Musical theater, like vinyl, is making a comeback. Once relegated to a handful of theater nerds, new shows like Hamilton and Fun Home, as well as revivals of classics like Hello Dolly! and Miss Saigon are making chorus lines and dance numbers cool again. But before you run off to buy the newest pressing of the Groundhog Day cast recording, fill out your collection with these classics.
Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
The movie soundtrack—also released on vinyl—would give us “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” but the original Broadway cast recording is chock-full of goodies that movie left out, including “Some Fun Now” the tango “Mushnik & Son,” “Now (It’s Just The Gas)” and “Closed for Renovation.” Penned by musical powerhouses Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, every song is marked with the cheeky charm and vast knowledge of genre that would mark their collective output until Ashman’s death in 1991 and follow Menken all the way through recent scores, including Galavant and Sausage Party.
With Lee Wilkof as the nebbish murderer Seymour, Ellen Greene debuting the gooey-sweet Audrey (a performance she would revive for the film) and Ron Taylor as the villainous Audrey II, the original cast recording features Wilkof’s best performance is his trembling resolve in “The Meek Shall Inherit,” while Greene drives the whole thing home with “Somewhere That’s Green.”
Is there any musical more iconic, more American than Frank Loesser’s Guys & Dolls? From the opening bark of “Fugue for Tinhorns” to the final reprise of the eponymous chorus, gamblers Nathan Detroit (Sam Levene) and Sky Masterson (Robert Alda), as well as dippy, marriage-minded showgirl Adelaide (Vivian Blaine) and uptight Miss. Sarah (Isabel Bigley) sing, dance & crapshoot their way through a neon New York. Every number is a classic, with “Luck Be a Lady” being recorded by every artist from Frank Sinatra (in the 1958 film version) to Chrissie Hynde, Dee Snider and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies.
The only thing that could make this album better would be vinyl releases of the 1992 Broadway revival cast with Nathan Lane, Peter Gallagher and JK Simmons, and the 2005 West End cast with Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski. You can never have too many recordings of Guys & Dolls.
For a musical about a mistreated orphan in the middle of the Great Depression, Annie is a relentlessly upbeat musical, from “It’s a Hard Knock Life” to “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and even the dastardly, Big Easy-inflected “Easy Street.” It’s a great introduction to musicals as a genre, kid-friendly without being syrupy or technically dull.
Parts of the musical haven’t aged well, namely, “NYC’s” line “Enough of cab drivers answering back/in language far from pure,” but for every six ingénues who dreamed of belting out “Maybe” in their high school production, there was always that one girl who secretly wanted to play Miss Hannigan, just so she could sing the show’s real crowd-pleaser, “Little Girls.”
A musical so intense you’ll get whiplash, Hedwig goes from glam rock to ballad to country-pop faster than you can zip up a pair of knee-high platform boots. Neil Patrick Harris dons creator John Cameron Mitchell’s big wig to play transgender German rock star Hedwig in a show created in rock and drag clubs across 1990s New York. And it shows; the record feels more like a concept album and less like a Broadway performance straight from the stage of the Belasco, where, as Hedwig explains, Hurt Locker: The Musical had closed during intermission the night before.
Opening with “Tear Me Down,” Harris bring the glamour and the grind from the start of the album, turning your living room or music nook into a wild nightclub. But it’s not all bravado and glitter; ballads like “The Origins of Love” “Midnight Radio” are more sincere and heart-twisting as any gooey slow-song from Les Miserables. “Wicked Little Town” > “On My Own”
His holy name may be in lights, but Judas is the real star of this rock opera, belting out “Heaven on Their Minds,” “Blood Money” and, at long last, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” With Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber at the helm, Superstar manages the fine line between anxiously sincere, (“Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say)”) Songs Every Girl Sings At Her Audition (“I Don’t Know How To Love Him”) and majestically campy (“King Herod’s Song”)
Personally, I’m a fan of the concept album with Murray Head as Judas, but there are several versions—as well as the movie soundtrack—that fit the bill just fine. But alas, there’s no vinyl copy of the 1999 soundtrack, featuring Rik Mayall as a delightfully demented King Herod. Damned for all time indeed.
The Great American Songbook of musicals, don’t let the fact that this was probably performed by your high school theater department keep you from picking up a copy of the 1962 cast recording, starring Eileen Rogers as Reno Sweeny and Barney Miller star Hal Linden as Billy Crocker. It’s a marvelous patchwork of Cole Porter’s best, incorporating several of what we now recognized as classic songs from his other shows, including “It’s De-Lovely” from 1934’s Red Hot and Blue, “Friendship” from DuBarry Was a Lady in 1939, and the bawdy “Let’s Misbehave” from 1928’s Paris. The show may have plot holes you could steer the Queen Mary through, but for pure jazzy bliss, it’s up there with Guys & Dolls for being a quintessential piece of musical theater.
I’m happy to go on record saying that Mrs. Lovett is one of musical theater’s most misunderstood romantics. “A Little Priest” is a love song like no other as two clearly insane people realize they can build a life together, albeit murderous, cannibalistic one. Angela Lansbury brings a frantic energy to the role of Mrs. Lovett, opposite a cool and devious Len Cariou as Todd himself, the demon barber of Fleet Street.
Stephen Sondheim’s score is full of majestic electricity, soaring between achingly tender (“Johanna,”“Not While I’m Around”) terrifyingly funny (“God That’s Good”) and the caustically cruel (“Epiphany”). Even when spilling plot points (“Poor Thing,”) the score never drags, all leading to a final bloody fate. Good for a waltz in the kitchen while you’re waiting for your meat pie to finish baking.
Murder, jazz, femme fatales, Bob Fosse…what more could you want in a musical? Based on two real Prohibition-era murders, John Kander’s show gives both Roxie Hart (Gwen Verdon) and Velma Kelly (Chita Rivera) an equal share of great numbers, from Velma’s proud plea (“I Can’t Do It Alone”) Roxie’s eponymous imaginings of stardom, refusing to reduce them even for the slightest to some sweet, sad song, leaving that task to Amos Hart (Barney Martin).
This recording gets bonus points for using Jerry Orbach as slick-as-sin lawyer Billy Flynn, crowing through “Razzle Dazzle” and “They Both Reached For the Gun.” But not even the two warring starlets can hog all the spotlight, and even though it’s only the show’s third number, it’s “The Cell Block Tango” that really brings the house down.
Another John Kander penned musical, this one is a lot less fun than Chicago. Set in a German nightclub, the musical follows Sally Bowles (Jill Haworth) in her ill-fated love affair with writer Cliff (Bert Convy) as the Nazis rise to power. But it’s Joel Grey who carries the show as the Kit Kat Klub’s boisterous emcee.
But don’t let fun numbers like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “The Telephone Song” distract you from the show’s real core; by the end, nearly every character singing will wind up in a concentration camp, a sobering reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust. The power of Cabaret, both the music and the message, continue to hold true in a tumultuous political climate today.
Before there was Kris Jenner or Dinah Lohan, there was Rose, the ultimate “Momager” and unlikely star of this Steven Sondheim show based on stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir. Ethel Merman takes the stage in the role of Mama Rose, belting out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” to try and steal the show, but it’s Sandra Church as Louise, rising from timid (“Little Lamb”) to bold (“Let Me Entertain You”) who does the heavy lifting.
And while the ending is up for debate in every performance—does Louise reconcile with her mother, or does Rose lose herself in her own dreams of stardom?—what’s not up for debate is how enduring this album is as a perfect piece of musical theater, a full cast of top-notch performers that alternate easily between rousing and reflecting. Buy a copy for your mother, if you’re feeling passive-aggressive.