ADDING MACHINE [PS Classics PS-865]
Over 40 or 50 years of American musical theatre, certain rules about source material have developed. Not rules, exactly, but hints of things to avoid if you want your show to have half a chance. Stay away from using arty, old plays as subject matter, for starters. You know; those plays that carried a lot of social significance for our grandparents and great-grandparents, but are now so antiquated as to be almost laughable. Avoid selecting material with central characters who don't sing; drab, colorless characters can't dance, if you will. And stay away from non-intelligent characters; if they aren't smart or at least clever, it can be mighty difficult to match their dialogue with their lyrics. Whatever you do, don't build a show around unattractive characters. The audience has to like them, feel sympathy for them, pull for them. If you must choose something with an unattractive character at its core, at least write it in a manner that it can be played by an attractive actor. Fosca, anyone?
Joshua Schmidt, a 31-year-old sound designer from Milwaukee, has written what is by any description a remarkable musical. Elmer Rice's drama The Adding Machine — about a slug of a bookkeeper named Mr. Zero, who cracks up when he is fired after 25 years and replaced by an adding machine — was more admired than enjoyed when first produced by the Theatre Guild in 1923; it ran through its subscription season but zeroed out after nine weeks. The play had outsized influence, though, more or less serving as the starting point for the American expressionist wing of the drama. Composer-lyricist Schmidt and librettist Jason Loewith, artistic director of Chicago's Next Theatre Company, decided that The Adding Machine was ripe for musicalization, and by golly — they have come up with something that confounds the helpful guidelines above.
This is not a musical that will set you to tapping your toes and whistling a tune, happy or otherwise. It is bleak and dark and depressing and exhilarating. These are not songs from Mr. Schmidt, mostly (although he has snuck one or two in, despite himself). This is a play set to music, in a most remarkable manner. The abrasive opening number, "Something to Be Proud Of," is bleated by a shrewish matron in such a harsh manner that I almost wonder whether you're better off seeing the show before listening to the CD. Adding Machine, with the "the" removed, is currently playing at the Minetta Lane; love it or not, the trip is well worth the visit.
The venture puts me in mind of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins, which had its fans and its detractors when it was first produced. Adding Machine is less of a melodic feast than Guettel's musical, by far; it calls to mind Marc Blitzstein in his most modernistic mood. The cast album, on PS Classics, brings us the many splendors of the Minetta Lane production; all I can say is that after listening to the CD several times, I went rushing back downtown to see the show again. Joel Hatch (as Mr. Zero), Cyrilla Baer (as Mrs. Zero) and Amy Warren (as Daisy Devore) are equally chilling; Hatch fully inhabits Zero's highs and lows, Ms. Baer is enough to drive a man to murder, and Ms. Warren is exceptional as the pathetic drudge who "ain't never been kissed for real before." Joe Farrell has a standout featured spot as Shrdlu, and they are joined by five additional actors (mostly from Chicago) who greatly contribute to the proceedings. The band, under the direction of J. Oconer Navarro, does a fine job, especially so considering that it consists of a mere piano, synthesizer and drums. I can't guarantee that you'll love Adding Machine; me, I found the score, the cast, the physical production, and the direction by David Cromer equally gripping. Remarkable is a word that I've used above, but that seems to be the best description of this 90-minute piece from newcomers Schmidt and Loewith.
KERRY BUTLER: FAITH, TRUST & PIXIE DUST [PS Classics PS-862]
Kerry Butler burst into notice in 2001 as Shelley in Bat Boy. (She had originated Belle in the Toronto Beauty and the Beast, in 1995, and done a stint at the Palace in the same role, but that did not quite capture our attention.) Bat Boy let us know that we had a quirky new ingénue with talent and character. This was followed by a similarly delightful appearance as Penny Pingleton, friend-to-the-heroine in Hairspray. Next up was Audrey in the Broadway premiere of Little Shop of Horrors, in 2003, and since last July Butler has been profitably employed skating around the Helen Hayes in Xanadu, with a Tony Award nomination for her efforts.
Ms. Butler has now brought forth her first solo album, "Faith, Trust & Pixie Dust." A collection of Disney songs, it is; Butler is a self-described "Disney geek," whatever that might connote. While Disney songs might not be especially high on the list of most listeners of theatre music, this CD is plenty enjoyable enough for Butler's theatre fans; and as anyone who has been to Orlando in the last 20 years might agree, there is a huge potential audience out there. (If PS Classics can get this CD into a tenth of all those gift shops at the East and West Coast theme parks, they will presumably outsell anything in their impressive catalog.)
The 13 selections point to the enormous range of Disneyanna; there are only three obvious choices included, and a number of songs I have never heard. Alan Menken, whose songs Butler sang in Beauty and the Beast and Little Shop, has four contributions, including two rarities. "This Only Happens in the Movies" was written for an unproduced film, "Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?" while a cut song from "Aladdin" — "Call Me a Princess" — is quite lovely. Best of the tracks, perhaps, is "When You Wish Upon a Star" from "Pinocchio." (By coincidence or by design, Michael Kosarin's arrangement seems to pay homage to Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, who voiced Jiminy Cricket and thus introduced the song — sans ukulele — in 1940.) Kosarin's arrangements are generally inventive, although I find the up-tempo numbers to be far more effective. Supportive orchestrations come from Michael Starobin and Larry Hochman.
The album ends with a non-Disney item which nevertheless speaks to the heart of the subject, and might well be the most effective song of the bunch. "Disneyland" is not Disney; it comes from the ill-fated 1986 Marvin Hamlisch-Howard Ashman musical, Smile. Kerry Butler clearly believes in the power of Disney, and her rendition of "Disneyland" speaks well for all those dreams, hopes, faith, trust & pixie dust.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Past On the Record columns are archived in the Features section of Playbill.com. Suskin can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)