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 month, just in time for the Tony Awards, James and Jay have a bevy of new cast recordings, some of which haven't been released yet. James looks at the Broadway recordings of In Transit, Amélie and Hello, Dolly!; while Jay checks out Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, War Paint and the London cast recording of Dreamgirls.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
Original Broadway Cast
Released May 19, 2017
It comes as no surprise that more than a few Broadway musicals have been based on strange, odd, or just simply bad ideas. Many are doomed before they have barely begun. Some flops produce a stand-alone song that survives the theatrical carnage. “Meadowlark” from Stephen Schwartz’s musical The Bakers Wife comes to mind. Or the original cast album carries on the show’s legacy leaving one to ask, “If the score is so good, how could the show have been a flop?” Merrily We Roll Along fits that description.
There are also the successes. Urinetown, revolves around a dystopian world in which you have to pay to use the bathroom. BIG success. Jerry Springer: The Opera is based on, you guessed it, The Jerry Springer Show. That show was both controversial AND a hit. Andrew Lloyd Webber gave the world Cats which is about…well…cats, and Starlight Express is about anthropomorphized trains. Both were world-wide successes.
So it comes as no surprise that a musical based on 70 pages found within Volume Two, Part Five of Tolstoy’s War and Peace might sound a bit far-fetched as the source material for a musical, but that is just the thing composer and lyricist Dave Malloy has done. His complex score draws on Russian folk music, contemporary Broadway pop, electronic dance music, the arias of classical opera, and various alternative vocal techniques. Malloy brings all of these disparate elements together into one swirling, mind-blowing score that evokes not only the sweep of Tolstoy’s magnum opus, but also focuses intimately on the ways in which a vast array of characters is affected by the rules of Russian society in 1812.
This unique show began life at off-Broadway’s 87-seat Ars Nova Theater, had a developmental production at Boston’s American Repertory Theater, and now occupies Broadway’s 1,200 seat Imperial Theater, which has been totally transformed into a Russian supper club in which the actors move freely among the audience as the story is played out. The show has been selling out on a nightly basis since late last Fall.
There now exists two separate and complete cast recordings of this show. One made during the off-Broadway run and one reflecting the current production at the Imperial. In general, changes made by Dave Malloy are few and far between. The new Broadway cast recording is by far better produced. The sound quality is much brighter, the cast’s diction is crisper, and the colors in the orchestration come through with greater clarity all thanks to Or Matias’ exemplary music direction.
The biggest difference between the two recordings concerns the recasting of the actors playing the title characters. Philipa Soo performs the role of Natasha beautifully on the off-Broadway recording but departed the show to play Eliza Schuyler in the Broadway production of Hamilton and then to star in the short-lived musical Amelie. Her replacement, Denée Benton, radiates a charming and ultimately tragic naiveté. Her rendition of the song “No One Else” is simply ravishing.
Famously, the role of Pierre, originally played at Ars Nova and on the off-Broadway recording by Dave Malloy, is now played by popera star Josh Groban in a surprisingly engaging and deeply theatrical performance. His crooning bari-tenor may be too pretty for some despite his best effort to approximate Mr. Malloy’s naturally growling, gravelly voice. Nevertheless, he is impressive, especially in the song “Dust and Ashes,” written specifically for Mr. Groban and added to the Broadway production. (In a side note, Mr. Groban plays accordion and piano throughout the show, sometimes participating for long stretches as a member of the onstage band.)
The rest of the cast is held over from the off-Broadway production. Lucas Steele as Anatole sings with energy and swagger.
Grace McLean as Marya attacks her performance more aggressively than on the off-Broadway recording. This is a portrayal that has obviously deepened and expanded with time. She takes incredible risks both dramatically and vocally and her bravery pays off in spades. Why she wasn’t honored with a Tony nomination is anyone’s guess.
Brittain Ashford plays Natasha’s cousin and confidant Sonya. Her soulful, indie-rock voice is lovely in the song “Sonya Alone” but her diction leaves much to be desired. Amber Gray is fantastic as Pierre’s estranged wife Hélène, giving an impressively sinister performance of the song “Charming” which drips poison from every phrase.
In the end, it’s a case of apples and oranges. It all depends on which recorded version you prefer. No doubt, purists may pledge their allegiance to the off-Broadway recording while those who are Josh Groban fans or first experienced The Great Comet via the Broadway incarnation will prefer its corresponding album. In either case, this is an exciting, adventurous score that does a lot to convey the experience of seeing it live, at least as much as any cast album can. I suggest experiencing it in multiple hearings. The more you can get to know this piece the more fascinating it becomes. And if you have the opportunity to see it on Broadway, take it! It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
— Jay Gardner
2017 Broadway Cast Recording
Released May 12, 2017
Who ever thought we would see a revival of Hello, Dolly!, one of the most iconic Broadway musicals of the 20th century? For years, every conversation regarding a revival of the show hinged upon the most important question: “But who will be Dolly?” and seemed to end there. For better or for worse, Carol Channing’s shadow loomed large over the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi, and the show itself. Then, the producer Scott Rudin solved the problem! It was announced that Bette Midler would star in the current revival, and the show became THE hot ticket of the 2016-’17 Broadway season.
With new orchestrations by Larry Hochman, this recording begins with a revised overture played by a 22-piece orchestra conducted by Andy Einhorn. It’s great, but there’s just…something missing. What is it? Maybe it’s Dolly.
Dolly’s first song, “I Put My Hand In,” is a great introduction our title character, all about her matchmaking and meddling and kind but firm coercion of others. Her singing is terrific, of course. Not the Bette from “Live at Last” or “The Rose,” nor the Bette from “Beaches” or “For the Boys,” but she’s still wonderful. There’s just…something missing.
Skip ahead to “Put On Your Sunday Clothes.” Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch as Cornelius and Barnaby bring such vigor and fire and joy and vitality to the song. That’s what’s missing! A kind of vitality, joy and vigor these classic Broadway musicals embody like nothing else. Dolly’s section of the song doesn’t have the same joy and vigor, but then we ramp up to the end and the whole ensemble sings and it’s just grand. It’s full of excitement—exactly what the song is written and constructed to do.
For my taste, the whole recording goes this way. Gavin Creel, Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein make the quartet of lovers the star of this recording. Their vitality and theatricality are totally captivating. Kate Baldwin’s performance of “Ribbons Down My Back” makes you think one of Jerry Herman’s least engaging songs is one of his best. The ensemble singing is joyful and stylistic—the end of “Sunday Clothes” had me grinning ear to ear.
Strangely, at least on the recording (I do hear that she’s absolutely incandescent in the theatre), Bette Midler’s Dolly doesn’t generally get off the ground. “Before the Parade Passes By” is written as a life-affirming, rollicking anthem in praise of “rejoining the human race”; here, it’s a clean and careful reading of a Jerry Herman song with glorious contributions from the ensemble.
Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t say the recording is bad by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, it’s fascinating to listen to, given the seeming imbalance in the recorded performances. One wonders what it’s like onstage, and you’ll either have to get up very early to stand in line, or wait until 2018 and hope The Divine Miss M renews her contract.
— James McQuillen
Original London Cast Recording
Sony Masterworks Broadway
Released May 12, 2017
It’s hard to believe that the production of Dreamgirls currently selling out London’s historic Savoy Theatre is the show’s West End premiere.
The original Broadway production opened 36 years ago at the Imperial Theater in New York City and ran for more than 1,500 performances. It made Jennifer Holiday a star and would be the last show Michael Bennett directed and choreographed for Broadway before his untimely death.
The show was groundbreaking in many respects. The score, with music by Henry Krieger and a book and lyrics by Tom Eyen, was equal parts R&B and disco with a little rap thrown in before rap had become mainstream. The show’s highly automated set with its revolving light towers dazzled audiences and its rags-to-riches story of a girl group discovered at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night and catapulted to fame and fortune was one that, as of yet, hadn’t been seen on Broadway.
The show’s cast album was equally slick. but the LP only captured the shows highlights, leaving out almost half the score, the reason being that the producers wanted the album to resemble a pop record rather than an original cast album. Even with this drawback, the record went far in promoting Dreamgirls’ glamorous image. You’d think that the show would easily be a hit across the pond.
But London was a different place in 1981. The era of the mega musical would begin in May of that year with the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, but prior to that, West End musicals tended to have short runs. A show that ran more than 400 or 500 performances was considered a major hit. Even a long-running Broadway musical could find its London incarnation closing after only a couple hundred performances. It’s easy to see why Dreamgirls never opened there.
That is until December of 2016. If the strength of this recording is any indication, London is more than ready for Dreamgirls. Recorded live at the Savoy Theatre, every note of the pulsing, story-driven score is here, music directed with laser-like precision by Nick Finlow.
A mostly first-rate cast is led by Amber Riley in the central role of Effie White. You may remember Ms. Riley from the highly successful but heavily auto-tuned television series Glee. In case you’re worried about whether Ms. Riley is up to the task of playing Effie White, complete with the powerhouse first act closer “And I Am Tellin’ You I’m Not Going,” you can put those worries to rest. Riley is resplendent in the iconic role and sounds as fresh in the final moments of the show as she does in the first 10 minutes.
Liisi La Fontaine and Ibinabo Jack give Riley ample support as Dina Jones and Lorelle Robinson, the other two members of the girl group The Dreams, but they don’t seem to be able to keep up with Riley’s powerhouse performance, although they do have moments where they shine. Joe Aaron Reid as Curtis Taylor Junior and Adam J. Bernard as James Thunder Early give impressive performances.
It being a live recording, there is the occasional sour note, which is to be expected. There are also some fairly sloppy vocals in the final scene when Effie is reunited with the Dreams on the stage of the Apollo Theater. It would be a minor criticism had the rest of the album not been so exceptional. Otherwise, this is a marvelous recording of a beautifully produced British revival of an iconic American musical. Let’s hope it finds its way to a Broadway theater soon.
— J. G.
Original Cast Recording
Released July 21, 2017
In late December of last year, Broadway’s first a cappella musical opened. Written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen), James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, In Transit tells the intertwined stories of diverse New Yorkers. The commonality among them is their use of the subway—strangers and friends coming together and their stories being revealed, not unlike the conceit of Grand Hotel or On the 20th Century.
It being a cappella, there is not one instrument to be found, unless you count the wonderful vocal contributions of Chesney Snow and Steven “HeaveN” Cantor as Boxman (the credits here are a little difficult to discern in today’s digital world). The vocals are generally terrific, but the whole album is so “produced,” you get no sense of what the show must have been like live, nor do you get much sense of the quality of the individual voices, but for a few moments. Moya Angela as Ms. Williams has maybe the most compelling song, “A Little Friendly Advice,” and Telly Leung and Justin Guarini have some nice moments as a gay couple dealing with their families.
The real stars of this recording, though, are the vocal arranger Deke Sharon (also an arranger and vocal producer of Pitch Perfect) and the music director Rick Hip-Flores. The arrangements and music direction are spectacular. Maybe that’s what this cast album functions best as: an a cappella album that is only representative of a musical. It’s not a particularly fascinating or varied score, but it is an entertaining recording, perfect for a road trip or the gym.
— J. M.
Original Cast Recording
Released July 14, 2017
Write a musical based on the famous rivalry between cosmetic titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, hire two Broadway leading ladies each with a matching pair of Tony Awards to play said rivals, give the show a catchy name, tie the whole thing up in a gorgeous pink bow, and you’re sure to have a massive hit! At least that’s the idea.
The musical, penned by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie of Grey Gardens fame, is called War Paint. The Broadway leading ladies are Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone. From what I’ve seen in pictures and videos, the sets and costumes are gorgeous to look at, but is the show a hit? It’s too early to say, but judging from the cast album, out recently from Ghostlight Records, one has to wonder.
Arden and Rubenstein, born in Canada and Poland respectively, emigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. At a time when cosmetics were considered fit only for actresses and prostitutes, the two women would give makeup new-found respectability, and create a billion-dollar health and beauty industry, overseen from their respective salons in New York City.
It sounds like a great idea for a musical, but Mr. Frankel and Mr. Korie have given us, along with book writer Doug Wright and director Michael Greif, a show big on glamour but skimpy on conflict. The two women never actually met despite living and working within a few blocks of one another. As a result, we’re never treated to what could have been the confrontation to end all confrontations. Ms. LuPone and Ms. Ebersole are very much at the top of their games. While each has been given material which plays to their strengths, too often the result falls flat.
Mr. Frankel has written a pastiche-filled score that changes style as each decade passes: big band for the 1930’s, a march for the 1940’s and bongos beating out a samba for the 1950’s. In more intimate moments, he falls back on an impressionistic style that evokes the mysterious world to be found within the two rivals’ competing salons.
The two women’s 11 o'clock numbers, “Pink” for Ms. Ebersole and “Forever Beautiful” for Ms. LuPone, don’t provide the emotional heft and punch you expect from two such formidable talents. In general, the tone of the entire show seems a bit too earnest and urgent given the lack of depth within the material. Yes, Arden and Rubenstein were competitors in business, but that’s where the conflict ends. There’s no personal hook. Intrigue in the beauty industry, at least in this case, doesn’t provide enough conflict to carry an entire show. Ms. Ebersole and Ms. Lupone, aided by Bruce Coughlin’s beautiful and constantly bubbling orchestrations, do an excellent job with the material entrusted to them. The problem lies in the fact that the material doesn’t live up to its interpreters’ gifts. I hazard to guess that this score would come to very little if it were entrusted to less capable hands.
— J. G.
Amélie - A New Musical
Original Cast Recording
Released June 9, 2017
Starring one of our most promising young Broadway actresses, Amélie - A New Musical opened in early April and closed in late May after receiving no Tony Award nominations. Philippa Soo of Hamilton and the off-Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 plays the title character—the role that put Audrey Tautou on the map for most people. The tone of the 2001 film was so charming, so quirky, so “French,” but, while charming, the cast recording never really goes much further.
The music is by Daniel Messé of the Brooklyn-based band Hem, lyrics are by Nathan Tyson (Tuck Everlasting), and the book is by Craig Lucas. Amélie’s establishing song, “Times Are Hard for Dreamers,” is lovely, but doesn’t give us much information about who she really is. Other highlights are “The Girl with the Glass”, a musical scene between Amélie and Dufayel, the painter who inspires Amélie, and “A Better Haircut,” a song for the waitresses in the cafe where Amélie also works. Her love interest, Nino, is played by Adam Chanler-Berat, and he has a lovely song about the people in the photo strips he collects, “When the Booth Grows Bright.”
The problem with the score is twofold: 1) The music tries to be swirly and evoke “French-ness,” but it falls short on theatricality; 2) The lyrics are neither quirky enough to recreate the idiosyncratic world of the film, nor specific enough to create a new world for these characters to inhabit on the stage.
One hopes the writers may go back and rework the material, not unlike what Andrew Lippa did with The Addams Family. There is something to be said for a theatrical retelling of the film. It’s unfortunate that the writers didn’t quite achieve what it seems they set out to do.
— J. M.
» The Music Men runs on the first Wednesday of the month 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: 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: 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: 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: James and Jay discuss some of their favorite things, including the cast recording they each first fell in love with.
- September: James and Jay discuss the year of Hamilton
- October: Reviews of new albums by Kristin Chenoweth, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Diana Sheehan and cast recordings of Disaster! and The Robber Bridegroom.
- December: New releases from Carmen Cusack, Leslie Odom Jr., Charles Busch, Barb Jungr and John McDaniel, and Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp.
- February: The Falsettos revival, and Brad Simmons sings Simon and Garfunkel
- March: Jay reveals his favorite theater podcasts, and James crushes on the 2014 cast recording of Here Lies Love
- April: The OCRs for Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Freaky Friday the Musical and recordings from Amanda McBroom and Karen Mason
- May: Betty Buckley's Story Songs, and ast recordings of Pretty Filthy and Jasper in Deadland