Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2001 (RCA) (3 / 5) A Class Act represents an important bit of modern musical theater history, and this recording of the Manhattan Theatre Club production is an intriguing artifact, documenting the original, intimate approach to the material that was changed when a move to Broadway necessitated bigger laughs, bigger emotions, and bigger orchestrations. The show is a warmhearted tribute to composer-lyricist Edward Kleban, who died in 1987. For those who know only his work as the lyricist of A Chorus Line, the fine handle on composition that Kleban displays here may come as a surprise. The songs assembled for A Class Act — orchestrated by Larry Hochman under Todd Ellison’s musical direction — show Kleban’s impressive talent in dealing with a variety of subjects, ranging from music and musicals (“One More Beautiful Song,” “Charm Song”) to the City of Lights (“Paris Through the Window”) to the complexities of human relationships (“Under Separate Cover,” “Self Portrait”). There are also a couple of traditional, all-out showstoppers: “Gauguin’s Shoes” and “Better.” A fine, laid-back band and an eight-person cast led by director Lonny Price (as Kleban) and Carolee Carmello give all of the songs wonderful performances, but Tony-winner Randy Graff steals the show and listeners’ hearts with her emotional renditions of the score’s most sensitive numbers, including one true classic: “The Next Best Thing to Love.” — Matthew Murray
Original Broadway Cast, 1990 (Columbia/Sony) (5 / 5) Cy Coleman’s blending of 1940s musical styles — swing, blues, film noir soundtrack, and more — with David Zippel’s deft and witty lyrics helped make City of Angels one of the best musicals of the 1980s. This excellent recording preserves Billy Byers’ hot orchestrations and the performances of an almost ideal cast. Gregg Edelman’s rich, rangy baritone is exciting in the songs written for author/screenwriter Stine; René Auberjonois finds plenty of oily comedy in the role of Buddy Fidler, flim-flam film producer extraordinaire; and Scott Waara’s smooth tones are ideal for radio crooner Jimmy Powers. Rachel York as Mallory and Dee Hoty as Alaura both give dynamic performances, but Hoty is hampered by the exclusion from the recording of one of her big numbers. The major standouts are the show’s Tony winners: James Naughton’s easygoing manner and voice are just right for film detective Stone; and Randy Graff, playing two “Girl Friday”-type secretaries, walks away with the show’s brashest and funniest number, “You Can Always Count on Me.” The Naughton-Edelman duet “You’re Nothing Without Me” is another highlight. Only Kay McClelland, playing both Stine’s wife and Stone’s longtime flame, is just adequate, although her two songs — “It Needs Work” and the torchy “With Every Breath I Take” — are well written. The cast album’s most significant flaw is the omission of much material that would have balanced the characters and illuminated the show’s razor-sharp humor. Still, this is an essential recording of a top-notch Coleman score. Don’t stop listening until “Double Talk Walk,” some of Broadway’s best-ever exit music, has finished playing. — Matthew Murray
Original London Cast, 1993 (RCA) (2 / 5) With almost every important musical moment of City of Angels captured, and enough of Larry Gelbart’s incisive dialogue included to set the scenes, this is the kind of recording that should have been made of the original Broadway production. Unfortunately, the performances here leave much to be desired, with most of the cast over-emoting in both speech and song. Henry Goodman, superb as Buddy, makes this work only because his character is so far over-the-top to begin with. The style feels far less organic to the other performances, with Roger Allam a particularly uncomfortable Stone and Susannah Fellows (Alaura), Fiona Hendley (Gabbi/ Bobbi), and Haydn Gwynne (Oolie/Donna) doing little better. Martin Smith keeps his Stine grounded, but his 11-o’clock number, “Funny,” is a restrained disappointment here. Even if the cast’s problems with American accents and 1940s speech patterns come through, this recording’s more thorough documentation of the score makes it useful as a companion, if not a substitute, for the otherwise superior Broadway recording. — M.M.
Original Broadway Cast, 1975 (Columbia/Masterworks Broadway) (5 / 5) In 1975, A Chorus Line was a phenomenon. The conception of the show began with Broadway wunderkind Michael Bennett’s idea that there might be a musical to be made from the stories of the lives of Broadway’s dancers, a group that was undervalued and overlooked at the time. Bennett got together a bunch of these “gypsies,” many of whom would go on to be in the original company of A Chorus Line, and urged everyone to talk about their lives, all the while taping the conversations. From those tapes, Bennett along with librettists James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and lyricist Edward Kleban shaped the material through a series of workshops at The Public Theater. Both achingly real and thrillingly theatrical, the show premiered there to ecstatic reviews and quickly moved to Broadway, where it became a massive hit. The setting is an open audition of dancers for an unnamed Broadway musical, during which the show’s director, Zach, sets his final 16 hopefuls in a line and proceeds to inquire about their lives. Some of the dancers offer humorous anecdotes (“I Can Do That”), others share painful stories (the moving “At the Ballet”). From beginning to end, this original Broadway cast recording feels like lightning in a bottle. The definitive cast performs with a gumption that’s palpable to the listener, expressing each character’s desire to dance and their need get the job. As Cassie, a veteran dancer who’s hoping for a second chance at her career and who also has a complicated history with Zach, Donna Mckechnie is exceptional. (She won a Tony Award for her performance. )Though we don’t get to see any of her beautiful dancing here, her vocals are the most impressive of any Cassie, and the sheer desperation in her delivery of “The Music and the Mirror” resonates deeply. There’s also Priscilla Lopez as the bouncy Diana, Kelly Bishop as the cynical yet vulnerable Sheila, Sammy Williams as the conflicted Paul, and Pamela Blair as the brassy Val — but, truthfully one could keep going on and on about each cast member’s contribution. The score remains a classic, with Kleban’s conversational lyrics seamlessly flowing in and out of dialogue as Hamlisch’s melodies display great variety in style and emotion, from pulsating anxiety (the opening “I Hope I Get It”) to classic show biz razzle-dazzle (the finale ,“One”). Though the grand montage “Hello Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello Love” is only represented here in chunks, and the music-and-dialogue sequence “And…” wasn’t recorded at all, there are no serious complaints about this truly great cast album. Fun fact: Due to the small budgets for the workshops, Bennett was unable to afford a solo orchestrator to work on the entire show, so he instead hired three — masters Hershy Kay, Jonathan Tunick, and Bill Byers — to individually orchestrate various musical numbers. The fact that the work of these three men never feels disjointed and comes together as a beautiful whole is representative of the theme of A Chorus Line in general. — Matt Koplik
Film Soundtrack, 1985 (Casablanca/Polygram) No stars; not recommended. With its inherent theatricality and non-traditional story structure, A Chorus Line was always going to be a difficult property to adapt for the screen, even in the best of hands. But that hardly excuses Richard Attenborough’s bafflingly misguided interpretation. The soundtrack recording provides numerous examples of the film’s wrongdoings, which include giving “What I Did For Love” to Cassie as a solo and replacing “The Music and the Mirror” and the “Hello Twelve…” montage with, respectively, the inferior “Let Me Dance For You” and “Surprise, Surprise.” Also unfortunate are Ralph Burns’ synthesizer-heavy orchestrations. In fairness to Burns, though his work here is busy and rather cheap sounding, anyone who watches the movie (but why would you?) can see that the director and producers were aiming for a hip, modern, ’80s look and sound, so it’s likely they imposed that vision on the Broadway-favorite orchestrator. Director Attenborough managed to cast an able company of dancers, but his and screenwriter Arnold Schulman’s terrible creative decisions bar any of them from truly succeeding. While Allyson Reed does a commendable job as Cassie, having her sing the show’s anthem, “What I Did For Love,” as a solo was, as noted, a huge misstep; it robs the company of the proud defense of their sacrifice for their art and instead puts a tighter spotlight on Cassie, so that the story suddenly becomes very specific rather than achieving the universality that Michael Bennett fought hard for in the original stage show. Similarly, while Gregg Burge as Richie does his best with “Surprise, Surprise,” that number focuses purely on one character’s sexual awakening, rather than offering detailed glimpses into the adolescence (the pain, the humiliation, the joy) of each dancer on the line. For film students, A Chorus Line provides a textbook example of how not to adapt a successful musical to the screen. For Broadway fans, you’re better off pretending this soundtrack recording doesn’t exist. — M.K.
Broadway Cast, 2006 (Masterworks Broadway) (3 / 5) If the original cast album of A Chorus Line provides a rush of adrenaline, this respectful recording plays like a reference guide for those who might be new to the score. Just about every note and every lyric is carefully set down — though “And…” is still sadly unrepresented — with a cast that makes sure not to impose negatively on the Chorus Line legacy. While this approach is a far more welcome alternative to that of the disastrous movie version, it makes for a rather bland recording. From the piano intro of “I Hope I Get It” through to the grand finale, “One,” the listener can sense the conductor, cast, and orchestra taking great pains to not have a single hair out of place. This delicate attitude takes away much of the energy and urgency that make A Chorus Line so compelling, and it keeps most of the very talented company from putting their own personal spin on their characters. That said, there are some major highlights here. As Diana, Natalie Cortez offers an impassioned and vulnerable interpretation of “Nothing,” and if Jessica Lee Goldyn isn’t quite as brassy as Pamela Blair, her “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” is comically endearing. Best of all, for the first time, the “Hello Twelve…” montage is recorded in its nearly 20 minute entirety! If nothing else, that alone makes this recording essential for Broadway fans. — M.K.
Original Stage Cast, 1993 (Columbia/Sony) (3 / 5) The Alan Menken-Lynn Ahrens musical version of A Christmas Carol lit up Madison Square Garden for 10 seasons, and though the production’s spectacle played a vital role in its success, this recording documents the fact that an enjoyable score may also have had something to do with it. The adaptation is very straightforward; Menken and Ahrens’ took few liberties with Charles Dickens’ classic story. There are the requisite numbers for Scrooge’s feelings about Christmas as compared with those of his neighbors, his meetings with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, and his eventual change of heart. The score is unremarkable, but that’s OK; songs like “The Lights of Long Ago” and “Christmas Together” are pleasant enough, “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” is an attractive toe-tapper, and “A Place Called Home” is a charming, tuneful duet for the young-adult Scrooge and his lady love. Walter Charles is nothing short of ideal as Scrooge, acting and singing with all the necessary crotchety conviction. He leads a cast that includes such Broadway names as Christopher Sieber, Bill Nolte, Robert Westenberg, Ken Jennings, and Emily Skinner. This recording makes for an enjoyable, if not quite essential, listen during the holidays or at any other time of the year. — Matthew Murray
Television Cast, 2004 (JAY) (3 / 5) Television adaptations of musicals are frequently mixed bags, given the perceived need for stars whom viewers will instantly recognize but who may or may not be well suited to their roles. However, many of the casting choices made for the 2004 Hallmark Entertainment version of the Menken-Ahrens A Christmas Carol were as savvy as they were starry, and this recording captures the best of their work. Jane Krakowski’s focused, empathetic performance as the Ghost of Christmas Past makes her big solo, “The Lights of Long Ago,” a major highlight. Jason Alexander is a showily threatening Marley. Jesse L. Martin is obviously having a ball as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and his “Abundance and Charity” is abundant with joy. Edward Gower and Jacob Moriarty sound just right as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, respectively. Stage favorites Brian Bedford, Claire Moore, Linzi Hately, and Ruthie Henshall score in their smaller roles, the last particularly so as Scrooge’s Mother, delivering a lovely and poignant “God Bless Us Everyone.” On the recording, Scrooge is a somewhat diminished presence, so you don’t hear a ton of Kelsey Grammer, but what’s here is loaded with well-calculated grump if not all the gusto one wants from the role. A lush, full orchestra plays Michael Starobin’s lively orchestrations under the baton of Michael Kosarin. — M.M.
Original London Cast, 1981 (Geffen) (4 / 5) Before it became a joke, Cats was a true phenomenon. While Trevor Nunn’s direction placed spectacle above emotion and story, the show has a better score than it’s usually given credit for. T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats may not have been a natural choice for musicalization; still, Andrew Lloyd Webber found some remarkably creative ways to get Eliot’s feline characters to sing, whether in the style of straight-out pop (“The Rum Tum Tugger”), mock-operetta (“Growltiger’s Last Stand”), or a host of others. The magical (and highly electronic) overture, the rapidly shifting strains of the lengthy first-act Jellicle Ball, and the lush finale “The Ad-Dressing of Cats” all help to make this a musical theater score full of variety and invention. Even the now standard “Memory” works within the weird universe created by the half-posthumous collaboration of Eliot and Lloyd Webber. Here, that song is delivered beautifully by West End diva Elaine Paige as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat — the character who ties together the show’s story about junkyard strays meeting to decide which of them will be reborn into a new, presumably better life. Paul Nicholas’ Rum Tum Tugger, Brian Blessed’s Old Deuteronomy (and Bustopher Jones), and Kenn Wells’ Skimbleshanks also provide lots of fun. This recording of Cats captures the ineffably English tone of the piece, and is a highly entertaining listen. — Matthew Murray
Original Broadway Cast, 1983 (Geffen) (4 / 5) One of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history, Cats is also the most inherently English of all the mega-musicals of its era, and so the unconvincing Brit accents and American vocal mannerisms of the original Broadway company do not lend this recording much authenticity. Still, with a cast this good, it barely matters. Betty Buckley is a worthy successor to Elaine Paige as Grizabella, and her “Memory” is one of the most powerful on record. (Many singers have recorded the song as a stand-alone piece.) Ken Page is particularly charming as Old Deuteronomy; future stars Terrence Mann and Harry Groener do very good work as the Rum Tum Tugger and Munkustrap; and Timothy Scott and Anna McNeely as Mr. Mistoffelees and Jennyanydots are delightful. Of special note is Stephen Hanan, whose hilarious Bustopher Jones, heartbreaking Gus, and dynamic Growltiger make him a standout. As is the case with the London album, this one is missing a certain amount of material, including some dance music and “The Awful Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles.” But the superb cast and knockout orchestra, under the musical direction of Stanley Lebowsky, make it sound fresher and more vibrant than its predecessor. — M.M.
Original Broadway Cast, 2004 (Hollywood Records, 2CDs) (3 / 5) Tony Kushner writing the book and lyrics for a musical full of inanimate objects? If you did not see Caroline, or Change onstage, you may have difficulty getting past the novelty of a singing washing machine, dryer, radio, bus, and moon — but once you do, this show is revealed to be an attractive and often emotionally explosive folk opera. Jeanine Tesori supplies intriguing and highly listenable music, heavily steeped in the styles of the show’s 1963 setting, for this tale about the relationship between a black woman named Caroline Thibodeaux and the southern Jewish family that employs her as a maid. Tonya Pinkins gives an earth-shaking, all-encompassing performance as Caroline, making the emotionally and musically difficult score sound easy, reaching stratospheric heights in her monumental, five-minute-long, 11-o’clock number “Lot’s Wife.” She receives solid support from such Broadway notables as Veanne Cox, Chuck Cooper, and Alice Playten, while Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose is impressive as Caroline’s daughter. Although many of the individual songs are striking in their own right — including the youthfully catchy first-act finale “Roosevelt Petrucius Coleslaw” and “The Chanukah Party,” with its already immortal lyric “Chanukah, oh Chanukah / Oh Dreydl and Menorah! / We celebrate it even though / It isn’t in the Torah!” — this recording is best experienced straight through from beginning to end. — Matthew Murray
Original Cast, 2004 (Nonesuch) (2 / 5) Stephen Sondheim’s first new musical in nearly a decade, Bounce was highly anticipated when it played Chicago and Washington in 2003. Though this recording benefits from the lack of John Weidman’s book, the score doesn’t sound appreciably better here than it did onstage, despite a good orchestra conducted by David Caddick and a top-notch cast including Howard McGillin, Richard Kind, Michele Pawk, Gavin Creel, Herndon Lackey, and Jane Powell. What’s missing is a sense of vivid inspiration, although there are a few nice selections. The title song, sung by McGillin and Kind, is catchy; McGillin and Pawk have an attractive duet in “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened”; and “Addison’s City” and “Boca Raton” make up an entertaining musical scene that chronicles the Florida land boom. Otherwise, the music has uncomfortable echoes of Sondheim’s superior work in such shows as Sweeney Todd(a vamp in the title song recalls “By the Sea”) and Merrily we Roll Along (Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations could have been lifted from that show). There’s much here to appreciate, but little to love; Sondheim’s previous scores set the bar so high that a middling effort like this one just doesn’t seem quite good enough. [Ed. Note: Sondheim and Weidman later rewrote this show and retitled it Road Show; see separate review of the recording of that version.] — Matthew Murray
Original Broadway Cast, 1974 (A&M, 2LPs/Decca) (4 / 5) This musical, based on Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, boasts a wonderful translation and adaptation by Anthony Burgess, whose exquisitely poetic book and lyrics hew closely to his translation of the classic play. Also outstanding is the music of Michael J. Lewis — melodic, stirring, and well suited to the story, even if the orchestrations and arrangements fall short. Christopher Plummer gave one of his greatest performances as Cyrano, but the beautiful score is not well served by his singing. On the other hand, Leigh Berry as his love interest is an excellent vocalist; her “You Have Made Me Love” is, in fact, one of the finest renditions of a musical theater ballad ever recorded. This gorgeous, relatively unknown song is a gem as worthy of fame as “Some Enchanted Evening,” for it’s just as romantic and stirring. Mixed like a 1960s pop album, the recording has a tinny sound quality and lacks the vibrancy of the stage performance. But it does include much of the show’s dialogue, magnificently acted by Plummer, who justly won a Tony Award for his performance. One can only hope that Cyrano will someday be revived with an actor of Plummer’s caliber in the leading role. — Gerard Alessandrini
Original Broadway Cast, 1970 (Project 3) (4 / 5) This was composer Mitch Leigh’s follow-up to Man of La Mancha, and it was a long way from Spain to Brooklyn. The show was in trouble out of town — there was a temporary title change to Who to Love? — and it lasted only nine performances on Broadway. However, the score, with lyrics by William Alfred and Phyllis Robinson, often lives up to what this musical was trying to be: a semi-operatic version of Hogan’s Goat, William Alfred’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about love and betrayal in the world of 1890s Brooklyn politics. Although the source material might have been better served by a completely sung-through approach, many of the songs are effective, and the performers handle them well. Joan Diener does a beautiful job with “Verandah Waltz,” “How Are Ya Since?” and “Who to Love?” There is strong legit singing from Steve Arlen in “The End of My Race” and Robert Weede in “The Mayor’s Chair.” Tommy Rall and Helen Gallagher do their best with some mediocre material, and the three urchins who narrate the story are entertaining in “The Broken Heart or the Wages of Sin” and “The Cruelty Man.” A few important songs are missing from this album, and others are heard in abridged form. The recording is available on CD as a rare, high-priced import. — Jeffrey Dunn
Original Broadway Cast, 1992 (Angel) (2 / 5) This is a faux revival cloned from the DNA of a vintage musical, with a score drawn from the Gershwin songbook. Ken Ludwig’s book for Crazy for You is sort of based on the 1930 Gershwin hit Girl Crazy, transferring a standard, let’s-put-on-a-show plot to the Wild West. It’s hard to get very excited about the disc, which is really only a collection of Gershwin standards with a few rarities tossed in, but William D. Brohn’s orchestrations have real zing, and the cast is fun. As a New York millionaire who dreams of Broadway stardom and ends up putting on a show in Deadrock, Nevada, Harry Groener is a model of period style, tossing off “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” with delightful ease. Jodi Benson plays his feisty cowgirl love interest with intensity, and her heartfelt vibrato is put to good use in “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “But Not for Me.” There are amusing contributions from Bruce Adler as a Yiddish-accented producer and Michele Pawk as Greener’s overbearing fiancée. The show’s heart is in its production numbers, such as “Slap That Bass” and “I Got Rhythm,” during which Brohn’s vivacious arrangements build to a state of ecstasy. It’s always more fun to hear a new score in a new show but, of its kind, Crazy for You is about as good as it gets. — David Barbour