Sizing up Broadway’s season of musicals through cast albums

(From left) Joshua Henry and Gavin Creel in Into The Woods, at St James Theatre in New York on June 27, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK – The past year was a pretty good one for Broadway musicals, if by “pretty good” you mean “not as dreadful as usual”.

Of the 15 that opened, just a handful were outright disasters both critically and financially. And though only six are still running, that is not a bad number these days.

Even better, most of 2022’s shows made cast albums, so you can judge for yourself.

Jukeboxes

Whatever you think of jukebox musicals as a theatrical genre, they make exceedingly strange cast albums.

The worst offenders are biographical jukeboxes, which purport to tell the story of the singer or songwriter that owns the songs or made them famous.

When those songs are stripped from their jimmied narratives and returned to their native format as recordings, they devolve into something peculiar: greatest-hits tribute albums.

That is especially problematic with MJ The Musical, based on Michael Jackson’s life and catalogue. Because the songs – and Jackson’s idiosyncratic original performances of them – are so unforgettable, there is little that Myles Frost, in the title role, can do with just his voice to suggest something new.

Instead, listeners are stuck with a slick impersonation, accurate but wan. Why not just get the original?

That problem is somewhat attenuated in A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond bio-jukebox.

For one thing, Will Swenson as Diamond does not aim for a carbon copy.

Exaggerating some of the singer’s vocal qualities – the basso burr and steel-wool growls – he instead adds value while suggesting character. And when he is backed up by the show’s terrific ensemble in a joyful number like Holly Holy, you hear it in a new way, as an unexpected cover.

That problem is triply avoided in & Juliet. First, it is not a rumination but a romp. Second, it has no biography to be true (or false) to. And third, it is built on hit songs, by Max Martin, that having been written for many singers, are generic enough to suit many situations.

So when Lorna Courtney, as Juliet, wakes up by her tomb to sing Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time, or a song like Celine Dion’s That’s The Way It Is is repurposed as a feminist anthem, it is additive, not subtractive.

Revivals

Musicals that have previously produced a superb recording pose a different problem.

Other than bonus tracks and extended dance-music sequences, what can a new cast album offer?

I did not find much of an answer in the revival cast recording of The Music Man. Is that because Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, avoiding comparison with Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, offered very different readings of the roles?

Both went darker – and Foster lower, dodging Cook’s high notes – resulting in a somewhat grim take on songs that once were joyous.

If rethinking did not serve The Music Man, it certainly did Into The Woods.

After several revivals and the 2014 movie, this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical could almost seem too familiar, yet the stripped-down version directed by Lear deBessonet restored its warmth, humour and strangeness.

In solos and duets – like the alternately hilarious and gorgeous Agony, sung by Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry – the score shines anew.

Lea Michele recording the Funny Girl cast album last autumn at the Power Station in New York. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Lea Michele is a thrill on the revival cast album of Funny Girl, even though she gets thin support from the watered-down orchestrations. And if her renditions of barn-burners like Don’t Rain On My Parade owe more than a little to their originator Barbra Streisand, Michele brings her own banked fires to the ballads, especially The Music That Makes Me Dance and People.

Originals

Billy Crystal (centre) in the musical Mr Saturday Night at the Nederlander Theater in New York on March 26, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Saturday Night, a middling entertainment onstage, shines in its recording.

The story of a washed-up borscht belt comic naturally evokes an acrid Rat Pack score from composer Jason Robert Brown.

But Billy Crystal, in excellent voice, provides a nice balance in the title role, especially when highlighting the pathos behind the aggressive humour of Amanda Green’s lyrics.

Oddly, it is the cast album of A Strange Loop, a terrific musical – and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama – that has a pulse problem.

Michael R. Jackson’s brilliant concept, in which unhelpful “thoughts” persecute a gay black musical theatre writer trying to write a gay black musical, is so innately theatrical that, without Stephen Brackett’s staging, it is hard to track its ups and downs through music alone.

Still, Jackson writes songs that sting, his lyrics merging poetry and perseveration.

Kimberly Levaco does not have time to perseverate; she is ageing at four times the normal speed and already looks 60-ish at 15.

Her upbeat attitude in the face of early mortality gives Kimberly Akimbo its tragic undertow but also its uncanny, uncloying delight.

The songs by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire, especially as sung by Victoria Clark and Bonnie Milligan, rarely waste time stating the obvious, thus allowing listeners to experience both dawning rapture (Anagram) and hilarious sociopathy (Better) without condescension.

How much story a cast album needs to tell has from the start of the format been a defining question.

The first recordings of Broadway shows were essentially glorified singles, with no context at all. But even with dialogue and liner notes, new musicals today, in which songs are narrowly tailored to narratives, can leave you perplexed if you have not seen them live.

That will not be a problem for the cast album of Some Like It Hot (due out March 24).

It is designed, like so many Golden Age musicals, to give pleasure both within and without the story.

As they did in Hairspray, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman write numbers – including the ear-wormy title song – that find the sweet spot between generic pop and overspecificity: songs that can sound like just one character’s blues, or anyone’s. NYTIMES

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