How Cast Albums Stack Up: 'Next to Normal,' 'Spring Awakening,' 'Shrek' and More

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Next to Normal"

Broadway: Booth Theatre

The more time you spend with this two-disc set, the more deeply you're rewarded by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's powerful and finely wrought songs. The composer and lyricist set as their task a nuanced treatment of a serious subject -- a woman's struggle with mental illness -- and in the process create one of the best cast albums in years.

As the story of a troubled American family with a healthy share of secrets, "Next to Normal" includes some surprises, which might only fully reveal themselves in an encounter with the production. (The show completed a successful run this past winter at Arena Stage before opening on Broadway; it's nominated in 11 Tony categories.)

Kitt, who also composed music for the short-lived musical version of "High Fidelity," fills the discs with driving melodies, like the exhilarating "I'm Alive" and "Superboy and the Invisible Girl." The score's range is evident in ballads both plaintive -- "Song of Forgetting"; "I Miss the Mountains" -- and hope-filled, as in the deeply affected "A Light in the Dark."

"Spring Awakening"

Kennedy Center: July 7--Aug. 2

Totally rad is not a description that applies comfortably to most of what makes it on Broadway. So Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, the composer and lyricist of this Tony-winning show that ran for more than two years in New York, earn extra high-fives for injecting into the Great White Way a healthy dose of hip.

Their handiwork is superbly reproduced on a CD that features the voices of such emerging musical-theater talents as Jonathan Groff, John Gallagher Jr. and Lea Michele. They portray the restless teenage leads in this work -- set in 19th-century Germany and sung in 21st-century rock -- about a restrictive society that exhibits little compassion for the isolating pain and longing of adolescence.

That the musical, an adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, could so seamlessly connect two disparate epochs speaks to the unforced universality of its themes. The songs are not conventional Broadway tunes, but rather expressions of the anguish and alienation of its young protagonists. Whether the kids are singing about sexuality or mortality, there's always a haunting, hypnotic electricity in their harmonies.

"Jersey Boys"

National Theatre: Oct. 1--Dec. 12

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