Masterworks) – recently nominated for a Grammy Award for best musical-theater album – capably reflects the wistful Irish-ballad romanticism of the 2012 Tony winner for best musical.
Adapted from the 2006 film about the fleeting romantic relationship of a down-on-his-luck busker and a charming woman he meets on the street in Dublin, the Broadway musical adds two new songs to the delightful score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová – whose true-life romantic relationship inspired the film and musical.
Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee in a scene from the Broadway musical Once. File photo
Cristin Milioti and Steve Kazee sing beautifully as they play the central characters whose lives briefly touch and change each other – and touch deeply. That ache is palpable in the songs.
I especially love the Oscar-winning Falling Slowly, an almost-love song introduced early in the first and reprised passionately wistfully in the second,
But Leave, Say It to Me Now, If You Want Me, When Your Mind’s Made Up and the other songs are beautifully orchestrated by Martin Lowe and performed for the recording in the same style as the innovative stage production, in which the 13-member cast acted and sang while playing all the instruments.
Newsies: The Musical (Ghostlight), which deservedly won the 2012 Tony for best score, is a youth-oriented Disney hit with a peppy score by Alan Menken (of Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors and Little Mermaid fame).
Adults should find themselves entertained by the catchy songs, especially King of New York, Seize the Day, The World Will Know and Santa Fe).
Yet, above all, Newsies is a great gift for teenagers who likely will identify the most with its underdog tale about New York newsboys on strike in 1899.
Although there’s an extra thrill in hearing the score of a new musical for the first time, don’t underestimate the pleasures of modern classics from the great American songbook being revived with fresh energy.
Matthew Broderick, right, and Kelli O’Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get It. File photo
Gershwin lovers (myself among them) likely won’t be able to resist the manifold charms of Nice Work if You Can Get It, a “new” Gershwin musical (actually updated and inspired by Oh, Kay!) with recycled songs and slapstick routines,
Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara co-starred in the original production of the romantic comedy, with Tony winners Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath in scene-stealing supporting roles. All their voices grace the cast album and Broderick certainly adds his distinctive personality, but O’Hara’s rich vocals clearly rise the highest (Someone to Watch Over Me, But Not For Me, Treat Me Rough) and help lift the duets with Broderick (especially S’Wonderful.)
Yearn for even more Gershwin? (Personally, I can never get enough.)
Porgy and Bess boasts some of the best songs by George and Ira Gershwin, who collaborated with lyricist Dubose Heyward (since praised by Stephen Sondheim in his book on lyrics for writing the best Broadway lyrics of the past century).
Among the songs that I never grow tired of: Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So, and I Got Plenty of Nuttin’, for starters.
Broadway darling Audra McDonald, already a four-time Tony winner in featured roles, deservedly won her first Tony as best actress for her passionate and poignant Bess in the popular extended 2012 run of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (P.S. Classics). Her voice is magnificent alone or with Norm Lewis as Porgy, but they are far from alone in that regard in this terrific ensemble..
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess. File photo
A new holiday musical, currently a hit on Broadway, is A Christmas Story, inspired by the beloved 1980s film. The cast album (Broadway Records) suggests that the songs are pleasant enough but that perhaps the primary appeal of the show comes from its sure-fire story and characters. I’ll have to reserve ultimate judgment on the score until I hear it within the context of the show.
Bonnie and Clyde (Broadway Records) didn’t last more than a few weeks on Broadway last winter, but the cast album proves that the best (or least-bad) thing about a Frank Wildhorn musical (and he’s had a lot more flops than hits, especially lately) is his songs.
Jeremy Jordan (who bounced back from this flop with a starring role later that season in Newsies) and Laura Osnes played the doomed title pair of Depression-era bank robbers.
This World Will Remember Us and Too Late to Turn Back Now, plaintive duets between the iconic title characters, are worth a listen.
I found Made in America (sung by a supporting character and the ensemble) especially stirring.
Not having had a chance to see the musical (and I doubt anyone else in central Ohio will get the chance either), I can’t say whether it’s worth reviving elsewhere.
But if you are fans of Wildhorn’s best (starting with his longest-running Broadway musical, Jekyll and Hyde, on down to The Scarlet Pimpernel and the forgettable rest), then his latest cast album might be of interest.
Soeaking of Wildhorn, a 2012 concept recording (Broadway Records) of Jekyll & Hyde offers a different take on that show score – which is reportedly scheduled to be heard on Broadway again soon with the first (revised) revival.
For those who enjoy music from Broadway’s golden age – or see the value of introducing classic musicals to the younger generation – quite a few theater-related albums have been released in the past year or so.
Author/playwright/humorist/cartoonist/illustrator James Thurber, two years before his death in 1969. File photo
Of particular interest to central Ohio is A Thurber Carnival (Columbus Masterworks) a 1960 Broadway comedy revue with Tom Ewell, Peggy Cass and Paul Ford acting and singing roles from the humorous stories of Columbus’s celebrated writer James Thurber with music and lyrics by The Don Elliott Quartet. The music, frankly, isn’t memorable, but the lyrics are amusing and at their best reflect Thurber’s famous wit.
David Merrick Presents Hits From His Broadway Hits (Masterworks Broadway) offers quite a sampler. Signature songs are included from all of his major shows: Gypsy, Carnival, Do Re Mi, 110 in the Shade, Oliver! and of course his mega-hit Hello, Dolly!
But there are also tuneful selections from lesser-known shows, such as Fanny, Take me Along, Destry Rides Again, Subways are for Sleeping and Stop the Word, I Want to Get Off.
You may not necessarily be aware of what songs were introduced by each show, but most people (at least, aging baby boomers and older generations) will recognize the melody of Make Someone Happy (from Do Re Mi), What Kind of Fool Am I (from Stop the World...) or Love Makes the World Go Round (from Carnival).
Columbus native Michael Feinstein’s recent CD. File photo
Also of interest to Columbus music or theater fans is any album by the prolific singer-pianist Michael Feinstein, a particular devotee of the Gershwins and other exponents of the Great American Songbook.
Frank Sinatra founded his career on that songbook and Feinstein pays tribute to both in Michael Feinstein: The Sinatra Project Vol. II: The Good Life. (Concord Jazz).
Among the terrific standards that “our boy” Michael handles with his typical grace and style: L uck Be a lady, All I Need is the Girl, The Lady is a Tramp, For Once in My Life, The Way You Look Tonight and Once in a Lifetime.
Other golden oldies include RCA reissues of cast albums of Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam with Dinah Shore and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s glorious Carousel with Robert Merrill, Patrice Munsel and Florence Henderson.
Wilkommen, bien venue and welcome to a the reissue of the 1968 London cast of Cabaret (Masterworks Broadway), still arguably the best musical by the terrific team of Kander and Ebb (today perhaps equally known for Chicago.)
The production is most notable today for Judy Dench’s winning performance as Sally Bowles – many years before Dench won an Oscar as the Queen of England in Shakespeare in Love or became world-famous as the newly female M in the James Bond film series which culminates (at least for her, if that’s not giving too much away at this point) with Skyfall.
Plus, in the Legends of Broadway series from MasterWorks Broadway, the best of Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett are uncovered from the CBS vaults in a 2-CD set Live at Carnegie Hall / Live at Lincoln Center The CBS Television Specials Julie Andrews Carol Burnett.
During my career, I’ve had the great fortune to meet both great performers – and truly great ladies they are, too. (Just as warm and gracious in person as you might imagine).
But everyone can bask in the glow of their personalities and voices as they work together on a series of medleys that pay tribute to Broadway, the 1960s and the history of musical comedy or spoof the high tone of Russian ballet.
Let me know your suggestions for other recent cast albums to listen to and review.