Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1979 (Original Cast Records) (5 / 5) Long before the William Finn character known simply as Marvin experienced joy and pain in March of the Falsettos, Falsettoland, or the amalgam known and celebrated as Falsettos, he was introduced in this 1979 work. The show never achieved the prominence of Finn’s other “Marvin Musicals,” but it’s by far the most tuneful. Finn’s lyrics here are sometimes tough to understand; the opening song, “Marvin’s Giddy Seizures,” suggests that In Trousers will be about an epileptic rather than a bisexual who’s leaving his wife for a man (Whizzer, who never appears in the show, although he’s frequently referenced). But, oh, what a glorious set of Finn melodies! “High School Ladies at Five O’Clock” is an infectious number that will have you playing it over again and again. “Whizzer Going Down” might be described as an Americanized version of Edith Piaf’s irresistible “Milord,” and what could be a higher compliment than that? “How Marvin Eats His Breakfast” doesn’t just have a memorable melody, but also a fascinating lyric: We get a young child’s point of view in wanting to eat right now. In this song and others, Chip Zien as Mavin is sensational in his first major role. — Peter Filichia
Original Broadway Cast, 1987 (RCA) (3 / 5) One of Stephen Sondheim’s most commercially successful shows, Into the Woods has one of his least distinctive scores. Perhaps he wasn’t really inspired by the fairy tale setting or the characters, most of them lifted from famous stories, or perhaps he and librettist-director James Lapine thought that making the characters self-aware and having them face the realities of “happily ever after” was enough? Aside from an interesting song or two — “No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen” — there’s not a lot of “here” here. Considering the setting, the tunes aren’t particularly magical, and some of the lyrics (“There’s no time to sit and dither / While her withers wither with her”) are forced in their cleverness. But the recording showcases some top-notch performers: Bernadette Peters milks the role of the worldly wise witch for all it’s worth; Joanna Gleason brings a thrilling vibe to the part of the Baker’s Wife; and Chip Zien is a neurotic joy as the Baker himself. Tom Aldredge as the narrator, Kim Crosby as Cinderella, Ben Wright as Jack, Danielle Ferland as Little Red Riding Hood, and Kay McClelland and Lauren Mitchell as Cinderella’s bitchy stepsisters are also great. The video of the original Broadway production is a better representation of Into the Woods, but if you can’t find it, this recording will do. — Matthew Murray
Original London Cast, 1991 (RCA) (3 / 5) This is a nice complement to the original Broadway album, but in no way equal to it. With the exception of Julia McKenzie’s fiercely acted and sung Witch, there’s a stodginess exhibited by many of the leads; Ian Bartholomew and Imelda Staunton lack the distinctive personalities that Zien and Gleason brought to the roles of the Baker and his Wife, and other cast members are similarly challenged by the material. A new song here for the Witch and Rapunzel, “Our Little World,” is musically attractive, but it spoils the original show’s joke about Rapunzel never singing real lyrics, and it doesn’t further the relationship between the two characters. — M.M.
Broadway Cast, 2002 (Nonesuch) (1 / 5) Almost none of the charm of the original production of Into the Woods survived in the misbegotten revival that yielded this recording. With the exception of Laura Benanti, who brings a purity to Cinderella, these performers are weak. Stephen DeRosa and Kerry O’Malley as the Baker and his Wife are personality-free, and Marylouise Burke massacres much of Jack’s Mother’s music. Vanessa Williams is the dullest Witch imaginable; her singing is adequate at best and grating at worst. Other liabilities include the thinned-down sound of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and the relentless tinkering with the script and score. Some of the changes are unnecessary — for example, the insertion of “Our Little World” and the addition of a second wolf and three pigs to “Hello, Little Girl.” Others are bizarre and damaging, such as having Jack and Little Red chime in on what used to be Cinderella’s big solo, “On the Steps of the Palace.” — M.M.
Film Soundtrack, 2014 (Walt Disney) (3 / 5) For Sondheim die-hards, no production of Into the Woods ever will, ever could surpass the first, with its robust, indelible performances captured forever on audio as well as video. But the 2014 film version is surprisingly strong, due in no small part to the high quality of its Hollywood-minded casting, and the soundtrack captures this rendition’s strengths while obscuring its flaws. Meryl Streep makes a zesty Witch, singing with conviction (if not always beauty) and playing well opposite the Baker (James Corden at his Everyman best) and his wife (Emily Blunt, in a particularly intelligent performance). Anna Kendrick brings a palpable spunk to her thoughtful Cinderella. As the Princes, Chris Pine and (especially) Billy Magnussen capture the right notes of stuffed-shirt self-indulgence, and the luxurious casting of Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski as Jack’s Mother and Cinderella’s Stepmother ensure that these roles don’t get short shrift in terms of comedy. There’s definitely room to quibble: The changes to the original material, including the cutting of a few songs, don’t really serve the property well; Johnny Depp is too weird to be threatening as the Wolf; and while Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack do well by their songs, they’re too young and unseasoned to give their characters the complexities they need. But combine all that does work with a gorgeous-sounding orchestra (playing expanded versions of Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations under original conductor Paul Gemignani), and the result is a better stage-to-screen translation than all but the most fervent Sondheim acolytes had any right to hope for. — M.M.
Original Cast Members, 1948 (SHB-Show-Biz Productions/Sepia) (3 / 5) Almost forgotten today but the second-longest-running revue of 1948, this Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz opus inspired by John Gunther’s best-seller had a starry cast, yielded two minor hit ballads (“Haunted Heart” and “Rhode Island Is Famous for You”), and displayed some of the old ingenuity that peppered the team’s 1930s revue output. The reconstituted cast album, assembled from scratchy 78s and topping out at 28 minutes, boasts no rediscovered gems but shows off its cast ably; and the opening title number, with a lobotomized-sounding chorus exuding “The USA is gay, uproarious / In a glorious way,” fully evokes mid-century nationalism. Pearl Bailey exudes her patented lazy hauteur in “Protect Me” and “Blue Grass,” while Jack Haley puts over all of the playful “Rhode Island” puns (“Pencils come from Pennsylvania / Vests from Vest Virginia / And tents from Tentassee”). Beatrice Lillie plays a happy convict in “Atlanta,” a deranged choral director in “Come, O Come,” and a jolly reveler in “Mardi Gras.” Billy Williams, not of the original company, somehow landed on the album; he delivers an undistinguished cowboy ballad. The cast of the show also included Jack Cassidy in the chorus and Carl Reiner delivering monologues but, alas, you won’t hear them here. [Note: The Sepia CD release also includes selections from The Band Wagon with Fred and Adele Astaire.] — Marc Miller
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1978 (Columbia/Fynsworth Alley/Masterworks Broadway) (3 / 5) The book and lyrics are by Gretchen Cryer, who also plays the lead character, Heather. The music is by Nancy Ford. These two had teamed previously on unsuccessful shows, but I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road finally put them on the map. Heather, well played and sung by Cryer, is a soap opera star who’s rehearsing for the opening of her cabaret act. All the songs are presented as part of the rehearsal, which is attended by Heather’s manager and old friend, Joe (a non-singing role). Heather and her two female backup singers do all the vocalizing, with an occasional assist from a band member. The year was 1978, when many women were working toward self-actualization; so the songs, all ostensibly written by Heather, are autobiographical, and Joe has issues with them. The song titles suggest their contents: “Miss America,” “Strong Woman Number,” “Smile (for Daddy),” “Lonely Lady,” and “Old Friend,” now a cabaret classic. Cryer’s terrific backup ladies are Betty Aberlin and Margot Rose. The band includes Don Scardino as the young guitarist Jake, who sweetly sings “In a Simple Way, I Love You.” The 11 songs (plus one reprise) are all in a late-1970s pop vein and are given no theatrical context on the recording, which is an easy listen but not a theatrically engaging one. — Jeffrey Dunn
Original London Cast, 1981 (JAY) (4 / 5) This recording tries to impart a feeling of the entire show. Much dialogue is included, and the non-singing character Joe is an essential part of the proceedings. The song list is augmented by a version of “In a Simple Way, I Love You” for Heather and a fun throwaway number for Jake, “If Only Things Was Different.” Diane Langton is Heather, and Ben Cross is Joe. Langton’s singing is solid throughout; she belts “Happy Birthday” and “Natural High” with conviction, and is remarkably touching in “Old Friend” and “Dear Tom” (about Heather’s ex-husband). Throughout the recording, she receives strong vocal support from Nicky Croydon and Megg Nicol. Gregg Martyn sings attractively as Jake, who flirts with Heather but is rejected because she finds him too young. (To get this plot point from the Off-Broadway cast album, you must read the synopsis.) All the songs are very well set up by the dialogue, and therefore seem to have more of an emotional center here than they do on the the previous recording. Having Cross as Joe fully participate in the recorded action gives Heather an obstacle to play against, so the listener is aware of what is at stake within each number. The argument over how much dialogue, if any, should be included on cast albums is endless, but comparison of this recording with the one reviewed above demonstrates how a show’s songs come across with greater strength on a recording when put in their dramatic context. — J.D.
Off-Broadway Cast, 1996 (Varèse Sarabande) (4 / 5) “Oh my God, that’s me up there!” was an audience whisper heard often during the long run of this musical revue, the winning work of Joe DiPietro (lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music). Unapologetically middlebrow and critic-proof, the show is not the wittiest or most profound examination of male-female relationships ever written, but it’s a parade of good revue ideas smartly developed: nerds on a date, macho posturing, the shortage of straight, single men, baby-talking parents, geriatric romance, and more. Roberts relies on pastiche — some Lite-FM rock here, a sweet ballad there — and the music supports rather than overwhelms the lyrics. DiPietro rhymes a bit lazily and sometimes stumbles to weak endings, but the general tenor of the songs is likeable. All of the cast members sing well and slip effortlessly in and out of varied characterizations: Danny Burstein as an alpha male blubbering through a chick flick; Jennifer Simard as a mousy date; Melissa Weil bemoaning a bridesmaid’s plight (“For Tabitha, I wore taffeta / You never should, people laugh at ya”); and Robert Roznowski in the generic but affecting “Shouldn’t I Be Less in Love With You?” Roberts did his own vocal and instrumental arrangements, which are as modest and to-the-point as the show itself. — Marc Miller
Original Broadway Cast, 1977 (Atlantic/DRG) (2 / 5) “Wife-swapping” was already a dated topic in 1977, but this miniature musical sex farce was the surprise hit of the season. Audiences were taken with the zippy score by Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart (the latter also wrote the book), and by Gene Saks’ clever staging, which featured four onstage musicians commenting on the action involving two inept pairs of married swingers in Trenton, NJ. The show launched the career of comic actor Lenny Baker, who sadly died a few years later before attaining real stardom. From a 21st century vantage point, many of the songs — with their coy sex jokes and titles like “Love Revolution,” “Sexually Free,” “Ev’rybody Today Is Turning On,” and “Married Couple Seeks Married Couple” — come across as so many outtakes from a PG-13 version of Oh! Calcutta! But Coleman is, as always, a true pro, and Stewart’s lyrics are generally nimble and literate. A few numbers are first-class, including the wistful country ballad “Someone Wonderful I Missed” and the touching title tune. The second-act opener, “Hey There, Good Times,” is classic Coleman — an irresistible ragtime stomp — with delicious Stewart lyrics, though it has virtually nothing to do with the plot of the show. The cast, including the young Joanna Gleason, James Naughton, and Ilene Graff, is fine. — David Barbour
Original Broadway Cast, 1967 (United Artists/Kritzerland) No stars; not recommended. Having had an art-house film hit with Never on Sunday, writer-director Jules Dassin and the Mrs., otherwise known as Melina Mercouri, teamed up again for the stage musical version, which ran more than 300 performances before pretty much vanishing from Broadway’s collective memory. The cast album was very belatedly transferred to CD (in 2008), and even then was only made available in a limited edition. Once again, Mercouri is Illya, the happiest prostitute on the island of Piraeus. This time, Orson Bean is Homer, the dopey American intellectual who wants to introduce her to culture and the finer things in life. The score, with music by Manos Hadjidakis (who did the film) and lyrics by Joe Darion, is heavy with bouzoukis (Ralph Burns orchestrated) and lusty, life-affirming numbers. The only song that stands out is “Never on Sunday” — which, of course, comes from the movie. Mercouri’s smoky voice and sexy intonations are fun to hear, but Bean’s numbers, “Golden Land” and “I Think She Needs Me,” are pretty dire. And “Medea Tango,” which tries to replicate one of the funniest moments in the film (when Illya explains Greek tragedy to Homer), falls flat. The actress Despo, playing a character named Despo, sings “I’Il Never Lay Down Anymore,” a title that tells all. There are also silly local-color items such as “Heaven Help the Sailors on a Night Like This.” — David Barbour
Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1999 (Varèse Sarabande) (4 / 5) In an introductory note, this diversion’s creator Sheridan Morley recalls that Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence acted together only twice, in Private Lives and Tonight at 8:30. At that, their performances in those vehicles were in limited runs in London and New York. Yet the two were in love with each other from their first meeting, when he was 13, she was 14, and they were leaving town for a tour; the word “platonic” hardly begins to explain their devotion. In Morley’s soigné revue, Harry Groener is Noël and Twiggy is Gertie. Together and separately, they toss off the master’s ditties as if strewing rose petals about the luxe set of a boulevard comedy. Groener doesn’t imitate Coward’s purr, because he needn’t do so; he’s got his own casual stylings. Since Lawrence was herself rather twiggy, Twiggy is a wonderful choice to sub for the legendary star. Her voice, nasal but always on pitch, is actually an improvement on Lawrence’s. Twiggy solos in “Parisian Pierrot” and duets with Groener in “You Were There” and “I’ll SeeYou Again.” Groener slides through “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.” The talented pair also croon, banter, and tap dance in “Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?” — David Finkle
Original Broadway Cast, 1964 (Mercury/Decca) (3 / 5) With Buddy Hackett starring as a Coney Island psychic who screws up his friends’ love lives, it’s safe to say that I Had a Ball doesn’t have a thought in its silly little head. Nobody really liked Jerome Chodorov’s libretto, but the score by Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman is enjoyable. The songs often seem shoehorned into the plot, yet the melodies are jazzy with an edge of dark sophistication — and with Richard Kiley and Karen Morrow on board, how bad could it be? The flop-plagued Morrow, one of Broadway’s most distinctive voices, delivers thrilling renditions of the title tune and the mordantly cynical “I’ve Got Everything I Want.” Kiley scores with the rueful 11 o’clock number “Fickle Finger of Fate.” Other fun items include the gospel rouser “Faith,” the biting “Neighborhood” (delivered with gusto by Rosetta Le Noire), and the moody quartet “Can It Be Possible?” Hackett is barely present on the disc but, after hearing his big comedy number “Dr. Freud,” we can only be happy about that. Philip J. Lang’s brassy, jazzy orchestrations add to the fun. This is the kind of score that makes show fans treasure flops. Bonus tracks include two studio versions by Morrow of the title tune and the ballad “Almost,” plus instrumental renditions of two cut numbers, “Lament” and “Be a Phony,” by the Lester Lanin Orchestra. — David Barbour
Original Broadway Cast, 1966 (RCA) (5 / 5) A two-character musical based on the play The Fourposter by Jan de Hartog, about a long-married couple, I Do! I Do! holds a mirror up to the audience, allowing us to revel in the universality of our experiences and to feel the enjoyable shock of recognition. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Mary Martin and Robert Preston as your leads. This energetic, highly theatrical recording is a knockout; you’d think that listeners would grow tired of a two-person musical, but Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt have lots of surprises up their sleeves. Schmidt varies his rhythms and melodies wonderfully, while Jones offers some rich, poetic lyrics and some remarkably funny ones, such as “A Well Known Fact” and “Nobody’s Perfect.” The requisite romantic songs include the hit “My Cup Runneth Over.” Among the other highlights of the score are “Where are the Snows of Yesteryear?” and “Someone Needs Me.” — Ken Bloom
Off-Broadway Cast (1996) (Varèse Sarabande) (2 / 5) This recording features Broadway stalwarts Karen Ziemba and David Garrison as the long-wed Agnes and Michael. Both sing and act the songs very well, but many listeners will prefer the performances of musical theater icons Martin and Preston, and will feel the piano reduction of the score renders this cast album non-competitive with the original recording. Of course, the songs themselves remain as wonderful as ever. — K.B.