Listening to the Best (and Worst) of Broadway

New York Times
Listening to the Best (and Worst) of Broadway
JULY 12, 2017

Though there were things I liked about “Groundhog Day” when it opened on Broadway in April, its score wasn’t one of them. In my review, I may have used words like “sloppy,” “thoughtless,” “baggy” and “lazy” to describe some of the songs. Especially irksome to me were the lyrics, whose many off rhymes (like “erection” and “reception”) were, I wrote, “missed opportunities suggesting a wide array of indiscipline.”

That was harsh, as the show’s fans let me know in a series of responses that might best be summed up as: Shut up, grandpa.

Listen to songs mentioned in this article here.

But the show’s songwriter, Tim Minchin, took a different approach. “A challenge 4U,” he tweeted. “1) Listen to the album 3 times. 2) Talk to a songwriter about it. 3) Write about if/how it altered your opinion.”

Challenge accepted — and augmented.

Recently I listened several times to “Groundhog Day,” and at least once each to the original cast albums of the 12 other new musicals that opened on Broadway during the 2016-17 season. I also listened to the recordings of two of the six musical revivals: “Hello, Dolly!” and “Falsettos.” (“Cats,” “Miss Saigon” and “Sunset Boulevard” wisely did not issue new recordings; “Sunday in the Park With George” won’t be out until fall.)

That I was able to get 15 recent shows so quickly onto my phone, even the disastrous “Paramour,” is the result of changes that have remade the cast album business over the past two decades. No longer do only the hit musicals, and those that someone bizarrely imagined would be hits, get recorded, as was the case in grandpa’s youth. Now just about everything new, from Broadway to far Off, is preserved, regardless of merit or likely profit.

Profit is, in fact, extremely unlikely, which is why the major labels have largely abandoned the business. But because recordings can be valuable to the underlying properties in other ways, helping them secure future lives in the regional and amateur markets, new labels and new business models have arisen to take the place of the old ones. Often the production, instead of the label, pays for the recording, as a loss leader. In some cases the authors themselves chip in: For them, a cast album is a talisman of creative achievement, much like a hardcover book.

And like a hardcover book, “cast album” is starting to seem like a retronym. LPs are only available as collector’s items, and even CDs are on their way out. Instead, new scores, or just individual tracks from them, are downloaded or streamed in digital format, often before a show has opened. They can then be played in any sequence or combination a listener may devise.


Phillipa Soo recording the cast album recording for “Amélie.” CreditJeremy Daniel

In short, consumers make their own cast albums now — or, rather, their own collections of individual songs, often randomized on playlists. Whether this world of fast, customizable and indiscriminate recordings is a boon depends on the show and the measuring stick.

Certainly it has been good news for the 2015 behemoth “Hamilton,” whose recording now stands at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 chart, even after 93 weeks. This is astounding because the ranking, which takes into account sales, radio play and online streaming, covers all music genres. From the more recently ended season, only “Dear Evan Hansen” has charted as consistently. It is just the fourth cast album — after “Hamilton,” “The Book of Mormon” and “Hair” — to crack the top 10 in the past 50 years.

But then “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” are great musicals and great hits (and their albums were in fact released by major labels). They would have been successful, artistically and financially, even in the days of vinyl. On the other hand, the cast album of “Paramour,” with songs that seem to have been written by a monkey with a Casio keyboard and a random cliché generator, is good news only for Luddites. It argues for the days when far less was recorded.

What about the rest of the pack? What do cast albums tell us about the state of the art, and what do they tell us about the shows they are based on? Mr. Minchin’s challenge forced me to consider not only how his songs for “Groundhog Day” sounded after repeat exposure but also how listening to them in a nontheatrical context altered their texture.

Among other things, I realized that a lot of the rhymes I hadn’t liked onstage seemed harmless when I no longer needed to get information from them. But I still feel, and songwriters I spoke to agreed, that a show with such satirical heft would have benefited from the clean ping of exactly matched sounds.

On the other hand, the songs whose musical structure I’d found “baggy” now seemed more compelling than they did in the theater, where the intensity of the action interfered with their reception. Relistening also enhanced my appreciation for “Playing Nancy” and “Night Will Come,” two songs I already liked. Onstage, sung by characters who were otherwise peripheral, they seemed dramatically unmoored. Listened to in the context of no context, they shone far brighter, if alone.

So Mr. Minchin wins the challenge. And yet musicals are stage creatures, not products designed to work best between earbuds. The greatest excel equally in both the live and recorded environments. The narrative pull of “Dear Evan Hansen” (Atlantic) is so compellingly recreated, for instance, that it would seem to defy trends that favor songs over albums. That said, I’d have worn a groove in the song “So Big/So Small” if there were still grooves.

But if a show like “Paramour” (Cirque du Soleil) represents itself just as accurately by failing, the 13 other cast albums from last season fall between the unimprovable and the inexcusable, in three broad categories.

Better as a Recording

Groundhog Day” (Masterworks Broadway) is not the only recording that makes a more coherent case for its score than the production itself does. Four others do, too, including “In Transit” (Hollywood). Onstage, with its predictable subway sketches and its a cappella score, it seemed like a shotgun wedding of incompatible elements. Take away the sketches, and what you are left with is a smart set of songs with stupendous vocal arrangements and a knockout 11 o’clock number (“Getting There”) for Margo Seibert.

Daniel Messé and Nathan Tysen’s score for “Amélie” (Warner Music Group) sounded like a wet noodle when I heard it live, taking too many cues from the whimsy of its Parisian title character and never seeming to land. On the album, freed of its narrative burden, it moves like lightly bopping jazz and makes perfect sense, especially in its establishing number, “Times Are Hard for Dreamers.”

Also embracing a relevant musical genre — in this case swing — is the crackerjack score that Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor wrote for “Bandstand” (Broadway), set just after World War II. As in “Groundhog Day,” the album liberates the songs from the sometimes overwhelming physical action onstage. In this case, too, the arrangements and orchestrations can be heard in all their glory; listen to the second-act opener, “Nobody,” to get a sense of how well-crafted pastiche can operate beautifully as both plot and diversion.

But the best example of that trick is the one that makes “War Paint” (Ghostlight) a must-have cast album. Telling the parallel stories of two beauty titans who never met — Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone) and Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) — the concept handed the book writer Doug Wright an unsolvable problem. What it handed the songwriters, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, was an opportunity to characterize each woman in a brilliant suite of songs, like the exquisite “Pink” for Ms. Ebersole, that create their own narrative in purely formal terms. The recording is like having pearls without the bother of oysters.

Better Onstage

Four of the most-praised musicals of last season are so smart onstage that no cast album could do them justice. The best aspects of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” (Reprise) — Rachel Chavkin’s staging and Mimi Lien’s design — are not capturable in a recording. Of course, this opinion comes from someone who has not been a huge fan of Dave Malloy’s score in any of its prior incarnations. Its highlight, for me, is Pierre’s song “Dust and Ashes,” added for the Broadway production to exploit the estimable talents of Josh Groban, who replaced Mr. Malloy in the part. The finale is also gorgeous, but not as gorgeous as when enhanced by the arrival, in the theater, of a “real” comet.

Also poorer for missing its staging is the cast album of “Come From Away” (The Musical Company). Without the constant whisking of the director, Christopher Ashley, the monotonously Celtic-inflected songs (by Irene Sankoff and David Hein) tend to separate like egg whites and sag into inconsequence. The happy exception is “Me and the Sky,” the one pure musical-theater number in the score, and a tour de force for Jenn Colella.

This category is not limited to shows I didn’t love in the first place. Two excellent revivals, so alive onstage, feel flattened on their cast recordings. In the case of “Falsettos” (Ghostlight), this seems to result from the musical’s deliberate couching of extremely serious material in the jaunty, sometimes snarky doodliness of William Finn’s score. As recorded, the songs can seem less consequential than they are, though Stephanie J. Block’s “I’m Breaking Down” is still a showstopper.

And it was probably inevitable that “Hello, Dolly!” (Masterworks Broadway) would end up in this category, given that its stage incarnation, starring Bette Midler, is just about perfect. But Ms. Midler’s rapport with the audience, and the feedback loop of joy that it causes, is absent from the recording. In careful renditions of songs like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” — songs that in the theater feel like explosive chemical reactions — you are left with a creditable but not very exciting residue.

Better Nowhere

Faced with faulty concepts or poorly devised books, even the best songwriters sometimes fall to the level of mere competence. And mere competence does not translate well on cast albums.

I am sorry to find the team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who almost never disappoint, in this category with their score for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Masterworks Broadway). They are too clever not to provide a few laughs in their strip-mining of touchstone genres, from hip-hop to funk to Alpine polka. (Catch the yodeling number, “More of Him to Love.”) But the album is a fair representation of the show in being mostly tooth-grating.

Holiday Inn” (Ghostlight) takes existing songs (from Irving Berlin’s catalog) and fits them to a newish story; “A Bronx Tale” (Ghostlight) takes an existing story and fits new songs (by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater) to it. Both are so synthetic in the first place that recording them comes across as just another industrial manipulation of the material. It’s always nice to hear Berlin’s “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” and nothing in “A Bronx Tale,” not even its totally pro forma doo-wop establishing number “Belmont Avenue,” is ever less than professional. But that’s a low bar.

For deadly songwriting professionalism, though, “Anastasia” (Broadway) wins the prize. Its score, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, adheres without fault to all the musical theater rules, including the one that suggests pounding your hit number (“Journey to the Past,” from the movie) for all it’s worth at the first-act curtain. But the family-friendly aesthetic is so pasteurized that the result is cheese. The show’s relentlessly uninspired (if perfectly formed) rhymes and musical gestures made me long for the baggier erection/reception pleasures of “Groundhog Day.”

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