In picking a top ten list, what's considered is not that initial delight of discovery, but the lasting impact. Some lose their punch and others only seem to shine brighter with time and repeat plays. The list below is eclectic. I only consider items reviewed and released in this calendar year, and reissues are excluded. The albums are not listed in any particular order, as they are not ranked.
There's no place like home. The true story of the people in the mansion that goes from splendor to squalor makes strong musical theater. Recorded before the Broadway transfer and its changes, the Grey Gardens album remains an intriguing listen. The listener is pulled into the world of these characters, and their oddness becomes oddly endearing. Repeat exposure only serves to deepen the appreciation of the craft of the songwriting and the nuances in the performances of the cast. At its center in two roles, Christine Ebersole is hilarious on one track and heartbreaking on the next.
Composer Scott Frankel provides a wide assortment of melodic styles, with some haunting melodies and catchy first-rate pastiche for period flavor. Lyricist Michael Korie matches him with such a fine grasp of language, flooding out when characters are reeling off thoughts and feelings, and beautifully simple on the standout, "Will You?" It makes you eager to see what he comes up with next - which appears to be the opera The Grapes of Wrath, as Korie collaborates with the composer of the next show on the list of the year's highlights.
A show that sings its heart, Dream True is an especially moving, life-affirming musical. Ricky Ian Gordon's highly emotional music and bookwriter/director Tina Landau's sincere and sometimes wrenching lyrics (with the composer's own words on two numbers) tell a story of personal connections that transcend expected restrictions. It is rich, brave, and often strikingly beautiful.
The story follows the struggles of a man named Peter from boyhood to troubled adult. Filled with a sense of yearning, the score is in great hands with Jonathan Tunick orchestrations conducted by Ted Sperling, and some excellent musical theater singers are heard at their best. The cast includes Kelli O'Hara, Victoria Clark, Jeff McCarthy and Jessica Molaskey whose passionate solo "Finding Home" is a gem. Two young performers, Harrison Chad and William Ullrich, do especially well as Peter and his friend Vernon as boys. There are dynamic and gutsy performances from the stars as their grown-up counterparts, Jason Danieley as Vernon and as Peter, Brian d'Arcy James (who likewise has a lead role in the next show on the list, albeit in a more carefree mode).
Stuffed with extra Irving Berlin songs besides those used in the classic movie, White Christmas has become a stage musical, and it has a snazzy, cheery cast album that is full of joy, like the holiday season that is really just a small part of its story. Brian d'Arcy James has inherited the Bing Crosby role and thus gets the title song - plus a lot more, like "Blue Skies" and a couple of zippy duets with Jeffry Denman. It's almost non-stop energy, with sparkling orchestrations by Larry Blank and vocal and dance arrangements by Bruce Pomahac, all conducted by Rob Berman.
This is a good, old-fashioned affair, and proudly so, but it does not creak like a museum piece. Cast album fans will note the addition of a longtime favorite: the wonderfully vibrant Karen Morrow from the St. Louis and Boston casts. She joins the San Francisco leads, including Anastasia Barzee, who provides some balance with a couple of more thoughtful numbers and the delightful Meredith Patterson, who just happened to be associate producer of the next show on the list, and married to its star.
Seen at the NYMF theater festival in 2005, The View From Here was released on disc this year with its talented star, Shonn Wiley, giving a compelling performance as a man trying to start his life over in New York City. When Shonn sings with naked emotion in the confessional moments, the character's pain is not only palpable, but searing. However, there is some underlying determination without false optimism that makes one root for him. Spot-on comic songs about the frustrations of working in the big city not only give needed relief but add to the humanity.
The story involves some interaction with a street musician whose comments are only expressed through his trumpet (effectively so, by Tim Byrnes), but singing-wise, this is a one-man musical. The CD includes a second version of the closing song, "Promise," with a vocal by composer-lyricist Timothy Huang who collaborated on the book with director Elizabeth Lucas. This is a striking show about the testing of the human spirit, with a very sympathetic break-out performance.
Another one-man affair - and this one very much about affairs - is billed as "a theatrical song cycle" with all of its 18 songs likeably performed by singer-actor Michael Winther. Presented as chapters in the life of a contemporary gay man, there's a lot of laugh-out-loud comedy here as Michael, very much in the moment, entertainingly relates the guy's many exasperating misadventures with each Mr. Not-Quite Right . He also shows his vulnerability and insecurities, exercising restraint. His timing and shading of words are outstanding. The lyrics with theatrical specificity and crisp images are all the work of Mark Campbell, but each number has a different composer. The expert music direction of Kimberly Grigsby not only holds it all together, but is one of the key elements of making this such a rewarding listening experience.
Also drawing its songs from numerous composers but just one lyricist, Lingoland included the satisfying presence of the wordsmith himself in the company: Kenward Elmslie. The revue was produced at The York Theatre and is a 2-disc set, including several numbers not used in the show. It's a language-lover's paradise, with poems and commentary as well as songs with words that are especially clever, out of the ordinary or heart-on-the-sleeve sincere.
An able six-member cast, plus singing pianist-conductor Matt Castle and the lyricist, present marvelous material from musicals and operas as well as stand-alone songs. There's a generous sampling from The Grass Harp and a few from Lola (both with music by Claibe Richardson). A title song with a bright melody by Doug Katsaros vows a voluptuous volume of verbiage and the promise is fulfilled. The revue covers a half century of work and is kind of a patchwork quilt with some odd patches; there are bits that don't work as well out of context. But the pleasures are manifold and reflect a witty man and a sensitive soul, with singers ready, willing and able to embrace it all.
Once again, one lyricist collaborating various composers comes up with a winner. Mark Winkler's Play It Cool is a musical that takes film noir as its ambience. It's set in Hollywood, and had a run in Los Angeles recently. I very much enjoyed the CD's group of well-written, well-sung songs celebrating jazz music and indicating a story. But it wasn't until I saw a staged reading of the show that I fully appreciated it. (The reading starred the likely New York lead, Lea DeLaria, who has a solo album by the same name, but it's unrelated.) The show is about gays and lesbians in the repressive 1950s where expressions of same-sex affection had to be guarded.
The L.A. cast is impressive, and the wail of a saxophone and the snap of a finger instantly bring you into the musical's world, and then the smoky, silky, moody atmosphere takes over. It may have "cool" in the title, and appropriately so, but some of the music is hot and sizzling.
This musical is about finding houses and finding love: and what people go through in finding and choosing both. Seen at the York Theatre back in 2001 and elsewhere, Suburb is another musical that combines razor-sharp comedy songs and ones that sneak up on your heart with surprising emotional moments when characters let down their guard. Slightly less effective because it combines two casts, the CD still has a strong impact. All members dive into the strong character songs about the love-hate relationships with home ownership. The cast includes Alix Korey, James Sasser and Nancy Anderson. Robert S. Cohen's music is always spiffy and/or graceful, in the musical comedy tradition. David Javerbaum's polished lyrics are first rate.
Although the recording was made several years ago, the CD was not officially released until this year. Its songs about lawns, malls, commuting and life changes still sound fresh.
See What I Wanna See is very adult, and explosive. The music and lyrics of Michael John LaChiusa, always an adventurous writer, are well served by the Public Theatre production recorded for posterity. The performances are admirable and magnetic - powerful to the point of feeling like a punch in the stomach at times. Thought-provoking and with a trembling humanity under its surface of harshness at first, it's a roller coaster ride that still gives goosebumps each time.
As each actor plays at least two roles, their versatility also impresses. Marc Kudisch, Idina Menzel, and Aaron Lohr are especially strong-willed presences in the first story. Mary Testa and Henry Stram shining in the second as characters showing conflicted and bitter feelings about faith. Overall, there is the desire to connect to something meaningful.
I Love You Because brings us a terrific new songwriting team, composer Joshua Salzman and lyricist-bookwriter Ryan Cunningham, whose material - high-energy funny stuff and a few non-sticky love songs - is well handled by its leads: the charmingly neurotic pair Colin Hanlon and Farrah Alvin, nifty Stephanie D'Abruzzo and especially David A. Austin, who, like the story, starts off antic and frantic and ends on a satisfyingly sincere note.
In their singing and acting, the cast members nail the idiosyncracies of their characters. Whether they are in despair, or in love, or in denial, the result is a very entertaining one.
This treasure is not a cast album per se, but is very much worthy of special mention and one of the year's most captivating. It is not based on a staged show, but rather a book, and has narration and songs.
Jazz is the genre for the very gentle tale of The Cat Who Went to Heaven, an enchanting enterprise that I fall a little bit in love with each time I hear it. Based on a children's book by Elizabeth Coatsworth, it's been transformed into a jazz musical with captivating music and lyrics by the singer Nancy Harrow, who sings the title role. Appropriately, her singing is warm and fuzzy and sinuous. The cast includes Grady Tate, Daryl Sherman and Anton Krukowski, with narration by Will Pomerantz. They're all charming, and this piece works like a charm. Musical accompaniment features well-known musicians and adds the flavor of its setting of Japan.
Computer-compatible, the enhanced CD comes with access to the printed score and the directions to produce the piece. With elements of mystery and melancholy (an animal dies as a main event), plus Buddhism, this is far from just a "kiddie" event. It's a loving story, and very good, low-key jazz music.
In a category all its own is the series of live recordings from the Broadway by the Year and Unplugged concerts at The Town Hall. This ongoing series is a treat, live or on disc. But should they be considered with cast albums or among the vocal CDs to be considered next week? It's somewhere in between ... and the best of both worlds. They deserve special kudos.
This was a banner year, with four strong releases: songs from the years 1935, 1949 and 1963, and then - best of all - the second annual Broadway Unplugged concert with singers unmiked. Filled with excellent performances by theater and cabaret artists and accompaniment led by Ross Patterson, all are great surveys of major show tune hits and little-known numbers, a few making their recording premieres. Consider this well-deserved special mention a continuation of the understandable vociferous applause heard on the albums and something so many of the performers get before the show can go on: a second bow.
Next week, that list of Top Ten vocal albums. And then, January 19th, back to business as usual.