ON THE RECORD: Holiday Gift List of 2013; New Musicals, Revivals, and Reissues, From Dogfight to Passion

By Steven Suskin
December 1, 2013

We have reached that time of the year when we look back over the hundreds of CDs that have come our way since our 2012 holiday column last November and draw a red circle around a few worthy titles that might have been overlooked.

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New Musicals

There have been quite a few Broadway cast albums over the last year, representing big hits (Kinky Boots, Matilda the Musical, Pippin) and the reverse (Scandalous, Chaplin, Leap of Faith). We've heard them all and reviewed them all, but we haven't seen fit to go back in our free time and listen just for fun.

One CD has received repeated plays, by me, at least: Michael John LaChiusa's Giant [Ghostlight]. The reasons are given in my Giant column, which can be found here. In the intervening months, I've found that repeated listening only enhances the experience. Giant might not have achieved commercial success — the hoped-for Broadway transfer of the Public Theater production never happened — but I place the score in the Most Happy Fella category, and that's a good category to be in.

This year's other new musical CD that I go back to is Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's Dogfight [Ghostlight] (which you can read about here). The show, which was produced by Second Stage, was one of those almost musicals. The creators picked a difficult story to tell, and in my opinion they weren't quite able to counteract the harshness. The score, though, contains some of the more interesting musical theatre writing we've heard recently. Pasek and Paul — who also gave us A Christmas Story, The Musical, which was high on last year's holiday list — top our "most promising" division.

Seeing as how this holiday list is restricted to items we've reviewed in the past year, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 [Ghostlight] — which has been released digitally but not yet on CD — is ineligible for inclusion. However, I have heard it (I wrote the liner notes), and let me tell you: It is pretty wonderful. The CD should appear this month, and I will duly review when it does. In the meantime you can rest assured that The Great Comet earns my full recommendation. I similarly await, with keen anticipation, Jay Records' recording of Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus.

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Revivals

There is only one CD in this category this year, but it's a winner. The Classic Stage Company production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion [PS Classics] was immensely satisfying, and it has resulted in what I expect most listeners will deem the Passion recording of choice. Judy Kuhn, Ryan Silverman and Stephen Bogardus lead the CSC cast, with Rebecca Luker stepping into Clara's slippers due to the indisposition of Melissa Errico (as discussed in our Passion column which can be found here). No problem here, as Luker, who played the role in the 2002 production at Kennedy Center's Sondheim Festival, is my favorite Clara thus far.

Reissues

Why should we include reissues of old cast albums in our roundup? Because a reissue of an album you've never heard is as good as new, as far as I'm concerned. While many readers go back to the dark days of LPs and hifi systems — that's long-playing records and high fidelity — many more do not. Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's Lady in the Dark [Masterworks Broadway] is a prime example of the studio cast recordings that producer Goddard Lieberson and conductor Lehman Engel assembled for Columbia Records in the 1950s and 1960s. This 1963 album took a 1941 show that had scarcely been recorded and revealed a captivating and tantalizing score, with Risë Stevens (of the Met) and Adolph Green (of Broadway) leading the way.

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Bravo Giovanni [Masterworks Broadway] is something else again, a lackluster 1962 musical comedy which is nevertheless likely to leave you beaming broadly. The score is the work of composer Milton Schafer (of Drat! The Cat!) and lyricist Ronny Graham (of New Faces of '52). Undistinguished, yes, but full of tuneful tunes and juicy lyrics. Plus, Cesare Siepi, 19-year-old Michele Lee, George S. Irving and Maria Karnilova knock their respective selves out. This is also one of those shows which handily illustrate how a brilliant orchestrator — Red Ginzler in this case, assisted by Luther Henderson — can make a decent score sound much better. You can read about Lady in the Dark and Bravo Giovanni here.

In the small-scale chamber musical category comes Douglas J. Cohen's No Way to Treat a Lady [Ghostlight]. This macabre four-character mini-musical offers a sparkling tale of — well, a serial murderer on the loose in Manhattan. (He is a failed actor, you see, trying to somehow get his picture in the Times.) The clever score bubbles along, offering surprises at every turn, and lives up to its tricky premise. For those of us who missed the show when it was initially produced at the Hudson Guild in 1987 and revived by the York in 1996, this CD brings unexpected enjoyment.

Solo Albums 

Barbara Cook and Rebecca Luker, I've always felt, make a mighty good pair. Here we have them together on our holiday list. I needn't wax poetic on descriptions; simply click on Barbara Cook: Loverman [DRG] and Rebecca Luker: I Got Love [PS Classics] and see why I'm so enthusiastic. Songs about love (as opposed to love songs) on the one hand, and songs by Jerome Kern on the other. Both receive our highest accolades. Honorable mention goes to Philip Chaffin's Dorothy Fields collection, Somethin' Real Special [PS Classics].

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Opening Night on Broadway" books, and "The Book of Mormon: The Testament of a Broadway Musical." He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)