Monday, August 19, 2013

List: My Top 10 Contemporary Musical Theatre Cast Albums

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a lot of cast albums. Like, a lot. Some of them haven't been listened to more than once or twice, or at all in fact... but they're part of the collection, so I keep them around. However, there are a number of cast recordings I revisit quite frequently. I'll be scanning my iPod, have an "Oh yeah! That one!" moment, and give it another listen. Based on the suggestion of a reader, I took some time to sit down and narrow down/order up a list of my Top 10 favourites. Realize that, as new cast albums emerge and my taste potentially changes (you never know!) this list may change. All I know now is that it hasn't changed for a very long while, and so I feel comfortable presenting you now with my Top 10 Contemporary Musical Theatre Albums. Let's start at 10 and work our way up to 1, shall we?

#10: ORDINARY DAYS (Original Cast Recording)

If everything else emerging composer Adam Gwon writes is a good and as heartfelt as Ordinary Days, this guy is gonna be unstoppable. This is a simple little show, focusing on four New Yorkers who are trying to force life along and who gradually learn to stop, breathe, and let what happens happen. The score is played by no more than just a piano, but that's all it needs. The show is funny, poignant, meaningful, and it totally rings true... not to mention the beautiful score. It may just be a piano, but Gwon sure milks the hell out of that piano. The vocal talent is also terrific... Hunter Foster and Lisa Brescia are in fine voice and performance as Jason and Claire, a couple falling apart at the seams. They have a clever and hilarious duet, titled Fine, that is a highlight of the disc. Even better, though, are the hysterically funny, absurdly happy, and likeable Jared Gertner as Warren and the comically stressed Kate Wetherhead as Deb. Gertner and Wetherhead make for a perfectly funny dynamic and many of the best songs/scenes feature them together. Rooftop Duet/Falling, I'll Be Here, Fine, and Beautiful are stand-out tracks. A show with so much humour, heart, and poignance, Ordinary Days is far from ordinary.

#9: MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (2012 Encores! Cast Recording)

This score is said to be Sondheim's response to the critics who said he couldn't write a good melody. And man, did Sondheim ever show 'em who's boss. Merrily We Roll Along has never sounded better, or clearer, than on this terrific recording of the Encores! cast featuring Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. The score deserves a better book than it has, and even with reworking the show still doesn't totally work... but I'll be damned it anybody out there isn't moved to tears by the show's powerful finale, 'Our Time'. The score also spawned a number of classics, from 'Old Friends' to 'Good Thing Going' to 'Not a Day Goes By'. No, the show isn't perfect by any means, but Sondheim's score alone is pretty close and the reason Merrily packs such an emotional wallop. I love the score itself, but this album is destined to become the definitive recording of the show. And rightfully so... the vocal talent present is just stunning and fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda will love his impressive turn as Charlie. The sweet-voiced Celia Keenan-Bolger is also the only Mary I've ever heard on a recording of this score that hasn't annoyed the hell out of me, and Colin Donnell's Franklin Shepard beautifully rounds out a strong leading cast.

#8: COMPANY (Broadway Revival Cast Recording)

John Doyle totally gets this show. His thrilling revival of Sondheim's fantastic Company, in which the actors also double as the orchestra, is brilliant in so many ways, but the main way is totally atmospheric. Doyle digs deep into this material and finds something so uncompromisingly honest, so beautifully and emotionally raw that I've never seen in a production of Company before. The brilliant choice of using actor/musicians is part of what makes this particular revival so effective... the bare-bones orchestrations help to uncover the scary parts of this piece in the best possible way. This stuff was always there, lurking under the surface, but it took a director like Doyle to fearlessly strip this show of it's soft exterior and expose it for the unapologetically brittle, cynical piece it begs to be. Of course, for a show billed as a musical comedy, Company is also extremely funny, but the humour comes from a place of truth more than ever here. And Raul Esparza's revelatory turn as Bobby will go down in history as the definitive version. His rendition of the show's finale, 'Being Alive' is thrilling in its cathartic intensity.

 #7: PARADE (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

I had a difficult time with the inclusion of this one. I knew Parade had to end up on this list, but the question was: which recording? I own both the Original Broadway Cast recording and the London Donmar Warehouse Cast recording, both excellent for their own reasons. the OBC gets a much fuller orchestral treatment, while the Donmar's orchestra is significantly smaller (as well as the cast). Donmar's minimalistic approach perfectly suits the show's more sombre, human, grounded second act, while the bombast of the OBC makes the first act, at times, almost unbearably intense. After much deliberation, I decided on the OBC. Jason Robert Brown's Tony-winning score does something wonderful in that it pays strong tribute to classic Broadway while also blazing with an ever-present contemporary flair. A score built with modern styles like pop, blues, gospel, and jazz, and contemporary ballads, but it also harkens back to the good ol' days of The Great White Way. Brent Carver and Carollee Carmello are stunning as Leo and Lucille Frank, and the show's finale is beyond tragic.

#6: MYTHS AND HYMNS (Studio Cast Recording)

This is, by composer Adam Guettel's own admission, a bizarre album... it's a hybrid of a solo album and a cast recording. What we have here, in any case, is a recording of Guettel's song cycle Myths and Hymns, a collection of art songs based on religious hymns as well as Greek mythology. This is easily Guettel's most challenging and least accessible work, but that doesn't stop it from being devastatingly and affectingly beautiful. Guettel takes the lion's share of the songs and is himself an excellent singer... backing him up are the talents of the incomparable Theresa McCarthy, Billy Porter, Darius de Haas, Jose Llana, Vivian Cherry, Kristin Chenoweth, Annie Golden, Mandy Patinkin and Audra McDonald. Certainly an all-star company, and they tackle Guettel's absurdly difficult music with skill and aplomb. Guettel's achingly heart-stopping duet, Come to Jesus, is sung with Theresa McCarthy and will haunt you for a very long time (also, listening to this song while exploring the busy city or sitting on the subway is an experience that really must be had). Other highlights include Guettel's intense performance of the gorgeous pop-influenced love song Hero and Leander, Billy Porter's soaring Awaiting You, and Theresa McCarthy's beautiful Migratory V. This is an album that requires multiple listens to truly appreciate, but it's worth the effort to get to that place, as you'll emerge so emotionally rewarded. An evocative piece that is best experienced without analysis, but rather just living it, breathing it, and allowing it to affect you in whatever mystical way it will.

#5: NEXT TO NORMAL (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Next to Normal gained remarkable popularity given its exceptionally serious, bleak, and occasionally upsetting subject matter... however, this Pulitzer Prize winning rock opera about the effects of mental illness on contemporary family life deserves every bit of the fan base it has. The incredible score by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt doesn't have one single bad song, and each is performed brilliantly by an exceptional cast including the Tony-winning Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer, Aaron Tveit, Jennifer Damiano, Adam Chanler-Berat, and Louis Hobson. The show piles on the pathos and never leaves a moment to breathe... it moves at an electrifying pace that makes it all the more powerful and emotionally exhausting. Though much of the show's power can't be fully appreciated without the benefit of something visual to accompany it, this album is an ample immortalization of the show's score and, since the show is nearly entirely sung-through, it's very easy to follow the show's plot as most of it is on the recording. If you're planning on listening to Next to Normal for the first time, be sure you have tissues nearby. Seriously.

#4: THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Not the first Adam Guettel score on this list, and not the last either. Light in the Piazza was a seriously different venture for Guettel, who until that point had only written musicals in an American style, drawing from genres like American classical, blues, country, bluegrass, gospel, jazz, and musical theatre. This score, however, is very much European classical music. And it simply soars. And kudos to Guettel for writing some of the most devastatingly beautiful lyrics I've heard in a musical. The most often criticized factor of Guettel's score is the use of vocalise instead of actual words in his lyrics... lots of soaring cadenzas and 'aaaaahhhhhssss'. I recently attended a discussion with Adam Guettel himself and he was asked why he uses vocalise so much in his work. His answer? "I use vocalise when there are simply no words." I'll buy that for sure! Anyway, this difficult score is ably performed by the talents of Kelli O'Hara, Matthew Morrison, and the astoundingly heartbreaking Victoria Clark. Lavish, romantic, it glides through the air like a leaf in the breeze and is almost overwhelming in its emotional power. The discord may take some getting used to, like all of Guettel's work, but it's more than rewarding to work this score into your system. Warning though: it may never leave.

#3: GIANT (Original Cast Recording)

There are basically two camps when it comes to the work of composer Michael John LaChiusa... there are those who consider him one of the best composers we have in the theatre today, and others who think his music is dissonant, cold, emotionless, intellectual, and of limited appeal. While I can see where the naysayers are coming from in regards to some of his shows (like Queen of the Mist and First Lady Suite), but his latest effort, Giant, is enough to convert even the most stubborn of LaChiusa's haters. This sweepingly epic score is a melodic pastiche of styles like country, swing, jazz, blues, mariachi, classical, and more. It's long, but it flies by... it's composed and orchestrated refreshingly like a good ol' fashioned Broadway musical, yet it has enough contemporary flair to keep us interested. This work is almost beyond words in terms of how stunning it really is. All I can say is that the score is easily LaChiusa's opus, and the performers are an exciting collection to be sure: Brian d'Arcy James, Kate Baldwin, PJ Griffith, Bobby Steggert, Katie Thompson, and more. You'll be hooked from Aurelia Dolores, the show's powerful opener, and songs like He Wanted a Girl, Heartbreak Country, Our Mornings/That Thing, Jump, and the incredible The Desert will thrill you. The whole two-hour long score is buoyant from beginning to end, though.

#2: ASSASSINS (Broadway Revival Cast Recording)

This severely underrated Sondheim score simply blazes with rage, angst, and testosterone. This score left me devastated when I first heard it, and just as devastated several times after that. Neil Patrick Harris narrates the proceedings in a show that questions the motives of some of the most famous American assassins, and wannabe assassins, of all time... Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz, Byck, and many more. It's thrilling, darkly funny, and unsettling material and Sondheim's brilliant score runs the gamut of American musical styles. Besides being tuneful, disturbing, and disarmingly intelligent, this is also the manliest musical you're likely to come across. The intensity of this particular recording, featuring the talents of Marc Kudisch, Mario Cantone, James Barbour, Michael Cerveris, Denis O'Hare, and many others, makes the original cast recording seems like child's play. The sheer, fiery fury of this musical nearly blows the speakers off, while the original album seemed to bring itself forward with a whimper. Just incredible.

#1: FLOYD COLLINS (Original Cast Recording)

With three Adam Guettel scores on my Top 10 list, it'll come as no surprise that he's my favourite composer of all time. I've listened to Floyd Collins since I was 11 years old and a family friend introduced me to the score. This is easily one of the greatest contemporary theatre scores in the last twenty years... an astonishing combination of classical, country, folk, bluegrass, jazz, and musical theatre, this folk opera tells the tragic and true story of a Kentucky miner who became trapped in a sand cave he was exploring. Guettel's music, along with Bruce Coughlin's unbelievable orchestrations, digs so deeply, grabs your heart, and never lets go. The complexity is enough to keep discovering new subtleties and moments of brilliance for years and years of listening. Christopher Innvar, Jason Danieley, and Theresa McCarthy brilliantly lead the cast and all three are exceptional. Literally every song in this score is terrific, so it's hard to pick favourites... but nobody can say How Glory Goes isn't one of the best and most affecting songs every written for a musical. Theresa McCarthy's heartfelt and heartbreaking performance of Through the Mountain is also stunning, and other highlights include the exuberant Riddle Song, the delicate and pretty Daybreak, and the heart-stopping and tragic The Dream. Floyd himself begins the show with 12 minutes of solo singing as he explores his sand cave and it's some of the most captivating music in such massive length. The use of yodelling in particular is inspired and quite thrilling. I truly can't say enough about this transcendent score, so I'll just end it here and say that Floyd Collins is the best score I've ever heard and, I believe, one of the best scores to emerge in two decades.

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