Imagine you're a kid with big dreams. It's a balmy Christmas in Crosby, Texas. You're opening presents with your family and unwrap the 1978 Original Broadway Cast Recording of Evita. Your mother, who gifted it to you, beams with joy at your surprise. You wanted the film soundtrack, but this more than suffices. Eventually, the family conversation drifts to dreams, and you proudly assert that one day you'll be a leading theater critic in New York City. Now, fast-forward to 2013. That goal hasn't actualized, but you're steps closer. You're the official recordings critic for BroadwayWorld.com and a freelance writer for Houston Press, and just like that young 6th grader in Crosby, you're still mesmerized by the best music Broadway has to offer. So, as we reflect on our life choices and the past 365 days, it's with pleasure that I share my Top 10 picks for theater-related recordings from 2013.
Please note: For my own sanity, these choices are presented in alphabetical order.
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County - In many ways, this album is caught between the worlds of Concept Album and Studio Cast Recording. It is an auditory representation of the music from John Mellencamp and Stephen King's musical venture, but it is not a traditional cast recording by any means. The physical album features dialog excerpts from King's book, turning the recording into a fascinating radio play and making it superior, in my opinion, to the digital release, which is just the music. Regardless, Mellencamp's dark and evocative score is memorable and emotionally rich. His music is jarring and pairs well with the ambience audiences expect from King, often heralded as America's premiere master of horror. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
Giant (Original Cast Recording) - Adapted from Edna Ferber's novel by the same title, Michael John LaChiusa created what is quite possibly his most commercial/mainstream score yet. With an epic scope, his sweeping and soaring orchestrations vividly create images of Texas' wide open spaces in the minds of listeners. Paired with his grand orchestrations, his expressive lyrics, especially those that focus on unfaltering hope and large dreams, are easy to get lost in. From its opening to its finale, this album is sure to sweep listeners away. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
I Could Use a Drink: The Songs of Drew Gasparini - The winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Award in 2006, Drew Gasparini has repeatedly proven himself to be accomplished at his craft. He has written the music, book, and lyrics for four musicals and has also had a song featured on NBC's SMASH. This record, a brief collection of his music, is a testament to his skill. Every number sparkles with life, whether the songs are witty, touching, or poignant. There is not a single bad track on the recording, and it has become a true staple in my car as I commute around the city of Houston. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
Imagine Paradise by Levi Kreis - For this record, Tony Award winning actor Levi Kreis takes listeners back to the glory days of '70s disco and R&B with this collection of vibrant music. Each uplifting and fun track will have listeners dancing along to the infectious beats. Also, across the album he promotes the ideals of self-love, self-acceptance, embracing individuality, and casting off anything that doesn't improve you. This is feel good music at its finest, and one of my absolute favorite albums of 2013 both within and outside of the world of theater. The album can be purchased from CD Baby, iTunes, and Amazon.
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Kerrigan-Lowdermilk LIVE - Kait Kerrigan and Brian Loudermilk are two, fresh-faced American composers that everyone needs to be aware of. Individually and as a team, this duo has won quite a menagerie of awards, and after one listen to their album Kerrigan-Lowdermilk LIVE, you'll quickly understand why. The album documents a concert tour that resulted from their breakout $35K Kickstarter campaign. With a who's who of young Broadway talent and undeniable songwriting talent, this fascinating collection of music is another one that has a permanent home in my car and is often enjoyed as I commute. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
Lizzie - This riveting rock musical had its first major production earlier this year at TUTS Underground, and if you've read anything I've written, you've probably realized just how much I adore this project. I practically geek out about this brilliant and unique musical treasure every chance I get. Math doesn't get more simple than this: Four Amazing Female Vocalists + Rollicking (yet tuneful) Epic Rock Score + Intelligent (and sometimes tongue in cheek) Lyrics = PURE AWESOMENESS! The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
Murder Ballad: A New Musical (World Premiere Cast Recording) - This little musical will soon be shaking up Houston, as it's the next show in TUTS Underground's line-up. Filled to overflowing with sex and violence, this intimate four-person rock musical made quite the stir Off-Broadway and has one of the most invigorating modern scores of any work released in 2013. Once you've been ensnared in this deadly, sensual game, you won't soon forget it. The lyrics and music are cleverly developed earwigs that will leave you longing for more. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
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Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (Original Cast Recording) - Dave Malloy's ambitious musical brings a chunk of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace to musical life, and this cast recording proves just how ballsy and inventive Malloy is. This highly intricate and complex score is easily comparable to the most complicated of works by Stephen Sondheim and Michael John LaChiusa. Essentially, this double album is one that lovers of music will cling to with reckless abandon, but others with more mainstream tastes are going to have to warm up to. Despite this, the thematic richness of this work is sure to win just about everyone over. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
North of Houston - Live at 54 BELOW by Michael Cerveris & Loose Cattle - I've been a fan of Michael Cerveris for quite some time, and a few brief minutes of face time with him after seeing him play General Juan Domingo Perón in Evita on Broadway is a true highlight from my life. Therefore, it was not a surprise to me that I liked his entry in the "Live at 54 BELOW" series from Broadway Records. What was a surprise is how much I adored the album! Born in Bethesda, Maryland and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, Cerveris has a country voice that many in Texas would simply be jealous of. Whether singing covers or original compositions, this album sounds like home and is enough to make me question if I could actually like the country genre. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
Pippin (New Broadway Cast Recording) - Growing up, I handicapped myself by generally ignoring musicals written prior to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. There were limited exceptions, but they were far and few between. As an adult, I've learned the folly of my youth time and time again, but no recording brought this lesson home more than the 2013 Broadway revival cast's album for Pippin. The musical has a '70s vibe to its orchestrations (either a throwback to the original production or proof that you can take the musical out of the '70s but can't take the '70s out of the musical), is artistically sound and, dare I say, genius. Give this one a listen and you'll be hooked as you dance with Fosse-inspired movements around your living room. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.
Honorable Mention: Awakening: Live at 54 BELOW by Sierra Boggess - For her 54 BELOW concert, Broadway star Sierra Boggess let loose and just had fun. Her charming personality and sparkling voice were captured and are now the basis for a delightful album. Across the recording, she showcases her ability to sing everything from country to opera. Additionally, she does one of the most spot-on Britney Spears impersonations I have ever heard. Have you ever wondered what Spears would sound like singing "Think of Me" from Phantom of the Opera? Boggess lets you experience it first hand. The album can be purchased from iTunes and Amazon.