Editor's Note: In Cast Album Confidential, Jay Gardner reviews theatrical recordings, usually new. But given the COVID-19 crisis, in this edition Gardner reminds us of recordings that might help lift spirits.
Here we are in month three of The Great Covid Quarantine of 2020. As the weeks drag on with no ending in sight, I am reminded of that fabulous Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” but with slightly amended lyrics.
You may ask yourself,
When did I last take a shower?
And you may ask yourself,
What day is it?
And you may ask yourself,
How many days in a row have I worn this T-shirt?
And you may ask yourself,
What hell is going on!?
We are all suffering from the Quarantine Blues. No joke, it’s a thing. We feel physically worn out by a lack of activity (an odd situation, to be sure.) but we also feel emotionally worn out by what we see on the news day in and day out. (The 24-hour news cycle does no one any favors.) As a balm to this ongoing lethargy I have chosen to highlight a few recordings that are light, happy and full of energy. They are all guaranteed to get your toes tapping and lift your spirits. Enjoy!
Linda Lavin and Billy Stritch
Club 44 Records
The general public may only know Linda Lavin as the title character from the classic 70’s sitcom Alice. But long before she signed on for that that long-running TV show, Lavin was a Broadway baby making a name for herself off-Broadway in The Mad Show and later as a featured performer in the ill-fated Broadway musical It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman!
Since her years on Alice, Lavin has been a constant presence on the cabaret scene. Her latest album, Love Notes, finds Lavin reunited with her constant collaborator and music director Billy Stritch. The album is a mix of the Great American Songbook (“I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “How High the Moon”) and a couple of surprises (the bossa nova “No More Blues” and the Steely Dan pop tune “Black Cow”). Lavin sounds great and Stritch’s brilliant playing and vocals give this album a polish that will draw you back again and again.
Sunday in New York
Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch
Sunday in New York brings together two-time Tony winner Christine Ebersole and Grammy recipient Billy Stritch for this album, their second collaboration, recorded live at the now-defunct Metropolitan Room in New York City.
The elegant set list combines some of the most beguiling tunes from the Great American Songbook with a few musical theater mainstays thrown in for good measure. “Sunday in New York” by Peter Nero and Caroll Coates and “Walking my Baby Back Home” by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin evoke the hip and sophisticated NYC of the Mad Men era. Stephen Sondheim is represented by “So Many People” and “Not While I’m Around,” and a nod is given to Ms. Ebersole’s Tony wins in the songs “I Only Have Eyes for You” from 42nd Street and “Will You” from Grey Gardens.
These two consummate artists’ voices achieve a perfect blend when singing in close harmony. In her solo songs Ms. Ebersole is all soulful longing while in up tempo numbers Mr. Stritch evokes both Mel Tormé and Bobby Short in his joyful vocals and mastery of the keys. Rest assured, you’ll be playing this album at your next virtual cocktail party.
Happy Songs is Audra McDonald’s third solo album, released after she’d won only the third of her record-breaking six Tony Awards. True to its title, Ms. McDonald brings a sense of joy and optimism to every track even when the tune is the most heart-wrenching of torch songs.
Much of the album is drawn from the Great American Songbook. Classic tunes such as “Supper Time,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “More Than You Know” and “He Loves and She Loves” are beautifully rendered as are some relatively obscure gems. Duke Ellington’s seldom heard “Ill Wind (You’re Blowin’ Me No Good),” “Ain’t It the Truth” (Introduced by Lena Horne in the film Cabin In The Sky) and the Harold Arlen tune “Tess’s Torch Song” are wonderfully rediscovered. Ms. McDonald has included the Brazilian song “Bambalele,” Jay Leonhardt’s bass-only accompanied “Beat My Dog” and Michael John La Chiusa’s “See What I Want to See.” The album closes with the joyous song “Lose That Long Face,” introduced by Judy Garland in the 1954 film A Star Is Born.
As usual, Ms. McDonald’s vocals are perfection, and Mr. Sperling’s music direction draws glorious sounds from the uncredited orchestra that would rival any of the “Golden Age” movie studio orchestras. This is a masterful collection of songs performed by two artists at the top of their respective games. Without a doubt, you’ll have Happy Songs on continual rotation.
Make Your Own Kind of Music: Live at 54 Below
Broadway lost a very bright light with the untimely death of Marin Mazzie last year. Her iconic Broadway performances as Mother in Ragtime and Clara in Passion earned her a deserving place on the list of Broadway Leading Ladies.
Besides treading the boards on the Great White May, Mazzie was an accomplished cabaret artist. In her 2015 release Make Your Own Kind of Music: Live at 54 Below, Ms. Mazzie is at the top of her game. As she guides the live audience through her formative years growing up in Rockford, Ill., she shows off considerable vocal chops and perfect comic timing. The songs range from American Songbook standards such as “Come On a’ My House,” “Tenderly” and “Begin the Beguine” to 70’s pop hits like “I Think I Love You,” “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” “Midnight at the Oasis,” “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Evergreen.” Joseph Thalken provides the imaginative arrangements and music direction.
Ethel Merman in Vegas
Warner Records Inc.
Ethel Merman began her career as a band singer in night clubs and on the stages of New York City’s Paramount Theater and the legendary Palace Theater. Her star began to rise in earnest with her breakout performance of the song “I Got Rhythm” in the 1930 Gershwin Musical Girl Crazy. Over the next six decades Merman would work with such greats as the aforementioned George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne and many others. She created iconic roles in such musical theater classics as Anything Goes, Annie, Get Your Gun, Call Me Madame and Gypsy. Merman had not just one signature tune, she had several. (Eat your heart out Carol Channing, Patti LuPone and Jennifer Holiday!) “I Got Rhythm,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Blow,” “Gabriel,” “Blow” and “Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses” are not just associated with Merman, they are musical theater cornerstones.
Merman in Vegas provides a fascinating snapshot of the First Lady of the American Musical Theater at the height of her fame. Recorded live at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1962, Merman opens the show with “Just a Lady with a Song” and then quickly gets down to business making her way through that previously mentioned list of signature tunes. To save time, she includes a few in a medley, just to be sure she touches all the bases. Over the course of about 45 minutes (back in the day, Vegas shows rarely ran more than an hour), Merman teaches a master class in that brand of old school showbiz razzmatazz that carries all the way to the top of the second balcony. Merman in Vegas also reminds us what a debt we owe to this Great Lady who played such an instrumental role in American musical theater.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in the Dallas area. He has performed with The Dallas Opera, The Dallas Symphony and The Dallas Theater Center. He is currently a professor at Collin College where he teaches song interpretation and commercial voice. His ceramic work can be seen here.
» Cast Album Confidential runs periodically in TheaterJones. Below is a list of previous installments.
- 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
- March: The Band's Visit, and revivals of Once On This Island and Working
- October: New recordings by Betty Buckley, Marissa Mulder, and Joe Iconis and George Salazar
- December: Jay Gardner's thoughts on solo recordings, and his favorite cast recording of 2018
- January: Reviews of solo albums from Heather Headley, Sutton Foster, and Melissa Errico; and a starry benefit album for families separated at the U.S./Mexico border
- March: The new London revival of Sondheim's Company; and Encores! revival of Songs for a New World
- June: The cast albums of The Cher Show and Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, plus new albums from Ben Platt and Meow Meow
- October: Cast recordings of Hadestown, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, and Beetlejuice; and a solo record by Ramin Karimloo
- December: Christmas recordings by Ana Gasteyer and John Barrowman
- January: Reviews of the cast albums of Jagged Little Pill and David Byrne's American Utopia