Cast Album Roundup: ‘Sweeney Todd,’ ‘Parade,’ ‘Camelot’ and More

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The best theatrical songwriting barely requires a theater. Which is a good thing when so many shows close so quickly.

Of the 16 musicals that opened on Broadway in 2023, only four are still running. That’s live theater, perpetually dying.

Yet not entirely. Like loved ones who leave behind scrapbooks or tchotchkes, many shows leave souvenirs of themselves in the form of cast albums. And sometimes, shorn of annoying context, they’re better than what was once seen onstage.

Below, my highly subjective ranking of the nine 2023 musicals that released cast albums. (One more — “Gutenberg! The Musical!” — is expected, this spring.) And because no year is complete without a bunch of Stephen Sondheim marginalia, I’ve added a few bonus tracks, including a snippet of a surprise, in his honor.

All the recordings are good, and some are sublime, as you can let your ears decide. But close your eyes if possible. Let the theater be inside you.

The glorious score is largely unchanged. The orchestrations are only slightly tweaked. So what’s the added value of this nth recording of the Sondheim masterwork? As you might expect from a cast headed by Josh Groban as the vengeful barber, the answer is the beautiful singing. Groban’s slight stiffness and somewhat meek interpretation, which worked against the role’s terror in the huge stage production, are utterly absent on the album, turning numbers like Sweeney’s “Epiphany” into murderous arias as big as any in opera. Under Alex Lacamoire’s musical supervision, the performances — not just Groban’s but the ensemble’s — go for the throat, over and over.

Listen to Groban sing “Epiphany” here.

The original cast album of this 1998 musical is rightly a classic. Can a fairly faithful revival recording be one too? Yes, especially when the story of the 1915 Leo Frank lynching features principals giving similarly excellent but notably different performances. As Frank, Ben Platt is a vibrating wreck of inchoate anger in Jason Robert Brown’s tight-lipped songs. It’s left to Micaela Diamond, as his wife, Lucille, to express what he can’t, as she does with perfectly contained disdain in “You Don’t Know This Man,” sung to a reporter looking for dirt. Carolee Carmello’s stentorian version from 1998 is still definitive, but it turns out that more than one version can be.

This difficult musical from 1981, with its reversed timeline, tangled love triangles and amazing but tricky Sondheim score, has proved especially confusing when recorded. But now that Maria Friedman, in her lucid Broadway production, has found a way to make it pay off onstage, the cast album does too. You can hear that best in “Not a Day Goes By,” a song that disguises its complicated dramaturgy with pure beauty. First sung by a wife (Katie Rose Clarke) to the husband (Jonathan Groff) she’s divorcing, it is reprised, years earlier, by the couple at their wedding. But who is that third voice? She’s the heartbroken woman (Lindsay Mendez) left out of the equation. Sometimes the drama isn’t in how a song is sung but by whom.

Of course you can listen to a great rendition of the title tune from this magpie musical based on the 1977 movie. Or you can enjoy some of the other knockout numbers — “Let’s Hear It for Me,” “But the World Goes ’Round” — that the songwriters, John Kander and Fred Ebb, called screamers. (All three are solidly sung by Anna Uzele.) But if you want to hear the songs that Kander likes best, you’ll go for those that whisper, including a new one, with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, that’s actually set in the Whispering Gallery at Grand Central Station. Sung in the show by Colton Ryan, it’s called “Can You Hear Me?” Better yet, thanks to the kind of bonus only a cast album allows, listen to the demo, with Miranda singing and Kander at the keyboard.

With more than 30 studio albums, it’s no surprise that Barry Manilow has made another. But this one, written with the lyricist Bruce Sussman for their musical about a six-man German singing group in the 1920s, is different. To start with, it’s not just a collection of songs but also a fully theatrical score, filtering elements of jazz, operetta, barbershop and cabaret through Manilow’s prodigious pop sensibility. The numbers — especially the gorgeous “And What Do You See?,” sung by Sierra Boggess as a Jewish man’s gentile fiancée — are tightly tied to the story, their melodies and harmonies often seeming to twist and writhe to accommodate the characters’ hope and horror.

The 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical about the magical land where “the rain may never fall till after sundown” has a great cast album already. And the forced and formal 2023 Lincoln Center Theater revival did not seem likely to produce a version that eclipsed it. But the recording is lovely, highlighting the pure sonic beauty of the 30-piece orchestra and the vocal prowess of its Guenevere (Phillipa Soo) and Lancelot (Jordan Donica). Especially in Donica’s trio of showpieces — “C’est Moi” near the beginning, “I Loved You Once in Silence” near the end and, in between, a ravishing “If Ever I Would Leave You” — he demonstrates that a great voice can be a great actor.

No one goes to musicals for their morals, and shows that are too assertively instructive can lack narrative interest. That was sometimes the case with this one, in which autistic performers played autistic characters working on their life skills at a Columbus mental health center. Though a wonderful breakthrough in many ways, the show too often hewed to familiar storytelling tropes — yet the cast album, stripped of story, shines. The songs, by Jacob Yandura (music) and Rebekah Greer Melocik (lyrics), often take unconventional approaches, as is evident right from the opening number, “Today Is.” Its busy, anxious but upbeat accompaniment, reminiscent of piano exercises, underlines the busy, anxious but upbeat lives of the characters preparing for their day’s challenges and opportunities.

A show needs a showstopper. Or at least an audience does. But because I didn’t expect to find one in this musical built on a steady stream of middling corn puns, I was blown away when it suddenly appeared, unconventionally, in the middle of Act One. Until then, the songs, by the country music team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, were genial and apt. But then Alex Newell, as Lulu, a whiskey distiller with a side hustle in sass, stepped forward with a feminist barnburner declaring that she, her business and her body were “Independently Owned.” The fog of geniality instantly dispersed in a hail of clever rhymes, real show music and a diva’s bountiful belt.

When the star of your show is a car — even if it’s a great one — you may run into trouble with the songs. That’s how I felt about the Broadway version of the 1985 movie: It didn’t need to be a musical at all. But if its score, by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard, couldn’t do much for the DeLorean DMC — or even the human leads, Doc Brown and Marty McFly — the cast album demonstrates surprising skill in characterizing the secondary characters. “My Myopia,” sung by Marty’s father as a teenager, gives us creepy insight into his later failures. And “Gotta Start Somewhere,” a big gospel rave, fills in the outlines of an otherwise barely-there character with ambition — at the same time letting the irrepressible Jelani Remy, who sings it, realize his.

Broadway has no exclusive on new Sondheim albums. From London comes a live two-disc recording of “Old Friends,” a concert celebration featuring greatest hits sung by Bernadette Peters, Judi Dench, Michael Ball and other familiars. It’s a rich meal, and with 41 courses, a huge one, heavy on the honey. (Watch a video of Ball singing “Loving You,” from “Passion,” here.)

“Sondheim in the City,” Melissa Errico’s tribute to Sondheim’s urbanity, feels like a New York house tour of thrill and heartbreak. In songs like the jangly “Another Hundred People,” the exuberant “What More Do I Need?” and the dry, disappointed “It Wasn’t Meant to Happen,” Errico, one of Sondheim’s deepest-hearted yet lightest-touch interpreters, evokes both the city and cabaret style at its best. (She’ll be singing the program at 54 Below in May.) On the pristine recording you can almost hear the martini glasses clink — and shatter.

And if you didn’t get to see Sondheim’s final musical, “Here We Are,” Off Broadway at the Shed, or if you did and want to hold onto it, as I do, the cast album is scheduled to be released in May. The producers promise “a full representation of the show and score,” which means that the songs (of which I must admit there’s not an awful lot) will be interspersed with the playwright David Ives’s dialogue scenes, some of which are songlike in themselves. The samples I’ve heard — an instrumental underscoring and a snippet of “The Bishop’s Song,” performed by David Hyde Pierce — are enough to leave me (like the show’s characters) hungry for more.

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