Love and War and Racial Tension

Few collaborators have made such an impact on musical theatre as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers and Hammerstein are responsible for a plethora of Golden Age hits including Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Their musicals were groundbreaking for the time, centering on complex themes such as racism and domestic violence rather than being the star vehicles or glorified revues that had populated Broadway in the past. Say what you will about the Golden Age of Broadway (and even I’ve said plenty), but without Rodgers and Hammerstein pushing the envelope, we wouldn’t have Stephen Sondheim or Lin-Manuel Miranda to push it even further. In their impressive catalogue there is one show that I hold in higher regard than all their others, for it has what I consider a perfect score. That show is South Pacific.

South Pacific is based on a collection of short stories by James A. Michener. Its plot juxtaposes two stories: one about a white American nurse who loves a French expatriate but struggles to accept his mixed-race children, and one about a white American Marine who wrestles with society’s racist expectations and his love for a Tonkinese woman. The musical first opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949, and starred Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, William Tabbert, and Juanita Hall. The show was considered revolutionary for its depiction of racism and launched a souvenir craze unlike any Broadway had ever seen. Its original cast album spent a spectacular 400 weeks on the Billboard pop charts, 69 of which were at number one. That cast album is where I begin my South Pacific journey now.

The original Broadway poster.

With a cast as strong South Pacific‘s original cast, it should come as no surprise that the original Broadway cast album is jam-packed with terrific moments. Mary Martin is absolute perfection in the role of Nellie and she lets you know it from the very first note of “Cockeyed Optimist.” Both her and Ezio Pinza as Emile are going to be hard to beat, especially with his rich bass voice. His voice is best displayed on “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song that could be the gold standard for Broadway ballads. Juanita Hall shines as Bloody Mary as well. My one wish for this album is that recording technology was better able to capture the richness of the chorus numbers. Both “Bloody Mary” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” suffer here for it. That and the slower-than-I-would-like tempo of “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” are the only things that I would change about the original LP. The version I listened to also included bonus tracks that are mostly forgettable, except for Pinza’s incredible version of “Bali Ha’i.” I also enjoyed “Symphonic Scenario for Concert Orchestra,” although it’s essentially just a longer, smoother version of the orchestra.

The 1951 original London cast album is hard to track down, but it does exist! I promise. Mary Martin is back as Nellie, this time with Wilbur Evans as Emile, Muriel Smith as Bloody Mary, and Peter Grant as Lt. Cable. This is really a highlights album and plays out-of-order. There’s no chorus numbers, no “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and no “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.” In fact, there’s very little Mary Martin at all; she only appears on Twin Soliloquies and the Finale. Talk about criminal underuse. It’s no wonder that this wasn’t released until 2012. It does make a nice showcase for Evans, Smith, and Grant though. You can go ahead and skip this one.

Mary Martin and Wilbur Evans in the original London production.

Up next is the 1958 film soundtrack. This is the album that first introduced me to South Pacific, so I may be a bit biased in its favor. The songs are in a different order than the stage version, but that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with different mediums. Mitzi Gaynor plays Nellie in the film and she does her own singing, which is very pleasant. Opera star Giorgio Tozzi provides Emile’s singing voice (Emile was played by Rossano Brazzi on screen) and you can tell he’s trained to belt on stage thanks to the amount of gusto he’s able to conjure when he wants to. When he doesn’t want to, however, his voice has almost a lullaby quality. An interesting casting choice is that while Juanita Hall plays Bloody Mary in the film just like she did in the original Broadway production, it’s the original London cast’s Bloody Mary, Muriel Smith, who performs her songs. In comparing the two’s original performances, I prefer Hall. So that decision strikes me as odd. But this is still a great album overall. The best part is that the chorus numbers are vastly improved compared to the original Broadway cast album. What a difference nine years makes! It’s also worth mentioning that “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” is performed at the correct speed. Finally.

It’s back to the stage we go, this time to the 1967 production at Lincoln Center. This album opens with a very strong overture before introducing us to Florence Henderson as Nellie and reintroducing us to Giorgio Tozzi as Emile. Both are great, with Tozzi improving from the film soundtrack and Henderson having a lot of fun in the role that comes through nicely on the recording. Actually, I was surprised at how brassy Henderson’s voice is. She kind of has a mild Ethel Merman quality, which I consider a good thing. I have to say that Irene Byatt would be my favorite Bloody Mary yet, had I not discovered that she is a white woman playing a woman of color. That’s going to be a mark against this one.

Florence Henderson as Nellie.

It’s over 20 years before another South Pacific cast album is released, that being the 1988 London cast album. Like its British predecessor, it is fairly lackluster. I will say that Gemma Craven gives us the most emotive Nellie we’ve yet heard, which is nice. She’s definitely the highlight here, especially on “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Honey Bun,” but everything else is just ok. The chorus numbers are especially disappointing, and it sounds like the chorus itself is considerably smaller than in earlier productions. Once again, I think you can skip this London cast album.

We’re staying in London for the 2002 Royal National Theatre cast album and to say I was unexcited to listen is an understatement. But from the very first bar of the prologue, I knew that this was going to be a different South Pacific. The spectacular orchestrations set far less of a pop music tone than any of the previous albums and this one also packs in plenty of dialogue, which brings you into the story and highlights the racial tension nicely. Everyone in the cast is sensational, from Lauren Kennedy as an especially giddy Nellie, to Philip Quast as Emile, to Sheila Francisco as Bloody Mary, and to Edward Baker-Duly as Lt. Cable. I think this is also the first album to include the French reprise of “Bali Ha’i” and the only one to really convey what’s at stake in the story with the addition of “Communication Disconnected.” After two London disappointments, this is the one to beat.

Sheila Francisco played Bloody Mary in the 2002 Royal National Theatre production.

Next up is the very fun 2005 Carnegie Hall concert cast album. It’s the longest of the albums, clocking in at an hour and 17 minutes, which is forgivable thanks to the stellar cast. Reba McEntire sings the role of Nellie and her genuine southern accent adds much to the character. The part of Emile is performed by the always enchanting Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Lillias White and Jason Danieley rounding out the principle cast. Mitchell’s “This Nearly was Mine” and McEntire’s “Honey Bun” are especially triumphant. If I have a complaint here it is, unsurprisingly, the length, but I’ll trek through it again and again to enjoy these performances. This one is a real stand out.

The most recent of South Pacific‘s cast albums hails from the 2008 Broadway revival starring Kelli O’Hara as Nellie and Paulo Szot as Emile. Each delivers one of the best interpretations of their respective characters. O’Hara is actually a fairly good successor to Mary Martin, who owns the role in my eyes. Matthew Morrison is also incredible as Lt. Cable and Loretta Ables Sayre delivers the most unique Bloody Mary of the bunch. She’s quite refreshing in the role. The chorus numbers are a bit weak for my liking and the keys are a bit higher than they’ve been before. Overall, this album works, but only thanks to its gifted cast.

The 2008 Broadway poster.

I really thought that I was going to base my overall opinion on a few favorite songs and then pick a favorite between either the original Broadway cast, the film soundtrack, or the Carnegie Hall concert. It turns out that none of that is the case. There are a few gems here and a few duds as well, but I have to declare the 2002 Royal National Theatre cast album as the victor. It perfectly captures the complexities of the story and its orchestrations are just untouchable. You would be doing yourself a favor by listening to it some enchanted evening in the not-to-distant future.

Musical: South Pacific

Music: Richard Rodgers 

Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Opening Night On Broadway: April 7,1949, at the Majestic Theatre

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1949 original Broadway cast, 1951 original London cast, 1958 film soundtrack, 1967 Lincoln Center cast, 1988 London cast, 2002 Royal National Theatre cast, 2005 concert cast, and 2008 Broadway cast albums.

My Favorite Cast Album: 2002 Royal National Theatre Cast Recording

Highlights: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and “Younger Than Springtime.”

Overall Impression: I’ve always said this is a perfect score and I maintain that opinion. It’s interesting to see the albums evolve to reveal more and more of the musical’s theme of racial tension.

Requiem for a Genius

I had just gotten home from work and was rushing to change clothes and head to the national tour of Hadestown when I got an alert on my phone from The New York Times. “Stephen Sondheim is dead at 91,” it said. I stood there in disbelief for a moment, wrestling with the news that a man I had never met was no longer with us. After catching my breath, I performed the traditional next step of millennial grief: I shared the article to my social media pages so that everyone I had ever met could grieve with me.

Only they didn’t grieve. The article was barely noticed and the death of Sondheim was scarcely acknowledged by the occupants of my various social feeds. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, musical theatre is a fairly niche interest, but I couldn’t help my frustration at noticing that Sondheim had been unappreciated by so many. It seems criminal. In fact, to my mind, it is.

I was nine when The Wonderful World of Disney premiered their brand new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. You know, the one with Brandy and Whitney Houston. Both Brandy and Whitney shine in their roles, as does the whole cast. But there was one performance that struck my little gay heart especially hard: that of Bernadette Peters in the role of the Wicked Stepmother. From the first time I saw her on my screen with her dress that was too tight for full strides and her red curls piled atop her head, I was in love. This, I thought, was a goddess. I hold that opinion to this day.

After watching Cinderella, I consumed as much of her work as I could and it was her Carnegie Hall concert album that first introduced me to the work of Stephen Sondheim. Now, Peters is often cited as the greatest interpreter of Sondheim’s work, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that she sang those songs as though they had been personally crafted for her by an angel. To say I was transfixed is putting it mildly. In the years that followed, I dug deeper into her body of work, including Sunday in the Park with George, Anyone Can Whistle, Gypsy, and of course, Into the Woods. This, my friends, was my Sondheim root.

Expanding beyond Peters’ contributions to the Sondheim catalog, I remember asking for a copy of the original cast album of Company one Christmas. I played it again and again, driving my parents mad. There is something to be said about a cast album from the 1970s resonating so strongly with a teenaged boy in the early 2000s. Sondheim understood timelessness better than perhaps any composer of his time. He understood the universality of human experience, so he centered his works around it. He understood that at some point in each of our lives, we blow out our birthday candles alone. The risk of building his shows around such vulnerabilities is what made Sondheim a genius.

Despite the deep respect I hold for Sondheim, it wasn’t until very recently that I really understood his impact. Around the time that I wrote my entry on Follies, I began to look at his work with fresh eyes and something clicked in me. This wasn’t an artist who ever tried to write the next big earworm, this was an artist who had something to say and that something resonated with millions around the world and will continue to resonate for generations to come. Because Sondheim had a secret weapon that so many artists have lacked: humanity. And that is the key to immortality.

Cheers to Sondheim. And thanks, Steve.

How to Spice it Up. Or Not.

I don’t know what I expected when my random number generator landed on I Love My Wife, but it wasn’t a musical about a foursome, that’s for sure. And yes, I’m talking about that type of foursome. The title evokes the kind of quiet romance one would expect from a Diane Keaton movie. The content, on the other hand, could easily be directed by Judd Apetow. That said, it’s a surprise that I had have never heard of this show because it was a fairly decent hit when it opened in 1977 and has been successfully produced numerous times since. Still, this is my first exposure.

I Love My Wife opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on April 17, 1977, running for 857 performances. The music is by Cy Coleman while Michael Stewart wrote the book and lyrics. It focuses on two couples who find themselves planning a ménage-à-quatre with each other one Christmas Eve. The Broadway production received attention for both its racy content and the unique use of its musicians, who both acted and sang in the production while also serving as the band. In fact, all four members of the band won a shared Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for their performances. The musical has been performed all over the world, including the West End, Australia, South Africa, and Los Angeles. There are two cast albums commercially available for I Love My Wife, but the 1982 Australian cast recording is incredibly rare and I was unable to stream it or get a copy. As it stands, I am sticking to the original Broadway cast album for now.

The album starts off innocently enough, with the characters reminiscing about their high school days together and ogling over their old bully, an ugly duckling named Monica. But by the third track, “By Threes,” the heat is turned up and it’s clear that we’re here for sex. “By Threes” is an upbeat song about discovering ones desire for a threesome and it serves as a sort of thesis for the show with the lyrics “Goodbye to strain and marital strife/Go break the joyous news to your wife.” Just to be clear, the idea of a threesome is the “joyous news” in question. This seems like a good time to mention that I Love My Wife is a work of satire. It doesn’t take the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s seriously and seeks to lampoon it in a way that’s comfortable for the average theatre goer. But hey, it can still be a good time and “By Threes” is up there among its best numbers.

The best song in the show is without question “Love Revolution,” performed beautifully by Ilene Graff as Cleo. Here we see a woman doesn’t want the world’s new liberated attitude towards sex to pass her by, and she lets us know with a terrific power ballad. Another song I really enjoyed is “Lovers on Christmas Eve.” It’s a lounge duet about the joys of sex on Christmas Eve, and while I can’t say it should a holiday standard (the lyrics include “Santa Claus turns me on/One ‘ho ho ho’ and I’m gone”), it is perfectly weird. I love an off the wall Christmas song so it gets a thumbs up from me.

Lenny Baker, Joanna Gleason, Ilene Graff, and James Naughton in the original Broadway production.

Speaking of weird songs, there were a few that had me double checking to make sure that this show was in fact written by the lyricist who gave us Hello, Dolly! The first is “Sexually Free,” which is about the virtue of having sexual experiences beyond societal expectations. The lyrics deserve a better melody but at the same time the song’s theme is explored throughout the whole show so I don’t think we can complain much. But then there’s arguably the least sexy song in the show, “A Mover’s Life.” It’s a bizarre ode to a career as a moving man and processing the emotions of dealing with damaged and forgotten furniture, including a sink that is sad to be left behind. Yes, in this man’s head sinks have feelings, too. Finally, we have “Ev’rybody Today is Turning On,” a song about drugs. Weed, coke, heroin, LSD, meth, poppers… they’re all here and everyone’s doing them to forget their troubles. None of these three songs landed for me, although that last one is the best of this bunch, but they were so bizarre that I couldn’t let them go unmentioned.

I don’t quite know what to make of I Love My Wife. In a way, I’m glad I stumbled upon it. There’s some really good songs here but there’s also some really questionable choices. From what I can tell from the lyrics and synopsis, our four sexual adventurers do not actually go through with their night of shared passion, and I honestly with they had. What a different show it would be if it actually celebrated sexual freedom. I understand it’s satire, but satirizing a culture of free love doesn’t sit well with me. Satire is best when it’s working against the status quo, not for it. So, as a whole work it is not my favorite, but the cast album is still good fun.

Musical: I Love My Wife

Music: Cy Coleman 

Lyrics: Michael Stewart

Opening Night on Broadway: April 17, 1977, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 1977 original Broadway cast recording

Highlights: “By Threes,” “Love Revolution,” and “Lovers on Christmas Eve”

Overall Impression: If you’re looking for a cast album that will shock your uptight friends, this is the one. It has some very moments and it has some real head scratchers, too.

Botany Gone Awry

Halloween is finally upon us and in the spirit of spooky season, I have decided to visit a cult classic. Little Shop of Horrors is a musical that has honestly always been on the peripheral for me. Oh sure, I know the songs and I’m familiar with the imagery, but I’ve never seen a production or even the film (I’m begging you not to hold that second point against me). It goes without saying that this is not one of my go-to’s, even with its famous use of puppets. I love puppets! How could I let this show go unappreciated any longer?

Little Shop of Horrors is the story of a florist shop clerk who discovers that the unusual plant he’s recently acquired thrives on human blood. It features the music of Alan Menken with a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. The original production premiered Off-Off Broadway in 1982 and opened Off-Broadway less than three months later where it ran for five years. A 1983 West End production had a successful two year run as well, which makes the fact that Little Shop did not open on Broadway until 2003 a tad surprising. That Broadway production was not without its problems and the show returned to its stronger Off-Broadway roots in 2019. Meanwhile, it has been produced all over the world and a much beloved film version was released in 1986. Counting the film soundtrack, Little Shop of Horrors has released five cast albums that fit my criteria.

The 1982 original Off-Broadway cast recording is up first, naturally. Or supernaturally, as the case may be. It has the old fashioned rock and roll feel that I expected and I relish in that. It’s got to be hard to replicate an authentic feel for 1960s music when writing in the 80s, and Menken does it beautifully. Every performance is stellar and we are treated to Ellen Greene’s legendary performance as Audrey for the first time. What a treat she is! Truly the cherry on top of this sweet bloodbath. Lee Wilkof’s Seymour and Ron Taylor’s Audrey II are also top notch. Right away, I am concerned about the prospect of choosing my favorite songs, because there isn’t a dud to be found. That said, “Grow For Me” and “Somewhere That’s Green” stand out just a hair above the rest. We’re off to a very good start.

Ellen Greene is back for the 1986 film soundtrack, which also features Rick Moranis as Seymour, Steve Martin as Orin, and Levi Stubbs as Audrey II. Moranis is doing his best and it shows, but he’s not as confident as his predecessor and Greene performs circles around him. Regardless, this is still an enjoyable listen. There’s even a new song here; “Some Fun Now” takes the place of “Ya Never Know” and brings some calypso flavor to Little Shop. But the really good thing about “Some Fun Now” is it gives Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) a little extra something to do. These three are one of the most famous Greek choruses in all of musical theatre and for good reason. They should absolutely have even more to do. All things considered, this a surprisingly solid cast album for a film soundtrack. I dig it.

The UK tour cast released their cast album in 1994 and it’s next on my list. This production took a risk in giving the music a synth pop sound while keeping the essential rock and roll feel. The result is a more subdued Little Shop and unfortunately that makes it less memorable for me. None of the performances really stood out here. It’s not that it’s a bad album, far from it in fact. It’s just that it’s weaker than all of the others. The one advantage that it has is the inclusion of a mega mix of the biggest songs from the show. It’s a fun little addition and, perhaps contrary to what I had to say about the Hello, Dolly! finale, more shows should release mega mixes, especially in our age of bite-sized media.

With that, we finally come to Broadway. The 2003 Broadway cast album of Little Shop of Horrors is the longest at an hour and 18 minutes, but that running time comes with a whole lot of dialogue. I appreciate that because it gives my novice ears a little bit of context. Another bonus is the cast: Hunter Foster, Michael-Leon Wooley, and Kerry Butler are our leads and they had me excited from the start. Foster and Wooley are terrific and have great chemistry, while Butler’s Audrey comes of as a Disney princess from Queens. That’s a little off-putting, but I barely even care because she’s always a delight. This album also features several demos of songs that were cut during production, which is interesting and a fun way to stick the landing. Overall I really like this version.

The 2019 Off-Broadway cast album is Little Shop‘s most recent. It stars Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard, Kingsley Leggs, and Christian Borle. It has the most contemporary rock sound of the five but it doesn’t sacrifice the 60s feel that helps make this show so great. In fact, the prologue opens with what sounds like an actual 60s news broadcast. That sets the tone for a great listen, especially when it comes to Blanchard’s Audrey. My one complaint is that Groff is too polished a Seymour for my liking. While the others had a stereotypically boyish charm, his comes off as a talented heartthrob. That is made all the more apparent by the inclusion of a bonus track of “Grow For Me” performed by Groff’s replacement, Jeremy Jordan, who is a better fit for the character. Still, this is once again a stellar cast album.

Little Shop of Horrors is a brilliant musical with a super fun score and any one of these albums is proof of that. I really think the 1982, 2003, and 2019 cast albums are neck and neck along with the film soundtrack (my apologies to the UK) but I’m going to go ahead and give the bragging rights that come along with being my favorite to the original Off-Broadway cast. After all, it set the tone and what a nice and consistent tone it is. If you’ve not been giving this show the attention it deserves like I wasn’t, do yourself a favor and dive in. I promise you’ll have a good time. Just don’t feed the plants.

Musical: Little Shop of Horrors

Music: Alan Menken 

Lyrics: Howard Ashman

Opening Night Off-Off-Broadway: May 6, 1982, Players Art Foundation Theatre, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1982 original Off-Broadway, 1986 film, 1994 UK, 2003 Broadway, and 2019 Off-Broadway casts

My Favorite Cast Album: 1982 Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording

Highlights: “Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors),” “Grow For Me,” “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Feed Me (Git It!),” and “Suddenly, Seymour”

Overall Impression: A very fun listen with extraordinary casts throughout. This one is worth the hype.

Lady Di Didn’t Deserve This

With all the talk going on about the new Broadway musical Diana, especially since its unconventional Netflix premiere earlier this month, I thought now was as good a time as any to get back to my blog. The internet has not been kind to this show. In fact, it has been met with nearly universal vitriol. So much so that I had already drawn two conclusions before I began to examine it for this post: first, that I wouldn’t have anything to add to the larger conversation, and second, that I had read so much bad press on the work that I was fully prepared to listen to the cast album with low expectations.

If my life had an audible narrator, this is the part where they would say “he was not prepared.”

Diana is a new musical with music and lyrics by the team who gave us Memphis, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro. Joe DiPietro also wrote the book. If the name David Bryan rings any bells you may recognize him as the keyboardist from Bon Jovi. The show was set to open in March of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed it. However, it was professionally filmed at the Longacre Theatre last year and can now be streamed on Netflix. As of today, Diana has yet to officially open on Broadway.

Now, I have not seen the Netflix pro-shoot of Diana because I really try and focus only on cast albums here. And judging solely by the cast album, I can say with certainty that this show deserves every ounce of criticism that it gets. The music is ridiculous, the lyrics unbearable, and the performances seem ripped from a sketch comedy show. What’s left? The orchestrations? Ha! Don’t get me started. The whole thing had me scratching my head as I tried to make out whether Diana was intended as a work of satire. It’s a wonder it made it out of workshops, let alone to Broadway!

Here the British royal family belts out songs that would be at home on a Kidz Bop Goes Rock Opera album while the People’s Princess navigates her life around villains Charles (whom she calls “a third rate Henry VIII”) and Camilla (“Godzilla”). The only song with any real charm is Diana’s ballad “I Will.” Aside from that, this album is saturated with the worst tunes and lyrics you’ve ever heard. Yes, even worse than that. And it’s an hour and nineteen minutes long! What gives it the right? Indeed, any one of the Rusical episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race would have put out a better cast album than this.

Diana still awaits an opening night (November 2, in case you’re a masochist). I think I’ll skip the pro-shoot after all. Heck, I may even move to London where I’ll be safe from this monstrosity. Heaven knows it will never play the West End.

Musical: Diana

Music and Lyrics: David Bryan and Joe DiPietro

Cast Album I Listened To: 2021 Original Broadway Cast

Highlight: “I Will”

Overall Impression: The real Diana was too good a person to be memorialized with this mess.

Good Grief!

If there is one piece of American pop culture that has been a constant throughout my life, it’s the Peanuts comic strip. Not only the strips themselves, but the television specials, books, and licensed memorabilia have always had a prominent spot in my home. Who doesn’t love Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the rest of the gang? Nobody worth knowing, that’s who. So, seeing as there is a famous musical based on Peanuts, I decided to visit it for this project as an excuse to finally listen to all of its cast albums. It’s a show I’m very familiar with, and it even contains one of my all-time favorite show tunes. I’m talking about You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown began as a concept album with the blessing of Charles Schulz himself. This was followed by and Off-Broadway production in 1967, which was a smash hit and ran for 1,597 performances. Its 1971 Broadway run was less successful, closing in less than a month. But that hasn’t tarnished the endearing reputation of composer Clark Gesner’s labor of love. It has since been produced many times all over the world and yielded an impressive five cast albums, though I was only able to get my hands on four of them.

The first is the concept album, which was released in 1966. The story behind this album is sweet: Clark Gesner sent Charles Schulz (the creator of Peanuts) a demo recording of songs based on the beloved Peanuts characters and Schulz liked them so he granted permission to record them professionally. The rest is history. Now, I’ll admit that I was not excited about listening to the concept album. I wanted to get it over with before I ever hit play. Imagine my surprise when I realized it was a very charming album. It features full orchestrations and a decent cast, even if they aren’t always in character. I can see why this album led to the musical’s stage inception, something that wasn’t Gesner’s original intention. A very pleasant surprise indeed.

I am absolutely positive that I’ve heard the 1967 original Off-Broadway cast album before. I must have. The problem is, I couldn’t remember anything about it. Upon my first listen for this project, I understand why that might be; it’s pretty forgettable. For starters, there are no orchestrations to speak of, just a piano, percussion, and bass. Second, they stack all the boring songs at the beginning. Things pick up by the fifth track, “Kite,” but the damage is done. I already want to listen to the concept album again. Yes, this cast album features five more songs than the concept album, but the only standout of these is “Queen Lucy,” in which the perpetually crabby character laments the obstacles to her sitting on a throne. The lyrics are quite the character study and prove that Gesner is a genuine Peanuts fan. And Reva Rose is the strongest Lucy of the four I’ll hear, too. That said, “Queen Lucy” is more a dialogue that a song in the true sense of the word. All things considered, this is not a terrible album, just kind of a snooze fest compared to its predecessor.

There is a recording of the 1973 television cast somewhere out there, but I couldn’t find it. Hopefully it will be available to stream soon, or else I’ll have to hunt down a copy on vinyl. Either way, I’ll get there eventually. As it stands, we have to move on to the 1999 Broadway revival. This version was heavily revised from the 1971 production and is credited with helping to launch the career of Kristin Chenoweth, who played the new role of Sally. The cast here is brimming with legends. We’ve got Anthony Rapp as Charlie Brown, Roger Bart as Snoopy, and BD Wong as Linus. All are on top of their game to make this the quintessential You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown cast album. Without question, the album’s highlight is “My New Philosophy,” a new song performed by Chenoweth and one of my absolute favorites from any musical. The return of proper orchestrations doesn’t hurt, either. In fact, the only mark against this album is that “Queen Lucy” is not included. But the good news? You won’t miss it.

Until I did this project, I did not know that there was a 2016 cast album released by the company of the Off-Broadway revival. It is unique in that it stars young actors, making it immediately reminiscent of the television specials. It also features plenty of nods to Vince Guaraldi, who composed the soundtracks to the early specials. This album even features the famous horn sounds that substitute for adult voices. Indeed, it is a love letter to the specials and seems to honor them more than it does the original strip. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I like that simple charm that comes when the inspiration is the comic strip. Plus, I prefer the score to focus on Gesner’s work and leave Guaraldi’s out of it. It is a cute album nonetheless.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown does not have an outstanding score, an especially large fanbase, or an ever-present legacy. What it has is a lot of love for its subject, and that’s more than most shows can say. When done right, it’s not overproduced or gimmicky. It’s simple, elegant, and entertaining, just like the strips that Charles Schulz started drawing more than 70 years ago. And that’s enough for me.

Musical: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Music and Lyrics: Clark Gesner

Opening Night Off-Broadway: March 7, 1967, at Theatre 80

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1966 Concept, 1967 Original Off-Broadway, 1999 Broadway Revival, and 2016 Off-Broadway Cast Albums.

My Favorite Cast Album: 1999 Broadway Revival Cast Album

Highlights: “My New Philosophy,” “Little Known Facts,” and “Suppertime.”

Honorable Mention: “Queen Lucy”

Overall Impression: This can be an endearing show, but Schulz’s creation is famously delicate and this medium is no exception.

A Night at the Opera

I’m tackling a biggie. My random number generator picked a show that is so daunting and so incredibly controversial that I seriously thought about choosing something different. The show in question is Porgy and Bess, which is technically an opera and not a book musical. It is also outdated and misguided at best, and outright racist at worst. These were my main concerns, forget that the cast albums can be more than three hours long! I didn’t want to ruffle feathers. And, as much as I like opera (and I really do), it’s not a territory I really wanted to venture into for this project. But, the original production of Porgy and Bess played on Broadway and the show has been revived there no less than eight times. So no sprint down Broadway would be complete without it. Any show will do, right?

Porgy and Bess features the music of George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. It had its world premier on September 30, 1935, in Boston and transferred to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) within two weeks. While noteworthy for its all Black cast of classically trained singers, the work was criticized from the start for being insensitive to the African American experience and relying on Black stereotypes. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Porgy and Bess began to gain respect in both the opera and Black communities, though controversy continues to surround it. Despite those controversies, today it is considered perhaps the greatest American opera and is performed all over the world. I counted eight available recordings from stage casts, though I was only able to listen to seven of them. I will explain the missing cast album later, but know that I did replace it with a studio cast album that interested me. So, with all that in mind, let’s get into the cast albums.

With a 1935 premier date, Porgy and Bess is the second oldest show I’ve written about so far, after Show Boat. The oldest cast album I could find hails from 1942 and features both the casts of the original production and the 1942 Broadway revival. It is not a complete recording of the score, having been released on a single LP, but all the highlights are here. Right away, I was humming along to the familiar melodies of “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I hummed because I found the lyrics very warbley and difficult to understand. I don’t know if it’s the age of the recording or just the style of the day, but it was a struggle for me. Then again, I had similar struggles with the older Show Boat cast albums so it may just be my ears. Either way, this was not a great start.

We next find ourselves in 1952, and what a difference ten years make! This is a touring cast recording that was recorded live in Germany of all places. While is was recorded in 1952, it wasn’t released until 2008. That’s surprising, because it’s a beautiful album. It is a nearly complete recording of the score and not only is it easier to understand the lyrics here than on the original album, it’s also easy to follow the storyline. This is both because of both the relatively crisp lyrics (for an opera) and the scuffling and rustling that goes along with a cast album recorded live on stage. To top it off, it stars the legends that are Cab Calloway and Leontyne Price. Both give outstanding performances. Overall, I really liked this one and appreciate that it restored my faith in what was to come.

And what was to come was the Hollywood film soundtrack. The movie version was released by Columbia Pictures in 1959 and starred Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, though their voices are dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison, respectively. While Sammy Davis, Jr. sings in the film, his voice is not heard on the soundtrack due to contact restraints and he is replaced by Cab Calloway. Similarly unjustly, the divinely talented Diahann Carroll is dubbed here as well. But there is one big musical star from the film heard on the soundtrack: Pearl Bailey in her role as Maria. I’m glad she’s here, underused though she is. This is once again a highlights album of the Porgy and Bess score, but it is one more closely resembling a book musical than an opera. For that reason, it may be worth a listen for those more inclined towards a traditional show tune. But, if you’re striving to appreciate Gershwin’s intentions, you can skip it.

In 1977, the Houston Grand Opera released a complete recording of the score that proved to be a turning point in the reputation of Porgy and Bess. Indeed, it is through this production that it began to be taken seriously by opera companies the world over. This is also the first time that I had to listen to a cast album from my vinyl record collection for this project because I could not find a complete version available to stream. This is probably the most famous cast album of the show, and with good reason. Not only is it the first complete recording of the score, and the first staging of the complete score since 1935, but the performances of Clamma Dale, Donnie Ray Albert, and Larry Marshall are breathtaking. It is also orchestrated in such a way as to make the music accessible to show tune fans while not sacrificing any of its operatic integrity. No wonder this production transferred to Broadway and won the only Tony Award ever given to an opera. In short, we are halfway done and this is the one to beat.

1989 finds us in East Sussex, England, at the Glydebourne Opera Festival’s production of Porgy and Bess. I have to say that the highlight here is definitely Cynthia Haymon as Bess; I really enjoyed her. The orchestrations, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, are also stunning and might be my favorite yet. This album is definitely worth a listen, though the story is a little harder to follow than the 1952 and 1977 albums. Plus, it is definitely directed at opera enthusiasts, not so much musical theatre fans. Still, that can’t be held against it and this remains a fantastic recording. I should also mention that this is the second complete recording of the score.

There isn’t another album from a stage cast for twenty years, but I’m stopping off in 2006 for that studio cast album I mentioned earlier. It is unique in that it features Gershwin’s original orchestrations from the 1935 production. You can feel the essence of the ’30s right away in the heavy use of piano and woodwinds on the overture. And the cast is, once again, spectacular. I’m surprised that I like it so well, since I normally turn my nose up at studio cast albums. That may very well be my ignorance showing. In any case, I highly recommend this cast album. It is definitely a contender for my favorite.

Back to the stage we go with the 2009 Austrian concert cast album. This production was conducted by Nikolaus Harnocourt, whose well known penchant for classical music is evident here, especially in the magnificent chorus. I have to be honest and say this is not my favorite interpretation of the music, but opera purists may delight in it. It also features a familiar voice, that of Gregg Baker in the role of Crown, which he also sang on the 1989 album. On the whole, this one is just alright as a cast album.

We finish with Porgy and Bess in the same place we started: on Broadway. The 2012 revival was heavily reworked to suit modern sensibilities, with a new libretto by Suzan-Lori Parks and updated music by Diedre Murray. Refreshingly, both Parks and Murray are Black women, a contrast to the opera’s original white male composers. This allows Porgy and Bess to be seen through a new lens, one that does more justice to its marginalized subjects, while retaining the beloved songs. That’s the biggest improvement here, along with an overhaul of the dialogue. This production can for sure be described as a Broadway adaptation of the opera, rather than an opera in its own right. That’s even reflected in the production’s official title: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. And yes, the venerable Audra McDonald plays Bess here and she is worth the listen all by herself. She can do no wrong in my opinion.

Now, about that missing album: there is a 2019 Metropolitan Opera cast album of Porgy and Bess, but I could only find it available on CD. Unfortunately, I do not have a CD player. When it becomes available to stream, I will absolutely review it for this blog. Until then, it remains a missing piece.

I was nervous that I would walk away from this one resenting having given it my attention. It certainly has its fair share of cringeworthy moments, especially when it comes to the antiquated dialect that verges on minstrel territory. But I have to admit, for all its shortcomings, Porgy and Bess is a beautiful work of opera and for that I must say “bravo.” I may even catch it on stage someday.

Opera: Porgy and Bess

Music: George Gershwin

Lyrics: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Opening Night on Broadway: October 10, 1935, at the Alvin Theatre

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1942 Original and Revival Broadway Casts, 1952 International Touring Cast, 1959 Film Soundtrack, 1977 Houston Grand Opera Cast, 1989 Glydebourne Opera Festival Cast, 2006 Studio Cast, 2009 Austrian Concert Cast, and 2012 Broadway Cast Albums.

My Favorite Cast Album: 1977 Houston Grand Opera Cast Album

Runner Up: 2006 Studio Cast Album

Highlights: “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Overall Impression: This show is definitely “of its time” as they say, and that’s never a good thing. But the score is gorgeous and that’s something it will always have going for it.

Why Animals Don’t Drive

I grew up in a home with an abundance of children’s literature on hand. We had everything from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Amelia Bedelia to Winne the Pooh, but one piece of kids’ lit that never entered my sphere of consciousness was The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 novel about a joy riding toad and his friends who try (and fail) to keep him out of trouble was just never on my parents’ radar. Well, my random number generator decided that my unfamiliarity ends now. Today, I’m writing about the cast album for the 2016 London stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows.

This musical has music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe, and a book by Julian Fellowes. It debuted on October 8, 2016 at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth and had a limited run at the London Palladium from June through September of 2017. The Wind in the Willows follows the plot of the novel quite closely, with the anthropomorphized characters Rat and Mole doing everything in their power to keep their friend Mr. Toad from stealing automobiles and driving them at top speed; of course they can’t keep him away from the cars and Toad crashes several of them, landing himself in jail. It’s a surprisingly entertaining story given the quaint Edwardian setting and my initial impression based on the familiar artwork dominated with shades of brown and green. After familiarizing myself with the story, I was excited to listen to the album.

I have to say, it did not disappoint. The Wind in the Willows has some fun and even some beautiful music. The lyrics will give unfamiliar listeners a good idea of what’s going on in the show, a good thing with any classic adaptation, and the music even mimics Kenneth Grahame’s novel in how it alternates between the slower chorus numbers and more speedy action packed songs. The album features some great performances as well, especially Rufus Hound as Toad who sounds generally delighted to have discovered cars on “The Open Road.” I also love Denise Welch as Mrs. Otter. In fact, her “Speed is of the Essence” might be my favorite song in the show. I say “might be” because the adorable “A Friend is Still a Friend,” while dripping with saccharine, is inescapably endearing. It’s also one of my favorites.

This is a cast album I never would have listened to if I hadn’t done this project. I’m glad I did! The Wind in the Willows can best be described as a cute show, that’s for sure. But it has some really funny moments as well. For example, one lyric has Toad quip “When I anthropomorphized I did it rather well,” a tongue in cheek reference to the condition of these woodland creatures. Now, since it’s based on a children’s story, the musical is probably best suited for families and with the good amount of story on the cast album, I would recommend young families give it a spin together. That’s not to say adults can’t enjoy it on their own,it just goes to show that The Wind in Willows remains a classic story for all ages.

Musical: The Wind in the Willows

Cast Album I Listened To: 2016 Original London Cast

Music: George Stiles

Lyrics: Anthony Drewe

Opening Performance: October 8, 2016, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, UK

Highlights: “Speed is of the Essence,” “The Open Road,” and “A Friend is Still a Friend.”

Overall Impression: A surprisingly enjoyable album that makes excellent use of the show’s source material. The Wind in the Willows caught me off guard, but in a good way.

Una Verdadera Obra Maestra

Every once in a while, I am introduced to a musical and genuinely like it, but then go on to ignore it for way too long after that initial spark dies out. One such victim of this unjust habit of mine is In the Heights. So, when my trusty random number generator landed on it the other day, I was ecstatic! “Here’s my chance,” I said to me, “to renew my love for this masterpiece! And this time, I am not throwing away my sh–,” wait… wrong musical. But the reference is apt considering my attitude towards the show had cooled considerably and now is just as fresh as ever, maybe even more so!

In the Heights is probably most famous for being the first major work of theatre to feature music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The book, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, lays out a complicated plot concerning a small Dominican community who live on a corner in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. The show opened on Broadway on March 9, 2008, and successfully ran until closing in January of 2011. It was nominated for an astounding 13 Tony Awards and took home four, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. There was also a hit production in the West End as well as several others around the world, but the original Broadway production is the only one with a cast album. So, let’s talk about it.

The first few notes of the In the Heights cast album speak to the heart of every show tune enthusiast the world over. That’s because they harken back to West Side Story, emulating the beginning notes of “America.” It beautifully sets the theme before a single lyric is sung. Right away, we know that we are about to observe a world full of people with a marginalized identity who are vacillating between two cultures. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite beginnings to a musical and the rest of the album does not disappoint either. The music is a wonderful mix of hip-hop, pop, and salsa, and the lyrics explore the souls of the characters so thoroughly that you may actually think you’re in Washington Heights! To get that from a cast album is pretty magical and a testament to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s talent as a songwriter.

I had a very hard time choosing my song highlights this time because there isn’t a dud in the show. Before revisiting In the Heights for this project, I had forgotten how drawn I am to the second number on the album, which is “Breathe,” performed by the incredible Mandy Gonzalez as Nina. Its poignant theme of being disappointed in oneself yet determined to turn things around is enough to make is a shoo-in for my shortlist. Mandy Gonzalez’s performance doesn’t hurt, either. I also decided to go with the salsa infused “When You’re Home” and “Carnaval Del Barrio,” both of which had me dancing with each listen. The beautiful and sweet “Sunrise” is an absolute must listen and I decided to close out my picks with another heart-tugging Mandy Gonzalez performance, “Everything I Know.” Truth be told, the album is best enjoyed as a whole, but I think those five songs give a pretty good taste of this refreshing show.

If there is a drawback to this cast album, it’s the bonus tracks. Yes, I know I complained about bonus tracks in my last post as well, but that was about lazy placement. These here are redundant “radio mixes” that don’t add anything to the work. Still, everything before them is as perfect as can be, so I’ll happily let them slide.

All that said, we are leaving Washington Heights for now. But good news! We are finally getting an In the Heights film adaptation this year. I can’t wait to not only see it, but also talk about its soundtrack here. In the meantime, I am thankful to this blog for giving me cause to rediscover a real masterpiece of American theatre. In the Heights is as great as ever, even if it is a bit overshadowed by its younger brother.

Musical: In the Heights

Cast Album I Listened To: 2008 Original Broadway Cast

Music and Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda

Opening Performance: March 9, 2008, Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York City

Highlights: “Breathe,” “When You’re Home,” “Sunrise,” “Carnaval Del Barrio,” and “Everything I Know.”

Overall Impression: As far as cast albums go, this one does a near perfect job of bringing you into the show’s world. I am excited to rediscover more shows that I have loved and grow my appreciation for them as I continue this project!

But There’s (Almost) No Magic!

After a couple personal subject choices, I turned back to my old method of picking shows with a random number generator. I actually rolled my eyes at where it landed because this is a show whose score I don’t care for. It’s a shame, and one for which I am still a little nervous will cause me to be eviscerated because this musical was practically designed to satisfy my generation. Then again, I’ve never really listened to either cast album critically so I can’t be blamed right off the bat, right? Hopefully. So, let’s talk about Matilda the Musical.

Matilda the Musical first opened at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on December 9, 2010. The show was then slated for a London opening at the Cambridge Theatre on November 24, 2011. The music and lyrics are by Tim Minchin, while the book is by Dennis Kelly. It was an instant smash success with rave reviews across the board, a Royal Variety Performance, and seven Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. In fact, if it weren’t for this pesky pandemic, it would still be running in the West End. Matilda was a natural choice for a Broadway transfer and opened there on April 11, 2013 at the Shubert Theatre where it ran for an impressive 1,555 performances. Like the original London production, the Broadway version was a critical darling and won 5 Tony Awards (though Best Musical went to Kinky Boots). Although there have been numerous productions around the world, the original Stratford and Broadway casts are the only two for which there are cast albums commercially available.

The basis for Matilda the Musical of course lies in the Roald Dahl children’s novel Matilda. It is no doubt also aided by the popularity of the Danny DeVito film of the same name. The story concerns a young girl who is unwanted by her parents and bullied by her headmistress at school. She channels her pain into newfound telekinetic powers that she eventually learns to control and ultimately uses for revenge. You wouldn’t know about her powers if your only exposure to Matilda was through her cast albums, but that’s a grievance I will wait a bit to air (spoiler alert).

The original Stratford cast album is up first for my listening pleasure. I’ve arrived with an open mind and even a bit of excitement, but the score is as underwhelming as I remember. Still, there are some good performances, especially Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull, Paul Kaye as Mr. Wormwood, and Adrianna Bertola, Josie Griffiths, and Kerry Ingram as Matilda. Though there are three Matildas represented and each does a fantastic job, I especially want to call out Adrianna Bertola for her gorgeous performance of “Quiet.” There are some other standouts here, like “School Song” which cleverly weaves an alphabet theme into the lyrics. I also really like “Naughty,” sung on this album by Josie Griffiths. And then there’s songs like the awful “Revolting Children,” for which there was surely a better choice to fill the slot. I was not enthusiastic about venturing over to Broadway, but venture I must.

Unlike the previous album, the Broadway cast album begins with an overture. Right away, I can tell that the music here has been orchestrated to be just a bit darker than across the pond and it’s a nice effect that draws me in a bit more. There are some familiar voices as well: Bertie Carvel is once again Miss Trunchbull and Lauren Ward has also returned as Miss Honey, a performance that I enjoyed more on the OBCR than the Stratford version. I also thoroughly enjoyed Lesli Margherita in the comical role of Mrs. Wormword. Once again, there are several Matildas represented: Sophia Gennusa, Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon, and Milly Shapiro. They are all great in the role, fake British accents and all. While the spookier orchestrions are enough to nudge this album just a bit above its Stratford counterpart, this one also gets bonus points for a whole song dedicated to the Chokey! For readers unfamiliar with Matilda, the Chokey is a torture device resembling an iron maiden which is kept in Miss Trunchbull’s office and used to punish children at the school for which she is headmistress. It more than deserves its own number, and mention of it was criminally left off the Stratford cast album altogether. One odd thing about the OBCR is the bonus tracks. Yes, the version I listened to was labeled “deluxe,” but all the bonus songs were tacked on at the end rather than inserted where they would have appeared in the show. This was a little distracting to me but I’m mostly glad they were included anyway.

Now, about Matilda’s powers. One of her defining characteristics are the telekinetic powers she develops at the end of act one. While they are prevalent in the show, you can get all the way through the Stratford cast album and never even know Matilda has powers! They aren’t mentioned once in the lyrics. The Broadway cast album makes reference to them, but it’s done in a way where they can be easily mistaken for a ghost. Where’s the girl power in that? I am not asking for much, just a “Bippity-Boppity-Boo” moment for our heroine Matilda. It would draw the whole album together nicely and give us another much needed fun number for the second act. That’s all.

Look, I’m sure the musical is lovely. But this is a blog about cast albums, as I am wont to remind you and myself, so I must judge them accordingly. I don’t love the score and I don’t love the lyrics, so what’s left? Basically, the movie is left, which I do love. Matilda the Musical may be for my generation, but it’s not for me.

Musical: Matilda the Musical

Cast Albums I Listened To: 2011 Original Stratford Cast and 2013 Original Broadway Cast

My Favorite Cast Album: 2013 Original Broadway Cast

Music and Lyrics: Tim Minchin

Opening Performance: December 9, 2010, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Highlights: “Naughty,” “School Song,” and “Quiet.”

Overall Impression: Lackluster in all the wrong ways, these albums still have some very good performances and a few notable songs.