Where does the time go? It's hard to believe that once again I am closing out a year by choosing the always subjective list comprising the Best Albums of 2004. As is the habit here on Talkin' Broadway, the list has been divided into two categories: Best Theatrical and Best Vocal Albums. As always, the chief criteria for inclusion on either of these lists is that the album was a new release versus a reissue of previously recorded material (this year saw a marked decline, unfortunately, in the percentage of new recordings versus reissues). Secondly, the album had to have been released in 2004. The chief deciding factor, however, is how often the album graced my CD player or IPod, or better yet, how many times I forced others to listen to it.

Going over the candidates this year, I quickly realized that 2004 was one of the most miserable of years for original cast recordings in quite some time. While there were a lot of good, solid albums, there were few truly great ones. And even worse, a dismally small number of theatrical albums came from Broadway, and there were far more recordings featuring revivals, revues or rarities from the past than there were true 'original' cast albums. And to be blunt, three of the theatrical albums that graced last years' 'best of' list (and one that didn't even make it) are played much more frequently on my IPod than any from this years' list (they are, for the record,Avenue Q, Wicked, Nine and The Boy From Oz, the last of which makes for a guiltily great work-out album.)

The best 'Broadway' album of the year, Barbara Cook's Broadway celebrates two of America's greatest musical treasures: the genre of musical theater and the genius of Barbara Cook. A live recording from her most recent show, the CD showcases a performer who keeps getting better with maturity. The loss of its music director, Wally Harper, last year gives the album a bittersweet grace note.

As delightful as Barbara Cook may be, my favorite theatrical recording of the year comes from the most unlikeliest of places: the 2003 Encores! production of Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg's 1928 hit operetta The New Moon. While I am not usually a fan of the genre, The New Moon is highly infectious, containing as it does such classic ballads as "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" and "Lover Come Back to Me" (both of which have become jazz standards), as well as rousing chorus numbers like "Stouthearted Men." While the plot is pure stereotypical operetta (the show is set in late 18th-century New Orleans and features the usual stock revolutionaries, star-crossed lovers and plot elements based on false assumptions), the lyrics by Hammerstein raise it above the typical Viennese Schlag. To a person, the cast is incredible and does a remarkable job of singing operatically while emoting theatrically (no mean feat, as evidenced by last year's wooden and disappointing Firebrand of Florence). As the romantic leads, Broadway's Christiane Noll and opera's Rodney Gilfry are shear perfection. Noll, in particular, is a revelation and shines on all of her numbers, most especially on a vibrant and thrilling rendition of "Lover, Come Back to Me." Also of note are the contributions of Alix Korey and Peter Benson. The sound on the album is incredible, displaying a remarkable crispness and warmth that bodes well for future Ghostlight recordings.

Ghostlight Records also preserved one of the surprise hits of last season: a semi-staged concert production of E. Y. Harburg and Burton Lane's classic (if problematic) show on Irish magic and racism, Finian's Rainbow . While the book has not aged as gracefully as the score (although its message of tolerance and faith in the American Dream could not be more timely), songs from the show have become firmly entrenched in the American Songbook, thus making it a natural for a concert-style 'revival.' It is doubtful that anybody reading this is not familiar with at least one number from the show, containing as it does such standards as "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?," "Look To The Rainbow," and "Old Devil Moon," plus only slightly lesser-known numbers like "If This Isn't Love" or "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love." As is often the case, however, it is the obscure numbers that pack the most punch, especially those that deal with racial and societal issues, such as "Necessity" (a terrific bluesy number featuring Terri White that utilizes some of Harburg's sliest lyrics), "The Begat" (a pointed look at morals and politics that is just a shade bluer than Cole Porter's "Let's Do It"), and "When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich."

While one does miss the rich orchestrations of the original cast recording, the two-piano pairing of Mark Hartman and Mark Janas (the latter of whom was not given credit for helping to create the arrangements with Hartman: an oversight to be corrected in future pressings) weave a subtle magical spell that enhances the stellar cast. Melissa Errico (as Irish immigrant, Sharon McLonergan) shines via the most understated yet emotionally connected rendition of "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" I have had the pleasure to hear. And Malcolm Gets gives a delightful performance as the Leprechaun Og, especially in the bubbling "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love." While the album does not preserve the entire production (an understandable, if somewhat disappointing oversight probably due to licensing concerns, as this version of the show is available for future productions), it is the most complete recording to date, containing as it does intros and reprises not previously included on any other disc (including the 'need to hear it to believe it' version produced by Frank Sinatra that features incredible performances by Sammy Davis, Jr. coupled with such side-splitting, 'what-were-they-thinking' numbers as a version of "Necessity" as sung by the McGuire Sisters).

While the recording of Stephen Sondheim's newest musical, Bounce, proved to be a disappointment, a recording of one of his most controversial creations, Assassins, reminded musical theater lovers of his genius. While the Broadway cast is, as a whole, not as vocally strong as those on the Off-Broadway recording, Marc Kudisch's creepy portrayal of the Proprietor, Neil Patrick Harris' effective (and sometimes tongue-in-cheek) rendition of the Balladeer, Tony winner Michael Cerveris' impassioned performance of Booth, and (my personal favorite) Becky Ann Baker's off-kilter portrayal of would-be assassin of President Ford, Sara Jane Moore, make this by far the best Broadway revival cast recording of the year. Also key to the album's success is Tony winner Michael Starobin's remarkable job of fleshing out his original 1991 orchestrations.

Many of the best albums of 2004 came from largely forgotten sources. A case in point is Fine and Dandy, a 1930 hit by Kay Swift and Paul James that somehow missed being recording until last year. This frothy confection is graced with perfect pairings of song and singer, such as the title song (sung by Carolee Carmello and Mario Cantone) or "Let's Go Eat Worms in the Garden" (sung by Gavin Creel and Carmello), as well as the lovely "Can This Be Love?" (beautifully sung by Carmello, who is also powerful on the driving "Nobody Breaks My Heart," a number that deserves greater exposure). This was the first album to be released by PS Classics as part of its not-for-profit arm dedicated to preserving unrecorded shows from the past. I, for one, can't wait to see what other treasures they will unearth (for a glimpse at what the future may hold, visit www.psclassics.org/support_us.html).

As always, Scott and Barbara Siegel's Broadway By The Year series proved to be one of last season's theatrical highlights. And, as usual, the CDs spawned by the event proved to be no less magical and are 'must have' albums for theater lovers. While I am still waiting for the recording of my favorite entry in the series to be released (The Broadway Musicals of 1935, which featured Karen Akers, Emily Skinner, Todd Murray and Barbara Walsh), the two albums released this year made for more than adequate stand-ins.

The Broadway Musicals of 1960 features such highlights as Tovah Feldshuh performing numbers both known (a comic "Kids" from Bye Bye Birdie) and obscure (the politically pointed "Ism," a Sheldon Harnick/David Baker number from Vintage 60), Marc Kudisch revisiting his role as Conrad Birdie with a delightfully over-the-top "One Last Kiss," and Eddie Korbich's tour de force performance of "The Late Late Show" (Do Re Mi).

Not to be outdone, The Broadway Musicals of 1953 features four numbers from Wonderful Town that rival anything heard in the current revival ("A Little Bit in Love," sung by Andrea Burns, "A Quiet Girl," divinely sung by Davis Gaines, "One Hundred Easy Ways" sung by Julia Murney, and a western-flavored "Ohio" by Murney and Burns), as well as the true reason to buy the album: three never-before-recorded numbers from Carnival in Flanders (Debbie Gravitte's "How Far Can a Lady Go?," and Ed Staudenmayer's "The Sudden Thrill" and "You Can Trust the Word of a Gentleman").

While the book of Caroline, Or Change was problematic at best, musically the show improves upon each listening, thanks to its composer, Jeanine Tesori (once again building the promise she showed in Violet after a detour with Thoroughly Modern Millie). Even though I have not listened to the two-disc set since reviewing it this summer, snippets of its score oftentimes float unbidden in my mind, a prime indicator if its musical strengths.

It can not be denied that if Taboo's cast album were released while the Broadway production was still running, the show would probably have had a longer (yet no less beleaguered) run. Though it was problematic and troubled from the start, its cast and its score make the Broadway cast album eminently listenable and enjoyable, especially Euan Morton (as Boy George), Raul Esparza (Philip Sallon) and Liz McCartney (Big Sue), whose "Stranger In This World," "Petrified," and "Talk Amongst Yourselves" were three of the best numbers of the year.

I found the biggest surprise of the year, theatrical recording-wise at least, while listening to the recently released recording of Sundown whilst Stairmastering at Harlem's New York Sports Club. While it is arguably not the best place to listen to a musical about the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the fact that its country music-inspired score cut through the hip-hop blaring overhead and completely captivated me should speak volumes to the strength of the score and its performers.

Written by composer Peter Link (King of Hearts, Salvation) and lyricist Larry Rosler (who, with Joe Bravaco, also wrote the book), the show is more tuneful and emotionally resonant than many shows to hit the Great White Way in recent memory. The show has seen a few productions already (the Lyric Stage in Irvine, Texas, and Virginia's Barter, as well as a staged reading at New York's York Theatre Company), and the recording is a studio cast recording featuring Broadway actors Steve Blanchard (currently the Beast in Beauty and the Beast) as Doc Holliday, Judy McLane (currently Tanya in Mamma Mia!) as his lady love Kate Fisher, and Patrick Ryan Sullivan as Wyatt Earp.

If your knowledge of the gunfight is limited (like mine is) to the Star Trek episode "Spectre of the Gun," Sundown recounts the classic tale of the old west, wherein Doc Holliday joined forces with Wyatt Earp and his brothers to battle the Clanton Gang in Tombstone, Arizona. Told from the point of view of Doc Holliday, the show manages what other Western shows tried and almost achieved (such as Johnny Guitar) or flat-out failed miserably at (such as Urban Cowboy - indeed, the sensual pick-up number "One More Drink" sung by Joe Lutton and Judy McLane perfectly captures the spirit and playfulness that was missing from Urban Cowboy). And that is, tell a tuneful tale set in the mythic west that consists of three-dimensional characters that have a reason to sing (and do so with more than passable songs to boot!).

Musically, Sundown recalls a harder edged Big River, thanks to rollicking character numbers like "Fly In The Ointment" and "Politickin'," which stand side by side with beautiful ballads like "Bridges" (beautifully performed by Judy McLane) and the title song (a plaintive 'end of the trail' number sung by Doc Holliday). While the CD is hampered at times by arrangements featuring far-too-obviously synthesized instruments, the material in general and the performers in particular make for an incredibly strong and highly listenable album. For more information and to listen to samples, visit www.sundownmusical.com.

-- Jonathan Frank

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