Original London Cast, 2006 (Decca Broadway) (2 / 5) Based on the film written by Lee Hall, who did double duty for the stage musical as librettist and lyricist, Billy Elliot tells of a Northern English boy who discovers a love for ballet but has to hide it from his family — including his father and brother, who are on strike with the miner’s union at the height of Thatcherism. A smash hit in London (this cast album represents that production) and on Broadway, Billy Elliot was a moving, theatrically exciting piece due in large part to its thrilling staging by director Stephen Daldry, who also directed the film, and choreographer Peter Darling. What becomes clear on the cast album, however, is the obstacle that Hall and Elton John faced with this project: How does one write a compelling musical theater score when your leading character only feels comfortable expressing himself through dance? Their answer was to create a score that more or less provided a platform for Daldry and Darling to leap from. This is not to say that the songs are bad; they do exactly what they need to do. Without the umbrella of Disney, Elton John produced some inventive melodies (e.g., “Solidarity”) that are given extra character by Martin Koch’s orchestrations, even if John occasionally tends to lean back into his specialty of pop power ballads that don’t quite fit the piece. Hall, a first time lyricist, does an admirable job of keeping the songs in the language of the working class characters. Due to the physical demands of the title role, three young actors rotated as Billy in the original London production (and on Broadway), though only one, Liam Mower, is heard on this recording. Mower does a fine job, as does the rest of the cast, most notably a crackling Hayden Gwynne as the dance teacher who guides Billy out of his shell. Listeners who haven’t seen the show may wonder why Billy Elliot was such a phenomenon; the answer is that this musical, even more than most others, truly needs to be seen to be experienced. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2011 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) When it was announced that the creators of South Park were writing a Broadway musical, with one of the songwriters of Avenue Q, no less, everyone expected that the show was going to be both shocking and hilarious. But the surprise here was that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park) and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q) wrote a stellar musical comedy that was traditional in many ways. Yes, it’s shocking in its profanity and contemporary in its subject matter: two missionaries go to Uganda in the hope of converting villagers to Mormonism. But rather than try to reinvent the wheel with The Book of Mormon, Parker, Stone, and Lopez chose to adhere to tried and true musical theater structure in the style of the Golden Age, and to have fun within it. The cast is strong, each member giving a fully defined, wonderfully well sung performance. Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad, as the two central Mormon characters, make a good team, with Rannells doing the majority of the vocal heavy lifting. Gad is also a strong singer, though his comedic antics can occasionally be grating. Robert Lopez proved with Avenue Q that he has an ear for melody, but here his work is even more inventive while being filled with musical pop culture references to everything from the Osmonds in “All-American Prophet” to The Lion King (a running joke in the show) in “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” Each song has a distinct flavor, and yet the score doesn’t feel disjointed. Stephen Oremus’s orchestrations –played by 23 musicians on the cast album, as compared to nine in the production — match Lopez’s level of invention. As is the case with the best musical comedies, because the score is so reliant on the book, not every song shines as brightly on the recording as it does in the theater (for example, “Making Things Up Again”). But this a minor gripe. The lyrics — by Parker and Stone, with contributions from Lopez — are crass, colorful, and hilarious, yet with a surprising amount of heart. The show wouldn’t have worked if the creators had decided to be condescending to their characters and to the audience, but thankfully, this was not the case. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2014 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) Robert James Waller’s novel about an Italian war bride’s brief affair with a photographer who passes through her Iowa town became a cultural phenomenon and something of a joke in the mid ’90s. While some were swept up in the romance of the story, others rolled their eyes at the corniness of the dialogue and proceedings. The fact that Jason Robert Brown was able to mine a great deal of musical theater gold from his source material — so much so that he won a Tony Award for his efforts — speaks very well of his craft. In the role of Francesca, the Italian housewife, Kelli O’Hara is in top form on the cast album. She wraps her silvery soprano around Brown’s gorgeous melodies, all the while giving a mature, grounded performance that makes songs like “Almost Real” and “Look at Me” particularly moving. Steven Pasquale is every bit her equal as Robert, the photographer with whom Francesca falls deeply in love; his glorious baritone is rich, strong, and masculine, bringing to mind classic leading men of the Golden Age. Together, these two make the recording essential. Their voices blend to such rapturous effect that their duet “One Second and a Million Miles” is not only the highlight of the whole album, but one of the best love duets written for musical theater in recent years. That said, while the entire score is gorgeous to listen to, the musical loses dramatic steam when Brown and librettist Marsha Norman expand the story to focus on several other characters — and the songs for those characters, though catchy and technically well done, reflect that. The twangy “State Road 21” is a jarring follow up to the wistful “Falling Into You” and is skippable on the album, as are “Something From a Dream” and “Get Closer.” One fine exception is “Another Life,” sung beautifully by Whitney Bashor as Robert’s first wife; the song chronicles the couple’s courtship, marriage, and divorce, and it’s the only one that competes with the songs for Francesca and Robert. Brown’s orchestrations, for which he won another Tony, are lush without being sentimental, and they have a slight country edge. Even with a few substandard songs, Bridges is true romance whenever O’Hara and Pasquale are front and center. — Matt Koplik
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2005 (Ghostlight/Sh-K-Boom) (4 / 5) A boisterous, satirical show in the form of a concert by a Christian pop-rock boy band espousing wholesome morality through their music, Altar Boyz speaks to adolescent worries about being different while pointing out the hypocrisy of those who use religion to discriminate. Via Kevin Del Aguila’s brainy, laugh-a-minute book and clever songs by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, criticisms are not aimed at specific targets, but are subtly suggested through wise questions and stories containing humorous symbolism. In one of the show’s funniest sequences, the “sensitive” boy in the band tells of getting beat up by “Episcopalian thugs” because he is…“Catholic,” then sings a prideful anthem proclaiming his “epiphany.” The others — a tough homeboy, a Latino, a Jew, and a super-cute jock — also get solo turns that side-splittingly spotlight push-button issues through diverse musical styles. At various points in the score, Jesus’s accomplishments are related rap-style, eternal life is explained to a salsa beat, a gospel sound is used to illuminate one boy’s story of being “called” by Jesus on his cell phone, and a hard-driving funk number insists “you gotta’ work on your soul.” Although the songs sound like pop-rock, they are well crafted as musical theater songs, illuminating characters and creating moods. The lyrics are of the witty, informative theatrical variety, not the numbing, repetitive rock ilk; sung with impeccable diction, they’re easy to discern over the energizing, rock-band instrumentation. This cast album represents skillful songwriting in support of the thematic content of a smart show. – Lisa Jo Sagolla
Original Broadway Cast, 2005 (Masterworks Broadway) (2 / 5) A lightweight jukebox musical showcasing 25 songs made famous by Elvis Presley, All Shook Up concerns a motorcycle-riding roustabout who brings romance and rock ‘n’ roll to a dreary Midwestern town in 1955. Flimsily scaffolded by Joe DiPietro’s contrived book, the show contains no original music, thus the value of its cast album lies solely in the degree to which the familiar songs are rendered in new or especially pleasing fashions. Only about a third of the tracks succeed in that respect. The up-tempos fare better than the ballads, most of which are too fast, encumbered by multi-part choral embellishments, and/or robbed of their emotional warmth by strident wailing. The performers don’t try to imitate Elvis, but one almost wishes they could, as it was the velvety beauty of his voice that made Elvis’s renditions of songs like “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” such memorable hits. While none of the cast has a gorgeous enough voice to make those simple melodies as riveting as The King did, Jenn Gambatese (as the roustabout’s love interest, temporarily cross-dressed as a man) gives an impressive interpretation of “A Little Less Conversation,” her bright belt nipping crisply at the rapid-fire lyrics. With arrangements and musical supervision by Stephen Oremus, the album garnishes solo vocals with harmonizing back-up singers and propulsive instrumental breaks, most satisfyingly in “C’mon Everybody,” a “Teddy Bear/Hound Dog” medley, the country-styled “That’s All Right,” and a Motown-flavored “Let Yourself Go.” But the recording’s only true standout numbers are “Jailhouse Rock” and “Burning Love,” classics so intrinsically exciting that they never fail to electrify. — Lisa Jo Sagolla
Broadway Cast, 20015 (Broadway Records) (5 / 5) Well, this is different. In bringing The Color Purple back to Broadway in a stripped down, bare-essentials production, director John Doyle — a master of simplicity — shed a whole new light on the musical and exposed all of its hidden qualities. In terms of the actual material, there’s not much difference between this revival and what was presented 10 years previously; but the approach is vastly different, and that’s why the production and the recording are a revelation. The cast — including TV star Danielle Brooks and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, both making their Broadway debuts — finds the humanity that make these characters resonate so deeply. Their powerful acting is reflected in their singing voices, as they attack the score with a ferocity rarely heard on Broadway. While everyone in the cast is stellar, British newcomer Cynthia Erivo is the major find here. Erivo’s Celie may experience brutality and devastation, but she is never a victim. She has strength, humor, and grit; her unstoppable voice can whisper with hurt or soar in triumph, making the 11 o’clock number “I’m Here” the tour de force it was meant to be. Special attention should also be given to the orchestrations of Joseph Joubert, who has removed the fussiness of Jonathan Tunick’s originals and instead has made the orchestra function as a support system (albeit one with great color and versatility), so that the characters are truly front and center. It’s rare for a revival cast recording to be preferable to the original, especially when the revival is significantly smaller in size. But sometimes, with a dynamic cast, a smart director, and a gifted orchestrator, miracles happen. — M.K
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2001 (RCA) (3 / 5) A Class Act represents an important bit of modern musical theater history, and this recording of the Manhattan Theatre Club production is an intriguing artifact, documenting the original, intimate approach to the material that was changed when a move to Broadway necessitated bigger laughs, bigger emotions, and bigger orchestrations. The show is a warmhearted tribute to composer-lyricist Edward Kleban, who died in 1987. For those who know only his work as the lyricist of A Chorus Line, the fine handle on composition that Kleban displays here may come as a surprise. The songs assembled for A Class Act — orchestrated by Larry Hochman under Todd Ellison’s musical direction — show Kleban’s impressive talent in dealing with a variety of subjects, ranging from music and musicals (“One More Beautiful Song,” “Charm Song”) to the City of Lights (“Paris Through the Window”) to the complexities of human relationships (“Under Separate Cover,” “Self Portrait”). There are also a couple of traditional, all-out showstoppers: “Gauguin’s Shoes” and “Better.” A fine, laid-back band and an eight-person cast led by director Lonny Price (as Kleban) and Carolee Carmello give all of the songs wonderful performances, but Tony-winner Randy Graff steals the show and listeners’ hearts with her emotional renditions of the score’s most sensitive numbers, including one true classic: “The Next Best Thing to Love.” — Matthew Murray
Original Broadway Cast, 1990 (Columbia/Sony) (5 / 5) Cy Coleman’s blending of 1940s musical styles — swing, blues, film noir soundtrack, and more — with David Zippel’s deft and witty lyrics helped make City of Angels one of the best musicals of the 1980s. This excellent recording preserves Billy Byers’ hot orchestrations and the performances of an almost ideal cast. Gregg Edelman’s rich, rangy baritone is exciting in the songs written for author/screenwriter Stine; René Auberjonois finds plenty of oily comedy in the role of Buddy Fidler, flim-flam film producer extraordinaire; and Scott Waara’s smooth tones are ideal for radio crooner Jimmy Powers. Rachel York as Mallory and Dee Hoty as Alaura both give dynamic performances, but Hoty is hampered by the exclusion from the recording of one of her big numbers. The major standouts are the show’s Tony winners: James Naughton’s easygoing manner and voice are just right for film detective Stone; and Randy Graff, playing two “Girl Friday”-type secretaries, walks away with the show’s brashest and funniest number, “You Can Always Count on Me.” The Naughton-Edelman duet “You’re Nothing Without Me” is another highlight. Only Kay McClelland, playing both Stine’s wife and Stone’s longtime flame, is just adequate, although her two songs — “It Needs Work” and the torchy “With Every Breath I Take” — are well written. The cast album’s most significant flaw is the omission of much material that would have balanced the characters and illuminated the show’s razor-sharp humor. Still, this is an essential recording of a top-notch Coleman score. Don’t stop listening until “Double Talk Walk,” some of Broadway’s best-ever exit music, has finished playing. — Matthew Murray
Original London Cast, 1993 (RCA) (2 / 5) With almost every important musical moment of City of Angels captured, and enough of Larry Gelbart’s incisive dialogue included to set the scenes, this is the kind of recording that should have been made of the original Broadway production. Unfortunately, the performances here leave much to be desired, with most of the cast over-emoting in both speech and song. Henry Goodman, superb as Buddy, makes this work only because his character is so far over-the-top to begin with. The style feels far less organic to the other performances, with Roger Allam a particularly uncomfortable Stone and Susannah Fellows (Alaura), Fiona Hendley (Gabbi/ Bobbi), and Haydn Gwynne (Oolie/Donna) doing little better. Martin Smith keeps his Stine grounded, but his 11-o’clock number, “Funny,” is a restrained disappointment here. Even if the cast’s problems with American accents and 1940s speech patterns come through, this recording’s more thorough documentation of the score makes it useful as a companion, if not a substitute, for the otherwise superior Broadway recording. — M.M.
Original Broadway Cast, 1975 (Columbia/Masterworks Broadway) (5 / 5) In 1975, A Chorus Line was a phenomenon. The conception of the show began with Broadway wunderkind Michael Bennett’s idea that there might be a musical to be made from the stories of the lives of Broadway’s dancers, a group that was undervalued and overlooked at the time. Bennett got together a bunch of these “gypsies,” many of whom would go on to be in the original company of A Chorus Line, and urged everyone to talk about their lives, all the while taping the conversations. From those tapes, Bennett along with librettists James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and lyricist Edward Kleban shaped the material through a series of workshops at The Public Theater. Both achingly real and thrillingly theatrical, the show premiered there to ecstatic reviews and quickly moved to Broadway, where it became a massive hit. The setting is an open audition of dancers for an unnamed Broadway musical, during which the show’s director, Zach, sets his final 16 hopefuls in a line and proceeds to inquire about their lives. Some of the dancers offer humorous anecdotes (“I Can Do That”), others share painful stories (the moving “At the Ballet”). From beginning to end, this original Broadway cast recording feels like lightning in a bottle. The definitive cast performs with a gumption that’s palpable to the listener, expressing each character’s desire to dance and their need get the job. As Cassie, a veteran dancer who’s hoping for a second chance at her career and who also has a complicated history with Zach, Donna Mckechnie is exceptional. (She won a Tony Award for her performance. )Though we don’t get to see any of her beautiful dancing here, her vocals are the most impressive of any Cassie, and the sheer desperation in her delivery of “The Music and the Mirror” resonates deeply. There’s also Priscilla Lopez as the bouncy Diana, Kelly Bishop as the cynical yet vulnerable Sheila, Sammy Williams as the conflicted Paul, and Pamela Blair as the brassy Val — but, truthfully one could keep going on and on about each cast member’s contribution. The score remains a classic, with Kleban’s conversational lyrics seamlessly flowing in and out of dialogue as Hamlisch’s melodies display great variety in style and emotion, from pulsating anxiety (the opening “I Hope I Get It”) to classic show biz razzle-dazzle (the finale ,“One”). Though the grand montage “Hello Twelve, Hello, Thirteen, Hello Love” is only represented here in chunks, and the music-and-dialogue sequence “And…” wasn’t recorded at all, there are no serious complaints about this truly great cast album. Fun fact: Due to the small budgets for the workshops, Bennett was unable to afford a solo orchestrator to work on the entire show, so he instead hired three — masters Hershy Kay, Jonathan Tunick, and Bill Byers — to individually orchestrate various musical numbers. The fact that the work of these three men never feels disjointed and comes together as a beautiful whole is representative of the theme of A Chorus Line in general. — Matt Koplik
Film Soundtrack, 1985 (Casablanca/Polygram) No stars; not recommended. With its inherent theatricality and non-traditional story structure, A Chorus Line was always going to be a difficult property to adapt for the screen, even in the best of hands. But that hardly excuses Richard Attenborough’s bafflingly misguided interpretation. The soundtrack recording provides numerous examples of the film’s wrongdoings, which include giving “What I Did For Love” to Cassie as a solo and replacing “The Music and the Mirror” and the “Hello Twelve…” montage with, respectively, the inferior “Let Me Dance For You” and “Surprise, Surprise.” Also unfortunate are Ralph Burns’ synthesizer-heavy orchestrations. In fairness to Burns, though his work here is busy and rather cheap sounding, anyone who watches the movie (but why would you?) can see that the director and producers were aiming for a hip, modern, ’80s look and sound, so it’s likely they imposed that vision on the Broadway-favorite orchestrator. Director Attenborough managed to cast an able company of dancers, but his and screenwriter Arnold Schulman’s terrible creative decisions bar any of them from truly succeeding. While Allyson Reed does a commendable job as Cassie, having her sing the show’s anthem, “What I Did For Love,” as a solo was, as noted, a huge misstep; it robs the company of the proud defense of their sacrifice for their art and instead puts a tighter spotlight on Cassie, so that the story suddenly becomes very specific rather than achieving the universality that Michael Bennett fought hard for in the original stage show. Similarly, while Gregg Burge as Richie does his best with “Surprise, Surprise,” that number focuses purely on one character’s sexual awakening, rather than offering detailed glimpses into the adolescence (the pain, the humiliation, the joy) of each dancer on the line. For film students, A Chorus Line provides a textbook example of how not to adapt a successful musical to the screen. For Broadway fans, you’re better off pretending this soundtrack recording doesn’t exist. — M.K.
Broadway Cast, 2006 (Masterworks Broadway) (3 / 5) If the original cast album of A Chorus Line provides a rush of adrenaline, this respectful recording plays like a reference guide for those who might be new to the score. Just about every note and every lyric is carefully set down — though “And…” is still sadly unrepresented — with a cast that makes sure not to impose negatively on the Chorus Line legacy. While this approach is a far more welcome alternative to that of the disastrous movie version, it makes for a rather bland recording. From the piano intro of “I Hope I Get It” through to the grand finale, “One,” the listener can sense the conductor, cast, and orchestra taking great pains to not have a single hair out of place. This delicate attitude takes away much of the energy and urgency that make A Chorus Line so compelling, and it keeps most of the very talented company from putting their own personal spin on their characters. That said, there are some major highlights here. As Diana, Natalie Cortez offers an impassioned and vulnerable interpretation of “Nothing,” and if Jessica Lee Goldyn isn’t quite as brassy as Pamela Blair, her “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three” is comically endearing. Best of all, for the first time, the “Hello Twelve…” montage is recorded in its nearly 20 minute entirety! If nothing else, that alone makes this recording essential for Broadway fans. — M.K.
Original Stage Cast, 1993 (Columbia/Sony) (3 / 5) The Alan Menken-Lynn Ahrens musical version of A Christmas Carol lit up Madison Square Garden for 10 seasons, and though the production’s spectacle played a vital role in its success, this recording documents the fact that an enjoyable score may also have had something to do with it. The adaptation is very straightforward; Menken and Ahrens’ took few liberties with Charles Dickens’ classic story. There are the requisite numbers for Scrooge’s feelings about Christmas as compared with those of his neighbors, his meetings with the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future, and his eventual change of heart. The score is unremarkable, but that’s OK; songs like “The Lights of Long Ago” and “Christmas Together” are pleasant enough, “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” is an attractive toe-tapper, and “A Place Called Home” is a charming, tuneful duet for the young-adult Scrooge and his lady love. Walter Charles is nothing short of ideal as Scrooge, acting and singing with all the necessary crotchety conviction. He leads a cast that includes such Broadway names as Christopher Sieber, Bill Nolte, Robert Westenberg, Ken Jennings, and Emily Skinner. This recording makes for an enjoyable, if not quite essential, listen during the holidays or at any other time of the year. — Matthew Murray
Television Cast, 2004 (JAY) (3 / 5) Television adaptations of musicals are frequently mixed bags, given the perceived need for stars whom viewers will instantly recognize but who may or may not be well suited to their roles. However, many of the casting choices made for the 2004 Hallmark Entertainment version of the Menken-Ahrens A Christmas Carol were as savvy as they were starry, and this recording captures the best of their work. Jane Krakowski’s focused, empathetic performance as the Ghost of Christmas Past makes her big solo, “The Lights of Long Ago,” a major highlight. Jason Alexander is a showily threatening Marley. Jesse L. Martin is obviously having a ball as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and his “Abundance and Charity” is abundant with joy. Edward Gower and Jacob Moriarty sound just right as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, respectively. Stage favorites Brian Bedford, Claire Moore, Linzi Hately, and Ruthie Henshall score in their smaller roles, the last particularly so as Scrooge’s Mother, delivering a lovely and poignant “God Bless Us Everyone.” On the recording, Scrooge is a somewhat diminished presence, so you don’t hear a ton of Kelsey Grammer, but what’s here is loaded with well-calculated grump if not all the gusto one wants from the role. A lush, full orchestra plays Michael Starobin’s lively orchestrations under the baton of Michael Kosarin. — M.M.