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 James and Jay look at recently released Broadway recordings: Bandstand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Groundhog Day and Anastasia.
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released June 23, 2017
The 2016-17 Broadway season will go on record as one applauded not only for its diversity in casting, but for the variety of musicals crowding the Great White Way. Dear Evan Hansen, this year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, shines a light on mental illness, teen suicide and the perils of social media. Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 has transformed the Imperial Theater into a totally immersive performance space and features one of the most far-ranging and innovative scores to be heard on a Broadway stage in recent memory. Come From Away is a brilliant piece of investigative theater that is at turns both uplifting and devastating.
Add to this list the original musical Bandstand. Directed and choreographed by three-time Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler and with a score written by lyricist/composer Richard Oberacker and lyricist/book writer Robert Taylor, the plot follows Donny Novitski, played by the golden-voiced Corey Cott, just home from World War II and trying to return to civilian life. He’s a pianist by trade but he’s also suffering complications from PTSD. Donny decides to put together a band made up of his veterans to enter a nationwide radio contest. Along the way they are joined by a recently widowed band singer named Julia Trojan, played by the radiant Laura Osnes. The plot, thin as it may seem, is your typical gotta-make-it-in-showbiz story that blends a pastiche of big bands and classic MGM musicals of the 1940s with a serious examination of the impact of PTSD on war veterans.
The score seems to have two distinct personalities, one is 1940’s big band and the other is contemporary musical theater. The score shines when emulating Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and other popular bands of the era. In these moments the music swaggers, sparkles and embodies the restless energy of post-World War II America. The more personal moments in the show employ a more inventive contemporary sound. This is most evident in Osnes’s song “Who I Was,” Beth Level’s beautifully executed “Everything Happens” and the show’s 11 o’clock number “Welcome Home.”
This isn’t a bad show. Far from it. But the mixing of the big band sounds and the contemporary musical theater sounds are often at odds with one another, making it appear as though the show is having an identity crisis.
Bandstand, which has a team of producers that includes Dallas' Roger Horchow and Terry D. Loftis, was only nominated for two Tony Awards this year but managed to take home Best Choreographer for Mr. Blankenbuehler. Time will tell us how long a run Bandstand will have.
— Jay Gardner
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released June 2, 2017
Now that the 2016-’17 Broadway season is officially over and all the awards have been handed out, we wait for the dust to clear: code for “we wait and see which shows post closing notices.” Admittedly this is a harsh thing to say, but everyone knows that a Tony win can ensure a healthy Broadway run and a successful national tour.
So far, no musicals have announced “Final Weeks! Must Close!” Dear Evan Hansen, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and Come From Away were all awarded the coveted medallions and have strong advances ensuring that they will be around for the foreseeable future, probably with national tours. But, there are others that may be weighing their options, hoping weekly grosses will translate into a profitable run without a big Awards Season win.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory falls into this category. Based on Roald Dahl’s beloved 1964 children’s novel as well as the 1971 cult classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the show features a score by Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman and incorporates songs written for the film by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. The current production comes to Broadway via London’s West End, with a major retooling by Shaiman, Whitman and book writer David Greig.
The result is a stage adaptation that seems to veer far from its source material. Dahl’s story features an underlying warm sentiment tempered by a series of darkly comic scenarios. The songs written by Newley and Bricusse capitalize beautifully on this contrast. “Pure Imagination” captures the wonder to be found inside Wonka’s famous chocolate factory, while “The Oompa Loompa Song” presents the famously orange-skinned, green haired little people as a Greek Chorus warning us of the perils in store for greedy children.
In this adaptation, the Newley/Bricusse songs offer grounded, focused storytelling. That is, when they are allowed to shine. “The Oompa Loompa Song” is given only a brief nod, one quick stanza, before morphing into a newly written tune. In general, Shaiman and Wittman’s score consists mostly of very fast-paced, often frantic production numbers, each bigger and more involved than the last. After a while, it becomes exhausting. Is this a case of flash and sparkle covering up a general lack of substance? One has to wonder.
Other questions worth asking: do each of the major characters need an establishing song of their own? Probably not. Does the show have to be relocated to the United States for American audiences to understand the story? It didn’t in the case of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Kinky Boots. Do allusions have to be made to modern-day politics and the perils of social media? After I recovered from being hit over the head over and over with those, I’d say no.
All that aside, there are some good performances. Jake Ryan Flynn, Ryan Foust and Ryan Sell are all three wonderful alternating as the title character, and Jackie Hoffman is a standout as Mrs. Teavee, the crazed mother of Mike Teavee, who in the original novel is a television-obsessed boy and here is portrayed as a social media superstar.
The oddest bit of casting is that of two-time Tony Winner Christian Borle as Willy Wonka. He gives off a strange energy on the recording that makes his character seem less a reclusive yet brilliant chocolate factory owner and more a creepy predator who is luring children into his factory for nefarious reasons.
The recording itself seems over produced. It sounds like a soundtrack taken from a TV movie and gives no impression of the live theatrical experience. The score works too hard at making a heartwarming yet darkly comic novel seem noisy and sparkly rather than taking its lead from the wonderfully realized Newley/Bricusse songs which get at the heart of Roald Dahl’s story.
That being said, it does have name recognition, a noted Broadway star in a leading role and it has already announced a national tour to be launched in 2018. All pluses, to be sure. Despite its shortcomings, I’m sure it will have a very healthy Broadway run.
— Jay Gardner
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released May 12, 2017
After winning Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Actor in its London run last season, Groundhog Day, based on the 1993 film of the same name, arrived on Broadway this past season to generally positive reviews. With a book by Danny Rubin, based on the screenplay he co-wrote with Harold Ramis, the score is by Tim Minchin of Matilda fame. In the role made iconic by Bill Murray, Andy Karl stars as Phil Connors, the arrogant weatherman on assignment in Punxsutawney, Pa., to report on whether the groundhog will see his shadow or not. Just as in the film, he finds himself repeating that day, Feb. 2, over and over, until he learns how to live life on life’s terms.
The Broadway cast album has some very good things going for it.
Two wonderful points about this recording: first, it sounds theatrical. The mixing and engineering embrace the fact that this is a theatre recording and give the sound some “space,” some reverb. Second, Chris Nightingale’s orchestrations are placed front-and-center, bringing major variety and texture to Minchin’s score, which is often catchy and clever, but not as catchy and clever as Matilda. His lyrics, so immediately clear and concise in Matilda, need repeated listening here, and his melodies and chord structures aren’t quite as inventive.
There are several stand-out songs, though. “Stuck,” in which Phil visits every doctor and healer in town, looking for a cure for what he thinks is a mental breakdown, is very funny and smart. In “One Day,” Rita shares her frustration in not being able to meet a man who lives up to her expectations, and the townspeople wonder when their perfect moment to do what they always wanted to do will arrive. “Night Will Come” presents Phil’s forgotten friend Ned contemplating the inevitability of life’s ups and downs. Strangely, the second act opener—“Playing Nancy,” in which a fairly minor character contemplates her life—seems completely unrelated to anything else in the show.
Minor issues aside, this recording makes one want to see the show. And isn’t that a cast album’s biggest goal?
— James McQuillen
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released June 9, 2017
Anastasia is another stage adaptation of a film. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, with book writer Terrence McNally, have created a revised and expanded version of their 1997 film, using aspects of the 1956 Ingrid Bergman film as inspiration.
Style in theatre writing is key, and the Ahrens and Flaherty style is clear and much-beloved. In Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical and their other work, you can hear their “isms”—certain turns of phrase or musical and rhythmic qualities that define the Ahrens and Flaherty style. The issue with the new songs for this production is that they’re just not as good, not as inventive, as the songs for the film. They feel generic, and often sound less than inspired. It’s definitely their style, but lacking the substance that makes “Back to Before,” “Your Daddy’s Son” and “Waiting for Life” such standout songs from their other musicals.
There are new characters, new locations, new plot points, new plots, new plots-within-plots…just too much to be clear in a recording. Even following along in a synopsis is more work than should be necessary. Having not seen it, one wonders how well the show does or doesn’t hold together onstage.
Generally, the singing on the recording is wonderful, especially from Christy Altomare in the title role (“Journey to the Past” and “In My Dreams” are particularly good) and from Ramin Karimloo as Gleb (“Still” is a highlight). Mary Beth Peil as the Dowager Empress exudes old-school Broadway class in her song “Close the Door”—one just wishes it was better material.
In the play Full Gallop, the character Diana Vreeland asks: “Too much? Or not enough?” Anastasia seems to be both.
» The Music Men runs on the first Wednesday of the month on TheaterJones (except this edition, running on the third Wednesday). 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
- June: Broadway cast recordings of The Great Comet, Hello, Dolly!, In Transit, Amelie, War Paint; and Dreamgirls in London