Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Henry Krieger and Side Show

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Henry Krieger and Side Show Currently represented on Broadway by Side Show and around the country by a touring revival of Dreamgirls that may wind up on Broadway in 1998, Henry Krieger is a composer with a rare gift, that of being able to put the sounds of pop music to successful theatrical use. In most of his scores, Krieger favors the sound of hard-driving, intense '70s pop, the Motown sound mixed with some rock 'n' roll and other influences. But he's able to take these styles and feed them through a genuine theatrical sensibility, coming up with real theatre scores that take advantage of the sounds of the pop charts.
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Currently represented on Broadway by Side Show and around the country by a touring revival of Dreamgirls that may wind up on Broadway in 1998, Henry Krieger is a composer with a rare gift, that of being able to put the sounds of pop music to successful theatrical use. In most of his scores, Krieger favors the sound of hard-driving, intense '70s pop, the Motown sound mixed with some rock 'n' roll and other influences. But he's able to take these styles and feed them through a genuine theatrical sensibility, coming up with real theatre scores that take advantage of the sounds of the pop charts.

Krieger's favored style was first heard in the forgotten 1975 musical sequel to Tom Eyen's long-running off-Broadway play The Dirtiest Show in Town; entitled Dirtiest Musical, Krieger collaborated with Eyen for the first time, and gave leading lady Nell Carter a powerful showstopper called "Can You See Me?" That song set a style for Krieger's trademark outburst numbers and led directly to the next Eyen-Krieger show, Dreamgirls, in 1981. Krieger's favored sound was, of course, a natural for his first Broadway show, the story of three women who become a Supremes-like singing group in the '60s and '70s. Because Michael Bennett's staging of the show was such a landmark, the Krieger-Eyen score never got its due, but it's a major achievement, particularly impressive in its use of lengthy musical scenes (i.e. "Heavy, Heavy") and all-out emotional numbers. Another reason the score has often been undervalued is the fact that a smash hit show with about 100 minutes of music was unaccountably granted a Geffen Records cast recording that preserved just 47 minutes of the score, eliminating almost all of the richness of the piece in favor of a "greatest hits" approach which doesn't begin to do the score justice.

Krieger's next Broadway appearance was the 1984 The Tap Dance Kid, with a book by Charles Blackwell and lyrics by Robert Lorick. For his only old- fashioned book show, Krieger composed a more conventional score, with few traces of his trademark intensity. But there are some attractive numbers to be heard on the cast album, especially the opening "Another Day," and "Four Strikes Against Me," the defiant solo for a young, plump, and very strong performer named Martine Allard of whom I've lost track.

Although Krieger did not return to Broadway until this year, he has had two other major musicals produced in the interim. In late 1987, the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester, England offered Fat Pig, with Krieger doing his own lyrics, a book by Jenny Hawkesworth and the show's director Mark Bramble, and choreography by Tap Dance Kid's Danny Daniels. A through-composed, lightweight farmyard fable based on an adaptation by Jerome Savary of a book by Colin McNaughton, Fat Pig played out its limited engagement but went no further.

Krieger's next one was a doozy, Dangerous Music, seen only at the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre in Florida in late 1988. With book, lyrics, and direction by Eyen, choreography by Wayne Cilento, and two-thirds of the Dreamgirls design team (Robin Wagner and Tharon Musser, who were joined by William Ivey Long), Dangerous Music probably ranks as the most overwrought pop opera ever staged. Set in Detroit and Los Angeles in the '70s and '80s, the show was an incredibly intense stew that commented on the decline of the automobile industry, changing race relationships in the U.S., changing styles of pop music, drugs, prison, the end of the American dream---you name it, it was there. As Diane Dubrowsky, Laurie Beechman got the vocal workout of her life, playing an innocent teen who is raped in a shoe store by high-school hero Shaun Cassidy, becomes a druggie, is imprisoned, and ultimately becomes a pop star. Donna Murphy, who must be about the same age as Beechman, played her mother (as well as one of Diane's cellmates), and Jodi Benson sang a variety of roles in addition to understudying Beechman. With the name "Diane" sung by the various characters approximately 10,000 times during the show, Dangerous Music sounds something like Side Show's "Tunnel of Love" sequence expanded to 2-plus hours. Dangerous Music is pitched at such an hysterical level that it's almost impossible to listen to all of the official tape recorded through the theatre's sound system at a single sitting. It's never boring, and (like Side Show) has many parallels to Dreamgirls, but it's ultimately incoherent and impossible to swallow. Krieger returned in top form this season with Side Show, creating his best score since Dreamgirls to a libretto by Bill Russell. And as was the case with his debut score, the Sony Classics Side Show cast recording is a single disc, and omits a great deal of the almost-non-stop-music show. Missing on disc is just about all of the recitative (something that Kreiger excels at composing) and the three fun press conference sequences; several numbers ("Come Look at the Freaks," "We Share Everything") have been cut to about half, and others are trimmed. But Dreamgirls was recorded prior to the arrival of the CD, so that disc runs just 47 minutes; Side Show has had 73 minutes of music preserved, and the result is far richer and more satisfying.

If the show's fans are likely to point to any number of bits and pieces that they miss (where is Violet's quip to one of the reporters about being normal?), what has been preserved sounds great. If Bill Russell's lyrics are often cliched, and if the show chooses a show-biz romance plot over a grittier exploration of the grim nature of what life must have been like for Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, the Side Show score is powerfully entertaining. Krieger's music becomes more impressive with each listening: You will enjoy the many duets for the sisters, and you won't find a more moving number this season than "You Should Be Loved," gloriously sung by Norm Lewis as Jake, the sisters' ever-devoted assistant. The recording can't provide the stunning looks and detailed, distinct visual acting of leading ladies Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner, but they are in fine vocal form and come across just as superbly as in the theatre. And romantic leading men Jeff McCarthy and Hugh Panaro and villainous Boss Ken Jennings are all that is required.

Henry Krieger should not put 13 years between this and his next Broadway show, and the Side Show cast album is not to be missed.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com