CD Reviews: A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

The album cover for A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

The arrival of the original Broadway cast album of a show like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is always accompanied by a sense of great expectations. Showcasing a score that has been being refined since the show’s premiere in 2012 at the Hartford Stage in Hartford though its arrival on Broadway late last year, it is wonderful to report that the album offers a fantastic listening experience that embodies everything a contemporary musical comedy should be.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel, Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal. In this version, the half-Jewish anti-hero of the novel becomes half-Castilian Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), a young man who discovers that he is a member of the titled the D’Ysquith family. His mother having been cast out by her relatives owing to her indiscretions with Monty’s father, finding his place in the family seems impossible – until Monty decides to eliminate the eight heirs (all played by Jefferson Mays) who are stand between him and the earldom. While he is busy with his task, he bounces between two romantic intrigues with childhood sweetheart and social climber Sibella Hallward (Lisa O’Hare) and distant cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith (Lauren Worsham).

For the most part, the score marries Gilbert and Sullivan-style comic opera with traditional English music hall. This is filtered through the sensibilities of the classic musical comedy format and there are hints of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Noël Coward and Cole Porter in the ballads. The disc gets off to a witty start as the ensemble offers “A Warning to the Audience”, letting the listener (and the audience, in the theatre) know precisely what they are in for. Highlights include the Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith’s “I Don’t Understand the Poor”, in which he lists all of the offences that the lower classes present to him; “Poison in My Pocket”, a contrapuntal piece in which Monty plots to bump off one of his unsuspecting victims; “Inside Out”, a touching duet for Phoebe and Monty; “Lady Hyacinth Abroad”, with its politically incorrect nods to the way the British viewed their Empire many moons ago; and “Why Are All the D’Ysquith’s Dying”, in which Lord Adalbert and the ensemble ponder the plague that seems to have fallen upon the family.

A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER

Jane Carr as Miss Shingle and Bryce Pinkham as Monty Navarro (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak have married their music and lyrics beautifully. The score has plenty of humour and bears repeated listening. Even when the lyrics works a little too hard, as in “Better With a Man”, or when an accumulation of sounds mars a rhyme scheme (in “Sibella”, ‘lips’ sounds like it desperately wants to rhyme with ‘bliss’, when ‘bliss’ is really rhymes with the ‘kiss’ that comes a line or two later), this is soon forgiven. In any case, it is difficult to see how the humour of “Better With a Man” could be contrived without all of those sweaty double entendres and “Sibella” is just such an exquisite piece musically that the flaw, like those of the woman in question, soon fades away.

The performances are fantastic across the board. Pinkham hits just the right note as Monty, making him sound as endearing as anything with his appealing tenor and ingratiating take on the role. O’Hare and Worsham also both carry off their duties with aplomb and it is wonderful to hear two roles that will offer many musical theatre sopranos, both the soubrette-ish and the lyrical as Gilbert and Sullivan might put it, the opportunity to ply their craft in a world too obsessed with belty, screlty musical theatre performances. Of course, Mays features strongly in his contrasting roles as the entire D’Ysquith family. His ability to characterise and interpret is flawless. True, his pronunciation of the word ‘poor’ somewhat scuttles the rhyme scheme of his first big number (the aforementioned “I Don’t Understand the Poor”), but this is a minor quibble. There is also a delightful cameo performance by Jane Carr as Miss Shingle, the woman who reveals to Monty the truth about his heritage, in the exposition-filled “You’re a D’Ysquith” that follows the opening number.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is a fantastic addition to the musical theatre collection of any fan of the form. It is the kind of show that one might think would never get to Broadway – a literate musical comedy based on unlikely source material and which eschews pop music styles from the past few decades. Long may it live, and may it never be forgotten!

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was released by Ghostlight Records on CD on 1 April 2014, having been available digitally since 25 February 2014. The album can be purchased from Ghostlight Records, iTunes, Amazon and any other reputable music outlets.

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The Right Age to Be Annie

ANNIE

Above: ANNIE in its original Broadway production

A debate I often see on message boards across the Internet deals with issues around casting and age. The casting of the orphans – and especially of the titular orphan – in Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan’s Annie seems to be an issue that mothers and little girls who aspire to be gussied up in the trademark red dress take especially seriously.

Annie is meant to be 11 years old, but can a younger or older child play the part? What about a production where a 13 year old is told that she is too old, only to see the director cast a 15 year old in the role? Moms and daughters, the answer is easy: “age” and “looking too old” are two completely different things. You can be 15 and still look like an 11 year old; conversely, you can be 10 and look 14. So it’s quite plausible that an older actor may get cast as a younger character and vice-versa. Whether you have your heart set on hearing your daughter belt out “Tomorrow” or if you’re hoping to win the audience over with a heartfelt “Maybe”, remember that fact. In a traditional production of Annie, looking the part is as important as being able to carry it off.

And that’s show business.

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THE SATURDAY LIST: My Favourite ANNIE Songs

Nearly four decades ago, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan’s Annie opened on Broadway. Some love it; others hate it – but it is impossible to deny that the show has touched many a heart since its first performances in the 1970s. As such, I thought perhaps it might be fun to pay tribute the show, one that is also a great deal of fun to do, especially in the chorus (just because you’re so busy all the time) and – I’d imagine – if you are a kid. I was in the ensemble of a production of Annie in 1997 and I really enjoyed it. With a series of great numbers to get through, it’s great not to spend hours in the dressing room! I particularly loved performing “Hooverville”, “N.Y.C.” and the “Tomorrow” reprise in the cabinet scene. In that scene, I was an Honour Guard and all I had to do was hold a flag and belt out the tenor harmony. What fun.

Now let’s get on to the songs and today’s “Saturday List”

1. Favourite Song i.t.o. Lyrics

“I Don’t Need Anything But You”: While Annie does not really offer top-drawer sophistication in its lyrics, it is fun to see certain moments of wit appear here and there. While one may prefer other songs merely because of their content, this minor number in the second act always wins me over with its period references and character appropriate pairings of who needs whom to make them whole.

2. Favourite Song i.t.o. Tracks on the OBCR

“Easy Street”: This number is one of the best in the show anyway, but it is the way that Dorothy Loudon cuts loose toward the end of the song that makes it the most memorable track on the original cast recording.

3. Favourite Song i.t.o. Character Definition

“Little Girls”: This is one of those numbers that is always entertaining in the hands of a virtuoso performer (like Dorothy Loudon in the original production or Carol Burnett in the 1982 film), but which can be deceptively simple and is so easy to botch (as Kathy Bates did under the direction of Rob Marshall in the television production). Still, the song defines the character sharply, with a great nod to the period musically and some terrifically amusing images in the lyrics that really lend themselves to being staged. A runner up here is “Something Was Missing”, which depicts Daddy Warbucks in a way that is perhaps unexpected given the comic strip origins of the show, but which is all the more effective for that.

4. Favourite Song i.t.o. Marriage of Lyric to Music

“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”: This song captures in both its music and lyrics how exciting it must be for Annie to arrive in what must appear to be a completely exotic setting to her. It is little more than a light piece of diversion, but in the context of the show, it works like gangbusters. Plus there’s that final exclamation: “Welcome!”

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nM_-CFRBS8]

5. Favourite Song i.t.o. Music

“We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover”: This is an interesting number, one that was cut from both the film and the TV movie, probably because it illustrates a context that can be depicted far more quickly through the visual resources that film has at its disposal. What makes it so interesting to me is how the music offers an almost Brechtian musical take on the Depression. It’s unique in the score in that regard and really outlines life in New York at the time in an engaging manner. The runner-up here, for me, is the more conventionally toe-tapping “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”.

6. Favourite Song i.t.o. Scene Structure

“NYC”: This is my favourite number in the show. I love how is builds from almost nothing – a thought – into the best production number in the show, a thrilling celebration of everything that makes New York a fantastic place to see. It’s a fantastic song in the “tribute to a famous city” genre and I think it is a travesty that the song was cut from the 1982 film version and was glad to see the song restored in the – where Andrea McArdle knocks the “Star to Be” solo out of the park, making my favourite part of the song more thrilling than ever before. (The Star-To-Be is a super cameo role – but it can be a torturous minute or so if the actress cast in the role can’t sell that solo vocally. I’ve heard that some productions like to cast the actress playing Lily as the Star-To-Be, but I’ve never seen it done that way.)

It’s certainly been fun revisiting this cute little show this weekend. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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NEWSFLASH: Musicals in South Africa in 2013 – a Retrospective

JERSEY BOYS

Above: The South African cast of JERSEY BOYS

With the first day of 2014 upon us, it’s a good time to look back at the year behind us, as well to to look toward the year that is ahead of us. Over the past few days, BroadwayWorld South Africa has been running a series of retrospectives looking back at theatre in that country last year and one column has focused on musical theatre.

If you are interested, follow this link and read about the South African productions of Jersey Boys, The Rocky Horror Show, Sunset Boulevard, Starlight Express, West Side Story and Blood Brothers, as well as about a couple of original South African musicals that have debuted this year.

For opera lovers, there is also a look at the past opera season thrown in, and there is also a brief look at two cabarets that left an impression on audiences last year.

Enjoy!

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TITANIC: the Broadway Musical vs the Blockbuster Movie

Martin Moran in TITANIC

Above: Martin Moran in TITANIC

In 1997, two different versions of the “Titanic” story were told in two different styles in two different mediums. The film offered Leonardio DiCaprio and Kate Winslet frolicking in a fictional love story set against the backdrop of the ill-fated ship of dreams, while the musical used the stories of the real life Titanic passengers as a basis for telling its Robert Altman-like version of the tale.

Some people criticise the musical version of Titanic for its approach, saying that that one becomes less invested in the multiple stories included into the narrative, as opposed to the approach that the film takes by focusing primarily on one couple and against the backdrop of the sinking of the ship. I don’t think that this is necessarily true, and it would be easiest to counter this criticism with the simplistic argument that Titanic walked off with the Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score (while also earning plaudits for its scenic design and orchestrations) in its debut season. Of course, we all know that the number of awards a show wins is not directly proportional to how good it is, even when – as in this case – the argument counts in the favour of a show one likes, so I’ll have to tackle things from a different angle.

The difference, as I see it, is that this kind of storytelling empowers the audience with a greater choice as to which stories they invest in. One is not coerced into investing in one particular character or couple’s story. I, for example, find the whole arc of Bride’s character very interesting and feel completely invested in what happens to him. For somebody else, that character may be Barrett or Kate or Alice Beane. It’s about shifting the way that one invests in the characters, rather than eliminating any kind of investment whatsoever.

Titanic

Above: The original Broadway cast of TITANIC

The show is notable for its numerous characters, each based on actual people who were on the Titanic on the night that she sank, although some historical details have been manipulated for the sake of the drama. Peter Stone’s book skilfully interweaves their stories, striking a balance between the characters and making them all distinguishable from one another. Perhaps there is one exception, in the depiction of Charles Clarke and Caroline Neville, who are not developed well enough in either the book or the score. Like everyone else, they get little vignettes, but these seem less substantial than those given to other characters, and then suddenly Charles gets the most beautiful verse of “We’ll Meet Tomorrow” close to the end of the show. But have these characters earned this kind of payoff? I’m not convinced. Instead of coming fully into their own, they merely seem like the other second class couple – the one that isn’t “Edgar and Alice”.

The original cast who brought these characters to life included some of Broadway’s finest: Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Cerveris and Victoria Clark among them. My favourite? Martin Moran as Harold McBride. He really squeezed every inch out of his material to create the character and, if you listen to the cast recording, you can see how precisely he makes vocal choices that convey the spirit and emotional state of the person he’s representing. He also manages to find a build in his main number, “The Night was Alive”, without just letting rip towards the end and thereby destroying the foundational work he has put into his characterization. By the time it gets to the reprise “In Every Age” at the end of the show, you can hear the change caused by the experience of the ship’s destruction but this remains sharply within the scope of the character’s established pattern of expression. It’s sophisticated and subtle and it works phenomenally well.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in TITANIC

Above: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in TITANIC

Titanic is a great show. A different kind of musical if compared to the standard Rodgers and Hammerstein musical play, to be sure, with its multiple narratives and multiple conflicts against a backdrop which unites all the characters. Expecting a grand narrative structure isn’t going to get you anywhere with Titanic: it’s not about a boat that sinks; it’s about how that boat sinking affects the people on board, how the boat was a microcosm of society at that time and what that means socially, economically and personally. All of these things are distilled into the characters and the vignettes in which they appear and this leaves one with two choices. One can either engage with what is on stage and take something away from the show or leave, disappointed that it wasn’t a traditionally structured piece of musical theatre like The King and I. But form follows content – as Stephen Sondheim puts it, content dictates form. To create a traditionally structured show based on the tale of the Titanic would mean contriving a plot as was done for the film and that was clearly not the kind of story that Maury Yeston and Peter Stone wanted to explore theatrically in relation to this subject matter.

That’s not to say that the approach taken by James Cameron in the film is invalid. While some might say that putting the fictional Jack and Rose front and centre, the film romanticises one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. I take the point, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I think it is up to people do to some thinking about the context of the story and make the connections for themselves. After all, James Cameron isn’t making a documentary; he’s telling a story that has the sinking of the Titanic as its backdrop, not reporting the event in itself.

The ship sinks in the film of  TITANIC

Above: The ship sinks in the film of TITANIC

It’s the same kind of thing that South Pacific does, setting a love story against the backdrop of a real event. World War II was tragic, yet I wouldn’t say South Pacific romanticises it, not in the sense that it renders the War in an ideal light. Certainly we do see the devastating effects of the war – the death of Cable, for example – but we also see the devastating effects of the sinking of the Titanic, and to a far greater extent than we see the effect of the war in South Pacific: families that are separated, lives that are cut short and so on. I haven’t seen the film in years, but I still remember the Irish mother and her children who are doomed because they are trapped in their quarters, perhaps even more vividly than some of the effects sequences or the main love story.

So I think that, if you take the whole film into account, and remember that there is more to it than just the love story between Jack and Rose, the tragedy of the Titanic is clearly appreciable, even if it’s not the primary focus of the film itself.

Does that mean that the film should be adapted for the stage as a musical, with Rose belting “My Heart Will Go On” as high as she can? Not at all, and given the huge part that spectacle plays in the film, a stage production couldn’t be half as effective in that regard anyway. Sure, there is a sense that the characters in the film could break out into song, but that’s because Titanic is basically a melodrama and relies a great deal on the score to support and create emotional identification with what is happening in the film. But I do think that a musical based on the film would be a bit of a “why” musical.

Debbie Reynolds as THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN

Above: Debbie Reynolds as THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN

That said, to play the devil’s advocate, I’m not sure that’s synonymous with the musical Titanic being the only adaptation based on the incident. After all, we already have The Unsinkable Molly Brown! And the point of creating another stage musical would be because of something that differentiates the two, for example using a fictional love story against a historical backdrop rather than a show where the historical backdrop itself is the focus. In film, there are several different versions of the Titanic tale, so why should an existing version be the only argument against another vastly different stage production?

Conversely, the existing musical has already set an incredibly high bar for certain set pieces of the story. Would a musical adaptation of the film be able to find its own voice, without sounding derivative? Can anyone imagine a better musical sequence than the one leading up to the impact with the iceberg than the one in the existing musical?

Yes, Titanic is a great show. In terms of Yeston’s work, only Nine competes with Titanic for top spot. Phantom is a triviality; Grand Hotel is an example of superb efficiency rather than transcendence; and Death Takes a Holiday just didn’t come together in the end. Would the movie make an equally great show? I’m not convinced, but the two contrasting narrative approaches taken by the respective vehicles are both valid approaches.

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Dumbed Down Discourse: Challenges Facing Artists, Audiences and the Arts

Michael John LaChiusa

Above: Michael John LaChiusa

Something’s been bubbling under for a long time. And IT has starting to erupt. I think IT started brewing a long time ago, when I read Michael John LaChiusa’s brilliant column, “The Great Grey Way”. Comments like this one, from Stephen Sondheim also feed into it:

The dumbing down of the country reflects itself on Broadway. The shows get dumber, and the public gets used to them.

There were also Sondheim’s own comments around the recent revival of Porgy and Bess, which undermined not only the production itself, despite his protestations about his intentions being otherwise, but also to a certain extent his credibility. They did not represent logical, level-headed discourse on a topic that required debate, but were more like blog comments on a magnified scale.

Comments on social media platforms and news websites, of course, play a major role in IT. Random comments – often racist or sexist, violent in nature and hypocritical – are bad enough, but then there are ones that parade under the illusion of legitimacy, like when defensive producers defending their own projects as though critics are meant to be publicists. It’s amateur hour, folks – all of it.

Lara Foot Newton

Above: Lara Foot (Newton)

Also playing into IT in a big way was the poor, politically-motivated discourse on social media platforms around the Internet on the what has become known as “the rape question” in the Department of Education’s Dramatic Arts paper at the end of last year where nobody – neither the press nor the playwright (Lara Foot (Newton)) from whose play (Thsepang) the extract was taken or anyone who commented on any of the poorly written stories – bothered to think through the full picture before responding. The same lack of thought was evident in the responses to the responses, even those that came through official channels. The complexity of the issue was ignored in favour of emotional reactions and quick-fixes, with people serving their own agendas rather than dealing with the important issues.

Then there was the entire Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music Live debacle.

What is IT? What is this thing that’s been troubling my mind? A practice of which even I am guilty, because to rise above IT would mean taking myself out of IT and the truth of the matter is that even if the discourse is poor, it will never be improved through the exclusion of a brain that desires complexity.

IT is the curse that all art forms face right now.

Carrie Underwood

Above: Carrie Underwood

We prioritise technological advancement over storytelling in the film industry, on television and in the theatre. We promote news about art instead of art itself. We make fancy marketing plans instead of making good theatre, film or television. We tell a story using gimmicks instead of telling the story. Where there used to be integrity, or at least a balance between integrity and the bottom line, there is now just a bottom line.

Welcome to the dumbing down of the world! Let’s have Carrie Underwood in a Christmas special every year! Let’s pretend that the last time deconstructed fairy tales represented innovative storytelling wasn’t a decade ago! Let’s accept undiscerning criticism in journalism, because people have forgotten that journalists aren’t publicists and actually need to be experts in their field! Let’s replace transcendence with idle chatter! Let’s be NICE.

People might say this is less about storytelling than it is about my current views of the world. But the entire point is that storytelling is wrapped up in our current views of the world, and the way that society will see the world tomorrow!

You’re welcome to buy into the sellout, but I’m just not interested in it anymore. I don’t know how to engage in discourse that is characterised by ignorance anymore. Not politely, anyway. It is time to demand excellence, and time to deliver it. As best we can, and not only in the arts – but in every other aspect of our lives too. Do your job. Deliver on your promises. Be informed. And always seek out the bigger picture, and view it with the deepest perspective you can.

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NEWSFLASH: Carly Rae Jepsen to Star in CINDERELLA on Broadway

Carly Rae Jepsen

Above: Carly Rae Jepsen

BroadwayWorld has just reported that Carly Rae Jepsen, the singer of the catchy pop hit “Call Me Maybe”, will take over the role of Ella in the current Broadway production of Cinderella, the new take on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein television musical which features a book by Douglas Carter Bean.

Personally, I’m pretty excited about this news. I loved “Call Me Maybe” and also Jepsen’s collaboration with Owl City, “Good Time”. And it seems she has a musical theatre background too, with Jepsen saying that she has musical theater training in singing, dancing and acting.

Jepsen’s tweets over the past couple of hours have captured her excitement about being cast as Ella. One of the most recent features a shout-out to the current Ella, Laura Osnes:

Dear @LauraOsnes I think you are truly lovely. Big shoes to fill! It’s an honor to try on the Cindy shoes! Xoxox

Now I’m certain there will be a lot of backlash on the Internet, just as there was for Carrie Underwood when she was cast as Maria in The Sound of Music Live. But for better or worse, I’m in Jepsen’s corner on this one. I hope that she’ll be great, and I’ve got a feeling she will be. I’m looking forward to hearing her sing those wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes like “In My Own Little Corner”, “Ten Minutes Ago” and “A Lovely Night”.

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