Love and War and Racial Tension

Few collaborators have made such an impact on musical theatre as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers and Hammerstein are responsible for a plethora of Golden Age hits including Oklahoma!, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Their musicals were groundbreaking for the time, centering on complex themes such as racism and domestic violence rather than being the star vehicles or glorified revues that had populated Broadway in the past. Say what you will about the Golden Age of Broadway (and even I’ve said plenty), but without Rodgers and Hammerstein pushing the envelope, we wouldn’t have Stephen Sondheim or Lin-Manuel Miranda to push it even further. In their impressive catalogue there is one show that I hold in higher regard than all their others, for it has what I consider a perfect score. That show is South Pacific.

South Pacific is based on a collection of short stories by James A. Michener. Its plot juxtaposes two stories: one about a white American nurse who loves a French expatriate but struggles to accept his mixed-race children, and one about a white American Marine who wrestles with society’s racist expectations and his love for a Tonkinese woman. The musical first opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949, and starred Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, William Tabbert, and Juanita Hall. The show was considered revolutionary for its depiction of racism and launched a souvenir craze unlike any Broadway had ever seen. Its original cast album spent a spectacular 400 weeks on the Billboard pop charts, 69 of which were at number one. That cast album is where I begin my South Pacific journey now.

The original Broadway poster.

With a cast as strong South Pacific‘s original cast, it should come as no surprise that the original Broadway cast album is jam-packed with terrific moments. Mary Martin is absolute perfection in the role of Nellie and she lets you know it from the very first note of “Cockeyed Optimist.” Both her and Ezio Pinza as Emile are going to be hard to beat, especially with his rich bass voice. His voice is best displayed on “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song that could be the gold standard for Broadway ballads. Juanita Hall shines as Bloody Mary as well. My one wish for this album is that recording technology was better able to capture the richness of the chorus numbers. Both “Bloody Mary” and “There is Nothing Like a Dame” suffer here for it. That and the slower-than-I-would-like tempo of “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” are the only things that I would change about the original LP. The version I listened to also included bonus tracks that are mostly forgettable, except for Pinza’s incredible version of “Bali Ha’i.” I also enjoyed “Symphonic Scenario for Concert Orchestra,” although it’s essentially just a longer, smoother version of the orchestra.

The 1951 original London cast album is hard to track down, but it does exist! I promise. Mary Martin is back as Nellie, this time with Wilbur Evans as Emile, Muriel Smith as Bloody Mary, and Peter Grant as Lt. Cable. This is really a highlights album and plays out-of-order. There’s no chorus numbers, no “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and no “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy.” In fact, there’s very little Mary Martin at all; she only appears on Twin Soliloquies and the Finale. Talk about criminal underuse. It’s no wonder that this wasn’t released until 2012. It does make a nice showcase for Evans, Smith, and Grant though. You can go ahead and skip this one.

Mary Martin and Wilbur Evans in the original London production.

Up next is the 1958 film soundtrack. This is the album that first introduced me to South Pacific, so I may be a bit biased in its favor. The songs are in a different order than the stage version, but that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with different mediums. Mitzi Gaynor plays Nellie in the film and she does her own singing, which is very pleasant. Opera star Giorgio Tozzi provides Emile’s singing voice (Emile was played by Rossano Brazzi on screen) and you can tell he’s trained to belt on stage thanks to the amount of gusto he’s able to conjure when he wants to. When he doesn’t want to, however, his voice has almost a lullaby quality. An interesting casting choice is that while Juanita Hall plays Bloody Mary in the film just like she did in the original Broadway production, it’s the original London cast’s Bloody Mary, Muriel Smith, who performs her songs. In comparing the two’s original performances, I prefer Hall. So that decision strikes me as odd. But this is still a great album overall. The best part is that the chorus numbers are vastly improved compared to the original Broadway cast album. What a difference nine years makes! It’s also worth mentioning that “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” is performed at the correct speed. Finally.

It’s back to the stage we go, this time to the 1967 production at Lincoln Center. This album opens with a very strong overture before introducing us to Florence Henderson as Nellie and reintroducing us to Giorgio Tozzi as Emile. Both are great, with Tozzi improving from the film soundtrack and Henderson having a lot of fun in the role that comes through nicely on the recording. Actually, I was surprised at how brassy Henderson’s voice is. She kind of has a mild Ethel Merman quality, which I consider a good thing. I have to say that Irene Byatt would be my favorite Bloody Mary yet, had I not discovered that she is a white woman playing a woman of color. That’s going to be a mark against this one.

Florence Henderson as Nellie.

It’s over 20 years before another South Pacific cast album is released, that being the 1988 London cast album. Like its British predecessor, it is fairly lackluster. I will say that Gemma Craven gives us the most emotive Nellie we’ve yet heard, which is nice. She’s definitely the highlight here, especially on “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair” and “Honey Bun,” but everything else is just ok. The chorus numbers are especially disappointing, and it sounds like the chorus itself is considerably smaller than in earlier productions. Once again, I think you can skip this London cast album.

We’re staying in London for the 2002 Royal National Theatre cast album and to say I was unexcited to listen is an understatement. But from the very first bar of the prologue, I knew that this was going to be a different South Pacific. The spectacular orchestrations set far less of a pop music tone than any of the previous albums and this one also packs in plenty of dialogue, which brings you into the story and highlights the racial tension nicely. Everyone in the cast is sensational, from Lauren Kennedy as an especially giddy Nellie, to Philip Quast as Emile, to Sheila Francisco as Bloody Mary, and to Edward Baker-Duly as Lt. Cable. I think this is also the first album to include the French reprise of “Bali Ha’i” and the only one to really convey what’s at stake in the story with the addition of “Communication Disconnected.” After two London disappointments, this is the one to beat.

Sheila Francisco played Bloody Mary in the 2002 Royal National Theatre production.

Next up is the very fun 2005 Carnegie Hall concert cast album. It’s the longest of the albums, clocking in at an hour and 17 minutes, which is forgivable thanks to the stellar cast. Reba McEntire sings the role of Nellie and her genuine southern accent adds much to the character. The part of Emile is performed by the always enchanting Brian Stokes Mitchell, with Lillias White and Jason Danieley rounding out the principle cast. Mitchell’s “This Nearly was Mine” and McEntire’s “Honey Bun” are especially triumphant. If I have a complaint here it is, unsurprisingly, the length, but I’ll trek through it again and again to enjoy these performances. This one is a real stand out.

The most recent of South Pacific‘s cast albums hails from the 2008 Broadway revival starring Kelli O’Hara as Nellie and Paulo Szot as Emile. Each delivers one of the best interpretations of their respective characters. O’Hara is actually a fairly good successor to Mary Martin, who owns the role in my eyes. Matthew Morrison is also incredible as Lt. Cable and Loretta Ables Sayre delivers the most unique Bloody Mary of the bunch. She’s quite refreshing in the role. The chorus numbers are a bit weak for my liking and the keys are a bit higher than they’ve been before. Overall, this album works, but only thanks to its gifted cast.

The 2008 Broadway poster.

I really thought that I was going to base my overall opinion on a few favorite songs and then pick a favorite between either the original Broadway cast, the film soundtrack, or the Carnegie Hall concert. It turns out that none of that is the case. There are a few gems here and a few duds as well, but I have to declare the 2002 Royal National Theatre cast album as the victor. It perfectly captures the complexities of the story and its orchestrations are just untouchable. You would be doing yourself a favor by listening to it some enchanted evening in the not-to-distant future.

Musical: South Pacific

Music: Richard Rodgers 

Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II

Opening Night On Broadway: April 7,1949, at the Majestic Theatre

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1949 original Broadway cast, 1951 original London cast, 1958 film soundtrack, 1967 Lincoln Center cast, 1988 London cast, 2002 Royal National Theatre cast, 2005 concert cast, and 2008 Broadway cast albums.

My Favorite Cast Album: 2002 Royal National Theatre Cast Recording

Highlights: “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i,” “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair,” “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy,” and “Younger Than Springtime.”

Overall Impression: I’ve always said this is a perfect score and I maintain that opinion. It’s interesting to see the albums evolve to reveal more and more of the musical’s theme of racial tension.

Requiem for a Genius

I had just gotten home from work and was rushing to change clothes and head to the national tour of Hadestown when I got an alert on my phone from The New York Times. “Stephen Sondheim is dead at 91,” it said. I stood there in disbelief for a moment, wrestling with the news that a man I had never met was no longer with us. After catching my breath, I performed the traditional next step of millennial grief: I shared the article to my social media pages so that everyone I had ever met could grieve with me.

Only they didn’t grieve. The article was barely noticed and the death of Sondheim was scarcely acknowledged by the occupants of my various social feeds. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, musical theatre is a fairly niche interest, but I couldn’t help my frustration at noticing that Sondheim had been unappreciated by so many. It seems criminal. In fact, to my mind, it is.

I was nine when The Wonderful World of Disney premiered their brand new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. You know, the one with Brandy and Whitney Houston. Both Brandy and Whitney shine in their roles, as does the whole cast. But there was one performance that struck my little gay heart especially hard: that of Bernadette Peters in the role of the Wicked Stepmother. From the first time I saw her on my screen with her dress that was too tight for full strides and her red curls piled atop her head, I was in love. This, I thought, was a goddess. I hold that opinion to this day.

After watching Cinderella, I consumed as much of her work as I could and it was her Carnegie Hall concert album that first introduced me to the work of Stephen Sondheim. Now, Peters is often cited as the greatest interpreter of Sondheim’s work, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that she sang those songs as though they had been personally crafted for her by an angel. To say I was transfixed is putting it mildly. In the years that followed, I dug deeper into her body of work, including Sunday in the Park with George, Anyone Can Whistle, Gypsy, and of course, Into the Woods. This, my friends, was my Sondheim root.

Expanding beyond Peters’ contributions to the Sondheim catalog, I remember asking for a copy of the original cast album of Company one Christmas. I played it again and again, driving my parents mad. There is something to be said about a cast album from the 1970s resonating so strongly with a teenaged boy in the early 2000s. Sondheim understood timelessness better than perhaps any composer of his time. He understood the universality of human experience, so he centered his works around it. He understood that at some point in each of our lives, we blow out our birthday candles alone. The risk of building his shows around such vulnerabilities is what made Sondheim a genius.

Despite the deep respect I hold for Sondheim, it wasn’t until very recently that I really understood his impact. Around the time that I wrote my entry on Follies, I began to look at his work with fresh eyes and something clicked in me. This wasn’t an artist who ever tried to write the next big earworm, this was an artist who had something to say and that something resonated with millions around the world and will continue to resonate for generations to come. Because Sondheim had a secret weapon that so many artists have lacked: humanity. And that is the key to immortality.

Cheers to Sondheim. And thanks, Steve.

How to Spice it Up. Or Not.

I don’t know what I expected when my random number generator landed on I Love My Wife, but it wasn’t a musical about a foursome, that’s for sure. And yes, I’m talking about that type of foursome. The title evokes the kind of quiet romance one would expect from a Diane Keaton movie. The content, on the other hand, could easily be directed by Judd Apetow. That said, it’s a surprise that I had have never heard of this show because it was a fairly decent hit when it opened in 1977 and has been successfully produced numerous times since. Still, this is my first exposure.

I Love My Wife opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on April 17, 1977, running for 857 performances. The music is by Cy Coleman while Michael Stewart wrote the book and lyrics. It focuses on two couples who find themselves planning a ménage-à-quatre with each other one Christmas Eve. The Broadway production received attention for both its racy content and the unique use of its musicians, who both acted and sang in the production while also serving as the band. In fact, all four members of the band won a shared Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for their performances. The musical has been performed all over the world, including the West End, Australia, South Africa, and Los Angeles. There are two cast albums commercially available for I Love My Wife, but the 1982 Australian cast recording is incredibly rare and I was unable to stream it or get a copy. As it stands, I am sticking to the original Broadway cast album for now.

The album starts off innocently enough, with the characters reminiscing about their high school days together and ogling over their old bully, an ugly duckling named Monica. But by the third track, “By Threes,” the heat is turned up and it’s clear that we’re here for sex. “By Threes” is an upbeat song about discovering ones desire for a threesome and it serves as a sort of thesis for the show with the lyrics “Goodbye to strain and marital strife/Go break the joyous news to your wife.” Just to be clear, the idea of a threesome is the “joyous news” in question. This seems like a good time to mention that I Love My Wife is a work of satire. It doesn’t take the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s seriously and seeks to lampoon it in a way that’s comfortable for the average theatre goer. But hey, it can still be a good time and “By Threes” is up there among its best numbers.

The best song in the show is without question “Love Revolution,” performed beautifully by Ilene Graff as Cleo. Here we see a woman doesn’t want the world’s new liberated attitude towards sex to pass her by, and she lets us know with a terrific power ballad. Another song I really enjoyed is “Lovers on Christmas Eve.” It’s a lounge duet about the joys of sex on Christmas Eve, and while I can’t say it should a holiday standard (the lyrics include “Santa Claus turns me on/One ‘ho ho ho’ and I’m gone”), it is perfectly weird. I love an off the wall Christmas song so it gets a thumbs up from me.

Lenny Baker, Joanna Gleason, Ilene Graff, and James Naughton in the original Broadway production.

Speaking of weird songs, there were a few that had me double checking to make sure that this show was in fact written by the lyricist who gave us Hello, Dolly! The first is “Sexually Free,” which is about the virtue of having sexual experiences beyond societal expectations. The lyrics deserve a better melody but at the same time the song’s theme is explored throughout the whole show so I don’t think we can complain much. But then there’s arguably the least sexy song in the show, “A Mover’s Life.” It’s a bizarre ode to a career as a moving man and processing the emotions of dealing with damaged and forgotten furniture, including a sink that is sad to be left behind. Yes, in this man’s head sinks have feelings, too. Finally, we have “Ev’rybody Today is Turning On,” a song about drugs. Weed, coke, heroin, LSD, meth, poppers… they’re all here and everyone’s doing them to forget their troubles. None of these three songs landed for me, although that last one is the best of this bunch, but they were so bizarre that I couldn’t let them go unmentioned.

I don’t quite know what to make of I Love My Wife. In a way, I’m glad I stumbled upon it. There’s some really good songs here but there’s also some really questionable choices. From what I can tell from the lyrics and synopsis, our four sexual adventurers do not actually go through with their night of shared passion, and I honestly with they had. What a different show it would be if it actually celebrated sexual freedom. I understand it’s satire, but satirizing a culture of free love doesn’t sit well with me. Satire is best when it’s working against the status quo, not for it. So, as a whole work it is not my favorite, but the cast album is still good fun.

Musical: I Love My Wife

Music: Cy Coleman 

Lyrics: Michael Stewart

Opening Night on Broadway: April 17, 1977, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York City

Cast Album I Listened To: 1977 original Broadway cast recording

Highlights: “By Threes,” “Love Revolution,” and “Lovers on Christmas Eve”

Overall Impression: If you’re looking for a cast album that will shock your uptight friends, this is the one. It has some very moments and it has some real head scratchers, too.

Botany Gone Awry

Halloween is finally upon us and in the spirit of spooky season, I have decided to visit a cult classic. Little Shop of Horrors is a musical that has honestly always been on the peripheral for me. Oh sure, I know the songs and I’m familiar with the imagery, but I’ve never seen a production or even the film (I’m begging you not to hold that second point against me). It goes without saying that this is not one of my go-to’s, even with its famous use of puppets. I love puppets! How could I let this show go unappreciated any longer?

Little Shop of Horrors is the story of a florist shop clerk who discovers that the unusual plant he’s recently acquired thrives on human blood. It features the music of Alan Menken with a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman. The original production premiered Off-Off Broadway in 1982 and opened Off-Broadway less than three months later where it ran for five years. A 1983 West End production had a successful two year run as well, which makes the fact that Little Shop did not open on Broadway until 2003 a tad surprising. That Broadway production was not without its problems and the show returned to its stronger Off-Broadway roots in 2019. Meanwhile, it has been produced all over the world and a much beloved film version was released in 1986. Counting the film soundtrack, Little Shop of Horrors has released five cast albums that fit my criteria.

The 1982 original Off-Broadway cast recording is up first, naturally. Or supernaturally, as the case may be. It has the old fashioned rock and roll feel that I expected and I relish in that. It’s got to be hard to replicate an authentic feel for 1960s music when writing in the 80s, and Menken does it beautifully. Every performance is stellar and we are treated to Ellen Greene’s legendary performance as Audrey for the first time. What a treat she is! Truly the cherry on top of this sweet bloodbath. Lee Wilkof’s Seymour and Ron Taylor’s Audrey II are also top notch. Right away, I am concerned about the prospect of choosing my favorite songs, because there isn’t a dud to be found. That said, “Grow For Me” and “Somewhere That’s Green” stand out just a hair above the rest. We’re off to a very good start.

Ellen Greene is back for the 1986 film soundtrack, which also features Rick Moranis as Seymour, Steve Martin as Orin, and Levi Stubbs as Audrey II. Moranis is doing his best and it shows, but he’s not as confident as his predecessor and Greene performs circles around him. Regardless, this is still an enjoyable listen. There’s even a new song here; “Some Fun Now” takes the place of “Ya Never Know” and brings some calypso flavor to Little Shop. But the really good thing about “Some Fun Now” is it gives Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) a little extra something to do. These three are one of the most famous Greek choruses in all of musical theatre and for good reason. They should absolutely have even more to do. All things considered, this a surprisingly solid cast album for a film soundtrack. I dig it.

The UK tour cast released their cast album in 1994 and it’s next on my list. This production took a risk in giving the music a synth pop sound while keeping the essential rock and roll feel. The result is a more subdued Little Shop and unfortunately that makes it less memorable for me. None of the performances really stood out here. It’s not that it’s a bad album, far from it in fact. It’s just that it’s weaker than all of the others. The one advantage that it has is the inclusion of a mega mix of the biggest songs from the show. It’s a fun little addition and, perhaps contrary to what I had to say about the Hello, Dolly! finale, more shows should release mega mixes, especially in our age of bite-sized media.

With that, we finally come to Broadway. The 2003 Broadway cast album of Little Shop of Horrors is the longest at an hour and 18 minutes, but that running time comes with a whole lot of dialogue. I appreciate that because it gives my novice ears a little bit of context. Another bonus is the cast: Hunter Foster, Michael-Leon Wooley, and Kerry Butler are our leads and they had me excited from the start. Foster and Wooley are terrific and have great chemistry, while Butler’s Audrey comes of as a Disney princess from Queens. That’s a little off-putting, but I barely even care because she’s always a delight. This album also features several demos of songs that were cut during production, which is interesting and a fun way to stick the landing. Overall I really like this version.

The 2019 Off-Broadway cast album is Little Shop‘s most recent. It stars Jonathan Groff, Tammy Blanchard, Kingsley Leggs, and Christian Borle. It has the most contemporary rock sound of the five but it doesn’t sacrifice the 60s feel that helps make this show so great. In fact, the prologue opens with what sounds like an actual 60s news broadcast. That sets the tone for a great listen, especially when it comes to Blanchard’s Audrey. My one complaint is that Groff is too polished a Seymour for my liking. While the others had a stereotypically boyish charm, his comes off as a talented heartthrob. That is made all the more apparent by the inclusion of a bonus track of “Grow For Me” performed by Groff’s replacement, Jeremy Jordan, who is a better fit for the character. Still, this is once again a stellar cast album.

Little Shop of Horrors is a brilliant musical with a super fun score and any one of these albums is proof of that. I really think the 1982, 2003, and 2019 cast albums are neck and neck along with the film soundtrack (my apologies to the UK) but I’m going to go ahead and give the bragging rights that come along with being my favorite to the original Off-Broadway cast. After all, it set the tone and what a nice and consistent tone it is. If you’ve not been giving this show the attention it deserves like I wasn’t, do yourself a favor and dive in. I promise you’ll have a good time. Just don’t feed the plants.

Musical: Little Shop of Horrors

Music: Alan Menken 

Lyrics: Howard Ashman

Opening Night Off-Off-Broadway: May 6, 1982, Players Art Foundation Theatre, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1982 original Off-Broadway, 1986 film, 1994 UK, 2003 Broadway, and 2019 Off-Broadway casts

My Favorite Cast Album: 1982 Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording

Highlights: “Prologue (Little Shop of Horrors),” “Grow For Me,” “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Feed Me (Git It!),” and “Suddenly, Seymour”

Overall Impression: A very fun listen with extraordinary casts throughout. This one is worth the hype.

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.

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.

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.