It’s that time of year: Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, crowded malls, terrible traffic and end-of-year reviews.
I listen to a lot of recordings, and I would like to think that over time I have developed a keen sense what’s good and bad. Of course, I realize that my reviews are only one person’s opinion, I just get to write them down and share them with the public which, I guess, makes me an expert. I’m not an expert, but I know what I like, and I know what I want to hear when it comes to cast albums, solo artist albums and the like.
First and foremost, I want an album, ANY album, to have a clear arc. I want a discernible beginning, middle and end. In the case of a cast album, I want clear story telling or at least a clear flow of ideas or concepts throughout the album. Why are the characters singing? What, in any given moment, moves the characters to song? What role do the songs play in the story? Do they pause the story in order to comment on the action, or do they provide new information that propels the story forward?
If we’re talking about a solo CD, I want to see that the songs are united by a clear theme or idea, say, the work of a single composer and/or lyricist. I want the artist to make it clear, in no uncertain terms, how they feel about the material they’ve chosen to sing, be the subject motherhood, marriage, childhood, loss, breakups, travel, etc. I want to see high stakes, and I want to be taken on an emotional journey.
I’m reminded of the wonderful recording, released in 2014, called Have Faith, featuring the incomparable Mary Testa with arrangements by Michael Starobin. These two exemplary artists have created a refreshingly innovative album that is a meditation on the subject of faith in its various incarnations. It may not be the kind of thing you’d listen to while doing housework, but it offers listeners a kaleidoscopic soundscape that juxtaposes musical theater standards such as “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “If I Loved You” with David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows In April” and Jill Sobule’s “Soldiers of Christ.” Four years ago, I found it a touch inaccessible, but now it stands out as an exciting example of what a solo album can achieve.
Sutton Foster’s recently released Take Me to the World seems to move in the opposite direction. A collaboration with Ball State University where she is a faculty member, this recording falls short of its intended target. One half of the album features songs inventively arranged by her longtime music director and fellow Ball State faculty member Patrick Rafter. The other half features the admittedly excellent Ball State Symphony Orchestra in songs by Cole Porter and other American Songbook composers. I would describe the end result as two sides of two different coins. One side features an interesting exploration of contemporary musical theater in some imaginative arrangements while the other half feels like a Sunday afternoon pops concert.
Cast albums often present the same issues. The musical Bandstand seems to suffer from Two-in-One-itis. There are wonderful moments full of 1940’s big band sound and energy, but too often the score is up ended by songs that sound nothing like those exciting big band moments. It’s as though the writers started out writing one kind of show and suddenly changed course midstream. It makes for very uneven listening and must have seemed odd in the theater.
One of the most exciting cast recordings I’ve heard of late comes from a new musical called Hadestown which is currently in performances at the National Theater of Great Britain and will be going to Broadway this Spring. Written by singer/songwriter AnaÏs Mitchell, Hadestown combines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with an exciting mix of American folk song, New Orleans jazz and pulsating blues. The best comparison I could make would be to composer/lyricist Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 which similarly combines a mix of musical styles with innovative storytelling. (They both also happen to be directed by Rachel Chavkin.)
In the end I want coherence, intention and specificity. What do I perceive as the artist’s goal and do I think they’ve achieved it? Not everything is to my taste, but rather than coming off as snarky, I always try to give solid reasons for why I don’t care for something. Ultimately, it’s just one person’s opinion on any given day. I just hope that I am able to bring some insight to the works in question and that readers are enlightened by what I write.
» In 2019, Jay Gardner and James McQuillen's theatrical recording review, The Music Men, will be revamped and return to a monthly rotation on TheaterJones.
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW
Friday, December 28
- The Year in Comedy by Chief Comedy Critic Kevin Beane
- Danielle Georgiou's Sixth Position: A Year of Movement
Saturday, December 29
- The Year in Dance by Chief Dance Critic Cheryl Callon
- The Year in New Dance Works by Katie Dravenstott
- The Year in Dance by Emily Sese
Sunday, December 30
- The Year in Music and Opera by Chief Music and Opera Critic Gregory Sullivan Isaacs
- The Year in Music and Opera by J. Robin Coffelt
- The Year in Music and Opera by Wayne Lee Gay
Monday, December 31
- The Year in Performing Arts Books by Cathy Ritchie
- The Year in Classical Music Recordings by Andrew Anderson
Tuesday, January 1
- The Year in Theatrical Recordings by Jay Gardner
- The Year in Film by Bart Weiss
- The Year in Theater by Frank Garrett
- The Year in Theater by Jan Farrington
- The Year in Theater by Janice L. Franklin
- The Year in Theater by Martha Heimberg
Wednesday, January 2
- The Year in Theater by Jill Sweeney
- The Year in Latinx Theater by Teresa Marrero
- The Year in Performing Arts News by Mark Lowry
- A challenge for our readers
Thursday, January 3
- The Year in Theater by Mark Lowry
Friday, January 4
- Looking ahead to 2019