Our Holiday Gift List For The Theater Buff In The House

comtrag2lgTheater buffs are the easiest people to shop for on your holiday list, as our Brad Hathaway proves in his annual roundup.

By Brad Hathaway

Broadway Cast Albums:

Theater-Hamilton Cast AlbumHamilton
2015 Broadway Cast
Atlantic Records

Let’s deal with the elephant in the room right off the bat. The big news of 2015 on Broadway is the arrival of Lin-Manuel Mirada’s hip-hop/multi-ethnic historical musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s superb biography of Alexander Hamilton — aide-de-camp to George Washington, author of most of the Federalist Papers and our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. The most anticipated new musical in years would have to be great to satisfy the expectations of the Broadway audience at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. As Ben Brantley said in his frequently quoted New York Times review — “It really is that good.” “Hip-hop?” I hear many wonder. In reality, the self-conscious rhyming and patter/meter of hip-hop concentrates the focus on the plot and character content of the lyrics in a way that demands a heightened attention of the audience and enhances their intellectual and emotional responsiveness. The show approaches the status of a masterpiece — I’d say it is a masterpiece it if weren’t for a certain sense that too much is crammed into the second act causing a bit of a let down from the astounding intensity level of Act I. Now, the big news of 2015 about Broadway recordings is the arrival of the two-disc set of the complete score of this sung-through musical. It, too, “really is that good.” Listening intently can approach the experience of the show in person because, despite visual strengths that enhance it, it is the score that carries the show. (For the serious minded, try combining the CD set with a copy of Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton — it is available in paperback as ISBN 978-0-14-303475-9.)

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Something Rotten!
Original Broadway Cast
Ghostlight Records 8-1595
ASIN: B00Y2TEGUA

How fun! This is the latest in a long and distinguished line of bright, cheerful, funny musical tributes to the very concept of the musical (think The Producers, Spamalot, or the classic The Musical of Musicals: The Musical). This one takes on Shakespeare as it views the oh-so-twentieth-century art form from the perspective of the seventeenth. Bright, witty and clever lyrics with enthusiastic music marvelously arranged and performed by a great cast and full pit orchestra, the recording is a kick. It is a superb reflection of the experience in the theater even if, as an audio-only product, it misses some of the glow that the color and lighting gives the live performance. The incredibly fun-packed first act isn’t quite matched by the second as it ends up stuck in a disappointing number that should have been a topper – “Make An Omelette” just doesn’t make it either in the theater where the costumes are a letdown or on the disc where the song itself also comes up short. (If you give this album as a gift you might want to include a magnifying glass in the package. I know that it is a sign of my age that I find it difficult at times to read all the fine print of a CD booklet, but this time I had difficulty reading the regular print too.)

Allegiance
2015 Pre-Broadway Cast Mini Album
Sing Out, Louise! Productions Label
Available at Amazon.Com

One of the latest additions to Broadway has yet to announce a full cast recording, but a pre-Broadway release of a mini-album gives you four of its songs plus an instrumental which may well have been intended as an overture before the final form of the show had a prologue rather than an overture. Allegiance, marking the return of Lea Salonga (of Miss Saigon fame), a very strong performance by Telly Leung and the Broadway debut of George Takei (yes, Star Trek’s Sulu) who I was informed pronounces his last name Tak-ay and not Tak-eye. It is a serious piece of theater with a melodic score featuring mostly pedestrian lyrics which tends to avoid making the love story too lyrical. That story is loosely based on the real live experience of the Takei family, who shortly after the start of World War II, was interred in prison camps (euphemistically referred to at the time as “internment stations”) because of their Japanese ancestry – never mind that George was a five-year-old American citizen! It is a piece of history that is as important as it is disturbing to remember, but the dual-romance story on which the production is based gives it a layer of loveliness without turning it into a piece of frippery. We can hope for a full recording of the score, but for now we have to settle for this sampler which has Salonga, Takei, Leung and Michael K. Lee of the Broadway cast plus two cast members from the pre-Broadway production at San Diego’s Old Globe.

fun-home-a-new-broadway-musical-cast-recording-cd-3Fun Home
Original Broadway Cast
PS Classics PS-1529
ASIN: B00VX17LS4

The winner of the 2105 Tony Award for Best Musical (and also best book and best score, not to mention being a finalist for the Pulitzer for Drama) was recorded by PS Classics when it was an off-Broadway show at the Public Theatre. When it transferred to a Broadway house, they went back into the studio to record those portions of the score that had been changed for the transfer. The result is not so much an album of songs from the show as an audio presentation of the storytelling as an integrated whole. This is an album to settle in with – booklet in one hand and perhaps your favorite libation in the other. It takes just over an hour – – it is a wonderful hour.

Spring Awakening
Original Broadway Cast
Decca Broadway Catalog B0008020-02

I’m afraid you are going to have to reach back to an earlier release to hear the music of this show which has been given a marvelous limited run revival this season. The new production originated in Los Angeles at the Deaf West Theatre, the same company that gave us the superb revival of Big River that featured a cast of hearing and deaf performers. Here, again, the blend of American Sign Language and vocally spoken/sung performances adds a dimension and richness to an already satisfying piece. Here Duncan Sheik’s often glorious soft-rock infused music carrying Steven Sater’s image-filled lyrics is given the same wonderful (and I use that word precisely) treatment. Unfortunately, no revival cast recording has been released. Still, the score is so strong that a recording of it should be considered again this year. Fortunately, the original Broadway cast album from the 2006 production is still available. The revival doesn’t change that score and it sounds in the theater this year very much as it did nine years ago. I’d love to have the new cast’s performance available but if it isn’t to be, call up the original and, to lift a lyric, “know the wonder.” (The recording does carry a “parental advisory” for “explicit lyrics.”)

71B7KGcgUHL._SY355_An American In Paris
Original Broadway Cast
Masterworks Broadway – 88875 09114 2
ASIN: B00VTYG7P8
and
Lady, Be Good!
2015 Encores! Cast Recording
Ghostlight/Razor&Tie Records
ASIN: B014L2YEO0

There are two new recordings of Gershwin music of note this season. The 2015 Broadway production of Craig Lucas’s stage adaptation of the 1951 movie An American In Paris gives you orchestral pieces like the Concerto in F, the Second Prelude, the Second Rhapsody combined with the Cuban Overture and an abbreviated (and not particularly well orchestrated) version of the title piece, all of which were used as dance numbers in the show. It also gives you Gershwin songs like “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” The booklet provides a brief synopsis (not enough to follow just what the functions are for each song) and notes from Rob Fisher who adapted, arranged and supervised the score. The orchestra sound is recorded with a tad too much treble compared to its bass line and, as it does in the theater, falls on the unfortunate side of the line between delicate and thin. Even the addition of nine players to the 19 member pit orchestra used in the show can’t make these charts sound as full as they should. There is also a recording of the 2015 Encores! Concert Series reconstruction of the score for the Gershwin’s 1924 hit Lady, Be Good! In the roles originated by Fred and Adele Astaire are Danny Gardner and Patti Murin but the performance that makes this recording something to add to your collection if you already own the Roxbury Recording of the Library of Congress’s 1992 restoration of the show is that of Tommy Tune who’s “Fascinating Rythm” is the highlight. Fisher again provides booklet notes, which among other interesting things, provide insight into the orchestrations being used which are primarily Bill Elliott’s reconstruction as opposed to those Larry Wilcox and Russel Warner did for the 1992 album.

On the 20th Century
2015 Broadway Revival
PS Classics PS -1532
ASIN: B00V8Q8QTW

Back when the term “hyperactive” was just entering popular vocabularies, it was the perfect word to describe this 1979 musical farce with a tremendous score by Cy Coleman and Comden and Green. This year it was revived by the Roundhouse Theatre Company with a superb cast headed by Kristen Chenoweth. Put on this fabulous two-disc recording but don’t sit back to listen … sit up to enjoy. But before you push the “play” button, take the time to read Patrick Pacheco’s notes on the evolution of the project and the full synopsis. It will make the fun even more, well, fun.

On The Town
2015 Broadway Revival
PS Classics – PS-1525
ASIN: B00P6QXXL6

Three hundred and sixty eight – That’s how many performances the latest revival of the Leonard Bernstein, Comden & Green World War II musical comedy managed to last, making it the longest-running of the three revivals to date. Each had its strengths and weaknesses but this one had many more of the former than of the later. Bernstein’s dance music is spectacularly captured here. Also captured is an historical touch of class — during World War II most public musical events began with “The Star Spangled Banner.” True to the period of the piece, this recording starts that way as well. However, when the war ended, the show reverted to opening with an overture. For this recording, the overture is played at the beginning of Act II as it was in performances of this revival.

It Shoulda Been You
Original Broadway Cast
Ghostlight Records
ASIN: B012WBL3PU

Hard as it is to believe, a musical comedy with a highly melodic score and witty lyrics that starred Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris and Sierra Boggess and was directed by David Hyde Pierce closed this season in only four months. Thank goodness Joel Moss and Kurt Deutsch at Ghostlight managed to capture its score in a delightful album that sounds something like musical comedies of yore. What’s more, they filled the booklet with a detailed synopsis, notes from the creative team, the complete lyrics and enough photos to give you a good idea what the physical production must have been like. The entire package is well worth buying two of … one to give and one to own.

The Last Ship
Original Broadway Cast
Universal Music Classics
ASIN: B00P80Y1A2

Sting isn’t as famed in musical theater circles as in pop/rock/new-wave worlds, but he turned his talent to creating a full-fledged Broadway musical tied to his own personal history growing up in the North of England where the ship building trade was dying. The show finally debuted on Broadway and its cast album displays a satisfying sense of the potential of music in serious story telling. Clearly, Sting had absorbed the ethos of musical theater and he is a talented composer and acceptable lyricist. The score was nominated for the Tony but didn’t win. Rob Mathes was also nominated for his orchestrations for a twelve-player pit band that sounds quite like a pub group. The recording doesn’t give much clue as to how his collaborators John Logan and Brian Yorkey did with the book, however. Still, there’s much to enjoy here, and as a gift it might introduce musical theater to a fan of the music of groups like Sting’s The Police.

300_bridgesThe Bridges of Madison County
Original Broadway Cast
Ghostlight Records
ASIN: B00JM5CAHA

Jason Robert Brown found himself in the unusual posture of receiving both the 2014 Tony Awards for Best Original Score and for Best Orchestrations for his surprisingly short lived The Bridges of Madison County. It is rare for a Broadway composer to do the orchestrations for his own score. Many of them are capable of doing it, but simply don’t have the time during the hectic period of rehearsal and tryout. Brown handled both chores and handled them superbly, as the dual awards attests. The supporting orchestrations feel very much like augmented chamber music with the piano dominating at the start but rich strings (four players on violin, viola and cello) providing heft in support of the emotive vocals, especially those of stars Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale.

Other Cast Recordings:

The Golden Apple
Regional Revival Cast Recording
PS Classics PS-1528
ASIN: B00U05XORG

This first-ever full-length recording of an overlooked gem of a sung-through score from the 1950s belongs on the theater shelf of any serious aficionado of the genre. The updating of Homer’s epic poems, The Odyssey and The Iliad finds Ulysses, Penelope, Paris and Helen (of Troy) inhabiting the then-contemporary world of post-World War II Washington State. An earnest, witty, clever and poetic book by John Latouche is well served by the full-sounding orchestral music by Jerome Moross (who did his own orchestrations, teaming with Hershy Kay.) The original Broadway cast recording was severely truncated with less than 50 of the 130 minutes of the score connected by rhyming narration that rankled and wasn’t from the show. Still, its riches were such that it was hard to listen to it without lamenting its brevity and wondering just what the missing nearly an hour and a half must have been like. Now, record producer Tommy Krasker has provided the answer on this two-disc set with full libretto recorded live during the Lyric Stage production in Irving, Texas. The previously unrecorded material is as rich and satisfying as the abbreviated version that served as a sampler.

Tamar of the River
Yellow Sound Label
ASIN: B00KJG01BI

Marisa Michelson’s sonically impressive music and Joshua H. Cohen’s streamlined lyrics for this unorthodox off-Broadway musical is probably the least “theater music” sounding score of the year. It is built on the biblical story of Tamar, the daughter of Judah, wed to Er and Onan. Rather than concentrate on the origin of the “sin” of “onanism” — spilling ones seed to avoid conception — it is an allegory of a world of two nations at war for generations and the efforts of Tamar to bring peace. If a big, bold, Broadway sound is your thing, look elsewhere. But if you can immerse yourself in a complex blend of chant, near-eastern percussion, a cappella humming and folk song with a touch of pop, explore this new release on Yellow Sound, a label that takes chances with show scores that break new ground. Margo Seibert leads the cast of the Prospect Theatre Company’s premiere staging of this musical that got its start in the Signature Theatre (Arlington, Virginia) Next Generation program of the American Musical Voices Project.

Misia
Studio Cast Recording
PS Classics PS-1526
ASIN: B00U08P4OO

A new musical by Vernon Duke, composer/compatriot of George Gershwin’s? Well, yes and no. This world premiere recording of a musical based on the life of a Parisian champion of the arts of the early 20th Century, Misia Sert, features Duke’s music composed for a French-language musical published in 1952 but never produced. With the encouragement of Duke’s widow, Barry Singer devised a new book on a new topic using Duke’s music which has been given a sparkling recording by PS Classics (do they do any other kind?) with the likes of Marin Mazzie, Bobby Steggert, Marc Kudisch, Jason Danieley, Jonathan Freeman and Philip Chaffin with full orchestra. It may not become a favorite, getting frequent plays in the audio system of your friends – but it is well worth multiple plays as the listener delves deeper and deeper into its musical riches. The structure Singer came up with and the story the show tells is interesting but his lyrics often feature too obvious rhyme schemes to match Duke’s often subtle melodies. The orchestral work is superb using orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick whose magical touch with atmospheric scores is legendary.

John Kander
Hidden Treasures, 1950 – 2015
Harbinger Records
ASIN: B017CPICVE

In 2012 I urged my readers to purchase a “Hidden Treasures” set of songs by Hugh Martin. In 2014 it was a “Hidden Treasures” set of songs by Sheldon Harnick. Now, Harbinger has added a two-disc treasure of songs by John Kander which is a must-have for fans of the first two as well for those who have yet to discover the joys of this series. As with the earlier volumes, this two-disc set is best approached with a pause button. Read the text for a track, listen to the track, pause, think, then move on to the next. You may be tempted to re-read, re-listen and re-think time and again. Don’t let the task daunt you. There are pleasures here to be, as the title suggests, treasured. Jesse Green’s essay explaining the source of each song constitutes a veritable biography of the man and his career and the two discs offer an overview of a remarkable man and a matchless career. John Kander’s output deserves no less. And the listener deserves the full pleasure of his creations. This is a package that is so filled with wonders that it deserves to be a project. Unlike Something Rotten!, It Shoulda Been You or even Hamilton, which should be experienced, at least for the first time, in a single sitting, this set should be taken in short snatches, listening to, reading about and savoring a few songs at a time.

DVDs:

8203%20main_2Peter Pan
1955 & 1956 Telecasts
Video Artists International Catalog VAI BD 8203

Most musical theater enthusiasts know that Mary Martin was Peter Pan on Broadway in a production that featured a score by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh with additional material by Jule Styne and Comden and Green. They also know that the entire production was telecast live in the 1950s. What many don’t know is that it was done live twice. The first telecast was March 7, 1955 and was such a hit that a re-run was called for. Being before the age of videotape, however, the only way to have a repeat was to do it over again which they did January 9, 1956. The color telecasts were captured on black and white film for archival purposes but there isn’t a color record. VAI has released a Blu-Ray Disc containing both the 1955 and the 1956 telecasts in their entirety. Not only are they fascinating historical documents, they are delightful entertainments.

Books:

The Book of Broadway:
The 150 Definitive Plays and Musicals
by Eric Grode
ISBN 978-0-7603-4562-7

Every theater lover with a coffee table needs coffee table books. There are so many out there … Robert Viagas and Louis Botto’s At This Theatre, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon’s Broadway: The American Musical, Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik’s Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, Ben Brantley’s simply titled book of New York Times reviews of Broadway Musicals. Now there’s a new one that makes for fine flipping through memories that covers both musicals and plays of note. Eric Grode’s The Book of Broadway features photo spreads on each of his 150 “definitive” shows with his own entertaining comments on what the show was all about and why it was so important. Here’s hoping your theater loving friends have strong coffee tables!

51sK0oBowIL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Joy Ride: Show People & Their Shows
By John Lahr
ISBN 978-0-393-24640-7

Forget the title which tells you little about the book, and focus on the subtitle and the name of the author. Those two things tell you all you need to know – a book about theater from someone who knows what he’s talking about from personal experience both from family connections (he’s the son of Bert) and a lifetime of theatergoing including years as the drama critic of The New Yorker. Indeed, it is his profiles of theater greats and his detailed pieces on specific shows for that magazine so well known for its emphasis on good writing that make up this volume. Portraits of the likes of directors Mike Nichols and Susan Stroman (what, no Mr. Abbott?) and playwrights such as Arthur Miller, August Wilson and none other than William Shakespeare are a delight to read and are filled with details and observations that are worth savoring. His pieces on individual shows, from Oklahoma! through The Pajama Game to The Light in the Piazza capture some of why theater lovers love theater. (A personal favorite single sentence? Here from his short piece on “Sweeney Todd” – “From the poisoned wells of Victorian oppression, Sondheim drew his purest water.”)

The Best Plays of 2014
Edited by Lawrence Harbison
ISBN 978-1-4803-9665-4

Those who enjoy reading plays rather than reading about plays were downcast when the Burns Mantle annual series The Best Plays Theater Yearbook began providing essays about the plays instead of the full texts. That series has fallen behind in its issues in recent years. Perhaps in an effort to fill the gap, Applause Theatre & Cinema Books has brought out a volume of “Best Plays” by Lawrence Harbison, who has long edited collections of monologues, scenes, short plays and plays by new playwrights. Indeed, he has just come out with three other volumes: 10-Minute Plays for Kids, 10-Minute Plays for Teens and The Best Scenes for Kids Ages 7-15. For his 2014 Best Plays volume he includes the scripts of six plays including Donald Margulies’ The Country House and Dan Lauria’s Dinner with the Boys.

We’ll Have Manhattan:
The Early Work of Rodgers & Hart
by Dominic Symonds
ISBN 978-0-19-992948-1

There are more recordings of the songs of Rodgers and Hart than of the full scores of their 26 shows but whether your fascination for their work comes from songs or scores, you can’t fully understand the nature of their shows just from the music and lyrics. Symonds fills that void for the least well known part of their canon – the shows that established their reputation between the Garrick Gaieties of 1925 with which they burst forth with the song “Manhattan” (among others) and America’s Sweetheart in 1931. In between came such gems as Dearest Enemy, One Dam Thing After Another and Spring is Here. Symonds gives both a look at what the shows were like and their impact on the Broadway and London musical theater. This is the first volume of a projected two-volume work. Despite some excessive technical jargon, the text can be a delight on its own and will just whet your appetite for the next installment.

The Collected Plays of Arthur Miller
ISBN: 978-1-59853-379-8

The Library of America has collected all of Miller’s plays – the big, important ones like Death of a Salesman, All My Sons and The Crucible and the smaller teleplays and one-acts. Three volumes cover those from 1944-1961, 1964-1982 and 1987-2004 (one assumes he didn’t publish any in the intervening years). The texts are scrupulously prepared and, as is true of other Library of America volumes, the books even have sewn-in ribbons to act as book marks.

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