World Premiere Recording, 1997 (RCA) (4 / 5) Avenue X shows how some folks in the racially divided America of the early 1960s tried to achieve peace and harmony through rock and roll. The theme is similar to that of Hairspray, but here the locale is Brooklyn rather than Baltimore, and the show ends in tragedy rather than joy. A highly unusual feature of this musical is that all of the songs are sung a cappella, persuasively performed on this recording by an excellent cast. There are only eight singers — Colette Hawley, Cheryl Alexander, Ted Brunetti, John Leone, John-Martin Green, Jerry Dixon, Chuck Cooper, and Wilbur Pauley — yet their vocal harmonies are so lush that they sound like twice that many people. (Dixon is the music director.) Indeed, the wall of sound heard in the arresting “Prologue” may convince you that you’re hearing an orchestra playing along. Rather than advancing the plot or establishing and limning the characters, the songs by Ray Leslee (music) and John Jiler (lyrics) are performance pieces that skillfully conjure the style of the period. Highlights include the ensemble number “A Thousand Summer Nights,” Hawley’s “Woman of the World,” and the two songs that end the show: “Go There,” in which Alexander laments “There are dreams that die before they ever live,” and the touching “Where is Love” (not to be confused with the song of the same title from Oliver!). The CD booklet notes tell us that, “following an extended run Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, [Avenue X] played in roughly two dozen cities, winning ‘Best Musical’ awards and nominations virtually everywhere it has gone.” This recording is a winner, too. — Michael Portantiere
Original Cast (London and Broadway), 1959 (Angel) (4 / 5) Producer Alexander Cohen had the good sense to bring a host of newcomers to Broadway from England, among them Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, the two raconteurs of At the Drop of a Hat. These wonderful songwriters-performers included the audience in their nightly party at the Golden Theatre. (Several years later, Broadway saw the sequel, At the Drop of Another Hat.) The songs are in the grand satirical/political tradition of the late 1950s-early ’60s. Their humor was a little naughty, silly and sophisticated by turns, with lots of allusions that belied the songs’ supposed simplicity. Intellectuals and average theatergoers could find equal amusement in the evening, albeit with different depths of understanding. Wisely, the original cast album was recorded in London before a live audience, which makes all the difference. Not only are we cued as to where the laughs are, but we also feel part of the inside group that’s enjoying these masters of song and monologue. This is one comedy record that can never be overplayed; the music and lyrics sound just as fresh the 50th time as the first, unlike many such albums. — Ken Bloom
Studio Recordings by the Original Broadway Cast, 1935 (Smithsonian/no CD) (3 / 5) Always welcome on Broadway during the Depression was a star-packed musical revue. At Home Abroad, billed as “A Musical Holiday,” bolstered its thin and engaging overall theme — Americans traveling to foreign countries — with a fine score by Arthur Schartz and Howard Dietz, and a cast headed by Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, and Eleanor Powell. The show was designed and staged by a gifted newcomer, Vincente Minnelli; all was escapism and dazzle. While the production’s 198-performance run was something of a disappointment, there were a number of recordings made by the cast members, including Waters’ insinuating “Thief in the Night” and two definitive Bea Lillie numbers, “Paree” and “Get Yourself a Geisha” — the latter with its insistent refrain, “It’s better with your shoes off.” As part of its ongoing effort to reconstruct lost musicals, the Smithsonian Institution issued an LP that collected these items and added a few numbers recorded later by Karen Morrow, Nancy Dussault, and other performers. If the score lacks the classic stature of Schwartz and Dietz’s earlier The Band Wagon, there’s still a lot to treasure here, including Eleanor Powell’s extended tap breaks in “What a Wonderful World” and “Got a Bran’ New Suit.” As always with Smithsonian releases, the notes details the recordings with great erudition and enthusiasm. — Richard Barrios
Live and Studio Recordings by the Original Broadway Cast, 1935 (AEI) (3 / 5) The Smithsonian collection might have seemed the last word on At Home Abroad, but guess again. It turns out that there also exists a set of decrepit discs containing recordings of large portions of the show in live performance. Whether or not the source was a radio broadcast is unclear; although the sound quality gives new meaning to the phrase “low fidelity,” the material was skillfully transferred to the digital domain by the intrepid folks at AEI. The studio recordings by Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, and Eleanor Powell noted in the review above are also included on the CD, and the patient listener will be rewarded with a very good sense of how this big and bouncy show operated. AEI obviously took great care with the project, going so far as to splice parts of Lillie’s studio version of “Dinner Napkins” into an otherwise live recording so as to get the best overall sound quality possible. Especially to be enjoyed here are Waters’ live performances of “Loading Time” and “Got a Bran’ New Suit,” which she did not record otherwise. Unfortunately, the CD booklet notes are inadequate — a chronic failing with AEI. And it’s really too bad that the original recording technology sounds as if it relied on tin cans and strings. — R.B.
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1964 (Broadway East/AEI) No stars, not recommended. One day, sometime in the 1980s, several boxes of the long-out-of-print LP of The Athenian Touch turned up in a store in midtown Manhattan. Musical theater enthusiasts swarmed the place, and the shop was depleted of copies in one afternoon. Then people got home and actually played the thing, finding to their dismay that this cast album is as bad as they get. In most musicals, the music is usually the “safest” component; even if the book and/or lyrics are poor, there are often at least a couple of tunes with some appeal. That’s not the case here. Not only do these songs have useless lyrics by David Eddy, but further than that, Willard Straight’s music is ugly. And, judging on the basis of what can be gleaned from listening to the album, the book — a love story involving Aristophanes and some whore — is simply not a professional effort. Camp followers may be interested in the recording because it stars Butterfly McQueen and Marion Marlowe, the Arthur Godfrey TV show favorite who also played Elsa in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music, but there’s really no other reason to purchase it. — David Wolf
Original Broadway Cast, 1948 (Decca) (3 / 5) The Theatre Guild was riding the success of the still-running Oklahoma! when Armina Marshall Langner suggested that The Pursuit of Happiness, a play she had written with her husband, Lawrence Langner, would make a good musical. Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the Guild’s earlier successes (including Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and Carousel), was brought in to helm Arms and the Girl. Morton Gould and Dorothy Fields wrote the score, their only Broadway collaboration. Judging from the cast album, the show was distinguished primarily by its three leading performers: Georges Guetary (a French musical theater star), Nanette Fabray, and Pearl Bailey. For Fabray, this was another unsuccessful vehicle that would keep her from achieving major Broadway stardom on a par with Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. Still, her work here is colorful and exciting in “Girl With a Flame” and “That’s My Fella.” She’s great in her duets with Guetary, who does also does well with the charming if corny “A Cow and a Plow and a Frau.” But the big news of the show was Pearl Bailey in a scene-stealing role. She played a slave who changes her name according to where she is geographically — so, as “Connecticut,” she sings the bawdily humorous “There Must Be Something Better than Love” and the lesser “Nothin’ for Nothin’.” Note: The CD edition of this album also includes cast recordings of Up in Central Park; both albums have been meticulously remastered, and they sound as good as any recordings of the period could be expected to. The disc filled an important gap in the catalogue, so we should be grateful to Decca Broadway for its release. — Jeffrey Dunn
Concept Album, 1954 (Columbia/Masterworks Broadway) (3 / 5) Based on the 1920s newspaper columns of Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel stars a cockroach. Ostensibly, the columns were the work of said cockroach, named archy, who wrote them for Marquis in exchange for some apple peels left in the trash. The roach handled the mechanics of writing by hurling himself head first at the typewriter keys, and everything was in lower case because he couldn’t reach the shift key. This recording is sort of a grab-bag suite taken from different archy pieces, with scenes and narration by Joe Darion (lyricist of Man of La Mancha) underscored with music by George Kleinsinger (composer of Tubby the Tuba). The underscoring provides a real New York atmosphere, and it occasionally explodes into whimsical songs and entertaining melodic fragments. The text is made of of archy’s thoughts (e.g., “people may think they amount to a great deal, but to a mosquito, they’re just a meal”) and stories of the odd characters he runs into. Most of his stories are about mehitabel (Carol Channing), the alley cat whom he loves unrequitedly. She takes up with a disreputable tomcat that leaves her with a litter of kittens saved by archy (Eddie Bracken) from drowning in a rainstorm. She “studies acting” with a disreputable old theater cat, then reluctantly gives in and takes a job as a house cat — but, unable to stand domesticity, she returns to the alley. In 1957, the piece was adapted for the stage as Shinbone Alley, with a full Kleinsinger-Darion score and a book by Mel Brooks; Eddie Bracken repeated his role, and Eartha Kitt played mehitabel. Three years after the Broadway failure, it turned up in a two-hour TV adaptation with Bracken and Tammy Grimes. Finally, in 1970, it became an animated cartoon with Bracken and Channing. Pirated recordings exist of the TV version, and there is also a complete, live pirate of the Broadway show, but the concept album is the only commercial recording available. — David Wolf
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1970 (MIO International/no CD) (3 / 5) This version of Colette is a charming play with music. The play itself was written by Elinor Jones, then married to lyricist Tom Jones. Colette is portrayed by Zoe Caldwell, who attacks the role boldly, and Ruth Nelson gives a vivid performance as Colette’s mother. The other actors — Keith Charles, Holland Taylor, Louis Turenne, and Tom Aldredge — are fine but, on the record anyway, they’re just props. Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt contributed three songs that begin the recording; all of them are odd and delightful, and one of them, “Earthly Paradise,” is as lovely as anything the team ever wrote. Schmidt’s underscoring of a long montage sequence is stunning — it plays almost like a short comic ballet — and his gorgeous, dramatic music fills the recording. The composer was onstage throughout the play, in period costume, accompanying the action on piano. Apparently, the music was improvised every night during the run; when Schmidt was out ill, performances had to be canceled, since no one else could play the music because he had never written it down! — David Wolf
Off-Broadway Cast Members, 1994 (Varèse Sarabande) (2 / 5) A production of the full-length musical Colette that starred Diana Rigg was intended for Broadway but closed on the road in 1982. Librettist and composer Jones and Schmidt revised the show in ’83 and again in ’91; along the way, it was retitled Colette Collage. Act I of the final version concentrates on the French novelist’s first marriage to Willy, a writer who thinks nothing of publishing work by others — including his wife — under his own name. Her books, which everyone thinks are his books, become hugely successful, and she finally leaves him. Act II covers Coletee’s later years of fame and her relationship with a younger man, Maurice. The music is lovely, amusing, and evocative, but nothing here is as beautiful as Schmidt’s best work. Colette is played by Judy Blazer in the first act, Judy Kaye in the second; both sing gloriously and are matched by George Lee Andrews as Willy, Rita Gardner as Colette’s mother, and Jason Graae as Maurice. The only piece retained from the Elinor Jones play is Schmidt’s thrilling music-hall-tour montage, cut down and fitted with lyrics by Jones. Unfortunately, it’s less effective here than as presented on the recording reviewed above. — D.W.
Original Broadway Cast, 1965 (United Artists/Kritzerland) (3 / 5) What Robert Wright and George Forrest had previously done successfully with Grieg and Borodin, they did with Rachmaninoff in creating a musical based on the play Anastasia, the story of the woman who claimed to be the only surviving member of the Romanov family assassination. Rachmaninoff’s music was well suited to a piece with action that takes place shortly after the Russian Revolution, and while fans of that music in its original form might find this adaptation hard to take, it’s a lush, beautifully sung, latter-day operetta. Although the show was plodding onstage, the recording is very entertaining. Constance Towers and Michael Kermoyan are excellent in all of their songs, particularly in “My Kind of Love” (the melody had previously served as the basis for the popular hit “Full Moon and Empty Arms”) and the dramatic “Six Palaces” (in which Anya is drilled on the “facts” of her life). Irra Petina, the grande dame of the “floperetta” genre, is a joy in the comic “Leben Sie Wohl” and “On That Day,” and she also leads the haunting “Homeward.” For camp value, there is Lillian Gish as the Grand Duchess, “reciting” lyrics to a vocalise sung by Towers as Anya. Billed as “The Musical Musical,” the show was one of the late-career flops of director George Abbott, who also collaborated on the book with Guy Bolton. (This was Bolton’s final Broadway credit.) The cast album notes detail which Rachmaninoff pieces have been adapted for each song. There are also two songs listed on the back of the original LP jacket that are not actually on the album; they were cut from the show during previews and, from all reports, weren’t recorded. — Jeffrey Dunn
Studio Casts, 1992-1998 (Bay Cities/Original Cast Records) (2 / 5) These recordings are not just Anya with two pianos. When it became clear that the 1965 production was going to close on Broadway after 16 performances, director and co-librettist George Abbott graciously ceded all of the rights to Wright and Forrest. The musical was revised and produced regionally as A Song for Anastasia and The Anastasia Game. A recording titled The Anastasia Affaire, based on a production at the Merrimack Theatre in Massachusetts, was released in 1992 and quickly went out of print. In 1998, with the title now changed to Anastasia: The Musical, the CD was reissued with bonus tracks of six “premiere recordings” of Wright and Forrest songs from other shows. The majority of the Rachmaninoff melodies used for Anya were used again in the revisions, but most of them were given new lyrics and made to serve new dramatic functions. While the Broadway score leaned heavily toward “nouveau operetta,” the final version is definitely a chamber musical with two-piano accompaniment, well handled by Albin Konopka and Seth Rudetsky. The principal singers are Judy Kaye, Regina Resnik, Len Cariou, Steve Barton, George Lee Andrews, Walter Willison, and David Green, all in top form. The story of Anastasia is more clearly discerned from the songs in the new version; still, the original Broadway cast album of Anya, with its grand orchestrations and operatic singing, is a more enjoyable listen. — J.D.
Original London Cast, 1971 (RCA/Stage Door) (2 / 5) The original London cast album of this Henry James adaptation is also the de facto original Broadway cast album, since the West End’s two leads, Howard Keel and Danielle Darrieux, reprised their roles in New York not long after the show’s quick demise in London, and they carry the bulk of the musical program. James’ favorite, theme, the clash of American ingenuousness and European worldliness, gets a thorough working-over in this story of a New England milquetoast named Lambert (Keel) dispatched to Paris by a dominating widow to retrieve her philandering son. Instead, Lambert falls under the spell of Paree and, more specifically, of a fascinating countess (Darrieux). The globe-trotting narrative was simplified for the stage, which the score reflects. Don Gohman’s melodies are attractive, if a bit derivative, and Hal Hackady’s lyrics strive diligently to pull James’ ideas together into a cohesive package. Some terrible comedy songs — e.g. “What Can You Do With a Nude?” — were mercifully left behind in London but made it onto the recording. Andrea Marcovicci, who introduced the affecting “Love Finds the Lonely” in her Broadway debut, isn’t heard here; her London counterpart, Isobel Stuart, is capable, but Marcovicci must have been heartbreaking. Keel is hardworking but miscast as a milquetoast. Darrieux has very little voice, so she tries to compensate with charm, and succeeds only halfway. The most vivid performance here comes from Margaret Courtenay as the horrifying harpy who sets the plot in motion. She’s no singer, but it’s a great character, and Courtenay has every character nuance under her right corset. Some fine theater songs are scattered about — “Tell Her,” “The Right Time/The Right Place” — yet they fail to convince us that a Henry James musical is a good idea. While one admires the creative team’s ambition to write a soufflé that’s also serious, the results sound more like Gigi with a hangover. — Marc Miller
Original Television Cast, 1958 (Columbia/Sony) (3 / 5) The later-in-life work of most great musical theater writers isn’t up to the quality of their more youthful forays; but with the exception of his score for the film Les Girls, Cole Porter ended his career somewhere close to his high standard. Aladdin was an original television musical, a popular entertainment form at the time. Major teams such as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bock & Harnick, and other great composers and lyricists contributed to the genre, with mixed results. Porter’s Aladdin, with a libretto by S.J. Perelman, was among the best of the bunch. produced at the end of a wonderful era wherein most entertainment suitable for children was equally enjoyable for adults. Apart from its tuneful and witty score, it had a dream cast: stage veterans Dennis King and Cyril Ritchard, film favorites Una Merkel and Basil Rathbone, and newcomers Anna Maria Alberghetti and Sal Mineo. All of them brought their unique talents to the project. A highlight of the score and the highly enjoyable cast album is “Come to the Supermarket (in Old Peking.” — Ken Bloom
Original London Cast, 1960 (Columbia/DRG) (1 / 5) Cole Porter’s Aladdin was never adapted for presentation on Broadway, but the London stage production — tarted up as a Christmas pantomime — yielded this unfortunate recording. It includes a few songs interpolated from other Porter shows, none of which fit the spirit and tone of the original; they’re too jazzy and out-of period. Doretta Morrow displays a wonderful voice on the recording, but it sounds, shall we say, too mature for the character of the princess. (She does offer a first-class rendition of “I Am Loved,” interpolated from Out of This World.) Cyril Ritchard is sorely missed on this recording, as is the maturity and authority of Dennis King. And whereas the original TV production had great orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, this one features more “mod” arrangements that haven’t withstood the test of time. — K.B.
Original Broadway Cast, 1971 (A&R, 2LPs; no CD) (2 / 5) Onstage, this piece with book, music, and lyrics by Melvin van Peebles was intensely theatrical; I was actually frightened when cast member Minnie Gentry looked straight at me and vowed to “Put a Curse on You.” On record, it’s a less powerful experience — an interesting assemblage of jazz-based songs, dramatic monologues, and narratives delivered by a cast including Bill Duke, Albert Hall, Garrett Morris, and Beatrice Winde. (Ossie Davis and Phylicia Rashad joined the company in 1972, after this recording was made.) Much of the show is written in what might be called a “street poetry” style, if that phrase is not too pretentious. Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death is skillfully constructed, with the songs and the very attractive underscoring enhancing the monologues as they move into, out of, and around them. I can’t say this is a cast album I listen to every day, but if you can find a copy, it certainly won’t bore you. — David Wolf
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1999 (Varèse Sarabande) (2 / 5) It’s the very model of a modern chamber musical: a four-character, four-musician adaptation of a Thomas Hardy short story, here brought to life by Matthew Ward (music) and Stephen Cole (book and lyrics), and lovingly recorded by producer Bruce Kimmel. The slight plot — about a bored, unhappy, provincial couple (Michele Pawk and David Staller) and the wife’s Cyranoesque adventures in helping her maid (Jennifer Piech) conduct a romance with a London barrister (James Ludwig) — comes through clearly and affectingly. Cole’s lyrical craftmanship is striking (“With each passing missive, you grew more passive”) , and Ward’s music, aside from some dreary recitative, isn’t afraid of tunefulness or smart melodic development when the occasion demands. Diligent as the authors are, though, the score’s a bit studied; it sounds something like a Sondheim disciple’s thesis for a graduate degree in musical theater. And the unvarying parade of duets, quartets, and genteel accompaniment adds up to a rather limited musical palette. (Maybe the score worked better in the context of the show onstage.) The cast is variable: Pawk is excellent, Ludwig is sturdy, but you could drive a lorry through the hammy Staller’s vibrato, and Piech’s cartoon-Brit accent simply won’t do. Who was her dialect coach, Dick Van Dyke? — Marc Miller
Original Public Works Cast, 2022 (Concord Theatrical Recordings) (3 / 5) The second of composer-lyricist Shaina Taub’s Shakespeare adaptations for the Public Theater’s Public Works program, following Twelfth Night, this As You Like It is a joyful update of Shakespeare’s comedy. In songs like “You Phoebe Me” and “Gettin’ Married Tomorrow,” Taub playfully riffs on Shakespeare’s text in her lyrics. These songs sound closer to those that may be heard on Taub’s solo singer-songwriter albums than to her work on Twelfth Night, so Rosalind sings with a confessional, conversational cynicism in Rebecca Naomi Jones’s thoughtful, strongly-sung performance. Ato Blankson-Wood, who played Orsino in Twelfth Night, sounds wonderful again here. Taub herself is the best interpreter of Taub, and her opening delivery of “All The World’s A Stage” as the moody Jacques (reimagined here as a climate activist) is the album’s highlight. If you’re somehow immune to her charming navigation of her bluesy pop melodies, the chorus of children joining in her song will win you over. These young singers are part of Public Works’ engagement in each of these productions of nearly 100 performers, most of them amateurs, through partnering community organizations. The numerous ensemble moments heard here — including the rousing “In Arden,” led by Darius de Haas, and the gospel-inspired anthem “Still I Will Love” — capture the sense of massive community singing better than the Twelfth Night cast album does. But there’s a little bit of you-had-to-be-there energy to the recording; it’s the memory of the Public’s multi-generational staging that lends these tracks their greatest emotional potency. — Dan Rubins
Original Broadway Cast, 2012 (Masterworks Broadway) (2 / 5) In “Just Another Day in Hollywood,” the ensemble of Chaplin sings of “Stars on the rise / Stars on the fall / Stars you forget / Stars you recall.” For all its potential in dramatizing The Little Tramp’s rise and fall in stage musical form, Chaplin turns out to be largely forgettable. Composer-lyricist Christopher Curtis has some neat ideas: for example, an early diegetic number, “Whatcha Gonna Do?”, sung by Charlie Chaplin’s music hall performer mother (Christianne Noll), gradually evolves into a threatening anthem for the McCarthyist columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella) who tries to bring down Chaplin (Rob McClure) by branding him as a Communist. But Curtis’s songs do little either to develop character or counteract the show’s breakneck race through Chaplin’s life, and most of the first act is a movie-making montage with pastiche songs that don’t evoke the era of the action precisely enough. Often, the score tries to rev up emotional intensity that the storytelling hasn’t earned; one musical sequence, “The Exile,” is almost hilariously melodramatic, as Larry Hochman’s orchestrations follow Curtis’s music in somehow being simultaneously undercooked and overwrought. Elsewhere, thankfully, as in Charlie’s ballad “The Life That You Wished For,” the orchestrations calm down enough to be genuinely stirring. Colella’s belting is impressive, as are Erin Mackey’s very lovely, shimmery singing and Michael McCormick’s avuncular take on Mack Sennett — yes, the same guy from Mack and Mabel! Though McClure in the title role doesn’t have great material to work with, he’s particularly enlivening in the driving “Tramp Shuffle — Pt. 2,” and quite moving in portraying an elderly Chaplin returning to the Oscars at the start of the finale. — Dan Rubins
Studio Cast, 2021 (Polydor) 0 stars, not recommended. What’s there to write about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella that hasn’t already been written and/or said? Though this “modern twist” on the fairy tale premiered in the West End to a forgivingly warm reception as one of the first shows to open after the lengthy shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, the musical has since been plagued by bad press and public ridicule that only intensified when it opened on Broadway under the new title Bad Cinderella, giving critics and the internet plenty of fodder for its drubbing. No stage cast recording of the score exists, only this concept album, which was recorded before the show began performances in London. It would be easy to say that the album is a flat-out disaster — and it would probably be more entertaining if it were. To be clear, there is a lot of bad material here; but on the whole, the recording is just dull, with every song sounding like a first draft. A few of the performers who would go on to appear in the West End production are on hand. As Cinderella’s Stepmother, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt goes for glorified camp and does an uncanny Joanna Lumley impression, though with diminishing returns as the album continues. And in the title role, Carrie Hope Fletcher gives as close to a fully formed performance as the material will allow. While Webber is still capable of writing a decent ear worm (“Only You, Lonely You” “I Know I Have a Heart”), every song lasts far too long, until the melodies become white noise. Plus, Webber is back in his ’80s style of musicalizing scenes that don’t need it (“So Long,” “Unfair”). The orchestrations are thin, and the lyrics, by the usually reliable David Zippel, sound like placeholders for something wittier to be written later. In an attempt to give the listener an idea of the musical’s new story line, a fair amount of dialogue is sprinkled throughout the album, but the plot is so confusing and messy that you may feel it’s easier to make sense out of a James Joyce novel. Due to the harshly negative reception of the Broadway production, a new recording of (Bad) Cinderella is unlikely, making this one a must-have for all flop collectors as a token of what will probably come to be known as the biggest failure of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career. For anyone else, there are far better Cinderellas out there. Best to take one of them for a spin on the dance floor and leave this recording out in the pumpkin patch. — Matt Koplik
Original London Cast, 2013 (Watertower Music) (1 / 5) The first stage iteration of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel preserves only one of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s songs from the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — “Pure Imagination” — but the entire album seems to hold its breath until that track arrives very late in the proceedings. Nothing else in the new score sounds anything like it, and Shaiman and Wittman fail to crack the code on converting the episodic structure of Dahl’s book to musical theater form. Jack Costello’s Charlie is charming in the opening number, “Almost Nearly Perfect,” but the other four kids who win a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory are as madly annoying as they’re meant to be, resulting in a quartet of bad songs introducing each child in the first act and a quartet of worse songs getting rid of each child in the second. Shaiman writes music in different styles for the four families — a polka for the Gloops, an English patter song for the Salts, a poppy rap for the Beauregardes, and electronic cacophony for the Teavees — so the score never gets a chance to advance beyond Russian Roulette-style genre-jumping. Nor does the show comfortably translate Dahl’s self-aware rudeness for a contemporary audience. Augustus Gloop’s fat-shaming yodel is cringe-worthy, but the lyrics for “Vidiots,” the Oompa Loompas’ condemnation of kids who play video games, are the album’s nadir: “Alas, alas, poor Mike Teavee / For OMG, he’s ADD.” (Credit Iris Roberts for making a strong, frantic impression as Mike’s harried mother.) The songs for Wonka (Douglas Hodge) are insubstantial, too, until he finally arrives at “Pure Imagination” and listeners can breathe a sigh of relief. — Dan Rubins
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Masterworks) (2 / 5) This Broadway recording is a marked improvement over the London cast album, not least for the reintroduction of most of the songs from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “Candy Man,” “I’ve Got A Golden Ticket,” and “Oompa Loompa” all join “Pure Imagination.” Christian Borle has greater range than Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka, and his opening rendition of “The Candy Man” sets a clearer tone for the character. The album generously rotates through the three young actors who played Charlie on Broadway, with Jake Ryan Flynn making a particularly terrific impression in a new, joyous waltz, “Willy Wonka! Willy Wonka!” and also in “The View From Here,” a sweet ballad with rousing counterpoint. Most of the other kids’ songs, including the deadly “Vidiots,” remain in some form; but a major casting change, with adults playing all the children except Charlie, makes the show’s added cruelties towards these characters somewhat more tolerable. That said, a notorious scene from this production, in which squirrels tear Veruca Salt (now inexplicably Russian) to pieces, is commemorated on the album in “Veruca’s Nutcracker Sweet,” which contains tasteless couplets such as “Veruca Salt was once en pointe / But watch as we dislocate each joint.” On the plus side, Trista Dollison is especially good in “The Queen of Pop,” Violet’s intro song, which recalls Shaiman and Wittman’s far superior work for Hairspray. The new, discomfiting song “When Willy Meets Oompa” seems to double down on the Oompa Loompa plot line’s colonial undercurrents, but there’s enough inoffensive sweetness elsewhere — courtesy of the three Charlies, John Rubinstein’s Grandpa Joe, and Borle’s ballads — to make this a listenable album. — D.R.
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2022 (Ghostlight) (3 / 5) Are you ever too old to fall in love with a fairytale? Or a fairytale prince? This question is the basis for Between the Lines, a musical by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson that premiered Offf-Broadway in 2022. The show centers on troubled teen Delilah McPhee, who has to navigate life as a target of school bullies and the daughter of a divorced, broke, single mother. In order to survive her situation, Delilah has to find a way out, and she does that by falling in love with the prince from a fairytale book she has recently begun to read, the only copy of which happens to be in her school library. As the location of the show switches back and forth between reality and the fantasy world of the book, it’s easy for the cast album listener to get lost, all the more so because no interstitial dialogue is recorded here. For example, does Will Burton’s charming soft-shoe “Out of Character” come off as well if you don’t realize until the end of the song that he’s playing a dog? Or will you understand that, when Vicki Lewis performs “Can’t Get ‘Em Out,” she is playing the book’s author rather than a therapist or one of the few other characters she portrays in the show? As for the score itself, the main problem it that it suffers from a lack of originality. Since there are comparatively few teenage musicals, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons between this show’s high school outcast anthem “Allie McAndrews” and “I’d Rather Be Me” from Mean Girls, or between “Leaps and Bounds,” the nostalgic ballad heartbreakingly performed here by Julia Murney as Delilah’s mother, and, say, “Stop, Time” from Big. None of this is meant to suggest that Between the Lines is without its merits, the greatest ones being the catchiness of the tunes, whether melancholy or up-tempo, and the charming vocal performance by Jake David Smith as the handsome prince. Arielle Jacobs’ portrayal of Delilah is also compelling, and if some of the challenging score lies a bit outside of her vocal range, she has the acting chops to make up for it. Because of the many nice opportunities this show affords its cast in addition to the relatable story, it almost cries out for regional productions, and one can easily imagine that some of the score’s solo ballads will become audition room standards. So, ultimately, Between the Lines is worth your time, even if it’s a story you may feel you have read before. –– Charles Kirsch
Studio Cast, 2007 (JAY) (1 / 5) Busker Alley never made it to Broadway, but it sure came close, first with a Tommy Tune-led national tour in 1995 (felled by Tune’s broken foot) and then with the York Theatre Company’s 2006 benefit concert starring Jim Dale (intended for a Broadway transfer that never happened). It’s the latter iteration that’s captured on this recording, including the one-night-only luxury casting of Glenn Close as the grown-up version of Libby, a pickpocket-turned-London busker-turned film star who abandons her lover and fellow street performer Charlie Baxter (Dale) in exchange for fame and fortune. Close introduces Charlie’s story in a spoken prologue and then returns at the end to sing, quite beautifully, “He Had A Way,” the gentle highlight of the album. Given the subject matter, many of the songs by the Sherman brothers (Mary Poppins, Over Here, etc.) are cloying street numbers, diegetic to the buskers’ world. The cast approaches these tunes with aggressive Cockney accents married to unnecessarily grating vocals meant to demonstrate, apparently, that these are resilient paupers down on their luck. Dale is fine, if ill-served by thin material, and he’s in his prime when farthest removed from the abiding, overzealous performance style, as in an angry reprise of the ballad “How Long Have I Loved Libby?” and in the short, sweet “Charlie the Busker.” As the younger Libby, Jessica Grové offers an endearing “He Has A Way,” but her Eliza Doolittle drawl is unsubtly distracting. Brevity here is not necessarily the soul of either wit or rich character development, and many of the songs are so brisk that it’s hard to glean much of a dramatic through-line. The street numbers also quickly become indistinguishable from one another (only the lively “Paddle Your Own Canoe” stands out), not helped by the repetitive arrangements for piano and drums. For the completist, it’s nice to have this score recorded, but this album doesn’t make a convincing case that the disappearance of Busker Alley was any great loss. — Dan Rubins