Original Broadway Cast, 2008 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) Passing Strange is the semi-autobiographical work of singer/songwriter Stew, co-written with his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald. The story follows Youth, a young black man played by an explosive Daniel Breaker. Anxious to be an artist and eager to search for what’s real in the world, Youth leaves behind his life of comfort in a California suburb for the exoticism of Europe. In doing so, he ends up cutting ties with everyone in his life — including his loving if not completely understanding mother, a role sung with warmth by Eisa Davis. On stage, Passing Strange was a highly energetic experience for audiences, but also a divisive one. This cast album, recorded live at the Belasco Theatre where the show played, will most likely prove divisive as well. First time listeners may be confused: There is very little dialogue between songs, leaving major gaps in the plot, and the method of the storytelling constantly changes so that characters either sing to each other, about each other, or from the point of view of the Narrator (played by Stew), often within the same song. However, to dismiss Passing Strange because of its non-traditional structure and its difficulty to categorize would be to ignore everything else that the show and this album have to offer. Stew and Rodewald’s music, which they also orchestrated, pulsates with creativity and spirit, whether permeating the air with soothing, lilting ballads such as“Keys (Marianna)” and “Come Down Now” or working up a sweat in “Keys (It’s Alright)” and “Mom Song.” As for Stew’s lyrics, they are artfully crafted while also conveying real emotion and conflict. Before the Broadway production of Passing Strange closed, Spike Lee filmed it; that film can be sought out by anyone who would like a more comprehensive understanding of the piece, and it also allows a greater appreciation of the work of the phenomenal cast. But even on stage, Passing Strange was less concerned with the details of its story than with the emotional potency of its journey. Perhaps if neophytes approached the recording as more of a pop/rock concept album, like Tommy or Jesus Christ Superstar, they’d have a clearer idea of what to expect from this highly creative work. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Broadway Records) (4 / 5) The Prom might be described as an old-fashioned musical comedy with a modern sound and up-to-the minute subject matter and plot, about a bunch of vain, self-absorbed, New York theater types who become Social Justice Warriors when they hear that an Indiana high school prom has been canceled to prevent a lesbian student from attending with her girlfriend. The show’s book (by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin) and score (lyrics by Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar) offer much hilarity, plus several moments of heartfelt sentiment, as the NYC peeps head to Indiana to try to make everything right. The culture- and ideology-clash results are truly funny through most of the action, yet the show carries a powerful and moving message about inclusiveness. As was the case with the Sklar-Beguelin scores for The Wedding Singer and Elf, the team again provides a clutch of songs notable for pleasing melodies, clever lyrics, and irresistibly catchy “hooks” — such as the sung phrases “One thing’s universal, life’s no dress rehearsal” in “Tonight Belongs to You” and “Build a prom for everyone, show them all it can be done” in “It’s Time to Dance.” As for the ballads, give a listen to “Unruly Heart” and “Dance With You” if you wish to enjoy songwriting of very high quality. The cast is top-notch, with musical comedians Beth Leavel, Brooks Ashmanskas, Angie Schworer, Christopher Sieber, and Josh Lamon all brilliant as the visitors from Broadway, while Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla bring real emotional weight to the relationship of the two girls at the center of the controversy. — Michael Portantiere
Film Soundtrack, 2007 (Columbia) (4 / 5) This is the deservedly popular soundtrack album of a gorgeously bittersweet indie film, set in Dublin, about the brief but intense romance and songwriting partnership of an Irish busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova). Their love affair ends due to other entanglements, but not before they record a demo together — and he buys her a piano as a parting gift. However close to real life the events and characters of the story may or may not be, the whole thing is lent a wonderful air of authenticity by the fact that all of the songs heard in the film and on the recording were written and performed by Hansard and Irglova. The gentle, simple, almost hypnotically lovely ballad “Falling Slowly” was the movie’s big hit, charting in Ireland, Canada, the U.S. and Brazil, and winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But there are several other delights here, such as “Say It To Me Now,” “Leave,” and the deliciously quirky “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy.” (The Hansard character repairs vacuum cleaners to earn a living.) This recording is eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable in its own right, aside from its interest as the soundtrack of a film that served as the basis for one of the most unexpected Broadway musical hits of its era. – Michael Portantiere
Original Broadway Cast, 2012 (Masterworks Broadway) (4 / 5) It probably never occurred to most fans of the film that a stage musical version of Once would ever be created or that it would be successful anywhere, let alone on Broadway, which generally tends to traffic in larger, faster-paced, less subtle entertainments. But the brief-candle romance of the lovers at the center of the story is potent enough that one could envision such a musical connecting with audiences if pains were taken to assure that the intimacy of the piece was retained. Which is exactly what happened. With a book by Enda Walsh (based on the screenplay by John Carney) and a score comprised almost entirely of the Hansard-Irglova songs from the movie, Once premiered at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, MA in 2011 before transferring to the New York Theatre Workshop and then to Broadway, where it collected a bunch of 2012 Tony Awards — including Best Musical — and achieved a three-year run. Among the several wise decisions made in adapting the film to the stage were Bob Crowley’s unit set design, which created the feel of a homey Irish pub; and the fact that the cast also served as the onstage orchestra. Steve Kazee as “Guy” is a real charmer in these songs, sounding far more comfortable with this style of music than that of his previous big Broadway lead, Starbuck in 110 in the Shade. He and Cristin Milioti as “Girl” make beautiful music together in “Falling Slowly,” “If You Want Me,” and “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” She also does a persuasive job with “The Hill,” though some may find her rather thick Czech accent a bit distracting on repeated listening. The ensemble of actors/musicians includes familiar names such as as David Patrick Kelly and Anne L. Nathan, along with some super-talented newcomers. Cheers to them as well as to director John Tiffany and musical supervisor Martin Lowe for not radically changing or distorting Once in the stage transfer. – MP
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2016 (Ghostlight) (3 / 5) Here’s a musical comedy about the porn industry, created by the New York-based theater company The Civilians, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Fortress of Solitude, Love’s Labours Lost) and a book by Bess Wohl. One of the best things about the show is its title, which strikes just the right tone of light humor and sweet naughtiness that’s skillfully maintained almost throughout the proceedings, despite the fact that so much of the content is, indeed, pretty filthy. Song titles include “Waiting for Wood,” “Fuck The World,” and “Squirting 101,” and here’s a sample lyric from the opening number: “Most girls give blowjobs to guys they barely know at college parties.” Although the controversial “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label is not affixed to this recording, it applies in spades — but honestly, why would anyone who decides to purchase the cast album of a show about “adult entertainment” expect anything else? Some of the melodies Friedman created for this unusual project are very tuneful, but a salient feature of the show — some would say its main problem — is that many of the quotes of the porn actors, directors, and producers seem to have been set to music practically verbatim, with only a little modification and a few rhymes and repetitions thrown in to make them more lyric-like. As a result, significant stretches of the score sound prosaic, and often there’s a sense of too many words having been crammed into each measure of music. Still, there’s a lot of illicit, edgy fun to be had here, thanks in no small part to the perfectly gauged performances of a talented cast: John Behlmann as “Fredo/Jimmy Wood,” Lulu Fall as “Dana,” Alyse Alan Louis as “Becky/Taylor,” Luba Mason as “Georgina Congress,” Maria-Christina Oliveras as “Carrie/Holly Donovan,” Steve Rosen as “Sam Speigel/Jeff/Oscar Gerhard,” Marrick Smith as “Bobby/Dick,” and Jared Zirilli as “Nick Harding.” — Michael Portantiere
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 1992 (Walt Disney) (2 / 5) Listening to the soundtrack recording of this 1992 movie that starred a young Christian Bale (well before his days headlining much darker films) and Ann-Margret (an ever-alluring presence on screen and disc), you’d be hard-pressed to understand how it might ever be transformed into a Tony-nominated stage musical. Yes, there are small glimmers of terrific music by Alan Menken and clever lyrics by Jack Feldman, notably in such songs as “Santa Fe” and “The World Will Know.” For the most part, however, everything here feels and sounds overblown and forced, from the performers’ exaggerated “Noo Yawk” accents to the often thundering orchestrations provided by Thomas Pasatieri and Danny Troob, the latter of whom would go on to do some marvelous work for the Broadway incarnation of the tuner. Newsies was actually a flop when originally released to theaters, and only later gained great popularity through home video. For completists (and Ann-Margret fans), there are a couple of numbers, “My Lovey-Dovey Baby” and “High Times, Hard Times,” which didn’t make it to Broadway. And for the generation that fell in love with musicals because of this movie, the soundtrack recording remains something to be cherished. For everyone else, though, it’s best to stick with the Broadway cast album. — Andy Propst
Original Broadway Cast, 2012 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) Alan Menken employs a semi-period, semi-contemporary musical vocabulary for this stage version of the 1992 Disney film of the same title, to terrific effect, and Jack Feldman’s lyrics have a verve and wit that match the melodies beautifully. For those who grew up on the film about a newsboys’ strike against newspaper owner Joseph Pulitzer, the Broadway cast recording has most of the songs that they loved from the movie score, including the soaring “Santa Fe” and the rousing anthem “Seize the Day,” plus a large handful of new ones written specifically for the stage show. Something else this album has that the film soundtrack doesn’t is the enormously appealing presence of Jeremy Jordan, who, beyond sounding terrific from a musical/vocal standpoint, brings a great balance of streetwise toughness and vulnerability to his portrayal of the strikers’ leader, Jack Kelly. Other fine work includes Kara Lindsay’s smartly pert performance as a girl reporter who becomes Jack’s love interest, and Capathia Jenkins’ saucy turn as a music hall performer. The odd thing about the recording is that the show’s big dance numbers appear twice — once each in truncated form, then again as bonus tracks in full versions with dance breaks that feature Mark Himmel’s arrangements, excitingly orchestrated by Danny Troob. Having the complete tracks at the end of the album means that listeners who want to get a full sense of the show, or to re-experience what they saw in the theater, have to set up a special playlist with the proper run order. It’s cumbersome, and it ultimately detracts from the recording’s ability to genuinely communicate the thrill that live audiences got from this sleeper hit. — A.P.
Original Broadway Cast, 2009 (Sh-K-Boom) (5 / 5) If Spring Awakening marked the successful comeback of the original pop/rock musical theater score, then Next to Normal helped insure its future. Part of the reason for the show’s success is that, despite its vibrant energy, it’s a very intimate piece that wears its large heart earnestly on its sleeve. The musical tells of the inner turmoil of a suburban family due to the mental instability of the mother, Diana, who has struggled with bipolar disorder ever since a traumatizing event years earlier: Her son, Gabe, whom she still imagines to be present, died when he was a baby. Although the plot at times borders on being that of a Lifetime Movie, the smart, pulsating score, given a crisp representation on this recording, keeps Next to Normal fresh and inventive. Brian Yorkey’s lyrics are strong and well defined, often bringing a touch of humor to cut the tension in the plot (for example, “My Psychopharmacologist and I”). Tom Kitt composed a score with both fire (“You Don’t Know,” “Didn’t I See This Movie”) and sweet sadness (“I Miss the Mountains”) that he orchestrated excellently with Michael Starobin, making the work electric yet still inherently theatrical. The cast, on the whole, is excellent. Alice Ripley tears into the role of Diana with an abandon that’s fearless, thrilling and at times unnerving. Occasionally, the performer seems so at one with the part that you might fear she won’t even make it to the end of the number — but she always does. J. Robert Spencer is very moving as the silently suffering husband, Dan, and so is Jennifer Damiano as daughter Natalie. Because of the surprises in the plot, listeners who haven’t seen the show will find it especially important to read the synopsis included in the CD booklet in order to make full sense of the story and songs such as “I’m Alive” and “There’s a World,” both sung by Gabe (Aaron Tveit). But they’ll have no problem understanding the emotional potency of each song. — Matt Koplik
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2013 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) Some musical theater writers have had great difficulty adapting epic, classic novels for the stage: Doctor Zhivago, Jane Eyre, East of Eden, etc. The trouble is, how do you sing a thousand pages or so in two and half hours (or even three hours) without rushing through the story and shortchanging the emotional gravity of the characters? In adapting Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a musical, writer/performer Dave Malloy chose to solve this problem by focusing on a single chapter of the huge novel and expanding it, rather than attempting to condense the entire work. The result is Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, one of the most fascinating and fulfilling scores in recent years. Malloy’s music weaves an elaborate tapestry of wildly varied colors and styles, with influences ranging from Rachmaninoff to ’80s club beats and including everything in between. Songs like the beautiful “No One Else,” the pulsating “Balaga,” or the intense “In My House” couldn’t be more different from each other in many ways — and yet, thanks to Malloy’s smart storytelling and endlessly inventive orchestrations, they all seem part of one score and one vision. As a lyricist, Malloy is quite good, if not as audaciously adventurous as he is musically. His lyrics flexibly move from recitative to poetically mystical musings to characters singing their own stage directions (examples: “Anatole followed in his usual jaunty step,” “I blush happily”). Malloy is also smart enough to know when to directly quote Tolstoy’s vivid prose, and indeed, that’s when the lyrics are at their best. The cast, headed by a pre-Hamilton Phillipa Soo as Natasha and Malloy as Pierre, is fantastic. They craftily embody Tolstoy’s characters with the contemporary spin Malloy has written for them. Soo, in particular, leads the way with a performance that’s stunning in its vocal beauty and non-cloying innocence. Natasha, Pierre enjoyed a successful run Off-Broadway (the basis of this recording) and, after a few false starts, finally came Broadway in the fall of 2016. The Great White Way is more exciting for it. (See review below.) — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 1974 (Columbia /Sony) (3 / 5) Designed to do for the 1940s what Grease did for the 1950s, Over Here! is a supremely silly tale of romance and espionage on a cross-country train loaded with volunteers, war workers, and Nazi sympathizers. It was a vehicle for the two surviving Andrews Sisters, Patty and Maxene. The score, by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, is a pastiche of the period’s hit parade; you’ll hear echoes if not actual excerpts of”Take the ‘A’ Train,” “The Beer Barrel Polka,” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” among other songs. It’s all good fun, thanks to the Andrewses, a very strong supporting cast, and electrifying orchestrations by Michael Gibson and Jim Tyler that create an irresistible, big-band frenzy. The opening ballad, “Since You’re Not Around,” strikes the right note of agreeable nostalgia; then April Shawhan and John Driver score with “My Dream for Tomorrow.” The surprisingly tough-minded “Don’t Shoot the Hooey to Me, Louie,” delivered by Samuel E. Wright, touches on the period’s racism. Janie Sell amusingly spoofs Marlene Dietrich in “Wait for Me, Marlena,” and the young John Travolta is smooth as silk in “Dream Drummin’.” The Andrews gals are ebullient in such numbers as “The Big Beat,” “We Got It!” and the title tune. Most of their solos are also effective, but you’ll weep for Patty when she is forced to deliver the sex-hygiene number “The Good-Time Girl,” in which she urges soldiers to avoid “The VD Polka” (“The enemy can sock us / By spreading gonococcus”). Note that the incredible supporting cast of Over Here! included Ann Reinking, Treat Williams, and Marilu Henner, none of whom are heard on this recording in any recognizable way. — David Barbour
Original Broadway Cast, 1950 (Columbia/Sony) (4 / 5) For Out of This World, a modern-day retelling of the Amphitryon legend, Cole Porter produced a gorgeous score. Unfortunately, it was tied to an unwieldy book that worked too hard to substitute dirty jokes for real wit. Despite a lush production, direction by Agnes de Mille, and the Broadway return of the beloved musical comedian Charlotte Greenwood, the show managed only a four-month run. The songs are so great, and the premise so enticing, that there have been a few subsequent attempts to shore up that messy script. Still, the strength of this show lies in its songs. As Juno, Greenwood is wonderful; while the album can’t deliver her high kicks, it does preserve her ringingly funny way with a lyric. William Redfield is competent as Mercury, zipping with ease through the risqué “list” song “They Couldn’t Compare to You,” but the rest of the casting is uneven. George Jongeyans (later Gaynes) is a wobbly Jupiter. Priscilla Gillette’s voice has sufficient firmness for “Use Your Imagination,” but the vocal inadequacies of her vis-a-vis in the show, William Eyrhe, led to the deletion of the score’s best song: “From This Moment On.” In short, this was one unlucky show, but Porter at his near-best is more than ample compensation for the cast album’s disappointments. — Richard Barrios
Encores! Concert Cast, 1995 (DRG) (4 / 5) Out of This World was obvious fodder for a big-league concert performance that could spotlight the songs and stars and elide the worst parts of the script. So it was that the New York City Center Encores! series tackled Cole Porter’s problematic Greco-Roman extravaganza in 1995. The recording that resulted doesn’t always compare favorably with the original Broadway album, but some aspects of it are clearly better and, overall, it’s sheer bliss. Happily, the star at its center is up to her assignment: Andrea Martin is just terrific, especially in her rendition of “I Sleep Easier Now.” For the most part, Ken Page is strong if a dash overbearing as Jupiter; the character should be loud, but there’s always room for shading, isn’t there? In other roles, Marin Mazzie and La Chanze are outstanding, both singing with beauty and spirit. “From This Moment On” is back, and Mazzie and Gregg Edelman do a very good job with it. Peter Scolari is fine as Mercury, Ernie Sabella is a scrappily funny gangster, and Rob Fisher’s Coffee Club Orchestra plays with its customary class. — R.B.