“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!

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!