Gift-Giving Guide for Theater Fans

If you’re on this site, the odds are you’re at least a theater fan, and likely a proud theater geek. Our Theater Shelf critic Brad Hathaway has been compiling the cream of the current crop of CDs, books and DVDs for the lovers of Thespis on your list (or for you to put on someone else’s list).
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By Brad Hathaway

CDs

CURRENTLY ON BROADWAY

The Book of Mormon
Ghostlight Records
66 minutes over 16 tracks
List Price $14.99

The hot ticket Broadway hit by Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, which swept the Tony’s this year, has become the hottest selling new cast album of the year. As a good musical comedy score should, this one carries a major portion of the story and a healthy part of the humor. As a result, it gives away some of the show’s biggest laughs, so it is a good idea to see the show before listening to the disc. But if you aren’t going to be able to catch the show in New York – and don’t want to wait for the national tour which won’t open until August in Denver – you can get a very good idea of the show from this well recorded album. It makes clear just how clever some of the material is, and how good a job orchestrators Larry Hochman and Steve Oremus and dance arranger Glen Kelly did to sell the score. (Editor’s warning: While the show is very funny, some lyrics are R-rated.)

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert – The Musical
Rhino Records #081227977733
57 minutes on 22 tracks
List Price $16.99

Based on the 1994 cult hit Australian movie about a trio of drag queens driving a bus from Sydney to Alice Springs where their lip synching show is to play a casino, this juke box musical sets a hodgepodge of predominantly disco songs to a slender story. The album delivers a trunk load of disco and club numbers in all their full-out, up-tempo pizzazz as well as the aria “Follie! Deliro Van E Questo!” from Verdi’s La Traviata  which is carried over from the movie. Included are some of the numbers that set up gags in the show, such as Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” which gives the designers free reign to bring on a chorus wearing cupcake costumes. While you won’t actually see those cupcakes with the song on your speakers (or in your earphones) the spirit of whimsy comes through on the recording.

Sister Act – A Divine Musical Comedy
Ghostlight Records # CD 8-4446
73 minutes over 20 tracks
List Price $14.99

There is no Broadway Cast Recording of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater’s high energy up-beat musical based on the 1992 movie about a singer taking refuge among the sisters in a cloister in order to hide out from a mobster. We do, however, have the Original London Cast album to appreciate some of the elements of the highly pleasurable production. There have been changes, however. So we don’t get Victoria Clark’s Tony-nominated performance as the Mother Superior nor do we get the new song “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” But it’s all we are going to get and it is good we have this much.

Anything Goes
Broadway Revival Cast
Ghostlight Records # 8-4452
60 Minutes over 19 Tracks

The 2011 Tony Award winner for Best Revival of a Musical went to the shimmering bright and persistently giddy good time revival of Cole Porter’s 1936 confection set on a luxury liner. It gets an equally good time recording that captures most of the strengths and some of the weaknesses of the production directed by Kathleen Marshall. You get the pure pleasure of hearing Sutton Foster belt to the rafters on “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” pal around with Colin Donnell on “You’re the Top” and lead the chorus of singers and dancers on the title song. These are unalloyed delights. You also get the sparkling dance arrangements that David Chase devised for Ms. Marshall’s choreography. But you also have the less than spectacular versions of lesser tunes such as “The Gypsy In Me” and just a touch of the strange work of Joel Grey as “Public Enemy #13.” He mugs his way through the part on stage and the disc hints at that when he de-humors the humorous “Friendship” so much that even Foster seems forcing it in an effort to form a team on that classic vaudeville shtick routine.

OTHER CAST RECORDINGS OF INTEREST

Elf
Original Broadway Cast
Ghostlight Records 8-4453
List Price $14.99
47 minutes over 17 tracks

The successful holiday run of the musical version of the film Elf at the Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway for Christmas 2010 has been given a marvelous recording featuring the high energy performance of Sebastian Arcelus as the human boy raised by Santa’s elves as one of their own until he outgrows the workshop at the north pole, the role played in the film by Will Farrell. Book writers Tom Meehan (Hairspray, The Producers) and Bob Martin (the Man In The Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone which he co-wrote) added some schmaltz and a number of slots for nifty songs to the story of the film. The team of composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin took full advantage of those slots to produce a score that bounces from beginning to end with ebullience and a sense of seasonal cheer.

Catch Me If You Can
Original Broadway Cast
Ghostlight Records # 8-4449
60 minutes over 17 tracks
List Price $14.99

This recording of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s sparkling score is a pip. The show which had a book by Terrence McNally only managed a 166-performance run on Broadway before closing down in preparation for launching its national tour. Audiences had a great time and Norbert Leo Butz walked away with the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. That performance comes across on the recording with all of its “wow” factor. Aaron Tveit and Tom Wopat are strong and Kerry Butler and Rachel de Benedet have their moments as well.

Wonderland
Original Broadway Cast
Sony Masterworks Broadway
88697 88669 2
List Price $18.98
58 minutes over 21 tracks

An energetic, tuneful, colorful and distinctly pop style musical comedy take on Lewis Carroll’s tales of Alice, complete with a Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, a White Rabbit, a Caterpillar and a Cheshire Cat had a brief run on Broadway last season. It flopped. The reasons for its financial failure were more involved with the storytelling and the staging than the songs by Frank Wildhorn with lyrics by Jack Murphy. Most of the strengths of the production made it onto this recording and into its booklet. The cast sells the numbers with panache and the orchestra playing the spacious and frequently scintillating charts of Kim Scharnberg sounds even better on the disc than it did in the Marquis Theatre’s pit. That orchestra, by the way, is augmented for the recording by an additional cello, two additional French horns and a trombonist doubling on bass trombone.  (Editor’s Note: This show originated at the Straz Performing Arts Center in Sarasota and starred Miamian Janet Dacal who went with the show to Broadway).

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Original Broadway Cast recording
Ghostlight Records # 8-4447
List Price $14.99
56 minutes over 18 tracks

2010’s best score from a failed musical is David Yazbeck’s work which, when mercifully separated from the show that obscured most of its strengths, rewards a careful listen. The recording features the vocal performances of the sterling cast who delivered the material with clarity, energy, humor, pathos and beauty – all features that Yazbeck wrote into the sixteen songs recorded here with an all-too brief tone-setting overture and an even briefer entr’acte (all 47 seconds of it). With this cast – Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti and Danny Burstein – it is hard for anyone who didn’t actually see the disaster of a production to believe it wasn’t a big hit. Trust me. Sixty-nine performances does not a hit make. One of Yazbek’s lyrics has a single stanza that could be a review of the show: “You keep trying to follow the plot / like there must be some twist you forgot / but the logic is tied in a knot.” Ah, but the fun of listening to these stars sing these songs! Not a great show – but a great album.

Betty Blue Eyes
Original London Cast
First Night Records # CASTCD111
72 minutes over 20 tracks

The musical comedy treatment of the story of a pig raised during England’s post-World War II period of privation and rationing, which was the basis for Alan Bennett’s bizarre screenplay “A Private Function,” opened earlier this year to high praise but closed due to disappointing ticket sales. The recording was made live with each number ending to the sound of great applause. Sometimes you understand that the reception is for a fine performance (as in Sarah Lancashire’s selling of the song “Nobody”) while at other times you wonder what all the fuss is about. Perhaps the show had a visual excitement that doesn’t make the transition to audio recording. Still, you can sit back and enjoy orchestrator’s William David Brohn’s use of a featured instrument rarely heard from the orchestra pit on either side of the Atlantic: an accordion.

Strike Up the Band – 1930 Version
Studio Cast Recording
PS Classics PS-1100
72 minutes over 24 tracks
List Price $15.95

Even if a collection already includes the restoration recording of the 1927 version of the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band, this release of the 1930 version should take its place beside it on any theatre shelf. The show had been a failure in 1927, but that failure wasn’t due to the music. The show was revised in 1930 and became a hit, but the score was significantly different by then. Now we get to hear what the hit was like and it is a joy with a cast featuring the likes of Brent Barrett and Rebecca Luker.

Dracula
Studio Cast Recording
Global Vision Records GVR-CD-005
46 minutes over 15 tracks
List Price $15.99

Frank Wildhorn and Jeremy Roberts’ new record label fills a void in the Wildhorn catalog by finally giving us an English language recording of the score of Wildhorn’s return to the gothic horror musical genre of his Jekyll & Hyde – his longest running show to date on Broadway. Dracula had a frequently glorious score but a poor book and a confusing visual design on Broadway. This resulted in a short run in 2004. The reviews were scathing, which may have had something to do with why an original Broadway cast album never materialized. That is a shame since the performances of Melissa Errico and Don Stephenson were particularly memorable. For the past few years we have had only the recording of the Austrian production on HitSquad Records (#668283) which has been devilishly difficult to find. Now, with James Barbour as Dracula, and Kate Shindle, Lauren Kennedy, Rob Evan, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, and a quartet of “Vampyre Girls” including Christine Noll, the score is available. Unfortunately, Jeremy Roberts’ orchestrations are no match for either Doug Besterman’s super-atmospheric Broadway charts or Koen Schoots energetic rock-infused ones for Austria, and as recording engineer (and co-producer), Roberts must take the blame for the overly brittle sound in the upper registers in his mix.

Tears of Heaven
Concept Recording
Global Vision Records GVR-CD-0007
66 minutes over 20 tracks
List Price $15.99

Another new project from Frank Wildhorn and Jeremy Roberts is a concept album of a musical set in Vietnam which was given its world premiere earlier this year in Korea. Here, a distinctly American cast sings the score in English. It is a beautiful score from Wildhorn, a musical theatre composer who still thinks that melodies should be beautiful and that big chorus numbers should be exciting. Roberts acquits himself rather better this time out as both orchestrator and recording engineer producing a very fine sounding orchestral backing for the likes of Linda Eder, Rob Evan, Christiane Noll and James Barbour.

Footloose, The Musical
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records 8-4454
49 minutes over 15 tracks
List Price $14.99

With the new movie version of the dance musical Footloose making the rounds, it is good that Ghostlight records has re-released most of the Original Broadway Cast recording of the stage version that hit the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway in 1998. The show used the songs from the original movie but added show tune-type material to make the story work as a full-out Broadway musical. The recording captures the fine performances of Jeremy Kushnier, Jennifer Laura Thompson and Tom Plotkin. Listening to it again after all these years reminds me of just how enjoyable the show was, but drives home the memory that Martin Vidnovic, who played the role of the father in the pre-Broadway tryout at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, had a very virile voice, whereas his replacement, Stephen Lee Anderson, had a subtle but unfortunate lisp. It is Anderson who is heard here. For some unexplained reason, the Ghostlight re-release deletes two tracks from the original which is no longer in print. It also adds one song that was cut before the show opened in New York. The deletions are unfortunate as they are the character revealing songs for the pro-dancing teenager (“Dancing Is Not A Crime”) and the anti-dancing father (“I Confess”). The addition is “Still Rockin'” which opens Act II sung by “Cowboy Bob.” On Broadway it had been sung by Artie Harris but for this album they got Hunter Foster, who had a minor role in the original, to record it last July.

Seussical, The Musical
Off-Broadway Cast Recording
JAY Records CDJAY 1420
71 minutes over 33 tracks
List price $18.99

After a disappointing run on Broadway, Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical based on the books of Theodor Seuss Geisel has gone on to find its most workable scale as a smaller family-friendly show. JAY Records captured the entire Off-Broadway production of the one-act “Theater for Young Audiences” version complete with its rhymed-a-la-Seuss dialogue and a host of marvelous songs. It is a delightful listen … and can be shared with youngsters.

Midnight Frolic: The Broadway Theater Music of Louis A. Hirsch
The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra
New World Records #89797-2
72 minutes over 17 tracks
List Price $15.99

Hirsch was the principal composer of scores for four Ziegfeld Follies between 1915 and 1922 and he composed scores for another nine Broadway musicals between 1910 and 1924. Rick Benjamin’s orchestra rescues 17 samples of Hirsch’s work in period arrangements including 10 by the famous orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett. The melodic felicity, harmonic sophistication and rhythmic inventiveness is reminiscent of Jerome Kern but has a stamp of its own.

VOCAL COLLECTIONS WITH A THEATRICAL TOUCH

There have been a number of fine releases of albums either recorded in a studio or in a nightclub which demonstrate the strengths of specific vocalists and/or of a particular song writer (or both). Here are some of the best:

Now – Linda Eder (Sony Masterworks #88697 80717 2) – The former Mrs. Frank Wildhorn is singing his songs again, to the great pleasure of his and her fans (like me).

Legrand Affair – Melissa Errico (Ghostlight Records #8-3336) – Errico starred in Michel Legrand’s short-lived Broadway musical Amour and the two formed a friendship that makes her album of his songs which he orchestrated and conducted for her a thing of soft beauty.

She Loves Him: Kate Baldwin Life at Feinstein’s (PS Classics # PS – 1101)  – Not only is this a disc of a lovely vocalist singing songs with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Mr. Harnick joins her for a few duets and sings a few solos.

Boom! Live at Birdland (PS Classics # PS – 1199) Sisters Liz Callaway (the original Ellen in “Miss Saigon” and Ann Hampton Callaway (“Swing”) combine forces for an up-tempo club act.

DVDs

Topsy-Turvey
The Criterion Collection

Mike Leigh’s entertaining and informative film of the story of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan creating their sublime comic opera, The Mikado, is both a back-stage drama and a recreation of what the original production of the comic opera at the Savoy Theatre in London was like. Jim Broadbent as Gilbert, Allan Corduner as Sullivan and Ron Cook as their producer Richard D’Oyly Carte all look very much like the portraits tell us their characters looked like which makes it easy to believe you are actually seeing the team creating a masterpiece.

Max Liebman’s Televised Operettas
Video Artists International

Three operettas from Max Lieberman’s spectacular-for-their-time television spectaculars dating back to 1955 make interesting viewing. The three are Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta with Alfred Drake, Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song with Nelson Eddy and The Great Waltz with music by both Johann Strauss Senior and his son who came to be called “The Waltz King.” It is too bad they didn’t include the commercials from the original telecasts. Now that would have been fascinating!

Mary Martin and Ethel Merman
Ford Motor Company’s “50th Anniversary Show”
Video Artists International

The 1953 television “special” is remembered most for the duet between Mary Martin and Ethel Merman who sat on stools and sang a series of famous songs, many from Broadway and some from Tin Pan Alley. The rapport between the two of them shines through on the disc. In addition, there are two shorter bits that are delights as well. Martin and Merman perform a classic vaudeville routine as a lip synch to a recording by vaudevillians Billy Jones and Ernest Hare. Martin performs a mime routine concocted by Jerome Robbins in which she pushes, pulls, folds, doubles, stuffs, zips and unzips a tube dress while a narrator explains the changes in women’s fashions decade by decade through the first half of the twentieth century.

Kiss Me, Kate – 1958 television version
Hallmark Hall of Fame
Video Artists International

Of all the television versions of Broadway Shows that seem to be appearing on DVD these days, the one that more accurately reflects the experience of seeing the show as it was on stage than any I have seen is the 1958 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Cole Porter’s masterpiece. While the video runs only 78 minutes and there are, as a result, significant cuts — including the Act II opener “Too Darn Hot” — it plays very much like a live, on-stage performance and the stars are the ones every true Broadway musical fan wishes he saw in person: Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison as the feuding divorced thespians.

Anything Goes: The 1954 television version
The Archive of American Television
Entertainment One EOE–DV–6775
List Price $29.95

The black and white kinescope of a “Colgate Comedy Hour” adaption of Cole Porter’s classic musical comedy starred none other than Ethel Merman (some 25 years after she originated the role of the belting evangelist) and Frank Sinatra, with a supporting performance by Bert Lahr as Public Enemy #13. It was a fairly ham handed effort to scale a big cheery musical into a starry one hour live telecast. Not everything went off without a glitch but the show is fun nonetheless. Plus the disc comes with a booklet that tells the story of how the recording came to be available some half a century later which is interesting as well.

Bell Telephone Hour Collections
Video Artists International

VAI has given us a look back at the performances of musical theatre stars on one of the most important television series of the 1950s and 60s, the Bell Telephone Hour. Among the stars whose appearances are now available are Barbara Cook, Alfred Drake, Florence Henderson, Shirley Jones, Carol Lawrence and John Raitt.

BOOKS

Everything Was Possible: The birth of the musical ‘Follies’
by Ted Chapin
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
List Price $19.99

With the revival of “Follies” now holding forth on Broadway, Ted Chapin’s wonderful book on the original production is even more important. Its author is now the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization but forty years ago he was a junior at Connecticut College with contacts in the theatre world. He talked his way into a job as a “gofer” for Harold Prince as he produced and co-directed (with Michael Bennett) the new musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman. He shares his inside view in one of the best written “fly on a wall” books about theater I’ve ever read.

Hirschfeld On Line
Al Hirschfeld
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
List Price $59.95

Coffee table books usually need to have their dust cover exposed on the table so people will want to pick them up. With Al Hirschfeld’s auto-retrospective (sort of an illuminated autobiography where the works of his three-quarters of a century career take center stage) it would be best to remove the dust cover and expose the cover which is embossed with one of Hirschfeld’s own self-portraits. It would be an open invitation to any visitor to immerse themselves in the delightful work of the master of line drawings.

To Broadway, To Life! The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick
Philip Lambert
Oxford University Press
List Price $35

A show-by-show analysis of the scores of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock is a bit dense in its writing and lacks detail on the personalities of the men themselves, but is a rewarding view into the scores they wrote. Since those scores included Fiorello!, Tenderloin, She Loves Me and The Rothchilds, as well as their masterpiece, Fiddler on the Roof, the emphasis on the music rather than the team can be forgiven even if it remains frustrating.

Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller
by Wilborn Hampton
Free Press division of Simon & Schuster, New York
List Price $28.00

The author of early groundbreaking television scripts for Playhouse 90 and Studio One went on to write landmark plays such as A Trip To Bountiful and movies like To Kill a Mockingbird, all of which were marked by the common thread of the lives of common people. He earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Young Man from Atlanta and added an Oscar for Tender Mercies to the one he won for Mockingbird. As told here, the life of “America’s Storyteller” is an American story of constant interest, intertwined with the evolution of American dramatic theatre over the bulk of the twentieth century. Hampton includes enough detail on the story lines of Foote’s stage plays, teleplays and screenplays to make it easy to follow the common threads of Foote’s output.

Jerry Orbach: Prince of the City
by John Anthony Gilvey
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
List Price $19.99

This is a very readable if slightly sketchy biography. It leaves you with the feeling that you know the actor who originated one of the most successful leading man roles in the history of off-Broadway musical theatre: the combination narrator/prime mover El Gallo in The Fantasticks in 1960 and went on to introduce three leading man roles on Broadway that have lived long after his run in Promises, Promises, Chicago and 42nd Street. Of course, you may already think you know him from so many years on television’s Law and Order.

Hair: The Story of the Show that Defined a Generation
By Eric Grode
Running Press – Philadelphia
List Price $29.95

Grode’s pulls together a colorful paste up of informative text, bio-snippets, lyrics, commentary and photos to tell the story of “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” that shook up the establishment in the 1960s and became an institution in the 1970s. It seemed to go into hibernation for the balance of the century but then re-emerged as a combination relic and object of intense nostalgia as baby-boomers entered their golden years. The book whets your appetite for more information than it provides, but it is the most extensive treatment of the story of Hair to be had.

Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked’
by Carol de Giere
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
List Price $24.99

With the new production of Godspell now open on Broadway in the small theatre just downstairs from the huge one where Wicked continues its phenomenally successful run, Carol De Giere’s book is more relevant and interesting than ever. Schwartz granted her unusual complete access during the development of Wicked and she took full advantage to produce a book that explains just why it is so hard to make a musical – what “collaboration” actually means over the months and years that it takes to carry a concept from brainstorm to curtain call.

My Signature Story
by Eric Schaeffer with Sarah Valentine
Outskirts Press – Denver
List Price $22.95

This slender volume (123 large print pages) sketches the story of how Eric Schaeffer (with co-founder Donna Migliaccio) founded a company in the Washington DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia, which grew into one of the premiere producers of musical theatre in America’s regional theatre community. The road from a tiny 125-seat former school library into its current two-house complex where they can display the Tony Award they won last year as the Outstanding Regional Theatre in America is an interesting story that a reader wishes had been told at greater length.

Something’s Coming, Something Good — West Side Story and the American Imagination
by Misha Berson
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books

There are dozens, or perhaps dozens of dozens of books about West Side Story, but if someone on your gift list might have a general interest in the show, its development, its history and its impact, this book covers it all. It goes deep enough into multiple areas to satisfy without going so deep that it leaves you feeling you are drowning in either detail or analysis. Berson not only writes well, she seems to have a fine sense of when enough is enough. Thus, this 280-page book remains intriguing all the way through and each of the 15 chapters feels satisfyingly complete.

RESEARCH VOLUMES

American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle – Fourth Edition
by Gerald Bordman with updates by Richard Norton
Oxford University Press
List Price $125

Richard Norton keeps Bordman’s highly readable and valuable record of our unique musical theatre up to date (at least through the last musical to open before the cutoff date for the 2010 Tony Awards).

At This Theatre
by Robert Viagas and Louis Botto
List Price $38.99
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books

Theater lovers who are lucky enough to get to the theater district in New York know that one thing you usually check in the Playbill when you take your seat is the feature “At This Theatre.” There you can enjoy a walk down memory lane either contemplating shows you saw in the space you now occupy or fantasizing about what it would have been like to sit in your seat when famous shows of the past were playing. In 1984, Playbill’s Senior Editor Lousi Botto, who had been writing these brief essays, pulled them together in a book that took its place on theater shelves around the country. With Playbill’s Robert Viagas editing, the book was updated in 2002 and now a 2010 edition is available.

Broadway Musicals, 1943 – 2004
and
Off Broadway Musicals, 1910 – 2007
McFarland & Company
List Prices – $ 195, $295

John Stewart’s “Broadway” volume has astonishingly complete entries on some 772 shows that ran on Broadway between Oklahoma! and the last opening of 2004 (the first revival of La Cage aux Folles) as well as abbreviated entries on another almost three thousand shows that Stewart identified as being a significant part of the heritage of the musical theatre. Last year, Dan Dietz added a volume with some 1,800 listings. Together, the books comprise a remarkable record of an art form.

Broadway Musicals Show By Show
by Stanley Green,  updated by Kay Green
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
List Price $18.99

A more affordable but hardly as comprehensive a reference work on Broadway musicals has been the reliable book by Stanley Green that is now in its sixth edition as updated by his widow. The nearly 400 shows covered are presented chronologically which makes for fun browsing but there are indexes so you can quickly find what you are looking for.

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