Editor's note: Welcome to the third of our new monthly column dedicated to reviews and discussions of theatrical recordings: original cast recordings, solo records by theater and cabaret greats and anything else we think fits. The Music Men is written by James McQuillen, a locally well known music director and arranger, and Jay Gardner, an actor, vocalist and potter. Together, they run the Front Line Cabaret series, one of several local organizations reviving the art of cabaret in North Texas.
This month we have their thoughts on the recently closed new Broadway musical Bright Star; the Broadway revival of She Loves Me (which was recently live streamed and will have a theatrical release this fall); the new album from Broadway and TV star Cheyenne Jackson; and Benjamin Scheuer's Songs from the Lion.
Original Cast Recording
Released April 29, 2016
This past season on Broadway was, by many estimations, the strongest in quite some time. 12 of the 16 musicals that opened were original productions, most of which were based on films or books. One production was based not on a film or book, but on a 2013 album titled Love Has Come For You, by native Texan Steve Martin and former Dallasite Edie Brickell. After fleshing out a plot and writing quite a few new songs, the album became Bright Star. Having opened in March of this year, the show was nominated for five Tony Awards, won none, and fairly quickly announced its closing. Thankfully, an excellent cast album was released this spring.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell won the Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award for the score, and it’s clear from this recording why they did. The bluegrass-flavored score (Steve Martin refers to the style as “Broadway/Americana” in his note in the booklet) is inventive, charming and theatrical. The melding of Martin’s bluegrass style and Brickell’s Southern folk writing is natural and feels so “right” for this story. The only quibble I have with the recording is that it is difficult to discern the plot (it is a little complicated) purely from the songs. A small quibble, really, when one could also say that about many cast recordings from the “Golden Age.”
Carmen Cusack (a graduate of University of North Texas), A. J. Shively and Hannah Elless are especially splendid on the recording. Cusack’s “If You Knew My Story” and “Way Back in the Day” are great examples of storytelling through singing, especially in this style. It’s interesting to note that Cusack has played roles as varied as Christine in The Phantom of the Opera and Elphaba in Wicked—and her singing on this recording is wonderful and totally grounded in “Broadway/Americana.” In smaller roles, Stephen Bogardus, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Emily Padgett and Stephen Lee Anderson shine.
The biggest kudos, though, must go to Peter Asher (Music Supervisor and Album Producer) and Rob Berman (Music Director and Vocal Arranger). It’s not just the terrific singing that leaps out at you, but the band (led by Berman at the piano) is spectacular—stylistic and exciting. At a time when so many cast recordings suffer from an overmixed, overproduced lack of electricity, this recording feels very much alive.
Here’s hoping this terrific score and interesting, original story find a home in regional theater.
— James McQuillen
She Loves Me
2016 Broadway Revival
Released June 29 (digital), July 29 on CD
Contemporary cast recordings are often recorded in studios where each actor has been sentenced to their own personal sound booth, earphones placed squarely on their heads while the orchestra is either in another room or not present having recorded their tracks sometime in the recent past. The actors rarely have direct contact with one another and the whole process can seem very disconnected and sterile. This often comes across in the finished product where the excitement, energy and immediacy of the live performance are sacrificed for a technically perfect recording.
I am happy to report that the original cast recording of the current Broadway revival of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's musical She Loves Me has avoided these pitfalls and presents a shining example of what a beautifully produced cast recording can be. It brings to mind the Golden Age of original cast albums when Columbia Records, RCA and others produced flawless recordings of classics by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim and many, many more.
From the opening bars of the overture—remember when musicals had overtures?—the plaintive sound of an accordion and solo violin take us back to the cafes of old Budapest where Georg, played with unbridled energy by Zachary Levi, and Amalia, a shimmering Laura Benanti, are clerks at Maraczek's Parfumerie. Constantly bumping heads while on the job, the two don't realize they have been anonymously corresponding with one another through a lonely hearts club. A comedy of errors ensues as love blossoms and all is revealed in the end but not without a few bumps along the way.
The supporting cast reads like a Who's Who of A-List character actors. Jane Krakowski shines as Ilona Ritter bringing a zany innocence to "A Trip to the Library." Gavin Creel brings a wonderful smarminess to Steven Kodaly and gives a tour de force performance of "Grand Knowing You." Tony winner Michael McGrath makes the perfect Sipos and gives a peerless reading of the song "Perspective." The legendary music director Paul Geminani leads the entire company in a flawless reading of the score. His precision and command of musical style provides the cherry on top of the Esterhazy Torte that is this recording.
Producer Kurt Deutsch and Sh-K-Boom Records, which has taken on the mantle of producing original cast albums as the major labels have either folded or stopped producing recordings of Broadway and Off Broadway musicals all together, follows in the tradition of the great cast recordings by re-creating not only the energy and immediacy of a live performance but cloaking every track in a slight but glorious reverb that conjures up images of grand old Broadway theaters with red velvet seats and crystal chandeliers. This recording is a joy!
— Jay Gardner
by Cheyenne Jackson
Released June 3, 2016
Based on his solo show Music of the Mad Men Era, Cheyenne Jackson released an album titled Renaissance in early June. The song list is a Sinatra-esque collection of standards and showtunes with music direction by Broadway’s Kevin Stites. Songs like “Bésame Mucho,” “Angel Eyes” and “Feelin' Good” live in the Frank Sinatra/Michael Bublé “big band” style, while “A Case of You” and “Your Song” have simpler, more intimate arrangements. Jane Krakowski joins Jackson for “Something Stupid,” which is so much more charming than the father-daughter Frank and Nancy Sinatra version.
All in all, this collection of songs is good, if underwhelming. Having seen Jackson in Finian’s Rainbow and Xanadu, I’ve found him to be a funny, charming performer in the past, whose singing was always masculine and grounded. This album lacks humor (except on “Something Stupid”) and feels a little random somehow. Maybe it is almost every song having a different feel and backing group, or maybe it’s some inconsistent singing. The recording does seem to me to have a lack of focus—are we celebrating the Mad Men era (“Something Stupid,” "Bésame Mucho”) or are we celebrating the self-revelatory singer-songwriters of the '70s (“Your Song” and “A Case of You”)?
All that being said, this is a nice, middle-of-the-road recording by an experienced Broadway performer who is branching out into TV (American Horror Story) and film (the upcoming Hello, Again)—nothing life-altering, but nothing terrible. Give it a listen and see what you think!
— J. M.
Songs from the Lion
By Benjamin Scheuer
Every so often a recording comes along that elicits a primal, visceral response. The experience is not unlike taking a ride on a roller coaster. The sequence of songs takes you through a series of emotional ascents, stomach churning drops and, as the ride comes to an end, a final transformation. Each twist and turn brings with it a wide range of emotions as deeply moving for the listener as it is for the performer. Benjamin Scheuer provides just this sort of roller coaster ride in his new album Songs from The Lion.
This recording is based on Scheuer’s one-man, autobiographical musical The Lion which was developed in the coffee houses and cabaret spaces of downtown New York City and had its theatrical premiere at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2013. It has since gone on to a successful run in London, a U.S. national tour, and won a slew of awards that includes a Theater World Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and an Off West End Award. (The tour was originally going to appear in Dallas on AT&T Performing Arts Center's Off-Broadway on Flora series this year, but was replaced by the equally brilliant Ghost Quartet.)
The songs focus mainly on Scheuer’s relationship with his father, his six-and-a-half year relationship with a woman named Julia, and his battle at the age of 28 with stage four Hodgkins Lymphoma. In the song “Cookie-Tin Banjo” he reveals how his father gave him his love of music. In “Weather the Storm” (see animated video above) he meditates on how we learn from life’s challenges. He examines the lasting legacy of his parents’ relationship in “An Unexpected Phone Call.” He details his emotional state as he waits to hear if his chemotherapy is working in “Cure.” He details the unravelling of his relationship with Julia from her perspective in “Invisible Cities.” Finally, he makes peace with his father’s legacy in “Dear Dad.”
Throughout this albums 16 tracks, Scheuer reveals over and over again his innate talent for revealing uncomfortable emotional truths in a very direct, eloquent, and introspective way. He is an artist who is ready and willing to bare his soul in public understanding that the most private parts of ourselves are often best suited for musical treatment regardless of how painful that revelation might be. He has said, "If you want to write a good song, write what you don't want other people to know about you. If you want to write a great song, write what you don't want to know about yourself." Scheuer's uncompromising self-examination has produced an album that is refreshingly intimate, painfully honest and deeply soul-stirring. It is an emotional roller coaster.
» The Music Men runs periodically on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» James McQuillen is an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. He produces Front Line Cabaret with Gardner.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater and cabaret. He is currently taking time out of his schedule to start a business selling his handmade pottery, which can be seen here.
February 2016: The Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the Encores! Off-Center revival of William Finn's A New Brain, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Life from the Cafe Carlyle, and an album of Lea DeLaria singing David Bowie songs.
March 2016: New York City Center Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good; the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof; the Public Theater's 2015 premiere of John Michael LaChiusa's First Daughter Suite; and the latest from British cabaret great Barb Jungr.