These are a few of my favorite things - not in order of preference, but in order of the era they reflect, starting thousands of years ago. They are the ones I think will hold up well in the years ahead.
We begin B.C., with a myth from ancient times. The sheer beauty of eclectic songwriter Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus & Euridice makes it a winner. As a performance piece, premiered at Lincoln Center, it featured dance along with the instrumentals and sung passages in its retelling of the old myth about love and death. At times delicate or haunting, at other times passionate (and ultimately cathartic), the graceful song cycle makes for interesting listening with a mix of instrumental and vocal passages. Soprano Elizabeth Futral, clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Melvin Chen are the three skilled artists heard on this recording.
Stylistically, the formality and more operatic or "art song" feel may be distancing for some. However, its sheer emotion is very close to the surface, if not bursting throughout. Some of the sung pieces serve as narrative, but the central "I Am Part of Something Now" is a wondrous declaration in first person, full of instantly accessible feelings. The entire piece can wash over a listener like a wave of sound, but in addition to its big-hearted feelings, it is full of small moments of understated musical interplay.
Russia in the early 1870s is the setting for Anna Karenina. The musical premiered in New York in 1992 and two of its cast members return for this belated recording: Gregg Edelman and Melissa Errico, now in the title role of the tragic heroine. Both turn in noble performances, suited to the grand declarations of passion and frustrations in thwarted desire. Likewise, Jeff McCarthy and Brian d'Arcy James as Anna's husband and lover, respectively, have powerful opportunities in song. As Kitty, Kerry Butler shows variety with a petulant comic relief number and a standout sincere ballad, "I Never Dreamed" in duet with the glorious Miss Errico who played that role in the original cast. Marc Kudisch also has one memorable appearance as a rogue.
There is romanticism, heartbreak and explosive anger in the songs of lyricist Peter Kellogg (also the bookwriter) and composer Dan Levine, who orchestrated and arranged the music and produced the CD. There is high drama that suits the high stakes of the plot. It's satisfying to hear melodies with such bold strokes very richly executed by all. This is a classy effort with professionalism in all departments.
Writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) is the main character of Loving Repeating , played by two different performers, Cindy Gold as the older version and Christine Mild as the younger version. The lyrics and spoken sections all come from Stein's words, reflecting – and reflecting on - different times in her life, from her college days in the last years of the 19th century to her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, played by Jenny Powers, in the first decades of the 20th century. The three singer-actresses and five others in the cast all do well with the word play and poetry, some thick and tricky in a tongue-twister way, set wonderfully to music by Stephen Flaherty. The love of language, tickled with a feather or examined with a microscope, is the key here, and the melodies accent them and make them even more playful. The words soar and bubble through this inventive music.
Hardly a traditional musical, there are also pleasures in the feistiness of the older Stein and in an irresistible odd vaudeville style number for a male trio ("As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story"). Affection between characters comes through in direct and stylized ways in this intriguing piece adapted and directed by Frank Galati.
Based on a harrowing real-life case in Georgia, Parade revolves around the 1913 arrest of Leo Frank for murder and the events of the following two years. This second recording of the show first seen in New York in 1995 is a 2-CD set of the dialogue by Alfred Uhry and the songs by Jason Robert Brown, with revisions (cuts and new material). The London production was staged in a smaller theatre with smaller ensembles for both casting and orchestra. The very convincing cast does well, most members taking more than one role. Even coming in with knowing the details and ultimate outcome, the tale remains gripping, thanks to the material, performances and direction that take hold in almost unblinking series of enactments. There is an undercurrent of tension and, though emotionally it is taxing, musically it often offers release and seductive or striking melodies that please the ear.
[The 20-minute DVD accompanying this import set with interviews with the clearly dedicated creative team shows glimpses of the playing space but does not show the actors at work. The European format may not be playable on all American DVD players.]
Bowing 75 years ago, Face the Music has a score by one of the giants of musical theatre, Irving Berlin. It sparkled this year in a presentation at City Center's Encores! series with a cast giddily soaring through its cheery madcap and snazzy songs. Taking place in the time it was presented, the Depression year of 1932, the tale is of a theatre production seeking financing and survival. With a wink and a nod to the virtues of optimism, a can-do spirit and a little flag-waving, the fizzy, show-bizzy song-and-dance entertainment comes through with good spirits and polish.
The pep and pluck overflow with the snappy songs as characters who are conniving producers, clueless backers, bumbling police, super-egotistical stars and enthused chorus kids and hoofers abound. The orchestra crackles with period flavor, and the overall energy and spirits are high. With zingy tunes like "A Toast to Prohibition" and "Manhattan Madness," it's all in good fun and zips along briskly.
With more than just nostalgia on its side, Summer of '42 is a moving coming-of-age story and is performed beautifully and sympathetically by a winning cast. Not preserved on disc when it debuted in 2001, this recording features the cast of a one-night-only performance at the York Theatre in 2005 and recorded then, but many company members and all six musicians had been in the Off-Broadway run. JAY Records presents the delightful David Kirshenbaum songs and Hunter Foster's pitch-perfect clever dialogue of the warm, funny, sweet show on a 2-CD set. It includes two cut songs written for the leading female character, Dorothy (played with tremendous grace by Rachel York). The awkwardness and bravado of six teenagers is at the center of the tale, with their respective bundles of nerves and hormones and their desires to grow up yet stay carefree in their summer of friendship and potential romances. As the male lead, Ryan Driscoll recreates his role with appealing wistfulness and spunk.
With songs that embrace 1940s pastiche and timeless sentiments about falling in love, feeling lonely and self-discovery, Summer of '42 has wide appeal. Gentle rather than heavy-handed, it unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve. Romantic to its core, but with intrinsic humor from teen angst and zest, its evocative score sounds sincere with this cast and with Lynne Shankel's thoughtful musical direction and orchestrations (she's also on one of two keyboards). The play may be about the illusion of love that is really infatuation, but its long-lasting appeal is no infatuation. It's the real thing.
Once again, the year's best includes a CD of another year's best. The ongoing series of Broadway by the Year concerts, recalling theatre songs from hits and misses of a particular year, begat an ongoing series of CDs recorded at the one-night-only events. There's plenty of excitement captured on disc from these presentations at The Town Hall in New York City's theatre district where the original shows played. The singers for a look back at 1945 are five Broadway veterans Kerry Butler, Eddie Korbich, Marc Kudisch, Karen Mason and Christiane Noll, plus Scott Ailing whose experience includes singing in cabaret.
Adding to the enjoyment is the included narration, acerbic and/or newsworthy, by host-creator Scott Siegel. The engaging performances are a good mix of big numbers, tender ballads and comic pieces. The year's smash was Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel and it's well represented with five of the 19 tracks, but the light also shines on shows less successful. Three worthy songs get their first-ever recording: samples from Are You With It?, The Girl from Nantucket and the operetta Marinka. In one highlight, the three women combine their considerable forces and different styles with "My Love Is a Married Man" from Lerner & Loewe's The Day Before Spring.
Sooner than the day before spring, the next album in the series will be issued, surveying 1955. The CDs will now be on the Original Cast Records label, but all in the catalogue will continue to be available.
1958 in the sunny California suburbs of freshly scrubbed America is the setting for the sci-fi spoof The Brain from Planet X. Deliciously silly and broad both in its parodies of picture perfect white bread 1950s All-American families and the cheesy "B" movies, as well as musical comedy clichés - the show is a hoot on disc with its happy-go-luckless characters and their turmoil when aliens and conflicted feelings invade their sanctity and sanity.
Bruce Kimmel wears many hats: songwriter, album producer, the show's director in L.A. and New York, and co-bookwriter (with David Wechter, who contributed to two of the songs, including the giddy dance number, "The Brain Tap") . Over the top it is, but the madness does not overstay its welcome and peter out: it just gets on a roll. Unlike some confections and goofy fun-fests, it's still amusing on repeat plays. The cast sounds totally committed to the wackiness, and the songs are catchy, clever and nervy; a sense of demented joy rather than mean-spirited sass keeps things afloat.
The score of 1970's Company by Stephen Sondheim is always good company, and it shines in its latest stage incarnation, unique in its much-talked-about concept of cast members also playing instruments. Of course, that reality is not the paramount impression when playing the cast album; it just sounds terrific. This musical look at relationships in the wake of the sexual revolution and the women's movement as the 1960s ended has now had its own long relationship with musical theatre fans, and its wit, sting and longing are all refreshed in this new interpretation. The energy and integrity of the performances make this feel vital rather than redundant. In a quest for meaningful human connection, while commenting on the lack thereof, Company's characters interpreted here resonate and entertain.
The vibrant, very theatrical performances are filled with nuance and don't become stale. Superbly produced by Tommy Krasker of PS Classics, continuing their history of an affinity for getting Sondheim right on disc, this remains a dynamic listening experience. It stands up on its own, whether this examination of being single is the single version you own or if it's side by side by side with the other cast albums of this important show.
Taking place in recent times, the Broadway musical High Fidelity, about a poor schlub who works in a record store, makes a very good record itself, despite whatever problems it may have had on Broadway. Its quirky, self-doubting characters with fear of commitment bring committed performances from Will Chase and Jenn Colella as the central couple, sometimes miserable together and sometimes miserable apart. It must be love. Through their raw nerves sung via Tom Kitt's high voltage and contemporary music and Amanda Green's brash lyrics, they work their edgy, rumpled way into the heart. The rock style of the band is right on the money. Album producers Joel Moss and Kurt Deutsch bring in another hit, even if the show itself was not one.
Especially entertaining are the knowing enactments of male bonding behavior among the misfits and Christian Anderson as the geeky, high-strung one singing "It's No Problem." A bonus track of the cut song "Too Tired" reveals more of the vulnerability of the girlfriend character. But there are numerous other glimpses of heart and quite a bit of humor throughout the score. It is not a classic and has some weak spots, but it has adrenalin galore and is unpretentious.
Reissues are not in consideration for the Top 10 list. However, I would like to make a couple of acknowledgments, since this year I did cover more reissues than in the past (partly because of notable new bonus tracks, a time lag since the first issue, or limited original visibility). A tip of the hat to Sepia Records and Must Close Saturday Records for their continuing series of reissues of older cast albums with a large number of related bonus tracks, many from old 78 rpm singles. These have provided new appreciation for London cast albums of British and American shows.
In an unusual case, a delightful cast album for the revised Broadway version of Grey Gardens had changes in cast and songs, but most of the tracks were simply repeats from the Off-Broadway album. It had made our Top Ten last year, so this semi-new CD was not considered this year, but should not be forgotten.