Below are some 2017 picks from James McQuillen and Jay Gardner, who review theatrical recordings for TheaterJones, in a monthly column called The Music Men. Note: They haven’t reviewed a few cast recordings that were released in 2017, notably The Band’s Visit, Once on This Island, Earnest Shackleton Loves Me, The Lightning Thief, and The Prince of Broadway, yet, but look for reviews of those albums, plus cabaret and solo recordings and some more of their favorite things coming in 2018.
Given everything going on in the world today, one could argue that Broadway cast albums are a luxury, a frivolity. Those of us who are fans know the role cast recordings play in our lives though—the joy they bring, the memories we associate with them and the hope they give us that Mother and Tateh and Little Coalhouse can walk off into the future hand in hand while we all sing “Wheels of a Dream.”
I chose my three singular cast albums of 2017 for very different reasons, but they all signify something bigger than the recording itself. If just for that, they deserve a second listening.
Hello, Dolly! for bringing the joy
Of course it’s a great score — iconic, even. The 2017 recording has its ups (Kate Baldwin’s “Ribbons Down My Back”, “Dancing”, the title song) and its downs. But I dare you to listen to “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and not acknowledge its complete Broadway showbiz joy. Ecstatic singing, wonderful orchestration and a master class in how to build a musical theatre number. Glorious. Review here.
Anastasia for achieving the seemingly impossible
The singing is terrific and the recording is very good. Fine. They all are nowadays. The real value in this recording is the fact that Ahrens and Flaherty did what so many writing teams have found impossible through the years: revisit a score and improve upon it. The songs Ahrens and Flaherty added to their film score work very well, the themes Flaherty weaves through the score are beautiful, and they actually expanded upon the film, improving and giving it a richer context. One can say many things about Ahrens and Flaherty—their writing may not be for everyone—but they do have two shows playing simultaneously on Broadway and both are very successful. Review here.
Dear Evan Hansen for being an inspiration
I must admit: there are moments I enjoy, but Dear Evan Hansen was not for me when I saw it, nor does the recording light a fire in me. I just don’t think I’m the intended audience for the show, and that’s fine. However, I deeply appreciate what Pasek and Paul and Steven Levenson did in writing a truly original piece based on an original idea. Moreover, what they wrote speaks with such intensity to so many young (well, younger than I am) people. Connor’s suicide, Evan’s struggle with growing up in a world of social media and lightning-speed information, and the ideas of The Connor Project and “You Will Be Found” all obviously resonate with Generations Y and Z in a profound way. And that is a good thing. Review here.
Come from Away
Come from Away tells the true story of what happened when 38 planes carrying 7,000 passengers from every corner of the globe were forced to land in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland as a result of the 9/11 attack. The multiple storylines and large cast of characters are conveyed in clearly defined, idiosyncratic detail and the fast-paced material maintains an air of urgency without becoming maudlin or sickeningly sweet. Stand-out performances come from Broadway veterans Jen Collella (Tony Nomination), Kendra Kassebaum and Chad Kimball. With music and lyrics written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, Come from Away reminds us of our humanity, our empathy and our capacity for kindness, gentility and the acceptance of others. Review here.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Much has been written in the New York Times and other publications about the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the highly eclectic and inventive musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Based on a brief 70 pages of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, composer Dave Malloy blends Russian folk music, contemporary Broadway pop, electronic dance music, the arias of classical opera, and various alternative vocal techniques in a mind-blowing score that evokes both the epic sweep of Tolstoy’s magnum opus and the behind-closed-doors social politics of Imperial Russia. Denée Benton radiates charm and tragic naiveté as Natasha and Josh Groban, in his Broadway debut, gives a surprisingly engaging performance as Pierre. Grace McClean, recently named Lincoln Center Theater Writer-in-Residence, thrills as Natasha’s overbearing godmother Marya. Can someone explain to me why she wasn’t nominated for a Tony Award? In my review from last June I urged readers to do their best to see the show on Broadway, not only to experience the score live but to participate in the incredibly inventive staging that took immersive theater to a new level. Sadly, the show closed in early September due to poor casting decisions and perhaps a lack of long range planning on the part of the producers. Fortunately, we have both the off-Broadway and Broadway cast recordings to provide a lasting testament to this unique and inventive show. Review here.
One can argue that Britain has never been able to create musicals that rival those written by its U.S. counterparts—Cats, Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera notwithstanding. That being said, the Brits far outpace us Americans when it comes to producing first-rate revivals of classic American musicals. Oklahoma, Gypsy, and The Color Purple being prime examples. This tradition of first-rate revivals is continued in the long-overdue West End premiere of Dreamgirls. Recorded live at the historic Savoy Theatre, every note of the pulsing, story-driven score is here, music directed with laser-like precision by Nick Finlow. Amber Riley gives an electric, vocally thrilling performance in the central role of Effie White, closely followed by Liisi La Fontaine and Ibinabo Jack. While this recording isn’t perfect, it bears up under repeated listening and deserves a place beside the iconic Original Broadway Cast Recording. Review here.