Original Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight) (2 / 5) Steve Martin is a man of many talents: actor, playwright, stand up comic, novelist. And here, with Edie Brickell as his collaborator, he adds musical theater writer to the list. Martin’s original story for Bright Star centers on both Billy Cane, a young Southern man striving to become a writer (A.J. Shively), and Alice Murphy, the austere female publisher who mentors him (Carmen Cusack). Due to the story’s setting and Martin’s familiarity with the genre, the score is written with a heavy bluegrass influence. (The reliable August Eriksmoen keeps the banjo plucking with his blood-pumping orchestrations.) Given Martin’s many previous successes, it’s a shame that Bright Star is such a mixed bag as a musical, and even more so as an album. While Martin and Brickell have a gift for writing music that can be quietly moving (“It Can’t Wait”) or enticingly catchy (“Another Round”), their lyrics prove to be a major obstacle that the score and the show can’t quite get past; they often lack adequate insight into characters’ psyches or fail to propel the plot forward, tending to be repetitive and broad. (“A Man’s Gotta Do” is a prime example.) The cast is strong overall, though the talents of Broadway veterans Dee Hoty and Stephen Bogardus are sadly wasted in small roles that get lost in large group numbers or throwaway songs like “She’s Gone.” Luckily, the album has radiant performances by Cusack as Alice and Paul Alexander Nolan as her childhood love. In their first song together, “Whoa Mama,” the recording begins to pick up steam as Cusack’s throaty alto blends beautifully with Nolan’s pure tenor, creating intimate chemistry. The other songs these two share together (“It Can’t Wait,” “What Could Be Better,” “I Had a Vision”) are further highlights of the album. Some of the remaining items are very pleasant listening (“Asheville,” “Bright Star”), but it’s only when Cusack and Nolan take focus that Bright Star actually becomes a bluegrass musical. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Ghostlight) (2 / 5) In 1989, Chazz Palminteri told the story of his youth in the Bronx as a one-man play, chronicling his conflicting loyalties to his working-class father, Lorenzo, and the charismatic local mob boss, Sonny. A 1993 film version starred Palminteri as Sonny and Robert De Niro, who directed, as Lorenzo. For the musical, Palminteri penned the libretto while De Niro co-directed with Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks. It conjures up memories of Jersey Boys (music, gangsters, lots of narration) and West Side Story (gritty neighborhoods in ethnic conflict, lovers from opposite sides). Alan Menken’s versatile score, evoking nearly every style of music heard on a transistor radio in the sixties, is the most enjoyable facet of A Bronx Tale. The composer returns to his Little Shop of Horrors doo-wop roots in the effective opener, “Belmont Avenue,” as Calogero (Bobby Conte Thornton) vividly describes the Italian-American neighborhood while “next year’s Frankie Vallis” harmonize on the corner. There’s a Sinatra-style swing tune (“One of the Great Ones”) for Sonny (a gruff yet sexy Nick Cordero), driving funk in “Hurt Someone,” a pop love duet (“Out of Your Head”), and Motown soul for the black neighborhood kids (“Webster Avenue”). Unfortunately, other than in the scene-setting descriptive numbers, Glenn Slater’s lyrics often rely on clichés and sentimentality. “Look To Your Heart” is a maudlin piece of advice given by Lorenzo (an underused Richard H. Blake) to young Calogero (Hudson Loverro, who holds his own with his elders); Lorenzo’s wife (Lucia Giannetta) reprises it, and the inescapable title phrase worms its way into other songs. Thornton and Ariana DeBose handle “Out of Your Head” well enough, but the lyrics could fit any generic pair of star-crossed lovers, while Cordero’s“Mack the Knife”-like ditty about “Nicky Machiavelli” is marred by some painful rhymes and syntax. Slater’s on better footing in “I Like It,” as young Calogero revels in the respect, free Cokes, and comic books that come with being Sonny’s favorite. The show concludes with “The Choices We Make,” and Lorenzo says, “It’s just another story.” One might wish it were told with more originality and verve. — Laura Frankos
Film Soundtrack, 1997 (Atlantic) (2 / 5) Just as Disney Animation was slowly starting to see a decline in its musical renaissance in the mid-’90s, Fox Animation decided to try its hand with the Princess formula. The attempt resulted in Anastasia, an animated musical about the search for the Russian Grand Duchess, who was rumored for a time to still be alive after the Russian Revolution. At the center of it all is Anya, an orphan with amnesia. She’s roped into a ploy by con artists Dmitri and Vlad to pose as the lost Anastasia — only for the two to realize that Anya could actually be the Grand Duchess. A modest success in 1997, the movie is a fun diversion; but it takes ridiculously wild liberties with historical accuracy, going so far as to suggest that the Bolshevik Revolution was due to a magic spell cast by Grigori Rasputin, who comes back from the dead to seek revenge. What has gained the film a loyal following is the score by Broadway’s Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). Considering how beloved it has become — enough to lead to a Broadway incarnation 20 years later — it’s disappointing that this is not the team’s best work. Most of the songs are fine and enjoyable in themselves, but they lack any Russian flourish, and the score seems more designed to fit the Disney aesthetic than to create its own identity. However, two songs stand out: “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon a December.” Both are sung definitively by Liz Callaway, and they receive an extra push from Doug Besterman’s orchestrations. These two tracks make the album worthwhile, even if the rest of the score is not of the same quality. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Broadway Records) (3 / 5) Twenty years after its premiere in movie theaters, Anastasia arrived on Broadway with Ahrens and Flaherty expanding upon their original score and Terrence McNally coming in to add a more serious mind and historical context to the piece. However, in trying to honor the animated film as well as give the musical a more realistic perspective, the resulting score is uneven. “Journey to the Past” and “Once Upon A December” remain high points, with Christy Altomare a more than worthy successor to Callaway, though the smaller Broadway orchestrations — once again by Doug Besterman — do them a slight disservice. And while Ahrens and Flaherty have been able to add a few welcome numbers to flesh out the characters (“My Petersburg” and “In a Crowd of Thousands”), the additions to the score feel disconnected from the ’90s originals in tone and style. Also, Ramin Karimloo, while serving as a more realistic villain than the film’s Rasputin, is sadly wasted as Gleb, a Russian officer in the new regime. His rich tenor is underused in the score’s two blandest songs, “Still” and “The Neva Flows.” That said, the album is a much more fulfilling listening experience than the film soundtrack, and Altomare is a charming Anya. Also, Caroline O’Connor and Mary Beth Peil respectively bring jolts of energy and gravitas to their roles of the Countess Lily and the Dowager Empress. — M.K.
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2016 (Broadway Records) (2 / 5) First seen at the York Theatre Company’s home at St. Peter’s Church and then in a commercial run at the Westside Theatre, this show was a crowd pleaser largely for Joshua Bergasse’s exciting, tap-heavy choreography, which obviously cannot be experienced via the cast album. But the recording is still worth hearing for the enjoyable score by Robert Creighton and Christopher McGovern, and for Creighton’s dynamic performance in the title role: James Cagney (1899-1986), who started as a song and dance man in vaudeville and went on to huge fame for his tough-guy roles in such movies as The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, and White Heat. Another major character in the show is studio mogul Jack L. Warner (Bruce Sabath), who in the opening number, “Black and White,” boasts of taking “a shrimp with pride from the Lower East Side” and turning him into “the greatest tough-guy the silver screen ever saw.” Indeed, the contentious relationship between Cagney and Warner provides much of the show’s dramatic energy, and one of its best sequences deals with the mid-career triumph Cagney achieved when he played legendary songwriter/performer George M. Cohan in the Warner Bros. biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. Highlights of the Creighton/McGovern score include the charming “Falling in Love,” in which Cagney and his future wife (played by Ellen Zolezzi) find it difficult to say the “L” word, and Cagney’s introspective second-act solos, “How Will I Be Remembered?” and “Tough Guy.” Also included are two Cohan songs that were featured in Yankee Doodle Dandy: “Grand Old Flag,” for the Act I finale, and the title song, for the epilogue. The recording would have benefited from a larger orchestra (only five players here), but it’s entertaining for the stronger moments of the score and the performances of Creighton and the rest of the cast, which also includes Jeremy Benton, Danette Holden, and Josh Walden in multiple roles. — Michael Portantiere
Original Broadway Cast, 2007 (Manhattan Records) (2 / 5) Part backstage satire and part whodunit, Curtains was a long-gestating property. At the time of its opening, the show was touted as having the last original score by the legendary team of lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, and composer John Kander. (Whatever the order of composition, it turned out that the team’s adventurously rewarding The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit both premiered in later years.) Peter Stone, who died in 2003, is credited with the original book and concept of Curtains; Rupert Holmes, who already had “whodunit” experience with Drood, came in to help restructure the book and to work with Kander on writing some additional lyrics. The result is a modestly entertaining piece, but it doesn’t have quite enough bite to succeed as satire or enough intrigue to succeed as a murder mystery. Centered on a Broadway-bound musical that’s experiencing out-of-town woes, Curtains opens with the mysterious murder of the show’s lame leading lady (a hilarious Patty Goble). The cast and production team are up in arms trying to figure out who the culprit is while simultaneously attempting to improve their show so it won’t meet the same deadly fate at the hands of the New York critics. At the center of it all is theater-crazed detective Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, played with boyish charm by David Hyde Pierce. The star is supported by a strong cast including Debra Monk as the show-within-the-show’s gruff producer; Edward Hibbert as the catty director; and Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley as the songwriting team, once married but now divorced. The cast works their magic — especially entertaining is Monk’s delivery of her character’s hard-as-nails mantra, “It’s a Business” — but the material is rarely up to the intelligence or melodic zeal of previous Kander and Ebb scores. The always reliable William David Brohn provides orchestrations that practically come with their own pair of jazz hands, but they aren’t able to elevate Kander’s music beyond the level of stylishly presentable. Although Curtains is a pleasant diversion from the darker K&E works, it will not likely stay with you for long. — Matt Koplik
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2008 (P.S. Classics) (3 / 5) You might think The Adding Machine, Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist drama, an unlikely candidate for musical adaptation. It’s a bleak tale of a bigoted, downtrodden bookkeeper who kills his boss and is executed, ending up in the Elysian Fields, where recycling doesn’t mean reusing plastic bottles. Thankfully, Joshua Schmidt (music and book) and Jason Loewith (book) took on the challenge, and this recording recreates most of the largely sung-through show in all its nerve-jangling dissonance. Joel Hatch is outstanding as the bookkeeper, Mr. Zero — so obnoxious that you know he deserves his fate, yet so thick, you understand how he got that way. Hatch conveys Zero’s character through the staccato snarls of Schmidt and Loewith’s lyrics, full of blunt, monosyllabic statements. The joys in Zero’s life are few, but he relishes them, whether it’s the “Ham and Eggs” his harridan wife (the marvelously caustic Cyrilla Baer) brings for his final meal, or recalling their few moments of wedded bliss in “Didn’t We?” But rage smolders within his confused mind, crowded with endless figures. When his boss crushes his fantasy of promotion (“Movin’ Up”), telling him that he’s being replaced by an adding machine, Zero stabs him. In the afterlife, Zero encounters two souls he knew while alive: his assistant, Daisy (Amy Warren), and fellow inmate Shrdlu (Joe Ferrell). Both get songs that break up the harsh score — a gooey love ditty for Daisy, and a gospel rouser for religious nut Shrdlu, detailing his mother’s murder and the hellish torments he expects for his crime. Most of the score is intentionally jarring; piano, synthesizer, and percussion bang into the brain while the repetitive chorus provides a counterpoint of chanted numbers and echoed lyrics. It’s exactly the right tone for Rice’s piece, though you probably won’t find yourself playing this one often because of the shrillness. — Laura Frankos
Film Soundtrack, 1951 (MGM/Rhino-Turner/Watertower Music) (5 / 5) In the 1990s, Turner Entertainment restored one of MGM’s greatest musicals, An American In Paris. The restoration turned up the studio session tapes of the all-Gershwin score, which led to Turner teaming with Rhino Records to release a two-disc album stuffed full of the music heard in the film as well as outtakes, underscoring, and extended and alternate versions of songs. That 1996 CD is now out of print, but in 2015, Watertower Music made it available digitally through their Warner Archives series. The songs in the film, nearly all part of the Great American Songbook, are performed by an engaging trio: Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, a war vet and aspiring painter; Oscar Levant as Adam Cook, an acerbic composer; and Georges Guetary as Henri Baurel, a song-and-dance man. Kelly is at his charming best teaching English to a gaggle of Parisian kids through “I Got Rhythm” and earnestly expressing his passion for Leslie Caron in “Love Is Here To Stay.” He joins Guetary in proclaiming the joys of love (for the same girl, though they don’t know it) in “‘S Wonderful,” and goofs with Levant on “Tra-la-la.” Guetary solos in a “(I’ll Build A) Stairway To Paradise,” so rousing that you expect showgirls to parade through your room. The soundtrack is capped by the MGM Studio Orchestra, up-sized to 72 players and conducted by Johnny Green, performing the glorious 16-minute “An American In Paris Ballet.” Added material includes underscoring and medleys by the studio orchestra and Benny Green and his band, along with outtakes such as Kelly’s heartfelt “I’ve Got a Crush On You” and an incredible set of Gershwin improvisations by Levant, who was a lifelong friend of Gershwin and one of his finest interpreters. The improvs got deleted from the film in favor of another treasure, Levant’s brilliant — and in the film, highly comic — rendition of the “Concerto in F (Third Movement).” This is one of the two pieces in stereo on the album; if this album has any drawbacks, it’s the fact that most of the session tapes didn’t survive in multi-channel format, so almost all of the music is presented here in mono. But that’s a quibble. It all adds up to nearly two hours of pure Gershwin(s), and as Ira wrote, “Who could ask for anything more?” —Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Sony Masterworks Broadway) (4 / 5) Some Gershwin fans may have been wary when they heard of plans to turn the beloved film An American in Paris into a stage musical, filled out with other numbers by George and Ira. Previous attempts to create “new” Gershwin shows through similar methods had had decidedly mixed results; just look at My One And Only, Crazy For You, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. (On second thought, please don’t look at Nice Work If You Can Get It.) But in this case, the outcome was far better. Librettist Craig Lucas, director Christopher Wheeldon, and musical supervisor/arranger Rob Fisher crafted a show that takes its inspiration from the film but wisely doesn’t try to replicate it. Only five numbers — the “Concerto in F,” “I Got Rhythm,” “‘S Wonderful,” “Stairway to Paradise,” and the title ballet — are in both the movie and the show, and the interpolations were chosen with an eye toward how well they fit the plot and characters. In the stage musical, the time of the action is shifted to the immediate post-WWII years, with Paris recovering both spiritually and physically. That’s clear in the first ensemble number, “I Got Rhythm,” when Henri Baurel (Max von Essen) tells composer Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), “People need to laugh. Paris needs it.” By the song’s end, Henri has brought a snappy 4/4 beat to Adam’s dirge-like melody, and the pair have become fast friends with another fellow vet, painter Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild). Enter Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope), a young ballerina destined to become the love object of all three men — another departure from the film. It’s a nice touch, making Adam much more than comic relief, and Uranowitz’s heartbreaking take on “But Not For Me” is one of the cast recording’s highlights. The full trio of male leads also provides lovely harmonies, both joyful (“‘S Wonderful”) and poignant (the 11 o’clocker “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”). Fairchild has an engaging warmth that’s most evident in “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Liza” but also comes through in the bits of dialogue on the recording. In the film, the female roles of Lise and Jerry’s patroness, Milo, don’t get any vocals, but that’s not the case here. Cope gives us a yearning “The Man I Love” and pairs well with Fairchild on one of the Gershwins’ sweetest ballads, “For You, For Me, For Evermore.” Jill Paice, as Milo, provides sophistication and sultriness in “Shall We Dance?” and a glimpse into her heart in “But Not For Me.” As in the film, it’s the concert pieces that really complete the whole, beautifully orchestrated here by Christopher Austin; the title ballet and the “Concerto in F” (the show’s opening) are joined by the “Second Prelude” and the first act finale, which includes the “Second Rhapsody” and the “Cuban Overture.” This cast album doesn’t replace the soundtrack, but it’s not meant to. It has its own merits. — L.F.
Original London Cast, 2016 (Concord Records) (4 / 5) Duncan Sheik’s score for this musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ savage (in all senses of the word), satiric novel marvelously captures the musical vibe of the go-go 1980s, when “greed was good.” It helps that interpolated into the show’s score are some of the decade’s big hits — for example, Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” — which have been terrifically re-conceived for a theatrical storytelling mode. What’s not always so successful is Sheik’s attempt to capture the book’s biting humor. In certain numbers (“You Are What You Wear,”) his work as lyricist zings, communicating the characters’ sense of entitlement while also commenting on their vapidity. Other songs — like “Mistletoe Alert” which attempts a similar dual purpose — fall flat on this original London cast recording, without the visuals that audiences encountered in the theater. As a record of the musical, the album provides an intriguing glimpse of it “in process.” Before American Psycho transferred from London to Broadway, new numbers were written and the song order was changed; for those who saw the show during its brief run in New York, it’s fascinating to listen to this OLCR and hear how the narrative became more direct in the journey across the Atlantic. (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa wrote the book for the musical.) In the unlikely event that a Broadway cast recording is ever released, it will probably overshadow this one, thanks to the changes and Benjamin Walker’s electrifying performance as Patrick Bateman. Until then, this album will have to suffice, and listeners will find that Sheik’s energetic melodies seem to demand repeated plays. — Andy Propst
Original London Cast, 2006 (Decca Broadway) (2 / 5) Based on the film written by Lee Hall, who did double duty for the stage musical as librettist and lyricist, Billy Elliot tells of a Northern English boy who discovers a love for ballet but has to hide it from his family — including his father and brother, who are on strike with the miner’s union at the height of Thatcherism. A smash hit in London (this cast album represents that production) and on Broadway, Billy Elliot was a moving, theatrically exciting piece due in large part to its thrilling staging by director Stephen Daldry, who also directed the film, and choreographer Peter Darling. What becomes clear on the cast album, however, is the obstacle that Hall and Elton John faced with this project: How does one write a compelling musical theater score when your leading character only feels comfortable expressing himself through dance? Their answer was to create a score that more or less provided a platform for Daldry and Darling to leap from. This is not to say that the songs are bad; they do exactly what they need to do. Without the umbrella of Disney, Elton John produced some inventive melodies (e.g., “Solidarity”) that are given extra character by Martin Koch’s orchestrations, even if John occasionally tends to lean back into his specialty of pop power ballads that don’t quite fit the piece. Hall, a first time lyricist, does an admirable job of keeping the songs in the language of the working class characters. Due to the physical demands of the title role, three young actors rotated as Billy in the original London production (and on Broadway), though only one, Liam Mower, is heard on this recording. Mower does a fine job, as does the rest of the cast, most notably a crackling Hayden Gwynne as the dance teacher who guides Billy out of his shell. Listeners who haven’t seen the show may wonder why Billy Elliot was such a phenomenon; the answer is that this musical, even more than most others, truly needs to be seen to be experienced. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2011 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) When it was announced that the creators of South Park were writing a Broadway musical, with one of the songwriters of Avenue Q, no less, everyone expected that the show was going to be both shocking and hilarious. But the surprise here was that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) wrote a stellar musical comedy that was traditional in many ways. Yes, it’s shocking in its profanity and contemporary in its subject matter: two missionaries go to Uganda in the hope of converting villagers to Mormonism. But rather than try to reinvent the wheel with The Book of Mormon, Parker, Stone, and Lopez chose to adhere to tried and true musical theater structure in the style of the Golden Age, and to have fun within it. The cast is strong, each member giving a fully defined, wonderfully well sung performance. Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, as the two central Mormon characters, make a good team, with Rannells doing the majority of the vocal heavy lifting. Gad is also a strong singer, though his comedic antics can occasionally be grating. Robert Lopez proved with Avenue Q that he has an ear for melody, but here his work is even more inventive while being filled with musical pop culture references to everything from the Osmonds in “All-American Prophet” to The Lion King (a running joke in the show) in “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Each song has a distinct flavor, and yet the score doesn’t feel disjointed. Stephen Oremus’s orchestrations –played by 23 musicians on the cast album, as compared to nine in the production — match Lopez’s level of invention. As is the case with the best musical comedies, because the score is so reliant on the book, not every song shines as brightly on the recording as it does in the theater (for example, “Making Things Up Again”). But this a minor gripe. The lyrics — by Parker and Stone, with contributions from Lopez — are crass, colorful, and hilarious, yet with a surprising amount of heart. The show wouldn’t have worked if the creators had decided to be condescending to their characters and to the audience, but thankfully, this was not the case. — Matt Koplik