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 It is also outdated and misguided at best, and outright racist at worst.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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…

The honor of releasing the first complete cast album belongs to the 1928 London cast of Show Boat, an American musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II (yes, that Hammerstein).

When I first chose to listen to its recordings, my knowledge of Show Boat was limited to two things: 1) it contained “Ol’ Man River” and 2) it took place on a boat. I always dismissed “Ol’ Man River” as archaic and I don’t like water, so the show has never appealed to me before now. It turns out that Show Boat is a surprisingly progressive musical for the 1920s; racism is a central theme and it was the first musical production in which black and white performers appeared onstage together. So, judging it solely on my assumptions was stupid.

I should say now that at first I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Show Boat cast albums in existence. I know this is only the first musical on my mission, but I am already adding a rule: I may ignore recordings made by studio casts. This brought the number of albums down to a manageable six: four albums by stage casts and two film soundtracks. With my goal in sight, I set off to listen to the cast album that started it all…

Show Boat premiered on Broadway on December 27, 1927, to rave reviews. Unfortunately, American musicals did not record cast albums at the time so there is no complete recording by the original Broadway cast. Lucky for us, the original London cast did record an album way back in 1928. That album is warbly and operatic at times and it is often hard to hear the lyrics, but it serves as a reminder of how far both musical theater and recording technology have come in 90 years. Still, Paul Robeson’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” is sensational even after all this time. (Note: Robeson’s contract did not allow him to appear on the original 1928 album, but his recording of “Ol’ Man River” was included on the version that I listened to.) I realized with this album that I actually knew a second song from Show Boat: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” It was my first aha moment of this experience.

The first film soundtrack to feature the music of Show Boat is from the 1936 Universal film. The cast featured many veterans of the stage production, including Robeson, Helen Morgan, Hattie McDaniel, and Irene Dunne. Dunne has a beautiful voice and Robeson once again delivers a perfect performance of his signature song. Aside from that and decipherable lyrics, this recording did not add much to my impression of Show Boat.

Then came the 1946 Broadway revival cast recording. The first thing that caught my ear was its version of “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” performed by Collette Lyons. It was the most modern interpretation of a song from Show Boat that I had yet heard. Following Lyons’ recording, the album continued to hold a different energy than its predecessors. It was danceable, fun, and lighthearted. This new expectation made my listen of the 1951 MGM film soundtrack boring by comparison. It’s not that that soundtrack is a bad recording; in fact, it has many decent performances. But even the voice of the legendary Ava Gardner couldn’t excite me enough to get on board (pun may or may not be intended) and I wanted to give the 1946 album another spin.

I did not return permanently to 1946, and thank God because the 1966 Lincoln Center cast recording was next and it is fantastic!  It’s not a complete recording of the Show Boat score, but it has all the highlights. By this point, I knew the songs well enough to sing along at parts, which is an important part of liking a show. Yes, I was now all about Show Boat and it was the 1966 recording that pushed me overboard, so to speak.

But of course, I had not learned my lesson from the 1946/51 incident. I fired up the 1993 Toronto cast recording and excitedly waited for the overture to finish so I could listen to the most modern Show Boat cast album available.

I was disappointed.

As with many revival recordings of classic musicals, this production could not outshine its predecessors; namely, the 1966 Lincoln Center cast album. I will say that Lonette McKee delivers an incredible performance of “Bill”, singlehandedly bringing that song onto my list of Show Boat favorites. That is the greatest contribution that the Toronto cast brings to the Show Boat legacy, though I was glad to learn that most of that cast later transferred to Broadway.

Show Boat is an old show; some would say it is the oldest modern musical. But it has a lot more substance than we 21st century musical fans give it credit for. Not only does it have a social justice atmosphere, but the fact that it is a period piece with many a sing-a-long opportunity should be attractive to any showtune junkie. At its heart, Show Boat is everything a Broadway musical should be: a simple story with something to say and a catchy way of saying it. “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” are classics for good reason and even now I am humming along to “Why Do I Love You?”. Yes, I will definitely be playing the 1946 and 1966 cast albums again. And I can’t wait to watch the movies!

Musical: Show Boat

Music by Jerome Kern

Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

First Production: December 27, 1927, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To:

1928 Original London Cast

1936 Film Soundtrack

1946 Broadway Revival Cast

1951 Film Soundtrack

1966 Lincoln Center Cast

1993 Toronto Cast

Songs You Might Know: “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”

Highlights: “Make Believe,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill,” “Why Do I Love You?”

Favorite Recording: 1966 Lincoln Center Production

Overall Impression: Surprisingly good and fairly relevant.