Enchanted [Disney D000092502]
Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, both, know their way around enchanted songs for fantastical adventures. Their recent assignment — five tunes for the newest Disney film, mixing princesses and princes both real and animated — is the sort of thing one suspects they can toss off in the course of a lazy afternoon with the TV playing in the background. That's a bit of an exaggeration, perhaps; but this kind of assignment, at this point in their separate careers, can't be all that challenging. Which makes it all the more heartening to report that Menken and Schwartz have lavished ingenuity, humor and skill on their songs for "Enchanted." This Disney outing is in some ways a 21st-century take on Walt's patented formula; call it "Snow White of Riverside Drive." The viewpoint is very much buoyed by the work of the songwriters, without whose efforts the film might not work half so well.
Mr. Schwartz is well-known along Broadway. He made his name with Godspell, moved to the big-time with Pippin, and — after a 30-year exile of sorts — returned with Wicked (which has turned into a far bigger hit than his previous musicals, or just about anyone else's either). Mr. Menken has had a more puzzling career, Broadway-wise. Beauty and the Beast enjoyed a long and impressive run, and The Little Mermaid is just now casting anchor at the Lunt-Fontanne. But these are transplants from the screen. Given Menken's talent and his Off-Broadway roots (including Little Shop of Horrors), one keeps expecting him to turn up with a pert new Broadway musical. Maybe next year?
Menken and Schwartz have met before, courtesy of Disney. Following the early death of collaborator Howard Ashman and assignments with the likes of Tim Rice and Lynn Ahrens, Menken seems to have had the good sense to draft Schwartz for the 1995 animated feature "Pocahontas." This was followed a year later by "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." (The latter, like "Beauty and the Beast," was transformed by Disney for the musical stage, albeit far from Shubert Alley. The show opened in Berlin in 1999, but at present seems to be stored in a turret of Cinderella's castle.)
"Enchanted" follows a typical Disney princess — Giselle by name — who is enticed into a deep well by an evil Queen and emerges from a manhole in Times Square. The songwriters start things off with one of those songs where the heroine summons the birds and the chipmunks to dream of "True Love's Kiss." Once she reaches her castle on the Hudson, she again calls on her friends of the forest — which, in this case includes non-cartoon pigeons, rats and cockroaches — to help clean up the joint with a "Happy Working Song." As funny as the first is, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, the second is even better; Schwartz has a field day, with one of his most playful lyrics ever. The third song, "That's How You Know," is built on a gimmick as well, with our heroine picking up musical accompaniment as she strolls through Central Park. (Sidewalk musicians provide a Calypso beat reminiscent of "Under the Sea.") The princess in question, by the by, is someone named Amy Adams. We shan't compare her to Julie Andrews, who played that Poppins woman on the screen for Disney, but Adams is quite a find. Director Kevin Lima displays a sense of humor by casting not only Andrews but Jodi Benson, Judy Kuhn and Paige O'Hara, each of whom voiced heroines of prior Disney/Menken movies. None of these four sing in "Enchanted," though; neither does Idina Menzel, Tony Award-winning star of Schwartz's Wicked, who plays one of the villainesses. Nor does leading man Patrick Dempsey, for that matter. Male vocal honors go to James Marsden, who — as the cartoon prince — does a nifty job on the romantic duet with Adams. As an added joke in this whimsically jokey movie, Marsden dusts off Jack Brooks and Harry Warren's "That's Amore" for the end-titles.
Most of the "Enchanted" CD consists of Menken's score for the non-singing parts of the film, which is pretty good, too. Alan has eight Oscars at present, and seems well positioned to add a couple more next spring.
Walmartopia [Leading Light LLC]
Walmartopia, the Off-Broadway musical currently winding up its run at the Minetta Lane, was a big hit at the Bartell Community Theatre in Madison. Madison, Wisconsin, that is. Cynics among us have learned to be cynical about Off-Broadway musicals from community theatres in smalltown USA, especially when they see a name above the title such as WMTopia, LLC. I have no knowledge of the identity of the individuals masquerading under this enigmatic mantle, but my guess is that they are either the authors, a married couple from Madison named Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn; a consortium of Madison money from friends, neighbors and relatives (of the authors) who saw the show at the Bartell Community Theatre and pronounced it good enough for New York; a combination of the above; or someone with an ungainly moniker that wouldn't neatly fit the billing page, such as Winnie Moynihan Topia.
There is no reason that an unheralded sleeper from unknown writers should not be exceptionally good; 1776 came from some high school history teacher, and few people had ever heard of Clark Gesner when he turned up on St. Mark's Place with You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. But Walmartopia has more in common with such recent offerings as Sessions, Mimi le Duck and that thing about Mary Todd Lincoln whose title I can't remember that was written by the wife of a former Congressman.
This one is subtitled "A Musical on a Mission," and has something to do with the disembodied head of Sam Walton and a group of Vermont terrorists. (Bentonville, Arkansas has become the capital of the world.) You can probably find a synopsis on the internet, but you might just as well skip it. Wal-Mart is, in many quarters, deemed to be the enemy of the world.
Walmartopia, though, engenders sympathy for Wal-Mart. The result seems to be sort of a feel-good Urinetown, with a bite so mild that you could can it, slap on a smiley face, and sell it for $2 in the bargain bin across from customer service. Ms. Capellaro and Mr. Rohn are not helped by the five-piece arrangements; if Urinetown sounds like early Weill, Walmartopia sounds like early skating rink.
Wal-Mart is also known for taking advantage of its poor, hard-working, under-appreciated employees. Fifteen card-carrying members of Actors' Equity give their utmost, under working conditions — material-wise — that are rather dire. Still, good jobs are as hard to find for actors in New York as they are for cashiers, stockroom clerks and assistant managers in the world outside show business. Walmartopia's Off-Broadway run — from Labor Day until the eve before New Year's Eve, plus the rehearsal period — should hopefully give them all enough weeks to qualify for a year of health coverage.
Dreaming Wide Awake: The Music of Scott Alan [Billy-Boo BBR-0701]
Songwriter Scott Alan, unlike the authors of Walmartopia, does not seem to have someone to bankroll one of his musicals-in-progress. He has instead put together a songbook CD with a little help from his friends, the list of whom might well perk up some ears as it includes the likes of Stephanie J. Block, Liz Callaway, Eden Espinosa, Jonathan Groff, Cheyenne Jackson and Josh Strickland. The results are so much better than some of these amateurish Off-Broadway musicals that come along that one is at the same time heartened and disheartened. Two of the songs, "Now" (sung by Groff) and "Never Neverland (Fly Away)" (sung by Block) are in themselves good enough to warrant giving "Dreaming Wide Awake" a listen. Some of the songs are more pop than theatre, and a few are less than arresting, but even so; there are some good songs here, and some fine performances. Alan is a 29-year-old composer from suburban New York. (He should not be confused with Scott Allen, a stage manager who began as one of the original dancers on the line at A Chorus Line.) Alan has a voice worth listening to, and he has done himself a favor by producing this sampler of his work to date.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)