Lady Di Didn’t Deserve This

With all the talk going on about the new Broadway musical Diana, especially since its unconventional Netflix premiere earlier this month, I thought now was as good a time as any to get back to my blog. The internet has not been kind to this show. In fact, it has been met with nearly universal vitriol. So much so that I had already drawn two conclusions before I began to examine it for this post: first, that I wouldn’t have anything to add to the larger conversation, and second, that I had read so much bad press on the work that I was fully prepared to listen to the cast album with low expectations.

If my life had an audible narrator, this is the part where they would say “he was not prepared.”

Diana is a new musical with music and lyrics by the team who gave us Memphis, David Bryan and Joe DiPietro. Joe DiPietro also wrote the book. If the name David Bryan rings any bells you may recognize him as the keyboardist from Bon Jovi. The show was set to open in March of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed it. However, it was professionally filmed at the Longacre Theatre last year and can now be streamed on Netflix. As of today, Diana has yet to officially open on Broadway.

Now, I have not seen the Netflix pro-shoot of Diana because I really try and focus only on cast albums here. And judging solely by the cast album, I can say with certainty that this show deserves every ounce of criticism that it gets. The music is ridiculous, the lyrics unbearable, and the performances seem ripped from a sketch comedy show. What’s left? The orchestrations? Ha! Don’t get me started. The whole thing had me scratching my head as I tried to make out whether Diana was intended as a work of satire. It’s a wonder it made it out of workshops, let alone to Broadway!

Here the British royal family belts out songs that would be at home on a Kidz Bop Goes Rock Opera album while the People’s Princess navigates her life around villains Charles (whom she calls “a third rate Henry VIII”) and Camilla (“Godzilla”). The only song with any real charm is Diana’s ballad “I Will.” Aside from that, this album is saturated with the worst tunes and lyrics you’ve ever heard. Yes, even worse than that. And it’s an hour and nineteen minutes long! What gives it the right? Indeed, any one of the Rusical episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race would have put out a better cast album than this.

Diana still awaits an opening night (November 2, in case you’re a masochist). I think I’ll skip the pro-shoot after all. Heck, I may even move to London where I’ll be safe from this monstrosity. Heaven knows it will never play the West End.

Musical: Diana

Music and Lyrics: David Bryan and Joe DiPietro

Cast Album I Listened To: 2021 Original Broadway Cast

Highlight: “I Will”

Overall Impression: The real Diana was too good a person to be memorialized with this mess.

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.

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!

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.