On to Broadway ... often from film

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 14, 2014
Photo by: Masterworks Broadway Idina Menzel and James Snyder perform on stage in "If/Then."

Owls Head — In addition to the always present revivals, the modern musical often is a stage version of a film, with a totally new score or something old and something new, as evidenced by the fact that five of the seven cast albums reviewed today are based on films (in one case, the show has gone from stage to film and back). First, though, we will start with the truly original one of the bunch.

IF/Then: Original Broadway Cast (Masterworks Broadway CD, 75:59). Created by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey (creators of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Next to Normal"), this ambitious and creative musical tells the story of a woman whose live veers off in two separate directions, one based on career and one based on family.

That woman is Elizabeth, 38, recently divorced and a city planner who has only taught the subject and never actually done any urban planning. She is played by the always wonderful Idina Menzel, who won a Tony nomination for this role (the other nomination was for original score). After 12 years away, Elizabeth returns to New York City and, on her first day back, she meets two friends in the park. One is a former college lover, Lucas (Anthony Rapp), who now identifies as a bisexual and wants her to come meet some of his fellow activists; the other is her new neighbor Kate, who wants her to go get coffee and listen to a musician. After this, the musical follows Elizabeth as if she has taken both choices. Going with Lucas as Beth, she is all business and soon gets a job in city planning. Going with Kate as Liz, she is out for love, which leads to marriage to Josh (James Snyder) and a family.

The show is beautifully sung and, towards the end (the dramatic "I Hate You"), quite touching. Other highlights are Beth's nice "A Map of New York" and Liz's "Here I go." A good ensemble number is "This Day/Walking By a Wedding." Touching too is Josh singing "Hey, Kid" to his unborn child. The path not taken is pondered by Bath and Lucas in "Some Other Me," and Beth's learned message is "Love While You Can" (because "love makes us want to be"), sung with Annie (Jenn Colella). The very affirmative, and pretty, "Always Starting Over" sounds like an instant classic. There is a 28-page booklet with synopsis, lyrics and photos. Grade: A-

A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder: Original Broadway Cast (Ghostlight CD, 67:05). Nominated for 10 Tony Awards, this London-based, period farce won four Tonys, including best musical, best book (Robert L. Freedman), best direction (Darko Tresnjak) and best costume design (Lindo Cho). Its nominations included best score (Freedman and Steven Lutvak), best orchestrations, best scenic design and best actors in a leading role (Jefferson Mays, who plays eight roles, including both sexes, and Bryce Pinkham) and best actress in a featured role (Lauren Worsham).

Based on a novel by Roy Horniman, the story is about Monty Navarro (Pinkham), who finds out he is eighth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst. After the Rev. Lord Ezekial (Mays) falls to his death -- and Monty refuses to prevent it -- he is one step closer to becoming earl and launches a plan to surreptitiously do away with all the others ahead of him in succession. The musical begins with a warning prologue by the chorus, then we meet Monty in prison for murder -- ironically for the one murder he did not commit -- and he has decided to write his memoirs (could also be seen as a confession). The year is 1909.

The score is bright and flows nicely, and the lyrics and both witty and move the story along at quite a rapid pace. There are nods a plenty to the English music hall and 19th century operetta. Examples of humor include "I Don't Understand the Poor" and "Better With a Man," which can be taken two ways. As for poor Monty -- poor in cash, certainly not in actions -- he ends up with two would-be brides in Phoebe D'Ysquith (Worsham) and Sibella Hallward (Lisa O'Hare), most memorably he tries to keep them ignorant of each other during a bedroom visit in "I've Decided to Marry You." There is a 40-page booklet with all the lyrics and many wonderful photos. Grade: A

Heathers: The Musical: World Premiere Cast Recording (Yellow Sound CD, 65:27). This is the only Off-Broadway show covered today, but it is a corker, maintaining the delicious nastiness of the 1988 movie that starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater and not only turned the tables on the in-cliques at high school, but also blasted them into the air. The lyrics are wonderfully frank (music and lyrics are by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe), but the music is bubbly.

Things start with Veronica Sawyer (Barrett Wilber Weed) talking to her diary about the start of her senior year and all the horrors that lie ahead for her. There is a good setup in the very pleasing "Beautiful." The school has three ruling "Heathers" (played by Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore and Alice Lee) who rule Westerburg High and mock and deride those of lower social standing or looks. When Veronica helps them avoid detention by forging a hall pass, she is invited into their clique as a geek with the possibility of a makeover. This, however, draws her to the attention of J. D. Dean (Ryan McCartan), the school's boy in black who, it turns out, has a homicidal god complex. The romantic "Fight For Me" sets the stage for their mutual attraction, even though J.D. is beating up two guys during the song. Both of the leads are great. The wildness of youth continues in "Big Fun," during an unsupervised party.

Veronica and J.D. finally get together during the fine "Dead Girl Walking," and after they accidentally kill Heather Chandler, they fake her suicide note, which ironically makes her seem to have been more deep and thus becomes a posthumous school hero. The death count continues to soar as J.D. enjoys his work. Despite its awkward title, "My Dead Gay Son," the song actually is one of acceptance, albeit too late. Other musical highlights include the piano-led duet, "Seventeen," and the gospelish "Shine a Light." Grade: B+

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Original Broadway Cast (Atlantic CD, 45:24). The original 1998 musical was written by John Cameron Mitchell, with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, and Mitchell starred in and directed the 2001 film version. Now, Neil Patrick Harris, in a Tony Award-winning turn, steps into the high heels of the East German "slip of a girlyboy," who is almost a woman (after a botched operation left Hedwig with one angry inch) and almost a rock star. Lena Hall, who plays a boy in Hedwig's band, won the best featured female actress Tony, and the show also won Tonys for best musical revival and best lighting design. It also was nominated for best direction, scenic design, sound design and costume design.

The robust rocking score holds up wonderfully, and Harris reminds me a bit of John Lydon of The Sex Pistols on the punkish numbers, "Angry Inch" and "Exquisite Corpse." Other highlights are "Tear Me Down," in which Hedwig compares himself to the Berlin Wall; the fun "Sugar Daddy"; and even the humorous "The Origin of Love" (which scared the gods). Unfortunately, Atlantic has skimped on the booklet. It is only eight-pages and the lyrics are printed way too small. Grade: A

Aladdin: Original Broadway Cast (Walt Disney CD, 68:25). If happiness is your goal, you cannot go wrong with "Aladdin," the breezy Broadway adaptation of the 1992 Walt Disney film. The music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin play even more as a homage to the jazzy 1940s and the Genie, played by James Monroe Iglehart in a Tony Award-winning performance, has even more of a Cab Calloway feel. What is great about this production is that he adds in three of six songs that were deleted from the film (particularly "Proud of Your Boy," which is a standout) and adds some new material as well. The show earned four other Tony nominations, for best musical, book, original score and choreography.

After the overture, which has a lot of jazz tossed in, Genie introduces everyone to the city of Agrabah in "Arabian Nights." We first see Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) as a thief in "One Jump Ahead," but then he is more earnest in "Proud of Your Boy." (The other two songs that were deleted in the film are "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim," a character study, and "High Adventure.") The best of the new material is the soaring duet, "A Million Miles Away," sung by Aladdin and Jasmine (Courtney Reed). Also new is "Diamond in the Rough" (which recalls a certain Capt. Hook tune), "These Palace Walls," "Somebody's Got Your Back" and a reprise of "Prince Ali." Prince Ali is what the Genie turns Aladdin into, as Princess Jasmine falls for the poor boy in disguise. Of course, the biggest hit from the film, "A Whole New World," is here as well. The CD comes with a 32-page booklet filled with lyrics and photos. Grade: A

Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical: Original Broadway Cast (Masterworks Broadway CD, 54:16). Based on the 1994 crime-comedy by director/writer Woody Allen, this is more a show about choreography than music. All of the songs are from the 1920s and two-thirds will be familiar to most, as they include the standards "Up a Lazy River," "I'm Sitting on Top of the World," "Let's Misbehave," "'Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" and "She's Funny That Way." While it did not win any, the show was nominated for six Tonys, including book (Allen), choreography, orchestration, scenic design, costume design and actor Nick Cordero, who plays Cheech, Olive's assigned bodyguard.

Set in Prohibition New York City, Olive Neal (Helene Yorke) wants to be a star, but believes that "the only way you'd have my name in lights is if I change it to exit"). However, she is the girlfriend of mob boss Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore). Also having love problems are playwright David Shayne (Zack Braff) and his long-suffering girlfriend Ellen (Betsy Wolfe). Finally, the only way David can get his play produced is if he finds a part in it for Olive. The show has a couple of fun highlights, including Olive's "I Want a Hot Dog For My Roll" and "They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me," sung by has-been actress Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie). The music is adapted by Glen Kelly with orchestrations by Doug Besterman. The CD comes with a 28-page booklet of photos and lyrics. Grade: B+

Rocky: Broadway: Original Broadway Cast (UMe CD, 57:05). This is another show that benefits more from being seen on stage than just listened to on CD; it has a knock-out of a closing fight. After all, it's two best songs, "Eye of the Tiger" and "Gonna Fly Now," both were here in Sylvester Stallone's 1976 film. The show did win a Tony Award for best scenic design of a musical, and was nominated for three others: actor Andy Karl as Rocky Balboa, choreography and lighting design.

The story is oh so familiar from the film, and the emphasis here is on the love story between Rocky and Adrian (Margo Seibert). The stage is set nicely in "Ain't Down Yet" and "My Nose Ain't Broken," but the music of the latter and "Raining," sung by Adrian, is rather standard. A nice change of pace is Apollo Creed (Terence Archie as Rocky's undefeated opponent) on "Patriotic" ("wrap it in a flag and make the people scream"). Familiar music fills the two training montages in act two. The best of the new songs is the ballad duet, "Happiness." "Southside Celebrity" is another good story-setter, and Rocky delivers a punchy "Keep on Standing." Overall, though, the show disappoints on CD. Grade: C

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