Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Warner Bros.) (3 / 5) Andrew Lloyd Webber found his greatest commercial success in the era of the British pop-opera blockbusters, so it’s easy to forget that he first made his mark in the musical theater world by using pop/rock music to groundbreaking effect in his scores for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Which leads us to School of Rock, the first new Webber score to come to Broadway in a decade. Based on the 2003 film of the same title, starring Jack Black, the show tells of Dewey (Alex Brightman), a directionless man-child and rock and roll devotee who forms his own rock band with the children of a prestigious prep school where he has recently been working as a substitute teacher under false pretenses. While the score isn’t of the same quality as Evita or Superstar, partly due to Glenn Slater’s no more than serviceable lyrics, it’s certainly the most inventive and fun Webber’s been in years. As Dewey, Brightman has the same likeable charm Black offered on screen, as well as an exciting rock voice that’s up to the difficult demands of the role (a hallmark of Webber’s writing). As the school’s stern headmistress, Sierra Boggess is less successful, proving effective in classical moments such as her short snippet of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria, but unable to negotiate her polished soprano around the contemporary elements of her breakout ballad, “Where Did the Rock Go.” The score is not a complete triumph for Webber; on the one hand, when Dewey and his students finally come together to create their band’s sound in the numbers “You’re in the Band” and “Stick it to the Man,” you can practically hear Webber’s giddiness, but in “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” and “Children of Rock,” the composer goes overboard from the start, and the songs never have a chance to build. Note: School of Rock was recorded before the show began Broadway performances, and certain aspects of the cast album do not reflect the score as it is now. Most notably, “Give Up Your Dreams,” an unfunny anthem (though well performed by Mamie Parris), was cut in previews but is included here, along with a few bonus tracks at the end. — Matt Koplik
Off Broadway Cast, 2016 (Jay Records) (3 / 5) Here is a major revisal of the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, cut down to one-act and including several previously unheard Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick songs, plus some revisions by Harnick. The romance for son Nathan and the big ensemble numbers are gone, and the political leaders’ roles have been trimmed. The cast totals 11, compared to more than 30 on Broadway; when Mayer Rothschild (Robert Cuccioli) sings a shortened version of “He Tossed a Coin,” it’s clear that the Frankfurt fair isn’t crowded. Joseph Church has reorchestrated the score for four players, compared to Don Walker’s sumptuous originals. What if anything in this York Theatre Company production compensates for the loss of size and spectacle of the original? Lyricist Harnick and librettist Sherman Yellen (composer Bock died in 2010) had long wanted to refocus the story on the Rothschild family and less on the sprawling European setting. In this, they succeeded; Rothschild and Sons is an intimate piece that emphasizes feelings and relationships. Mayer’s wife, Gutele — a moving Glory Crampton — is a more significant presence as the action unfolds through her memories. She grows from being satisfied with “One Room” to standing strong against Metternich in the reprise of the driving anthem “Everything.” Crampton also gets the best of the added songs, “Just A Map,” in which she frets over her sons as they crisscross wartime Europe. Nathan (Christopher M. Williams) has lost his silly patter number, but here he makes mistakes on arrival in England (“Tea’s Hot”) and then butts heads with his father in “He Never Listens.” The heart of the show is Mayer, the father. Cuccioli’s voice sounds terrific — his “In My Own Lifetime” is rousing — yet he lacks the warmth and humor that Hal Linden found in the character. On the one hand (as another Bock-Harnick character said), it’s wonderful that this revisal may grant new life to the show. But on the other hand, while there are plenty of musicals about families, how many are as daring as The Rothschilds — set in the chaos of late 18th-early 19th century Europe, about a family relying on financial maneuverings and political cunning to survive, with a rich score evoking late Baroque and classical masters? Stick with the original. — L.F.
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