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.