July 10, 2014

For over four years, this column has brought you reviews of theater-related CDs, DVDs and Books that you might want to have on your very own theater shelves. It has been a pleasure as well as an honor to be your source for information on both the obvious new releases and the more obscure items that might have escaped your attention.

But it is now time for me to move on to other pursuits. I’ll still compile an annual holiday gift guide and I expect I’ll succumb to the temptation to crank out a review here and there when I chance upon a new release of overwhelming interest – at least of interest to me.

But before we turn off the spigot, there are some really intriguing releases that I’d like to draw to your attention in case you would like to add them to your shelves:

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Original Broadway Cast
PS Classics Catalog PS – 1423

Audra McDonald won her sixth (6th!) Tony Award last month for her searing performance as Billie Holiday in the painful-to-witness, emotional experience that is Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The one act, 90 minute play with music is a fabrication that feels so much like reality that it seems like a documentary detailing Holiday’s “nearly final” appearance in a dive in Philadelphia before loosing the battle against drugs and booze at age 44. If you can’t get to the Circle in the Square Theatre in New York before September when the show ends its limited run, you can still experience it as PS Classics recorded the entire thing live last April and presents it on two discs with all 14 songs and all the dialog that leave you convinced you have known the lady and all the pain as well as the pride that marked her career.

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Love’s Labour’s Lost
Original Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records catalog 8 – 4485

The team that developed the outlandishly entertaining rock-infused musical, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, returned to the New York Shakespeare Festival where that show began and the result was the Free Shakespeare in the Park offering of 2013, a loose and lively adaptation of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, which Ghostlight Records has recorded with the original cast. The songs are by Michael Friedman and the cast includes Daniel Breaker (Shrek, Passing Strange), Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) and Colin Donnell (Anything Goes, Violet). A six member band rocks along nicely. Fans of Bloody Bloody will want to add this one to their collection.

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Where The Sky Ends
The Songs of Michael Mott

Broadway Records Catalog BR – CD01514

You may not recognize the name Michael Mott yet, but the new release of eleven of his songs may make you anxious to get to know his work. He’s the composer/lyricist of two as-yet-unproduced musicals, Faustus: The Musical and Mob Wife: A Mafia Comedy. Broadway Records gives him a chance to show his stuff using the talents of some of Broadway’s best young stars. With multiple Tony nominee Laura Osnes (Cinderella, Bonnie and Clyde), Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan (Newsies, Bonnie and Clyde) and Sierra Boggess (Little Mermaid), Bryan Terrell Clark (Motown), Josh Young (Jesus Christ Superstar), Orfeh (Legally Blonde) and Justin Guarini (Women on the Verge), all backed by a studio orchestra led by Broadway orchestrator Kim Scharnberg (Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlett Pimpernel, The Civil War) the disc is a delightful discovery.

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Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording
PS Classics catalog PS-1420

In 1990 Allan Berube wrote a fascinating book about the experience of gays and lesbians during World War II titled “Coming Out Under Fire.” It took the magic of musical theater, however, to turn that highly detailed volume that told hundreds of stories into an emotionally affecting immersion into the world of its subject. David Zellnik created a mature musical libretto and the lyrics for the music composed by his brother, Joseph, in the style of the 1940s. They called it Yank! It received an award-winning production in 2010 at the York Theater, but it didn’t get a recording at the time. PS Classics has come to the rescue, reassembling the original cast for a beautifully recorded album. What is more, they commissioned new orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick who captures that 40s feel tremendously.

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Tennessee Williams: Words and Music
Ghostlight Records catalog 8 – 3341

One of the most distinctive theater discs released this year comes from a stage show that is part concert, part academic study and part descent into the often demented world of Tennessee Williams. Taking the fact that Williams built references to popular songs into his plays as the springboard for an evening’s entertainment, the presentation Tennessee Williams: Words and Music, surveys those references and their dramatic effect. Alison Fraser delivers the often sultry goods supported by a New Orleans combo and Ghostlight Records’ captures it in a presentation as conceived and directed by David Kaplan.

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Nice Fighting With You
A 30th Anniversary Celebration

Broadway Records catalog BR-CD54B-012

Over the years I have written glowingly about Broadway Records releases of live recordings of cabaret shows featuring big Broadway names at the New York nightclub 54 Below which is located in the basement of the theater Studio 54.

The latest is a bit different. It is a compilation of multiple evenings celebrating the 30th anniversary of the collaboration of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composer and lyricist of Ragtime, Once on This Island, Seussical, and a host of others including the current Broadway musical version of Rocky. So many stars have worked with them over the years that they had to stage this tribute over six different evenings. This two-disc set of highlights includes some of their reminiscences of their thirty years of fighting with each other over melodies and lyrics while remaining great friends (hence the title), and the delivery of many of their songs by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, LaChanze, Rebecca Luker, Kevin Chamberlin, Mary Testa and Stephanie J. Block.

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Androcles and the Lion
Songs and Dialogue from the TV Musical

Masterworks Broadway ASIN: B00KXFRTCY

In 1967, Richard Rodgers composed the score for a made-for-television musical based on a play by George Bernard Shaw. Unlike the made-for-television musical he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II, Cinderella, which was a spectacular success, Androcles and the Lion was greeted with a mixture of “ho-hum” and “who-cares.” It had a script by Peter Stone but Rodgers contributed both lyrics and music. A “songs and dialogue” album was released at the time and has now been re-released on CD. It may not be Rodgers’ best work, but it is still Rodgers – and that means there are some delights to be discovered here.  And features a performance by Nöel Coward.

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Minding the Score: The Music of Harry L Alford
America’s Pioneer Arranger

New World Records Catalog 80743 – 2

Harry L. Alford is a name practically unknown to even the most devoted music fans, but his contribution was fundamental to the popular music field. Robert Russell Bennett, Don Walker, Philip J. Lang, Jonathan Tunick, Don Sebesky, Nelson Riddle – If you know any of these names, you should know Alford’s, for he all but invented the trade they ply.

In the 1890s he set out to become an “arranger of music,” that is, to arrange and orchestrate music composed by others. What is more, he thought up the idea of a full-service office churning out everything from a piano chart to accompany a solo vocalist to full orchestra or band charts. Thirty thousand pieces of music later, he had impacted the sound that meant the American Popular Song to so many listeners. Rick Benjamin, the director of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, has researched this man’s career and has just released a 19-track CD of examples of Alford’s work with a 32-page booklet detailing the results of his research. It is fascinating reading and interesting listening.

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Marriage Type Love
Masterworks Broadway

In 1959 Jack Cassidy and his wife Shirley Jones recorded an album of songs about love and marriage backed by orchestra leader/arranger Marty Gold, which for some reason, was never released. Now Masterworks Broadway makes it available for the first time a half century late. Never mind the delay, it is still a kick!​

A Final Look At The In-Box