Original Broadway Cast, 2002 (Sony) (4 / 5) In the old days, composers hoped that theatergoers would go out humming what they’d just heard. With shows like Movin’ Out, however, the idea is that the audience will be humming the show’s melodies on the way in. Sure, this is an original cast recording, but the singer featured on it did not introduce the songs that make up the score; every rock ‘n’ roll number that Michael Cavanaugh warbles and plays on piano with exuberance was popularized by singer-songwriter Billy Joel on albums that have sold in the millions. Cavanaugh hews to Joel’s phrasing and inflections while bringing his own distinctive talents to the likes of “Just the Way You Are,” “Uptown Girl,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “Captain Jack,” and “I’ve Loved These Days.” Additionally, there’s some thrilling instrumental work by the sidemen, particularly by saxophonist John Scarpulla. While this is an expertly produced aural document of a spectacular and important show, it’s obviously incomplete in one major respect: Director-choreographer Twyla Tharp created a visual masterwork around Joel’s triumphs as a troubadour-chronicler of his troubled pre- and post-Vietnam times but, of course, there was no way for CD producers Tommy Byrnes and Mike Berniker to make an audio recording of Tharp’s extraordinary staging and dances. So this cast album is a must-have with that qualification, and one more: Needless to say, if you want the definitive recordings of these songs, you should pick up Joel’s versions. — David Finkle
Original Broadway Cast, 1956 (Columbia/Sony, 2CDs) (5 / 5) When Frank Loesser’s adaptation of Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted opened on Broadway, the composer-lyricist quickly corrected those who suggested that he had written an opera. “Actually,” he said, “it’s just a musical with a lot of music.” Happily, The Most Happy Fella was recorded complete and released as a three-LP album (and also as a single LP of highlights). The two-CD edition gives us a rare chance to sample a mid-’50s hit in its entirety, dialogue and all. The recording is noteworthy for Don Walker’s lush orchestrations and underscoring, the cast’s emphatic line readings and rich voices, and Loesser’s stretching of the art form’s borders in terms of both musical style and morality. (The plot concerns a bride who is unfaithful on her wedding night, yet doesn’t get struck by lightning.) Yes, the score careens between musical comedy silliness and operatic intensity, some of the acting is artless, and there’s perhaps a bit too much repetition in the lyrics; but none of that matters, because Loesser’s musical storytelling is so passionate, his sympathy for his characters limitless, and the show is so sincere and honest a portrayal of adult romance. As Tony Esposito, ex-Met baritone Robert Weede is superb; no one has ever surpassed him in the role. Jo Sullivan, as his pretty “Rosabella,” uses her rather thin top notes effectively to communicate vulnerability. (In a real-life romance, Sullivan and Loesser apparently fell in love during the run of Happy Fella and married in 1959 — after he divorced his first wife, Lynn, who had been one of the show’s two co-producers.) Susan Johnson is the definitive Cleo, while Art Lund captures Joe’s restlessness in “Joey, Joey, Joey.” Herbert Greene conducts with all of the sweep that this unique score requires. Although the album was recorded before Columbia switched to stereo, the mono sound is crisp and resonant. For those who love a really good love story, this is a tremendously moving performance — so much so that when Tony asks, “Young lady, what’s-a you name?” in the final scene, and “Rosabella” offers her surprising reply, you may weep with happiness for both of them. — Marc Miller
Original London Cast, 1960 (His Master’s Voice/Sepia) (3 / 5) The first stereo recording of Frank Loesser’s great romantic musical is a fine one, though it’s limited to as much of the score as could fit on one LP. The West End production wisely imported several of its principals from New York, ensuring authentic American accents. Helena Scott is a lovely Rosabella, while Libi Staiger is a superb, rafter-raising Cleo, well partnered by Jack DeLon’s Herman. The Maori basso Inia Te Wiata has voice to spare and the requisite sincerity for Tony, even if he overdoes the hearty peasant thing; hear him burble “Ornma so happy-happy, omma t’ink omma gonna bust!” Reprising his New York role of Joe, Art Lund sounds a little tired here. But the editing of the score is judicious, and the luscious stereo sound — even as heard on the Sepia CD, which was transferred from an LP copy of the recording — brings out vocal and instrumental subtleties that the mono original couldn’t capture. “How Beautiful the Days,” for instance, sounds more beautiful than ever. — M.M.
Broadway Cast, 1992 (RCA) (2 / 5) The Goodspeed Opera House’s vest-pocket-size revival of Happy Fella was successful enough to transfer to Broadway’s cozy Booth Theater, where it ran out the season. The justification for turning this big musical into a smaller show was that the material would feel “more intimate,” and the substitution of two pianos for a full orchestra would bring audiences “closer” to the material. Excuse me, but Don Walker’s original orchestrations have never been emotionally distancing, nor do the two pianos heard here (plus an accordion in “Sposalizio” and a guitar in “Song of a Summer Night”) bring out any qualities previously lacking in Loesser’s music. The production was well acted and sung for the most part, although Spiro Malas as Tony is sometimes below pitch and often resorts to head voice, and Claudia Catania’s Marie is downright unpleasant. On the plus side, Sophie Hayden’s Rosabella is a fresh take on the role; she’s more tired, more resigned at first, and eventually, more transformed by love. The score was edited for this recording, which was originally released on one-CD — yet, somehow, nothing crucial seems to be missing. Still, pretending that “smaller is better” for this grandly ambitious piece is disingenuous. — M.M.
Studio Cast, 1999 (JAY, 3CDs) (4 / 5) Here’s a well-conducted Happy Fella that is also well-cast, for the most part, and is noteworthy for including bonus tracks of six songs/musical scenes that were cut from the score or extensively edited before the show opened on Broadway. A good deal of this material tells us more about the character Marie, Tony’s possessive sister, beautifully sung here by Nancy Shade. Among the other bonus tracks: “House and Garden,” which was included in the unrecorded (but videotaped) 1979 Broadway revival, offers a peek into Rosabella’s wistful side. And “Wanting to Be Wanted,” an earlier draft of “Somebody, Somewhere,” is given a sensitive reading by Jo Sullivan. Mrs. Loesser should be proud of her daughter Emily, whose Rosabella is vocally secure and acted with great range. Louis Quilico interprets Tony solidly, if unimaginatively, but there’s some vocal strain in his performance (he was in his seventies at the time of the recording). And Richard Muenz, who was a sexy Tony in the ’79 revival, sounds like he’s walking through the role here. On the plus side, Karen Ziemba’s Cleo is wonderful, and Don Stephenson’s Herman is ingratiating. Overall, this is a detailed, loving recording, with expert performers such as George Dvorsky, Walter Charles, and even Kristin Chenoweth taking tiny roles. Conductor John Owen Edwards doesn’t over-sentimentalize the score — and we can be grateful, too, for the inclusion of the stirring exit music. Generous packaging offers the complete libretto and numerous photos from both the original production and the recording sessions for this release. If I could have only one version, I’d still take Columbia’s Broadway cast album, but there’s value added in this luxurious tour. — M.M.
Original Broadway Cast, 1956 (Decca/MCA) (4 / 5) From the moment the overture fires up, strings sawing away and trumpets blaring, you know that this is a mid-’50s schlock musical comedy. Produced (but not written) by Jule Styne to showcase the talents of Sammy Davis Jr., Mr. Wonderful leaves no convention unturned: There’s the frantic opening chorus (“1617 Broadway”), the second couple’s silly duet (“Without You I’m Nothing”), Davis’s swinging nightclub specialty (“Jacques D’Iraq”), the leading lady’s adoring title song, the comedienne’s pointless choral ensemble (“Miami”), and the other comedienne’s irrelevant song and dance number (“I’m Available”). Davis’s socko 11-o’clock number is actually an old standard pulled out of the trunk (“Sing, You Sinners”). Act II is basically the star’s nightclub act, so how much story has to be told? What makes all of this special is the cast. That “I’m Available” comedienne just happens to be Chita Rivera. The other comic gal is Pat Marshall, so funny and leather-lunged that you wonder why she didn’t have more of a career. (Answer: She married Larry Gelbart and lived happily ever after.) Davis’s love interest, Olga James, displays a sweet soprano, but she can also wow us when given good comedy material (“Talk to Him,” “I’ve Been Too Busy”). And there are some good, tuneful songs here; the score is by a young Jerry Bock and George David Weiss. As for Davis, he’s so eager to show off his versatility — tapping, doing impersonations, hard-selling the hit song “Too Close for Comfort” — that he’s almost frantic. But it’s pleasing how little fuss is made about having a black leading couple (Davis-James), a white second couple (Marshall-Jack Carter), and making them all best friends. If you love the sound of boilerplate musical comedy from the Golden Age, here’s a Grade-A specimen. If not, downgrade the rating to three stars. — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1962 (Columbia/Sony) (1 / 5) Irving Berlin’s final show should have been a natural. It’s a look at a JFK-like First Family, with mild social satire and plenty of flag-waving. Unfortunately, from the listless opening fanfare to the desperate finale, it’s a bust. There’s scarcely a fresh idea in Mr. President, just a lot of recycling of old ones that were better executed by Berlin the first time: the latest dance craze (“The Washington Twist”), the contrapuntal duet (“Empty Pockets Filled With Love”), and the novelty number to wake up a drowsy Act II (“The Only Dance I Know”). In a nod to a song from Annie Get Your Gun, one character even announces, “The girl that I marry will have to be / Meat and potatoes, potatoes and meat like me.” (Huh?) Robert Ryan’s light tenor hardly conveys Chief Executive authority. As his First Lady, Nanette Fabray — always a pro — puts over “Let’s Go Back to the Waltz” and “They Love Me.” First Daughter Anita Gillette is fine in “The Secret Service.” The rest of the score is a major disappointment, and the Broadway talent delivering it has no chance against such feeble material. Not even Philip J. Lang’s orchestrations can spark the dispiriting arrangements; these songs just end. — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1954 (RCA/Stage Door) (1 / 5) Is it a musical, or a straight play with incidental songs? Mrs. Patterson was a hybrid oddity of the 1954-55 Broadway season. Having seen Eartha Kitt create a sensation in his revue New Faces of 1952, producer Leonard Sillman resolved to showcase the new star’s versatility in a role far from her kitten-fatale persona. The result — a play by Charles Sebree and Greer Johnson, with songs by James Shelton — was disappointing. The story of a young daydreamer, Mrs. Patterson ran for several months and was quickly forgotten, except for Kitt’s Tony nomination and this cast album. There are long dialogue patches that alternate with Shelton’s six songs, and while Kitt works hard to capture the voice and manner of a teen-aged innocent, the material is weak; the fey lyrics and wispy vocal lines of the songs seldom allow the star to have any fun. Ironically, the only number that’s at all striking (“I Wish I Was a Bumble Bee”) is sung not by Kitt, but by Helen Dowdy in the role of an over-the-hill blues singer. It’s highly unlikely that this show will ever turn up again onstage, so the cast album is a bona fide hothouse curiosity. For years, this recording was available on CD only as part of the five-disc boxed set Eartha Quake, from the Bear Family, but it was later packaged as a Stage Door CD that also includes the New Faces of 1956 cast album. — Richard Barrios
Studio Cast, 2002 (DRG) (4 / 5) A planned 2001 production of Jerry Herman’s Miss Spectacular in Las Vegas never materialized, but this concept recording is a doozy, featuring the kind of cast that any theatrical producer would have had to empty his and many others’ wallets to sign. Performing at their best are Debbie Gravitte, Michael Feinstein, Faith Prince, Christine Baranski, Karen Morrow, Davis Gaines, and Steve Lawrence; the last-named singer robustly delivers a paean to Las Vegas that cutely includes the names “Steve and Eydie.” The plot of the musical concerns Kansas expatriate Sarah Jane Hotchkiss, who has come to Vegas to enter a competition to be chosen as spokeswoman for the Spectacular Hotel, all the while remaining emotionally tied to the boy back home. Herman’s songs are on a par with the composer-lyricist’s best work. Not only is there a banjo-heavy anthem called “Sarah Jane” to rank with the title songs “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame,” there’s also a love song, “No Other Music,” that’s one of Herman’s finest ballads; happily, it gets a perfect reading by the great Morrow. Feinstein beautifully delivers the lush “Ziegfeld Girl,” a tribute to showgirl pulchritude. An 18-member chorus and a large orchestra are conducted by the redoubtable veteran Donald Pippin, who also did the vocal arrangements; Larry Blank provided the string-and brass-prominent orchestrations. The plot of Miss Spectacular isn’t a world-beater, so this recording may well turn out to be the best-ever realization of the piece. — David Finkle
Original London Cast, 1989 (Geffen, 2CDs) No stars; not recommended. As was the case with The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, its equally cheap predecessors, Miss Saigon was brought into the world by people who followed a crooked path to enormous popular and financial (but not artistic) success: Create a stage musical based on a story that has been beloved for generations and, with the help of shrewd marketing, it will run for years — even if the adaptation is third-rate, or worse. The plot of Miss Saigon is based on that of the Puccini opera Madama Butterfly, with the action reset at the time of the Vietnam War. But the Claude-Michel Schönberg-Alain Boublil show built around that brilliant idea has one of the most impoverished scores ever contrived for the musical theater, and one that includes some dicey borrowings by composer Schönberg; for instance, “Why, God, Why?” begins with a beautiful tune that was originally written by Richard Rodgers for “There’s a Small Hotel.” The Francophone librettist Boublil’s collaboration with Richard Maltby, Jr. yielded lyrics that are awkwardly phrased to the point of semi-literacy. (A few examples among dozens: “God, the tension is high, not to mention the smell,” “My parents got themselves killed in the week you changed sides,” and “You must decide upon which side you’re really on.” ) The song “Movie in My Mind” illustrates the chasm between the creators’ goals and their abilities: The idea of the Vietnamese prostitutes imagining an alternate reality in order to bear the selling of their bodies is interesting, but the music and lyrics are utterly pedestrian. Although it’s difficult to identify the nadir of the score, one good candidate is “Bui Doi,” a shamelessly manipulative plea on behalf of children sired by American servicemen and left behind in Vietnam; at least experiencing Miss Saigon via audio recording spares one having to view the tasteless film that was projected onstage during this sequence. Listeners are also spared the spectacle of the completely Caucasian-looking and British-sounding Jonathan Pryce in the role of the Engineer, a reprehensible Eurasian pimp, but Pryce is badly miscast even from an aural standpoint. On the plus side, Lea Salonga sounds lovely and winsome as Kim. Simon Bowman as her lover, Chris, sings well but doesn’t sound American, which is a problem in terms of the plot. — Michael Portantiere
Studio Cast, 1995 (Angel, 2CDs) No stars; not recommended. The CD booklet notes assure us that there was much more to the success of Miss Saigon than the stunning onstage simulation of the landing and takeoff of a helicopter. Yet this recording begins with the whirring of chopper blades, as if to admit: “Yes, that special effect is what most people will remember about the show.” Billed as a “complete recording,” it includes revisions of the score that were made following the London production. The cast, drawn from several of the show’s worldwide productions, is backed by a huge orchestra. Joanna Ampil’s Kim is very much in the Lea Salonga mold, which is a good thing. The partly Asian Kevin Gray brings credibility to the role of the Engineer, but even he can’t triumph over such dreck as “The American Dream,” a hit-them-over-the-head number in which the title phrase is repeated 18 times. Like his recorded predecessor in the role of Chris, Peter Cousens, from the Sydney company, has a fine voice but is unable to sound convincingly American. Hinton Battle sings John’s “Bui Doi” for all it’s worth, which is very little, and the thankless role of Ellen is well handled by Ruthie Henshall. The orchestra, conducted by David Charles Abell, plays beautifully, and the sound quality of the recording is superb, but it’s all in service of a score that, unsurprisingly, seems to have had no staying power whatsoever outside of the show itself. — M.P.
London Cast, 2014 (Verve, 2CDs) No stars; not recommended. Can the phrase “diminishing returns” be applied to the third cast album of a show when its score is virtually worthless to begin with? This is arrogantly billed as the “definitive recording” of Miss Saigon, and it’s probably best to leave it to fans of the show to decide whether or not they agree with that assessment. Many of the lyrics were rewritten for this 25th anniversary production, but not necessarily for the better. Some of the new lyrics do improve at least somewhat on the horrendous grammar of the originals, but the main impetus for the rewrites seems to have been to make the show more graphic in terms of sex and grit — so much so that this live recording bears an “explicit lyrics” warning. (Example, “If I’m your pin-up, I’ll melt all your brass, stuck on your ball with a pin in my ass.” Seriously.) As for the cast, Jon Jon Briones is an appropriately oily Engineer; Eva Noblezada’s voice is capable of sweetness and power as necessary; and Alistair Brammer has a lovely, lyrical tenor, plus he’s the only recorded Chris who sounds convincingly American rather than British. (Note: After its run at the Prince Edward Theatre in London, this production transferred to Broadway, and Briones won a Tony Award for his performance. A high quality video of the production, captured in London, is also available for those who have any interest in such an item.) — M.P.
Original Broadway Cast, 1949 (Columbia/Sony) (2 / 5) Irving Berlin’s highly anticipated follow-up to Annie Get Your Gun was one of those can’t-miss packages that missed. It had thick postwar nostalgia, Jerome Robbins choreography, direction by Moss Hart, sets by Oliver Smith, and a book by the distinguished playwright Robert E. Sherwood. The plot is slight: Reporter travels to 1885 Paris to interview Bartholdi’s model for the Statue of Liberty, bags the wrong girl, and hilarious complications ensue. Apparently, one of the show’s problems was that audiences rooted for the reporter to end up with his American girlfriend, not the jeune fllle who ultimately lands him. But the real trouble may have been the unexciting principals and Berlin’s lackluster score. Eddie Albert, a Broadway pro by 1949, was capable but hardly one to set a stage ablaze. The girls fighting for his affections, Allyn Ann McLerie and Mary McCarty, were promising young talents, the former more a dancer than a singer (Exhibit A: her high notes in “Just One Way to Say I Love You”) and the latter an ideal best-pal sort overselling middling material. Berlin packs some good foreign-relations jabs into “Only for Americans,” and the show’s finale, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” has the required dignity, although McLerie’s thin soprano undercuts it somewhat. Otherwise, the album is interesting as a document of how deeply ingrained sexism was in 1949. In “Homework,” career gal McCarty admits that her real dream is “Staying / At home and crocheting / And meekly obeying / The guy who comes home.” In “You Can Have Him,” she says that her greatest desire is to “give him babies, one for every year.” Sheesh! — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1970 (Project 3) (2 / 5) “Good MORN-ing, ladies!!” Shelley Winters’ entrance line in this musical biography of the Marx Brothers and their indomitable mother is brayed rather than spoken, and most of her subsequent readings on this shrill cast album are snorted rather than sung. Winters had sung before –she was a replacement Ado Annie in the original Oklahoma! — but she’s hoarse here, and more pushy than the role requires. The part, a Mama Rose lite without subtext or character growth, ultimately defeats the star. Other components of this Larry Grossman-Hal Hackady work, their first for Broadway aside from a couple of revue songs, are tuneful if frequently mired in showbiz cliché: Harpo’s (Daniel Fortus’s) love ballad to his mother, “Mama, a Rainbow”; a wry brothers’ lament, “Where Was I When They Passed Out Luck?”; and father Frenchie’s (Arny Freeman’s) torch song “Empty,” cut before opening night but included here. A duet between Lewis J. Stadlen as Groucho and Julie Kurnitz as a Margaret Dumont type is glorious, and an ambitious finale depicting the progression of the brothers’ characters gets an “A” for effort. But the score lacks a certain something, and it’s not well supported by garish orchestrations that are, shockingly, the work of the great Ralph Burns. — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1961 (RCA) (3 / 5) Jerry Herman’s first Broadway score is surely one of his best, an atmosphere-soaked tour through contemporary Israel in service of a tired soap opera plot. At age 30, Herman was already a melody master. Note his gift for well-judged production numbers (the minor/major-key intricacies of “Independence Day Hora”), stirring title songs (dancer-singer Tommy Rall delivers this one with vigor), 11-o’clock showstoppers (“Hymn to Hymie,” with Molly Picon socking across a funny lyric), and warmly appealing ballads (the ardent, chromatic “There’s No Reason in the World”). The orchestrations, by Eddie Sauter and Hershy Kay, are more interesting than those that Herman’s scores generally commanded — even his bigger hits. Robert Weede, fresh from The Most Happy Fella, could still play an aging romantic lead with the best of them. Unfortunately, this time he has less to play off of; leading lady Mimi Benzell is vocally precise but terminally dull, and she doesn’t let her hair down even when the lyrics demand it. The whole album feels a little hurried, incomplete, and short on dance interludes. But Herman comes out swinging: The opening number, “Shalom,” announces an extremely promising Broadway songwriter. That was this score’s hit song, but there’s plenty more to appreciate here. — Marc Miller