Sizing up Broadway’s season of musicals through cast albums

1 week ago 28

NEW YORK – The past year was a pretty good one for Broadway musicals, if by “pretty good” you mean “not as dreadful as usual”.

Of the 15 that opened, just a handful were outright disasters both critically and financially. And though only six are still running, that is not a bad number these days.

Even better, most of last year’s shows made cast albums, so you can judge for yourself.

Jukeboxes

Whatever you think of jukebox musicals as a theatrical genre, they make exceedingly strange cast albums.

The worst offenders are biographical jukeboxes, which purport to tell the story of the singer or songwriter (or record company) that owns the songs or made them famous.

When those songs are stripped from their jimmied narratives and returned to their native format as recordings, they devolve into something peculiar: greatest-hits tribute albums.

That is especially problematic with MJ The Musical, based on Michael Jackson’s life and catalogue. Because the songs – and Jackson’s idiosyncratic original performances of them – are so unforgettable, there is little that Myles Frost, in the title role, can do with just his voice to suggest something new.

Instead, listeners are stuck with a slick impersonation, accurate but wan. Why not just get the original?

That problem is somewhat attenuated in A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond bio-jukebox.

For one thing, Will Swenson as Diamond does not aim for a carbon copy.

Exaggerating some of the singer’s vocal qualities – the basso burr and steel-wool growls – he instead adds value while suggesting character. And when he is backed up by the show’s terrific ensemble in a joyful number like Holly Holy, you hear it in a new way, as an unexpected cover.

That problem is triply avoided in & Juliet. First, it is not a rumination but a romp. Second, it has no biography to be true (or false) to. And third, it is built on hit songs, by Max Martin, that having been written for many singers, are...

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