The Wrong Kind of Haunting

Going into this project, I knew that I would encounter unbearable cast albums from sub-par musicals. I thought I had adequately prepared myself for the boredom that was sure to ensue with any given selection. “I can handle anything for an hour or so,” I’d told myself. Oh, how wrong I was.

Nothing, nothing prepared me for the dull sludge that is the original cast recording of Ghost the Musical. I’m sure I’ve seen selections from it on Broadway themed playlists, and I’m even more sure that I skipped every song I encountered. In fact, it is so painful that it took me three days to get through its only cast album! THREE DAYS! I kept finding excuses to turn it off and come back later and in the end I had to force myself to finish. In a word: dreadful.

Ghost the Musical follows the plot of the 1990 film on which it is based, in which a young woman’s boyfriend is killed resulting in his soul being trapped between this world and the afterlife. He soon discovers that she is in danger and enlists a seemingly fraudulent psychic to warn her. The music and lyrics are by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard with additional lyrics by Bruce Joel Rubin. It premiered in the West End at Piccadilly Theatre on July 19, 2011, closing October 6, 2012. A Broadway production opened in April of 2012 and closed that same August.  Only the original London cast has released a cast album.

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The album is full of gab; every few seconds the singers are interrupted by speech, whether their own or someone else’s. At first I thought this was a misguided attempt to lay out the complex plot, but as it went on I realized that it was actually a misguided attempt to cover up the fact that the music has very little substance. Most of these songs could not fill a track on their own, let alone an album. To make matters worse, the music itself is piano-driven rock of the worst kind. There are a few exceptions, especially where Cassie Levy is concerned. Levy is the sole standout in her role as Molly and shines brightest on “With You” and “Nothing Stops Another Day,” though both songs are unavoidably saturated with sap. There is an attempt at comic relief in Sharon D. Clarke’s performance as Oda Mae Brown, though it falls flat and Oda Mae comes off as a caricature.

Part of the reason I am so bitter about my Ghost experience is that despite what I had heard about it, I had high hopes. Both of its composers have created some very enjoyable music, Stewart being one half of pop group Eurythmics and Ballard having been involved in a litany of pop and rock projects. Alas, they were not able to make magic happen here. Lesson learned.

Maybe we can blame all of this on my chosen medium (no pun intended). Ghost the Musical is remembered for its lavish special effects and its basis on the film. Listening to and then ripping apart the cast album may be a disservice to what little legacy it has because the music was never the point. In any case, skip it.

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Musical: Ghost the Musical

Music: Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard

Lyrics: Dave Stewart, Glen Ballard, Bruce Joel Rubin

Opening Performance: July 19, 2011, Piccadilly Theatre, London

Cast Album I Listened To: 2011 Original London Cast

Highlights: “With You,” “Nothing Stops Another Day”

Overall Impression: It’s a terribly boring album with a lot of needless talking and underwhelming music.

Big, Bold, Broadway!

I tend to like my entertainment exaggerated. If you’ve seen a big, over-the-top production with enough confetti to fill the Grand Canyon, chances are I would enjoy that show. I would talk about it for weeks. The same goes for music: loud, lots of instruments, very pop, fun. With that criteria in mind, the original cast album for George M! should be right up my alley.

It is not.

That’s not to say it’s not good fun, it just loses me somewhere. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous songs or the criminal underuse of Bernadette Peters. Perhaps it’s sheer exhaustion from listening to all the energy-hemorrhaging songs on the recording. Or the amount of medleys. Or any number of things. Let’s unpack this.

First thing’s first: George M! is based on the career of showbiz legend George M. Cohan, a.k.a. “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” All of the songs used in the show are Cohan’s own hits, making this a jukebox musical (although some of the lyrics for the show were rewritten by his daughter, Mary Cohan). The Broadway musical opened at the Palace Theatre on April 10, 1968. It ran for a full year and originally starred Joel Grey as Cohan. The stage show has never been revived, though NBC did air a television production in 1970. The original cast recording is the only cast album that has been released.

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My first impression based on the overture can be summed up in two words: patriotic fantasia. I was immediately struck with visions of American flags and fire crackers. The familiar tunes of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” both apparently show tunes in their own right, served as fuel for the tacky, glittery salute to the USA I had prematurely choreographed in my mind.

The tracks themselves are largely reminiscent of vaudeville. Or at least my understanding of vaudeville, which comes almost exclusively from old Hollywood movies. A lot of the songs would fit nicely in classic Looney Tunes sketches. That’s great for entertainment value, but it’s not quite what I want in a full-length album. Still, these songs are steeped in entertainment history and that is enough to keep my interest.

The original cast of George M! is also quite captivating. Grey is charming as ever here and shines especially bright on “My Town” and the classic “Give My Regards to Broadway.” My favorite performance on the album has to be “Billie,” sung by Jill O’Hara. Her vocals soar beautifully and it is the rare track that emits any emotion outside of excitement. It is worth mentioning that this was the first successful Broadway starring role for Bernadette Peters, but don’t listen too hard for her on the cast album. Aside from her solo on the second track, she is mostly relegated to the chorus. It’s an understandable shame given how new a star she was at the time.

I listened to this album on headphones and the technique used to record it gave the lovely auditory illusion that the performances were happening all around me. I don’t know whether this was intentional, but it’s an effective technique nonetheless.

I have to critique the amount of medleys included here, especially since so many of the songs could easily have been divided into their own tracks. It leaves the album with the same cluttered feel that soured the original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods.

All things considered, this is a fun cast album that contains a lot of songs that would be at home in an elementary school play. The energy is consistent and the performances stellar. Unfortunately, it does rely heavily on nostalgia and for that reason I don’t think a revival is necessary. I also see no need to recommend George M! to a friend, but at the same time I want to host a viewing party for the NBC production. In the end, this one has left me torn.

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Musical: George M!

Music: George M. Cohan

Lyrics: George M. Cohan and Mary Cohan

Opening Performance: April 10, 1968, Palace Theatre, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 1968 Original Broadway Cast

Songs You Might Know: “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag”

Highlights: “My Town,” “Billie,” “Give My Regards to Broadway”

Overall Impression: It plays heavily on nostalgia for vaudeville. While the album is not to my taste, I envision the show as an over-the-top spectacle that I would probably enjoy.

How To Lift Yourself Up With Ease

Every once in a while I get bored and peruse the Internet for new music. One such boredom spell hit me this week and I noticed that a shiny new cast album had just recently been released. Of course, I had to give it a listen! This was an extra exciting endeavor since it is the first truly new musical I am listening to for this blog.

I vaguely remember the movie Calendar Girls being released back in 2003. The trailer has left me with memories of a lot of flowers and older women without body shame, so all good things. Why not turn such a movie with such a happy-feeling trailer into a stage musical? I can’t think of a single reason.

Calendar Girls opened at the West End’s Phoenix Theatre on February 21, 2017, and closed that July. The music and lyrics were co-written by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow. It is based on the true story of a group of Yorkshire women who tastefully posed nude for a calendar in order to raise funds for a hospital. The musical’s sole cast album was released on March 9, 2018.

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It’s been a busy week, so it actually took me two days to listen to the original London cast album. The music is largely piano driven and the voices are charming. The lyrics are probably the strongest thing about this recording. They are relentlessly encouraging and challenge those who would age gracefully to age daringly. The thing oozes positive vibes and then pairs them with simple melodies that I have been humming all day. If that’s not how a musical passes the test I don’t know what is. Even having never seen the movie, I was able to follow the story fairly well thanks to the amount of talking on the recording. There is quite a bit of it and it is helpful to a point, but a lot of these songs could stand on the their own without the extra context.

To be frank, the vocal performances are not extraordinary, but they’re also not pretending to be. The decision to give characters based on real people songs that real people can actually sing may have been unconscious, but it speaks volumes for both representation and accessibility. This is a musical that community theaters everywhere should be scrambling to produce.

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The album’s greatest flaw is its length. It clocks in at an hour and a half. AN HOUR AND A HALF! Only the likes of Les Mis have any business being that long. A few moral quandaries and a photo shoot do not exactly require a story telling capacity to rival the French Revolution. Granted, the last few songs are demos added on as bonus tracks, but still. They could have been cut and the whole thing would have benefited.

That said, the amount of can-do attitude packed into that hour and a half cannot be overstated. There’s even a song comparing the grief of losing a spouse to climbing mountains and battling piranhas. The gist is that it’s a big deal, but you can get through it. That’s the resounding theme here; these ladies are ready for anything life throws at them. In short, they are pretty awesome.

This is not an album that I can see myself listening to again and again, but is something I am definitely going to dust off every so often. It’s got real heart and a happy energy that is often missing is modern life. Maybe I wouldn’t take my grandma to see the show, but I would play this with her in the car. It’s just an easy breezy cast album and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Musical: Calendar Girls

Music and Lyrics by Tim Firth and Gary Barlow

Opening Performance: February 21, 2017, Phoenix Theatre, London

Cast Album I Listened To: 2017 Original London Cast

Highlights: “Who Wants a Silent Night?,” “Sunflower,” “So I’ve Had a Little Work Done”

Overall Impression: The lyrics are wonderful and would definitely come in handy if I were facing a difficult time. The music itself is pretty and simple, which is a good thing in this case.

Not Great, Not Bad, Just Nice

After exploring a couple of new-to-me musicals, I have been craving both some familiar territory and a show by an iconic composer. Into the Woods seemed to be just the thing. I am not a Sondheim connoisseur, but this show has been in my top ten since I first saw it in a local production. The original Broadway cast album has been a favorite of mine even longer, ever since I fell in love with its star, Bernadette Peters.

Everything about Into the Woods seems to be a recipe for success. Before the first curtain rose, its audiences were already familiar with its characters and themes. It draws on nostalgia and then haunts you with beautiful melodies and poignant lyrics. The stage show also has a generous helping of comedy that thankfully comes through in the albums at points, especially with regards to the Witch.

Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics for Into the Woods, which had its Broadway opening performance on November 5, 1987, at the Martin Beck Theatre. That original production ran for 765 performances, closing September 3, 1989. It tells the story of a baker and his wife who desperately want a child of their own. The plot weaves together the familiar fairy tales of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood. The musical made its West End debut in 1990 at the Phoenix Theatre, running for 197 performances. It has been revived a number of times, notably in 2002 on Broadway and in London in 2007, and is a popular choice for school productions. A feature film was released by Disney in 2014. Including the movie, there are four Into the Woods cast albums available.

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The 1987 original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods opens with the classic “Once upon a time…,” which is appropriate for a couple of reasons. First, we are listening to a musical about fairy tales, and second, the story is kind of brilliant. Actually, the general plot is outlined pretty well by this album and it would not be difficult to give it a listen and know what is going on story-wise for the most part. Technically, the Baker and his Wife lead the cast, but it’s clear after the first five minutes that Bernadette Peters (as the Witch) is the star here. From the moment she delivers the famous “Witch’s Rap” to her soaring vocals on “Stay With Me,” her presence is gigantic throughout the album. Still, I have to give the award for best song on the OBCR to Chuck Wagner and Robert Westenberg’s duet of “Agony.” In addition to being a funny song built around sibling rivalry, Wagner and Westenberg each have stunning voices.  Sadly, this album would have benefited from some better sound engineering, as some of the tracks give the impression of having been recorded in a giant tin can. My only other real issue with this album is the way some of the songs are packaged on the same tracks together. If I want to listen to the spectacular “Giants in the Sky” I shouldn’t have to listen to both “A Very Nice Prince” and “First Midnight” to get there.

While I had heard the OBCR many times before, this was my first time listening to the original London cast recording. Let me tell you something, this London cast album gets a fair amount of hate from Into the Woods fans but I found it very much as enjoyable as the Broadway cast album. Sure, Julia McKenzie is no Bernadette Peters, but her Witch provides just as much comic relief, if not even more. She even has a new song, “Our Little World,” which expands nicely on the Witch’s relationship with Rapunzel. The whole cast provides a mostly enjoyable listen. This recording is longer and some of the tempos could be changed for ease of listening, but overall I liked it! Best of all is that each of the songs are given their own tracks. Take note, original Broadway cast album producers.

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Before we move on to the 2002 Broadway revival cast album, it is important to note that that production was directed by James Lapine, who wrote the book for Into the Woods. Perhaps because someone with such intimate connections to the musical was in charge, its cast album suffers a bit from trying to do too much. In “Hello, Little Girl,” for example, an extra Wolf is added as are the Three Little Pigs without any reason or follow-up. That said, most of the cast gives it their all. A glaring exception is Vanessa Williams as the Witch. Her parts have been transposed to accommodate her limited vocal range, which is fine if you value star power over capable talent.

It was about halfway through the 2002 recording that I had a revelation: the music for Into the Woods is kind of boring. It doesn’t have that catchy kind of attraction that would automatically make any of its number classic show tunes and the melodies repeat often, which is common enough but monotonous. Sure, “No One is Alone” is one of the most beautiful songs around, but how often have you caught yourself singing it in the shower? Regardless, the show itself is gorgeous and deserved to be made into a movie. Whether it deserved the movie it got is another question entirely.

A film adaptation of Into the Woods was released by Disney in December of 2014. Its star packed cast includes Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and Johnny Depp. Being a Disney film, this is a thoroughly sanitized Woods. The reprise of “Agony” is gone, along with all hints of the Princes’ adultery. Jack’s long-absent father is also written out of the script and both “Ever After” and the “Act II Prologue” have been removed. But my biggest shock with this album is always how great everyone sounds. It’s clear that the cast was chosen for singing talent as much as box office draw. If I were going to introduce a child to Into the Woods, this would be the album I chose.

For all of its shortcomings, Into the Woods is a fantastic musical for which its cast albums do not do justice. It is a very close race, but I thing the 1991 original London cast just edges out the original Broadway cast for my favorite Into the Woods cast album. Although, to be fair, the OBCR is mostly carried by the venerable Peters. This has been interesting and I can’t wait to explore more Sondheim and see how his other shows measure up.

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Musical: Into the Woods

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Opening Performance: November 5, 1987, Martin Beck Theatre, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1987 Original Broadway Cast, 1991 Original London Cast, 2002 Broadway Revival Cast, 2014 Film Soundtrack

Highlights: “Giants in the Sky,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “Agony,” “Your Fault,” “No One is Alone”

Honorable Mention: It’s not technically a stand-alone song, but “Witch’s Rap” is a highlight of the Prologue.

Favorite Cast Album: 1991 Original London Cast

Overall Impression: While Into the Woods is a favorite show of mine, the music does get a tad boring making the albums tedious at times. Still, it is brilliant how these fairy tales are woven together with a whole new moral.

Bravo, Bravo Giovanni!

Musical theatre and opera have a lot in common; that goes without saying. So it is inevitable that the line should blur at times. I happen to be an admirer of both art forms, so I was delighted to come across Bravo Giovanni. It is not an opera by any stretch of the imagination, but the operatic influence and elements cannot be ignored.

Bravo Giovanni was written as a crossover vehicle for opera star Cesare Siepi. It features the music of Milton Schafer and lyrics by Ronny Graham. The short-lived musical opened May 19, 1962 at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway. It concerns the owner of a restaurant in Rome who resorts to stealing food and supplies from the fancy dining establishment next door via a secret tunnel to stay afloat. It only ran for 76 performances and has never had a revival. Therefore, there is only one cast album.

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I have to say the quality of this album is really great. It sounds as if it could have been recorded far more recently than the sixties and many of the songs would fit in nicely at a contemporary dinner party or, as my sister would suggest, a grocery store. The music can come off as a bit all over the place (it doesn’t quite know what kind of musical it wants to be at times) but I find that keeps a fresh feeling throughout the recording. There is no show tune fatigue to be found here.

Each and every member of the cast deserves a retroactive Grammy Award for their vocal performances. Siepi has an enviable bass and puts it to good use, especially on the gorgeous “If I Were the Man.” Another spectacular performance is given by Gene Varrone on “Ah! Camminare,” performed in Italian! Michele Lee is, of course, perfection. Her “Steady, Steady” number is easily the strongest candidate here for classic show tune offering. I honestly enjoyed every single track, albeit for different reasons. In some ways it sounds more like a compilation than a coherent album, but like I said, that actually works well here.

I would love to have seen this either on stage or made into a movie. As it is, I am grateful they released a cast album for a show with such a brief run. If its lack of longevity is the result of poor ticket sales, then it seems even theatregoers get it wrong once in a while. Bravo Giovanni indeed!

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P.S. I’ve been stuck in the 1960s lately. Perhaps something a bit more modern and familiar next time, eh?

Musical: Bravo Giovanni

Music by Milton Schafer

Lyrics by Ronny Graham

Opening Performance: May 19, 1962, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 1962 Original Broadway Cast

Highlights: “I’m All I’ve Got,” “If I Were the Man,” “Steady, Steady,” “Ah! Camminare”

Overall Impression: The songs are gorgeous even if the flow is a little disjointed. I loved it!

A Glorious Fabergé Egg of a Musical

It is probably obvious that I consider myself a big fan of musicals. But even with my lifelong enthusiasm for all things Broadway, the occasional gem slips through the cracks. Tovarich is one such gem.

I chose this show using a random number generator and when I first saw the name I assumed it would be a “get it over with” selection. While I had never hear of Tovarich or any of the songs in it, what I had heard of was its female lead: Vivien Leigh, best know for playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. She was the first thing I got excited for, but not the last.

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Tovarich was first a play, then a movie, and finally opened as a Broadway musical on March 18, 1963. It is the story of an aristocratic Russian couple living in exile after the revolution. To avoid being spied on, they take a job as servants to an American couple but are soon recognized by some of their old Russian friends. It’s a comedy with music by Lee Pockriss and lyrics by Anne Crosswell. The original production ran for less than a year and has never been revived on Broadway.

Let me tell you, that last fact is an injustice.

The songs, while maybe not recipes for smash hits, are catchy and fun. The performances are solid even with the cheesy accents and I found myself dancing around the kitchen a few times (which, let’s be honest, is the real metric for success here).

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From the very first notes of the overture, we are met with Russian influence. “Nitchevo,” a song that consists of a series of lamentations about nobles’ lives after the revolution, actually sounds like it could be a Russian folk song. From there, I am led through catchy tune after catchy tune, many which would feel perfectly at home in any Gershwin or Cole Porter musical. These include “Stuck with Each Other,” “You Love Me,” and Uh-Oh!” The last song on the album is the very cute “All for You,” which deserves to be performed at a lot more piano bars than I suspect it is.

My favorite song in the show is “I Go to Bed.” After being asked what he will do if he is forced to find work, the lead male character, Mikail, answers with the lyrics “I go to bed/and pull the covers up around my head/I close my eyes and float away/and if a problem needs facing/I face the other way.” It’s both funny and relatable.

My biggest curiosity when I started this cast album was Leigh’s performance. She’s marvelous, but so is the rest of the cast and they shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of her immortal star power. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by Tovarich. However, one should not be surprised by how catchy its songs are. After all, Pockriss co-wrote “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” which is almost as impossible to get out of your head as half the songs in this unfairly neglected show.

Musical: Tovarich

Music by Lee Pockriss

Lyrics by Anne Crosswell

Opening Performance: March 18, 1963, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 1963 Original Broadway Cast

Highlights: “I Go to Bed,” “Nitchevo,” “You Love Me,” “Uh-Oh!,” “All for You”

Overall Impression: I really enjoyed this album! The songs are catchy and fun. It would be interesting to see it revived.

Ahead of the Times

It is a very good thing that women are beginning to be given greater respect than they have in the past. Movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo have people discussing sexual assault and harassment in more ways and more often than ever before. It seems to be the never ending talk of every town, but in reality the conversation is still very new.

With all this buzz around sexual harassment and having just finished my entry on Hello, Dolly!, I thought it would be the perfect time to visit another Dolly.

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Country music legend Dolly Parton wrote the music and lyrics to 9 to 5: The Musical, which follows three women dealing with their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss. It is based on the 1980 comedy film 9 to 5, which stars Parton along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. Parton’s musical version opened at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway on April 7, 2009. It was not a success and closed in September of the same year after only 148 regular performances. But now, in an era where everyone up to and including the President of the United States is finally being held responsible for their deplorable “boys’ club” behavior, we may be due for a revival.

There is only one cast album available for 9 to 5: The Musical. It opens with the sound of alarm clocks, which is surprisingly unsettling to this nine to fiver, even at 2 pm on a Saturday. Parton has written new lyrics to her classic hit “9 to 5,” leftover from the movie and used as the first song in the musical. It is a pretty good opening number and sets the scene for a workplace filled with typical anxieties.

And that’s it. That’s the only song I knew when I chose this musical. Actually, “9 to 5” and “Jolene” comprise my entire familiarity with Parton’s catalog (not counting a certain Whitney Houston cover). So this is exciting!

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The original Broadway cast of 9 to 5 was composed of some surprisingly big names. Arguably the biggest of these is Allison Janney in the role of Violet. She is joined by Stephanie J. Block as Judy, Megan Hilty as Doralee, and Marc Kudisch as their boss, Mr. Hart. Just like the original movie, the stage musical focuses on Violet, Judy, and Doralee’s fantasy plots for revenge on Mr. Hart for his chronic sexist behavior. Each fantasy is, of course, given its own musical number. “The Dance of Death,” “Cowgirl’s Revenge,” and “Potion Notion” are all fun songs about murder, a startlingly common theme for show tunes. But even with these numbers, the music overall is safe and forgettable. There are no earworms in the score and certainly nothing screaming to be a modern pop hit.

That’s not to say the musical doesn’t have its better moments. Kudisch is downright creepy in his stellar portrayal of Mr. Hart which made me cringe (I mean “cringe” as a compliment to Kudisch). Hilty has her first solo number on “Backwoods Barbie,” which Parton herself also recorded for her album of the same name. Is Hilty doing a Dolly Parton impression throughout the show? Yes. Is it convincing? Yes. Do I love it despite wanting something fresh? Yes, absolutely. Another highlight is Janney’s performance of “One of the Boys,” in which she fantasizes about being a celebrated CEO. I also enjoyed the finale, which is gospel-tinged version of “9 to 5.”

Not inspiring me to dance and sing along is not the worst thing that could have happened to this musical. Thankfully, the story’s most sensitive subject matter is directly addressed on a few numbers. The best of these is “Shine Like the Sun.” Oh, sure, it sounds like the kind of song that middle school girls perform at talent shows, and it is! Because it has a lot more heart than the rest of Parton’s compositions. Had 9 to 5: The Musical premiered in the past year, “Shine Like the Sun” would be performed at the Tony Awards with a chorus of sexual assault survivors. As it is, the conversation had not yet happened and the 9 to 5 Tony performance was restricted to the already famous opening number. Another missed opportunity for the short-lived Broadway show.

9 to 5: The Musical‘s cast album was largely a disappointment. The songs are too safe and the vocal performances only adequate. Still, I think that a revival could do well with a few tweaks. I’m all for second chances and Parton deserves one here. The time has never been more right to try 9 to 5 again.

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Musical: 9 to 5: The Musical

Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton

Opening Performance: April 30, 2009, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 2009 Original Broadway Cast

Songs You Might Know: “9 to 5,” “Backwoods Barbie”

Highlights: “Backwoods Barbie,” “Shine Like the Sun,” “One of the Boys”

Overall Impression: The music is sometimes fun but always safe. If the show were to run today, I think it would be a much bigger hit.

She’s Still Got Elegance!

The 1960s were an interesting time for show tunes. They were sounding less and less like contemporary pop music and yet some of the most beloved musicals ever written made their debuts in the sixties. I’m not going to attempt a definitive ranking, but if I did, Jerry Herman’s masterpiece Hello, Dolly! would certainly make the list.

Hello, Dolly! was the very first musical I ever saw live on stage. Although it was a high school production, I was awestruck by the choreography, massive sets, and that iconic feathered headdress. It holds a special place in my heart but I have never listened to some of the Dolly cast albums. What better chance to rectify that?

The title song was already a smash hit for Louis Armstrong when Hello, Dolly! opened at Broadway’s St. James Theatre on January 16, 1964. It starred Carol Channing in her signature role as Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker who believes the perfect match for the wealthy Horace Vandergelder is herself. The original Broadway production swept the Tony Awards and ran for a record-breaking 2,844 performances, taking it all the way to the end of 1970. For a little under two months of its original run, Hello, Dolly! was staged with an all-black cast featuring Pearl Bailey in the lead role. A film version starring Barbra Streisand was released in 1969. The musical has dominated recent theater news thanks to a popular 2017 revival which first starred Bette Midler, who has since been replaced by Bernadette Peters. All in all, six English language cast albums have been released.

I am willing to bet that a survey asking those familiar with Dolly to name the musical’s definitive cast album would yield a nearly even split between the original 1964 Broadway cast recording and the 1969 film soundtrack. With that in mind, let’s go back to 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson is president, Bewitched is TV’s hottest new show, the surgeon general has just announced that smoking might actually be bad for you, and Carol Channing has brought Dolly Gallagher Levi “back where she belongs” for the very first time!

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The first thing I noticed about the 1964 original Broadway cast recording was the lounge feel of the overture. I must never have listened to it before and was surprised by my impression because the thought of Hello, Dolly! does not exactly evoke the feeling of a lounge atmosphere. Soon, Channing is with us and what a presence she is! She charmingly warbles her way through her numbers and I can’t help but smile when she sings her playful interpretation of Dolly. If this cast has a second standout performance it would have to be Charles Nelson Riley’s Cornelius. He plays the part with an admirable amount of boyish innocence that must have been a joy to see on stage.

Now, I have to say that there is a song in Hello, Dolly! that always makes me wince. “It Takes a Woman” is kind of gross to my 21st century ears. With lyrics like “she’ll work until infinity/three cheers for femininity,” I don’t see how it wasn’t cut from the current production.  Perhaps my perception will shift by end of my Dolly tour, but for now I am forcing myself to muddle through it. I am rewarded with some other very good music, including the always fun “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and the act one finale “Before the Parade Passes By.” Then we come to the famous title number. It may be a good thing that Armstrong had already made this song a hit because I don’t think Channing could have done it by herself. She is a bit out of her league here and even sounds tired and out of place for most of what is supposed to be her showstopper. Still, she knows what she’s doing for most of the album, especially when it comes to the comedic bits that she expertly delivers throughout.

The 1965 London cast recording has Mary Martin in the role of Dolly. Martin brings a new maternal warmth to the character while keeping her funny and charming. She is a  stronger singer than Channing and she lets you know it with an almost perfect technical performance. Throughout the album, the music is faster and more to the point. “It Only Takes a Moment,” for example, is shorter and does not feature as much of the supporting chorus that it does in the 1964 Broadway cast recording. There are two notable improvements here: one is Loring Smith in the role of Vandergelder and the other is the title song. This “Hello, Dolly!” number features a confident, capable Martin who sounds like she is actually having a good time along with her chorus. She even yodels a bit! And the pleasure of hearing a chorus sing “you’re still crowin'” to an actress who is arguably most famous for playing Peter Pan is the kind of happy thing that I think I will especially like about this experiment.

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It is extremely rare for a Broadway production to issue multiple cast albums during a single run, but in 1967 Hello, Dolly! did just that to commemorate an all-black cast led by Pearl Bailey.  Here, Bailey does not embody Dolly; it’s the other way around! She puts a lot of herself into the role and that turns out to be a good thing, resulting in track after track of the most natural Dolly performance yet. At the beginning of listening, I was unsure how I felt about Jack Crowder in the role of Cornelius. He has a gorgeous baritone but it seemed misplaced in the larynx of someone who is supposed to be a young shop clerk. My opinion changed when I heard his version of “Elegance” (one of my favorite Dolly numbers) and it was favorably cemented by his sensational performance on “It Only Takes a Moment.” I also have to say that this cast performed two miracles: 1) They recorded a version of “It Takes a Woman” that I did not hate thanks to the impression that Vandergelder is a dolt. And 2) The so far impossibly sappy “Ribbons Down My Back” is made thoroughly enjoyable for the first time by Emily Lancy. By the end of the album, this is my favorite Hello, Dolly! I’ve listened to yet.

I would like to address something before I begin the second half of my Dolly marathon. While most of the music is wonderful and the cast is consistently delightful, I have to ask, is Hello, Dolly! the best musical with a bad finale? The finale consists of what is essentially a retrospective of songs that we’ve just heard. It comes off as clunky and unnecessary, especially after the great songs that come before it. Answering this is my new, unexpected quest as I fire up the next three cast albums.

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Significant changes are common for movie adaptations of stage musicals and Gene Kelly’s 1969 Hello, Dolly! film is no exception. It stars Barbra Streisand as Dolly, Walter Matthau as Vandergelder, and Michael Crawford (who would later play the original Phantom) as Cornelius. The movie opens with a brand new song composed specially by Herman to show off Streisand’s remarkable talent for singing. I actually think the new “Just Leave Everything to Me” is a better Dolly opener than the stage’s “I Put My Hand In.” It shows off more of Dolly’s character and her ambition in life, which is to help anyone in anyway that she can. She still sings about her penchant for arranging things, but here it sounds more urgent. “You need my help, you just don’t know it,” is the message, where on stage it’s a more straightforward “I am able to help you.”

Some of my excitement about a new Dolly song to sing along with is melted away by Matthau’s questionable performance. Even having seen the film multiple times, I can’t understand why is he was cast. His first song is the ever dreadful “It Takes a Woman”, which is subsidized by a reprise sung by Streisand that doesn’t really add anything new to the song or the album as a whole. However, Streisand’s acrobatic vocals do add much to the rest of the soundtrack’s songs, especially “Before the Parade Passes By” and her incredible performance of “So Long Dearie” which she brings to life more than any of her predecessors. She has a second new song, “Love is Only Love,” which is pretty enough but wouldn’t be missed. A highlight for some fans might be the duet with Armstrong on the title song, which, of course, he made famous.

I have finally left the sixties! Because no Hello, Dolly! cast albums were released in seventies and eighties, the next stop I am making is the 1995 Broadway cast album (often labeled as 1994, though the production began in October of ’95. Why is a mystery to me). This was the thirty-first anniversary of Dolly on Broadway and we find Carol Channing back in the role that she created.

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Now, it is important to understand that this is not the first time Channing has reprised her role. In fact, she played Dolly in more than 4,000 performances throughout her career. For reference, that’s almost 11 years worth of nightly shows! So by this time she is seasoned. And boy, does it show. Where I found her lackluster on the original cast album, here she is exquisite. She sounds noticeably older but, more importantly, she sounds confident and fun. I can practically hear her smiling through the speakers! Both the cast and orchestrations are stunning on this recording and it features the famous “Waiters’ Gallop” for the first time. My only small reservation is that Michael DeVries’ Cornelius had me longing for Riley’s youthful charm but hey, every masterpiece has to have a smudge, right? And besides, he has a beautiful voice. This is my new favorite Dolly album.

Which brings me to the current Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! Well, the original Bette Midler led cast of that revival anyway. The Divine Miss M is… well, divine! Her unique sense of humor is where she shines strongest and her gifted voice is the icing on top of that. However, the best thing about the this album for my money is Gavin Creel as Cornelius. He is perfect! His combination of youth and vocal expertise is the best balance I could have asked for. I am not enthused by the addition of the originally cut “Penny in My Pocket,” sung here at the beginning of the second act by Vandergelder, played by the exceptionally talented David Hyde Pierce. I understand that they needed to give Pierce something cute to do, but this did not need to be that thing. Still, the fact that they mercifully cut the finale short is enough to redeem the recording’s few shortcomings. This is a solid cast album!

As much as I enjoyed the 2017 version, I do wish that Bernadette Peters and the current company were given the chance to record their own cast album. As it is, I can only imagine how much Peters gives to this legendary role.

About that finale: I still don’t enjoy it. I have no choice but to verify that this is, in fact, the best musical with a bad finale. It’s a shame because Hello, Dolly! has some of the best and most endearing songs that Broadway has ever heard.

Hello, Dolly! is one of those musicals that has always stayed with me. Over the past few days I have been caught singing “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Hello, Dolly!” more times than I can count. The fact that songs written more than fifty years are so catchy to my millennial ears may actually prove the prophesy that serves as the last line of the show: “Dolly, you’ll never go away again!”

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Musical: Hello, Dolly!

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman

Opening Performance: January 16, 1964, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1964 Original Broadway Cast, 1965 Original London Cast, 1967 Broadway Cast, 1969 Film Soundtrack, 1995 Broadway Revival Cast, and 2017 Broadway Revival Cast

Song You Might Know: “Hello, Dolly!”

Highlights: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Elegance,” “It Only Takes a Moment”

Honorable Mention: Streisand’s “So Long Dearie”

Favorite Cast Album: 1995 Broadway Revival Cast

Overall Impression: Forever a favorite. The music holds up and the comedic moments are still fun. It is especially interesting to hear such a range of performances by the talented women tasked with singing the part of Dolly.

An Apology and an Amendment

I know, I know. I’ve been missing for far too long. To tell the truth, no one should be surprised that it has been nearly 11 months since my last post. I had begun to explore a new show and after being confronted with the staggering number of cast albums available for that particular show (which has been temporarily shelved for future examination by this blog) I did what I often do and walked away. It was the wrong response and I am sorry for it now. Let this post serve as my re-commitment to this endeavor.

A part of my journey has become discovering and accepting my own limitations. Among those most difficult to accept has been the ever popular limitation of time. As a result, I have had to amend my rules: I will be only listening to cast albums recorded in English unless the show in question either had its first run in another language or was recorded in the language of the place or culture in which it is set. I hope this makes things easier for me, though I am sad that it means I can’t possibly listen to every cast album ever. But oh well. I deserve to give myself a break.

I will (finally) be reviewing my second show this week. I chose a popular one that is a personal favorite of mine as a sort of treat. I can’t wait to give it a proper tribute!