Original Broadway Cast, 2014 (UMe) (3 / 5) Rocky finds Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty writing to order. At the center of this adaptation are two songs, from the film on which the musical is based and one of its sequels, that A&F had nothing to do with creating — ”Gonna Fly Now” (the iconic Rocky theme) and “Eye of the Tiger” (a big hit from Rocky III) — and the rest of the score seems forced to coalesce around those famous workout anthems. Most of the songs about boxing are undistinguished and indistinguishable from one another, recalling the film soundtracks as best they can. It’s a small miracle, then, that Ahrens and Flaherty, carve out space for a lovely collection of other songs charting the tenderly tentative relationship of the down-on-his-luck boxer Rocky Balboa (Andy Karl) and the traumatized Adrian (Margo Seibert). As heard on the cast album, Seibert is stunning in the brief self-empowerment ballad “I’m Done,” and the pair are sweetly hesitant in the skating rink waltz “The Flip Side.” A&F gave themselves an additional challenge in writing so much material for the under-educated and semi-literate Rocky; for example, the halting “Adrian” feelingly showcases the pair’s gifts at writing for specific characters as it tests the limits of the protagonist’s verbal self-expression. Best of all, though, is Adrian’s “Raining,” one of Ahrens’ most haunting lyrics set to a surging, churning melody, tinged with electric guitar licks, that sounds unlike anything else Flaherty has penned. Too often, this score treads water until the next training montage, but with so much distraction in the ring, credit the writers with landing at least one knockout punch. — Dan Rubins
Category Archives: Q-S
A Strange Loop
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2019 (Yellow Sound) (4 / 5) How to describe A Strange Loop, the Pulitzer-Prize winning musical that gets its title from both a cognitive science term and a Liz Phair song? It’s messy, it’s brilliant, and every theater fan should pay attention to it. Written by Michael R. Jackson, this semi-autobiographical work has no structured plot and is chock-full of content so gleefully explicit, and often discomforting, that it makes shows like Spring Awakening and Book of Mormon look like after-school specials. The show focuses on Usher (Larry Owens), a self-described “fat, black and queer” aspiring musical theater writer who’s working on his newest musical — which also happens to be called “A Strange Loop” and just so happens to be about a fat, black, queer musical theater writer who’s writing a musical about a fat, black, queer musical theater writer. As he struggles with the creative process, Usher wonders if his lack of success as a writer and in acquiring a romantic partner is due to the cruelty and prejudice of the entertainment industry and the world at large, or due to his own trauma and lack of self worth. Jackson uses the musical as a large canvas to explore these and other matters with humor, humanity, and brutal honesty. Songs such as “Exile in Gayville” and “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life” include enough vulgarity and confrontation to put off many listeners, but Jackson’s lyrics are concise, intelligent, and razor-sharp. While his music is not quite so bold, and he sometimes doesn’t end his songs effectively, he has written a melodic, multi-faceted score with tight vocal arrangements (by Jackson) and flexible orchestrations (by Charlie Rosen). The ensemble is made up of Usher’s six main Thoughts, vocalizing his inner demons as well as all of the people in his life — family, agents, even pillars of Black American history. All of the performers heard here as the Thoughts are exceptional, but it’s Owens who commands the recording. His Usher is a ball of flaming, dramatic chaos, thrilling and terrifying. His expressive voice powers through the score, constantly fighting to stay afloat until it softly lands to safety towards the end in “Memory Song.” Owens also turns “Writing a Gospel Play,” in which Usher barely hides his contempt at concocting a script for Tyler Perry, into a comedic tour-de-force. A Strange Loop is not a show or cast album that can be recommended to everyone; it refuses to pander with vague affirmations or self-empowering anthems, and it’s all the more interesting for that reason. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2022 (Ghostlight/Yellow Sound) (3 / 5) Despite A Strange Loop having had a sold-out run Off-Broadway, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and sweeping all other eligible awards during its season, a transfer to Broadway was not a foregone conclusion. The musical was always going to be a hard sell to a mainstream audience, and the big question for fans of Jackson’s work was: If there is a transfer, will the creative team make any alterations to render the abrasive material more palatable? The answer, as evidenced by this new cast recording, is mostly “no.” A few of the rougher edges have been smoothed over, as in “Inwood Daddy,” but even a slightly toned-down Loop is more shocking and confrontational than 99% of shows that land on Broadway. Some of Jackson’s rewrites make certain lyrics slightly more clear to the audience, though not necessarily easier to take. Where the Broadway transfer and the resulting album lose a great deal of power are in the sound design and the new central performance; the second recording sounds mushier and more echo-y than the first one, making many of the lyrics difficult to decipher, while some of the voices are imbalanced and poorly blended. And although Jaquel Spivey brings pop panache and vocal ease to the role of Usher, his performance is less expressive and explosive than Owens’. This Usher feels more controlled and tempered, which ultimately dilutes the power of the piece. Still, Spivey is vocally well qualified for the role, and some listeners might prefer him to Owens in that regard. A Strange Loop went on to garner more critical acclaim for its Broadway bow, winning the Tony for Best Musical in 2022, though it has continued to struggle at the box office even after earning that honor. This recording is a strong representation of why the show deserves its accolades, even as it also displays what was lost in the move to Broadway. — M.K.
Original Broadway Cast, 2022 (6 Music Ltd.) (4 / 5) Recorded live on opening night of the Broadway production of SIX, this album captures the show’s fervent energy and the score’s dramatic meat when it’s put in the hands of six smart and talented singing actresses. The crowd’s hyper-energetic response to “Ex-Wives”at the start may be overwhelming or frustrating for some listeners, but given that SIX’s opening was delayed for 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that response is understandable. Thereafter, the album focuses primarily on the performers, starting with Adrianna Hicks salivating over the Beyonce-inspired “No Way” and moving on non-stop from there. Each singing actress delivers in the pop/R&B style of the score while also infusing these songs with spice and personality. Andrea Masceat fills “Don’t Lose Ur Head” with “Ain’t I a stinker?” attitude, while Abby Mueller communicates pain through each melisma in “Heart of Stone.” Then there’s Brittney Mack delightfully showing off in “Get Down” and Samantha Pauly blending trauma with Ariana Grande-style power belting in “All You Wanna Do,” finally capped by Anna Uzele bringing cool and calm to “I Don’t Need Your Love.” The album includes pieces of dialogue to help string the songs together, and some extra music is included, making this a more complete representation of the score than the studio cast recording. SIX isn’t for everyone, but if you have a friend who’s on the fence about giving Marlow and Moss’ Gen Z song cycle a chance, this is the album to lend them. — M.K.
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2017 (DRG) (5 / 5) Of course, you knew Gerard Alessandrini wasn’t going to leave Hamilton alone, but who would have predicted this? It’s a whole evening of Revolutionary spoofery, punctuated by multiple Forbidden Broadway-like riffs on other shows and stars of the day. And it works spectacularly well. Alessandrini’s engaging liner notes reveal his insecurity about learning to write rap and hip-hop, yet he appears to have mastered those forms thoroughly, betraying a show-tune sensibility only through his preciser-than-Lin-Manuel rhyming: “I’m getting nervouser, Sir/ Be terser in your verse, Sir/ You’re no Johnny Mercer.” After the briefest of full-orchestra intros, the music’s in the hands of Forbidden Broadway vet Fred Barton at the piano, and he supports one of the best casts Alessandrini was ever blessed with. How they manage to clearly utter every rapidly passing syllable, and land every joke, is a miracle. As Hamilton, Dan Rosales is Lin-Manuel Miranda with more voice. Chris Anthony Giles and Nicholas Edwards serve up wicked parodies of Leslie Odom, Jr. and Daveed Diggs. Glenn Bassett is King George in “Straight is Back,” Juwan Crawley plays all of the other guys, and in the women’s roles, Nora Schell is simply amazing; she transitions expertly and rapidly between Renée Elise Goldsberry and Philippa Soo with laser accuracy, also serving up delicious Bernadette and Audra cameos. (Her Barbra isn’t quite there yet.) Even Christine Pedi’s beloved Liza turns up for a funny “Down With Rap” turn. With virtually the entire Hamilton score lampooned, plus side trips into astute 2017 Broadway commentary and some outrageous musical-hybrid moments (An American Psycho in Paris, The Lion King and I), this album’s a nonstop party. — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 2019 (Sony Masterworks Broadway) (4 / 5) First, a few words of explanation: The show that yielded this cast album opened Off-Broadway at the New York Theatre Workshop in December 2019. It was announced for a Broadway transfer even before the NYTW run ended — but then the COVID-19 crisis that began in the spring of 2020 scuttled those plans, indefinitely closing all theaters in New York City (and pretty much throughout the world). So even though this album literally has “Broadway” written all over it, we have no way of knowing at this writing if Sing Street will ever make it to The Street. At any rate, the show has a wonderfully infectious score, here preserved as one of the most compulsively listenable cast recordings in recent memory; and since all of the performers heard on the album were officially cast in the Broadway transfer of the show, the “Original Broadway Cast” designation is arguably not inaccurate. Based on a 2016 coming-of-age film set in Dublin in 1982, the musical features a generous handful of terrific songs that were originally written by Gary Clark and John Carney for that sweet indie flick, plus some new material. The opening track, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” gives us a happy hint that we’re going to be hearing lots of catchy up-tunes crafted in ’80s-rock style, with irresistible hooks. That certainly turns out to be true, as with such other cuts as “Drive It Like You Stole It,” “Brown Shoes,” “A Beautiful Sea,” and “Girls,” but there are also some lovely ballads (“Dream for You,” “Go Now”). Brenock O’Connor, in the central role of schoolboy/aspiring rock star Conor Lawlor, does a fine, authentic-sounding job with much of the solo singing on the album, and there are also worthy contributions from Zara Devlin as Raphina, a young model on whom Conor develops a major crush; Martin Moran as the authoritarian Brother Baxter; and Gus Halper as Conor’s troubled brother, Brendan (he does a beautiful job with “Go Now”). One of the best songs in the score, “Up,” is heard in two different versions — ballad and up-tempo, both highly enjoyable. At the end of the show, Conor leaves his family and his band to go with Raphina off to London, where they will seek their fortunes. Here’s hoping that the future will be bright for them and for this charming, affecting, lovable little musical. — M.P.
School of Rock
Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (Warner Bros.) (3 / 5) Andrew Lloyd Webber found his greatest commercial success in the era of the British pop-opera blockbusters, so it’s easy to forget that he first made his mark in the musical theater world by using pop/rock music to groundbreaking effect in his scores for Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Which leads us to School of Rock, the first new Webber score to come to Broadway in a decade. Based on the 2003 film of the same title, starring Jack Black, the show tells of Dewey (Alex Brightman), a directionless man-child and rock and roll devotee who forms his own rock band with the children of a prestigious prep school where he has recently been working as a substitute teacher under false pretenses. While the score isn’t of the same quality as Evita or Superstar, partly due to Glenn Slater’s no more than serviceable lyrics, it’s certainly the most inventive and fun Webber’s been in years. As Dewey, Brightman has the same likeable charm Black offered on screen, as well as an exciting rock voice that’s up to the difficult demands of the role (a hallmark of Webber’s writing). As the school’s stern headmistress, Sierra Boggess is less successful, proving effective in classical moments such as her short snippet of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria, but unable to negotiate her polished soprano around the contemporary elements of her breakout ballad, “Where Did the Rock Go.” The score is not a complete triumph for Webber; on the one hand, when Dewey and his students finally come together to create their band’s sound in the numbers “You’re in the Band” and “Stick it to the Man,” you can practically hear Webber’s giddiness, but in “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” and “Children of Rock,” the composer goes overboard from the start, and the songs never have a chance to build. Note: School of Rock was recorded before the show began Broadway performances, and certain aspects of the cast album do not reflect the score as it is now. Most notably, “Give Up Your Dreams,” an unfunny anthem (though well performed by Mamie Parris), was cut in previews but is included here, along with a few bonus tracks at the end. — Matt Koplik
Rothschild and Sons
Off Broadway Cast, 2016 (Jay Records) (3 / 5) Here is a major revisal of the 1970 musical The Rothschilds, cut down to one-act and including several previously unheard Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick songs, plus some revisions by Harnick. The romance for son Nathan and the big ensemble numbers are gone, and the political leaders’ roles have been trimmed. The cast totals 11, compared to more than 30 on Broadway; when Mayer Rothschild (Robert Cuccioli) sings a shortened version of “He Tossed a Coin,” it’s clear that the Frankfurt fair isn’t crowded. Joseph Church has reorchestrated the score for four players, compared to Don Walker’s sumptuous originals. What if anything in this York Theatre Company production compensates for the loss of size and spectacle of the original? Lyricist Harnick and librettist Sherman Yellen (composer Bock died in 2010) had long wanted to refocus the story on the Rothschild family and less on the sprawling European setting. In this, they succeeded; Rothschild and Sons is an intimate piece that emphasizes feelings and relationships. Mayer’s wife, Gutele — a moving Glory Crampton — is a more significant presence as the action unfolds through her memories. She grows from being satisfied with “One Room” to standing strong against Metternich in the reprise of the driving anthem “Everything.” Crampton also gets the best of the added songs, “Just A Map,” in which she frets over her sons as they crisscross wartime Europe. Nathan (Christopher M. Williams) has lost his silly patter number, but here he makes mistakes on arrival in England (“Tea’s Hot”) and then butts heads with his father in “He Never Listens.” The heart of the show is Mayer, the father. Cuccioli’s voice sounds terrific — his “In My Own Lifetime” is rousing — yet he lacks the warmth and humor that Hal Linden found in the character. On the one hand (as another Bock-Harnick character said), it’s wonderful that this revisal may grant new life to the show. But on the other hand, while there are plenty of musicals about families, how many are as daring as The Rothschilds — set in the chaos of late 18th-early 19th century Europe, about a family relying on financial maneuverings and political cunning to survive, with a rich score evoking late Baroque and classical masters? Stick with the original. — L.F.
The Story of My Life
Original Broadway Cast, 2009 (PS Classics) (3 / 5) The Story of My Life is an intimate, unusual, two-character musical with songs by Neil Bartram and book by Brian Hill. The strengths of the cast album lie in two talented performers, a score that’s lovely, evocative, and emotional, and the show’s highly original premise about friendship and the art of creative writing. Yet that very premise also shackles the piece, for the audience isn’t sufficiently exposed to other aspects of the lives of the characters, creating distracting questions that are never fully answered. Thomas Weaver (Will Chase), a successful author, returns to his hometown to write the eulogy for his one-time best friend, Alvin Kelby (Malcolm Gets). Alvin appears in Thomas’s mind, taking him back to when a thoughtful first grade teacher brought them together (“Mrs. Remington”). The score soars in its early numbers, charting how the pair bond over a shared love of books (Alvin’s dad owns a bookstore) and the film It’s a Wonderful Life. Bartram displays a solid grasp of childhood perspective, and Chase and Gets — even as only heard on this recording — magically transform themselves into schoolboys, exchanging gifts and creating traditions. (Check out the way Chase’s voice cracks in “1876.”) When the boys hit adolescence, it hits back; Thomas rightly worries that Alvin’s “odd” behavior, including an obsession with his dead mother’s bathrobe, might not go over well in high school (“Normal”). Bartram and Hill subtly reveal the differences that will later fracture this friendship, but the show doesn’t work as well once the men reach adulthood. Thomas attends college, writes bestsellers, and gets engaged, while Alvin apparently has no existence beyond the bookstore. Thomas increasingly edits his friend out of his life, culminating in the shocking “Independence Day” — and then he develops writer’s block. He has rejected Alvin, so now his muse has abandoned him. Here’s where the questions start — not the one concerning Alvin’s death, which Bartram and Hill rightly keep a mystery, as it leads to Thomas’s catharsis. But what about Thomas’s fiancée, Ann? Unlike the brief but fully realized portraits of Mrs. Remington and Alvin’s parents, she’s a cipher. And are we supposed to accept that everything Thomas has written has derived from his experiences with Alvin? In the hands of less talented performers, this slight framework might crumble, but Chase keeps Thomas attractive even when he’s being a jerk, and Gets’s Alvin skillfully morphs from neurotic kid to crushed soul to the ghost whose nagging gets his friend back on track. — Laura Frankos
The Scottsboro Boys
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2010 (JAY) (5 / 5) In several of their shows, John Kander and Fred Ebb have used various types of entertainment as the contextual setting for exploring historical and social issues. In Cabaret, sleazy nightclub routines parallel the excesses of Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazism; Chicago‘s vaudeville acts reveal the corrupt justice system of the Roaring Twenties. In The Scottsboro Boys, the tragic story of nine young African Americans who were unjustly accused of raping two white women in 1931 is told in the form of a minstrel show. The result is a searing, brilliant work with depth, power, and guts. Kander says they chose the format for the opportunities it provided: an ensemble, led by an Interlocutor (John Cullum), telling stories, jokes and songs. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (the versatile Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon) assist by playing multiple characters (“White men’s our speciality”). Needless to say, the minstrel show itself is a stark reminder of racism, reinforcing social injustice with every number. In the rousing opener, the lead among the accused men, Haywood Patterson (the impressive Brandon Victor Dixon), asks “This time, can we tell it like it really happened?” The Interlocutor benignly replies, “Of course.” Haywood’s resolve to tell the truth provides the score with a constant refrain, from his first defense (the Bert Williams style “Nothin'”) to the comic fable “Make Friends With the Truth” to “Zat So?” His defiant cry “You Can’t Do Me” sets up the boys’ refusal of the Interlocutor’s call for a cakewalk and a “happy ending,” subverting the minstrel show. The fates of the real-life Scottsboro Boys were anything but happy, but the final scene places their case in the broader context to the civil rights movement, giving a glimpse of a better future. The score also contains one of Kander & Ebb’s finest songs, the poignant “Go Back Home,” with a beautiful, wistful melody that reoccurs throughout the underscoring. (A bonus track has Kander performing the number.) Throughout the recording, Cullum shines as the unctuous Interlocutor, his genially racist attitude clear in “It’s Gonna Take Time” (cut from the subsequent Broadway production) and “Southern Days.” The Interlocutor misses Mammy’s ribs and mint juleps, but conveniently forgets the lynchings and cross-burnings. Domingo and McClendon’s talents are also evident throughout, especially when they assume the guises of the Attorney General and lawyer Samuel Liebowitz in savagely satirical numbers revealing Southern anti-Semitism and patronizing New York showmanship. (“Just ask my chauffeur, Rufus!”) Here was no easy subject, but this musical may be Kander and Ebb’s most important work; three years after the show opened, the Scottsboro boys were granted a posthumous pardon. — Laura Frankos
London Cast, 2014 (JAY) (4 / 5) This cast album bears a close similarity to the 2010 version. Three of the principals crossed the Atlantic to appear in the London production of The Scottsboro Boys: Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones, and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo. Dixon may even be better here, displaying heightened exuberance in “Commencing in Chattanooga” and enormous inner strength in “You Can’t Do Me.” The ensemble numbers sound more polished, and there are some lyric changes, notably in “Make Friends With the Truth.” There’s also a bit of additional dialogue, with more details about the fate of these young men. The Interlocutor’s solo, “It’s Gonna Take Time,” was cut from the Broadway production and is absent here, but the exit music is included. Like the earlier recording, there’ a bonus track of “Go Back Home,” here performed by Dixon. A key difference between the two albums is the Interlocutor, played nastily here by Julian Glover. Where John Cullum was generally sly, Glover is more commanding, sending chills as he insists, “Shake those tambourines!” When he describes himself as “the master of these folks” in the opener, the listener can’t help thinking he means more than just master of ceremonies. Does a collector need both recordings? Probably not. But those considering staging the show may want the London one, which is closer to the licensed version. — L.F.
Original Broadway Cast, 2010 (Verve) (3 / 5) Not to be outdone by Disney, the Dreamworks company decided to come to Broadway with a musical adaptation of its Oscar winning animated film Shrek, about an everyman ogre trying to maintain his peace of mind while wading through numerous fairy tales — some of which aren’t quite so magical. While the original Broadway production proved to be wildly over-produced and too loyal to the film in terms of its design and book, the cast recording reveals that, at its core, Shrek has considerable charm and a solid score aided by Danny Troob’s healthily full orchestrations. It’s not a surprise that composer Jeanine Tesori brought a mixture of earnestness and funky independence to the piece, but it is a surprise that first-time lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire crafted such well-structured and genuinely witty lyrics. The score boasts a fair number of highlights, such as “I Know It’s Today” and “When Words Fail,” though some songs try too hard for off-kilter humor — for example, “Story of My Life” and “What’s Up, Duloc?” In the title role, Brian d’Arcy James had to balance his own musical theater instincts with the burden of recreating a highly beloved film character; for the most part, he succeeded, especially in the touching “Who I’d Be.” Sadly, the talented Daniel Breaker was not given as much artistic freedom in the role of Shrek’s best friend Donkey, and instead offers an Eddie Murphy impression through much of this cast album. More successful principal players include Sutton Foster as not-your-average-princess Fiona, going toe to toe with James in the childishly gleeful “I Think I Got You Beat,” and Christopher Sieber as the hyper-sinister, height-challenged villain Lord Farquad. In their score, Tesori and Abaire gave Shrek a mischievous soul that was sadly lost among the giant scenery of the original production. Luckily, it’s captured here. — Matt Koplik