February 5, 2013

Grammy Nominees –

Best Musical Theater Album

Next Sunday, February 10th, is the big night for the recording industry. That's the night for the Grammy's, which are to that industry what the Tonys are for Broadway, Oscars for movies and Emmys for television. This year, awards will be given out in no fewer than 81 categories. Not all categories receive any television time at all, but the results are still of interest within the greater music community. Here’s a look at the five nominees for Best Musical Theater Album.

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Nice Work If You Can Get It 
- Shout Factory catalog 826663-13740
- ASIN: B009904NCS

This latest “New Gershwin Musical” uses songs from the Gershwin catalog, with a new book by Joe DiPietro. He took as his starting point the Gershwin’s 1926 hit show Oh, Kay! Of course, the script isn’t the reason people buy a new Gershwin musical recording anymore than why they buy tickets to the show – the reason is Gershwin!

This Shout Factory release offers all the joys you would expect from a disc with twenty-two of the Gershwin brothers’ gems – from well known numbers such as “Lady Be Good,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and the title tune, to the less familiar but equally enjoyable “By Strauss,” “Do It Again” and “Will You Remember Me?”

Gershwin’s music always fits the big-band-ish sound of a classic Broadway pit orchestra, and while here it is somewhat restricted by today’s economics which only allowed a budget for seventeen players, Bill Elliott’s orchestrations deliver the feel that is needed. One thing that sets this “new Gershwin musical” apart from previous ones is the sense of humor in the arrangements of David Chase. Elliott and Chase announce their intention to lift not just full songs from the Gershwin catalog but snippets and themes with the very first notes of the opening number. Later they kick off “Demon Rum” with a humorous quotation of the opening theme of Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” For the rest of the hour and a quarter disc, the more you know of Gershwin’s music the more fun you will have trying to spot the sources for the connecting material.

It is a particular pleasure that record producer Robert Sher, along with Elliott and Chase, chose to include the scene change music which is built on snatches from the Gershwin catalog. All in all, this is a package that deeply deserves its Grammy nomination.

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Porgy and Bess
- PS Classics catalog PS-1206 
- ASIN: B007FEHA34

The Gershwin estate’s licensing house insists this be called The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, an affectation which is not only a superfluous appendage but a shameful slight to the memory of book writer and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward. Sadly, that’s not the only criticism that should be leveled at the production and, therefore, its cast album.

The PS Classics two-disc recording of last year’s Tony Award winning revival does a superb job of capturing the sound of the show starring Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and three Tony Award nominees: Norm Lewis as a thrillingly human Porgy, David Alan Grier as a seductive dandy Sportin’ Life and Phillip Boykin as a thoroughly despicable but vibrantly virile Crown.

While the recording beautifully captures the strengths of the production, it also documents some of its weaknesses. Among them are the orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke, who had to work under horrendous constraints. The original orchestrations by George Gershwin were for a pit orchestra of over 40. The producers of the revival would only afford 22. As a result, these new orchestrations sound skimpy even when, for the recording, they add four more violins. There are also distractingly artificial sounding accents used from time to time, and they are used inconsistently. (The song is not titled “A Woman Is A Sometime Thang!”)

Still, this recording has many moments to be treasured. Nearly every minute that Norm Lewis’ Porgy is speaking or singing is a revelation, for he brings a humanity to the role that builds in intensity as Porgy gains a new level of self respect from the love of Bess. His exclamation after he kills Crown – “Bess, you got a man now – You got Porgy!” – touches the heart, while his final determination to follow her to the ends of the earth is overwhelming. Particularly notable is his “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” a thrilling release of joy by a man who never expected to experience the love of a woman.

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- Ghostlight Records catalog #8-4457

Newsies won the Tony Award for Best Score for a Musical. That score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman is an expansion of their score for the movie set during the real-life 1899 strike by New York’s young newspaper boys. Its original Broadway cast recording on Ghostlight is a gem – a well produced album with all the features you need to appreciate the score’s ample strengths delivering this almost relentlessly upbeat score with clarity, energy and flash.

The disc captures the performance of Jeremy Jordan – yes, the same Jeremy Jordan who starred in that other musical nominated for a Best Score Tony this year, Bonnie & Clyde. (He was nominated for the Tony for this performance, but lost out to Steve Kazee in Once.)

The relatively short disc (just 64 minutes) holds three “bonus tracks,” two of which are the complete versions of songs that have extended dance breaks which are delivered in abbreviated form in the main portion of the album. This is a fine solution to the problem that songs like that can begin to bore without the visual excitement of the choreography of those dance breaks. Providing the exciting abbreviated version in the course of the score and then the extended versions later gives full exposure to Mark Hummel’s work as dance music arranger. Besides, the album would only run 50 minutes without the “bonus” tracks. 

With so much time left in the capacity of a CD these days, I wonder why they didn’t bother to record the music used for the bows and the “exit music” played while the audience leaves the theater. That would have been appreciated.

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- Masterworks Broadway 

Once, winner of this year’s Tony Award for Best Musical, may be a great show in the theater, but you can’t tell that from the original Broadway cast album on Masterworks Broadway. The recording does give ample evidence that the music is affecting, often lovely and occasionally even haunting. But, if you expect an original Broadway cast album to give you a glimpse into a theatrical experience you might have missed, you will find this album frustrating. You can’t get much of an idea of the show itself just from these tracks.

If there ever was a show score that cried out for a detailed synopsis in its original Broadway cast recording, it is this one based on the 2006 low budget irish-pub movie. Unfortunately, the handsome booklet which includes nice photographs, notes on the development of the musical and reprints the lyrics in full, doesn’t include a synopsis. Its a big oversight that doesn’t help listeners who haven’t seen the show get a full understanding of the strengths and/or weaknesses of the lovely score.

There is an Irish folk-music flavor to the mostly minor-key melancholy melodies that draw you in slowly and even subtly. If you know the song “Falling Slowly” which won the Oscar for Best Song from a Movie, you know the kind of song I mean. It is built on an insistent four-note chord played one note at a time and repeated with slight variations as a melody until it burrows into your brain. However, it is not clear that any of the songs carry the story, describe plot points or paint portraits of characters. Exactly what their function may be in the theatrical settings of the show is not apparent.

The absence of a synopsis is not my only criticism of the release. I also lament the decision of Masterworks Broadway to give in to the current marketing trend of providing different versions of the same album to different outlets. You get a different set of tracks if you buy your copy from Barnes and Noble, iTunes or Amazon. Collectors shouldn’t have to buy two or three different versions of an album to get all the available tracks.

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- PS Classics catalog PS-1105

Tommy Krasker and Philip Chaffin have put Follies – not just the score (just?) but the experience of the show itself – on two discs! Through the use of judiciously selected snippets of dialogue, each number becomes part of a whole – part of the story-telling that is so gloriously accomplished in Mr. Sondheim’s twenty-one songs.

This revival, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, began at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and transferred to Broadway before moving on to Los Angeles. It offered star turns galore. Stars? They are all on these discs. Bernadette Peters, whose “Losing My Mind” is mesmerizing. Jan Maxwell, whose “Could I Leave You?” burns white hot. Danny Burstein, whose “The ‘God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me?’ Blues” tops a seemingly untoppable “The Right Girl.” Ron Raines, whose rich voice makes “The Road You Didn’t Take” an introspective exploration. And these are just the stars whose names go above the title.

The beautiful 52-page booklet contains just about everything you expect from a first-class, two-disc set. Sean Patrick Flahaven has written a clear synopsis. Tommy Krasker includes a note explaining his approach of including some of the show’s some dialogue in the recording. The complete lyrics (including the text of the dialogue snippets) are printed along with twenty color photos that give a very accurate portrayal of the look of the show.

While I had a few nits to pick in my review when the album first came out, none of them cancel out the strengths that make this one the disc that should take home the Grammy.

There, I’ve made my pick. What’s yours?