Sound Advice by Joseph Molnar
Top 10 of 1997

For my first column of the New Year, I thought I might take a look at the past year and write a column about what I thought were the top 10 cast albums of 1997. There were so many to choose from, from this season, last season and overseas. While a few were clear-cut choices, some I had to listen to again to decide for sure. In doing so, I was surprised at how much I liked some of the titles that were released earlier in the year that I had forgotten about. It also gave me a chance to review a few CD's I hadn't had a chance to since I only started writing this column a short time ago. For a recording to have made this list, it must have either moved me, made me cry or made me laugh. But most importantly, it must have made me want to play it over and over again.

1. Titanic
(Original Broadway Cast)

Titanic, which sailed onto Broadway earlier this year, survived a tumultuous preview period and went on to win 5 Tony awards and become a major hit. For me this was the score of the year, none could top it. From Maury Yeston's sweeping, majestic score to Jonathan Tunick's thrilling orchestrations. From the fantastic 16 minute opening number to the final reprise at the end. This CD would have been just about perfect, if it weren't for the uneven sound levels. It is also exquisitely sung by its talented cast, most notably, Brian d'Arcy James, Jennifer Piech, Martin Moran, Victoria Clark and Michael Ceveris. It also features the most beautiful choral work to be heard on Broadway in a long time. One of my favorite things about this score is the way Mr. Yeston uses the tune for "I Must Get On That Ship" to great effect. It is ironic that it is first sung by the passengers to show they are excited about boarding the ship and then later on to show their urgency in getting on the lifeboats. This is followed by the number "We'll Meet Tomorrow", which is truly heartbreaking. There are many beautiful numbers in addition to the above, such as "Still," "Godspeed Titanic" and "The Proposal/The Night is Alive" to name a few.

2. Passion
(Original London Concert Cast)

This Tony-award winning musical ran in London last year for 6 months, but despite the fact it starred heartthrob, Michael Ball, it went unrecorded. That is until this year when most of the cast got together and gave a concert during which it was recorded. I have loved this score since I first bought the Broadway cast album back in 1994. Sondheim's rhapsodic melodies seduces one from the second the show starts. One of my favorite things about this score is how Fosca ends up finishing the show by singing "Happiness," which is sung by Giorgio and Clara at the very beginning. Also, Fosca's music becomes less dissonant and turns lighter as the show progresses to show that she finally is loved and learns how to love. Maria Friedman, who won an Olivier award for her performance, gives Donna Murphy a run for her money. But they differ in that Maria sings more in a head voice, whereas Donna sang using chest tones. Michael Ball is a revelation on this CD. I have admired his work on Les Miserables and Aspects of Love, but he seems to have improved greatly since those days. He sings magnificently throughout the recording. He also gets to sing a passage that was sung by Jere Shea during previews on Broadway. Sondheim has restored a segment to the song "No One Has Ever Loved Me" that is now belted instead of sung more softly and Michael Ball takes full advantage of this. I think this is a big improvement over the original. There is also fine work from Helen Hobson as Clara, who sounds younger than Marin Mazzie, but is just as effective.

3. Jane Eyre
(Original Cast)

This show had its premiere in Canada a little over a year ago and has been going through rewrite after rewrite in the hopes of coming to Broadway in the new year. Due to the tough competition this season, I believe they should wait till the following season. In spite of the eventual rewrites that took place, it was recorded after its brief run and is available only in Canada. Plans for a US release have been put on hold till a Broadway home can be found for it, which is a shame. More people might be interested in this show if the CD were in wide release. Anyhow, the score sounds like The Secret Garden meets Les Miserables, it has a similar, modern Broadway sound. Songs such as "My Maker," "Brave Enough for Love" and "Forgiveness" bring a tear to the eye. There is also the beautiful "scene" song "Second Self", which is reminiscent of the bench scene, "If I Loved You" in Carousel, in which Rochester proposes to Jane that is truly touching. Newcomer Marla Schaffel as the plain, but smart Jane and Broadway vet, Anthony Crivello as the tempestuous Rochester are perfectly cast and have great chemistry together. There is also great support work from Mary Stout as Mrs. Fairfax and Sara Farbs as the young Jane. This show needs work, but this is a very strong basis for a potentially great musical.

4. Chicago
(Broadway Revival Cast)

"Give 'em the old razzle, dazzle" sings Billy Flynn, the lawyer in Chicago, and that is just what Kander & Ebb do. There is one showstopping number after another in this smart and witty musical about two murderesses and the lengths they will go to to get media attention so they can go free. Presented as part of the Encores! Concert series last year, it transferred to Broadway in the fall of 1996. This musical has been long overdue for a revival, with such people as Amy Fisher, O. J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers in the news, it is more apropos than ever. As a result, it has been playing to packed houses ever since it opened. The original starred Broadway legends Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach and no cast could ever hope to top them, but this cast comes pretty close. In their place are Bebe Neuwirth, whose voice grew on me after a few listens, Ann Reinking, sounding eerily like Gwen Verdon in certain passages, and James Naughton who turn in fine performances, nonetheless. D. Sabella, Joel Grey, and Marcia Lewis all top their predecessors. There is also the extra song, "I Know a Girl" which is getting its first recording. One minor disappoint is that Roxie's lead-in monologue to her song, "Roxie" has been cut and is sorely missed, since it was on the original Broadway cast album. So this CD has its pluses and minuses. But the pluses outweigh the minuses and any new recording of this score is a welcome addition in my book.

5. 1776
(Broadway Revival Cast)

1776 is the story of how the Declaration of Independence came to be. Many of its songs sound like fragments, rather than whole songs. I feel that is the beauty of this score because its music blends so well with its book. That was one of the problems with the orignal Broadway cast recording. Many of the songs were just recorded as songs and most of Peter Stone's witty and intelligent book were cut and there is little left to tell the listener what the songs are about. Thankfully, producer Robert Sher has restored most of that dialogue for the new Broadway cast CD. More lead-in dialogue and dialogue heard in the middle of songs, such as in "He Plays the Violin" has been added to make this a far more theatrical recording of the score than ever before. After one has become accustomed to the score, one finds it to be a very rich and exciting score that one appreciates after repeated listens. The performances here, for the most part, either equal or surpass the originals. Brent Spiner certainly has a stronger voice than William Daniels as does Paul Michael Valley, than Ken Howard. Only poor Lauren Ward has the unenviable task of following in Betty Buckley's footsteps as Martha Jefferson, something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Nonetheless she does an adequate job of putting her song across, sounding much better on the disc than she did in the theater. There are new, reduced orchestrations on this recording that were heard in the Roundabout theater. They are very similar to the originals, but they sometimes sound a bit anemic in comparison. The tempos to some of the songs also seem a bit quicker on the original cast recording, which I missed, but quickly dismissed. There is also an extra song that wasn't recorded the first time around, "Compliments," that is sung by Abigail Adams toward the end of the second act. It is a nice addition to this recording as are the many reprises that were missing on the original. This is a very satisfying recording of a musical that is too often over- looked which is now getting its due in the classy revival that is now running on Broadway.

6. The Last Session
(Original Off-Broadway Cast)

The Last Session is the semi-autobiographical story of a musician who is dying of AIDS and has gathered his friends together to make one last recording of songs to his life partner of 13 years. Following this session, he plans to commit suicide, unbeknownst to his friends. The Last Session is sort of like Godspell meets Rent. I say this because Rent also deals with the issue of AIDS and uses rock and gospel music to tell its story. There are also many "story songs" in this show, such as "Friendly Fire" and "The Preacher and the Nurse" that recall the parable songs of Godspell. There is not one bad tune to be heard here. Each and every one is packed with gut wrenching truth and honesty that is truly touching. But that is not to say that they are perfect, upon first listen, a few of the numbers sound as if they are stumbling over themselves, but this feeling disappears after a couple of listens. While this may sound like a very depressing affair, it is not. There are a few comic numbers to relieve the tension, such as the previously mentioned "Friendly Fire" which tells us that doctors and their cures can kill the patient almost as quickly as the disease itself. "Save Me a Seat," "Going it Alone," and "Connected" are all beautiful ballads that touch the heart. "The Group" tells us how everyone has a unique experience while going through this terrible disease. These songs are presented in sparse arrangements with only a piano, keyboards and guitar for accompaniment. The liner notes say this CD was recorded live in a studio with very little post-production and it sounds like it, which adds greatly to the enjoyment. The performers give their all and it is hard to single out just one, but Bob Stillman deserves singling out because he does a fantastic job in the lead role of Gideon. Not only does he sing and act, he also plays the keyboards on this recording. Upon first listen, one or two songs grab you, but after a few more listens, they all do.

7. No Way to Treat a Lady
(Original Cast)

No Way to Treat a Lady is about a NYC detective and an actor/serial murderer who are both dealing with similar mother problems while interacting as a result of the murderer wanting to make the headlines of the New York Times. It had a limited, then extended run last year by the York Theater Company. Douglas J. Cohen has written the book, music and lyrics for the entire show, which he has been working on since 1987. This is a funny musical that delights with its clever lyrics and catchy music. All of the songs further the plot along and are never boring. Despite its subject matter, it is quite funny and moves along at a brisk pace. Although there isn't a bad tune on the disc, the highlights are "I Need A Life," "So Far So Good," "So Much in Common" and "One of the Beautiful People." This score rivals anything currently playing on Broadway. The eight characters are played by four actors. Adam Grupper as the detective, Marguerite MacIntyre as his love interest, and Paul Schoeffler as the murderer all do excellent work. But Alix Korey, in multiple roles as both mothers and all the murder victims, gives a tour de force performance changing accents and personalities right before your ears. She is truly amazing and must be heard to be believed.

8. The Lion King
(Original Broadway Cast)

The Lion King opened on Broadway to some of the most enthusiastic reviews ever to meet a Broadway show, praising its staging and use of costumes and puppets. But The Lion King is more than that. While no audio recording can fully capture what is on stage at the New Amsterdam Theater, the CD is quite enjoyable on its own. The eclectic score, which is really two scores meshed together, covers everything from rock to pop, African tribal dances to traditional Broadway songs. Almost everyone knows the Elton John/Tim Rice score by now, but that has been augmented by a couple of new tunes written just for this production. "The Morning Report" which is a Gilbert & Sullivan-style tune written for Zazu, "Chow Down", a rock song for the trio of hyenas, and "The Madness of Scar" which shows Scar going insane are the additions by John and Rice. Lebo M has supplied the rest of the score, which not only includes African tribal dances, but a few additional songs. The standouts include "He Lives in You, which is first sung by Mufasa, and then reprised by Rafiki, "Shadowland", sung by Nala, and "Endless Night" performed by the grown-up Simba. The performers themselves are also excellent. Samuel E. Wright is a powerful Mufasa and John Vickery is a conniving Scar and Jason Raize and Heather Headley as Simba and Nala both have beautiful voices. I have one small pet peeve about this recording and that is that they have decided to include "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" as recorded by Lebo M on the "Rhythm of the Pridelands." In the stage show and the film, is it sung a cappella by Timon. I would have preferred they left it off and then it would have been a perfect CD, but that is quibbling. So overall, this is an almost perfect CD of a terrific show that is sure to outrun that other show about smaller felines.

9. The Boys from Syracuse
(1997 Revival Cast)

"Falling in Love With Love," "This Can't Be Love," "Sing for Your Supper" and "Dear Old Syracuse." Classic Rodgers and Hart score. Top notch Broadway talent, such as Davis Gaines, Debbie Shapiro Gravitte, Rebecca Luker, Malcolm Gets and Michael McGrath. What more can one say about this disc, it is a perfect score with a perfect cast. Every song is a joy to listen to. This show was presented as part of the Encores! Concert series, where the current revival of Chicago started. Adapted from Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, it tells the story of a pair of twins separated at birth and raised without knowledge of their twin until fate intervenes. This pure musical comedy at its best, they way it used to be. Larry Hart's clever and brilliant lyrics breeze right along with Richard Rodgers' most tuneful and catchy score, which features comic as well as romantic numbers. To add to the enjoyment, this recording preserves Hans Spialek's original 1938 orchestrations. This recording also features a tune that went unrecorded, till now, "Big Brother." This cast makes this score sound as if it were written yesterday. It makes one yearn for a full scale Broadway revival.

10. The Life
(Original Broadway Cast)

The Life is a musical that takes place in Times Square circa 1980 and is about hookers and the pimps who use and abuse them. Cy Coleman has written a pulsating, jazzy score that is, pardon the pun, full of life. He has written one of his most tuneful and exciting scores since Sweet Charity. However, Ira Gasman's lyrics don't always live up to his melodies. They can, at times, be very clever, as in "Use What You Got" and "The Oldest Profession", or very simple and mundane as in "Oh Daddy" and "Go Home." For the most part, they are acceptable and move the action along. But it is Cy's music that is the driving force behind this CD. It snaps, crackles and pops at every turn in terrific orchestrations by Don Sebesky and Harold Wheeler. "My Body," "Use What You Got," "He's No Good" and "The Oldest Profession" are old-fashioned showstoppers. The performances also add to the enjoyment, most notably Sam Harris, Pamela Isaacs, Kevin Ramsey and in their Tony award winning roles, Lillias White and Chuck Cooper.

There it is. That wraps up last year's releases, so on to the New Year. Join me in two weeks when I will be reviewing The Human Comedy which is released for the first time ever after having opened and closed on Broadway almost 14 years ago. Happy New Year everyone!

Till then, happy listening!

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