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A Cast Album I Love: 'Twelfth Night'

Recently, The New York Times’ co-chief theater critics put together a musical cast recording starter kit for those of us stuck at home — 10 cast albums they’d take with them to a desert island. We asked some of their fellow critics to pick one cast album each and extol its pleasures.

A Cast Album I Love: 'Twelfth Night'

Few fixtures of a New York City summer are as enchanting as Shakespeare in the Park. So when the news arrived last week that its season, too, was canceled because of the pandemic — taking with it “Richard II,” and Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery’s delicious musical adaptation of “As You Like It” — there was only one sensible, self-salving thing to do: Put on some Taub music and revel in the not-so-distant past.

At Shakespeare in the Park two summers ago, Taub’s adaptation of “Twelfth Night” (conceived with Kwame Kwei-Armah and part of the Public Works program) was a dose of civic joy — inventive and playful, infectious in the pre-COVID sense of the word. With Nikki M. James as the shipwrecked Viola, Ato Blankson-Wood as Orsino, the count she loves, and Taub herself as the benevolent fool Feste, the cast album is full-on gorgeous.

Taub is one of the most exciting composer-lyricists in the American theater, and I often listen to her solo albums on repeat. (Those include seriously delightful demos of both “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” extremely worth checking out on Bandcamp.) But the “Twelfth Night” cast album, with its warm, enveloping sound and friendly, whip-smart lyrics, is the most comforting choice right now. It is guaranteed to catapult you gently back to a time when we sat together in the gathering dark as actors and musicians told us a story.

Until that time comes again, here are some standout songs to stage in your head.

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“Viola’s Soliloquy”: This one is exquisite, for James’ vocals and the feminist insight of lyrics that make potent sense of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing shenanigans. Desperate for a job, Viola has been masquerading as a young man, and in doing so become more visible in the eyes of the world: “Why has this power in me never been given a chance? Is it as simple as putting on a pair of pants?” Spoiler: It is.

“You’re the Worst”: Taub has a genius for toggling between high and low without strain or condescension. Aimed straight at the groundlings, this rousing drinking song is pure silly fun, with Sir Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley) and the gang trading late-night insults. Listen for Feste fending off a jeer at her beloved accordion: “It’s a beautiful instrument!”

“Is This Not Love”: In a show awash with romance, this is the lushest and most soul-grabbing number, about the intensity and confusion of unrecognized, unrequited longing. Bonus points for interpolated dialogue that makes crystalline sense of Viola’s “Patience on a monument” line to the oblivious Orsino, who is consumed with ardor for the indifferent Olivia.

“Greatness”: Shakespeare made Olivia’s sour, deluded steward, Malvolio, the butt of a cruel joke in “Twelfth Night,” and often the prank seems deserved. Taub, though, doesn’t operate that way. This stealthy solo by Malvolio (Andrew Kober) becomes a poignant appeal to our sympathy. Yes, he’s still an unbearable bossypants. But don’t tell me your heart doesn’t crack just a little when he mentions his mom.

“Eyes of Another”: This is the show’s big, buoying finish, the kind of get-up-and-dance full-company number that sends the audience out on a high. I have always heard it that way, and it is still that. But this is a song about opening our hearts, making a better world through empathy — one of the ideals that the theater holds most dear. Hearing it right now in lockdown Manhattan? Suddenly it makes me cry.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times .

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