Tuesday, December 23, 2014

TOP TEN MUSICAL THEATRE ALBUMS OF 2014

I had a tough time making a list this year... not in choosing the ten albums (there weren't a lot of albums released this year that punched me in the gut) but in choosing the order. We've got a wide mix here: Some more mainstream, and others you may not even realize had been released this year. But I'll stop rambling now and get going with it. Here are my Top Ten Musical Theatre Albums of the year 2014. Starting at the bottom with #10...


#10. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH

 Did we really need another recording of Stephen Trask's cult-hit glam rock score? Turns out, yes, with the unmatchable talents of Neil Patrick Harris and the revelatory Lena Hall at the helm. Harris makes Hedwig his own and Hall gets to show off an insane rock belt on songs like Midnight Radio and The Long Grift. Plus, with some fun new arrangements and a few surprises along the way, this is an ideal inclusion into anyone's Hedwig collection. The reasons behind Harris and Hall winning Tony Awards this year are abundantly clear here.







#9. TAMAR OF THE RIVER
Marisa Michelson is not a familiar name in the musical theatre composing world, but it should be now. Her innovative score defies convention and classification, taking little bits and bites out of a variety of eclectic music styles like Middle Eastern folk, pop, classical, rock, African tribal music, and gospel and moulding them into something that works, and that really gets under the skin. Voices are used to haunting effect for buzzes, hums, trills, chromatics, and yelps. This is music that stays with you. It crawls inside and refuses to leave.





Thursday, December 18, 2014

Album Review: THE LAST SHIP (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)


Pop and rock musicians don't have the best track record of writing truly effective musical theatre scores. Many have tried, with varying degrees of success. Even celebrated scores, like Duncan Sheik's pop score for Spring Awakening, earn their praise just from being great music while, in the context of the show itself, those songs stop the narrative action dead in its tracks. The crossover into musical theatre isn't as simple as a lot of these musicians seem to believe.

But, I dare say, Sting of all people might be an exception. It's not entirely propulsive music, but it gets far more right than any of its predecessors. And besides that, it's just a great score.



The Last Ship is so clearly a labour of love. Inspired by Sting's upbringing with exposure to the shipyards and ship builders, the music sounds like work that only Sting could have written. Don't go in expecting high energy rock anthems and danceable pop tunes... this music is brooding, melancholy, heartfelt, and poignant. With Celtic-flavoured Irish folk songs, stirring pop ballads, and rousing foot-stomping anthems, Sting has crafted a colourful and achingly poetic score that is character true, that advances the story, that sounds like it has a proper place in a musical. It rides a fine line, but it rides that line with ample balance and assuredness. And through it blazes a passionate fomenting heart.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Album Review: INTO THE WOODS (ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK)

Nail-biting anticipation accompanied this album. Many musical theatre fans have listened to the original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods countless times, myself included. And we all know that movie soundtracks have a reputation for being over-produced, flat, commercial, boring, and lifeless. Would Sondheim's masterful score meet a similar fate?

Not so, I say with a sigh of relief and a cheer of happiness. This brand new movie soundtrack of Into the Woods holds up.

Sondheim's music is seriously hefty and alive in the hands of a full movie orchestra. It has never sounded so full, so exciting, particularly with Jonathan Tunick's epic orchestrations. It simply sweeps you up. And from the opening bars of the Prologue, you know this score is in good hands with the all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, and many more. Not many among them are people you'd call a 'singer', but they are exactly what Sondheim's score demands: Actors who can sing. The focus here is on acting the material, and on those grounds, there is not one weak link in the company. In fact, they are all considerably strong. They carry Sondheim's dextrous, rapid-fire lyrics and winding melodies with aplomb that suggests seasoned experience with the material.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Album Review: SHAPIRO SISTERS - LIVE OUT LOUD (LIVE AT 54 BELOW)

When I was sent this album to review, I was a bit nervous about it. It looked like everything I'd dislike in a musical theatre album. Not only was the list of songs full of material that I'm not particularly fond of, but to top of off, sung by two young girls I'd never heard of before.

Young performers can be dicey. We forgive their shortcomings because, of course, they're kids. I didn't want this to be an album full of things I'd have to overlook.

Luckily, it isn't. I'm pretty floored by the talented Millie and Abigail Shapiro. They surprised me. Big time.

These sisters, ages 11 and 13, already have some pretty serious accomplishments under their belts. Millie played Matilda on Broadway in rotation with three other young actors, and was a Tony Honoree for Excellence in Theatre for her performance. Abigail played the leading role of Cindy-Lou Who in the Madison Square Garden production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Album Review: TAMAR OF THE RIVER (WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING)

Where to start on this recording? How do you talk about a score so unclassifiable? Marisa Michelson's music for Tamar of the River teases and tastes at an endless list of styles and genres that simultaneously make the score sound like it was written in the distant past as well as the distant future.

The fact that Michelson's palate is so expansive is part of what makes this score such a joy to listen to. It electrifies and jolts us. It gets under our skin. It twists and turns in such unexpected and jarring ways. It floats with melodic beauty.

There's American and European classical influence here, but there's just as much contemporary pop, African tribal music, gospel, Middle Eastern folk, and sprinklings of so much more all over the place. All of these are used to new effect that shatters expectation. This is one inventive, even innovative, piece of musical theatre writing.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Album Review: HAWKSLEY WORKMAN - SONGS FROM THE GOD THAT COMES

If you're in touch with the indie music scene in Canada, you're probably familiar with Hawksley Workman. He's an artist that's strangely hard to classify; a glance at his albums will show what an eclectic array of genres he's tackled. From glam rock, to heavy pop, to hip hop, to traditional folk, you'll be left almost wondering if a different person was behind each album.

Not so. And now, we can add musical theatre to that list with Songs from The God That Comes, an album that accompanies Workman's solo rock opera that is currently touring all over the place.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Album Review: 21 CHUMP STREET (ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING)

Have you heard of this musical? I know I hadn't... but with good reason.

Tony Award winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote a short 'mini musical' for a radio podcast titled 'This American Life'. Based on a news article about a high school boy falling in love with a transfer student who turned out to be an undercover cop investigating the school for drugs, 21 Chump Street is shorter than a one-act show, with the score clocking in at under 15 minutes in length.

This EP of the show's score appeared on iTunes without warning. And it couldn't be a more welcomed surprise.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Album Review: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH (BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)

Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig. It couldn't be better casting.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a hugely popular cult musical created by John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask. The show, about a down-and-out transgendered rock star named Hedwig, is a blend of musical theatre and a rock concert. The results are powerful.

The original cast, however, is iconic. For most fans, John Cameron Mitchell is, and always will be, the definitive Hedwig. Given this, how does the immensely talented Neil Patrick Harris measure up?

Well, he's no John Cameron Mitchell. But, luckily for us, he's not trying to be.

Album Review: HEATHERS (WORLD PREMIERE CAST RECORDING)

Laurence O'Keefe is no stranger to musicalizing campy subject matter. He had a hit on Broadway with the guilty pleasure musical Legally Blonde and his musical Bat Boy is an Off-Broadway cult favourite.

Fitting, then, that he should have tackled Heathers, based on the 1988 movie of the same name. The movie has attained large cult status despite early box office failure, and it spawned a lot of similarly campy high school movies, primarily the immensely popular Mean Girls.

But how does it work as a musical?

With lyricist Kevin Murphy, O'Keefe has crafted a bouncy and fun pop-rock score that lends itself beautifully to the subject matter.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Album Review: IF/THEN (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)

What if you did this instead of that? If you could go back and do something differently, would you? Can the smallest things have a huge impact on the course of your life?

These questions are asked in If/Then, the new original musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, the same team that brought us the emotionally devastating Next to Normal. In fact, such questions are the obsession of Elizabeth, a woman who moves to New York after a messy divorce in order to start her life fresh. The 'what ifs' become her driving force in life, with every decision carefully considered.

For the audience, we are shown two parallel universes, where we see for ourselves just how Elizabeth's decisions affect her life. In one reality, she's called Liz... in another, Beth. And everything is significantly different.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Album Review: HERE LIES LOVE (ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING)

David Byrne? Fatboy Slim? Musical theatre? No way.

Yes, way.

Here Lies Love, the delicious musical with songs by David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and beats by Fatboy Slim, was released as a concept album years ago featuring big-name musicians. Just last year, it was picked up in an acclaimed production at The Public Theatre. Directed by Alex Timbers, the show was staged in a dance club of sorts, with the cast performing on moving elevated platforms while the audience gets to stand and dance for the entirety of the 90 minute show.

It's a good thing the audience gets to dance, because with what David Byrne and Fatboy Slim have created, I'd find it damn near impossible not to.

Album Review: ROCKY (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)

Skepticism. How else can you approach a musical based on such unlikely subject matter? Rocky, the famous 1976 movie starring Sylvester Stallone as the Italian Stallion himself, isn't exactly material that sings. However, it was intriguing to discover that the wonderfully talented Tony winning Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty would be composing the show's score. After their stunning work on shows such as Ragtime and Once On This Island, I await everything they produce with anticipation. As unusual it was for Rocky to be used as material for a musical, it felt like the fantastic creative team would be up to the ambitious challenge.

But all considered, does Rocky actually work as a musical?

Yes. And no. Read on.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Album Review: VIOLET (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)

Jeanine Tesori is having a great year. After her ground breaking musical Fun Home was a huge hit at The Public Theater, her very first musical Violet, originally seen at Playwrights Horizons way back in 1997, has received a revival on Broadway that opened to rave reviews. Shortly after, a cast recording was released.

Much like Adam Guettel's work on Floyd Collins, Tesori's musical palette consists of a rootsy bluegrass and country sensibility with some path treaded into blues, rock, and gospel. And also not unlike Floyd Collins, Violet doesn't exactly deal with typical musical theatre fare as subject matter. You wouldn't expect a story about a girl with her face permanently scarred after being hit with an axe to be material that sings.

But it really does. And it makes for a truly moving and timeless musical.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Album Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)


It’s here, ladies and gentleman: Jason Robert Brown’s return to Broadway. And it just so happens that he’s provided us with the most intensely romantic score since Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza.

There’s a difference here, though. While Piazza gently floated on the wind with a classical sensibility infused with piano, strings, and harp that touched us in the heart, The Bridges of Madison County has a musical approach that’s more muscular… it virtually punches us in the gut. It reflects a type of love unlike the innocence of Fabrizio and Clara, two na├»ve young people from two different worlds. The romance between Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid is one of forbidden love, a deep and complex affair that oozes with palpable danger and sexuality. And Jason Robert Brown’s work reflects that in a way that few other composers today could achieve. If Brown hadn’t written the brilliant score for Parade, I’d say Bridges is his most significant contribution to musical theatre to date.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Album Review: A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)

This is an unusual circumstance for me. When I first listened to the cast recording for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, I knew nothing about the show. Usually, I'm the guy who researches every show that interests me and knows virtually everything about it before I even see it or hear the music from it. But for whatever reason, I didn't immediately gravitate toward this show. But when I heard the cast album was released, I said "What the hell!" and bought the thing.

What a delicious surprise.

In true Edwardian theatrical style, A Gentleman's Guide is the story of Monty Navarro, who suddenly learns that he's actually a member of the D'ysquith Family, a family of great estate and wealth. Thing is, there are 8 people standing in Monty's way that would inherit any fortune before he does. So his plan is, naturally, to kill every person ahead of him in line.

Sounds kind of grim, doesn't it? Not in the least. When A Gentleman's Guide isn't being hysterically funny, it's still all kinds of fun.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Album Review: FUN HOME (ORIGINAL CAST RECORDING)

Fun Home, the Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron musical based on Alison Bechdel's famous graphic memoir of the same title, took the New York theatre scene by storm upon its premiere at the Public Theater. The production made it onto countless Top Ten lists and the reviews were almost entirely raves. And for musical theatre fans like me, who don't live in the United States let alone New York, this cast recording was highly anticipated and incredibly appreciated.

I hardly know where to start with this album... and the reason for that is because there is so much that's fantastic about it that it's almost overwhelming to write about. Immortalized absolutely beautifully by the excellent record label PS Classics, Fun Home is so good, it deserves to be the album that is played continuously in musical theatre heaven.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Album Review: BIG FISH (ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST RECORDING)

 
Say what you will about Andrew Lippa, but the man has written some undoubtedly great music. His latest musical based on the Tim Burton film Big Fish finally has a long awaited cast recording. The question is: What end of the Lippa spectrum does this music fall on? Is this the next Wild Party or is it another Addams Family?

Happily, this score isn't just good. It's great.

Sung primarily by the always excellent Norbert Leo Butz, the golden-voiced Kate Baldwin, and Bobby Steggert (a seriously underrated musical theatre talent), Lippa's score certainly doesn't break any new ground musically... but in a rare case, it doesn't really matter. If you're a fan of huge chorus numbers and big brassy Broadway orchestrations, Big Fish will be a huge catch for you. But even for the musical theatre fans who are more into something more subdued and emotional, this album delivers the goods in that category as well.

The songs strike a balance between gigantically energetic musical theatre numbers, twangy country tunes, and gentle, personal, poignant ballads. While no song can be classified as bland, some songs are admittedly predictable and rather melodically standard. And sometimes, Lippa's usually lovely lyrics come off as forced and, in some cases, a bit nonsensical or random.

But the great majority of the songs don't carry these quibbles with them. Listeners will find immediate favourites in the poignant and touching songs Fight the Dragons and Time Stops, and will find it impossible to get the melodies of songs like Be a Hero (the show's opener) and What's Next out of their heads. And of course, for anyone who knows the show's three stars, it goes without saying that the vocal performances are top notch. Norbert Leo Butz's perfect performance as Edward Bloom shines, while Kate Baldwin's beautiful soprano works beautifully on songs such as the emotional I Don't Need a Roof... and Bobby Steggert's unique and addictive tenor makes you wonder why we don't see or hear more of him.

If anything, Big Fish strikes a beautiful balance musically between being a crowd pleaser as well as being a show with a serious emotional undercurrent. Even without having seen the show, I was still quite moved by the time the album ended and, the more I listen to it, the more I'm growing to appreciate Lippa's lovely work. This album is going to satisfy a lot of musical theatre fans, and I'm living proof of that. Besides providing me with a bunch of great songs, Big Fish left me feeling emotionally full.