Editor's note: Welcome to our 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.
This edition is dedicated to albums from Broadway and cabaret stars, including three from the 54 Below Series, and the Christmas album from Hamilton's Leslie Odom, Jr.
If You Knew My Story — Live at 54 Below
Released Dec. 2, 2016
As we’ve mentioned before in this column, Broadway Records does an incredible job recording musicals and cabaret that could otherwise go lost. Their “Live at 54 Below” series showcases artists recorded, well, live at 54 Below. Carmen Cusack, late of the beautiful and original Bright Star, features in their latest offering, If You Knew My Story — Live at 54 Below.
Roughly half of the tracks are songs from Bright Star, presented here in smaller arrangements (five instrumentalists comprise the band) by her music director Anthony DeAngelis. In these pared-down, distilled versions of the songs, Ms. Cusack seems even more connected to the material than on the cast album. Her bravery of singing and clearness of delivery make these songs truly stand out. Her patter between the songs is charming and feels very authentic.
Other tracks include the seemingly required “career medley” — from “Think of Me” to “I Dreamed a Dream” to “The Wizard and I” to “Back to Before” — something a lot of theater performers have started doing in cabaret and concert settings. If feels a little unnecessary and out-of-place here, but that’s a small quibble given the fact that in one live performance, she very impressively goes from pseudo-operatic legit to nail-it-to-the-wall belt to the bluegrass/folk style of the Bright Star songs. One simply doesn’t see many Tony-nominated Broadway performers displaying that level of versatility.
The most compelling performance on the CD, though, may be her “Wayfaring Stranger,” which as she says, takes her “back to her gospel roots.” Of all the tracks, it may be the most heartfelt of them all. For a lady who’s lived and worked basically all over the world, one imagines she knows quite well of what she sings.
Leslie Odom Jr.
Released Nov. 11, 2016
It is easy to become extremely jaded where Christmas music is concerned. The day after Thanksgiving, the ubiquitous top 20 list of Most-Adored-Christmas-Songs-Ever rears its ugly head…AGAIN. No department store, elevator or office party is safe from the same hackneyed “Holly Jolly Christmas Songs.” Our ears are assailed by “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and on and on, over and over, until one is found lying comatose among the department store holiday displays with a half-checked-off Christmas list clutched in one hand and the very last Betsy Wetsy doll clutched in the other.
What a joy, then, to find an album that brings new life to the same old Christmas tunes.
Fresh from his Tony-winning performance as Aaron Burr in Broadway's mega hit musical Hamilton, Leslie Odom Jr. puts a fresh spin on traditional Christmas songs. These wonderfully jazzy arrangements prevent this album from becoming yet another hackneyed retread of tired old chestnuts. Mr. Odom never phones in a performance but, rather, draws new insight from familiar material. In addition to old favorites such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The First Noel,” and “I'll Be Home for Christmas,” there are some pleasant surprises. “Merry Christmas, Darling” makes a successful break from Karen Carpenter's iconic rendition. “Winter Song,” penned by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson, is not a Christmas song, per say, but rather a haunting, subtly driving meditation on winter, cold and the agony of separated lovers. This track in particular is a profoundly welcome respite from the saccharine sweet of the Christmas season.
Barb Jungr & John McDaniel
Released Oct. 28, 2016
In the most recent release from “the high priestess of cabaret” (Adam Feldman, Time Out New York), Barb Jungr joins forces with Broadway’s John McDaniel on a collection of Beatles songs. As is always the case with these two deeply gifted artists, the taste level here is high and the work is exceptional. At the same time, these reinterpretations feel buoyant and improvisational—their interpersonal rapport comes across brilliantly on the album.
We all know John McDaniel as a multi-award-winning producer and music director, perhaps most famously for The Rosie O’Donnell Show. His arrangements and playing here are spectacular — simple yet inventive, never drawing attention to themselves as themselves, but an essential part of the world of the song. His singing is charming, bright and clear, particularly on “Mother Nature’s Son” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” not to mention the multiple duets they share (a blues-inflected “Back in the USSR” being a particular highlight).
Barb Jungr, possibly the hardest-working woman in cabaret (this is her second album to be released this year), continues to lead the way in terms of song performance. From a breathy whisper to full-out soul, her singing is ever-changing, yet never anything but authentic. She delivers lyrics with an unadorned directness that makes you think of songs in new ways. “Eleanor Rigby” is a particular highlight — a haunting song about people who don’t (can’t? won’t?) connect, even in life’s most profound moments.
The medleys do what all good medleys do: one song expands on the world of the other. The pairings of “Something/The Long and Winding Road” and “Getting Better/Here There and Everywhere” are especially compelling. Possibly the most revelatory track on the album is “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”—it’s been stuck in my head since I first heard it. Genius work.
[Full disclosure: John and Barb are personal friends, but these opinions are strictly my own.]
Charles Busch - Live at Feinstein's/54 Below
Released Dec. 2, 2016
The genius of Charles Busch lies in the fact that his camp style is simultaneously a sendup and a celebration of the great ladies of the silver screen. As author, actor and provocateur he began writing and producing his own shows in the mid-1980's at the Limbo Lounge, a gallery and performance space on the lower east side of New York City. His first success was Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, followed by a string of successes that include Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium; Pardon My Inquisition, or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets; Psycho Beach Party; Die, Mommy, Die! and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife with Busch usually playing the leading lady in drag. Of his work he has said, “When I first started drag I wasn't this shy young man but instead a powerful woman. It liberated within me a whole vocabulary of expression. It was less a political statement than an aesthetic one.”
Make no mistake, Mr. Busch has not created a sassy alter ego. While performing this cabaret show in his trademark red bouffant wig and evening gown he is always Charles Busch. That being said, his show is a brilliant yet subtle satire/homage to cabaret greats Mabel Mercer, Helen Morgan and others. There is a wonderful melodramatic quality to his performance that could become parody if it weren't rooted so deeply in the truth of the moment.
His set list is a “who's who” of the Great American Songbook. Taking a Chance on Love, Bill and Road to Morocco are surprisingly fresh. Mr. Busch loves a medley. His reading of Sondheim's “With So Little to Be Sure Of” coupled with “Too Many Mornings” is deeply profound. The obscure Leslie Bricusse song “What a Lot of Flowers” is coupled to great effect with “Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here!” and Mr. Busch brings surprising poignancy to the pairing of Sondheim's “There's a Parade in Town” and Noël Coward's “Sail Away.”
Mr. Busch's patter is clever and witty without ever descending into camp. He tells stories of his formative childhood, life on the road with his music director Tom Judson, and introduces us to his cabaret-diva-alter-ego Miriam Passman. Near the end of his show he tells us that he chose the last song because he was looking for something contemporary to update his musical image. “It was written in 1979. But it's a great song. It's from The Muppet Movie. I always had a problem with the Muppets. They remind me of certain older men I have dated.”
That song, of course, is “The Rainbow Connection,” which beautifully sums up Charles Busch's show and this recording. “What's so amazing that keeps us star gazing and what do we think we might see. Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers...and me.”
Acoustically Speaking: Twenty Years of Friendship
Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp
Released Dec. 2, 2016
The problem with having starred in an iconic Broadway musical is that you are forever connected with that show. It is a blessing and a curse. You are happy for the recognition it brings and the doors it opens but regardless of what you may accomplish down the road, it can be hard to shake the association. This seems to be the case for Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp who originated the roles of Rodger and Mark respectively in the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning Broadway production of Rent, but no matter how you look at it, for most musical theater fans of a certain age, the two actors will forever be Rodger and Mark.
This performance, recorded live as part of Feinstein's/54 Below's ongoing series for Broadway Records, does very little if anything to take the listener beyond these two career-making roles. What could be an interesting evening of innovative music-making is simply a rehash of Rent tunes and ‘90s-era top 40. There is an effort made to feature post-Rent career highlights but the song choices, ballads from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Cabaret, create an unnecessary drag on the show. Pascal singing “Memory” from Cats and Rapp's uptempo jazz interpretation of George Gershwin's “But Not for Me” are two bizarre missteps that are totally out of place in a show that is heavy pop tunes and Rent nostalgia.
Billed as an acoustic show with Daniel A. Weiss on piano, Peter Sachon on cello and Pascal on guitar, the arrangements are never more than barely adequate. Pascal's guitar is slightly out of tune and his playing unimaginative. Weiss ably accompanies several songs but never comes alive except in his jazz interpretation of “But Not for Me.” Sachon's cello offers a welcome change but adds nothing new or interesting to the show. No effort seems to have been made to create insightful interpretations of any of the songs presented on this recording. Both Pascal and Rapp are very talented, strong singers. Too strong, it would seem, for the bare bones instrumentals. Oh, how I wish they'd had some kick-ass arrangements played by an even more kick-ass acoustic band.
This recording seems to be a strange anomaly in a series that has, so far, released nothing but beautifully curated, well-considered recordings.
Note from Jay: I would like to take a moment to say that James's and Jay's thoughts and prayers are with the Loncar family at this difficult time. Please feel free to donate to the Grace and Brian Loncar Foundation whose mission is to help teenagers and families minimize the loss and suffering from youth depression, suicide and other related illnesses. More info at http://graceandbrianloncarfoundation.mydagsite.com/.
» 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, and is teaching this fall at Binghampton University in Binghampton, New York.
» 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. He can be seen in the chorus at the Dallas Opera this fall.
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.
July 2016: Cast recordings of Bright Star, the revival of She Loves Me, Cheyenne Jackson's solo album Renaissance, and Benjamin Scheuer's Songs from the Lion.
August 2016: James and Jay discuss some of their favorite things, including the cast recording they each first fell in love with.
September 2016: James and Jay discuss the year of Hamilton
October 2016: Reviews of new albums by Kristin Chenoweth, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Diana Sheehan and cast recordings of Disaster! and The Robber Bridegroom.