Original Broadway Cast, 1971 (RCA/Masterworks Broadway) (4 / 5) Perhaps the source material was too obscure for audiences to really understand this show. What poet Eve Merriam originally wrote was Inner City Mother Goose, a new take on nursery rhymes from an urban, sometimes violent perspective. So the familiar “Fee Fi Fo Fum” was followed by the less-expected “I smell the blood of violence to come,” while “Now I lay me down to sleep” was followed by “and I pray the double lock will keep.” Helen Miller set the poems to theatrical rock music. Most of them last a minute or less, but they’re memorable minutes. In “Hushabye Baby,” an unwed teenager sings about the child she’ll soon have, and it sounds like something that Brecht and Weill might have written had they been around in the early 1970s. Other highlights include “On This Rock,” a statement of urban pride; the jaunty “City Life”; and the pulsating “Law and Order,” which the TV series of the same title should have used as its theme song. “Deep in the Night” and “It’s My Belief” are solid anthems that helped win Linda Hopkins a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress. Then there’s “The Hooker,” in which a prostitute sings, “If they want to hear a story, then I give out with a story…I need ten dollars for grandma, who is coughing and spitting up blood. But whaddaya say we cut the crap?” The same socko melody is used for both “The Pusher” and “The Pickpocket,” but that last one didn’t make the album. That’s all right; we should be very grateful that this short-running show yielded a cast recording at all. — Peter Filichia
Studio Cast, 2010 (Wilderland Records) (3 / 5) Though indie singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell always meant for Hadestown to be a stage musical, its first incarnation was in the form of this concept album, recorded for posterity and to give the piece greater audience outreach. The response was overwhelmingly strong, and Hadestown grew a dedicated fan base over the years until a production opened at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, followed by the show’s Broadway premiere in 2019. Considering the immediately intense response from fans, it’s surprising now to hear how simplistic the concept album is; compared to other concept albums that became stage musicals (Evita, for example), this one is a much more relaxed affair. Based on the Greek myth of Orpheus, who travels to the Underworld (“Hadestown”) to bring back his love Eurydice, the piece as heard on this recording is a fairly straightforward retelling of the myth and is mostly a platform for Mitchell’s talents as a songwriter. Her music can groove festively (“Way Down in Hadestown,” “When the Chips Are Down”) or float dreamlike (“Wedding Song,” “Wait For Me”), always with an edgy undercurrent that foreshadows the danger lying ahead. Mitchell’s lyrics are poetically expressive, though they become sharper and more story-driven on the later cast albums. Here, Mitchell herself sings the role of Eurydice while Justin Vernon performs Orpheus. An odd choice is made in the mixing of Vernon’s vocals so that it sounds like multiple Vernons are singing together each time Orpheus is present. (According to the myth, Orpheus possessed a mystically beautiful singing voice, and the mixing may have been meant to reflect that, but the effect is off-putting.) Those who were unfamiliar with Hadestown until it came to Broadway and who desire to hear its origins will find this album mostly engaging, but both subsequent recordings of the score are superior and, of course, more indicative of what the piece eventually became. — Matt Koplik
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (Warner Classics) (4 / 5) Recorded live at the New York Theatre Workshop, this album has high-energy performances and a number of welcome changes to the piece since its original incarnation. The biggest change is that the Hadestown heard here is no longer so straightforward a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but builds upon it by expanding characters that didn’t have much presence on the original recording and giving them more active roles. These include the messenger god Hermes (Chris Sullivan), who now narrates the proceedings. A trio of actresses called The Fates are more fully present as a Greek Chorus, and the myth of Hades (a quietly domineering Patrick Page) and his wife, Persephone (Amber Grey), is explored with greater depth here, showing us how their marriage, once passionate but now cold, has detrimentally effected the characters on earth. These changes make Hadestown a more fulfilling and well rounded piece, but they also create a new problem: Mitchell has written the supporting characters with a hard edge and a playful attitude, whereas her songs for Orpheus and Eurydice have a more earnest romanticism. On a surface level, this makes sense, as the young pair are meant to provide the heart of the piece. But in giving the supporting characters such rich, lively material, Mitchell has made them more interesting than the two leads. It doesn’t help that several of Orpheus and Eurydice’s songs included in the NYTW production are inexplicably not on the album. (“Wedding Song” is a major loss). Considering all of this, Damon Daunno and Nabiyah Be do admirable work as the doomed lovers. In fact, Daunno, is perhaps the best Orpheus heard on any of the official Hadestown recordings; he gives the character a confident, passionate swagger, and his voice sails smoothly through Mitchell’s score, seamlessly gliding in and out of a pure falsetto. Generally speaking, what’s presented on this recording is so well done that it almost makes up for the material that isn’t included. Fan favorites from the concept album, such as Orpheus’ “Wait for Me” or Hades’ scarily relevant “Why We Build the Wall,” are still here, but Mitchell’s additions are also worth noting: Persephone is given the jaunty “Livin it Up On Top,” gracefully vamped by Grey, and Hermes begins the show with a new opening number, “Road to Hell.” From the moment a trombone wails a jazzy, New Orleans-fueled intro to that song (orchestraters Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose continue from the concept album), you know that the energy of Hadestown has shifted from relaxed mysticism to hot theatricality. It’s a welcome change. — M.K.
Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Sing It Again Records) (5 / 5) After the workshop production at NYTW, Hadestown was staged in Canada and at the Royal National Theatre in London, where it continued to develop until it finally came to Broadway nearly a decade after the release of the concept album. On stage, the result is often breathtaking, with Mitchell’s score embracing its theatrical potential and director Rachel Chavkin and her team of designers working visual wonders. Some have complained that, in turning Hadestown into a full evening of theater, Mitchell overstuffed the piece with unnecessary material. There’s some truth there, in that, when the show is experienced live on stage, some numbers feel less important than others and/or seem to reiterate points made previously. But when listening to the recording, all of those complaints melt away, and we’re left with Mitchell’s fantastic work sung by a phenomenal company. Grey and Page are back as Persephone and Hades, with André de Shields offering a wiser and kinder Hermes than his predecessors. Eva Noblezada is a passionately sung Eurydice; her performance, and the addition of “Any Way the Wind Blows” (an already established song of Mitchell’s), give the character some much needed grit. Reeve Carney’s interpretation of Orpheus aims more towards a wandering man-child than the swaggering heartthrob offered by Daunno. This is fine, although it robs the character’s romantic pairing with Eurydice of heat. Also, while Carney has a strong voice and does well by the material, his singing is not quite as smooth and effortless as Daunno’s. Still, these are small quibbles about what’s overall a terrific album. One of its major highlights is “Wait for Me,” Orpheus’ cry to Eurydice as he travels to the Underworld to save her. While the song was moving and pretty on the concept album, Mitchell, Chorney and Sickafoose here have shaped it into something spectacularly theatrical. And, speaking of waiting: Fans of Hadestown had to wait almost 10 years for the piece to become a completely satisfying stage musical, but their patience has been well rewarded. — M.K.
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Hollywood Records) (2 / 5) One wants to applaud In Transit, Broadway’s first a cappella musical, about the semi-connected lives of a small group of New Yorkers played out within and around the subway system. The cast is enthusiastic; the vocal harmonies, arranged by Pitch Perfect’s Deke Sharon, are amazing; Steven “HeaveN” Cantor and Chesney Snow, alternating as beatbox performer Boxman, are percussive wizards; and there are happy endings for the characters. “But, ya know, whatever,” as someone in the show says at one point. The score never really gels, although the writers — Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth — try to convince us that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that matters most. Journeying “Deep Beneath the City” are Jane (Margo Seibert), slaving in a office while her Broadway dreams fade; her agent, Trent (Justin Guarini), who’s preparing to marry Steven (Telly Leung), although he hasn’t even told his fundamentalist Momma (Moya Angela) that he’s gay; Trent’s friend, Ali (Erin Mackey), newly dumped by her boyfriend; and Ali’s brother, Nate (James Snyder), unemployed and attracted to Jane. (Boxman doesn’t commute. He has found his calling as a subway guru. )Jane’s story arc, while clichéd, comes off best. “Do What I Do” will resonate with anyone stuck in a survival job, and Seibert nails “Getting There,” taking Boxman’s advice to heart. The gay love story is genuine, if bland. Family conflict is set up in the country-flavored “Four Days Home,” and Guarini conveys Trent’s pain when he realizes Momma is deliberately “Choosing Not to Know.” Mackey gets the ultimate 21s-century list song, “Saturday Night Obsession,” cyber-stalking her ex to hilarious comments from the back-ups. In addition to her moments as Momma, Angela unleashes her belt as grumpy subway both clerk Althea and as Jane’s boss. Her sardonic “A Little Friendly Advice” is one of the score’s strongest numbers. But, as a dramatic whole, In Transit would have benefited from more depth of story than a metaphor told in a few vignettes. — Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Masterworks Broadway/Broadway Records) (4 / 5) After the immense artistic and commercial success of Matilda, Tim Minchin turned his efforts next towards adapting the beloved comedic film Groundhog Day, working with the film’s screenwriter, Danny Rubin. The central character is the egotistical, misogynistic weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray in the movie), who finds himself stuck living February 2nd over and over again in the small town of Punxsutawney. Rather than attempt to slavishly recreate the film’s most famous moments, Rubin and Minchin delved into the source material and truly adapted it to give us an endlessly inventive and rewarding musical with a perfect leading performance by Andy Karl. Hilariously smug at the start, Karl believably navigates Phil’s journey from narcissist to humanist, all the while staying well outside of Murray’s large shadow. Minchin’s score is not quite as tightly crafted as his score for Matilda, but it’s more experimental in terms of structure and style, and is ultimately a more mature work. Of course, Minchin still allows himself some fun shock humor with the cheeky “Stuck” and the hillbilly hoedown “Nobody Cares,” but these songs are just facets of a multidimensional score that never feels disjointed, partly thanks to Christopher Nightingale’s astute orchestrations. If the cast recording has one fault, it’s the surprising lack of dialogue included here. Not every Broadway album needs to offer dialogue to be successful (see, for example, the original Oklahoma! or A Little Night Music), but given how important director Matthew Warchus’s staging was to the storytelling of the original production, the lack of context makes tracks like “Philandering” and “Hope” lose some of their comedic edge. On the other hand, the small amount of dialogue we do hear on the album allows Groundhog Day to show its heart. The uplifting “If I Had My Time Again” is not just catchy but is also deceptively moving in its optimism, as Phil’s producer Rita (an endearing Barrett Doss) convinces him that this endless cycle he’s in is actually a gift. And when the two finally connect in the show’s finale “Seeing You,” listeners may be surprised to find themselves so moved by a score that earlier rhymed “toxins” with “constipated oxens.” But that’s musical theater for you. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight) (2 / 5) In 1939, Irving Berlin imagined a themed revue set at an inn that opens only on holidays, with songs highlighting seasonal celebrations. It didn’t make it to the stage, but the idea became the basis for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, and featuring the biggest-selling song in history, “White Christmas.” Success breeds success, so the inn setting, Crosby, and that song reappeared in the 1954 film White Christmas. Both movies became perennial holiday offerings on television, prompting theatrical adaptations. Berlin himself recycled songs like aluminum cans; the original Holiday Inn lifted “Easter Parade” and “Blue Skies” from earlier shows. In similar fashion, librettists Gordon Greenberg (who also directed) and Chad Hodge ransacked Berlin’s catalog for gems to shoehorn into the plot of the stage version. The nine interpolated songs sometimes work (“Shaking the Blues Away” as an obvious cheer-up number) and sometimes don’t (“Heat Wave” sounds out of place, “Cheek to Cheek” is sadly truncated). Three songs from the film were cut: “Lazy,” replaced by “The Little Things In Life,” a more satisfactory “I want” song for Jim Hardy, along with the Presidential tributes “I Can’t Tell a Lie” and the minstrelsy “Abraham.” The plot largely follows that of the movie, with nightclub performers Jim (Bryce Pinkham), his girlfriend Lila (Megan Sikora), their pal Ted (Corbin Bleu), and Connecticut gal Linda (Lora Lee Gayer) variously torn between their desires for show biz, settling down, and each other. Pinkham gives Jim an earnestness (“Blue Skies,” “It’s a Lovely Day Today”) that distances him from Crosby’s laid back portrayal. He wisely keeps “White Christmas” simple, with Gayer delicately joining him. The latter conveys Linda’s sweetness in “Nothing More to Say,” one of the lesser-known tunes. In contrast, Sikora’s Lila is sometimes just too brassy, and the talented Megan Lawrence is wasted here, squeaking weirdly on the title song. Bleu ably handles the production numbers, including the literally explosive “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” but he doesn’t have much of a character to develop. Larry Blank’s exuberant orchestrations generally fit the material, but there are some odd changes in tempo during “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Easter Parade” sounds lethargic. — Laura Frankos
Premiere Recording, 2006 (Ghostlight) (3 / 5) Librettists David Ives and Paul Blake based this Irving Berlin songfest on the 1954 film of the same title, which starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as ex-G.I.s, now performers, saving their former general’s failing Vermont farmhouse by — what else? — putting on a show. Ives and Blake altered some characters and eliminated four songs (“Heat Wave,” “Gee, I Wish I Were Back in the Army,” that unfortunate minstrel medley, and the campy “Choreography”) while adding eight Berlin classics. These numbers are better integrated into this show than those used in the later Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn; pairing 1933’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” with “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” is particularly effective. “Happy Holiday” provides a quick jump from 1944 to 1954, and “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” lifted from 1949’s Miss Liberty, is a kicky piece for the three women. “Love and the Weather” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” also fit well, and the former gives some character insights. “Let Yourself Go,” however, has a mid-thirties vibe doesn’t sound quite right for a mid-fifties setting. White Christmas debuted at the St. Louis Muny in 2000, followed by a production in 2004 in San Francisco and a Broadway holiday run in 2008. This recording features the San Francisco leads — Brian d’Arcy James and Jeffry Denman as Bob and Phil, with Anastasia Barzee and Meredith Patterson as their girls, sisters Betty and Judy — plus Muny original Karen Morrow as Martha, the general’s aide. It’s a pleasure to hear d’Arcy James’s rich baritone in classics such as the title tune, “Blue Skies,” “Count Your Blessings,” and“How Deep Is the Ocean?” Barzee’s versatility is apparent; she’s wistful in “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” crackling with Patterson in the Andrews Sisters-styled “Sisters,” and tender in the reprise of “How Deep.” Patterson and Denman have a lot of fun in “Snow” and the tap extravaganza “I Love A Piano.” (The latter was written in 1915, but it’s timeless.) Morrow instills comic zest into the old Al Jolson hit “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” revealing Martha’s desire to perform, yet she manages not to become a caricature. The recording benefits from a sizable orchestra led by Rob Berman, with Larry Blank’s orchestrations intentionally sounding like a fifties movie musical. A solid choice for Berlin fans or those seeking something for their holiday playlist. — Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Ghostlight) (2 / 5) Weddings have inspired musicals since at least as early as the 1920s (often with multiple couples overcoming ridiculous obstacles before tying the knot) up through Fiddler on the Roof, Mamma Mia! and The Drowsy Chaperone (which parodied those ’20s shows). The combination of romance, mishaps, family conflict, and celebration is irresistible to writers. It Shoulda Been You joined the list in 2015, having originated as composer Barbara Anselmi’s concept piece at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. Brian Hargrove came on as librettist/lyricist, though five of the workshop lyricists also retained credits; unfortunately, their lyrics vary in quality and are dissimilar in style from Hargrove’s work. Anselmi’s music, while not especially memorable, is sprightly enough, with occasional jazz overtones. Doug Besterman’s orchestrations provide that brassy, old-fashioned musical comedy feel. The cast is comprised of killer comic talent: Tyne Daly as the overbearing Jewish mother, Chip Zien as her husband, Sierra Boggess as the bride, Lisa Howard as the older sister who is in many ways the show’s central character, Harriet Harris as the unhappy mother of the groom, Josh Grisetti as the bride’s ex-boyfriend, and Edward Hibbert as the wedding planner. Plus, any show that has Montego Glover in a throwaway role has star power to spare. There are a few solid character numbers here: the sisters’ relationship is revealed in “Perfect”, Harris as the groom’s mom mourns the loss of her son to marriage in “Where Did I Go Wrong?”, and Howard and Grisetti conjure up childhood memories (“Who Was Angel to My Buffy?”) in “Who?” Daly gets a heartfelt 11 o’clocker in “What They Never Tell You,” and naturally, everyone is reconciled by the finale. So why does the score as heard on the cast recording seem nearly as flat as champagne opened last night? Probably because the show plays like an extended skit from The Carol Burnett Show, moving methodically from situation to situation, punctuated with a running gag about panini stations. “Albert’s Turn,” performed by Hibbert, largely serves to set up a later joke, while “Jenny’s Blues,” sung by Howard, is a textbook declaration of independence, and an ’80s power ballad sung by Glover and Nick Spangler is just pointless. (Spangler replaced David Burtka as the groom during the show’s brief Broadway run.) The comedy all-stars push to nail each joke, but they’re still playing stale stereotypes. Finally, It Shoulda Been You’s nuptial conditions and revelations rival the “ridiculous” factor of those ’20s shows, though in a 21st century social context. Musical comedy fans can accept all kinds of preposterous scenarios, but when practically the entire wedding party is hiding something, that’s harder to swallow than an overstuffed panini. — Laura Frankos
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2013 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) Texas is big. Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel, Giant, is big, spanning decades and two generations of rancher families. The 1956 movie version is big, with spurting oils wells and thundering cattle herds (plus a stunning young Liz Taylor and a sultry James Dean). How to translate something so gigantic to the stage? By going big with the score. Giant may not be Michael John LaChiusa’s most important musical, but it’s his most melodic, alternately sweeping and introspective. This recording is jam-packed with 26 songs from the three-hour show: Mexican folk songs, country hoedowns, ballads of hope and regret, swing, and early rock. (LaChiusa subtly mirrors changing musical tastes as the story moves from 1925 to 1952.) Linking the various parts of the whole is the anthem “Heartbreak Country,” for at its heart, Giant is the tale of that land — the Reata Ranch — and how it changed through the years, affecting everyone connected with it. At the center is the owner, Bick Benedict (the wonderful Brian D’Arcy James), who, like his older sister Luz (Michele Pawk), loves Reata and is always aware of his obligation to “take care of the land.” Yet, instead of marrying the daughter of a neighboring ranch owner, he weds an educated Virginian, Leslie (Kate Baldwin). LaChiusa chronicles their relationship in nine telling numbers. “Your Texas” is about Leslie’s dreams during their courtship, including a kind of frontier utopia. The lilting “Did Spring Come To Texas?” reveals Bick’s joy at their wedding. Things don’t always run smoothly, not with Luz’s interference and sexy mechanic Jett (PJ Griffith) hanging around; but there is genuine love here, and Bick and Lesie try repeatedly to work out their differences (“Heartbreak Country,” “Topsy Turvy”). A major issue is the treatment of the Mexicans who work the ranch, once Mexican property (“Aurelia Dolores”). The racism appalls Leslie, and her views are shared by the couple’s bookish son, Jordy (Bobby Steggart), who loves Juana (Natalie Cortez). Things reach a crisis in the climactic “The Desert,” a musical sequence (with dialogue by librettist Sybille Pearson) that’s a mini-play in itself. Others — there are nearly a dozen significant characters — play their roles in this changing Texas. Griffith works hard to distance himself from Dean’s iconic portrayal; his rock growl helps. Pawk’s Luz is perhaps overly villainous in “No Time For Surprises,” but fares better in her duets with Bick. John Dossett and Katie Thompson each get strong solos as Bick’s uncle and the girl Bick jilted for Leslie. The younger generation — Steggert, Cortez, Miguel Cervantes, and Mackenzie Mauzy — have their own chances to shine as well, notably in the bouncy “Jump” and the tender “There Is A Child.” This is a rich, vibrant score, loaded with emotion and power. — Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2008 (Ghostlight, 2CDs) (4 / 5) Winner of 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations, In the Heights was the first Broadway musical hit to use rap as an essential storytelling component in a score that blends Latin musical styles with hip-hop sensibilities. Set in the Latin-American community of Manhattan’s Washington Heights, the show nestles sentimental stories of first- and second-generation immigrants pursuing their various American dreams and romances amid larger themes concerning notions of home and gentrification. The Grammy Award winning cast album, a two-disc set, preserves the entirety of a dynamic score with both music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also conceived the show and played the leading role of bodega-owner Usnavi. Fueled by high-octane horns and propulsive percussion, the passion-filled orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman support Miranda’s dramatic rapping and the superb singing of the other leads. If you don’t like salsa, merengue, Latin jazz, and hip-hop, you’re out of luck here; but even if the score overall is somewhat lacking in variety, the lengthy individual numbers are built of different-sounding sections. They mix diverse styles, tempi, rhythms, instruments, dynamic levels, and vocal qualities (both spoken and sung), constituting variegated musical journeys unto themselves. Most of the songs also integrate lots of funny, interestingly detailed, and/or emotionally touching dialogue, lending a potent theatricality to what is essentially a pop-music score. Album highlights include “When You’re Home,” a snappy duet performed by Mandy Gonzalez and Christopher Jackson as the show’s young lovers, Nina and Benny; the tear-jerkers “Everything I Know” and “Inutil,” gorgeously sung by Gonzalez and Carlos Gomez, respectively; “Benny’s Dispatch,” a rhythmic treat; and the exciting ensemble number “Carnaval del Barrio.” — Lisa Jo Sagolla