Two years ago, when I was preparing the 2012 holiday gift guide, I received a press release from a new well-named label: Broadway Records. It announced the launch of a series of live recordings of cabaret-style performances at the then-brand-new supper-club downstairs from the Studio 54 Theater on 54th Street in New York – – 54 Below.
It was one of the most promising press releases to cross my desk in a long time.
Without hearing a single album, I put the first releases on the holiday gift guide, assuming that they would, at a bare minimum, capture the performances of the gifted artists who are booked into the room. When I did get a chance to listen, I found I had been very right to recommend the early releases. They captured exciting performances of entertaining material that the artists clearly loved and each was wonderfully recorded.
54 Below has a fabulous sound system through which these recordings are captured with an immediacy that is enhanced rather than harmed by a careful balance of audience reaction which makes the experience all the more exciting.
The list of those artists has grown over the last two years to become almost a Who’s Who of the Broadway scene in the first decades of the new millennium. Each release has given the listener the same opportunity that attending the shows live on 54th Street provided: getting to know the depth of talent of some of the greatest names now performing in New York City. (And you don’t need to travel there to enjoy it.)
Consider the line up:
– Laura Benanti sparked the revival of The Sound of Music when Rebecca Luker left and went on to wow us in Swing!, the 2002 revival of Into The Woods, the 2003 revival of Nine, the short lived The Wedding Singer, and then delivered a superb performance in the abysmal flop (but superbly cast) Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. (And yes, as Baroness Elsa Schraeder, she was one of the best things in the NBC Telecast of the live The Sound of Music a few months ago.) Find out how pure her approach to a song can really be with her show In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention.
– Sierra Boggess, who rocked (or, at least, skated) as Ariel in the Broadway version of The Little Mermaid and then created the role of Christine Daaé in the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies, displays a breadth of abilities in her cabaret show Awakening.
– Norbert Leo Butz, the phenomenally talented guy who starred in the unfortunately short lived Big Fish, and whose performances in Wicked, Thou Shalt Not and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels were topped by his work in Catch Me If You Can, put a very personal stamp on two dozen songs that couldn’t be called show-tunes in his act Memory & Mayhem.
– Michael Cerveris, the mercurial personality that can go from being the designer of the Titanic to John Wilkes Booth in Assassins and from Sweeney Todd to Hedwig (of the angry inch), brought his boot-scooting Texas music group “Loose Cattle” to the stage for the least Broadway-ish show of the bunch, North of Houston.
– Patti LuPone. Another survivor of the Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown debacle, the hugely talented Ms. LuPone, who has Tony awards for Evita and Gypsy and was Mrs. Lovett to Michael Cerveris’ Sweeney, demonstrates a breadth of talent in Far Away Places.
– Andrea McArdle. There’s much more to the career of Ms. McArdle than being the star of the original production of Annie. Listen to her show 70s and Sunny and you’ll find out.
– Bebe Neuwirth – If you think of Velma Kelly in the Chicago revival, Lola in the Damn Yankees revival and Morticia in The Adams Family before you think of Lillith in television’s Cheers and Frasier sit-coms when you hear the name Bebe Neuwirth, you are the target audience for her collection of Songs in NYC.
Broadway Records series Live at 54 Below:
Laura Benanti – In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention
Sierra Boggess – Awakening
Michael Cerveris & Loose Cattle – North of Houston
Norbert Leo Butz – Memory and Mayhem
Patti LuPone – Far Away Places
Andrea McArdle – 70s and Sunny
Christiane Noll – Gifts
Bebe Neuwirth – Stories… in NYC
Aaron Tveit – The Radio In My Head
When I Grow Up: Broadway’s Next Generation
Two from other clubs:
Laura Osnes – Dream A Little Dream
– Live at the Café Carlyle
Faith Prince – Total Faith
– Live at the Royal Room at the Colony
– Christiane Noll – The star of the revival of Ragtime, the original Broadway Jekyll & Hyde and last year’s Chaplin used her time on stage at 54 Below to celebrate the Gifts that songs can be.
– Aaron Tveit worked with Butz in Catch Me If You Can and originated the role of Gabe in Next To Normal (not to mention replacement stints as Link Larkin in Hairspray and Fiyero in Wicked). His cabaret show The Radio In My Head reveals an intensity that seems to be a result of a passion for the material.
– One album in the series isn’t devoted to a single Broadway star’s work. When I Grow Up featured child performers from Broadway shows getting a chance to take the microphone. Among the performers were Kelsey Fowler, Matthew Gumley and Matthew Schechter who each appeared in four different Broadway shows, Rozi Baker who was in three, two-show performer Neil McCaffrey as well as Grace Capeless and Zoe Considine who were in A Christmas Story and Ethan Haberfield from Mary Poppins, Caleb McLaughlin from The Lion King, Isabela Moner from Evita and Emily Rosenfeld from Annie.
Broadway Records hasn’t limited itself to shows at 54 Below. They set up their equipment at the Café Carlyle to capture Laura Osnes‘ show Dream A Little Dream and in the Royal Room at the Colony when Faith Prince performed her Total Faith.
We are fortunate that Broadway Records has begun to build a unique catalog of performances from the cabaret stages of New York.