Thursday, February 08, 2007

 

Assessing musicals by ear only


By Edward Copeland
It's difficult to judge a musical by original cast recordings alone, but that's how I've had to for most of my life. Hell, it's not like I was there to see Ethel Merman perform Gypsy live (but if that time machine ever gets built...). As a rule for most non-show albums, I used to always wait until I'd heard some cuts before I leaped in and purchased the whole thing, at least until I got so finicky that about the only music I buy is from artists that I already know I like so I'm willing to risk a blind purchase. However, there really isn't that option for Broadway musicals much anymore, unless you want to wait for an excerpt on the Tony Awards. Since I'm not in a position anymore to make frequent trips to New York to see the shows myself, something for which my bank account is eternally grateful and which probably causes many a credit card company to lament my theater-addiction recovery. (Frankly, I'm surprised that among the endless credit card offers I get, I've never received one offering to pay my way to New York just in hopes that I'll rack up Broadway bills again. When shows get enough praise, I give in and get the OCRs, sight unseen and songs unheard, which is what I've done with this season's most talked-about Broadway musicals Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening.


The CD I rushed to get first was that for Spring Awakening, based in part by the fact that this wonderful Internet of ours allowed me to watch a clip of one of its songs "The Bitch of Living" and Josh R's rave for it on this site. While I was aware of the broad outlines of the plot, I tried to let the recording wash over me without thinking of how the music fit the story and the songs in Spring Awakening work remarkably well, even out of context, though much of the plot is easily gleaned from the songs as well. With music by Duncan Sheik and lyrics by Steven Sater, Spring Awakening is easily the best cast recording I've heard since Avenue Q. I really wish I could see the show itself. "The Bitch of Living," which I first heard through the Internet clip, might be my favorite song from the show, but they really all work in their pop-rock style. It's followed closely by "All That's Known" with lyrics that include:
All that’s known
In History, in Science
Overthrown
At school, at home, by blind men

You doubt them,
And soon they bark and hound you
Till everything you say is just another bad about you

All they say
Is “Trust in what is written”
Wars are made
And somehow that is wisdom

Thought is suspect
And money is their idol
And nothing is okay unless it’s scripted in their Bible

I may be long past my teen-angst years, but the songs really reflect that spirit and transport me back to those times with many memorable tunes along those lines (especially "Totally Fucked," to which anyone of any age can relate). The show itself may be set among teens in 19th-century Germany (and please pay no attention to those anachronisms), but it really spoke to me.
Yeah, you’re fucked all right — and all for spite
You can kiss your sorry ass goodbye
Totally fucked — will they mess you up?
Well you know they’re gonna try


Unfortunately, Grey Gardens doesn't play as well on disc as I imagine it does within the context of the musical itself. Admittedly, I couldn't even make it past 45 minutes of the infamous documentary upon which the show is based, so I have to wonder if that somehow biased me, despite Josh R's praise for it as well. I certainly imagine that the wows for Christine Ebersole's performance really depend on being in the same space as her, because the strength of her performance doesn't quite come through merely by listening. With music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Kurie, I didn't find any of the songs from the show particularly interesting. On the OCR at least, the tunes that played best for me were "Better Fall Out of Love" sung by Matt Cavenaugh as Joe Kennedy Jr. and Sara Gettelfinger as Little Edie, who didn't follow the show to Broadway though the recording was made while the show was still off-Broadway; and "The Cake I Had" sung by Mary Louise Wilson as the old Edith Bouvier and Ebersole as the now-grown Little Edie. None of the songs really struck me as that great and I for one am pulling for Spring Awakening to win the score Tony based on hearing the recordings of both shows.


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Comments:
I agree that the score for Grey Gardens is not particularly strong, in and of itself - it works much better within the context of the show. It's interesting that the song you liked the best was "Better Fall Out of Love", since it's actually one of the pieces that was cut and replaced (by another duet entitled "We're Going Places") for the Broadway production.

It's difficult for me to critique Ebersole's Edies based on the album alone, since by the time it was released I'd already seen the show and it was impossible for me to separate what I was hearing from what I had seen at Playwright's Horizons the previous spring. I think you really do have to see Ebersole to appreciate her achievement in these roles - although I do love her comic rendition of "The Revolutionary Costume for Today", which I think does retain some of its effect on the cast album (you should take another listen to that one). Admittedly, The Times' Ben Brantley might have gone a bit over the top by proclaiming her performance the best by an actress in a musical since Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd - but none has captivated me more since Natasha Richardson in Cabaret nearly a decade ago. People who have only heard Richardson on the cast album have told me they don't understand what the fuss was about that performance - again, I think it depends on having seen her live.

I appreciate the Spring Awakening score more and more with each additional listening. As I have said previously, I do feel that some of the songs are very obliquely worded, but obviously it didn't prevent you from understanding what was going on from scene to scene (although I wonder if you gathered that "My Junk" is performed to the spectacle of a teenage boy simulating masturbating, and that "I Believe" is the accompaniment for a graphic sex scene). Unlike something like Rent, which is almost entirely sung, Spring Awakening is essentially a book musical, with a lot of recitative, which I understand has been taken nearly intact from the original 1880 Wedekind text. The contrast between the period dialogue and the contemporary music is surprisingly effective, and really makes the show stand out from other rock musicals - but that aside, I think the OCR does give you a pretty good sense of the show itself.

It's such a busy season for musicals ahead - I am definitely slated for Audra McDonald's return to B'way in the Roundabout's 110 in the Shade, better known as the musical adaptation of The Rainmaker, and hopefully, my bank account will hold out long enough for me to take in Curtains, LoveMusik, and a few others.
 
I think the story of Spring Awakening comes through fairly clearly -- including what My Junk is about. The most recent OCR though that you can basically envision the entire show without seeing it is Avenue Q. It's a great album with so much dialogue included that it basically spells out the plot for you.
 
I wish you could see Avenue Q, because the Jeff Witty book is great on its own, and only a faction of it made it onto the CD (I particularly mourn the absence of the evil principal Miss Thistletwat, and Lucy T. Slut's ruminations about penis size). Did you know they the production has video parodies of Sesame Street cartoons on television monitors between scenes? The "One Night Stand" and "Cum...Mitment" were fairly priceless.
 
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