Original Broadway Cast, 2015 (PS Classics) (5 / 5) Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home may seem like strange fodder for a Broadway musical. A memoir in the form of a graphic novel, it chronicles Bechdel’s coming out as a lesbian during her freshman year of college — shortly before her father, whom she discovers is a closeted homosexual, commits suicide. But creators Jeanine Tesori, Broadway’s premier female composer, and playwright Lisa Kron, here functioning as both librettist and lyricist, created a dazzling memory musical with a score that is unassuming, yet powerful. The show is narrated by Alison as an adult, played by a grounded Beth Malone; she is struggling to write the memoir as she sorts through her memories, some more vivid than she would like. Flowing in and out of various decades, the songs are variously timely (the faux-’70s-pop “Raincoat of Love”) and timeless (“Telephone Wire,” Bechdel’s recollection of her last moments with her father), all of them beautifully supported by John Clancy’s subtle, elegant orchestrations. Fun Home is a powerful piece that’s given a full, beautiful treatment on the cast recording, thanks to a generous amount of included dialogue. As the doomed father, Bruce, Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris is terrifying and pitiful. Judy Kuhn, as his long suffering wife, Helen, is beautifully restrained in “Days and Days,” a reminiscence of her misused life. Emily Skeggs is adorably awkward as Alison in her college years; but youngster Sydney Lucas, who plays Allison as a child, is the show’s secret weapon. Shedding the stereotype that shadows most child actors, Lucas is mature and strong and in complete control of her performance. Her rendition of “Ring of Keys,” in which a young Alison observes a masculine delivery woman in a diner and experiences her first moment of self-recognition in another person, is the ultimate highlight of the show. That song, like Fun Home as a whole, is destined to become a classic. — Matt Koplik
Los Angeles Cast, 1995 (DRG) (3 / 5) Here, Gerard Alessandrini has as much fun with Hollywood excess as with Broadway idiocy. But this recording differs from the Forbidden Broadway albums in one crucial respect: It’s live, and that’s a mistake. The audience keeps howling at sight gags listeners can’t fathom (like Dietrich’s arm falling off in “Falling Apart Again”). The satirical targets are a little strange, too; some numbers aim at movies that were new at the time (Braveheart, Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump), but nearly half the material clobbers various aspects of decades-old film version of classic Broadway musicals — the color filters in South Pacific, Barbra Streisand’s miscasting in Hello, Dolly! That said, much of it is a riot, and Jason Graae’s impression of Brando singing is as hilarious the twentieth time as the first. Gerry McIntyre is a flawless Louis Armstrong, a funny Whoopi Goldberg, a catatonic Keanu Reeves, and more. Christine Pedi, an unparalleled Liza in several Forbidden Broadways, gets unusually rich material here (“Mein Film Career”). And Suzanne Blakeslee, as Marni Nixon dubbing Audrey Hepburn, does justice to one of the funniest pieces of material Alessandrini has ever written. — Marc Miller
Original Cast, 1982 (DRG) (3 / 5) Gerard Alessandrini’s revues lampooning Broadway hits and personalities have been a reliable source of merriment in cabaret rooms, Off-Broadway theaters, and other venues throughout the U.S. and abroad since the early 1980s. “Wicked” is the adjective most often applied to these knowing parodies of show tunes and celebrities, but there’s usually affection at their base. More than that, Alessandrini’s a talented lyricist in his own right, particularly adept at turning a well-known lyric or show title on its head with a subtle tweak — e.g., “I Wonder What the King Is Drinking Tonight,” “Into the Words,” “Rant.” And his revues have showcased some of New York’s brightest talents, young pros with great gifts for mimicry. Of course, there’s no way to duplicate the visual components that send audiences into uncontrollable laughter, such as the hilarious costumes (often by the legendary Alvin Colt) and tiny sets spoofing enormous ones. Since the FB cast recordings are essentially comedy albums and repeated listening can diminish the jokes, they may linger on your CD shelves for long intervals, but they’re fun to revisit as a reminder of the ridiculous foibles of a given season. This first Forbidden Broadway album is one of the best, though by far the shortest at 40 minutes. Alessandrini usually writes one entirely original title song for each edition of the show, and there’s a particularly apt one here, with lyrics such as: “There’s a Great White Way / Where the white is gray / And the great is only okay.” The writer himself is also in the cast, doing a killer Topol in “Ambition.” The invaluable Nora Mae Lyng is a brassy Ann Miller and a brassier Ethel Merman, future indie-film star Chloe Webb a pert Andrea McArdle, and Bill Carmichael a funny emcee announcing, “Hats off, here they come, those . . . bankable stars.” As always, the one-piano accompaniment (here by musical director Fred Barton) manages to sound like a whole orchestra. Subsequent FB albums are more complete and more nastily funny, but this one has a hottest-new-show-in-town oomph. It also has that great Merrily We Roll Along parody poster art on its cover.– Marc Miller
Forbidden Broadway: Volume 2 — Compilation Album, 1991 (DRG) (3 / 5) For the best stuff in this compilation of Forbidden Broadway material from 1985 to 1991, check out Toni DiBuono capturing Patti LuPone down to the last self-indulgent nuance (“I Get a Kick Out of Me”), an ingenious My Fair Lady parody (“I Strain in Vain to Train Madonna’s Brain”) inspired by Madonna’s Broadway stint in Speed the Plow, Kevin Ligon as an amazing Mandy Patinkin (“Somewhat Overindulgent”), and one of the most famous and popular sequences in Forbidden Broadway history: the epic spoof of Les Misérables (“At the end of the play, you’re another year older.”) There are also winning performances by Michael McGrath and Karen Murphy. Not all of the tracks are for everybody; you have to have seen the original M. Butterfly, for instance, to appreciate the satiric puzzlement over its success. A backhanded salute to The Phantom of the Opera is a bit compromised because Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn’t allow his music to be used without alteration, but the righteous indignation expressed over a relatively fallow era in Broadway musical history makes for a very entertaining hour-plus of listening. — M.M.
Forbidden Broadway: Volume 3, 1993 (DRG) (2 / 5) This third edition’s opening number is weak, a CD-only appearance by Carol Channing and a stageful of imitators. But some first-class stuff follows: devastating slaps at Petula Clark and David Cassidy in Blood Brothers, Suzanne Blakeslee’s astonishing evocation of Julie Andrews, and Craig Wells’ hilarious put-down of Michael Crawford. On the whole, however, that season’s shows weren’t as ripe for parody as those of other seasons. Dustin Hoffman as Shylock filtered through Rain Man doesn’t hold up, and Topol’s stodginess in Fiddler was old news even in ’93; so was Robert Goulet’s Vegas slickness. Still, the intermittent pleasures keep coming, including quick riffs on the scenery chewing of Nathan Lane and Faith Prince in Guys and Dolls, a knockdown punch at Liliane Montevecchi, and an efficient torching of Miss Saigon. — M.M.
Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back!, 1996 (DRG) (4 / 5) A luxurious 73 minutes of what might be Gerard Alessandrini’s most consistent bouquet of parodies, this edition benefits from top-flight talent. The opening number (“Parody Tonight”) serves up Tom Plotkin’s expert Nathan Lane, Christine Pedi’s gurgling Liza, Donna English’s sneering Zoe Caldwell, and Bryan Batt’s vapid John Davidson in State Fair beaming through “Oh, What a Beautiful Moron!” It’s an auspicious start, and the recording seldom flags from there. There are digs at Harold Prince’s enormous Show Boat, the failed promise of Big, and casting prospects for the upcoming Kiss Me, Kate revival (Pedi’s Bernadette Peters and Batt’s Mandy Patinkin duet in “So Miscast”). English does the best Julie Andrews you’ve ever heard in an extended pummeling of Victor/Victoria (with the Tony nominating committee warbling, “Victor/Victoria, we will ignore-ee-ya”), and a brilliant parody of Rent encapsulates the frustrations of that show’s dissenters. Even the arrangements are funny; listen to the Sondheimisms in the King and I send-up. The album is a hoot, and there’s a terrific bonus track: English as Julie again, in a parody of Star! that’s truly hilarious. — M.M.
Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey, 2000 (DRG) (3 / 5) This edition averages out slightly below the series’ general level of inspiration. The first few tracks evaporate, and we don’t get a direct hit until the disembowelment of The Music Man, featuring a very funny Danny Gurwin. Other choice bits: a number that deals with Disney’s downsizing of Beauty and the Beast; Christine Pedi’s slaughtering of Liza Minnelli, not to mention her uncanny turns as Patti LuPone and Gwen Verdon; and an extended riff on Aida that will tickle even those unfamiliar with the show. Alessandrini’s take on Cheryl Ladd in Annie Get Your Gun (“I’ve No Business in Show Business”) epitomizes his art, and Tony Nation’s spoof of James Carpinello in Saturday Night Fever (“Stayin’ Away”) is a deft shot at an easy target, but the digs at Sondheim and Streisand don’t land as smoothly as usual. The album sends customers out on a high note with “76 Hit Shows,” but there wasn’t much to celebrate on Broadway in 2000, so it seems disingenuous to pretend that there was. — M.M.
20th Anniversary Edition — Compilation Album, 2000 (DRG) (4 / 5) If you’re not a Forbidden Broadway completist but want to know what all the fuss is about, this compilation, featuring eight previously unreleased tracks, is just the thing. Both the strengths and occasional weaknesses of the format come through ringingly, and the prodigiously talented cast offers more variety than a single-edition album would. Not all the spoofs are top-drawer; that Carol Channing parody really should be retired. What a pleasure, though, to re-encounter Christine Pedi’s flawless invocations of Liza and Stritch, Toni DiBuono’s uncanny Patti LuPone, and Alessandrini’s particular distaste for Broadway Disneyfication. Among the bonus tracks are some of his very best vignettes, such as Terri White’s glorious “Screamgirls” and the total demolition of Aspects of Love (“Love Changes Everything” becomes “I Sleep With Everyone”). Note how the various musical directors/accompanists throughout the history of Forbidden Broadway express entire orchestrations with one piano. Note also how they exaggerate cast album affectations — languorous tempi for Les Miz, the heavy bass tread of a Rodgers 4/4 tempo–to great effect. — M.M.
Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, 2009 (DRG) (3 / 5) This wasn’t one of the more thrilling Broadway seasons to spoof, but Alessandrini did a workmanlike job of finding targets, and in some cases, much better than workmanlike. Gina Kreiezmar doesn’t sound a great deal like Ashley Brown, but her “Feed the Burbs,” mocking Mary Poppins, is Alessandrini’s most concise and hilarious skewering of the Disneyfication of Broadway. Christina Bianco’s vocally challenged Bernadette Peters, in “See Me on a Monday” (one of several bonus tracks), is mean in a very funny way. Some straight-play parodies, of August: Osage County and Daniel Radcliffe in Equus (with James Donegan as Radcliffe), get the job done. Michael West is a delectably overblown James Barbour in a Tale of Two Cities spoof, and a number in which Kreiezmar as Patti LuPone taunts West as Boyd Gaines with “Small Part, Isn’t It?” is deftly done. — M.M.
Original Broadway Cast, 1962 (Capitol/Angel) (4 / 5) Except for the “House of Marcus Lycus” sequence and the courtesans’ dances, every important piece of music in this playful, skillful Stephen Sondheim score is included here, along with just enough dialogue to allow the listener to appreciate the songs in context. The album captures the indelible performances of the great clowns Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, David Burns, and their fellow low-vaudevillians. Brian Davies and Preshy Marker imbue the romantic couple Hero and Philia with sweetness, although the recording misses the daffy humor that they brought to these roles onstage. As the stentorian Domina, Ruth Kobart finally explodes in “That Dirry Old Man” and makes it clear why she received a Tony Award nomination for her performance. The album is dominated by Mostel in “Comedy Tonight,” “Free,” and other gems, but almost all of the principals have their shining moments, especially Ron Holgate as a hilarious Miles Gloriosus in “Bring Me My Bride.” The visual gags that convulsed audiences cannot be found here, of course, but this delightful recording will give your imagination a prod. Listening to “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” you can almost picture Messrs. Mostel, Gilford, Burns, and David Carradine ambling across the stage of the Alvin Theater. — Jeffrey Dunn
Original London Cast, 1963 (HMV/Angel) (2 / 5) Typical of many London cast recordings, this one includes more dialogue than the Broadway album. Frankie Howerd stars as Pseudolus, leading a … Forum cast made up of Britain’s comic hierarchy under the direction of the great George Abbott. The original orchestrations by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal are conducted by Alyn Ainsworth, and the sound quality here is excellent throughout. “Comedy Tonight” is almost complete (only the introduction of the Proteans is missing), and there are full dialogue lead-ins to “Free,” “Lovely,” “Pretty Little Picture,” “Bring Me My Bride,” “That’ll Show Him,” the “Lovely” reprise, and “The Funeral Sequence.” But how do the London cast members stack up against their Broadway counterparts? Well, these actors seem reserved in their approach to the high art of low comedy. Also, Howerd often misses the mark as a singer. The others are reasonably musical, but they lack comic impact. As Philia, Isla Blair has a thin voice that is tremulous and colorless in “That’ll Show Him.” Hero is played by John Rye with a mature baritone voice that sounds much more well suited to Miles Gloriosus; that part is sung by Leon Greene with comic credibility, but without the stentorian tones required. Linda Gray’s adequate “That Dirty Old Man” is totally outclassed by Ruth Kobart’s rendition on the Broadway album. While this disc wins points for completeness, it loses points for its several lackluster performances. — J.D.
Film Soundtrack, 1966 (United Artists) No stars; not recommended. The film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was directed by Richard Lester in a manic style that made the songs virtually superfluous. This very funny film deleted any song that did not have overt comedic value. Those that remain are “Comedy Tonight,” “Lovely” (both versions), “Everybody Ought to Have A Maid,” “Bring Me My Bride,” and “The Funeral Sequence” (listed here as “The Dirge”). The rest of the recording consists of music by Ken Thorne, who only utilizes Sondheim’s themes in two selections. Zero Mostel (Pseudolus) and Jack Gilford (Hysterium) recreated their Broadway roles, and Leon Greene (Miles) his London role; they make solid contributions. It’s also of interest to hear a young Michael Crawford as Hero singing “Lovely.” Still, this disc is only for collectors who feel they need to have every single Sondheim recording. — J.D.
Broadway Cast, 1996 (Angel) (3 / 5) This revival (revisal?) of …Forum offered new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, plus quite a few new lyrics by Sondheim, and other musical changes that were integral to the production. The entire “House of Marcus Lycus” sequence (not on the original cast album) is included and, while much of the dance music for the courtesans is new, the song itself has been preserved, performed by the always funny Ernie Sabella with musical assists from the ladies and connecting dialogue by Pseudolus (Nathan Lane) and Hero (Jim Stanek). Lane was the raison d’etre for this production; it was inevitable that he and the role of Pseudolus would eventually meet. The actor does not disappoint, making good on the character’s promise to “employ every device we know in our desire to divert you.” (He even recorded the tongue-twisting “Pretty Little Picture,” which was not actually performed in this production.) Conductor Edward Strauss keeps everything surging forward, allowing us just enough time to savor the details of words and music before hurtling ahead. The supporting cast is variable: Stanek and Jessica Boevers as Philia are on the dull side (the humor of their characters is hard to capture on a recording), but their singing is lovely. Although the shoes of Jack Gilford and David Burns are hard to fill, Mark Linn-Baker (Hysterium) and Lewis J. Stadlen (Senex) do their best. Cris Groenendaal’s Miles Gloriosus isn’t as funny as Ron Holgate’s original, but Mary Testa puts her own stamp on the role of Domina and delivers a smashing “That Dirty Old Man.” This is a highly enjoyable, energetic recording of a classic musical farce. — J.D.
New York and London Casts, 1927 and 1928 (Columbia, etc./Hallmark) (3 / 5) Purists who require the Gershwins’ Funny Face untainted by songs written by others have no choice but to brave these primitive recordings made by cast members of the original New York and London productions of 1927-28. The performances are pure gold from an archival standpoint. They offer the rare chance to hear Fred Astaire singing while he was still in his twenties, and there are also two priceless duets with his sister, Adele: “Funny Face” and “The Babbitt and the Bromide.” Two Arden-Ohman piano medleys serve as a prologue and entr’acte, and we have George Gershwin himself playing “My One and Only,” which Fred croons and taps on a separate track. Adele and Bernard Clifton get the love songs “He Loves and She Loves” and “‘S Wonderful.” Comedy is here too, as Leslie Henson performs “Tell the Doc.” If one can get past the imperfect sound and travel back to another era of performance style, there’s much pleasure to be found in this collection. — Morgan Sills
Film Soundtrack, 1956 (Verve) (5 / 5) One of the most fashionable films ever made is the classic Funny Face starring Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Kay Thompson. Highlights from the score of the Gershwin brothers’ Broadway musical of the 1920s, in which Astaire had starred three decades earlier, are inserted into a new plot and augmented with a trio of up-tempo numbers by composer-producer Roger Edens and lyricist-screenwriter Leonard Gershe. We know that this is a terrific recording as soon as Astaire’s unmistakable voice launches into the title tune on the first track. Not much later, Thompson socks out the Edens-Gershe showstopper “Think Pink.” Hepburn offers a deeply felt, subtle reading of”How Long Has This Been Going On?” Astaire’s ballad “He Loves and She Loves” is given an equally uncluttered and sincere rendition. The soundtrack album also boasts some delightful duets: Thompson and Astaire’s “Clap Yo’ Hands” and Thompson and Hepburn’s “On How to Be Lovely.” Especially apparent without the film’s visuals to distract the eye is the brilliance of the writing/arranging in the star trio’s extended musical sequence “Bonjour Paris.” The songs have been fitted with perfect orchestrations by Alexander Courage, Conrad Salinger, Van Cleave, and Skip Martin, and the entire performance is crisply conducted by Adolph Deutsch. In the words of Ira Gershwin as heard in the recording’s final track, “‘S Wonderful! ‘S Marvelous!” — M.S.
Original Broadway Cast, 2000 (BMG) (4 / 5) A great pleasure of experiencing this show live was seeing how well Terrence McNally’s script melded with show-tune novice David Yazbek’s music and lyrics. Based on a hit film from England, The Full Monty concerns a group of unemployed guys who resort to stripping in a club to earn some dough. The property really needed a contemporary voice to make it believable as a musical — and, in Yazbek, that’s what it got. The pop-tinged songs sound effortless, the lyrics as natural as dialogue coming from the mouths of these working-class men and the women in their lives. Modern though the music sounds, Yazbek writes marvelously well along traditional musical theater lines, from the comically confessional “Scrap” (that’s what these laid-off steel workers feel like) to “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number,” sung with world-weary pizzazz by the great Kathleen Freeman. Irreverence abounds in André De Shields’s “Big Black Man” and in the show’s shining gem, “Big Ass Rock,” in which antihero Jerry (Patrick Wilson) and best-buddy Dave (John Ellison Conlee) use darkly humorous reverse psychology to talk a fellow worker and soon-to-be fellow stripper out of committing suicide. The show also has its poignant moments in “You Walk With Me” and “Breeze Off the River.” While the songs don’t pack the same punch here as they do onstage, this is still a great score to enjoy on recording. — Brooke Pierce
Studio Cast, 2001 (Nonesuch) (4 / 5) Based on a play by Aristophanes, The Frogs was written by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove to be performed by the Yale Repertory Theatre in the university’s swimming pool. It had a one-week run in 1974, with an ensemble that included three Yale School of Drama students who would be heard from again: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang. The show harkens back to the Sondheim-Shevelove-Larry Gelbart musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in that both were freely based on ancient comic classics. This excellent recording of the brief score of The Frogs benefits from the luxury casting of Nathan Lane as the god Dionysos (“an aging juvenile of great charm”) and Brian Stokes Mitchell as his slave, Xanthias. The comic chemistry between these two is terrific, never more so than in the droll “Prologos: Invocation and Instructions to the Audience.” “Please don’t cough / It tends to throw the actors off,” Dionysos begs of the assembled theatergoers, going on to make further requests: “Please refrain / From candy wrapped in cellophane,” and “Please, don’t fart — there’s very little air and this is art.” In the equally funny title song, the chorus alternates between froggy noises and witty self-assessment (“Frogs! / We’re the frogs / The adorable frogs! / Not your hoity-toity intellectuals / Not your hippy-dippy homosexuals”). The only disappointing moment of this world-premiere recording of the score comes when Shakespeare shows up in the person of Davis Gaines to sing the beautiful ballad “Fear No More” (with a text by the Bard himself, from Cymbeline). Gaines has displayed a gorgeous baritone in myriad musical theater roles over many years, but here he sounds tired and affected.
The second part of this disc is devoted to songs from Evening Primrose, an hour-long musical that aired on ABC-TV in 1966. The teleplay by James Goldman concerns a struggling poet who remains in a Manhattan department store after closing time and there discovers — in the words of Frank Rich, who wrote notes for the Nonesuch recording — “a mysterious nocturnal society of eccentric shut-ins as well as the muse he’s been searching for, a sort of modern Rapunzel named Ella.” In the telecast, Charles was played by Anthony Perkins, Ella by Charmian Carr. Since it was never a stage musical and is unlikely ever to be one, Evening Primrose doesn’t warrant a lengthy review here, but it must be said that the four-song score contains two of the best ballads Sondheim ever wrote: Ella’s touching reminiscence “I Remember,” and the gorgeous duet “Take Me to the World.” For this recording, Charles and Ella are sung persuasively by Neil Patrick Harris and Theresa McCarthy. Both the Evening Primrose and Frogs tracks feature the American Theatre Orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Sondheim specialist Paul Gemignani. The CD boasts Nonesuch’s typically stunning recorded sound: powerful but not harsh, ambient but not overly reverberant, with great dynamic range. — Michael Portantiere
Original Broadway Cast, 2004 (PS Classics) (4 / 5) A new version of The Frogs was presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont in 2004 for a limited, three-month run, but the lack of an extension or commercial transfer for the production should not be taken as a measure of its quality, as there’s much to savor here. Nathan Lane starred in the show as Dionysos, bringing the full force of his presence and talents to a role he had previously recorded a few years earlier (see review above). One of Broadway’s biggest stars for the past several decades, but not previously known as a writer, Lane became so enamored of the Sondheim/Shevelove adaptation of Aristophanes’ play that he himself collaborated with Sondheim in crafting an extensively revised and expanded version; the full credits for the text and score of this production read, “A comedy written in 405 b.c. by Aristophanes; “The Frogs” freely adapted by Burt Shevelove; “The Frogs” even more freely adapted by Nathan Lane; music by Stephen Sondheim; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; lyrics for “Fear No More” from Cymbeline by William Shakespeare.” Lane and Sondheim perhaps overwrote a bit in reworking the piece, but the great news here is that Sondheim composed some excellent new songs to augment the 1974 score. Arguably the best of them all is “I Love to Travel,” a number with a wonderfully old-time showbiz, almost vaudevillian feel to it, for Dionysos, Xanthias (a perfectly cast Roger Bart) and the Greek Chorus. In another style entirely, “Ariadne” is a lovely, elegiac new ballad for Dionysos about his deceased wife, affectingly rendered by Lane. PS Classics’ cast album of the show would be worth purchasing if only for those two items, but there are many other pleasures to be had in the performances of the new songs and those carried over from the original score, courtesy of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, Paul Gemignani’s musical direction, and a strong cast that also includes Burke Moses as Herakles, John Byner as Charon/Aekos, Peter Bartlett as Pluto, and Daniel Davis as George Bernard Shaw. Finally, although Michael Siberry is nowhere near as vocally gifted as Davis Gaines, he does a more satisfying job with “Fear No More” in that his performance sounds simpler and fresher. — M.P.
Off-Broadway Cast, 2002 (Original Cast Records) (2 / 5) Here was a wonderful idea for a musical: Bert Lahr in an adaptation of Volpone, with the action of that Ben Jonson classic moved to gold-rush Alaska. But the project was seemingly cursed from its inception. The creators of Foxy included the great lyricist Johnny Mercer; the wrong director, Robert Lewis; a constantly changing line-up of ineffective producers; and an inexperienced pair of book writers, Ring Lardner, Jr. and Ian McLellan Hunter, who refused to listen to Bert Lahr or pay attention to Jerome Robbins when he came in to help. The 1964 result was a ramshackle construction in which about half the score consisted of undramatic, shockingly trite numbers. But even when the ideas for the songs were poor, Mercer had great fun playing with words; and when the ideas were good, as in “Respectability,” “Many Ways to Skin a Cat,” “Money Isn’t Everything,” and “Bon Vivant,” he and composer Robert Emmett Dolan hit them out of the park. (“Bon Vivant” is a highlight, as the chorus serenades a fake English Lord with “Yoicks and zounds / And Elizabethan sounds / What a bon vivant is he!”) Unfortunately, this recording of the Musicals Tonight! staged concert presentation of the show falls short. John Flynn is much too sweet as the scheming Doc; Rudy Roberson, given the impossible task of following Bert Lahr, seems to have no comic chops at all; and the single-piano accompaniment is dull. (Note: Bruce Yeko’s private label S.P.M. released on LP a live recording of a performance by the Broadway cast, but it has sound problems. Box Office Records issued both an album titled Bert Lahr on Stage, Screen and Radio, which includes two very good, live Foxy tracks, and Johnny Mercer Sings, featuring a delightful 10-song demo of the score.) — David Wolf
Original Broadway Cast, 1999 (RCA) (3 / 5) Bob Fosse captured the revolutionary sexual politics of the 1960s and 1970s in a voluptuous mix of dance forms based on jazz, tap, and ballet. The show that bears his name traces, although not in chronological sequence, his choreographic career from The Pajama Game (1954) to Big Deal (1986). Fosse was conceived by co-directors Richard Maltby, Jr. and Ann Reinking, along with Chet Walker, who’s credited as having recreated the master’s choreography for the occasion. When the show arrived on Broadway from Toronto after tryouts in Boston and Los Angeles, it proved to be an eye-popping amalgam of ultra-fit Broadway dancers like Jane Lanier and Scott Wise, slick design elements by Santo Loquasto and Andrew Bridge, and amazing choreography overseen by Reinking, Walker, and “artistic advisor” Gwen Verdon. The show’s score is a compilation of numbers from theatrical and non-theatrical projects to which Fosse was attached, including a 1968 Bob Hope television special and the unsuccessful 1974 movie musical of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. The cast recording is highly enjoyable: The numbers, written by various composers and lyricists, create a clear sense of what the opening ensemble terms “Fosse’s World,” and the melodies, rhythms, and lyrics, lovingly recorded by record producer Jay David Saks and legendary A&R man Bill Rosenfield, stand admirably on their own as an aural counterpart to Fosse’s dance vocabulary. The vocal performances and a 21-person pit band, under the baton of musical director Patrick S. Brady, display the level of professionalism that distinguishes Broadway at its best from musical theater anywhere else in the world. The cast album is capped with a thrilling arrangement (over 13 minutes’ worth) of Louis Prima’s “Sing! Sing! Sing!”, seemingly all brass and percussion, that would still leave the listener wanting more at four times its length. — Charles Wright
Original Broadway Cast, 1980 (RCA) (1 / 5) This wasn’t the first Hollywood musical to be adapted to the stage, but its success established a trend that has reached well into the 21st century. Whether or not this trajectory is a good thing will always be a cause for argument. The Broadway incarnation of 42nd Street was the final work of Gower Champion, whose death was announced in a shocking and showman-like gesture by producer David Merrick immediately following the opening-night bows. Champion had transformed the movie into an enjoyable theatrical pageant with nonstop glitter, an occasional nod to Busby Berkeley, and very little of the film’s drive and desperation. Fueled by all that audience-grabbing spectacle and song, the production ran for years, but its manufactured nature is pretty obvious on the cast recording. The Harry Warren-AI Dubin score has been padded out with songs from other films, and the wonderful period sound of the original Warner Bros. orchestrations has been replaced with the expert playing of a punched-up pit band. Fortunately, there are some seasoned pros in the cast– Jerry Orbach, Tammy Grimes, Lee Roy Reams, and Carole Cook — to provide true musical theater resonance. In the role of Peggy Sawyer, the chorine-promoted-leading-lady who’s told “you’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star,” Wanda Richert is sweet and sings better than Ruby Keeler. (Of course, it can also be said that coyotes sing better than Ruby Keeler.) There are things to enjoy in this recording, even though we might wish that the gifted Champion had expended his final energies upon something more substantial. — Richard Barrios
Broadway Cast, 2001 (Atlantic) (1 / 5) Two decades after the original show was a smash, the revival did it all over again. Done in “tribute” to the original Champion staging (i.e., they stole the best parts), this 42nd Street was even more spiffed-up and brassy. There’s an intense air of overkill here, those relentless tapping feet even more threatening than in Busby Berkeley’s original “Lullaby of Broadway” number. “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” in particular, is a vulgar nightmare, but several other cuts are also objectionable. Fortunately, a genuine star performance emerges from the excess: Christine Ebersole, who won a Tony for her work as the fading diva Dorothy Brock. Amid a herd of screechers and belters, Ebersole is the classy, real thing. For her trouble, she is rewarded (and rewards the listener) with an added song, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Onstage, Michael Cumpsty seemed miscast in the Warner Baxter/Jerry Orbach role, and he sounds equally uncomfortable on the recording. As for Kate Levering, she serves up chilly efficiency in place of Ruby Keeler’s clunky charm. If you want modern-day Broadway brass, it’s here in spades; if you’re looking for something more, play the Ebersole tracks and then go out and rent the movie. — R.B.