SOUND OFF: 2013 Holiday Gift Guide
Today, we are spotlighting the absolute must-haves for the Broadway baby on Santa's shopping list - all of the very best theatre-related music, movies, events and more - well, at least sixteen or seventeen of them...
My Favorite Things
THE SOUND OF MUSIC: LIVE! On DVD & CD
The most talked about theatrical event of the last part of this year is undoubtedly NBC's live TV broadcast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic family-friendly musical THE SOUND OF MUSIC starring country music superstar Carrie Underwood as Maria, Stephen Moyer as Captain Von Trapp, Audra McDonald as the Mother Abbess, Laura Benanti as Elsa and Christian Borle as Max. While social media had a frenzy over the live show, it was a ratings smash hit, netting upwards of 20 million viewers and instantly ensuring an annual live musical on NBC to look forward to this time next year. Though some may have taken issue with Underwood's casting and her overall acting in the telecast itself, the simple fact that she sings the range-y score flawlessly - and, in many moments throughout, magnificently - is reason enough to seek this out. It is a perfect rendering of the score, thereby making the studio-recorded soundtrack an absolute must-have. It sparkles.
Though the DVD does contain a few corrections to the live show, it is virtually identical to the broadcast as presented and therefore should make a simply splendid stocking stuffer for the Carrie fan or reality singing show addict in your holiday circle. Plus, the simple star-power of three of Broadway's best shining in some supporting roles provides a rare and rich treat for those familiar with the musical and those who may be new to it - of course, this is a true representation of the original show as seen onstage and a much different experience than that of the iconic film; and, thank heavens for that. Surely, McDonald's earth-shattering "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" alone makes this a chart-topper on this or any other year-end recommendations list, anyway - but, the whole thing is a fabulous feat pulled off with aplomb, very worthy of re-viewing time and time again, year after year. Make it a new tradition!
More information on THE SOUND OF MUSIC: LIVE! soundtrack is available here and DVD here.
LIVE AT 54 BELOW Series By Broadway Records
2013 was an especially auspicious year for fans of live cabaret recordings featuring our favorite performers up close and personal, singing songs meaning the most to them - namely, the absolutely excellent series of solo albums presented throughout this year by Broadway Records.
Among the necessary notables and showcasing the most addictive of the all around tip-top collection of cabaret shows captured as they actually happened, now represented on disc and digital download, are some leading ladies both legendary and up-and-coming worth more than a mere mention here and elsewhere - Patti LuPone, Bebe Neuwirth and Laura Benanti, namely.
Patti LuPone - FAR AWAY PLACES: LIVE AT 54 BELOW
Patti LuPone's FAR AWAY PLACES is, in a word, transcendent. Two more: transporting and terrific, too. Three? Tremendous. OK, OK - enough with the Ts. Truly, though, this is musical theatre manna and how to do a live show on disc to a T - with a dynamite diva firing on all axles and putting on one hell of a fabulous show. The song list is incredibly eclectic, yet LuPone sells Brecht and The Bee Gees with equal conviction and commitment - which, from an actress this powerful, not to mention the dynamism of her incredible vocal instrument as heard here, is really saying something significant. Oh, yeah, LuPone's take on Cole Porter's tongue-twisting "Come To The Supermarket In Old Peking" is worth the price of admission in and of itself - but, be sure to stay for "September Song", too. Superb.
Check out my InDepth InterView with Patti LuPone all about FAR AWAY PLACES and much more, available here.
Laura Benanti - IN CONSTANT SEARCH OF THE RIGHT KIND OF ATTENTION: LIVE AT 54 BELOW
While LuPone is la crème, Laura Benanti is the cherry on top. The amusingly-titled IN CONSTANT SEARCH OF THE RIGHT KIND OF ATTENTION: LIVE AT 54 BELOW is her chance to show off her versatility and she very much takes it and makes it all her own. And how! A smart, sassy and wry showcase, Benanti's banter in itself makes her solo show standout, while her song choices show vivid inspiration and colorful wit. Weaving together songs as disparate as Lana Del Rey and Lerner & Loewe, Benanti appears affable and refreshingly frank in not only her convivial, oft-caustic conversation, but also in the deliveries of the songs themselves - infusing both comedy and deep, sometimes dark, pathos with dexterity and a measured, engrossing, assured delivery. Plus, on top of all that, tracks like the medley of "Video Games" and "Starry Eyed" as well as her NINE and WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN reprises make for decadent, endlessly repeat-worthy offerings. What a woman, what a show. Whoa.
Check out my InDepth InterView with Laura Benanti all about IN CONSTANT SEARCH OF THE RIGHT KIND OF ATTENTION: LIVE AT 54 BELOW and much more, available here.
Bebe Neuwirth - STORIES... IN NYC: LIVE AT 54 BELOW
Although LuPone is a living legend and Laura Benanti is a diva-in-the-making, two-time Tony Award and Emmy Award-winner Bebe Neuwirth is icon with all her own style, demeanor and wow factor. Indeed, Neuwirth's new STORIES... IN NYC: LIVE AT 54 BELOW is unlike any solo album you are likely to experience this year in just the sheer visceral power and punch of the performer being presented, live and raw and exposed. Neuwirth is an explosive performer and an endlessly gifted talent who has both the ability to conjure tender sentiment such as a CASABLANCA moment to draw a tear and also raise the roof of the theatre with a Kander & Ebb barn-burner done full-out, while excelling in the cynical and comical world of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht like few others alive today all the while. She does it all. In addition to the theatrics, Neuwirth also offers a candid glimpse at her career, family and influences during the rapartee, with many hilarious and appreciable anecdotes to go with the splendid show.
Stay tuned to BroadwayWorld for my upcoming InDepth InterView with Bebe Neuwirth all about STORIES... IN NYC: LIVE AT 54 BELOW later this week.
Highlighting these three releases in particular is not to say that multiple merits are also not also worthy of being afforded to many of the other resplendent releases in the incomparable roster of 2013 calendar year live recordings released by Broadway Records - Aaron Tveit's THE RADIO IN MY HEAD, Norbert Leo Butz's MEMORY & MAYHEM, Laura Osnes's DREAM A LITTLE DREAM, Christiane Noll's GIFTS, Andrea McArdle's 70's & SUNNY and the superlative Sierra Boggess with her sensational AWAKENING (all aforementioned titled with the LIVE AT 54 BELOW suffix, natch) thus all dually noted.
A Coterie Of Instant-Classic Christmas Albums
Every holiday season brings a new slew of Christmas albums from a wide range of performers, and while we can always rely on CAROLS FOR A CURE as far as theatre-related musical cheer for the year is concerned, expanding our horizons and checking out the selections by the topmost vocalists around always provides entertainment of some, if not overflowing, value. Undoubtedly, though, 2013 has been particularly generous insofar as Christmas collections and holiday albums worth a hardy hand and a boisterous ho-ho-ho.
Matthew Morrison - A CLASSIC CHRISTMAS
The final album produced by legendary recording icon Phil Ramone and the second studio album of the year from the triple-threat Glee star and Broadway headliner, Matthew Morrison's A CLASSIC CHRISTMAS is a effortlessly entertaining EP perfect for cocktail merriment and below-mistletoe hanky panky - never coming close to overstaying its welcome, either, given its brief running time (which is a theme, apparently). Morrison's suave and smooth vocals marry expertly with the cool and swingin' arrangements of the familiar holiday tunes presented with panache and sparkle. Most of all, though, Morrison's "The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year" is masterful. The total package is a joyful, hip, refreshingly adult treat from beginning to end. Plus, if you enjoy this release, be sure to seek out Morrison's fantastic theatre-themed full-length disc from earlier this year, also overseen by Ramone, WHERE IT ALL BEGAN.
Check out my InDepth InterView with Matthew Morrison all about WHERE IT ALL BEGAN and much more, available here.
Liz Callaway - MERRY & BRIGHT
Does anyone possess a more instantly lovable and more just-plain lovely voice than Liz Callaway? Yes, I know: trick question, theatre fans - her sister is absolutely incredible, too. Ann Hampton Callaway actually makes an appearance here, as a matter of fabulous fact, gracing us all with her presence alongside her equally exquisite sister with a duet worthy of holiday play-lists for many decades to come. "Silent Night / Mary, Did You Know?" is an epically emotional, tremendously thoughtful and remarkably moving evocation. Hyperbole? No way - give it a listen. It is, well, simply divine. The rest of the album follows suit and shows off Callaway's versatility with everything from a choral-accented "Joy To The World" to a funky "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" with her talented vocalist/arranger son, Nicholas, to go with sophisticated and sensitive renderings of "A Grown-Up Christmas List" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" filling out the disc. All we can ask for after this is perhaps an all-duets holiday album some season soon with sis - certainly something to wish for in the future, at least! Until then, this is a shining star with plenty of precision and polish to spare among its spokes.
More information on Liz Callaway's MERRY & BRIGHT is available at the official site here.
Linda Eder - CHRISTMAS WHERE YOU ARE
Setting out to do the near-impossible, Linda Eder has defied the odds and somehow managed to provide the world with a brand new Christmas album the manages to stay on par with her simply unparalleled CHRISTMAS STAYS THE SAME, released over a decade ago, with the self-produced 2013 gem CHRISTMAS WHERE YOU ARE. Returning to many holiday hallmarks while also introducing two wonderful new yule-themed tunes - a more than merely worthwhile Frank Wildhorn collaboration and a self-written stunner - Eder reminds us all exactly why she remains one of the best vocal artists recording today, showing off her spine-tingling belt and rapturous alto (and even some soaring soprano) with enviable ease and adeptness. Each and every track adds to the atmosphere created by the collective experience, with noticeably careful and considered song selections working together to form an overall aural ride that is certain to put virtually anyone in a merry mood. An unexpected, pleasingly intimate new holiday classic.
More information on Linda Eder's CHRISTMAS WHERE YOU ARE is available at the official site here.
Natalie Toro - JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS
A commanding vocalist with a palpably truthful and emotive way with a word and song, Natalie Toro's JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS is an expert EP offering a satisfying sampling of the performer's talent without overstaying its welcome - and, surely, much the same can be said for Morrison and Callaway's EPs mentioned above, as well. Toro's idiosyncratic arrangements and surprising artistic choices make this a repeat-worthy release and should make it a holiday staple for those theatre fans looking to supplant their holiday collections with something different and still heart-warming and heartfelt - 'tis the season, after all. Toro's take on the title track is a Broadway show-stopper on its own, but the two duets make it an even more recommendable release - particularly in the superlative renderings of their respective song selections showcased here. Ryan Kelly joins Toro for a Celtic-tinged "Baby, It's Cold Outside" while Jon Secada lends some additional heat to an already caliente "I'll Be Home For Christmas". Bonus points go to Toro for the two note-worthy lesser-known selections, as well ("Once Upon A Christmas Song" and "Our First Christmas Together"). Tender, fun, sensual, endearing, surprisingly moving - it is a sheer delight.
Check out my InDepth InterView with Natalie Toro all about JUST IN TIME FOR CHRISTMAS and much more, available here.
Although these four holiday albums are the necessary gifts for the Broadway babies on your list as far as new seasonal albums go, some more mainstream selections are also worthy of a hearty push given their multitudes of charms - especially Kelly Clarkson's WRAPPED IN RED, Leona Lewis's CHRISTMAS, WITH LOVE, Tracey Thorn's TINSEL & LIGHTS and Johnny Mathis's SENDING YOU A LITTLE CHRISTMAS, as well as the newest GLEE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM: VOLUME 4.
Plus, you can never go wrong with the Broadway charity collections by CAROLS FOR A CURE, available here, and NEW YORK CITY CHRISTMAS: A BENEFIT FOR ASTEP, available here.
Disney's Dynamic Triple Feature
FROZEN & SAVING MR. BANKS/MARY POPPINS
Of special interest to theatre fans this year is unquestionably the new animated feature film musical from the house of mouse itself - Disney's FROZEN. Featuring a score by Tony Award-winning AVENUE Q and THE BOOK OF MORMON songwriter Robert Lopez alongside Kristen Anderson-Lopez, FROZEN is without a doubt one of the finest films of its genre since the heyday of the company in the mid-'90s. A full-out musical with a company of players more than capable of pulling it off and infusing it with pizzazz aplenty, FROZEN is a feast for the eyes, ears and heart. All of this without even making mention of the five Broadway names leading the cast - Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad and Santino Fontana. Each and every one is given a musical moment with which to shine and each and every one makes that moment land in the heart and mind. Wow! From Bell's cute and colorful characterization to Menzel's rich and fiery portrayal through to an adorable Groff, a hilarious Gad and a all-too-charming Fontana - it's a true treasure trove of cheer. Added up together, FROZEN is a new Disney classic which also happens to be filled with a few tunes sure to be holiday classics come Christmases in 2014 and beyond - "Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People" and "Do You Want To Build A Snowman?" especially, though Menzel's "Let It Go" is the musical high-point of the entire piece; poised on the highest level of musical numbers ever rendered onscreen in a Disney film or elsewhere, as it happens. A masterpiece.
As if FROZEN weren't enough of a seasonal offering from Disney worth recommending, two MARY POPPINS-related releases are also sure to inspire the affection of the kid inside of any of us with the pristine new Blu-ray release of MARY POPPINS to go along with the big screen dramatic feature film all about its creation, SAVING MR. BANKS, in theaters on Christmas Day. Without any hesitation whatsoever, it seems clear to decree that 2013 is certainly the year to share a jolly holiday with Mary.
For even more about FROZEN, SAVING MR. BANKS and some other selections on this year's SOUND OFF Holiday Gift Guide and much, much more, check out the BroadwayWorld's Winter Guide 2013, available here.
Etc., Etc., Etc.
Other essentials one could consider for their own enjoyment or for gift-giving as we head into 2014 include the stupendous Digital Theatre release of Stephen Sondheim & George Furth's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, available here, the star-studded four-film Shakespeare historical play anthology THE HOLLOW CROWN, available here, the engaging and unique entry of the popular USA series PSYCH: THE MUSICAL, available here, and, lastly, the grandiose and genuinely awesome genre-hopping album experiment SWINGS BOTH WAYS from UK pop-star-turned-crooner Robbie Williams, available here. Each and every one is a sparkling diamond.
Plus, my personal advice for how to give yourself and those that you love the best gift of all? Well, golly jolly gee: go see a live show - whether on Broadway, on tour, in your home town or at a movie theater showing a live performance some day soon!
To all of BroadwayWorld's Broadway babies around the world: Happy Holidays 2013 & Here's To A Fabulous '14!
More On: Rodgers & Hammerstein, Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Christian Borle, NBC, Patti LuPone.