Last year was a pretty good one for Broadway musicals, if by “pretty good” you mean “not as dreadful as usual.” Of the 15 that opened, just a handful were outright disasters both critically and financially. And though only six are still running, that’s not a bad number these days.
Even better, most of last year’s shows made cast albums, so you can judge for yourself. True, you will not find “1776” or “The Little Prince” among them; they were not recorded. Nor was the original Broadway revival cast of “Funny Girl,” which instead opted to preserve its replacement cast, led by Lea Michele. (Following its November digital release, the CD goes on sale Friday.)
Another absentee is “Paradise Square,” which, because of litigation between the show’s producer and its unions, is available only piecemeal — and only on its composer’s Instagram page. What I’ve heard of it there is better than what I saw of it onstage.
That is often the case with the 2022 cast albums. Among the 10 I’ve played in their entirety (the remaining two — “KPOP” and “Almost Famous” — are scheduled to be released in the coming months), some improve on the shows they preserve merely by jettisoning most or mercifully all of the book. In other cases, you can actually hear what the authors had in mind, which you can’t always do amid overexcitable stagings.
Even so, it remains generally true that the best and freshest musical theater recordings — omitting standout solo albums like Christine Ebersole’s “After the Ball” and Victoria Clark’s “December Songs” — arise from the best and freshest underlying material. That means that in my breakdown below, the quality tends to improve as you move from jukeboxes to revivals to originals.
But not always. Another reason 2022 was a pretty good year for Broadway musicals is that, often enough, they were pretty surprising.
Whatever you think of jukebox musicals as a theatrical genre — and I generally don’t think much of them — they make exceedingly strange cast albums. The worst offenders are biographical jukeboxes, which purport to tell the story of the singer or songwriter (or record company) that owns the songs or made them famous. When those songs are stripped from their jimmied narratives and returned to their native format as recordings, they devolve into something peculiar: greatest hits tribute albums.
That’s especially problematic with “MJ the Musical,” based on Michael Jackson’s life and catalog. Because the songs — and Jackson’s idiosyncratic original performances of them — are (like “Billie Jean”) so unforgettable, there’s little Myles Frost, in the title role, can do with just his voice to suggest something new. Instead we are stuck with a slick impersonation, accurate but wan. Why not just get the original?
That problem is somewhat attenuated in “A Beautiful Noise,” the Neil Diamond bio-jukebox. For one thing, Will Swenson, as Diamond, does not aim for a carbon copy. Exaggerating some of the singer’s vocal qualities — the basso burr and steel-wool growls — he instead adds value while suggesting character. And when he is backed up by the show’s terrific ensemble in a joyful number like “Holly Holy,” you hear it in a new way, as an unexpected cover. Yes, some of these “covers” are a little too unexpected: When Diamond’s intensely interior musings are turned into duets and awkwardly refitted as plot numbers, it’s hard not to roll your ears.
That problem is triply avoided in “& Juliet.” (1) It’s not a rumination but a romp. (2) It has no biography to be true (or false) to. (3) It’s built on hit songs, by Max Martin, that, having been written for many different singers, are generic enough to suit many situations. So when Lorna Courtney, as Juliet, wakes up by her tomb to sing Britney Spears’s “ … Baby One More Time,” or a song like Celine Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is” is repurposed as a feminist anthem, it’s additive, not subtractive. And it’s hard to be very critical when the Katy Perry hit “I Kissed a Girl” becomes a flirty wink to nonbinary attraction.
Musicals that have previously produced a superb recording pose a different problem. Other than bonus tracks and extended dance music sequences — the result of technology that offers almost limitless capacity — what new can a cast album offer?
I’m afraid I didn’t find much of an answer in the revival cast recording of “The Music Man,” even though, or rather because, it’s an accurate rendering of the hit stage production. Is that because Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, avoiding comparison to Robert Preston and Barbara Cook, offered very different readings (and singings) of the roles? Both went darker — and Foster lower, dodging Cook’s high notes — resulting in a somewhat grim take on songs that once were joyous. (Passages of Jackman’s “Ya Got Trouble” are almost terrifying.) At least there’s joy to be had around the edges, especially in the funky chromaticism of the barbershop quartet, whose rendering of “Sincere” is like a roller coaster that keeps going up and up.
If rethinking did not serve “The Music Man,” it certainly did “Into the Woods.” After several revivals and the 2014 movie, this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical could almost seem too familiar, yet the stripped-down version directed by Lear deBessonet restored its warmth, humor and strangeness. Not all of that survives in the cast recording, especially in complicated ensemble numbers that mix dialogue and song at top speed. Yet in solos and duets — like the alternately hilarious and gorgeous “Agony,” sung by Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, the score shines anew.
As a record of raw Broadway talent, there may never be a greater cast album than the one on which Barbra Streisand, at 21, was captured in a state of wild, almost feral daredevilry. At 36, Lea Michele is past the feral stage, but she’s still a thrill on the revival cast album of “Funny Girl.” In some ways, it’s even more of a feat, as she gets thin support from the watered-down orchestrations, even juiced with three additional strings. And if her renditions of barnburners like “Don’t Rain on My Parade” owe more than a little to their originator, Michele brings her own banked fires to the ballads, especially “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and a triple crème “People.”
By comparison, new musicals are too often skim milk. Whether it’s the overwhelming costs or the coolness of so many stories, they do not lend themselves to Golden Age butterfat. That’s fine, but the grooves on their cast albums can feel like ruts as a result, both emotionally and aurally. How nice to hear four that are so rich in varied craft and feeling!
Even “Mr. Saturday Night,” a middling entertainment onstage, shines in its recording. Not that it isn’t cynical; the story of a washed-up borscht belt comic naturally evokes an acrid Rat Pack score (and matching orchestration) from the composer Jason Robert Brown. But Billy Crystal, in excellent voice, provides a nice balance in the title role, especially when highlighting the pathos behind the aggressive humor of Amanda Green’s lyrics, as in “A Little Joy.” “I’m gonna bring a little mirth/To celebrate our time on earth,” he hectors an unresponsive old age home audience. “Of course it helps to have a pulse.” This recording does.
Oddly, it’s the cast album of “A Strange Loop,” a terrific musical — and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama — that has the pulse problem. Michael R. Jackson’s brilliant concept, in which unhelpful “thoughts” persecute a gay Black musical theater writer trying to write a gay Black musical, is so innately theatrical that, without Stephen Brackett’s staging, it’s hard to track its ups and downs through music alone. Still, with Tori Amos, Joni Mitchell and Liz Phair as his “Inner White Girl” inspirations, Jackson writes songs that sting, his lyrics merging poetry and perseveration.
Kimberly Levaco doesn’t have time to perseverate; she’s aging at four times the normal speed and already looks 60-ish at 15. Her upbeat attitude in the face of early mortality gives “Kimberly Akimbo” (due out Feb. 14, though two songs are now available for streaming) its tragic undertow but also its uncanny, uncloying delight. The songs by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire, especially as sung by Victoria Clark and Bonnie Milligan, rarely waste time stating the obvious, thus allowing us to experience both dawning rapture (“Anagram”) and hilarious sociopathy (“Better”) without condescension. As the cast album moves from high to high with no explanations, you may wonder where that lump in your throat came from.
How much story a cast album needs to tell has from the start of the format been a defining question. The first recordings of Broadway shows were essentially glorified singles, with no context at all. (There was no room.) But even with dialogue and liner notes, new musicals today, in which songs are narrowly tailored to narratives, can leave you perplexed if you haven’t seen them live. That will not be a problem for the cast album of “Some Like It Hot” (due out on March 24); it’s designed, like so many Golden Age musicals, to give pleasure both within and without the story. As they did in “Hairspray,” Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman write numbers — including the ear-wormy title song — that find the sweet spot between generic pop and overspecificity: songs that can sound like just one character’s blues, or anyone’s.