Our 2013 Holiday Gift Guide For The Theater Fan On Your List

comtrag2aWondering what to give your theater lover this holiday season – besides season tickets, of course. Our media reviewer Brad Hathaway listens to, reads and sees nearly everything, and he makes his annual suggestions.

CDs (or digital downloads)

Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! – The Musical
Masterworks Broadway 88863 78041 2

There are times when the overture just makes you happy you are listening to a particular recording, or seeing a particular show. One example is the up-tempo medley Michael Starobin put together from the score by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason for this holiday show. The new recording captures most of the principal cast members from the show’s first run on Broadway – the Christmas of 2006. Patrick Page, a classically trained actor who had stepped into both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King finally got to originate a major musical role as the green-faced title character. (Think of it as a two-season audition for The Green Goblin in the subsequent mega-bust Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.) John Cullum lends his unmistakable sonorous tones as the Grinch’s old dog Max. The score has a number of highlights including the Grinch’s big “One of a Kind” which is made all the better by the way record producer Robert Sher placed the percussion and drum work far back of the close-miked orchestra. If you really want to feel good, put on the music the orchestra played as the happy audience filed out of the theater. What a blast!

Far From Heaven
Original Cast Recording
PS Classics PS-1319

The last time an off-Broadway musical by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie opened, PS Classics recorded it only to have to record it again when it transferred to Broadway with a slightly re-formatted score. That was Grey Gardens and both albums were luminous. Now another off-Broadway musical by Frankel and Korie has opened and its score has received a recording as sumptuous as the earlier pair. While Grey Gardens played a bit like two one-act musicals, each the better for being paired with the other, this show feels more unified as it works through its story of a 1950s upper middle class housewife (Kelli O’Hara) whose world falls apart due to the homosexuality of her husband (Steven Pasquale) while she draws strength from a meeting of minds and hearts with her black gardener (Isaiah Johnson). Far From Heaven ran briefly at Playwrights Horizons in New York, but no immediate call for a transfer to Broadway greeted this one. Since it is not now possible to savor the score by attending the show, it is a good thing that the recording has been released. It is best absorbed in a single sitting with the well-illustrated booklet, its complete synopsis and full lyrics in hand, although all you really need to learn is right there on the disc. The score doesn’t really have many songs, but it has a few dozen scenes set to music with intertwining threads of melody and rhythm to pull it all together.

Matilda – The Musical
Original Cast Recording
Broadway Records/Yellow Sound Label BRYSL-CD01

Sometimes a reviewer has to admit “I just blew it” either for an opinion or for a prediction. If you went ahead and bought the original English cast recording of the current hit musical because of my prediction in the May 21, 2013 Theater Shelf column that “I don’t think we’ll see an original Broadway cast recording,” all I can say is “Sorry about that.” If, on the other hand, you held off, now you can get the score as sung by its original Broadway cast. Of course, since there are four different young girls alternating in the title role on Broadway, nine year old Sophia Gennusa and only slightly older Oona Laurence, Bailey Ryon (who played the part the night I attended) and Milly Shapiro, the single disc can’t cover all possibilities. You can look at the last page of the booklet to find out which actress is on which cut in the recording. There are three cuts in the Broadway version that aren’t in the London one, but they don’t add up to much. Then there are three bonus tracks of previously unrecorded material from the show – the stories told by different “Matildas.” These do add to the experience of the show and should be played before track 15 (“I’m Here (Story 4)”). Just to make things even more confusing, the album has been released in two “editions” – a “standard edition” and a “deluxe edition” with yet two more bonus tracks. But I needed to set the record straight and tell you “I blew it last May.”

Dearest Enemy
New World Records 80749-2

The first Broadway show by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wasn’t really The Garrick Gaieties, that review featuring the song “Manhattan” that took the town about which it sang by storm. No, after that non-Broadway show transferred to Broadway, it was still a non-Broadway revue. But it opened all the Broadway doors and Messieurs Rodgers and Hart waltzed through them with their first book musical, a comedy about the legend of Mrs. Murray who entertained and detained the British army officers long enough for the army of General Washington to escape from Manhattan in 1776 so they could keep fighting and finally win the Revolutionary War. The new recording of a restoration of the score for that musical reveals that Rodgers was already a consummate melodist with “Here in My Arms” nearly matching “Manhattan” in popular appeal and Hart as a lilting lyricist of prodigious skills. Its riches are revealed in a first class studio cast recording for which Larry Moore has reconstructed the original orchestrations.

The Sound of Music
2013 Television Production
Masterworks Broadway
8883 79814 2

Speaking of Richard Rodgers as a consummate melodist, there is a new recording of his last Broadway musical with Oscar Hammerstein, the perennial that has run nearly 2,000 performances in two productions on Broadway, became the longest running musical in history in London and then was the top grossing movie of all time back before inflation in the price of a ticket made its $163 million seem piddling. On December 5 it became the first musical in a long while to have a live production on network television as NBC carried a sumptuous “Television Event” starring Carrie Underwood who impresses on the sound recording as a fresh voice for a part that carries so strong memories for those who know the work of Mary Martin from 1959, Julie Andrews from 1965, Rebecca Luker from 1998 or Laura Benanti who replaced Luker when she left the revival. (Editor’s note: Theater buffs excoriated Ms. Underwood’s acting skills in online comments). Sony’s Masterworks Broadway released an audio recording of the production two days before the telecast and will issue the entire production on DVD on December 17. The sound is crisp and clear using with the Broadway orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett adapted by Doug Besterman. Audra McDonald is the Mother Abbess this time out with Stephen Moyer taking the role of the Captain with seven children. Benanti returns to the musical, but this time she’s the captain’s intended – at least until Underwood’s Maria shows up and steals his heart.

Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies
The John Wilson Orchestra
EMI 50999 3 19301 2 3

If you’d like to give (or have) a broader sampling of the melodic invention of Richard Rodgers, at least in his work with Oscar Hammerstein II, pick up the latest in John Wilson’s efforts to restore and perform great orchestrations from the heyday of Hollywood’s huge studio orchestra backings for musicals. The album offers 15 tracks from R&H movies Oklahoma!, The King and I, Carousel, South Pacific and The Sound of Music in meticulous recreations of the original orchestrations which, if the charts weren’t in the vault, were recreated note by note from listening to the film’s soundtrack over and over again to catch each detail. Wilson’s 100-piece orchestra then performs them with vocalists such as Julian Ovenden and Sierra Boggess.

The Last Five Years
2013 Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records 8-4477

Jason Robert Brown says of this recording of this year’s revival production of his two-person, split-time musical “I’ve never been as proud of anything in my entire career.” Wow! That’s quite a statement from the composer/lyricist of Parade, not to mention Songs for a New World, 13 or The Trumpet of the Swan. But listening to this new recording, you may get the feeling that he wasn’t just saying that as a blurb for a marketing strategy. Yes, creative types often like their current project the most, but they can also be highly critical in their judgment. This recording, made in the now unusual process of putting singers and players in the same room at the same time and recording individual “takes” of complete songs, deserves the pride it engenders. There isn’t any new material to make it indispensable for those who already own the superb 2002 recording of the score with Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, but here Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe do the material justice as well.

First Date
Original Broadway Cast
Yellow Sound Label YSL566993

First Date is a kind of “concept musical” that looks at, well, first dates. It must have sounded like a super idea to investors who envisioned it drawing legions of singles on the dating circuit or those who well remember just what it was like on the dating circuit. With a score and a book by talented young men making their Broadway debuts in a production under a first-time director, there are signs here of good things to come. But the hope that it would catch fire at the relatively small (1,095-seat) Longacre Theater while keeping the running costs below the box office take didn’t come true and the show has already posted a closing notice for right after the holiday rush. The disc offers a sampling of its charms, however. Krysta Rodriguez, who was one of the really good things in the Broadway version of The Addams Family and another Broadway newcomer, Zachary Levi, are the two twenty-somethings experiencing the joys, frustrations and terrors of a blind date. Blake Hammond sells a song that might well have a life in cabaret acts. He’s a waiter singing about what he’d order if he could: “I’d Order Love.”

2013 New York Cast Recording
PS Classics PS-1317

The to-be-treasured collection of superb recordings of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim on PS Classics has been augmented this year with this two-disc recording based on the production of New York’s Classic Stage Company under the direction of John Doyle. Judy Kuhn is a luminous Fosca, the sickly woman who develops a compulsion for Ryan Silverman’s Captain Giorgio Bachetti. When the cast of that production went in to the recording studio, Melissa Errico, who had played the Captain’s gorgeous (and married) lover, was ill. Rebecca Luker who was so luminous herself in the 2002 Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration staging of Passion stepped in for the recording and is simply lovely. As is PS Classics’ wont, the discs and illustrated full libretto booklet are contained in a box sleeve making it a fit companion for their other Sondheim recordings: Assassins, Bounce, Company, Evening Primrose, Follies, The Frogs, A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Pacific Overtures, Road Show, Saturday Night, Sondheim on Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd. (It could also join the shelf next to the two volumes of Sondheim Sings.)

Marry Me A Little
2013 Off Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records 8-4474

Hard to believe, but this two-person show based on then-unknown (mostly) songs that Stephen Sondheim wrote for other shows is now over 30 years old. The original cast recording was a revelation to many, as it showed how Mr. Sondheim’s songs had both musical beauty and emotional content … something that was highly contested then.Time has removed the controversy over the positive opinions of believers in Sondheim’s richness in both categories, but the show has strengths as a musical, not just as an argument in the now-resolved debate. The Keen Company in New York mounted a revival this year, changing the song list somewhat. Three of the original songs were dropped but five others inserted (“If You Can Find Me, I’m Here” from Evening Primrose, “Bring on the Girls” and “Ah, But Underneath” from Follies,  “Night Waltz” from A Little Night Music and “Rainbows” written for the movie version of Into The Woods that the Disney Studios is preparing for next year.) The new recording of Lauren Molina and Jason Tam accompanied by pianist John Bell is both entertaining and an emphatic reaffirmation of Sondheim’s melodic and emotional richness, as if anyone needed to reaffirm that in this century.

Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812
Original Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records 8-4479

Shows come and go but occasionally there’s one show that seems somehow to mark a year. For 2013, there was such a show, and it was the amazingly titled Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. A sung-through “electropop opera,” it was more a happening than a traditional musical. It was not staged on Broadway or even off-Broadway but in a tiny off-off-Broadway venue where the cast distributed brown-bread, borscht and pierogis to the audience of 90 seated at cabaret tables. It used totally contemporary musical styles to tell a tale lifted out of Tolstoy’s War and Piece. The demand for tickets led to the remounting of the production in a tent raised on the sadly empty lot where the Broadway Bed and Breakfast used to welcome visitors who loved staying right in the middle of the theater district and could talk over the experiences of the previous night’s show with fellow breakfasters. It became something of a phenomenon right up to New Year’s Eve. A two-disc recording captures the pop sound and, even if it doesn’t come with pierogis or vodka, it can be somewhat intoxicating.

Studio Cast Recording
Broadway Records BR-CD00813

Speaking of musicals offering a contemporary sound for a less-than-contemporary story, Broadway Records has released a two-disc studio cast recording of a rock musical based on the story of the “she took her ax and gave her mother forty wacks” girl, Lizzie Borden. The recording makes this work by Stephen Cheslik-deMeyer, Alan Stevens Hewitt and Tim Maner seem more like a rock concert than a rock musical. Much of the story is told rather than portrayed. The music is harder rock than the “electropop” of The Great Comet with shorter melodic lines and more repetitive driving rhythms. It sees its protagonist as “A Victorian punk rock rebel” but don’t expect the humor of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The show is beginning to get productions, perhaps aided by the existence of this slick recording. It will be mounted in the spring at the Portland Center Stage, but first it is getting its European premiere in Fredericia, Denmark where it is being marketed as a “Hard Rock SplatterMusical!”

Beautiful Dreamer – Donna Vivino
Ghostlight 8-3340

If the name Donna Vivino doesn’t jump off the page for you, it is because it has been a quarter century since she made her Broadway debut at age eleven when she charmed audiences as the original Young Cosette singing “Castle on a Cloud” in Les Misérables. Most recently, she toured as Elphaba in Wicked. Her debut solo album of vocals backed by a stunningly distinctive jazz quintet offers 13 songs ranging from classics from musicals (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Never Never Land”) to pop charts (“Rainy Days and Mondays,” “How Insensitive”) and all the way to the title song by Stephen Foster. Produced by her presumably very proud father, flutist Jerry Vivino of Conan O’Brien’s TV band, the musicianship is stunning. Her vocals are thoroughly thought-through so each song is a poetic statement. Pianist Mitchel Forman’s style is as sharp and solid as granite which is beautifully contrasted to the hovering flute of Papa Vivino which ranks as some of the most mellifluously atmospheric flute work since Mario Darpino’s support for Charlie Byrd. Even bassist Kevin Axt breaks through on “I Wish You Love.”  And Donna Vivino returns to “Castle on a Cloud” as a mature woman with marvelous musical results.

Somethin’ Real Special (The Songs of Dorothy Fields) – Philip Chaffin
PS Classics PS – 1318

Dorothy Fields wrote superb lyrics for Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. Her first Broadway credit was The Blackbirds of 1928 and her most recent (although posthumous) is in the currently running Cotton Club tribute show, After Midnight. Some of her better known shows included Sweet Charity, Seesaw, Redhead, and Up In Central Park. There aren’t enough recordings of her work. To the rescue comes Philip Chaffin, co-founder of PS Classics and a vocalist of charm. He sings well-known and should-be-well-known songs (as well as a few specialty numbers that are fun for a few listens) that Fields wrote with composers Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, Jimmy McHugh, Morton Gould, Cy Coleman, Harold Arlen and Arthur Schwartz. He sings in front of a full orchestra conducted by James Moore. His enunciation shows great respect for her lyrics and his musical ability makes the disc a delight. From the famous (“I’m In The Mood For Love”) to the previously unpublished title song, Chaffin presents a sampler that is proof positive that Fields talent was extraordinary.

All This Happiness – Judy Kuhn
PS Classics PS – 1315

That this disc of a dozen distinctive songs (well, a baker’s dozen since one of the twelve tracks conjoins two Sondheim gems) sung by the decidedly talented Judy Kuhn would make it a worthy gift for any lover of popular songs from stage, screen and the pop world. That Dan Lipton leads the trio that supports her would be another reason to pick it up for a friend, family member or yourself. But it is the use of Peter Sachon in that trio that makes the strongest case for the set. He plays both acoustic and electronic cello in such an atmospheric and supportive manner that those cuts that feature him stand out not only from other cuts on the disc but from many other recordings of songstresses exploring fine songs. Here there are songs that could lay claim to standard status like Billy Barnes’ “Something Cool” and Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “The Best Is Yet To Come” to delightful discoveries like Louis Alter and Milton Drake’s “I Love The Way You’re Breaking My Heart” and Tom Waits’ “Temptation.” There’s even a touch of Oscar Brown, Jr – “Forbidden Fruit”. (The Sondheim duo I mentioned is a tasteful exploration of “Happiness” from Passion and “In Buddy’s Eyes” from Follies.)

Side by Side – Sondheim Duos
Our Time – Sondheim Duos, Volume 2
Bill Mays (Piano) and Tommy Cecil (bass)

Two albums of Sondheim songs feature Bill Mays and Tommy Cecil without a drummer or other percussion support. They trade off the leading role, often going back and forth within a single song alternating between being in the forefront improvising on the melody and being in rhythmic support of the other. This is serious jazz music making, not merely pretty muzak. Each number is a formal arrangement by either Cecil or Mays but each arrangement leaves plenty of room for improvisation on individual solos. Each player finds new layers to the creativity of Sondheim.


The Leonard Bernstein Letters
Edited by Nigel Simeone
Yale University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0300179095

Leonard Bernstein was not only a great composer and a great conductor, he was a great correspondent. From the “many tens of thousands” of his letter in the Library of Congress’ collections, Simeone has selected a sampling that creates a fascinating portrait of the man from his professional to his personal associations. The 600-page volume starts with his letter at the age of 14 to the woman who would become first his piano teacher and then his secretary and catalogist until her death only a year before his own at age 72. The riches from his hand and the letters he received are impressive and provide a window into the intellectual and cultural life of our nation. One of the astonishing items is his ten-page “sworn affidavit for passport application” explaining how his liberalism was distinct from communism at the height of the red scares of the McCarthy era. The book demonstrates his extraordinary ability to form and maintain friendships with a broad swath of the great, and therefore very busy, personalities of his age. Among the theater legends represented here are Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Judy Holliday, Sid Ramin, George Abbott, Goddard Lieberson, Richard Rodgers and, of course, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim. An appendix of note provides the outline he and Laurents sent to Robbins for the musical that became West Side Story. This heavy volume is so full of material to enjoy, ponder and absorb that it would be worth taking a holiday vacation just to have time to read it.

Jack Be Nimble
by Jack O’Brien
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN 13: 978-0865478985

Quick! Who brought Broadway The Full Monty, The Invention of Love, Hairspray, The Coast of Utopia and Catch Me If You Can? Who led San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre for a quarter of a century? Who, for that matter, gave the New York City Opera its superb production of Kurt Weill’s Street Scene? It was Jack O’Brien whose name somehow gets lost in the titles which owe so much to his talent. Perhaps that is because he crosses genres with alacrity. Get to know him in a sprightly written autobiography intriguingly subtitled “The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director.”

Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks
by Peter Filichia
St. Martin’s Press
ISBN-13: 978-1250018434

The always-a-delight-to-read Filichia whose love of musical theater permeates his writing accurately subtitled his latest release “A Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award.” Readers of his books, columns and reviews over the years know they can turn to him for a steady stream of fascinating asides, details, connections and observations that, while the negatives (in his often forgiving opinion) are recognized, the shows, performances and work of the creators are rarely belittled or demeaned. Here his title refers, of course, to Gypsy (with its strippers) Follies (with its showgirls) and West Side Story (with its sharks). Each famously lost the “Best Musical Tony.” (It is a Filichia-ism to point out that they all also had the distinction of having lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.) This new book deserves space on the theater shelf right next to his Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and Biggest Flop of the Season 1959 – 2009 and Broadway MVPs 1960 – 2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons. None are definitive studies of their topics nor encyclopedic reference works. All three are simply delightful ruminations of a man whose knowledge of musical theater is astonishing and whose mind works in wondrous ways to connect facts entertainingly.

by Sam Wasson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN-13: 978-0547553290

Wasson is known for his works about film, and while Bob Fosse certainly had a notable career in (and on) film, he is better known as a creator of works for live theater. Still, Wasson’s hefty tome (700+ pages) doesn’t give short shrift to Fosse’s stage work. Instead, a balanced and thoroughly engaging biography of the complex man and his seminal work attempts to put his entire output into the context of his times. And they were important times in the development of the art form we now call just “musicals” – not “musical comedies.” Fosse, the actor, dancer, choreographer extraordinaire, director and conceiver of shows put his stamp on The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Bells Are Ringing, Redhead, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Little Me, Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago, Dancin’ and New Girl In Town. I mention that last because I saw it as he wanted it seen in what is now the Richard Rodgers Theatre when I was about to enter my teens. It was the start of a life-long love of his work and I can only welcome another carefully crafted biography of the man.

Song of Spider-Man
by Glen Berger
Simon & Shuster
ISBN-13: 978-1451684568

This insider’s view of the route the most expensive musical in Broadway history took from concept to flop is told by one who really should know. He wrote the book for the musical with Julie Taymor – at least until disaster took hold and she was dismissed and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa came onboard. Now that the show has posted its closing notice and its reported $65 million investment is all but lost, the story of how it all came about makes fascinating reading for those who want to know how such a train wreck can happen. He writes the book (the one in print, not the one in the show) in a breezy conversational voice that doesn’t take himself too seriously but takes the task that he, Taymor, composer/lyricists Bono and The Edge of U2 fame, producers Tony Adams and David Garfinkle set for themselves with all the seriousness it deserves. He’s insightful, informative and entertaining as he sets out his version of events. Of course, there are and will be many other versions and I’ll want to read them too. But his is available now.

The Playbill Broadway Yearbook
Ninth Annual Edition
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
ISBN-13: 978-1480341593

There is a danger of theater shelves everywhere giving way under the weight of the annual editions of the Yearbook that Robert Viagas and his team at Playbill put together.  With nearly 500 hefty slick color pages in this year’s edition, the groan you hear could be your shelves’. The passion for completeness and accuracy, as well as the eye for detail and the sense of what will interest the compulsive fan as well as the souvenir seeker means you will find chapters on each show to open during the season June 2012 – May 2013, and every show that carried over from previous seasons for a total of eighty-one shows, plus seven chapters on special events and awards. (Well, to be honest, there were eleven more that continued briefly into this season without much change from the cast and crew shown in last year’s Yearbook and, thus, didn’t get another entry.) There’s photo coverage of the Tony Awards and other theater awards such as Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League and even the 42nd Annual Theater Hall of Fame ceremony. And, where else could you look for headshots of all the publicists working at the principal Broadway press agencies?  And thanks to an incredibly complete index you can find what pages to look at for entries about those that interest you. Here you will find Boneau/Bryan-Brown’s Jim Byck right after Norbert Leo Butz.

Everything’s Coming Up Profits
The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals
by Steve Young and Sport Murphy
Blast Books
ISBN-13: 978-0922233441

What a grand idea for a book, but unfortunately, what a disappointing result! Who knew there was a whole unsung genre of musical theater out there, some preserved in recordings and others in programs, photos and logos? It turns out that during the decades of the 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s, major corporations hired composers, lyricists, librettists, directors, choreographers, orchestrators, designers and a host of performers to put on often elaborate shows for their annual sales meetings, product launches and staff morale building events. Many of these resulted in “souvenir” recordings not unlike original cast recordings. Steve Young stumbled into this bizarre world while working for Dave Letterman’s late night television show where he came up with strange recordings to ridicule in a segment called “Dave’s Record Collection.” It became an obsession with him and he has built what must be the most comprehensive collection of these records. Sport Murphy wrote the text for this lavishly illustrated book, picking and choosing what he found most fascinating about the strange material in Young’s collection. Unfortunately, he leaves out so much that one presumes didn’t fascinate him but which would be of interest to fans of musical theater. Many entries tantalize with photos, quotes and interesting information but don’t always give the full list of songs, who wrote them or who sang them. The scattershot assembly of the book makes it difficult to find a particular item and the lack of an index is especially frustrating. Still, there isn’t another book out there on this phenomenon. Of particular interest is the fact that they set up a website (industrialmusicals.com) on which you can listen to a collection of these strange items including Harnick and Bock’s “Golden Harvest” from the 1959 Ford Tractor Show and Kander and Ebb’s “PDM (Power Distribution Management)” from the 1966 General Electric show Go Fly a Kite.

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