After more than a month of quarantine culture, most of us have some sense of what being on a desert island feels like. So we’ve had plenty of time to consider what we’d like to hear in our infinite leisure, beyond the roar of the surf. It is, in fact, just what we’ve been listening to, with gratitude, during these many weeks. If you’re like us, you may have compiled your own lists already. See how they stack up against the 20 albums we’ve chosen.
Even though most of these recordings are tattooed onto my memory, they are still the ones I play the most, and every time I listen to them, I hear new things. Some of them were the basis for my fantasy life when I was a child. Today, all of them offer perspectives on life as I have come to know it since, and there’s enough variety here to match nearly all of my shifting chameleon moods.
John Kander and Fred Ebb’s sardonic take on the American justice system is musical satire at its most sophisticated. This is one case in which I’m going with the recording of a revival (the deathless version that opened in 1996 and was still running on Broadway before the shutdown), in which Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking and James Naughton have a wonderful time proving that crime pays.
It’s the first Broadway show I ever saw, and the older I get, the richer it sounds. Stephen Sondheim’s many-splendored score for this story of the reunion of Ziegfeld Follies-style performers deconstructs nostalgia — and specifically, the way we hear the songs of our past. The 1971 original cast recording features such jewels as Alexis Smith singing “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” and Dorothy Collins doing “Losing My Mind.”
In this 2006 musical, inspired by the documentary film of the same title, Christine Ebersole’s performance as the eccentric society recluse Edie Beale (and as her own mother in an earlier time) is one of the most nuanced and deep-burrowing of all Broadway interpretations, ranging from antic exhibitionism to heartbreakingly quiet loneliness. And Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s score provides a primer in the art of defining character through song.
Of all American musicals, this 1959 collaboration among Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim may well be both the greatest and most perfect (attributes that are not always synonymous in art). It also provides peerless examples of song as psychodrama, gloriously evident in the fearsome, utterly un-self-conscious performance of Ethel Merman, as the mother of all stage mothers, in the original Broadway cast recording.
The hip-hop version of the American Revolution, as delivered by the impossibly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a musical momentum as propulsive as history itself. This is a work that’s almost as exciting to listen to as it was to see, and it’s a guaranteed cure for inertia.
My Fair Lady
The most engagingly literate of musicals, with the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe translating George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” into impeccably cadenced song. Rex Harrison, as the arrogant master of phonetics, Henry Higgins, and Julie Andrews, as his cockney flower girl pupil, redefine the nature of romantic star chemistry in the 1956 recording.
This seamless masterpiece from Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II forever changed the form of the American musical, and it’s far from the simple, sunny portrait of frontier life that it’s sometimes made out to be. You can still hear the fear and uncertainty as well as the robust passion in the characterful interpretations of the now classic songs from the original Broadway version of 1943.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Vengeful, bloodletting rage churns magnificently through Stephen Sondheim’s score for this story of murder by tonsorial means in Victorian England. It also features some of Sondheim’s wittiest pastiche work and, in the 1979 album, two of the greatest musical performances ever recorded — by Len Cariou, in the title role, and Angela Lansbury, as his demented helpmate.
The Threepenny Opera
Abrasive, snarling, didactic and downright irresistible when you’re in a misanthropic state of mind. Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht reworked John Gay’s 18th-century “Beggar’s Opera” into a deliciously mordant indictment of the capitalist class system. The cast recording of the fabled 1954 Off Broadway version lets you hear the incomparable Lotte Lenya sing “Pirate Jenny.”
West Side Story
Some of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard are in Leonard Bernstein’s music for this groundbreaking show from 1957 about rival street gangs in New York. And when Chita Rivera leads the sardonic anthem “America,” in the original recording, it’s with a visceral energy that turns song into dance, so that you can imagine Jerome Robbins’s original choreography.
Much as I love them, I don’t need the likes of “West Side Story” and “My Fair Lady” on my desert island; they are so much a part of me already, having them there would be redundant. Instead I want the albums that still feel new no matter how many times I’ve listened to them, the works that are never completely knowable, that overwhelm me emotionally, again and again.
The Band’s Visit
An Egyptian military band gets stranded in a dull Israeli desert town. What proceeds from this unlikely premise is a game-changing 2017 musical about the ways people cannot connect — and they ways they can, mostly through music. Avoiding Golden Age excess, David Yazbek’s urgent, exquisite score, with its lean song forms and its Israeli and Arab soundscape, maintains its mystery over many listenings.
Caroline, or Change
The social conflicts of 1963 and their expression in the pileup of musical styles of that era make this 2004 musical about a black woman who works as a maid for a well-meaning Jewish family in Louisiana as dense and wrenching as documentary. Yet with its allegorical figures (a bus, a washing machine, the moon) and its sliver of a happy ending, Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s great work is also a great deliverance.
For exercise, one needs a dancy beat on that desert island, and the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman for this 2002 musical all but defy you not to move. But they are more than just clever reworkings of period grooves appropriate to the show’s 1962 setting, in which a Baltimore teen hair-hops her way to love and racial harmony. Like the best pastiche, they improve on what they copy, creating new standards in the process.
The Last Five Years
I’ve never seen a version of this 2001 musical by Jason Robert Brown that didn’t move me, but the original cast album is still the one I listen to, for the eccentricity, emotional pitch and daredevil vocalism of Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz. As a couple breaking up and coming together at the same time (she in reverse chronology, he in the regular kind) they are so raw and vivid you feel like part of the therapy they obviously needed but failed to get.
The Light in the Piazza
Kelli O’Hara has to be on my island somewhere, and how better than with Victoria Clark, as daughter and mother, in this 2005 musical that has a romantic yet spiky score by Adam Guettel? On vacation in Italy the two women encounter — and their beautiful songs extend into — an almost philosophical realm, the many kinds of love humans experience: new, transactional, faded, obsessive, hopeless, hopeful.
The Most Happy Fella
The story of a waitress who becomes the “mail-order bride” to an older grape farmer gave Frank Loesser the raw materials for the most capital-R Romantic musical ever. Its roster of styles, including tarantellas, comedy showstoppers andPuccini pastiches, is beautifully captured in 2 hours and 15 minutes of nearly continuous song — highlighted by the operatic baritone Robert Weede’s enormously affecting performance in the 1956 original.
Because Ben includes “Sweeney Todd” on his list — an obvious choice for mine as well, given the incredibly rich sound world it creates — I’ll cheat with my other favorite recording of a Sondheim score. That’s “Passion,” the much disliked 1994 musical drama about the impossible yet possible love between a sickly, ugly woman and a handsome, strapping soldier. There is simply no bottom to its depth of empathy for (and Donna Murphy’s vocal characterization of) the emotionally dispossessed.
She Loves Me
Often referred to as a jewel box for its suite of glittering songs, this 1963 musical is actually built like a truck — a very pretty truck. The story of two clerks who hate each other by day but unknowingly love each other by mail provided Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick with the setting for one of the most polished musicals ever, and Barbara Cook with the material for one of her most brilliant performances. Maybe that’s why they call it a jewel box.
When Pigs Fly
Few cast albums offer more hilarity per cut than the recording of this 1996 gay (in both senses) revue by Dick Gallagher and Mark Waldrop. Whether sending up the homophobe archvillains of the day in a series of lovers’ laments (“Newt,” “Strom,” “Rush”) or celebrating change with a “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” the album documents a moment when great loss (including the death of the show’s animating spirit, Howard Crabtree) was finally shading into hope.
Assuming I’ll be able to hear Ben playing “Chicago” at full blast on his nearby island, I’ll take a different Kander and Ebb cast album to mine: the thrilling 1968 recording of “Zorba.” Herschel Bernardi is unforgettable as the man who lives every second as if he would never die, and the rest of the cast delivers some of Kander’s earthiest melodies with power and pathos that time cannot seem to diminish.