ON THE RECORD: David Yazbek's Women On the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, William Finn's "Songs of Innocence & Experience"

News   ON THE RECORD: David Yazbek's Women On the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, William Finn's "Songs of Innocence & Experience"
 
We listen to the Broadway cast album of David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, plus Lisa Howard's "Songs of Innocence & Experience: The Music of William Finn."

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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [Ghostlight 8-4447]
When Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opened in November, I compared it to gazpacho, that tasty hot-weather soup from sunny Spain: refreshing, peppery and palate cleansing, but with so many diverse ingredients that the flavors canceled themselves out. It was a frustrating show; there was much that was good, and you could sense that the creators were on the verge — if you will — of pulling it off. But they couldn't, and didn't, leaving a vast display of talent on the stage which came across the footlights as an engaging and intriguing but at times indecipherable mass.

Now comes the original cast album, from Ghostlight, which reveals a score that is — yes — tasty, spicy and delicious. Back at the Belasco, I admired what composer-lyricist David Yazbek was doing but couldn't exactly enjoy it. There was so much going on, at all times — and so many things and characters to follow — that it was difficult to actually listen to the songs. Six months later, I specifically remembered a few of them; otherwise, I recalled a score with a pulsating beat and a cascade of flavorful images in words. Listening to the CD, I find a veritable parade of fine songs: intelligent, clever, melodic, and filled with the sort of unexpected touches we've grown to expect from Mr. Yazbek.

My initial reaction upon viewing The Full Monty, in 2000, was that this new-to-the-theatre songwriter was a budding Loesser; my reaction upon viewing the 2005 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was that he was indeed Loesserish, building his songs on playful melodic twists and turns of phrase in a quest to not only entertain us but to keep us listening for the next surprise. The Dirty Rotten Scoundrels CD only enhanced my appreciation of the songwriter; the characters fill their songs with tangents and asides, usually wildly funny and always routing themselves back to the idea at hand.

My experience with the newly-released Women on the Verge CD? I sat here thinking, now this is a good song, I don't quite remember it. Now this is a good song, I didn't appreciate it at the time. Now this one is wonderful. No, it is not that Women on the Verge sounds better on the CD than in the theatre; I think, simply, that it was difficult to hear the score in the theatre. And I'm not talking about problems of sound design. After listening to the CD a couple of times, I really and truly would like to go back and see Women on the Verge again. Not that I think the show would seem better; as far as I'm concerned, if a show requires multiple viewings to be enjoyed, then you might as well cart off the scenery. (Many shows — ranging from Sweeney Todd to Light in the Piazza to Book of Mormon — are richer the second time through; but that only works when the theatregoer is eager to buy that second ticket.) But I would love to see, and understand, just why Women on the Verge was all but impossible to embrace at the Belasco. I have my theories, and would gladly engage in such a discussion.

But that's not the point of this column. This is the place to say that while I found myself able to recommend the original Broadway production of Women on the Verge to only a very few potential playgoers, I am glad to wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend the original cast album to all. I needn't go into specifics; just listen to the thing and discover it for yourself.

But I will say a word for Laura Benanti, who gave the sort of performance that wins a surefire Tony Award if you open in April but can run into problems if you open in November and close New Year's weekend. "Model Behavior," her big number, is especially well captured on the CD; while you don't get the sight of her sliding around stage on extra-high heels that seemed to be made of Slinkys, you don't need the visual to appreciate the performance. The song — consisting of a string of messages left on an answering machine — is a marvel. While this was Benanti's only solo, she was just as good throughout the show; you could hardly look at her without bursting with glee.

"Lovesick," "My Crazy Heart," "Island," "On the Verge," "Tangled," "Invisible." All are treats on the CD, with most of the singing from Sherie Rene Scott with Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell and various others on the verge. At the Belasco, though, they were in some ways covered up by the intriguingly innovative but ultimately unworkable production scheme. But I keep returning to "Model Behavior." I defy anyone to listen to it once without instantly pressing the replay button. And while you're marveling at the performance, realize that this is one of those pieces of material that can exist only when you have a songwriter who is deliciously and unabashedly deranged.

"Songs of Innocence & Experience: The Music of William Finn" [Ghostlight 8-3332]
Lisa Howard, an original cast member of William Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, has wisely chosen Finn's songbook for her first solo album. "Songs of Innocence & Experience," it's called, being filled with — well, songs of innocence and experience. A dozen songs by Finn; some previously unheard, all well sung, many dressed in orchestral sounds to which Finn-listeners are unaccustomed. Working with musical director (and recording producer) Vadim Feichtner, Howard has assembled an interesting collection, for the most part excluding songs you might expect. Or songs I might expect; of my 20 favorite Finn songs, only two are present. Finn, in fact, says in his liner note, "though I might have chosen differently, this much is true: anything Lisa sings is perfection." And I agree.

Howard gives us songs which are, for the most part, rarely heard. There are four selections — count 'em, four — from the unproduced Royal Family of Broadway: "I Have Found," I Don't Know Why You Love Me" (a duet with Derrick Baskin), "Listen to the Beat" and "Bad Boy." Also on hand are two from the little-known Romance in Hard Times, with Ms. Howard doing a wonderful job on "That's Enough for Me." The title track, "Songs of Innocence & Experience" (with Sebastian Arcelus), was written for the 2005 dedication of a new performing arts center at Williams College, Finn's alma mater. A second song from that event, "How to Make Delicious Chocolate Pudding," is the only one not entirely by Finn; the music was written by Deborah Abramson, and it is the least successful selection on the CD.

This personal song assemblage might be part of what makes the CD so enjoyable. You are getting Finn, yes, but most of it sounds just slightly different than what you are used to. Take "Sailing," for example, that beautiful ballad from A New Brain. While most of the tracks have expanded orchestrations from up to 14 pieces — hardly Finn's distinctive "teeny tiny band" — this one is performed to a guitar solo (from Matt Hinkley). And, of course, the song is here sung by a woman. Thus we get a rather different sounding "Sailing," one that makes us listen to the song — and appreciate the song — with different ears, as it were. The beauties of Finn, though, ring true.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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