Forgotten Musicals Friday: Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK on Stage

Usman Ally and Akash Chopra in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Usman Ally and Akash Chopra in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

Jumping into July’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we thought it might be worthwhile to look back at a more recent forgotten musical: Goodman Theatre and Huntington Theatre Company collaboration, The Jungle Book. Over the course of the month, we’ll take a look at the background of the show, its book and score, its staging and design and finally, the show’s legacy. Today, we’ll take a look at how the show came to be.

Based on the 1967 Disney film and its source material, Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories, this 2013 adaptation of The Jungle Book was not actively being developed for a Broadway run, although its producers were looking for business doing regional tours in the USA and in possible international runs. The lure of another licensable commodity must also have been strong for Disney Theatricals, which did not actively produce the show despite the company’s financial investment in it. Despite a great deal of press coverage, this widely marketed presentation has largely sunk into memory since its debut. In part, this is due to the mixed notices it received from the critics. But perhaps its disappearance is also a sign of just how difficult it is to develop new theatrical pieces based on pieces that were born in problematic histories. The conservative argument will always be that such pieces are products of their time and should be viewed as such; the problem is that we aren’t watching a new piece of live theatre then – but now.

The “now” of 2013 saw director Mary Zimmerman, musical director Doug Peck and choreographer Christopher Gattelli heading up the team that would bring The Jungle Book to life. Zimmerman herself wrote the book for the musical, while one member of the original songwriting team, Richard M. Sherman also worked on the show, providing new lyrics as well as access to unused songs that he and his late brother, Robert, had written for the film.

A contemporary stage production of The Jungle Book has some interesting territory to navigate. Marrying the original narrative’s British colonial perspective with Disney’s distinctly American take on the material is one thing, but allowing an authentic Indian voice that doesn’t simply appropriate the so-called exoticism of the setting or reproduce a perceived aesthetic to emerge as an equal player is quite another. We’ll be delving into the identity politics of the show in a little more depth in the further installations over the course of the month.

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The Saturday List: The Kelli O’Hara Countdown!

Kelli O'Hara in THE KING AND I (with Ken Watanabe), THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and SOUTH PACIFIC (with Paulo Szot)
Kelli O’Hara in The King and I (with Ken Watanabe), The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific (with Paulo Szot)

Today is Broadway darling Kelli O’Hara’s birthday. To celebrate we’re counting down five of her greatest stage appearances. Of course, O’Hara’s repertoire extends far beyond these five musicals – she’s also appeared in Follies, Kiss Me, Kate and more – and indeed beyond the reaches of the genre, with appearances in pieces like The Merry Widow and The Magic Flute.

5. The Bridges of Madison County

Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown’s adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County is a show that has a great deal to admire. At the top of that list is O’Hara’s performance as Francesca, showing a side of her that reveals her versatility as an actor. What she was able to preserve of her performance on the cast recording is hypnotically beautiful.

4. The Pajama Game

If there is one show that proves that O’Hara can cut loose and have a blast on stage, it is George Abbott, Richard Bissell, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s The Pajama Game. While the show certainly reflects the context of workers’ and women’s rights as they were in the 1950s, this show’s infectious spirit still lets it land today. O’ Hara’s work in this show is pure joy. Take a listen to her rendition of “There Once Was a Man” (an uncredited Frank Loesser addition to the score) if you need any evidence of the fact!

3. The King and I

There is only so much that can be done with The King and I today without rebuilding completely. Part of the problem is that it’s told from a white colonial viewpoint like the title’s “I,” but presented as though it’s an objective reading of this chapter from history. That said, what O’Hara does as Mrs Anna is magical, delivering a radiant rendition of the classic score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. How fortunate audiences across the world were to be able to view a recording of this production on the big screen.

2. The Light in the Piazza

The Light in the Piazza is pure melodrama, the kind that is based on a big secret, from start to finish. It is almost surprising that there was no breakthrough musical adaptation until Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s retelling of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella in the first decade of this century. O’Hara makes the most of Guettel’s lush and layered legit score, which is as delightful as it is dramatic.

1. South Pacific

Of all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, only South Pacific resonates with a similar resonance in terms of its socio-political commentary today as it did in its original run. With Joshua Logan on board when it came to the book, the show tackles learned racial prejudice with observations about how racism is perpetuated that are still shockingly relevant today. O’Hara ramps up the conflict in her Nellie Forbush, offering a template for how the role is universally approached today – a white woman who at first doesn’t realise there’s work to do, but who is woken up by her experiences in World War II. Although we leave her as she begins to act on what she’s learned, O’Hara’s overthinking ingenue gives us a hint at what needs to happen after her reconciliation with Emile as the final curtain falls.

What’s your favourite performance by Kelli O’Hara? Sound off in the comments block below!

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The Saturday List: Top Five Musicals of 2019!

The top 3 musicals of 2019: HADESTOWN, BEETLEJUICE and MOULIN ROUGE
The top three musicals of 2019, as voted by you: Hadestown, Beetlejuice and Moulin Rouge

During March, we ran something of an experiment on our Instagram account and hosted a couple of polls asking our followers to choose between the various musicals that opened on Broadway in 2019. What you’re going to read below includes some brief thoughts on the shows in the order they were ranked by you, dear readers. Yes, the placement of the shows on this Saturday List is all you! So let’s get started….

The four musicals that missed the vote boat were Tina, The Lighting Thief, Jagged Little Pill and Tootsie. Tina is the one that rises to the status of being an honourable mention. The show earned its original Tina, Adrienne Warren, both a Tony Award and a Drama Desk and it shows all signs of picking up steam as it heads towards becoming an international juggernaut. The Lighting Thief may be a casualty because it’s probably just not the kind of show that can find an audience on Broadway and so it pales in comparison with its peers. Jagged Little Pill and Tootsie are two shows that found themselves embroiled in the middle of fairly controversial discussions, the former around the erasure of a nonbinary character and the subsequent management of that situation by the show’s producers and the latter using various aspects of gender identity as pretty poor punchlines and cliched plot devices. As such, it’s understandable that they didn’t receive major support from the majority of the Musical Cyberspace readers who took part in our polls. On to the top five!

5. Ain’t Too Proud

Ain’t Too Proud is the story of The Temptations, a bio-musical that uses the music made popular by the group and a couple of other artists who were their contemporaries to tell their story. A huge number of hits – from “Shout” and “Ball of Confusion” through “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “War” – punctuate the evening, sometimes in very inventive ways, although overall the show tends to fall a little into the pattern of “and then…”, “and then..”, “and then…”. Although it is probably most interesting to fans of The Temptations, there is a deeply human element that book-writer Dominique Morisseau to the stories of the individual members of the group which gives it a wider appeal.

4. Be More Chill

This is a show that a lot of people wanted to do well as the buzz of its opening drew near. Despite a long run-up on the road to Broadway via a regional premiere and an off-Broadway run though, it lasted only 177 performances in its main stem run. Adapted from a YA sci-fi novel by Ned Vizzini by Joe Tracz with a score by Joe Iconis, it does seem like something of a long shot and is probably destined to be a cult show. The score pulses with energy as it lights up key moments in the fairly high-concept plot and it yielded a couple of good bops like “More Than Survive” and “I Love Play Rehearsal” and one really great song, “Michael in the Bathroom.” With a West End run coming up in June and a film in development, perhaps Be More Chill will yet find its stride.

3. Moulin Rouge

People have wanted an official stage adaptation of Moulin Rouge for a long time. The original Baz Luhrman film was released in 2001 and the adaptation duties insofar as the book is concerned fell to Josh Logan. The show was a big winner at the 74th Tony Awards, winning 10 awards out of 14 nominations, and is the first of two “Best Musicals” on this list. Like the film, the approach is something that stimulates something of a sensory overload, but the specifics of the stage show are its own, including the interpolation of many new pop songs into Logan’s restructured storyline. It is certainly the kind of celebration of performance that feels apt coming out of the COVID19 pandemic.

2. Beetlejuice

Someone must have said “Beetlejuice” three times because following its closure after 366 performances in 2020, the production is set to reopen on Broadway later this month. Based on the 1988 Tim Burton, the stage show has a book by Scott Brown and Anthony King with a score by Eddie Perfect. Perhaps the best thing that could happen in this adaptation was the throughline given to Lydia, a character who observes and rather hovers around the edges of the film’s narrative, which runs out of steam in its third act, as many of Burton’s films do. On the other hand, not everything in the same show works at the same level – but it moves so fast, that there’s barely any time to notice.

1. Hadestown

Shows with one person behind the book, music and lyrics are relatively rare and Hadestown is one of them, with folk singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell being the mastermind behind the show. Having first premiered what would eventually hit Broadway in 2006, Mitchell has chipped away at her artwork bit by bit – an approach that saw the show take home eight awards – including Best Musical and Best Original Score – at the 73rd Tony Awards. There’s only one way to describe Hadestown and that is as an experience. As a storytelling vehicle, it is just totally immersive and draws you into the tale of Orpheus, Euridice, Hades, Persephone, Hermes and The Fates fully. Emerging from that experience, you really feel like you’ve been through something transformative. It’s magical.

Well, that’s that! Would you have ranked the musicals of 2019 in this order? Head to the comment box and sound off!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: LOST IN THE STARS

Chuck Cooper and Sharon Washington in a 2011 production of “Lost in the Stars”

In 1949 Broadway saw the premier of ‘Lost in the Stars’ a musical with it’s book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and music by Kurt Weill. This musical has largely been left in the back shelves of the Broadway musical library, but what caught my eye was it’s basis; Cry The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. As a South African, the idea of American creatives staging this inherently African story in the late 1940’s, piqued my interest to say the least.

The musical follows a very similar plot to that of the novel it’s based on. Set in South Africa at the very beginnings of what would become Apartheid, Paton’s novel tells a rich and endearing story of a Zulu Reverend, Stephen Kumalo, who travels to Johannesburg from his small Natal village, Ndotsheni, to go find his son, Absalom. Absalom has gotten caught up in a life of petty crime which eventually leads to the murder of Arthur Jarvis, a renowned fighter of racial injustice. Kumalo finally finds his son in jail and asks him about his actions. Absalom confesses to the crimes, but also states that he had two accomplices and that he didn’t intend to kill Arthur. At the trial Kumalo meets Arthur’s farther, James who owns a farm near the village that Kumalo is from. Absalom tells the truth but is found guilty and sentenced to death while his accomplices are acquitted. While his son is on death-row, Kumalo returns to Ndotsheni with his faith shaken. Kumalo then meets James Jarvis’ younger son and they soon become acquainted. James becomes increasingly involved in the village helping them with food and their agriculture. On the day of Absalom’s execution, Kumalo goes into the mountains to observe this this time in peace. On his way though, he finds James and the two men speak about the village, faith, the loss of their sons, but also the bright future of James’ youngest son. Alone, Kumalo falls into prayer and starts weeping, mourning the loss of his son.

Reading Cry the Beloved Country, you clearly see the South African names, context and cultures shine through. This, with some plot points and characters, was ineffectively translated to the stage by Weill and Anderson. The New York Times stating that they clearly had some ‘difficulty’ transforming ‘so thoroughly a work of literary art’ into a theatre piece and that the musical was at times ‘skimming and literal where the novel is rich and allusive.’ Even Paton himself had his qualms with the piece saying that Anderson strayed away from the fact that Christianity and faith has a huge focus in the novel.

On the positive end, the reviews praised Weill’s composition saying that it complimented Paton’s writing and enhanced the narrative. ‘The music is deep, dramatic and beautiful.’ The show also had a fair run of 281 performances and has had some revivals and was turned into motion picture. One of the biggest reasons that this musical hasn’t been completely forgotten is the title song, Lost in the Stars, which has been performed by many legends such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet and Judy Garland to name a few.

All this being said, I have to say I completely disagree with the fact that Weill’s music complemented the story. I actually disagree with the musical in general. The story of Cry The Beloved Country was completely ‘Americanized’ by Anderson and Weill. Having American actors portray people of Zulu and South African heritage is one thing, but having them do it in a general American accent throughout the show completely threw me off. With several mispronunciations of names and not even mentioning some very problematic lyrics, I kept asking “Who thought this was a good idea?” Another point is that of Weill’s music- Looking at it as a separate entity, I can admit it is a good composition. The problem for me lies again in the ‘Americanization’ of it. The score comes across much more African-American, than anything else. Yes, listing to inherently African music and comparing it to African-American music there are definite similarities, but for me Weill failed in setting the musical sound in Southern Africa rather than the United States.

Now, I realize, of course, that I am writing out of a modern context, with a societal lens that has completely shifted since the 1940’s. Yes, Anderson and Weill were Americans, so it makes sense that the show would naturally gravitate to American-isms. Back then they didn’t care as much about appropriation or the idea of authenticity when it comes to representation of different cultures. In modern times we have seen shows like The Lion King, which had a creative team who invested a lot of time in bringing the cultures, languages and feel of Africa into the piece using research and the help of actual people from African countries.

This, however, brings me to the point of this post- there are some musicals that are better left ‘forgotten’ and I feel Lost in the Stars is one of them. As a South African I am clearly more sensitive to this story in particular, but then we must not forget about the musical giants who stole their stories from other cultures to be displayed in an Westernized fashion for Western audiences *cough* The Mikado, Mulan, Pocahontas…*cough*

What would really make this blogpost end in a happy note would be an announcement that Cry the Beloved Country will be RE-adapted to stage as a musical with a fully South African creative team. I do think the novel has a lot of merit to be turned into a musical theatre production and can definitely be story that has weight in today’s society.

Do you think a new and improved adaption of Cry the Beloved Country could work? Or do you think one was enough? Let us know your thoughts down below.

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March Monikers: “For Sarah”

The notorious Dance of the Vampires

March 2022 at Musical Cyberspace is all about songs with people’s names in the title.

Given the universal hatred for the English language adaptation of this show that appeared on Broadway, perhaps I should have titled this post “Für Sarah”. With music by Jim Steinman and lyrics by Steinman, Michael Kunze, Kirke Kangro, Daniel Wyszogrodzki and/or Miklós Tibor – depending on which version in which language you’re talking about – the show holds a far higher status in Europe than in the United States. This particular song is a moving ballad, let down only by the inconsistent application of the rhyme scheme set up at the start of the song.

If you’re keen to share your thoughts on “For Sarah”, then head on to the comment box at the end of this post.

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March Monikers: “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”

Sutton Foster - the most recent Reno Sweeney
Sutton Foster – the most recent Reno Sweeney

March 2022 at Musical Cyberspace is all about songs with people’s names in the title.

“Blow, Gabriel, Blow” is a thrilling showstopper in the gospel “get happy” mould from the classic Cole Porter show, Anything Goes. It’s a straightforward piece, beautifully crafted and neatly set up in the script without – in line with the conventions of musical comedy in the 1930s – having to be overly concerned with an organic integration between the book and score. Written to showcase Ethel Merman’s powerhouse belt, many divas of the musical theatre stage from Ethel Merman and Elaine Paige to Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster have put their stamp on this song.

Who’s your favourite? I’m partial to Patti LuPone – can anyone else sing the hell outta “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” the way she does? Head on to the comments and let us know!

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March Monikers: “Mame”

Angela Lansbury, the ultimate "Mame"
Angela Lansbury, the ultimate “Mame”

March 2022 at Musical Cyberspace is all about songs with people’s names in the title.

Jerry Herman loves title songs, especially in the form of a tribute to a fabulous female character written for a musical theatre diva to belt out while a chorus dances with and around her. “Mame”, from the show of the same name, is just such a song, written for the electric Angela Lansbury, who was the star of the original production.

Many a star has since played Mame Dennis, including Celeste Holm, Ann Miller and Christine Baranski, but few people think that anyone has given Lansbury a run for her money. If only she’d been cast in the film…

Keen to share your thoughts on “Mame”? Head on to the comment box at the end of this post.

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March Monikers: “In Buddy’s Eyes”

Dorothy Collins and John McMartin in FOLLIES
Dorothy Collins and John McMartin in Follies

March 2022 at Musical Cyberspace is all about songs with people’s names in the title.

“In Buddy’s Eyes” is one of the most poignant songs in Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies. On the surface, the song is about a woman who loves the way her husband sees her after many years of marriage. But this is a song by Sondheim, which means there’s more to it. Sally is actually more concerned with how Ben sees her than Buddy. Ben, who she has obsessively loved her whole life, is the reason she has come to the Follies reunion and it is by reminding Ben of the Sally she was so long ago that she hopes to win him back. Tragedy waits in the wings…

There are many fantastic performances of this song from productions and concerts. There would likely be a strong contingency of fans who name Barbara Cook’s rendition as the best of the bunch. For me, that’s fine if you’re looking for a performance of the song by Barbara Cook, which is what you get even in her rendition of the song in Follies in Concert. For a performance of the song as Sally, it is Dorothy Collins who sets the bar. Some have come close to that remarkable interpretation of the entire role, but Collins trumps them all every time.

Keen to share your thoughts on “In Buddy’s Eyes”? Head on to the comment box at the end of this post.

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The Saturday List: A Fine, Fine Life for I’D DO ANYTHING’s Nancies

Jodie Prenger in OLIVER!, Jessie Buckley in CABARET and Samantha Barks in FROZEN
Jodie Prenger in Oliver!, Jessie Buckley in Cabaret and Samantha Barks in Frozen

This past week, the world celebrated International Women’s Day and so one of the things I wanted to do with The Saturday List at Musical Cyberspace this week was to celebrate a few women in musical theatre. Having recently watched I’d Do Anything again, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at where the 12 musical theatre performers who competed for the role of Nancy in the 2009 revival of Oliver! are today. The 2008 BBC talent show cum reality series also searched for performers to play the title role and proved to be a family favourite at the time, although some viewed the show as a problematic way of casting musical theatre roles within the wider context of the entertainment industry.

12. Amy Booth-Steel, whose dress was lime green was the first potential Nancy to be eliminated. This didn’t seem to be too much of a stumbling block for her: some of the credits she has racked up since the show aired include Tori Amos’s musical, The Light Princess, Sister Act and The Sound of Music in the West End and the UK tour of Betty Blue Eyes

11. The “lilac” Nancy, Cleo Royer, was eliminated second. A self-confessed music nut, Royer seems to have faded into the background somewhat, although she appeared in the West End production of Dirty Dancing. Here she is singing “Oom-Pah-Pah”, with all of the other Nancy hopefuls.

10. Tara Bethan – seen here in the orange dress singing “It’s a Fine Life” with the eight remaining Nancies – has performed in Bugsy Malone in London and the UK tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat since her appearance in I’d Do Anything. She has also worked in television, notably in the Welsh soap opera Pobol Y Cwm.

9. Following her involvement in I’d Do Anything, Francesca Jackson – who wore the baby pink dress in the competition – has toured in Dreamboats and Petticoats, travelled to Paris to perform in A Little Night Music and appeared in the Barry Manilow jukebox musical, Can’t Smile Without You. In the 2011-2012 season, she performed in the West End production of Million Dollar Quartet. Most recently, she has appeared in Tina the Musical, playing the role of Tina Turner’s friend and confidante, Rhonda Graam.

8. One of my favourites in the competition, the gold-clad Keisha Amponsa-Banson‘s career bloomed following I’d Do Anything, with appearances in The Pajama Game, From Here to Eternity, The Lion King, Stand Tall: A Rock Musical, Footloose and Little Shop of Horrors all keeping her on the stage, where she belongs. Her latest credits include Sunday in the Park with George, School of Rock and Caroline, or Change.

7. Sarah Lark, the pale Green Nancy, was an early favourite of mine and ended up as an understudy for the role of Nancy in the West End production that followed I’d Do Anything. She has since performed in two Snow White pantomimes, as Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and in Les Miserables

6. Dark Blue Nancy, Ashley J Russell‘s musical theatre credits include Sister Act, We Will Rock You, Shrek and The Phantom of the Opera. She also appeared in the workshop of Love Never Dies at Sydmonton. She’s also toured the world with Mamma Mia!

5. Like Sarah Lark, Niamh Perry also appeared as a pantomime Snow White, while also appearing in Love Never Dies, Mamma Mia! and The Little Prince. She’s also appeared in the Boy George musical, Taboo and the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler classic, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. She’s also taken on the roles of Mary in The Beautiful Game, and Girl in Once.

4. Rachel Tucker, who wore the yellow Nancy dress, has had a fine career since the show ended. As well as appearing in a reading of Love Never Dies as Meg Giry, Tucker has played Elphaba in Wicked and made her Broadway debut in the Sting musical, The Last Ship. Most recently, she has appeared in Come From Away, both on the West End and on Broadway, and john & jen, the popular Andrew Lippa-Tom Greenwald two-hander.  

3. Blue Nancy Samantha Barks is one of the best known of the I’d Do Anything contestants internationally, having played Eponine in the film version of Les Miserables, a role she played on stage in London. She has also played Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Nancy in Oliver!, Velma in Chicago, Jules in the workshop of Bend it Like Beckham and Mallory/Avril in City of Angels. Alongside further film and television roles, she has also done stints in Amélie, Pretty Woman and Frozen.

2. Runner up Jessie Buckley – who wore the dark green Nancy dress, turned down understudying Nancy to play Anne in A Little Night Music. She’s done a fair amount of work on film, including Judy and The Lost Daughter, the latter of which has earned her an Academy Award nomination. We’ll hear whether she wins that award when the Oscars are presented towards the end of this month. Her television credits include The Woman in White, Chernobyl and Fargo. On stage, she’s done a fair deal of Shakespeare and is currently playing Sally Bowles in a high-profile revival of Cabaret opposite Eddie Redmayne.

1. Purple-clad Jodie Prenger won the competition and the role of Nancy in the 2009 UK revival of Oliver! Appearing in Les Miserables in between the competition and the opening of that production, she has subsequently appeared in Monty Python’s Spamalot, Shirley Valentine and A Taste of Honey as well as pantomime productions of Dick Whittington and Robin Hood.

Having just had the opportunity to revisit I’d Do Anything and its twelve finalists, do you think the right person won the competition? Who would you like to see more of on stage in the future? And what other shows do you think could have similar series leading up to opening night? It would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

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March Monikers: “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”

Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and Lonny Price in the original MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG
Jim Walton, Ann Morrison and Lonny Price in the original MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG

March 2022 at Musical Cyberspace is all about songs with people’s names in the title.

Steeped in the kind of dramatic irony that is provided by the distance of time, “Bobby and Jackie and Jack” is a song written by the characters that appear in Merrily We Roll Along about the USA at the dawn of the 1960s, with obvious references to the Kennedys, as well as other political figures of the time. This show, which flopped big time on Broadway, was created by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim. It famously tells the story of its protagonists in reverse chronology, a puzzle that has engaged directors who want to tackle the show ever since.

Sondheim, although creating a piece that fits in perfectly with the milieu of the show, sounds like he is offering a pastiche of some of his own early work. It’s clever, a novelty song that is – in the context of the show – perhaps cleverer than it is good, which makes it precisely the right kind of song for the moment in the show when it appears.

Taking a song that once again plays best on cast albums rather than in isolation, it’s difficult not to choose the original Broadway cast for the best rendition of the song. The original cast recording of Merrily We Roll Along is one of those definitively great recordings. How lucky we are to have it!

Keen to share your thoughts on “Bobby and Jackie and Jack”? Head on to the comment box at the end of this post.

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