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 the new recording of the early Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical adapted from Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; plus Orfeh and Andy Karl live at Feinstein's/54 Below, and Jessica Molaskey does Joni Mitchell songs.
Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Premiere Cast Recording
Released July 28, 2017
In the history of the American musical, a songwriting team’s first effort is usually just that, a first effort. These shows often suffer from structural issues in the book, awkward and questionable rhyme schemes in the lyrics, and scores which lay bare the glaring fact that the composer has yet to find his or her voice. These first shows tend to be clunkers but the writers often go on to score major successes.
After collaborating with lyricists William Daly and Buddy DeSylva, George Gershwin finally teamed up with his brother Ira to create their first successful musical Lady Be Good in 1924. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote songs for the Columbia University Glee Club before The Garrick Gaieties became a Broadway hit in 1925. It took three tries before Allen Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe finally had a Broadway hit with Brigadoon in 1947. And John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote Flora the Red Menace and an industrial show for General Electric called General Electric Presents Go Fly a Kite before they had their first major hit with the iconic musical Cabaret in 1966.
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are members of this elite club. Written in 1979 and based on a novel by Kurt Vonegut, God Love You, Mr. Rosewater tells the story of Eliot Rosewater, played brilliantly by Santino Fontana, a millionaire war veteran who decides to spend his foundation’s fortune on an impoverished town in Indiana after being inspired by the utopian vision of novelist Kilgore Trout. But a lawyer by the name of Norman Mushari, played here by Skylar Aston, wants to put a stop to Eliot’s philanthropy by plotting to have Eliot declared insane so that his estranged relatives can inherit and run the foundation, while also cashing in himself. Despite it being written 38 years ago, this show seems ripped from today’s headlines. The one percent, the working people of middle America, misdirected philanthropy and the disconnect between socio-economic groups are all present. James Earl Jones makes a cameo appearance as the narrator and the novelist Kilgore Trout.
The music and lyrics are not on a par with the later work of Mr. Menken and Mr. Ashman, but as I’ve already stated, a songwriting team’s first show is rarely a success either commercially or artistically. In this case, one can hear the roots of what is to come in Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Like Little shop of Horrors, the score is an eclectic mix of pop styles. In the ballad “Dear Ophelia,” one can already hear the mature composer of “Somewhere That’s Green,” “Part of Your World” and “A Change in Me.” “The Rhode Island Tango,” performed here marvelously by Kevin Del Aguila, Kate Wetherhead and Skylar Astin points the way to “Mushnik and Son” and “Under the Sea.”
Is it a good score? Not particularly. Is the show worthy of producing? Probably not, but it planted the seeds of a highly successful collaboration between Alan Menken and Howard Ashman that was cut tragically short by Ashman’s death from HIV in 1991. This recording, based on the semi-staged concert produced by Encore’s Off-Center, affords listeners the opportunity to hear the first collaboration of the team that almost single handedly resurrected Disney’s animated feature films division and that is something worth celebrating.
— Jay Gardner
Orfeh & Andy Karl: Legally Bound – Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below
Orfeh & Andy Karl
Released Aug. 18, 2017
For the performing arts to survive they have to be willing to change and evolve. Too many institutions become museums for their genres when they refuse to acknowledge the changing world around them and its effect on what they do. I’m happy to report that the art of cabaret is alive and well at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York City as is their on-going series of recordings Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below.
Cabaret can encompass any style of music presented in any number of contexts. This brilliant series presented and recorded in the elegant basement space of the infamous Studio 54 gives some of Broadway’s biggest and brightest stars an opportunity to shine in material specifically tailored to their individual strengths whether it be culled from the Great American Songbook or elsewhere. A song is a song and it is all ripe for the versatile world of cabaret. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the most recent addition to the Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below series Orfeh and Andy Karl: Legally Bound comes to us via real-life husband and wife duo Orfeh and Andy Karl.
These married-in-real-life Broadway veterans tell stories of how they met during the run of Saturday Night Fever on Broadway and their attention-getting reunion in the high-energy stage version of Legally Blonde which earned Orfeh a Tony nomination. In the interim, Karl appeared in the revival of On the Twentieth Century and, most recently, Groundhog Day, both of which garnered him Tony nominations.
The New York Times has said that Orfeh possesses a “powerhouse voice” and Andy Karl is “a theater world heart throb.” Both qualities are presented in spades on this recording which features a heavy dose of pop, rock, rhythm and blues with such ’70s top 40 hits as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and “The Promise.” Orfeh revisits two of her Off-Broadway successes with the song “Make Like a Nail (and Press On)” from The Great American Trailer Park Musical and “Piece of My Heart” from Love, Janis. Karl also tips his hat to two recent Broadway appearances with the song “Keep on Standing” from Rocky: The Musical and “Seeing You” from Groundhog Day.
While their interpretations may not be particularly revelatory, they have done an excellent job of picking material that allows them to do what they do best. Orfeh never fails to deliver powerhouse vocals and Andy Karl projects a charm that melts even the hardest of hearts. Together they create an undeniable chemistry that makes for an entertaining cabaret show and an enjoyable recording. I highly recommend it.
Portraits of Joni
Released July 28, 2017
I always say that the door marked “Cabaret” is very wide, meaning that, while the performance context is fairly specific, what can be performed in that context is almost limitless. Singers like Barb Jungr, Justin Vivian Bond and Melissa Mulder consistently bring material by people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Alanis Moriss.ette, Tom Waits and David Byrne into the cabaret rooms of New York, so often bound by traditional definitions of “standard” and “Great American Songbook.”
Let’s add Jessica Molaskey to the list of people working to widen the cabaret door. A well-respected Broadway singer and actress (Songs for a New World, Sunday in the Park With George), her newest album, Portraits of Joni, features 16 songs by Joni Mitchell and one each by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Toninho Horta. The arrangements are mostly by Molaskey and her husband, the gifted jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli, and lean very much into the “cabaret-jazz” world—piano, bass and guitar, often with drums or percussion, and sometimes with a trumpet or sax.
Her affection and respect for Joni Mitchell’s writing and performing is abundantly clear all through this album. Highlights of the recording are a be-bop-infused “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines,” and especially thoughtful interpretations of “A Case of You” and a medley of “Dreamland” and “Carey.” Particularly wonderful is a pairing of “The Circle Game” and Jobim’s “Waters of March” that truly re-frames both of these exceptional songs. My only argument with the recording is that sometimes Jessica Molaskey’s singing takes on some Joni Mitchell-isms in her tone and phrasing. One wonders if it’s a choice, or simply so in her ear from listening to Joni Mitchell’s recordings for so long that it can’t help but be reflected in her voice. But, that is a tiny quibble with what is truly an excellent recording.
Portraits of Joni marks the first album on Ghostlight Deluxe, a new imprint of Ghostlight Records, one of the most prolific Broadway recording companies. The series will be curated by Molaskey and Pizzarelli, and will focus on providing theater singers with the opportunity to create high-quality, non-theatrical collections of songs. If this recording is how they decided to launch the label, they’ve set a very high standard that makes me look forward to future releases.
— James McQuillen
» 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
- July: The cast recordings of Broadway recordings: Bandstand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Groundhog Day and Anastasia.
- August: Jay Gardner on his experience at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference
- September: No column