Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Atlantic, 2CDs) (5 / 5) From start to finish, this recording marvelously captures the vibrancy of composer-lyricist-star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking and record-smashing musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of our country’s previously unsung (pun fully intended) Founding Fathers. Recorded almost in its entirety for this two-disc set, Hamilton charts the title character’s biography from childhood to the duel with Aaron Burr that ultimately cost him his life. Along the way, Hamilton’s successes during the American Revolution and his pivotal role in the formation of America’s new government are expertly handled, as are personal tragedies including the death of his son. The musical vernacular of the score ranges from hip-hop to jazz to R&B to contemporary musical theater. In addition to Miranda’s energetic vocals as the title character, fine performances abound — particularly from Leslie Odom, Jr., who offers a haunted and haunting portrayal of Burr, and Renée Elise Goldsberry, whose voice sparkles as she plays Angelica Schuyler, Hamilton’s sister-in-law and the woman who was perhaps his true soul-mate. Equally terrific are Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (Angelica’s sister); Daveed Diggs in a dual role as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson; Christopher Jackson as George Washington; and Jonathan Groff, who wrings every bit of comedy from the cameo appearances of George III, drolly delivering Miranda’s faux-1960s British mod tunes that echo both The Beatles and Herman’s Hermits. What ultimately makes this cast album so appealing is that it gives the listener the ability to savor the intricacies of the show’s construction. With each successive play, one hears new nuances in Miranda’s linguistic genius and the far-flung antecedents that are part of the score, which references to everything from Shakespeare to musicals such as South Pacific and Camelot to the work of rapper The Notorious B.I.G. — Andy Propst
Original Broadway Cast, 1966 (Columbia/Sony) (3 / 5) This show seemed to have so much going for it, with a central character beloved by millions through the comic books and a popular television series. Composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams asked David Newman and Robert Benton to write a book for a proposed musical with Superman as its central character; Harold Prince agreed to produce and direct the show. It’s a Bird . .. It’s a Plane . .. It’s Superman opened to four good reviews, including a rave from New York Times critic Stanley Kauffman. But, for some reason, audiences did not flock to the show, and it ran only 129 performances. That was surely not the fault of the songs; this is a good-natured, humorous score, as colorful as the comic book characters it portrays. Reporter Jimmy Olsen is missing from the action, and Perry White is a small, non-singing role, but many new characters were created for the musical. Gossip columnist Max Mencken was played by Jack Cassidy to a fare-thee-well, and the role of his secretary marked a major career step for Linda Lavin. These two get the best of the songs: Cassidy’s suave, amusing seduction of Lois Lane, “The Woman for the Man,” is a showstopper, as is Lavin’s counter-attempt to seduce Clark Kent with “You’ve Got Possibilities.” This number and her “love song” to Max, “Ooh, Do You Love You,” allow Lavin to unleash her powerful belt voice, heard infrequently on Broadway. Cassidy has two other terrific numbers, “So Long, Big Guy” and his vaudeville-style duet with the villainous Dr. Sedgwick (Michael O’Sullivan), “You’ve Got What I Need.” The songs for Superman/Clark Kent are mostly tongue-in-cheek; Bob Holliday, who was a good physical match for the role, displays a first-class baritone and delivers “Doing Good” and “The Strongest Man in the World” impressively. The character of Lois Lane, played by Patricia Marand, is treated pretty much like a traditional musical comedy heroine; she pines for you-know-who in “It’s Superman,” a lament that’s both wistful and amusing. (In Act II, this song becomes a super ensemble number.) Marand also has a nifty duet with Don Chastain as scientist Jim Morgan, titled “We Don’t Matter At All,” and after he becomes her love interest, she sings the plaintive “What I’ve Always Wanted.” As bonus tracks, the CD edition of the cast album offers demos of three deleted songs plus a version of “You’ve Got Possibilities” with notably different lyrics, all performed stylishly by Strouse and Adams. — Jeffrey Dunn
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2002 (JAY) (3 / 5) Based on It, the 1927 film that starred Clara Bow, The It Girl is a small-scale, 1920s-style musical comedy. It was presented Off-Broadway by the York Theatre Company almost a year before the Broadway opening of Thoroughly Modern Millie, a show it resembles in some respects. Jean Louisa Kelly stars as Betty Lou Spence, a spitfire flapper-type who sets New York aflame with her unique brand of style and sexual appeal. The cast also includes Jonathan Dokuchitz as the object of her affection, Jessica Boevers as the object of his semi-affection, and Stephen DeRosa as the dandy who sets the frantic plot in motion. All of the performers are talented if not exactly bursting with charisma, and the songs provided by composer Paul McKibbins and lyricist B.T. McNicholl are drenched in ’20s rhythms and lively ragtime arrangements. The score’s standout is Boevers’ comic number “A Perfect Plan,” in which she details the peaks and valleys of her troubled love life. A tribute to “Coney Island” is bouncy and tuneful, “Why Not?” is a another cheerfully upbeat entry, and the almost title song “It” is catchy enough to get stuck in your head. — Matthew Murray
Original Broadway Cast, 1982 (Original Cast Records) (5 / 5) If this show had opened Off-Broadway instead of on Broadway in 1982, it might have run a lot longer. Is There Life After High School? represents some of the best work of Craig Carnelia, an extraordinarily talented composer-lyricist who later wrote lyrics only to Marvin Hamlisch’s music for the score of Sweet Smell of Success. With a book by Jeffrey Kindley, the show is about the painful, wonderful experience of high school as viewed in retrospect by a group of young adults. The opening (and closing) number, “The Kid Inside,” is a highlight; the song offers spot-on observations about grown-ups who cling to their inner children, and the soaring musical phrase that’s sung to the words “There (s)he goes again” is a real ear worm. Among the show’s cleverest sequences is “Second Thoughts,” in which five people wonder what would have happened if they’d said or done things differently at pivotal moments in high school. Another standout is the beautiful song in which four women recall every detail of their earliest romantic encounters, even though “Nothing Really Happened.” Then there’s the hilarious ”I’m Glad You Didn’t Know Me” (in high school), sung by a couple to each other. (“Picture a phony / Doin’ the pony,” she sings; “Speaking of fears / I had an erection the whole four years,” he admits.) But the most precious gem of the score is probably “Fran and Janie,” a gorgeous tearjerker about two inseparable high school friends encountering each other years later. The estimable performers are Harry Groener, Maureen Silliman, Alma Cuervo, Sandy Faison, Raymond Baker, Cynthia Carle, David Patrick Kelly, Philip Hoffman, and James Widdoes. — Michael Portantiere
Original London Cast, 1958 (Philips/Sepiano CD) (4 / 5) This recording was not released in CD format until 2008. It will come as something of a revelation to those who only know Irma la Douce from the original Broadway cast recording. While the three London stars — Elizabeth Seal, Keith Michell, and Clive Revill — and director Peter Brook were all imported to Broadway, the London recording offers a great deal of dialogue that reveals the story with more clarity than on the subsequent Broadway cast album (see review below). Many of the lyrics are different, and there is a truly charming Act II reprise of “Our Language of Love,” in which Irma expresses her feelings about Nestor while he is in prison. In the ballet, we can hear the prison break, and we learn of Irma’s pregnancy and other plot details. The only disappointment is Seal’s delivery of the title song; she does a much better job on the Broadway recording. Other than that, the London LP captures the essence of a most unusual show, and the three leads are perhaps a little warmer and less slick here than they became by the time the show reached New York. — Jeffrey Dunn
Original Broadway Cast, 1960 (Columbia/Sony) (4 / 5) One of very few French musicals to earn success in London and in New York, Irma la Douce went through some changes in each country, but this recording retains enough Gallic charm mixed with Broadway know-how to satisfy all but the most curmudgeonly of FrancophiIes. That’s particularly evident in the orchestrations of André Popp (additional orchestrations by Robert Ginzler, dance music by John Kander), with the obligatory accordion and a stylish xylophone often dominating. The overture is an old-fashioned attention-grabber. The opening number is “Valse Milieu,” in which Clive Revill as Bob-Ie-Hotu — who narrates the story and plays numerous other roles — sets up the plot and defines the French words that are sprinkled throughout the piece: poule for prostitute, mec for pimp, grisbi for money, and so on. The fanciful tale tells how one of Irma’s clients, Nestor, falls so in love with her that he wants to become her only client. The music is by Marguerite Monnot, composer of many songs popularized by Edith Piaf; the original French book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort were cleverly adapted into English by Julian More, David Heneker, and Monty Norman. London leads Elizabeth Seal, Keith Michell, and Clive Revill also starred in the Broadway production. Seal, who won a Tony Award for her performance, is a singing actress whose personality jumps from a recording. Michell as Nestor has a beefy, full-bodied sound in the love duets, is comedic in “Wreck of a Mec,” and is magnificent in the haunting “From a Prison Cell.” Revill is especially funny in the climactic “But.” The all-male ensemble is excellent in “Sons of France,” “She’s Got the Lot,” and “Christmas Child.” There is also an extended sequence that ends up in an “Arctic Ballet” complete with penguins! It doesn’t make much sense, but the dance music is terrific. In his New York Herald Tribune review of Irma la Douce, Walter Kerr wrote: “If an original cast album is made available in your neighborhood, get it.” Take Mr. Kerr’s advice. — J.D.
Broadway Cast, 1973 (Columbia/Sony) (4 / 5) Encouraged by the success of the 1971 Broadway revisal of No, No, Nannette, producer Harry Rigby and colleagues reworked and mounted Irene, a musical that had been a hit in 1919 but had hardly ever been performed since the 1930s — even though it included such Harry Tierney-Joseph McCarthy songs as the monster hit “Alice Blue Gown.” The buoyant headliner of the new Irene was Debbie Reynolds, who gave her pluckiest performance since the film version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown and helped turn the show into a hit. Happily, her gutsy portrayal is well preserved on the cast album. Reynolds’ rendition of “The World Must Be Bigger Than an Avenue,” a new song by Wally Harper, is dynamite. Other outstanding moments belong to George S. Irving in a Tony Award-winning performance as “Madame Lucy,” and Patsy Kelly, direct from her Tony-winning triumph in No, No, Nanette, as Irene’s mother. More star presence is provided by Monte Markham as Donald S. Marshall III and Ruth Warrick as his mother. The recording was artfully produced by the great Thomas Z. Shepard at the peak of his expertise. — Gerard Alessandrini
London Cast, 1976 (EMI/no CD) (4 / 5) This bouncy, well-performed London Irene stars the excellent Australian performer Julie Anthony. The arrangements and orchestrations are almost identical to those of the Broadway revisal, and they sound bright and crisp as recorded here. Under conductor Ralph Burns’ excellent baton, the chorus numbers are particularly spirited and exciting. As Irene, Anthony shows off a thrilling voice with much gusto, and she can belt out a show-stopper and then turn around and deliver a soft, tender ballad very effectively. The strong supporting cast includes Jon Pertwee, Jessie Evans, and Eric Flynn. As Donald, Flynn does an excellent job with a lovely old song that wasn’t in the Broadway production, “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” Another added treat is the ballad “If Only He Knew,” persuasively rendered by Anthony. This is an unusual London cast album in that the singers sound like authentic American musical theater performers, and the sound quality of the recording is superb. — G.A.
Studio Cast, 1985 (Polygram) (3 / 5) Richard Rodgers’ musical imagination persisted throughout his life, despite depression, a heart attack, and cancer of the vocal cords. His final show opened just seven months before he died. It was a musical version of I Remember Mama, a play written by John Van Druten and adapted from Mama’s Bank Account, a collection of stories by Kathryn Forbes. The play had also inspired a movie and a television series.) In all its incarnations, the story is about a Norwegian family living in San Francisco around 1910. But, foremost, it’s about Mama, a woman of little education who has a naturally liberal turn of mind. Rodgers wrote the musical with librettist Thomas Meehan and lyricist-director Martin Charnin. Film actress Liv Ullmann, who was not a gifted singer, played the title role. During the out-of-town tryout, producers Alexander Cohen and Hildy Parks brought in a new director, Cy Feuer, and a new lyricist, Raymond Jessel. Amid the chaos of the pre-Broadway tour, Rodgers created six new songs in two weeks. The show opened on Broadway in May 1979 to largely disparaging reviews and closed three months later. Still, Mama proves that even a lower-tier work by Rodgers is superior to almost anyone else’s best effort, and in songs such as “You Could Not Please Me More” and “Time,” the music soars above the pedestrian lyrics. No cast album of the show was made; this studio recording was produced by Norman Newell, with John Yap as executive producer and Theodore S. Chapin as coordinating producer. Parts of it were recorded on either side of the Atlantic to accommodate a dream cast of American and British performers. George Hearn as Papa and George S. Irving as Uncle Chris recreate their Broadway roles; Sally Ann Howes replaces Ullmann as Mama; Ann Morrison plays Katrin, the writer who immortalizes Mama in magazine fiction; Gay Soper is Mama’s benevolent sister; Patricia Routledge is Aunt Jenny; Elizabeth Seal is Aunt Sigrid; and Sian Phillips appears as a British novelist. In the lively “Easy Come, Easy Go” and the acidic “It’s Going to Be Good to Be Gone,” Irving shows off the stuff that made him one of the theater’s great comedic assets. The recording’s high point is the Routledge-Seal duet “A Most Disagreeable Man.” — Charles Wright
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1979 (Original Cast Records) (5 / 5) Long before the William Finn character known simply as Marvin experienced joy and pain in March of the Falsettos, Falsettoland, or the amalgam known and celebrated as Falsettos, he was introduced in this 1979 work. The show never achieved the prominence of Finn’s other “Marvin Musicals,” but it’s by far the most tuneful. Finn’s lyrics here are sometimes tough to understand; the opening song, “Marvin’s Giddy Seizures,” suggests that In Trousers will be about an epileptic rather than a bisexual who’s leaving his wife for a man (Whizzer, who never appears in the show, although he’s frequently referenced). But, oh, what a glorious set of Finn melodies! “High School Ladies at Five O’Clock” is an infectious number that will have you playing it over again and again. “Whizzer Going Down” might be described as an Americanized version of Edith Piaf’s irresistible “Milord,” and what could be a higher compliment than that? “How Marvin Eats His Breakfast” doesn’t just have a memorable melody, but also a fascinating lyric: We get a young child’s point of view in wanting to eat right now. In this song and others, Chip Zien as Mavin is sensational in his first major role. — Peter Filichia
Original Broadway Cast, 1987 (RCA) (3 / 5) One of Stephen Sondheim’s most commercially successful shows, Into the Woods has one of his least distinctive scores. Perhaps he wasn’t really inspired by the fairy tale setting or the characters, most of them lifted from famous stories, or perhaps he and librettist-director James Lapine thought that making the characters self-aware and having them face the realities of “happily ever after” was enough? Aside from an interesting song or two — “No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen” — there’s not a lot of “here” here. Considering the setting, the tunes aren’t particularly magical, and some of the lyrics (“There’s no time to sit and dither / While her withers wither with her”) are forced in their cleverness. But the recording showcases some top-notch performers: Bernadette Peters milks the role of the worldly wise witch for all it’s worth; Joanna Gleason brings a thrilling vibe to the part of the Baker’s Wife; and Chip Zien is a neurotic joy as the Baker himself. Tom Aldredge as the narrator, Kim Crosby as Cinderella, Ben Wright as Jack, Danielle Ferland as Little Red Riding Hood, and Kay McClelland and Lauren Mitchell as Cinderella’s bitchy stepsisters are also great. The video of the original Broadway production is a better representation of Into the Woods, but if you can’t find it, this recording will do. — Matthew Murray
Original London Cast, 1991 (RCA) (3 / 5) This is a nice complement to the original Broadway album, but in no way equal to it. With the exception of Julia McKenzie’s fiercely acted and sung Witch, there’s a stodginess exhibited by many of the leads; Ian Bartholomew and Imelda Staunton lack the distinctive personalities that Zien and Gleason brought to the roles of the Baker and his Wife, and other cast members are similarly challenged by the material. A new song here for the Witch and Rapunzel, “Our Little World,” is musically attractive, but it spoils the original show’s joke about Rapunzel never singing real lyrics, and it doesn’t further the relationship between the two characters. — M.M.
Broadway Cast, 2002 (Nonesuch) (1 / 5) Almost none of the charm of the original production of Into the Woods survived in the misbegotten revival that yielded this recording. With the exception of Laura Benanti, who brings a purity to Cinderella, these performers are weak. Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O’Malley as the Baker and his Wife are personality-free, and Marylouise Burke massacres much of Jack’s Mother’s music. Vanessa Williams is the dullest Witch imaginable; her singing is adequate at best and grating at worst. Other liabilities include the thinned-down sound of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and the relentless tinkering with the script and score. Some of the changes are unnecessary — for example, the insertion of “Our Little World” and the addition of a second wolf and three pigs to “Hello, Little Girl.” Others are bizarre and damaging, such as having Jack and Little Red chime in on what used to be Cinderella’s big solo, “On the Steps of the Palace.” — M.M.
Film Soundtrack, 2014 (Walt Disney) (3 / 5) For Sondheim die-hards, no production of Into the Woods ever will, ever could surpass the first, with its robust, indelible performances captured forever on audio as well as video. But the 2014 film version is surprisingly strong, due in no small part to the high quality of its Hollywood-minded casting, and the soundtrack captures this rendition’s strengths while obscuring its flaws. Meryl Streep makes a zesty Witch, singing with conviction (if not always beauty) and playing well opposite the Baker (James Corden at his Everyman best) and his wife (Emily Blunt, in a particularly intelligent performance). Anna Kendrick brings a palpable spunk to her thoughtful Cinderella. As the Princes, Chris Pine and (especially) Billy Magnussen capture the right notes of stuffed-shirt self-indulgence, and the luxurious casting of Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski as Jack’s Mother and Cinderella’s Stepmother ensure that these roles don’t get short shrift in terms of comedy. There’s definitely room to quibble: The changes to the original material, including the cutting of a few songs, don’t really serve the property well; Johnny Depp is too weird to be threatening as the Wolf; and while Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack do well by their songs, they’re too young and unseasoned to give their characters the complexities they need. But combine all that does work with a gorgeous-sounding orchestra (playing expanded versions of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations under original conductor Paul Gemignani), and the result is a better stage-to-screen translation than all but the most fervent Sondheim acolytes had any right to hope for. — M.M.