The compact discs usually start trickling in before Christmas, with a major flood around Tony time, and every June I stack them in two little piles: the ones I can’t wait to listen to, and the ones where I can hardly bring myself to open the shrink-wrap. The second pile, as you can imagine, is usually larger. But this year’s accumulation has surprised me a little: The high points are higher than in previous seasons, the lows less horrifically bottom-scraping, the blasts from the past unexpectedly zestier. What follows isn’t a definitive survey of recent show-music CDs; it’s more like a list of the discs I’ve been replaying most gratefully. The pile-up is so extreme that there’ll probably be a second part to this piece sometime in August.
We have to begin with the year’s most important nonmusical disc: Ruth Draper and Her Company of Characters (BMG Special Products). For those who’ve been living in a cave, or were born after 1980, Draper (1884-1956) was the most influential artist in the history of solo performance, and is still probably the most admired. You can hear exactly why on this two-disc set, containing seven of her celebrated monologues, including the tripartite “Three Women and Mr. Clifford.” She didn’t record till she was 70 and making her farewell tours, but the varied voices and multiple accents of the women she portrays suggest a quicksilver artist in her late-thirties vocal prime. Even more astonishing are the perfect exactness and emotional depth in both her acting and her writing; her recordings make the most arcane or absurd experiences of the past—try “A Class in Greek Poise”—seem as vivid as today’s news. Draper recorded a total of 23 monologues, of which only 11 were ever released on LP; the CD grants us two previously unissued treasures. But let’s agitate for the release of the complete set. You can do it while ordering, since the CD isn’t available in stores and must be purchased from the distributor’s Web site: www.drapermonologues.com. I’d advise buying a box of 10 at a discount, as I did; all your actor and writer friends will want one, and they make the best birthday presents.
Musically, top honors go to a show from the season before last, released on disc this winter: the York Theatre’s Taking a Chance on Love (Original Cast). This assemblage of lyrics (and in two instances music) by the extraordinary John LaTouche (1917-1956) runs the gamut from opera to cabaret; much of the material’s previously unrecorded, and all of it’s enchanting. The vocal part of Eddie Korbich’s Obie-winning performance is preserved with astonishing vibrancy, and his three colleagues—Terry Burrell, Donna English, and Jerry Dixon—sound rested and in first-rate musical condition, which wasn’t the case during the show’s press performances. Burrell’s “Take Love Easy” and English’s “The Surrealist” are particular standouts. The lightly sketched additional orchestral arrangements, by David Harris, enhance the delight further, and I would gladly praise the musical direction if the CD booklet had bothered to tell me who did it.
Of this year’s Broadway scores, the hands-down best is A Class Act (RCA Victor)—really an Off-Broadway item, since the CD comes from the Manhattan Theatre Club production. Stripped of the show’s tedious script, with its fixation on songwriter Ed Kleban’s ailments and phobias, the CD really reaches the goal that the show’s makers mislaid onstage: It makes you cherish Kleban as a funny, funky, inventive, heartfelt songwriter. The singers, especially Randy Graff and Carolee Carmello, sound like they value the material as highly as I do. (Carmello, who bowed out before the Broadway transfer, makes “Broadway Boogie Woogie” a real showstopper.) Broadway sticklers may regret the absence of Sara Ramirez and the snappy “Don’t Do It Again,” added for her after the move; but the disc produces many joys—”Paris Through the Window” and Graff’s “The Next Best Thing” are particular triumphs—and, for me, only one minor complaint: “Charm Song,” which Jonathan Freeman sang deliciously onstage, sounds rushed on the disc.
I don’t listen quite as often to David Yazbek’s score for The Full Monty (RCA Victor), for two reasons: Its hard-pop idiom isn’t my favorite (though Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations make it marvelously expressive and flexible), and Yazbek’s melodic gift tends to run a weak second to his playful ingenuity as a lyricist. When I do slide it into the CD player, though, the show’s warmth, its endearingly scruffy charm, and its rich mix of personalities come flooding into the room, and I start to grin all over again. How perfectly everyone’s cast: Emily Skinner burbling “You Gotta Love That Man,” André de Shields’s stomping evocation of James Brown, Kathleen Freeman acidizing her way through her “Showbiz Number,” and most of all Patrick Wilson, whose buttery, pain-flecked tones are the vocal cement that holds the score together.
The last thing The Producers (Sony) needs is more praise, but that doesn’t mean you should hate it. Let’s just admire it for being what it is: the ultimate meta-musical, a set of trashy jokes on the whole idea of musical theater. You don’t need genius at either lyric writing or composition to write such stuff—merely a sharp eye for jokes, something Brooks famously has, as do his musical abettors. Add some cheerfully flamboyant performers, like Gary Beach and Cady Huffman, top the mixture off with Nathan Lane at his floriated, rubicund best, and what’s not to like? Matthew Broderick’s voice, without his wistful-like-a-fox visual presence, carries only limited force, and Brad Oscar’s Liebkind suffers from the show’s misguided transformation of this character into a neo-Nazi Mr. Show Biz, but the show scatters its jokes so profligately that you can hardly worry if a few of them fall flat. Don’t expect the score to supply any standards; Brooks’s hits are his jokes, and that’s the point.
My guilty pleasure, among last year’s Off-Broadway shows, is American Rhapsody (Jessisaraly Music), K.T. Sullivan and Mark Nadler’s cabaret romp through the Gershwin oeuvre, recorded complete on two discs. It’s guilty because I normally hate, on principle, the habit of squeezing piles of songs into a sort of melodic hash. Trouble is, Sullivan and Nadler are such winning performers, and are clearly having so much fun, that it’s hard to resist playing along. Besides, each disc has two or three moments when Sullivan, who can dig to the center of a song as intensely as anyone on the cabaret circuit, strikes pure vocal gold. For those impatient with Nadler’s tricky-fingers pianistics, Sullivan gets more leeway, and hits the center a good many more times, on her latest solo album, The Sweetest Sounds (DRG), an all-Richard Rodgers album that’s presumably the first crocus of the composer’s centennial. Here Sullivan’s plaintive, slim-toned soprano tackles rarities (“You Can’t Fool Your Dreams,” “Away From You”) as well as standards, with a mix of pathos and brittleness that’s the essence of cabaret style. Her pianist-arranger here, Larry Woodard, makes occasional vocal contributions, which I could live without; Nadler at least has some tone color. But head for the series of late cuts that starts with a medley of “Way Out West” and “I Gotta Get Back to New York,” and you’ll hear what makes Sullivan essential.
With musicals no longer the torture chamber of the last few decades, the joyous malice of Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway series may in due course become less necessary. Its last recorded incarnation, Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey (DRG), a little uneven and already outdated, is a step down from its immediate predecessor, which was one of the series’s peaks. At its center, however, are two indispensable gems: a takedown of the current tourist-trapped Broadway area, “Let’s Ruin Times Square Again,” and a contrapuntal confrontation (to the paired tunes of Irving Berlin’s “Old-Fashioned Wedding”) in which Ethel Merman tries to make Elton John see the beauty of show music. Alessandrini is so good at this kind of satiric left hook that you wish he wouldn’t stoop to rabbit-punching helpless people no one cares about, like Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand.
To conclude, something of a surprise: The much lambasted revival of Bells Are Ringing (Fynsworth Alley) has produced a delightful recording. Nothing will ever replace Judy Holliday, but Faith Prince’s reading of the lead role has a focus and vivacity on disc that weren’t visible onstage. She still tries too hard—the performance is tricked out with innumerable funny voices, squawks, and growls—but her personality clearly blossoms in a studio. She’s strongly backed, too: by Don Sebesky’s new orchestrations, which give the show’s ’50s sensibility only the most delicate metallic edge; by Marc Kudisch’s strong, easy baritone; and by the droll character performances of Beth Fowler, David Garrison, and Martin Moran. In keeping with record producer Bruce Kimmel’s tradition, the disc preserves, on a bonus track, Moran’s memorable turn as the demented songwriter-dentist who composes on his air hose. To add to the surprise, Prince sounds even more engagingly assured on the live recording of her January 2000 gig at Joe’s Pub, A Leap of Faith (DRG). Singing show tunes and a range of other material, she doesn’t succeed with every number, but does give the show an overarching warmth that suggests, more than anything else I’ve seen or heard from her, a distinctive and gifted personality. Taken together, the discs suggest that there’s every reason for Faith in the American musical.