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.

Two Nuns Walk Into a Cell…

The subtitle of this blog is “A Sprint Down Broadway,” but that’s really not accurate considering this is really a blog about cast albums, not Broadway musicals themselves. There are many cast albums from shows that haven’t run on Broadway and if I want to hear every cast album available, I can’t just stick to Broadway shows. So today I am writing about the cast album of In the Green. It’s a fairly new Off-Broadway musical, having run from June to August of 2019. The cast album was only released a few months ago and I decided to give it a listen.

Oh boy, is it a doozey.

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In the Green tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth century mystic and polymath who, quite honestly, is a fascinating person (I’d never heard of her before) and deserves to have her story told way more often. So, for that reason alone we owe a debt to composer, lyricist, and librettist Grace McLean. She chose a great subject and sent me down quite the Wikipedia rabbit hole.

The musical’s plot is concerned with the 30 years that Hildegard spent voluntarily locked in a monastery cell with her mentor Jutta von Sponheim. Well, it was voluntary on Jutta’s part; Hildegard was confined as a child at the behest of her family. But she stuck it out and now she’s recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, so maybe it worked out for her after all. Anyway, Jutta (pronounced Yuh-tuh) is played by McLean herself while Hildegard is played by three different actresses, each representing either her hands, her eyes, or her mouth. There is also a fifth actress on hand to play Shadow, the personification of Jutta’s darkest secrets. And that’s it. Refreshingly, this is a small cast of all women.

The music is definitely a departure from anything I’ve heard on this journey so far. The album opens with “O Virga ac Diadema,” which sound like an ancient hymn because, well, that’s exactly what it is. In fact, “O Virga ac Diadema” is one of two songs in the show whose lyrics were written by the real life Hildegard some 900 years ago. I think that’s pretty cool! I mean, hey, you’re not going to get that from Hamilton. Actually, for how modern the music is throughout the show, McLean does a pretty good job of giving it a medieval church music feel. She’s created a pop show but included plenty of chant motifs at the same time. The effect is somewhere between an ancient Mass and Hadestown, but still closer to the latter.

Especially chanty are the actresses playing Hildegard’s hands, eyes, and mouth: Rachael Duddy, Hannah Whitney, and Ashley Pérez Flanagan. These three mostly speak in unison as they are different parts of the same “broken” entity. We’re lucky for that because the actresses’ voices harmonize beautifully together. Actually, all five actresses give gorgeous vocal performances all through the cast album. The music itself is definitely unique, with the closest to a traditional show tune probably being the beautiful “Sun Song.” McLean’s score screams “THIS IS EXPERIMENTAL,” but mostly in a good way. This is not the kind of show you’ll want to listen to for fun, but it does have a lot to say about wanting to be the best version of yourself and that’s nothing to sneer at.

I do want to say that you shouldn’t let religion scare you away from this album; the Almighty is barely mentioned. While In the Green is a musical about nuns (and one of them a saint at that!) the theme has much more to do with the earthly experience of trauma than church. Think of it as being about a kind of medieval therapy. I found it surprisingly enjoyable, especially the songs “Ritual,” “Light Undercover,” and “The Ripening.”

In the Green is exactly the kind of musical I hoped to discover when I started this blog. It’s quirky with something to say to which we can all relate. I hope we hear more from Grace McLean as a composer in the future. She’s really got what it takes.

Musical: In the Green

Cast Album I Listened To: 2019 Original Off-Broadway Cast

Music and Lyrics: Grace McLean

Opening Performance: June 27, 2019, Claire Tow Theater, New York City

Highlights: “Ritual,” “Sun Song,” “Light Undercover,” and “The Ripening.”

Overall Impression: This is a gorgeous effort to bring attention to a woman who’s been unfairly ignored for nearly a millennium. While the album isn’t perfect, it does its best to showcase the tremendous talent of its cast and composer.

Showgirl Reunion From Hell

Now that we are nearly one year into the pandemic, I thought it was time to pick up this old project. And since I am reuniting with an old hobby in a way, it is only appropriate that I select a musical with a reunion theme. The first that came to mind was Follies. So, without further ado, I will resume my sprint down Broadway once again.

Follies first opened on Broadway on April 4, 1971. It was the second collaboration for composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Hal Prince, following Company. The show’s first run was a financial failure, a fact that makes its numerous revivals seem all the more miraculous. I’ll admit, I have never given Follies a fair chance. I always thought it was weird (which it is) and found the combination of faux vintage numbers with contemporary 70s style show tunes off-putting. So when I saw that there were six Follies cast albums available I second guessed my recommitment to this blog. Six is a lot! But I stuck with it and I’m thankful that I did because there are some real gems here. Let’s start in 1971.

The original Broadway cast recording of Follies was somewhat ill-fated from the moment Capitol Records determined that Sondheim’s score should be condensed to fit one LP record. The result is a bit of a hack job. But it serves its purpose of introducing us to Sondheim’s wonderful show about a reunion of the fictional Weismann’s Follies. My first impression was that Michael Bartlett’s Roscoe sounds right out of 1920s vaudeville, which is to say he’s perfect. In fact, most performances on the OBCR are perfect, notably Dorothy Collins as Sally, John McMartin as Ben, and Yvonne de Carlo as Carlotta, whose “I’m Still Here” is the indisputable showstopper among such great songs as “Who’s That Woman?,” “Too Many Mornings,” and “Could I Leave You?” That said, there isn’t a whole lot of story after the prologue, and for a show like this that does make for a somewhat disjointed album. Still, the score is stunning and that combined with the stellar performances makes it an enjoyable listen anyway.

If the OBCR is enjoyable, the 1985 concert cast recording is a real treat! First of all, it features some real icons like Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch, and Carol Burnett as Carlotta. Second, it’s recorded live so you get a sense of how the audience is responding to these no doubt brilliant performances. Elaine Stritch in particular gets a laugh every time she opens her mouth, and that alone had me wanting nothing more than to teleport myself to that night at Lincoln Center so I could watch her for myself. But even just with the audio, it’s easy to see why she was so great. Stritch plays old, tired, and fabulous in a way that more than works: it makes magic. And although I would choose Stritch as the standout performance from this cast, I need to mention that Carol Burnett also blew me away with her performance of “I’m Still Here.” It’s safe to say that after this album, the bar has been set. And it’s been set high.

It’s important to note that the second half of the concert cast album is not Follies. Well, not exactly. It is a New York Philharmonic recording of the film soundtrack to Stravinsky, which was also composed by Sondheim. At first glance, I thought it was an odd choice to pair the two together on the same release (and I’m still not sure why they made that choice), but there are two tracks from Stravinsky that were first cut from Follies. These are “Old House,” performed in the original London production of Follies as “Country House,” and “Auto Show,” which appears as the bonus track “Bring On the Girls” on the 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse Follies cast album. I didn’t enjoy the Stravinsky half of the album nearly as much as the first half, but I appreciate these two songs being included given that context. It’s also around this point that I learned that this show was originally produced in one act. The very idea exhausts me. This is a very long score with a complicated plot. Not giving the audience an intermission is a huge gamble and I think we can at least partially blame the original Broadway production’s disappointing box office on that decision.

Anyway, moving on.

The third Follies cast album takes us across the pond. The original London production opened in 1987 and the cast album bills itself as the first complete recording of the score. Whether that’s accurate is debatable, as some of the songs from the original Broadway production have been replaced with new tunes. But what the London cast album does with its “complete score” works really well! This is another fantastic album with an out-of-this-world cast. It stars Julia McKenzie, Daniel Massey, David Healy, and the recently departed Diana Rigg. McKenzie in particular gives a dazzling performance of “Losing My Mind.” In addition to the new “Country House,” which by the way is a cute argument done in song, we have an updated version of “Loveland” that’s superior to the original. And “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” has been replaced with “Ah, But Underneath,” which I also like better. However, “Make the Most of Your Music” takes the place of “Live, Laugh, Love” here and I would have to question whoever made that decision. Regardless, this cast album is at least as good as its predecessor, if not even better. And the best part? No Stravinsky.

Back to the states we go, but not to New York. Instead, we’re headed to New Jersey! The Paper Mill Playhouse released a cast album for its 1998 production of Follies and it’s easy to see why. With legends like Ann Miller and Kaye Ballard in the cast, it would have been a crime not to record it. It’s becoming clear that choosing a favorite cast album is going to be difficult this time around. Heck, even choosing which songs to highlight as favorites would be difficult as each album offers new standout performances. This time, Laurence Guittard catches my attention first with his rendition of “The Road You Didn’t Take.” Like the original London cast album, this version also features “Ah, But Underneath,” performed by Dee Hoty. And this cast album may actually have a better claim to the “first complete recording” title than the London cast; it features eight bonus tracks of cut songs, including “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” Each of these bonus tracks is a delight and their inclusion here helps give a sense of Sondheim’s creative process.

Next up, we’re back on Broadway for the 2011 revival cast album. I have to say, this one was not my favorite. That’s a shame, because it stars Bernadette Peters who happens to be one of my favorite living Broadway legends. My biggest gripe is with the amount of dialogue included on the album. I know I complained somewhat about the lack of coherent story in the original Broadway cast recording, but there is entirely too much story here for my taste. That said, the musical performances are incredible and it is interesting to hear how the background music was used to underscore the dialogue. Plus, Carlotta is sung by Elaine Paige. Elaine Paige! I don’t need to tell you that her performance of “I’m Still Here” is spectacular. Throw in Jan Maxwell as Phyllis and its clear that this production is all about legendary divas. If this were the only Follies cast album available, it would be remarkable. As it stands, it’s just alright.

Image result for sondheim follies staunton

We’ve finally arrived at album number six: the 2018 London revival cast album. This production stars Imelda Staunton as Sally, and what a Sally she is! Actually, this whole cast is once again amazing. Philip Quast’s performance of “Live, Laugh. Love” was the first version of this song to break my heart (in a good way). Janie Dee, Peter Forbes, Tracie Bennett… they’re all here and they’re all great. I also quite enjoyed the overture on this album. The score here is much closer to the original Broadway production than the original London. But overall, it was the most satisfyingly coherent. In fact, it rivals the original London and Paper Mill Playhouse cast albums for my favorite of the six.

Of my three finalists, I have to give it to the 2018 London cast album. First, it’s the shortest of the three. And second, Staunton’s Sally is truly breathtaking. This was a close one. It’s easy to see why this is arguably Sondheim’s best work. Each production was cast perfectly and that’s reflected in each album. Overall, I say Follies has more than earned its reputation as an iconic piece of musical theater.

olivier awards squad goals GIF by Official London Theatre

Musical: Follies

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Opening Performance: April 4, 1971, Winter Garden Theatre, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1971 Original Broadway Cast, 1985 Lincoln Center concert cast, 1987 original London cast, 1998 Paper Mill Playhouse cast, 2011 Broadway cast, and 2018 London cast.

Highlights: “The Road You Didn’t Take,” “Who’s That Woman?,” “I’m Still Here,” “Could I Leave You?,” and “Losing My Mind.”

Favorite Cast Album: 2018 London Cast Album

Overall Impression: Follies is still a weird show, but it’s a weird show with a gorgeous score and a knack for great casting. Those last two points make the perfect recipe for excellent cast albums, of which Follies is blessed with six.