A Night at the Opera

I’m tackling a biggie. My random number generator picked a show that is so daunting and so incredibly controversial that I seriously thought about choosing something different. The show in question is Porgy and Bess, which is technically an opera and not a book musical. It is also outdated and misguided at best, and outright racist at worst. These were my main concerns, forget that the cast albums can be more than three hours long! I didn’t want to ruffle feathers. And, as much as I like opera (and I really do), it’s not a territory I really wanted to venture into for this project. But, the original production of Porgy and Bess played on Broadway and the show has been revived there no less than eight times. So no sprint down Broadway would be complete without it. Any show will do, right?

Porgy and Bess features the music of George Gershwin and lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. It had its world premier on September 30, 1935, in Boston and transferred to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) within two weeks. While noteworthy for its all Black cast of classically trained singers, the work was criticized from the start for being insensitive to the African American experience and relying on Black stereotypes. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Porgy and Bess began to gain respect in both the opera and Black communities, though controversy continues to surround it. Despite those controversies, today it is considered perhaps the greatest American opera and is performed all over the world. I counted eight available recordings from stage casts, though I was only able to listen to seven of them. I will explain the missing cast album later, but know that I did replace it with a studio cast album that interested me. So, with all that in mind, let’s get into the cast albums.

With a 1935 premier date, Porgy and Bess is the second oldest show I’ve written about so far, after Show Boat. The oldest cast album I could find hails from 1942 and features both the casts of the original production and the 1942 Broadway revival. It is not a complete recording of the score, having been released on a single LP, but all the highlights are here. Right away, I was humming along to the familiar melodies of “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I hummed because I found the lyrics very warbley and difficult to understand. I don’t know if it’s the age of the recording or just the style of the day, but it was a struggle for me. Then again, I had similar struggles with the older Show Boat cast albums so it may just be my ears. Either way, this was not a great start.

We next find ourselves in 1952, and what a difference ten years make! This is a touring cast recording that was recorded live in Germany of all places. While is was recorded in 1952, it wasn’t released until 2008. That’s surprising, because it’s a beautiful album. It is a nearly complete recording of the score and not only is it easier to understand the lyrics here than on the original album, it’s also easy to follow the storyline. This is both because of both the relatively crisp lyrics (for an opera) and the scuffling and rustling that goes along with a cast album recorded live on stage. To top it off, it stars the legends that are Cab Calloway and Leontyne Price. Both give outstanding performances. Overall, I really liked this one and appreciate that it restored my faith in what was to come.

And what was to come was the Hollywood film soundtrack. The movie version was released by Columbia Pictures in 1959 and starred Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, though their voices are dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison, respectively. While Sammy Davis, Jr. sings in the film, his voice is not heard on the soundtrack due to contact restraints and he is replaced by Cab Calloway. Similarly unjustly, the divinely talented Diahann Carroll is dubbed here as well. But there is one big musical star from the film heard on the soundtrack: Pearl Bailey in her role as Maria. I’m glad she’s here, underused though she is. This is once again a highlights album of the Porgy and Bess score, but it is one more closely resembling a book musical than an opera. For that reason, it may be worth a listen for those more inclined towards a traditional show tune. But, if you’re striving to appreciate Gershwin’s intentions, you can skip it.

In 1977, the Houston Grand Opera released a complete recording of the score that proved to be a turning point in the reputation of Porgy and Bess. Indeed, it is through this production that it began to be taken seriously by opera companies the world over. This is also the first time that I had to listen to a cast album from my vinyl record collection for this project because I could not find a complete version available to stream. This is probably the most famous cast album of the show, and with good reason. Not only is it the first complete recording of the score, and the first staging of the complete score since 1935, but the performances of Clamma Dale, Donnie Ray Albert, and Larry Marshall are breathtaking. It is also orchestrated in such a way as to make the music accessible to show tune fans while not sacrificing any of its operatic integrity. No wonder this production transferred to Broadway and won the only Tony Award ever given to an opera. In short, we are halfway done and this is the one to beat.

1989 finds us in East Sussex, England, at the Glydebourne Opera Festival’s production of Porgy and Bess. I have to say that the highlight here is definitely Cynthia Haymon as Bess; I really enjoyed her. The orchestrations, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, are also stunning and might be my favorite yet. This album is definitely worth a listen, though the story is a little harder to follow than the 1952 and 1977 albums. Plus, it is definitely directed at opera enthusiasts, not so much musical theatre fans. Still, that can’t be held against it and this remains a fantastic recording. I should also mention that this is the second complete recording of the score.

There isn’t another album from a stage cast for twenty years, but I’m stopping off in 2006 for that studio cast album I mentioned earlier. It is unique in that it features Gershwin’s original orchestrations from the 1935 production. You can feel the essence of the ’30s right away in the heavy use of piano and woodwinds on the overture. And the cast is, once again, spectacular. I’m surprised that I like it so well, since I normally turn my nose up at studio cast albums. That may very well be my ignorance showing. In any case, I highly recommend this cast album. It is definitely a contender for my favorite.

Back to the stage we go with the 2009 Austrian concert cast album. This production was conducted by Nikolaus Harnocourt, whose well known penchant for classical music is evident here, especially in the magnificent chorus. I have to be honest and say this is not my favorite interpretation of the music, but opera purists may delight in it. It also features a familiar voice, that of Gregg Baker in the role of Crown, which he also sang on the 1989 album. On the whole, this one is just alright as a cast album.

We finish with Porgy and Bess in the same place we started: on Broadway. The 2012 revival was heavily reworked to suit modern sensibilities, with a new libretto by Suzan-Lori Parks and updated music by Diedre Murray. Refreshingly, both Parks and Murray are Black women, a contrast to the opera’s original white male composers. This allows Porgy and Bess to be seen through a new lens, one that does more justice to its marginalized subjects, while retaining the beloved songs. That’s the biggest improvement here, along with an overhaul of the dialogue. This production can for sure be described as a Broadway adaptation of the opera, rather than an opera in its own right. That’s even reflected in the production’s official title: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. And yes, the venerable Audra McDonald plays Bess here and she is worth the listen all by herself. She can do no wrong in my opinion.

Now, about that missing album: there is a 2019 Metropolitan Opera cast album of Porgy and Bess, but I could only find it available on CD. Unfortunately, I do not have a CD player. When it becomes available to stream, I will absolutely review it for this blog. Until then, it remains a missing piece.

I was nervous that I would walk away from this one resenting having given it my attention. It certainly has its fair share of cringeworthy moments, especially when it comes to the antiquated dialect that verges on minstrel territory. But I have to admit, for all its shortcomings, Porgy and Bess is a beautiful work of opera and for that I must say “bravo.” I may even catch it on stage someday.

Opera: Porgy and Bess

Music: George Gershwin

Lyrics: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Opening Night on Broadway: October 10, 1935, at the Alvin Theatre

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1942 Original and Revival Broadway Casts, 1952 International Touring Cast, 1959 Film Soundtrack, 1977 Houston Grand Opera Cast, 1989 Glydebourne Opera Festival Cast, 2006 Studio Cast, 2009 Austrian Concert Cast, and 2012 Broadway Cast Albums.

My Favorite Cast Album: 1977 Houston Grand Opera Cast Album

Runner Up: 2006 Studio Cast Album

Highlights: “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Overall Impression: This show is definitely “of its time” as they say, and that’s never a good thing. But the score is gorgeous and that’s something it will always have going for it.

Why Animals Don’t Drive

I grew up in a home with an abundance of children’s literature on hand. We had everything from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Amelia Bedelia to Winne the Pooh, but one piece of kids’ lit that never entered my sphere of consciousness was The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 novel about a joy riding toad and his friends who try (and fail) to keep him out of trouble was just never on my parents’ radar. Well, my random number generator decided that my unfamiliarity ends now. Today, I’m writing about the cast album for the 2016 London stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows.

This musical has music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe, and a book by Julian Fellowes. It debuted on October 8, 2016 at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth and had a limited run at the London Palladium from June through September of 2017. The Wind in the Willows follows the plot of the novel quite closely, with the anthropomorphized characters Rat and Mole doing everything in their power to keep their friend Mr. Toad from stealing automobiles and driving them at top speed; of course they can’t keep him away from the cars and Toad crashes several of them, landing himself in jail. It’s a surprisingly entertaining story given the quaint Edwardian setting and my initial impression based on the familiar artwork dominated with shades of brown and green. After familiarizing myself with the story, I was excited to listen to the album.

I have to say, it did not disappoint. The Wind in the Willows has some fun and even some beautiful music. The lyrics will give unfamiliar listeners a good idea of what’s going on in the show, a good thing with any classic adaptation, and the music even mimics Kenneth Grahame’s novel in how it alternates between the slower chorus numbers and more speedy action packed songs. The album features some great performances as well, especially Rufus Hound as Toad who sounds generally delighted to have discovered cars on “The Open Road.” I also love Denise Welch as Mrs. Otter. In fact, her “Speed is of the Essence” might be my favorite song in the show. I say “might be” because the adorable “A Friend is Still a Friend,” while dripping with saccharine, is inescapably endearing. It’s also one of my favorites.

This is a cast album I never would have listened to if I hadn’t done this project. I’m glad I did! The Wind in the Willows can best be described as a cute show, that’s for sure. But it has some really funny moments as well. For example, one lyric has Toad quip “When I anthropomorphized I did it rather well,” a tongue in cheek reference to the condition of these woodland creatures. Now, since it’s based on a children’s story, the musical is probably best suited for families and with the good amount of story on the cast album, I would recommend young families give it a spin together. That’s not to say adults can’t enjoy it on their own,it just goes to show that The Wind in Willows remains a classic story for all ages.

Musical: The Wind in the Willows

Cast Album I Listened To: 2016 Original London Cast

Music: George Stiles

Lyrics: Anthony Drewe

Opening Performance: October 8, 2016, Theatre Royal, Plymouth, UK

Highlights: “Speed is of the Essence,” “The Open Road,” and “A Friend is Still a Friend.”

Overall Impression: A surprisingly enjoyable album that makes excellent use of the show’s source material. The Wind in the Willows caught me off guard, but in a good way.

“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.

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.

She’s Still Got Elegance!

The 1960s were an interesting time for show tunes. They were sounding less and less like contemporary pop music and yet some of the most beloved musicals ever written made their debuts in the sixties. I’m not going to attempt a definitive ranking, but if I did, Jerry Herman’s masterpiece Hello, Dolly! would certainly make the list.

Hello, Dolly! was the very first musical I ever saw live on stage. Although it was a high school production, I was awestruck by the choreography, massive sets, and that iconic feathered headdress. It holds a special place in my heart but I have never listened to some of the Dolly cast albums. What better chance to rectify that?

The title song was already a smash hit for Louis Armstrong when Hello, Dolly! opened at Broadway’s St. James Theatre on January 16, 1964. It starred Carol Channing in her signature role as Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker who believes the perfect match for the wealthy Horace Vandergelder is herself. The original Broadway production swept the Tony Awards and ran for a record-breaking 2,844 performances, taking it all the way to the end of 1970. For a little under two months of its original run, Hello, Dolly! was staged with an all-black cast featuring Pearl Bailey in the lead role. A film version starring Barbra Streisand was released in 1969. The musical has dominated recent theater news thanks to a popular 2017 revival which first starred Bette Midler, who has since been replaced by Bernadette Peters. All in all, six English language cast albums have been released.

I am willing to bet that a survey asking those familiar with Dolly to name the musical’s definitive cast album would yield a nearly even split between the original 1964 Broadway cast recording and the 1969 film soundtrack. With that in mind, let’s go back to 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson is president, Bewitched is TV’s hottest new show, the surgeon general has just announced that smoking might actually be bad for you, and Carol Channing has brought Dolly Gallagher Levi “back where she belongs” for the very first time!

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The first thing I noticed about the 1964 original Broadway cast recording was the lounge feel of the overture. I must never have listened to it before and was surprised by my impression because the thought of Hello, Dolly! does not exactly evoke the feeling of a lounge atmosphere. Soon, Channing is with us and what a presence she is! She charmingly warbles her way through her numbers and I can’t help but smile when she sings her playful interpretation of Dolly. If this cast has a second standout performance it would have to be Charles Nelson Riley’s Cornelius. He plays the part with an admirable amount of boyish innocence that must have been a joy to see on stage.

Now, I have to say that there is a song in Hello, Dolly! that always makes me wince. “It Takes a Woman” is kind of gross to my 21st century ears. With lyrics like “she’ll work until infinity/three cheers for femininity,” I don’t see how it wasn’t cut from the current production.  Perhaps my perception will shift by end of my Dolly tour, but for now I am forcing myself to muddle through it. I am rewarded with some other very good music, including the always fun “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and the act one finale “Before the Parade Passes By.” Then we come to the famous title number. It may be a good thing that Armstrong had already made this song a hit because I don’t think Channing could have done it by herself. She is a bit out of her league here and even sounds tired and out of place for most of what is supposed to be her showstopper. Still, she knows what she’s doing for most of the album, especially when it comes to the comedic bits that she expertly delivers throughout.

The 1965 London cast recording has Mary Martin in the role of Dolly. Martin brings a new maternal warmth to the character while keeping her funny and charming. She is a  stronger singer than Channing and she lets you know it with an almost perfect technical performance. Throughout the album, the music is faster and more to the point. “It Only Takes a Moment,” for example, is shorter and does not feature as much of the supporting chorus that it does in the 1964 Broadway cast recording. There are two notable improvements here: one is Loring Smith in the role of Vandergelder and the other is the title song. This “Hello, Dolly!” number features a confident, capable Martin who sounds like she is actually having a good time along with her chorus. She even yodels a bit! And the pleasure of hearing a chorus sing “you’re still crowin'” to an actress who is arguably most famous for playing Peter Pan is the kind of happy thing that I think I will especially like about this experiment.

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It is extremely rare for a Broadway production to issue multiple cast albums during a single run, but in 1967 Hello, Dolly! did just that to commemorate an all-black cast led by Pearl Bailey.  Here, Bailey does not embody Dolly; it’s the other way around! She puts a lot of herself into the role and that turns out to be a good thing, resulting in track after track of the most natural Dolly performance yet. At the beginning of listening, I was unsure how I felt about Jack Crowder in the role of Cornelius. He has a gorgeous baritone but it seemed misplaced in the larynx of someone who is supposed to be a young shop clerk. My opinion changed when I heard his version of “Elegance” (one of my favorite Dolly numbers) and it was favorably cemented by his sensational performance on “It Only Takes a Moment.” I also have to say that this cast performed two miracles: 1) They recorded a version of “It Takes a Woman” that I did not hate thanks to the impression that Vandergelder is a dolt. And 2) The so far impossibly sappy “Ribbons Down My Back” is made thoroughly enjoyable for the first time by Emily Lancy. By the end of the album, this is my favorite Hello, Dolly! I’ve listened to yet.

I would like to address something before I begin the second half of my Dolly marathon. While most of the music is wonderful and the cast is consistently delightful, I have to ask, is Hello, Dolly! the best musical with a bad finale? The finale consists of what is essentially a retrospective of songs that we’ve just heard. It comes off as clunky and unnecessary, especially after the great songs that come before it. Answering this is my new, unexpected quest as I fire up the next three cast albums.

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Significant changes are common for movie adaptations of stage musicals and Gene Kelly’s 1969 Hello, Dolly! film is no exception. It stars Barbra Streisand as Dolly, Walter Matthau as Vandergelder, and Michael Crawford (who would later play the original Phantom) as Cornelius. The movie opens with a brand new song composed specially by Herman to show off Streisand’s remarkable talent for singing. I actually think the new “Just Leave Everything to Me” is a better Dolly opener than the stage’s “I Put My Hand In.” It shows off more of Dolly’s character and her ambition in life, which is to help anyone in anyway that she can. She still sings about her penchant for arranging things, but here it sounds more urgent. “You need my help, you just don’t know it,” is the message, where on stage it’s a more straightforward “I am able to help you.”

Some of my excitement about a new Dolly song to sing along with is melted away by Matthau’s questionable performance. Even having seen the film multiple times, I can’t understand why is he was cast. His first song is the ever dreadful “It Takes a Woman”, which is subsidized by a reprise sung by Streisand that doesn’t really add anything new to the song or the album as a whole. However, Streisand’s acrobatic vocals do add much to the rest of the soundtrack’s songs, especially “Before the Parade Passes By” and her incredible performance of “So Long Dearie” which she brings to life more than any of her predecessors. She has a second new song, “Love is Only Love,” which is pretty enough but wouldn’t be missed. A highlight for some fans might be the duet with Armstrong on the title song, which, of course, he made famous.

I have finally left the sixties! Because no Hello, Dolly! cast albums were released in seventies and eighties, the next stop I am making is the 1995 Broadway cast album (often labeled as 1994, though the production began in October of ’95. Why is a mystery to me). This was the thirty-first anniversary of Dolly on Broadway and we find Carol Channing back in the role that she created.

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Now, it is important to understand that this is not the first time Channing has reprised her role. In fact, she played Dolly in more than 4,000 performances throughout her career. For reference, that’s almost 11 years worth of nightly shows! So by this time she is seasoned. And boy, does it show. Where I found her lackluster on the original cast album, here she is exquisite. She sounds noticeably older but, more importantly, she sounds confident and fun. I can practically hear her smiling through the speakers! Both the cast and orchestrations are stunning on this recording and it features the famous “Waiters’ Gallop” for the first time. My only small reservation is that Michael DeVries’ Cornelius had me longing for Riley’s youthful charm but hey, every masterpiece has to have a smudge, right? And besides, he has a beautiful voice. This is my new favorite Dolly album.

Which brings me to the current Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! Well, the original Bette Midler led cast of that revival anyway. The Divine Miss M is… well, divine! Her unique sense of humor is where she shines strongest and her gifted voice is the icing on top of that. However, the best thing about the this album for my money is Gavin Creel as Cornelius. He is perfect! His combination of youth and vocal expertise is the best balance I could have asked for. I am not enthused by the addition of the originally cut “Penny in My Pocket,” sung here at the beginning of the second act by Vandergelder, played by the exceptionally talented David Hyde Pierce. I understand that they needed to give Pierce something cute to do, but this did not need to be that thing. Still, the fact that they mercifully cut the finale short is enough to redeem the recording’s few shortcomings. This is a solid cast album!

As much as I enjoyed the 2017 version, I do wish that Bernadette Peters and the current company were given the chance to record their own cast album. As it is, I can only imagine how much Peters gives to this legendary role.

About that finale: I still don’t enjoy it. I have no choice but to verify that this is, in fact, the best musical with a bad finale. It’s a shame because Hello, Dolly! has some of the best and most endearing songs that Broadway has ever heard.

Hello, Dolly! is one of those musicals that has always stayed with me. Over the past few days I have been caught singing “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Hello, Dolly!” more times than I can count. The fact that songs written more than fifty years are so catchy to my millennial ears may actually prove the prophesy that serves as the last line of the show: “Dolly, you’ll never go away again!”

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Musical: Hello, Dolly!

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman

Opening Performance: January 16, 1964, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1964 Original Broadway Cast, 1965 Original London Cast, 1967 Broadway Cast, 1969 Film Soundtrack, 1995 Broadway Revival Cast, and 2017 Broadway Revival Cast

Song You Might Know: “Hello, Dolly!”

Highlights: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Elegance,” “It Only Takes a Moment”

Honorable Mention: Streisand’s “So Long Dearie”

Favorite Cast Album: 1995 Broadway Revival Cast

Overall Impression: Forever a favorite. The music holds up and the comedic moments are still fun. It is especially interesting to hear such a range of performances by the talented women tasked with singing the part of Dolly.

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.