Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2020 (Broadway Records) (2 / 5) This recording represents the Off-Broadway production of Emojiland, a knowingly campy musical that proudly planted its digital freak flag on the theatrical landscape. In an era when even many Off-Broadway ventures are crafted for mainstream appeal, usually in the hope of receiving a transfer to Broadway, it’s somewhat refreshing to listen to this cast album of a show that has no objective other than to entertain through humor and absurdity. How successful it is at doing so is another matter. Written by Laura Schein and Keith Harrison, the musical takes its title from the ideograms that have become so popular in the age of communication through digital devices. The story explores a world populated by these emojis — including such favorites as Kissy Face and Pile of Poo — as they grapple with the disruption of their society that has resulted from the latest software update. Though the show’s plot touches on major themes like xenophobia and prejudice, Emojiland has no intention of being any meatier than a bag of gummy bears. Schein and Harrison’s upbeat score appropriately leans towards techno-pop, and if their lyrics aren’t laugh-out-loud funny, they’re contentedly witty and keep the fun going. Emojiland also benefits from a cast that appears game for the ridiculousness of the piece, led by Schein herself as ingénue Smize. Lesli Margherita and Josh Lamon, in particular, give ingenious comedic turns as the emojis Princeess and Prince, respectively. Like any sugar rush, the show starts to wear itself out rather quickly, and once Lamon and Margherita finish letting loose with the Act 2 opener “Firewall Ball,” the album becomes something of a chore to finish. But even if it doesn’t stay with you for long, Emojiland offers lots of fun in the moment. — Matt Koplik
Film Soundtrack, 2013 (Walt Disney Records) (4 / 5) One of the most popular titles in Disney’s history, Frozen revolves around two royal sisters: Elsa, who has the power to conjure snow and ice but is unable to control it, and Anna, who possesses no magical powers but is adventurous and desirous to be in love. By the end, they realize that the love they have for each other is strong enough to help Elsa control her powers, and is just as meaningful as any romantic relationship. A massive and enduring success, Frozen has received constant exposure in pop culture and media, leading many to become exhausted by the film, but first time listeners to this soundtrack will likely understand why it has continued to capture audiences. The songs, written by the married team of Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (with incidental and choral scoring by Christophe Beck), are an intelligent blend of traditional musical theater and modern day pop, making the score feel both classic and current. (Doug Besterman provides lush and creative orchestrations.) The lyrics are often playful and cute while still offering strong character insight. “In Summer,” in particular, has a wittily morbid edge to it as sung by Olaf, a clueless snowman (Josh Gad) who wants nothing more than to experience warm weather, not realizing how it will effect his snow-based body. Frozen also benefits from having the strongest vocal cast for a Disney film since Beauty and the Beast, employing almost exclusively Broadway talent. In addition to Gad, we have Idina Menzel as Elsa, Kristin Bell as Anna, and Santino Fontana bringing credible Prince-ly charm to Hans. Bell gets quite a few songs to showcase her pure, classic-Disney-Princess soprano (she and Fontana work particularly well together on “Love is an Open Door”), but it’s Menzel who does the vocal heavy lifting, as in the soundtrack’s phenomenal breakout hit, “Let It Go.” Though it has been overplayed to the point of its becoming a pop culture punchline, at its core the song is well-structured and catchy, belted out by Menzel with great relish. In the movie and on this soundtrack album, only Jonathan Groff is musically wasted as Kristoff, a romantic foil for Anna, his singing limited to the thankfully short “Reindeers are Better Than People.” Otherwise, Frozen is a delight. — Matt Koplik
Original Broadway Cast, 2018 (Walt Disney Records) (3 / 5) In the continuing line of movies translated to the stage, Disney has had an erratic track record, ranging from great success (The Lion King) to major disappointments (The Little Mermaid, Tarzan). The Broadway adaptation of Frozen, which this recording represents, lies somewhere in the middle. On the plus side, the show tries to dig deeper into its source material than most other Disney stage musicals, but the results are often middling. Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez have been brought back to expand their score from the film, and Dave Metzger’s orchestrations pretty much follow Doug Besterman’s blueprints. But while new songs like “Dangerous to Dream,” “Hans of the Southern Isles,” and “True Love” are commendable in their intentions to give the characters complexity, they really can’t be described as anything more than serviceably listenable. Of all the additions, the song that comes closest to standing out is “Monster,” a second-act number for Elsa — but, musically, even that feels more like a lesser “Let it Go” than a fully developed new piece. While the principal players may not be able to separate themselves completely from the original movie cast, they are all strong singers and inject plenty of personality into their performances. As the two sisters, Caissie Levy (Elsa) and Patti Murin (Anna) work particularly hard not to present cartoonish interpretations while skillfully navigating the demands of the score. The recording is also well worth a listen for Stephen Oremus’s stunning vocal arrangements, which give the pre-existing songs from the film a shot of Broadway adrenaline and provide the show’s ensemble with rich choral material (“Vuelie” and “Queen Anointed” are particularly haunting). If this recording isn’t good enough to replace Frozen’s original soundtrack, it’s worthy to stand alongside it — or a few steps behind, at least. — M.K.
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2018 (Masterworks Broadway) (3 / 5) People have adapted Shakespeare’s plays into musicals before, usually taking on the Bard’s hits. Librettist/lyricist Peter Kellogg and composer David Friedman chose one of the “problem plays,” Measure for Measure — a complicated stew of morality, corruption, and justice, with not much comedy in it. Kellogg and Friedman dropped their characters in Old West Arizona, and ramped up the sex (keeping the famous “bed trick”) and fun. The result, Desperate Measures, is a raucous, bawdy, old-fashioned musical comedy. The album can’t supply the sight gags, but the performers have great comedic chops, and they land every punch line in Kellogg’s lyrics. Friedman has called his score “Jewish country,” but it’s charmingly varied despite the dominant Western twang. “It Doesn’t Hurt To Try” is a hoedown with banjo and fiddle; “Someday They Will Thank Me” is a comic patter number for the villain, the sleazy governor (Nick Wyman, with a outrageous German accent); and the first act finale, “In the Dark,” is a complex choral piece set to a rhumba rhythm. The scene-setting opener, “The Ballad of Johnny Blood,” is an over-the-top homage to the themes of classic Western TV shows and films like Rawhide and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Broadway influences are present, too, including small nods to Oklahoma! and a big one to Annie Get Your Gun with the best comic challenge duet since “Anything You Can Do”: In “Just For You,” Johnny (Conor Ryan) and saloon girl Bella (the uproarious Lauren Molina) argue over how far each would go in the name of love. (“I slept with another guy, just for you.” “Shot a man and watched him die, just for you.”) Molina also shines in her saloon striptease, “It’s Getting Hot In Here,” and in the duet “The Way That You Feel,” as novice nun Susanna (Emma Degerstedt, with a lovely soprano) instructs her how to be less risqué for the bed trick. Overall, this is a spirited score with heart. — Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2017 (Atlantic ) (4 / 5) A musical that unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, Dear Evan Hansen is the most high profile theater work to date from the songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Set in a nondescript modern suburb, the show centers around a high school introvert with intense anxiety issues who finds himself involved in a misunderstanding which, partly due to the double-edged sword of social media and its galvanizing impact, snowballs into a giant lie that does both good and harm. Though the character of Evan is a little too broadly painted in his neuroses, and the show’s commentary on the effect of social media in modern culture doesn’t go quite as deep as it should, Pasek and Paul’s score is memorable and compelling, managing to wax poetic without being too on-the-nose in its imagery. Ben Platt, in the title role, does the majority of the vocal heavy lifting here, delivering a fully rounded and thrilling performance. It helps that he’s given the best songs in the score: the show’s biggest hit, “Waving Through a Window,” as well as the crushing “Words Fail” and the lovely if slightly heavy-handed “For Forever.” Platt is well supported by Rachel Bay Jones as Evan’s endearing, struggling, single mother; and Laura Dreyfuss, refreshingly understated as Zoe, the object of Evan’s affections, who may be harmed most by Evan’s lie. The cast album includes minimal dialogue, opting instead to present each song as a stand-alone item. While this doesn’t harm the flow of the recording, and has helped a few of the songs to break out as popular hits, two songs suffer from such treatment: “Good For You,” a cathartic release of Evan’s mom’s pent-up frustration, here plateaus in its anger, with no release; and the offbeat humor of “Sincerely Me” comes across as somewhat tasteless out of context. That said, the rest of the album works very well. Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations (with additional work by Christopher Jahnke) are appropriately pop-oriented, and Justin Paul’s vocal arrangements never go overboard with vocal pyrotechnics. The restraint in their work separates DEH from many other contemporary scores, allowing the emotional weight of the piece to really resonate with the listener. And there are plenty of emotions here to resonate. — Matt Koplik
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2013 (Ghostlight) (3 / 5) Many musical scores can stand perfectly well as cast recordings, separate from their staged productions. Others lose something when deprived of the character and plot development revealed in the shows’ libretti. For all its virtues, Dogfight — songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, book by Peter Duchan — falls within the latter group. Based on the 1991 film, it’s the story of some Marines tearing up San Francisco in late 1963, the night before they ship out to Vietnam. They plan a “dogfight,” a contest in which each jarhead contributes fifty bucks to a kitty that will be won by the guy who brings the ugliest date to the party. A nasty game, indeed — and the boys, including lead Eddie Birdlace (Derek Klena), appear as insensitive, hot-blooded louts. Fresh out of boot camp and convinced that they’re invincible, their pickup lines in the song “Hey, Good-Lookin'” are lies and braggadocio. Eddie finds a waitress, Rose (the sweet-voiced Lindsay Mendez), and pressures her to “Come to a Party” while privately exulting over his chances of winning the dogfight. Rose, for her part, is thrilled to be going out with a boy; in “Nothing Short of Wonderful,” she dithers over what to wear in staccato phrases, sounding like a mashup of Cinderella and the Baker’s Wife from Into The Woods. (The opening vamp of the title song also echoes that Sondheim show.) Clearly, this evening will not go well for Rose. But, sometime between the invitation and the party, Eddie has a change of heart that isn’t part of the score, although it’s described in the recording notes. The libretto shows us how Eddie grows to like Rose as they walk to the party, but none of that is in the score; on the album, he jumps from acting like a complete cad to trying unsuccessfully to take Rose home before the judging, in order to save her the embarrassment. Similarly, the recording doesn’t include Eddie’s later apology or indicate how the relationship progresses. Still, there’s much to appreciate here. Pasek and Paul know how to craft effective theater songs with nuance and layers. A few of the lyrics are a little too facile in telegraphing emotions or a sense of time and place, but most are very well written. The music ranges from early-sixties pop to Rose’s folk songs and powerful, revealing character numbers. “Come to a Party” works on multiple levels as variously sung by the callous Marines, the naive Rose, or Marcy, a knowing prostitute (played with sledgehammer bluntness by Annaleigh Ashford). The boys’ cockiness is evident as they take the town in “Some Kinda Time” and plan their big homecoming in “Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade.” Reality shatters their hopes, and Eddie’s devastating “Come Back” portrays what the war has done to him. But Rose is the real star here, and her journey comes through best in the score. She’s alternately shy and manic at first, then furious at the “Dogfight,” and soul-searching in “Pretty Funny.” The show’s emotional crux is found in her song “Before It’s Over,” when she realizes she has somehow benefited from the dreadful experience. As noted above, Eddie’s character growth isn’t charted as well in the songs, but this is still a solid score that tells a compelling story. — Laura Frankos
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2011 (PS Classics) (2 / 5) On paper, Death Takes a Holiday probably looked like a wonderful idea for a musical. Composer-lyricist Maury Yeston has done some very admirable work, and audiences have long been intrigued with the story told here — based on a play by Alberto Casella that has received several adaptations, most famously as a 1934 film that starred Fredric March. So what went wrong? After the success of Titanic, Yeston and librettist Peter Stone chose to create an intimate musical inspired by Casella’s tale of a weekend during which Death puts aside his scythe and falls for a mortal girl. (Thomas Meehan joined the project after Stone’s death.) As it turned out, the plot was the first stumbling block for the adapters; the list of successful fantasy musicals is a short one, and the concept here is a whopper to swallow. Still, a strong opening number can get an audience to accept darn near anything — but Yeston disappoints with “In the Middle of Your Life/Nothing Happened.” Instead of being made to understand what it is about Grazia (Jill Paice) that causes Death (Kevin Earley) to stay his hand when she’s thrown from a car, we’re wincing at the bare exposition of the lyrics: “What is that darkness I see ahead?” “We’re going into a spin!” Also wince-inducing is the line, “Nothing can go wrong for her.” (Did they really sing that? Yup.) Nor do we buy it when Death, impersonating a Russian prince, tells Grazia’s father (Michael Siberry) of his desire for a vacation. Earley, who took over the role during preview performances when Julian Ovenden developed vocal problems, has a terrific voice, but its timbre isn’t well suited to the the Grim Reaper’s darker musical moments. He’s more effective in the lighter “Alive!” discovering the joys of breakfast, and in the romantic numbers with Paice, a solid Grazia. Oddly, the score’s best songs center on an unseen character: Grazia’s dead brother, Roberto. Major Fenton (Matt Cavenaugh) sees something in Prince Sirki’s eyes that eerily remind him of “Roberto’s Eyes” when his friend was shot down; and Rebecca Luker, as the mother, tells Sirki what death does to a family in the devastating “Losing Roberto.” The former conveys terror far better than characters intoning “Death is in the house!” and the latter lets Sirki truly know the pain he inflicts with each fatality, effectively leading to Earley’s heartfelt big number, “I Thought That I Could Live.” Would that the rest of the score matched the quality of these songs. Yeston’s melodies are lovely, with a nice Continental air (aside from a shimmy designed to get the cast dancing), but it’s hard to get past the often clunky lyrics. — Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast 2005 (Ghostlight) (4 / 5) David Yazbek’s Broadway scores are just plain fun, whether it’s the frenetic farce of Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or the blue-collar humor of The Full Monty. For Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (book by Jeffrey Lane, based on the 1988 film), Yazbek wrote a genuine, old-fashioned musical comedy in which the various songs put on as many guises as the con-men characters. There are pop pastiches, a scatological list song presented with Cowardesque elegance, a rueful ballad, a samba, and the most vulgar “I want” song in musical history, along with several numbers that require the performers to use accents outrageous enough to start another Franco-Prussian war. For all these varied styles, the score is well-tailored to the characters, and the excellent cast delivers. The scoundrels are the suave Lawrence Jameson (John Lithgow) and the crass Freddy Benson, the latter a small-time grifter eager for bigger scams. Klutzy heiress Christine Colgate (Sheri Rene Scott) is their mark, with Joanna Gleason and Gregory Jbara as the obligatory comic secondary couple. (I told you it’s a traditional musical comedy.) The versatile Lithgow assumes personae ranging from a dignified pseudo-prince to a sadistic Austrian shrink, yet still achieves a believable wistfulness in “Love Sneaks In.” Tony-winner Butz salivates over the “Great Big Stuff” he craves (“I wanna be like Trump!”), shrieks as mad Prince Ruprecht, and, with Scott, croons an anatomy lesson in “Love Is My Legs.” Scott pairs well with both tricksters and soars in the zippy “Here I Am.” (Yazbek is a fan of Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter’s skill with internal rhymes; they’d approve his work here.) Gleason and Jbara make the most of their numbers, especially the absurd yet sexy “Like Zis/Like Zat.” Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations have the right comic-caper tone for the proceedings, and the vocal arrangements by Yazbek and Ted Sperling let the ensemble punctuate the score with jazzy exclamation points. The recording includes two demos by Yazbek, plus Scott in a lovely version of “Nothing Is Too Wonderful To Be True” — a surprisingly pretty song with Butz’s comic verses removed. There’s also a bit of dialogue from Lithgow, warning listeners just before the tracks that reveal the final twists — the likes of which we haven’t encountered since The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The title of the show’s opening number is “Give Them What They Want.” I want more David Yazbek musicals. — Laura Frankos
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 2015 (Ghostlight) (3 / 5) In Jean Webster’s 1912 novel Daddy-Long-Legs, Jerusha Abbott is an orphan whose intelligence prompts orphanage trustee Jervis Pendleton to pay for her education. He requests monthly reports on her studies through letters from her, though he has made it clear that he will not reply, remaining anonymous. Ultimately, she discovers he is her roommate’s highly attractive uncle. The novel’s success inspired a play, a 1951 London musical (Love From Judy), and four films. (The Fred Astaire movie Daddy Long Legs is far removed from the original.) The challenge for any adapter is the book’s epistolary style; the reader sees Jerusha’s experiences through her highly personable missives, and falls for her as Jervis does. How to translate a bunch of letters to the stage? The obvious answer is to open up the story, crowding the stage with multiple sets and lots of classmates and friends who are referred to in the book. But John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (songs) pared their musical to the bare bones: Jerusha, Jervis, and those letters, which comprise most of Jerusha’s songs, performed by Megan McGinnis with a fine sense of developing maturity. The letters are also the indirect source of the songs written for Jervis (Paul Alexander Nolan), as they represent his reactions to them. The greatest strength of the score is the arc of these letter songs. In “Like Other Girls,” Jerusha frets about fitting in, given her humble background, and she bemoans her ignorance of the classics in the delightful “Things I Don’t Know.” Jervis believably moves from reserved philanthropy (“She Thinks I’m Old”) to following Jerusha’s syllabus to wondering “What Does She Mean By Love?” Gordon convincingly explains Jervis’s reluctance to emotional attachments, a key reason why he keeps his identity secret even after meeting Jerusha in person. There are other gems — the sprightly “My Manhattan,” a valentine to New York, and the agonizing “Graduation Day,” when Jerusha’s heart breaks because she thinks her mysterious benefactor is a no-show. (He’s there, of course, and also hurting.) Not everything works. The opening is somewhat mired in exposition, especially Jerusha’s impersonation of another orphan. Jervis’ realization number, “Charity,” lacks the emotional punch it needs, and the finale, “All This Time,” is far too understated; we’re invested in this pair, and we want a bigger payoff. Gordon’s melodies are intimate and sweet, played by piano, cello and guitar. The score is not period, but it fits the property in other respects. A final note: Those who grew up with the novel may wonder why, in the musical, Jerusha doesn’t change her hated first name, foisted on her at the orphanage. Paul Gordon has said he wrote a song for that scene, but it didn’t work well — and also, unlike the character, he and Caird like the name “Jerusha.” — Laura Frankos
Original Broadway Cast, 2006 (Ghostlight) (3 / 5) This might be the first Broadway musical with commentary written into the script. Alone in his apartment, a musical theater devotee anonymously named Man in Chair plays the recording of one of his favorites, the (fictional) 1920s romp The Drowsy Chaperone. He then proceeds to provide footnotes on the stars and writers as we watch the show come to life in his apartment. On stage, it all worked beautifully and hilariously. With its dynamic original cast and inventive staging, The Drowsy Chaperone was unique in that it allowed those of us who adore musicals to see ourselves depicted on stage, while also giving us the benefit of watching a delightfully silly musical. But when taken out of the frame of the production, the score, by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, proves to be merely decent. Though the songs are cute in their reminiscences of the jazzy musicals of the ’20s, they don’t move beyond hommage. The lyrics can be daffy and quirky (“Show Off”), but they never really channel the wit and sophistication of Lorenz Hart or Ira Gershwin. The music is light but fun, much helped by Larry Blank’s peppy, period appropriate orchestrations. The ensemble, clearly having a blast, revels in old school camp and bravado, and elevates the lyrics so that they seem more humorous than they are. Danny Burstein tastefully hams it up in “I Am Aldolpho,” Beth Leavel gleefully warbles Garland-style in “As We Stumble Along,” and Sutton Foster uses her star power to great effect in “Bride’s Lament.” But it’s co-librettist Bob Martin as the Man in Chair who shines brightest here. Though he has no song of his own, Martin offers anecdotes and opinions on the show within the show and its performers throughout the album. His commentary is hilarious and inventive, delivered with just the right touch of knowledge and enthusiasm. Overall, The Drowsy Chaperone is a highly enjoyable show and a fun album, but to quote the Man in Chair, “just ignore the lyrics.” — Matt Koplik
Studio Cast, 2013 (New World Records, 2CDs) (4 / 5) To anyone wondering why it took nearly nine decades to come up with a complete Dearest Enemy, read the excellent notes that accompany this fine recording. As with so many musicals of an earlier age, even some of the big hits, the parts and orchestrations were either lost or in fragmentary shape. Enter Larry Moore, who reconstructed the score from various extant pieces and, when necessary, found entirely valid ways to bridge the remaining gaps. (At one point, a little Tchaikovsky gets tossed into the mix. Well, why not?) With David Brophy conducting the Orchestra of Ireland and a fine cast, we now have as definitive an Enemy as could be imagined. If it perhaps lacks a bit of the conviction of the earlier British recording, everyone performs with spirit and charm. The orchestra and ensemble sound luscious; Annalene Beechey and James Cleverton are dandy lovers; and Kim Criswell, as Mrs. Murray, manages to keep the excesses at bay and stay in character. Everyone else is equally good, some dialogue is included to give a fair sense of the show, and there’s even a guest star: Stephen Rea, in the spoken role of George Washington. A major work has been stirringly served here, as have Rodgers and Hart and, really, everyone who wants to know about the delights of 1920s musical theater. — R.B.