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.

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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.

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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.

Introducing Barbra Streisand…

There is an endless list of entertainers that it’s difficult to imagine the world without: Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jackson, Audrey Hepburn, Tom Hanks, to name just a few. Heck, I even have a hard time remembering life before Lady Gaga. One of the shiniest names on that list has to be Barbra Streisand. The multi-talented, EGOT-holding force of nature is one of the best-selling female artists of all time and the only artist to have achieved a number-one-selling album in each of the last six decades. In short, she’s the very definition of a legend. But even legends have to start somewhere.

Streisand got her start on Broadway as a teenager in a supporting role in the little known musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale, a comedy about the rise and fall of a  ruthless young businessman in the New York City garment industry during the Great Depression. The musical opened on March 22, 1962 at the Schubert Theatre. It later transferred to the Broadway Theatre where it closed after 300 performances. The music and lyrics were both by Harold Rome and in addition to young Streisand, the original cast included Elliott Gould, Lillian Roth, and Marilyn Cooper. There has yet to be a revival or a production in the West End, making the 1962 cast recording the only cast album for this show.

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Streisand’s is the first voice we hear on the album. Keeping in mind her age (she was 19 when the show opened) and the fact that this is her professional recording debut, it is a remarkable first impression. Her voice sounds well beyond its years and her natural comedic timing is just as perfect as ever. It’s difficult to ignore the lack of her signature belting and the limited range the music allows to show off her vocals. But this album isn’t about her, despite the star power she has today.

The music for I Can Get It for You Wholesale uses traditional Jewish melodies to enjoyable effect. “Momma, Momma, Momma” and “The Family Way” particularly evoke folk song sentiments, while “A Gift Today” has the somber melody of an ancient hymn. Rome’s songs can be gorgeous and his lyrics poignant, but the two do not always mix in a way that is memorable. A notable exception is “Miss Marmelstein,” performed by Streisand, which has been stuck in my head since I first heard it. It is no coincidence that it is the best known song from the musical. I also found “What’s in It for Me?” to be a fun show tune discovery and “Have I Told You Lately?” as sweet as any Broadway love song from the era.

Unfortunately, the rest of the songs are largely forgettable. As much as I liked the melodies, they just don’t work as the kind of show tunes you’ll want to sing in the shower, which is what they are trying to be. Still, the album’s significance to entertainment history is enough for me to recommend it.

For all the cast album’s shortcomings, I Can Get It for You Wholesale sure worked out for Streisand. She married its leading man Elliott Gould in 1963 and released her debut album the same year, launching a career that has been one of the most successful and lauded in history. Indeed, this small musical has made a massive impact on American entertainment, you just wouldn’t notice.

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Musical: I Can Get It for You Wholesale

Cast Album I Listened To: 1962 Original Broadway Cast

Music and Lyrics: Harold Rome

Opening Performance: March 22, 1962, Shubert Theatre, New York City

Song You Might Know: “Miss Marmelstein”

Highlights: “Have I Told You Lately?,” “Miss Marmelstein,” “What’s in It for Me?”

Overall Impression: This one is really all about two things: the music’s Jewish influence and Barbra Streisand. It’s a decent album, but I’m not sure I’d need a copy in my collection if not for it being Streisand’s debut.

“Shakespeare’s Forgotten Rock and Roll Masterpiece”

Musical theatre, like any art form, can be very weird. Oftentimes the line between weird and genius is so blurry that is almost almost invisible. Such is the case with Return to the Forbidden Planet, billed as “Shakespeare’s forgotten rock and roll masterpiece.”

Return to the Forbidden Planet is a jukebox musical featuring rock and roll songs from the 1950s and 60s. It is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the film Forbidden Planet. The musical takes place on the planet D’Illyria, home of the mad scientist Dr. Prospero and his daughter who were marooned there by Dr. Prospero’s wife, Gloria. It began as an open-air performance and had its official West End premiere at London’s Cambridge Theatre in September of 1989. It won that year’s Olivier Award for Best New Musical. An Australian tour followed in 1991, as did an off-Broadway production the same year. The show has been revived for tours and regional productions numerous times thanks in large part to its use of camp and popular songs. Live recordings of both the original London and Australian casts serve as the musical’s cast albums.

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Tracking down these albums wasn’t exactly easy; they are not available for streaming in the U.S. so I ending up having to order them both on CD. This presented a problem when I realized that the only CD player I have is in my car. I found myself making excuses to drive in order to finish both of the recordings and in the end it still took me several days. My short commute to work is both a blessing and a curse sometimes…

I have to say that even though I am not a fan of rock and roll, I really enjoyed these albums! The London recording is particularly fun, though it features less story and jokes than the Australian cast. Both of the cast albums were recorded during live performances, a first for this blog, so the stellar vocal performances are especially impressive. The sound quality is so good on both that I didn’t even realize they were live until the first round of applause form the audience. Indeed, either of these albums would be a fine addition to any collection.

The songs themselves are a carousel of familiar rock and roll tunes. Everything from “Great Balls of Fire” to “Monster Mash” are featured. Other songs include a poignant duet of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” as well as “She’s Not There,” “Wipe Out,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “A Teenager in Love,” and many more. Listening is a fun time and the positive energy in both audiences is palpable.

Prepare yourself though: Return to the Forbidden Planet is dripping with camp. That is, the jokes are hilariously horrible. “Two beeps or not two beeps?” is just one in a slew of Shakespeare puns that have been tailored to work in outer space. As a fan of bad humor, I found this delightful.

Even having never seen it, I can tell you that this is one weird, wacky show. I am still not a fan of either rock and roll or jukebox musicals, but I think I could be a fan of Return to the Forbidden Planet. Here’s hoping I can catch a production sometime soon.

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Musical: Return to the Forbidden Planet

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1989 Original London Cast, 1991 Australian Cast

Music and Lyrics: Various

Opening Performance: September, 1989, Cambridge Theatre, London

Highlights: “Great Balls of Fire,” “A Teenager in Love,” “She’s Not There”

Favorite Cast Album: 1989 Original London Cast

Overall Impression: It seems like a fun musical that is as familiar as it is foreign. Definitely my most unique experience so far.

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.