Original Broadway Cast, 2009 (PS Classics) (3 / 5) The Story of My Life is an intimate, unusual, two-character musical with songs by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill. The strengths of the cast album lie in two talented performers, a score that’s lovely, evocative, and emotional, and the show’s highly original premise about friendship and the art of creative writing. Yet that very premise also shackles the piece, for the audience isn’t sufficiently exposed to other aspects of the lives of the characters, creating distracting questions that are never fully answered. Thomas Weaver (Will Chase), a successful author, returns to his hometown to write the eulogy for his one-time best friend, Alvin Kelby (Malcolm Gets). Alvin appears in Thomas’s mind, taking him back to when a thoughtful first grade teacher brought them together (“Mrs. Remington”). The score soars in its early numbers, charting how the pair bond over a shared love of books (Alvin’s dad owns a bookstore) and the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Bartram displays a solid grasp of childhood perspective, and Chase and Gets — even as only heard on this recording — magically transform themselves into schoolboys, exchanging gifts and creating traditions. (Check out the way Chase’s voice cracks in “1876.”) When the boys hit adolescence, it hits back; Thomas rightly worries that Alvin’s “odd” behavior, including an obsession with his dead mother’s bathrobe, might not go over well in high school (“Normal”). Bartram and Hill subtly reveal the differences that will later fracture this friendship, but the show doesn’t work as well once the men reach adulthood. Thomas attends college, writes bestsellers, and gets engaged, while Alvin apparently has no existence beyond the bookstore. Thomas increasingly edits his friend out of his life, culminating in the shocking “Independence Day” — and then he develops writer’s block. He has rejected Alvin, so now his muse has abandoned him. Here’s where the questions start — not the one concerning Alvin’s death, which Bartram and Hill rightly keep a mystery, as it leads to Thomas’s catharsis. But what about Thomas’s fiancée, Ann? Unlike the brief but fully realized portraits of Mrs. Remington and Alvin’s parents, she’s a cipher. And are we supposed to accept that everything Thomas has written has derived from his experiences with Alvin? In the hands of less talented performers, this slight framework might crumble, but Chase keeps Thomas attractive even when he’s being a jerk, and Gets’s Alvin skillfully morphs from neurotic kid to crushed soul to the ghost whose nagging gets his friend back on track. — Laura Frankos
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2010 (JAY) (5 / 5) In several of their shows, John Kander and Fred Ebb have used various types of entertainment as the contextual setting for exploring historical and social issues. In Cabaret, sleazy nightclub routines parallel the excesses of Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism; Chicago‘s vaudeville acts reveal the corrupt justice system of the Roaring Twenties. In The Scottsboro Boys, the tragic story of nine young African Americans who were unjustly accused of raping two white women in 1931 is told in the form of a minstrel show. The result is a searing, brilliant work with depth, power, and guts. Kander says they chose the format for the opportunities it provided: an ensemble, led by an Interlocutor (John Cullum), telling stories, jokes and songs. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (the versatile Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon) assist by playing multiple characters (“White men’s our speciality”). Needless to say, the minstrel show itself is a stark reminder of racism, reinforcing social injustice with every number. In the rousing opener, the lead among the accused men, Haywood Patterson (the impressive Brandon Victor Dixon), asks “This time, can we tell it like it really happened?” The Interlocutor benignly replies, “Of course.” Haywood’s resolve to tell the truth provides the score with a constant refrain, from his first defense (the Bert Williams style “Nothin'”) to the comic fable “Make Friends With the Truth” to “Zat So?” His defiant cry “You Can’t Do Me” sets up the boys’ refusal of the Interlocutor’s call for a cakewalk and a “happy ending,” subverting the minstrel show. The fates of the real-life Scottsboro Boys were anything but happy, but the final scene places their case in the broader context to the civil rights movement, giving a glimpse of a better future. The score also contains one of Kander & Ebb’s finest songs, the poignant “Go Back Home,” with a beautiful, wistful melody that reoccurs throughout the underscoring. (A bonus track has Kander performing the number.) Throughout the recording, Cullum shines as the unctuous Interlocutor, his genially racist attitude clear in “It’s Gonna Take Time” (cut from the subsequent Broadway production) and “Southern Days.” The Interlocutor misses Mammy’s ribs and mint juleps, but conveniently forgets the lynchings and cross-burnings. Domingo and McClendon’s talents are also evident throughout, especially when they assume the guises of the Attorney General and lawyer Samuel Liebowitz in savagely satirical numbers revealing Southern anti-Semitism and patronizing New York showmanship. (“Just ask my chauffeur, Rufus!”) Here was no easy subject, but this musical may be Kander and Ebb’s most important work; three years after the show opened, the Scottsboro boys were granted a posthumous pardon. — Laura Frankos
London Cast, 2014 (JAY) (4 / 5) This cast album bears a close similarity to the 2010 version. Three of the principals crossed the Atlantic to appear in the London production of The Scottsboro Boys: Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones, and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo. Dixon may even be better here, displaying heightened exuberance in “Commencing in Chattanooga” and enormous inner strength in “You Can’t Do Me.” The ensemble numbers sound more polished, and there are some lyric changes, notably in “Make Friends With the Truth.” There’s also a bit of additional dialogue, with more details about the fate of these young men. The Interlocutor’s solo, “It’s Gonna Take Time,” was cut from the Broadway production and is absent here, but the exit music is included. Like the earlier recording, there’ a bonus track of “Go Back Home,” here performed by Dixon. A key difference between the two albums is the Interlocutor, played nastily here by Julian Glover. Where John Cullum was generally sly, Glover is more commanding, sending chills as he insists, “Shake those tambourines!” When he describes himself as “the master of these folks” in the opener, the listener can’t help thinking he means more than just master of ceremonies. Does a collector need both recordings? Probably not. But those considering staging the show may want the London one, which is closer to the licensed version. — L.F.
Original Broadway Cast, 2010 (Verve) (3 / 5) Not to be outdone by Disney, the Dreamworks company decided to come to Broadway with a musical adaptation of its Oscar winning animated film Shrek, about an everyman ogre trying to maintain his peace of mind while wading through numerous fairy tales — some of which aren’t quite so magical. While the original Broadway production proved to be wildly over-produced and too loyal to the film in terms of its design and book, the cast recording reveals that, at its core, Shrek has considerable charm and a solid score aided by Danny Troob’s healthily full orchestrations. It’s not a surprise that composer Jeanine Tesori brought a mixture of earnestness and funky independence to the piece, but it is a surprise that first-time lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire crafted such well-structured and genuinely witty lyrics. The score boasts a fair number of highlights, such as “I Know It’s Today” and “When Words Fail,” though some songs try too hard for off-kilter humor — for example, “Story of My Life” and “What’s Up, Duloc?” In the title role, Brian d’Arcy James had to balance his own musical theater instincts with the burden of recreating a highly beloved film character; for the most part, he succeeded, especially in the touching “Who I’d Be.” Sadly, the talented Daniel Breaker was not given as much artistic freedom in the role of Shrek’s best friend Donkey, and instead offers an Eddie Murphy impression through much of this cast album. More successful principal players include Sutton Foster as not-your-average-princess Fiona, going toe to toe with James in the childishly gleeful “I Think I Got You Beat,” and Christopher Sieber as the hyper-sinister, height-challenged villain Lord Farquad. In their score, Tesori and Abaire gave Shrek a mischievous soul that was sadly lost among the giant scenery of the original production. Luckily, it’s captured here. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2005 (Decca Broadway) (2 / 5) This show, based on the classic film comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, attempts to spoof the formula of musical theatre while still adhering to it. Written by Monty Python founder Eric Idle and frequent collaborator John du Prez, Spamalot sticks to what the audience remembers from the beloved movie and embellishes, rather than expands, the material for the stage. The songs were created by musicalizing famous jokes from the film (“Run Away,” “He Is Not Dead Yet”) or by breaking the fourth wall, stopping the action to turn a one-liner into a full-blown production number (for example, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”). Though some of du Prez’s tunes are hummable, and Idle’s lyrics occasionally contain the daffy Monty Python sensibility, their work doesn’t match the ingenuity of the film. What keeps the recording afloat is a dynamic cast of comic heavyweights including Tim Curry, David Hyde Pierce, Hank Azaria, and Christian Borle, each playing a variety of different roles that showcase their considerable talents. But it’s Sara Ramirez, a Tony winner for her performance, who walks away with the album. As the Lady of the Lake, the one role added for the stage show, Ramirez matches her co-stars’ comedic instincts and bests all of them with her explosive vocal versatility. While her two big numbers, “Find Your Grail” and “Diva’s Lament,” are not particularly well written, Ramirez spins them both into showstoppers. Spamalot won the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical (yet no awards for the writers) and played for nearly three years — proving that, although satire is what closes on Saturday night (as per George S. Kaufman), a meta-parody can run a lot longer. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Ghostlight) (5 / 5)The more one knows about Broadway musicals, the more convulsed with laughter one becomes upon experiencing Something Rotten!, a smart stew of shrewd satire and affectionate parody. It also helps to know something about Shakespeare, as the show’s riotous plot, set in the 1590s, concerns fraternal playwrights Nick and Nigel Bottom’s attempt to rival The Bard’s popularity by penning a game-changing theatrical hit of their own. Upon the advice of an imperfect soothsayer who foresees Omelette to be the title of Shakespeare’s greatest play, the sibling scribes, determined to beat The Bard to the punch, create a genre-birthing extravaganza: Omelette: The Musical. Absent the visual humor of the production’s mockeries of iconic Broadway choreography, the cast album is a laugh-fest nonetheless, because much of the show’s spoofing lies in Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick’s score, keenly orchestrated to recall the jazz-inflected sounds of Broadway’s Golden Age and the later pop-rock sensibilities. From the first-act show-stopper, “A Musical,” to the play-within-the-play numbers “It’s Eggs” and “Make an Omelette,” the songs overflow with hilarious musical-theater references. The abundant allusions come at such a frenzied pace that only by listening repeatedly to the recording can one digest every tasty morsel. While Brian d’Arcy James, as Nick, persuasively bemoans “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” Christian Borle’s Tony-winning depiction of Nick’s nemesis as a leather-clad, Renaissance-era rock star grabs the spotlight. The recording effectively captures Borle’s characterization of Shakespeare as evoked through his adoption of the British accent and patronizing tone of a rocker from across the pond; his “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard” cleverly mimic ’60s and ’70s pop-music stylings. Considering its derivative nature, Something Rotten! is remarkably original, a fitting reflection of its undergirding themes of self-expression, artistic integrity, and the power of poetry combined with music. Show tune fanatics, to thine own self be true! – Lisa Jo Sagolla
Original Broadway Cast, 1984 (RCA) (4 / 5) Few Broadway composers could successfully make a painting into a musical, but Stephen Sondheim turned Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte” into one of his most unforgettable and distinctive works. In essence, Sunday in the Park With George is a meditation on the nature of art as viewed in the past (Seurat in the first act) and the present (his descendant, named George, in the second). Although the show has been criticized for the disparity in style between its two acts, each informs the other to create a cohesive whole, and the score has real depth and color. Sondheim reflects Seurat’s unique painting style through the use of staccato notes, playing with the various hues of music much as the artist worked with pigments. Songs such as “Color and Light” and “Finishing the Hat” are particularly remarkable in sound and texture. A few of the compositions are slightly more conventional: “We Do Not Belong Together,” the aching cry of Seurat’s mistress, Dot; the beautiful “Beautiful,” for Georges and his mother; and the rapturous Act I finale “Sunday,” during which the painting finally comes to life. The second act begins with the amusing “It’s Hot Up Here,” sung by the characters in the painting, followed by the brilliant musical scene “Putting It Together” (about George’s fundraising attempts), “Children and Art” (about what we leave behind when we die), and “Lesson #8″ (about the constantly mutating nature of art and life). As Georges/George and Dot, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters do some of the finest work of their careers, leading an excellent company through the score’s intricacies. Sunday is one of Sondheim’s finest achievements, though it may require several hearings to be fully appreciated. — Matthew Murray
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2009 (Nonesuch/PS Classics) (1 / 5) What started off as a coruscating musical-comedy cavalcade ended dour and dumpy with the 2008 premiere of Road Show, the final (?) incarnation of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Mizner Brothers biomusical. As spearheaded (and speared) by director John Doyle, this is American history pageantry scalped of the fun, joy, and — well, the bounce that characterized the work’s three earlier incarnations. (See separate review of the recording of one of those versions, Bounce.) Wilson and Addison are played here by Michael Cerveris and Alexander Gemignani with maximum sense of occasion and minimal charisma, weighing down even the better numbers — such as the romantic “The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened” and the ostensibly scheming “The Game” — to the point where they can’t rise above the muck. Morose, muddy orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick and indifferent musical direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell don’t inject any much-needed energy. Among the supporting cast, which also includes Claybourne Elder as Addison’s lover and William Parry as the boys’ father, only Alma Cuervo as Mama Mizner suggests in her aching solo “Isn’t He Something!” the combination of wit and heart that should drive this story. The rest of the recording, like the show at this point, is, as the opening number puts it, a waste. — Matthew Murray
Original Broadway Cast, 1955 (RCA) (4 / 5) Cole Porter’s last Broadway show is a charming and sophisticated musical based on the Greta Garbo film Ninotcka. Only Porter could have given that heady cinematic masterpiece the urbane and romantic musical touch that it deserved. Set against an enticing Parisian background that inspired one of the great composer-lyricist’s most sensual love songs, “All of You,” Silk Stockings has a score that also includes the melodic and witty “Paris Loves Lovers,” the smoldering title song, the comedic “Stereophonic Sound” and “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All,” the swinging “Satin and Silk,” and the jazzy “Red Blues.” A strong cast is headed by Hildegarde Neff as Ninotchka, a dour Russian official visiting Paris, and Don Ameche as a slick American talent agent. Gretchen Wyler is a particular delight in a supporting role, displaying plenty of spunk when belting out hilarious Porter lyrics in “Stereophonic Sound.” (Sample: “If Zanuck’s latest picture were the good, old fashioned kind / There’d be no one in front to look at Marilyn’s behind…”) This recording has lots of sensational lyrics that were considered too risqué for the film version of Silk Stockings, yet it’s not perfect; the production numbers sound a bit frenetic, and even the overture is rushed. — Gerard Alessandrini
Film Soundtrack, 1957 (MGM/Rhino-Turner) (4 / 5) The treatment of Porter’s score by André Previn and the MGM orchestra is flawless, with musical arrangements and orchestrations far more dazzling than the Broadway originals. Fred Astaire was perfectly cast in Silk Stockings as the male lead, but Cyd Charisse was less well suited to the role of Ninotchka — a moot point when it comes to the soundtrack album, since Charisse’s singing was dubbed by Carol Richards. Janis Paige, Jules Munshin, and Peter Lorre (!) in his only musical are all great fun. Although the movie itself isn’t considered a top MGM musical, the soundtrack is definitely a winner. Previn’s conducting of “The Red Blues” and “Stereophonic Sound” is exciting, the lush orchestrations for Astaire’s vocal and dance in “All of You” are gorgeous, and added to the score are two songs that were written by Porter especially for Astaire; one of them, “Fated to Be Mated,” is a real treat. The only disappointment of this recording is the ridiculous censoring of some lyrics that were considered too explicit for movie audiences of the day. How amazing that an American film released in 1957 couldn’t contain the lines, “If Ava Gardner played Godiva riding on a mare / The people wouldn’t pay a cent to see her in the bare…” — G.A.
Original Broadway Cast, 1997 (Sony) (2 / 5) Based on the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, twins who were born joined at the hip and who had minor show business careers that exploited their oddity, Side Show was one of the most overwrought musicals of its era. On Broadway, the exciting staging by Robert Longbottom distracted from all the heavy emoting; here, you have to deal head-on with the exhausting score by Henry Krieger (music) and Bill Russell (lyrics). The book, by Russell, follows the sisters as they fall in love with a pair of promoters, achieve mainstream celebrity, then realize that they will never find happiness in marriage. It’s a touching story undermined by hysterical dramatics and weepy ballads that harp on the loneliness of carnival freaks. Krieger’s score is melodic, but every number is pitched at finale level, and Russell’s lyrics consistently skirt the ridiculous. The acid test is the number “Tunnel of Love,” in which the twins take a spin on the anonymous amusement park ride along with their boyfriends, hopeful of having sex in the dark. Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner are excellent as Violet and Daisy, screaming their heads off as the score demands. Jeff McCarthy and Hugh Panaro are okay as their men, Norm Lewis offers powerful vocals as a factotum who loves Violet, and Ken Jennings strikes sinister notes as the creepy sideshow boss. — David Barbour