The most recent B’way season’s hits & misses … of cast recordings
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
While you wouldn’t necessarily call original cast recordings of Broadway musicals “queer music,” let’s face it: That’s the target audience. And we’re living in a mini-Golden Age of soundtracks to big stage musicals. It wasn’t always that way. Maybe Hamilton brought them back or The Book of Mormon, but you can get most musicals on CD, MP3 or streaming nowadays.
Of course, that doesn’t have anything to do with excellence. While composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul continue to rack up awards not just for their Tony-winning stage hit Dear Evan Hansen as well as their movie musical La La Land, what about the rest of the crop of current B’way shows? Here’s our rundown for theater queens everywhere.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Reprise). The other big new musical of the 2016–17 B’way season, this spirited adaptation of a portion of War and Peace is a dazzling piece of stagecraft when seen live, with actors dancing in the aisles (literally). But that also means the acoustics in a live theater can be challenging, and lyrics get lost. That’s the perk of having this disc to deliver hi-fi stereo sounds to your ears in the privacy of your car or through your headset at the gym. For many, a big part of the sonic appeal of this show is recording star Josh Groban — making his Broadway debut — offering his rich baritone to composer Dave Malloy’s rousing score, but Denée Benton as Natasha and Brittain Ashford as Sonya deliver some exquisite moments on memorable ballads. Don’t worry too much about following the storyline — just enjoy the ride.
War Paint (Ghostlight). The team responsible for the cult hit musical Grey Gardens — lyricist Michael Korie, composer Scott Frankel and book writer (and Dallas native) Doug Wright (plus director Michael Grief and co-star Christine Ebersole) — reunited for this feminist anthem, about two women who help make the 20th century what it was: pioneering cosmetic queens Helena Rubenstein (Patti LuPone), who had the chemistry background but a brusque, Eastern European hardness that made her less appealing to the ladies of the Upper East Side; and Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole), a packaging genius whose nouveau-riche-ness kept her away from the salons of the women she transformed. Onstage, LuPone’s powerhouse alto could overwhelm Ebersole’s more lyric mezzo, but the mix on the cast recording gives each equal appeal. The men in their lives don’t have songs that are as catchy, but Wright somehow manages to supply these two women — who never met in real life — with the structure to deliver three duets, which sound just as cheer-worthy on a disc as they do at the Nederlander Theater. This is diva central of the Broadway season.
A Bronx Tale: The New Musical (Ghostlight). Whither the obsession with turning every old movie into a current Broadway musical? Chazz Palminteri’s big break was his one-man autobiographical show about life in the 1960s on Belmont Avenue. But the flash of a musical led him to adapt it into a sprawling show, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater … and what an unmitigated disaster it has become, at least as a show score. It doesn’t miss a single cliché on its romp through the mean streets of Noo Yawk — clichés only exacerbated by Slater’s lazy, inane lyrics (I counted nine times he used “kid” as the last word of a lyric) with painfully underdeveloped characters, frightful imagery and cringe-inducing rhymes. Menken’s score is better, but even he cribs from himself (detect motifs that echo The Little Mermaid and Little Shop of Horrors). This is a lesser work — Jersey Boys lite — that probably didn’t deserve a cast recording.
Hello, Dolly! (Sony Masterworks). Of course, singing along to Carol Channing’s 1964 recording of the original Jerry Herman bombast was probably the moment most men of a certain age realized they were gay. But as much as we love Carol (and, for that matter, Pearl Bailey, who also did the role and recorded an album), when yer talkin’ gay icons, yer talkin’ Bette. Midler proved her can-you-hear-me-in-the-balcony? delivery in the stagy TV version of Gypsy, but she’s more character-driven here, as are Davie Hyde Pierce and Gavin Creel, among others. It’s the definitive old-school Broadway show and as close as you’ll get to an acceptable substitute to seeing La Midler live.
Falsettos (Ghostlight). The original Broadway production of this show already won composer William Finn the Tony in 1992, when it first ran, but the limited-run revival this past winter birthed an all-new cast recording, which features some of the biggest stars of this century: Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells and Stephanie J. Block. They form part of a love triangle — really more of a dodecahedron — of gay men, ex-wives, lesbians next door and straight kids in this rondelet of coping with life and love in the world of HIV. The new two-disc set (the musical is really two one-act musicals, both sung-through) luxuriates in Finn’s witty wordplay (his tunes are more traditional) with standout acting-vocals that develop character and explore humor in the face of confusion and sadness. If you’re not familiar with the show, this is the time to get acquainted… or reacquainted.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 23, 2017.