Editor's Note: All reviews this month are by Jay Gardner
Broadway My Way
Released Nov. 12, 2018
Heather Headley first grabbed the public’s attention in 1997 for her performance of Nala, the role she created in the original cast of Broadway’s The Lion King. Three years later, she won a Tony Award for her searing portrayal of the title character in Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical Aida. But, it would be another 16 years before Miss Headley’s next appearance on the Great White Way, this time in the volatile role of Shug Avery in the John Doyle directed revival of The Color Purple.
In the interim, Headley got married, relocated to Chicago, gave birth to two boys and concentrated on concerts and recordings. In 2010 her album Audience of One won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary R&B Gospel Album. She also played the lead in the world premiere of The Bodyguard: The Musical in London’s West End.
Her latest recording, Broadway My Way celebrates the thoroughfare that gave her career life. The album mixes tunes from classic and contemporary Broadway while at the same time putting Miss Headley’s own special spin on the material.
Classic Broadway is represented by “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a tune that is eternally associated with Judy Garland, and “Look to the Rainbow,” a standard penned by E.Y. Harburg and Burton Lane for their 1947 musical Finian’s Rainbow.
Contemporary Broadway is represented by the song “For Good” from Wicked which Miss Headley transforms into an anthem, not just to friendship, but to the people who exact a deep and profound influence on our lives. The song “Home,” from The Wiz, is a wonderful surprise and treats us to one of the more outwardly emotional moments on the album.
The Bodyguard: The Musical is represented by “All the Man That I Need,” originally recorded by Whitney Houston; while “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” fills the bill for The Lion King. A happy discovery is “My House” from Tim MInchin’s wonderfully kooky musical Matilda. Definitely an album highlight.
“She Used to Be Mine” is perhaps the biggest surprise and the most moving track on this album. This song, penned by Sarah Bareilles for the hit musical Waitress, gives Headley the chance to delve deep into the emotional landscape of a woman who has lost the connection to her authentic self. The album concludes with a wonderfully simple and straightforward reading of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”
Miss Headley has never sounded better or been more in command of her artistic powers. Her rich, warm contralto voice envelopes one in a warm blanket of sound, and she gives every word its emotional due. What’s missing are the energetic highs of a couple of up-tempo songs to temper the lows of all the ballads. I was also left wondering why she didn’t record “Shadowlands,” also from The Lion King (and for my money, the best song in the show), and “Too Beautiful for Words” from The Color Purple (the best song in that show).
Perhaps her next recording project will consist entirely of up-tempo songs. Not a bad idea, but I’d rather see her on stage, live, in a Broadway show.
Take Me to the World
Released June 1, 2018
On first hearing, and then second hearing and even third hearing, Sutton Foster’s latest album, Take Me to the World, has left me with a nagging question that I just can’t seem to shake.
There is a lack of cohesion in this album that has left me wondering what she intended. There is an “aw shucks!” quality to her performance, frankly, to many of her performances, that wears thin after a while. She’s equal parts cheerleader and drama club nerd, which is fine in an ingénue but less so in a Leading Lady. One expects more range from a two-time Tony winning actress.
Foster is accompanied on several tracks by the excellent Ball State University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Douglas Droste, who joins Miss Foster on several Cole Porter tunes (“C’est Magnifique,” a medley of “If I Were a Bell and “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Give Him the Ooh-La-La”), but Foster’s vocal style comes off as too modern for these classic show tunes. As a result, her performance seems more awkward and ill-fitting than anything else.
Foster is joined on several tracks by fellow thespians Megan McGinnis and Darcie Roberts (the latter played the title character in the First National Tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie). Foster is joined by the women of the Ball State Theater Department for an enthusiastic, if very belty and terribly shrill, arrangement of “I’m On My Way” from Violet.
More successful are the songs inventively arranged by Foster’s longtime collaborator Michael Rafter. He combines “Take Me to the World” with “Starting Here, Starting Now” to great effect. Another Sondheim/Kander and Ebb medley combines “Everybody Says Don’t” from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle with “Yes” from Kander and Ebb’s 70 Girls 70. An a cappella arrangement of the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Old Friends/Bookends” featuring Megan McGinnis is very effective.
“It All Fades Away” by Jason Robert Brown, “Room” by singer/songwriter Shaina Taub and “You Can Close Your Eyes” by James Taylor all have a much folkier vibe. These are pleasant surprises and seem to be more in Foster’s wheelhouse. One is left wanting more of this type of work rather than the mashup this album seems to be.
The bonus track is a choral arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Everytime We Say Goodbye.” Sung by the students of Ball State, it is so incredibly shrill and out of tune, it is a wonder to me why this track was released. It is a major misstep.
Did Miss Foster intend this album to be a recruiting tool for Ball State? Did she set out initially to make a more folkie, intimate album? Is Miss Foster having an identity crisis? Who knows? This album is a surprising hiccup from an artist whose career trajectory has had few bumps. Let’s hope the next album is more cohesive.
Released Nov. 2, 2018
When one thinks of current Broadway Leading Ladies the names Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and the late Marin Mazzie all come to mind. Each at the top of their game, they have done much to shape the sound, look and esthetic of the Broadway musical. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the slew of Tony Awards they have to prove it.
There is a second tier of leading ladies who are no less talented or charismatic, but their careers tend to keep a lower profile and their names are more often followed by
“Tony Nominee” rather than “Tony Winner.” Melissa Errico sits at the top of this tier. She possesses an admirable list of Broadway and off-Broadway credits ranging from Eliza Doolittle in the 1993 Broadway Revival of My Fair Lady to the more infamous and short-lived productions of Dracula: The Musical and Amour (Tony nomination). Along the way she has also added G.B. Shaw, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht to her résumé.
In recent years, Miss Errico has found ongoing success in cabaret, concerts and limited runs. A regular at Feinstein’s/54 Below, her two most recent albums What About Today: Live at 54 Below and Legrand Affair are based on successful cabaret shows.
Her most recent album, Sondheim Sublime, features the music of Stephen Sondheim, arguably…no, not arguably…THE most iconic and influential composer and lyricist of the last 60-plus years. As much as I wanted to get excited about this recording, I found myself mostly puzzled and a little disappointed.
The press release promises the soulful, heartfelt, hungering Sondheim but the track list doesn’t live up to this description. The usual Sondheim standards make an appearance. “Loving You,” “I Remember,” “Not a Day Goes By,” “Children Will Listen” and “Move On” are among the usual suspects. “Isn’t He Something!” from Road Show and “Goodbye For Now,” written for the film Reds, offer a couple of potential new discoveries for listeners.
The über talented Ted Firth serves as Errico’s music director. The go-to pianist and arranger for such Broadway luminaries as Elaine Paige, Christine Ebersole and Faith Prince, Firth’s formidable musical talents are severely underutilized. Many of the tunes seem to employ the basic arrangements found in the various shows’ piano/vocal scores. “I Remember,” “Not While I’m Around” and “With So Little to be Sure Of” are notable exceptions. Unfortunately, Errico seems at odds with the jazzy arrangements and never really relaxes into the groove Firth has established. The final track of the album, “Children and Art,” is so slow and under-energized it could easily double as a funeral dirge.
One also has to question what Errico intended with this album. In the songs “Sooner or Later” (from the film Dick Tracy) and “The Miller’s Son” (A Little Night Music) she presents herself as the earthy vixen, but in “Loving You,” “Losing My Mind,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Children Will Listen” and “Children and Art” it would seem that she wants to position herself as a Leading Lady of a Certain Age. The two personae are at odds with each other and seem even more at odds with Errico’s impressive résumé.
The most disappointing aspect of this album is that it doesn’t seem to present any new insight into Sondheim’s work, either musically or dramatically. This is all the more confounding considering Errico is working on A-plus material with one of the best arrangers in the business. Instead of offering us revelatory insights, we just get more of the same.
Singing You Home: Children's Songs for Family Reunification
Released Oct. 26, 2018
Singing You Home is a new bilingual children’s album conceived and co-produced by Tony winner and current star of the Lincoln Center revival of My Fair Lady, Laura Benanti, along with Mary-Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Lynn Pinto. All proceeds go to benefit RAICES (Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal services) and ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty), two organizations which aid separated families at the U.S./Mexico border.
The starry line up of performers includes Tony winners Lin-Manuel Miranda, Idina Menzel, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Cynthia Erivo, and Laura Benanti, along with Mandy Gonzalez, Josh Groban, Isabella Preston, Ingrid Michaelson, Ana Villafañe and backup vocals provided by Broadway Baby Mamas.
A couple of familiar names pop up among the album’s music directors and composers, namely Carmel Dean, Jason Robert Brown, the aforementioned Mary Mitchell-Campbell. Everyone involved in the recording donated their services free of charge.
"Watching children be ripped from their families is obviously very upsetting, and I felt completely helpless," says Benanti. “Then I realized that I have a lot of really talented, wonderful friends, and together, we’ve put together this beautiful album. We hope the music we have created can bring love and empathy into the hearts of everyone who hears it, and that the money raised will aid in reuniting children with their loved ones.”
Each of the seven tracks has been beautifully engineered and sensitively performed. Nothing about this album says it was hastily assembled. The attention to detail and intention is impeccable. The performances, by a group of artists at the top of their creative powers, are first rate, beginning to end, making this album much more than just another fund-raising project.
“Arrorró Mi Niño,” a traditional Mexican lullaby, is beautifully realized by Laura Benanti and Isabella Preston. “Singing You Home,” the title song, written by Jason Robert Brown for the album, is sung here by Aura McDonald, who puts her usual flawless vocals to work on this sweet, intimate song.
“Cielito Lindo” is a popular Mexican song more familiar to listeners in its up-tempo version when played by Mariachi bands and is considered the unofficial anthem of Mexico. In this incarnation, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mandy Gonzalez transform it into a sweet, rocking lullaby.
The song “Lullaby”, written by Groban, Dave Matthews and Jochem Van Der Saag, is given a glossy pop spin by Groban and Idina Menzel. Kristin Chenoweth offers a beautiful reading of the Stephen Foster classic “Beautiful Dreamer.”
Cynthia Erivo, taking a momentary break form her amazing power vocals, gives a tender, introspective interpretation of Luis Pescetti and Maira Pien’s song “Si Pudiera Leer Tus Sueños.”
On the albums final track, Ingrid Michaelson and Ana Villafañe leave the listener with perhaps the least adorned yet most impactful performance of the entire album. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” utilizes the barest of accompaniment allowing the simple melody and words to float out into that starry sky free and unencumbered.
The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Children's Current Albums chart its first week of release. It also charted No. 2 on Billboard's Top Children's Overall Albums chart, No.112 on the Top Current Albums chart and No. 162 on the Top Albums chart. Obviously, it’s striking a chord, which is just as it should be when an album this good is benefiting a cause this important.
» The Music Men now runs on the first Tuesday of the month on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in musical theater, opera and cabaret. He also makes handmade pottery, which can be seen here.
» James McQuillen, an award-winning music director, teacher and pianist. He is currently working on his Master's in Arts Administration at American University in Washington, D.C.
- 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
- October: 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
- November: Solo albums from Broadway vets Kyle Riabko and Mandy Gonzalez
- The Music Men recap their favorite listens of 2017
- January & February (no column)
- March: The Band's Visit, and revivals of Once On This Island and Working
- April-September (on hiatus)
- October: New recordings by Betty Buckley, Marissa Mulder, and Joe Iconis and George Salazar
- November (no column)
- December: Jay Gardner's thoughts on solo recordings, and his favorite cast recording of 2018