Trust Jason Robert Brown not to do things the easy way. His first book musical, Parade, was about a lynching in the Deep South, after all, and his songs are well-known for challenging listener and performer alike with their intricate lyrics and melodies. Thus, it should come as no surprise that even when Brown tackles the most traditional of subject matters, a love story, he does so in the most unusual of ways.

While The Last 5 Years, for which Brown wrote lyrics, music, book and orchestrations, covers the usual (and some have argued autobiographical) territory of a couple's relationship from first meeting through divorce, it does so with a twist. Life according to Jewish composer Jamie Wellerstein (Norbert Leo Butz) proceeds as normal but that of his Shiksa Goddess, Cathy Hyatt (Sherie Rene Scott), progresses backwards a la Merrily We Roll Along.

Musically, The Last 5 Years builds upon the musical promise displayed in Parade and his earlier revue, Songs For A New World. The Last 5 Years also displays a return of the wit and humor that was abundant in Songs but woefully lacking in Parade. Indeed, The Last 5 Years consists of equal parts high-comedy numbers (such as "Climbing Uphill" for Scott, a hysterical tour-de-force detailing horrid audition experiences/anxieties, and "Shiksa Goddess" for Butz, which comically laments the hell he will catch for falling for someone outside the Jewish faith) and heartrending introspective numbers (the break-up numbers, "Nobody Needs To Know" and "Still Hurting"). In a masterful touch, the musical style of the songs evolves (or disintegrates) in accordance with the relationship. Songs depicting the exuberant 'falling in love' portion of the couple's relationship are in a driving pop/rock vein with a strong piano accompaniment. As the relationship builds, the piano part fades out and strings take a greater prominence, as displayed in "A Part Of That," which contains exuberant Stephane Grappelli inspired violin licks. As the relationship disintegrates, however, the strings develop further into haunting string quartet arrangements.

The songs are all incredible stand-alone numbers, which is the show's greatest strength and weakness. On one hand, the numbers are all accessible and are likely to have a life outside of the show as they tell self-contained stories. However, the songs' self-sufficiency and the time warping conceit of the show make for a non-integrated show. On disc at least, it is hard to get a sense of the show's through-line as the alternating 'he said/she said' solos make it difficult to view the characters as a couple, given that they have virtually no performance time together. This nullifies the emotional impact of the story and makes it hard to identify with or feel for either character.

The cast album of Sweet Smell Of Success is hindered by a similar problem. While there is a great deal to like about the CD musically and performance-wise, it is hard to generate emotions for the characters, all of whom are doing their damnedest to manipulate fate for their own advancement or to the detriment of those around them.

Based on a novella by Clifford Odets and its subsequent film adaptation, Sweet Smell Of Success explores the string-pulling, behind-the-scenes machinations of the gossip/press world. Columnist J.J. Hunsecker (based on Walter Winchell and played by John Lithgow) has the power to catapult an unknown into instant celebrity-dom or destroy one's career and/or personal life. A desperate press agent, Sidney Falcone (Brian d'Arcy James), will do anything to obtain a smidgeon of the power J.J. possesses, even if it means ruining the lives of a jazz musician, Dallas (Jack Noseworthy), who has the nerve to date J.J's sister Susan (Kelli O'Hara) and that of his girlfriend, Rita (Stacey Logan), in the process.

While the Tony nominated score has been highly trounced by theater reviewers, on disc it plays surprisingly well. Composer Marvin Hamlisch (with, I suspect, strong help by orchestrator William David Brohn) has crafted a score that fuses jazz, big band and swing into a seamless whole that at times recalls City Of Angels and The Wild Party (without the latter's complexities). Lyricist Craig Carnelia, best known for writing story songs for his previous musicals (Three Postcards, Is There Life After High School?) and for many a cabaret standard, has written lyrics that are conversational rather than witty, and while a bit more bite might have been in order for a show best described as "a cookie full of arsenic," they are highly serviceable and fit the characters' needs and world.

When the show focuses on Sidney's quest for success and the power that accompanies it, the score displays remarkable drive. "The Column," in which the ensemble (who alternate between portraying a Greek chorus and a gossip-obsessed mob throughout the show) displays their desperation for a crumb from J.J.'s table, packs a visceral punch and remained in my head for days. Any song involving Brian d'Arcy James gives thrilling proof why he is due to become one of the great leading men of our age. This is especially true of his song "The Fountain," which more than a little recalls Brecht/Weill's "Pirate Jenny" in melody and structure.

John Lithgow's material is a little more hit-or-miss. "For Susan," a five-minute exploration of his obsession with his sister, is riveting and an incredible piece of songwriting with its decent into a disturbing, almost incestuous, preoccupation. However, his big 11 O'clock number, "Don't Look Now," a vaudeville number performed on a telethon, is the weakest of the show's songs and does not match the rest of the show stylistically.

The material given to the secondary characters is disappointing, although whether it's due to the songs themselves or the performances is hard to ascertain at times. While Noseworthy and O'Hara both have ballads (albeit bland ones) that display their voices to good advantage, on belt-driven numbers they seem to be singing outside of their range and have a tendency to become shrill. They are further hampered by the fact that all of their songs (as is the score as a whole) possess a similar drive and tempo, giving little time to sit back and relax. This is especially true of Rita's sole solo, the aptly titled "Rita's Tune," which comes across as an up-tempo version of City Of Angel's "Lost And Found."

Overall, the largest problem with the show on disc is that the characters are so unsympathetic, one never feels any emotional attachment to them. Still, the album is worth getting for two incredible performances by Lithgow and d'Arcy James and for any material attached to them.

Given the caliber of talent creating the aforementioned shows, it is more than a little intriguing that the most emotionally impacting cast album of the year comes from a pair of unknowns: The Spitfire Grill, which contains music by James Valcq, lyrics by the late Fred Alley, and a book by both. Simply put, The Spitfire Grill, which played at Playwrights Horizons last year, has a simplicity and emotional resonance that has become all too rare in musical theater. This is a show that succeeds by not trying: it simply is.

Based on Lee David Zlotoff's 1996 film of the same name, The Spitfire Grill tells of a young woman named Percy (Garrett Long) who is paroled after five years in prison and seeks a balm for her soul in Gilead, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, Gilead is in need of some healing as well, as Eli, the town's favorite son and emotional core, is MIA in Vietnam and the town's main source of work revenue, the quarry, is closed. Upon arriving in Gilead, Percy reports to the sheriff (Steven Pasquale), who gets her a job at the town's social center, the Spitfire Grill, run by Hannah Ferguson (Phyllis Somerville). As is to be expected, Percy makes a friend, Shelby (Liz Callaway) and through a contest they cook up wind up revitalizing Gilead.

The Spitfire Grill works better than expected (and, indeed, better than it has a right to) thanks to a perfect marriage of material and cast. Garrett Long delivers an incredible performance as Percy and manages to express what could have become treacly emotions with surprising restraint and honesty. From her first song ("A Ring Around The Moon," which manages to convey more character development in seven minutes than many musicals do in an entire act) to her final number (the self-aware "Shine," a song that will probably find a life outside of the Grill), Long displays an understated honesty and a powerful set of pipes. Liz Callaway, who has not been shortchanged in the pipes department either, displays an emotional underpinning not present in past recordings and is simply astonishing, especially in "When Hope Dies," a number describing the effects of Eli's disappearance on the town. Phyllis Somerville gives a powerful heartrending rendition of "Forgotten Lullaby," in which a mother's loss is poignantly illustrated.

The men of Gilead are not so fortunate in their material (indeed, Armand Schultz as Shelby's husband, Caleb, gets a number that seems thrown in to give the poor guy something to do) and the group numbers sound as if they would be better seen staged than listened to on disc. But overall, the songs by Valcq and Alley display a light touch and make up an album that is simply astonishing, due no small part to Valcq's stunning arrangements, which consist of folk instruments and instrumentations, acting as a character unto themselves.

One of the most easily overlooked forms of music is the true theatrical soundtrack; the background music of a non-musical play. As its purpose in life is to gently underscore the proceedings on stage or to mask a scene change, it is not usually designed to be a standout element, and thus makes little impact on an audience. Couple this with the fact that the music is usually written in fragments lasting under a minute and you can see why, while many plays have original scores, very few are recorded and released commercially.

In Metamorphoses, a recent Drama Desk winner currently playing on Broadway at Circle in the Square, music plays a much more dynamic and dramatic role, as many of the scenes in the show more closely resemble choreographed dances than traditionally 'acted' scenes. Thus, it makes perfect sense for the music, composed and largely performed by Willy Schwartz, to be released on an album.

Although the myths of Metamorphoses are Greek in nature, Schwartz weaves an exotic world of sound more reminiscent of the Middle East, at times closely resembling Peter Gabriel's Passion (the soundtrack to The Last Temptation Of Christ). While a few of the tracks are woefully short, sounding more like an idea than a fully fleshed-out piece (an aforementioned flaw in theater soundtracks), the vast majority consist of pieces that convey a well-developed theme. The instrumentation, largely consisting of instruments unfamiliar save to students of exotic music, ranges from the haunting, low 'flute' sounds of "Sleep," to the disturbing and discordantly stringed "Hunger."

In addition, the Metamorphoses CD contains music Schwartz wrote for two other Mary Zimmerman shows: The Odyssey and The Baltimore Waltz. While The Odyssey is close to Metamorphoses in feel and a logical continuation, the music from The Baltimore Waltz makes for a jarring segue, as it more closely resembles Alfred Hitchcock/Danny Elfman in feel and uses a completely different set of instruments.

It is hard to believe that Stephen Schwartz has been writing musicals for over thirty years. Not only does he look decades younger, but his musicality is that of a much younger composer. If you don't believe me, check out his latest solo CD, Uncharted Territory. Like his previous album, Reluctant Pilgrim, Schwartz has put together a series of songs that fall farther into the 'pop' realm of music than his more familiar film/theatrical sound. However, his version of 'pop' is a throwback to the days when songs had melodies and told stories, instead of merely providing either a beat to dance to or illustrating an emotional holding pattern.

With a surprisingly boyish tenor and low-key arrangements, Schwartz has put together a collection of thoughtful songs predominately about love. From "Toxic People," a hysterical R&B-style number about friends we could do without, to the hopeful celebration found in "Worth Waiting For," Schwartz's songs are mini-slices of life with refreshingly intelligent lyrics and novel approaches. Four of the songs are collaborative numbers (from writing partners John Bucchino, Steven Lutvak, Alan Menken, and Lindy Robbins). Two of the numbers are from TV/film projects ("Cold Enough To Snow," from Life With Mikey, and "Since I Gave My Heart Away," from Geppetto). All are pure magic.

Live albums are a tricky art form to get right. For every Elaine Stritch At Liberty that crosses my desk, I get a slough of recordings by folks who would have been better served by paying the extra money and investing in studio time. The problem is that what works on stage does not necessarily translate well to disc. Songs that work great in a show become lifeless when stripped of the accompanying gestures and facial expressions and all too often, voices that are incredible in person sound forced or lack shading when recorded live.

The above diatribe is an attempt to illustrate what a wonder is John DePalma's debut album, The Song is Mine, a live recording of his show, Feelin' Good. Right from the start, John sets the stage for what is to follow with "The Song Is Mine" (written by DePalma and music director James Followell), an anthem of self-assurance stating that he will make every song in the show his own. And that he does.

Thanks to an understated delivery that nails every word and emotion, as well as an adept touch that equally navigates both light comedy and high drama, DePalma weaves a delightful spell that comes right through your speakers. His song choices are superb and include older pop numbers (Al Jarreau's "Love Is Waiting," Harry Nilsson's "I Guess The World Must Be In New York City"), classic Broadway tunes ("Be A Lion" from The Wiz), old standards (an inspired Harold Arlen medley and "Dream A Little Dream Of Me") and new songs destined for a long future life (Saines/Kessler/Blumenkranz's "I Won't Mind).

While DePalma makes a few missteps (primarily a mistaken pairing of Nilsson's "I Guess The World Must Be In New York City" and Tom Wait's "Shiver Me Timbers," as the reintroduction of the former obliterates the tender melancholic web cast by the latter), overall this is the strongest debut album I have heard this year. The fact that it was recorded live makes me all the more eager to see this fine performer for myself.

-- Jonathan Frank

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