Listen to the Best Tracks From 8 Tony-Nominated Shows

Cast albums are both keepsakes and fantasies, preserving a show for those who have seen it and implying it for those who have not. At their best, they are also stand-alone works of musical-theater art. Listening to the recordings of the eight shows nominated for Tony Awards in the best musical and best score categories — all of which are now available — I was impressed by how often and how variously they reached that standard. Below, in chronological order by opening date on Broadway, a guide to the latest batch of future treasures.

The first of the season’s best score nominees, this sung-through biography of Imelda Marcos was the only one not to release a cast recording. That’s a shame, but die-hards can seek out the 2014 Off Broadway version or the 2010 concept album, with its whacka-whacka disco-beat ditties by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Remastered in 2023, and with a very different collection of songs from the Broadway show, the concept album is naturally less theatrical; with each track featuring a different singer in a totally distinctive style — Tori Amos, Florence Welch, Natalie Merchant, Sia — character development is impossible. Instead, it offers hypnotic dance-floor euphoria, as in Cyndi Lauper’s take on Imelda’s “Eleven Days” of courtship.

A story of husband-and-wife alcoholics on diverging paths toward recovery and disaster is bound to be harrowing, but Adam Guettel’s score carefully balances the inevitable lows with the sometimes wild highs. The cast album brilliantly captures that full-spectrum range, especially in the edge-of-danger singing by Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James at their finest. Their quasi-operatic cries for relief and forgiveness effectively contrast (but do not contradict) the jazzy mania of songs like “Evanesce,” in which the snockered characters sound like xylophones and leap like dolphins, making you ache if not for drink then for these desperate drinkers.

Jessica Stone’s thrilling staging is a real eye-catcher in this circus-based musical at the Imperial Theater. But the cast album demonstrates how the songs, by PigPen Theater Co., a seven-man indie folk collective, can grab you by the ears. Avoiding the rut of some Americana scores, PigPen, along with its arrangers and orchestrators, offers a wide variety of sounds and formats that suit the milieu and the action: bravura showstoppers for the ringmaster, soaring anthems for the hero, haunting ballads for the woman caught between them. One of those ballads is “Easy,” a heartbreaker even if you have no idea that it’s sung to a dying horse.

Another thrilling staging is Danya Taymor’s astonishing and sometimes viscerally pummeling take on “The Outsiders,” based on the young adult novel about class conflict among Tulsa teenagers in 1967. In the theater, the songs, by the folk duo Jamestown Revival and Justin Levine, tended to recede, but the recording forefronts them, with their contextual, guitar-based styles (early rock, country, boogie-woogie) and strong hooks. (“If you’re not born into money, then you’re born into despair.”) Still, the highlight of both the stage and album version is the same: “Stay Gold,” a tear-jerker sung by a dying character to one who must live to tell the tale.

When this show was first produced, at the Public Theater, both the book and the score (by Shaina Taub) seemed too dutiful, offering a history of women’s suffrage as spinach. But in moving to Broadway, Taub completely revamped the tone and the tunestack, replacing spinach with hearty main courses and tasty desserts. The changes made the show not only more enjoyable but easier to understand — and more likely to inspire. Exactly that tactic produced the new opening number, “Let Mother Vote,” a charming tune wittily introducing the nonconfrontational strategy that the early generation of suffragists employed, and that the show’s younger ones are about to explode.

In a season with several unusual cast album releases, the one for David Adjmi’s excellent play about a ’70s band recording an album may be the oddest. Certainly it’s the most meta. Some of the 14 tracks consist of backing vocals without a melody; some are further iterations of songs (by Will Butler, formerly of Arcade Fire) you’ve heard earlier. (One, called “Bright,” shows up three times, in versions titled “v1,” “Fast” and “Take 22.”) Others peter out amid piquant booth chatter (“Have you seen ‘The Exorcist’?”) left by the playwright as Easter eggs. Weird, yes, but like a raw “secret tapes” album released decades later, it’s a fascinating document — in this case with a real radio-ready hit in the mix: Butler’s propulsive “Masquerade.”

Even if you love jukebox musicals, their cast albums can disappoint — neither satisfying as homages nor convincing on their own. “Hell’s Kitchen,” built on Alicia Keys’s biography and catalog, is an exciting exception, having made the smart choice to reframe each number both dramatically and musically. Take Keys’s 2001 hit “Fallin’,” about a young woman like Keys, who was 20 when it was released, experiencing perhaps for the first time the push-pull of romance. Her version suggests the fragility of that moment with simple arpeggiated piano chords. In “Hell’s Kitchen,” though, it’s a fully adult duet, leaning hard from soul into funk, and less about fine feelings than flat-out sex.

Like “Here Lies Love” at the start of the season, the final nominated new musical was based on a concept album: Sufjan Stevens’s spiritual travelogue of the Prairie State. Embodying its emotion yet preserving its abstraction, the stage version turned the stories into dance while placing the songs literally up in the air, where three singers were embedded with the band. The cast album now reverts to a purely aural experience, but its disturbing vision of the soul’s dystopia (“On my best behavior/I am really just like him,” runs a lyric from “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”) and the polyrhythmic joy of the title number (“Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”) are no longer solo experiences. As in all the best cast albums, you are now included.

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