ON THE RECORD: Sheik and Sater's Spring Awakening, Plus a New Arlen Collection

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: Sheik and Sater's Spring Awakening, Plus a New Arlen Collection This week's column discusses the original cast album of the new musical Spring Awakening and Barbara Fasano's recording of Arlen songs, "Written in the Stars."
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Spring Awakening [Decca Broadway B0008020]
Standard procedure, when adapting a period piece to the musical stage, is to start by developing a sense of the style of the time and place. Neither Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I nor A Little Night Music used tunes approaching authentic music; but in each case, the songwriters tried to give present-day audiences a flavor of the period (at least to American ears).

In other cases, authors have taken the plot and moved it, as in the case of Ferenc Molnar's "Liliom" (which was transferred from 1900 Budapest to 1870 New England, for Carousel). Even so, the songwriters honored their adopted time period; no jazz saxophones punctuating "If I Loved You."

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater have radically broken tradition with their new musical Spring Awakening. This is taken from Frank Wedekind's play, written and published in 1891 but apparently not produced until 1906 — and continually, if not surprisingly, censored. (The German playwright, born in Saxony in 1864 [during the American Civil War], was presumably the only lad running 'round the neighborhood with such an unlikely name as Benjamin Franklin Wedekind.)

The libretto of the musical is firmly set in Wedekind's time and day. But instead of constructing their score with flavors of contemporary composers of 1891 — the up-and-coming Richard Strauss or Gustav Mahler, say — Sheik and Sater have literally skipped a century. To quote Sater: "The scenes [are] set in the world of 19th century repression. The songs afford our young characters a momentary release into contemporary pop idiom. Caught in the ongoing dramas of our adolescent lives, we are all nonetheless rock stars in the privacy of our own bedrooms." Unconventional for traditional musical theatre, yes; it makes for a very different kind of musical, with the songs seemingly bursting away from the text with kinetic fury. Even the most casual Broadway fan has by this point no doubt seen the astounding reviews that Spring Awakening received, almost universally lavishing the show in praise.

The original Broadway cast album, just released on Decca Broadway, handily demonstrates what Sheik and Sater have wrought. The impact is as direct and immediate as that of Hair, which serves as a handy parallel in that we can assess the situation 40 years later (which can't be done, just yet, with Spring Awakening). The score of Hair was not all that revolutionary in 1968; the musical style was readily familiar to anyone who listened to AM radio. For theatre folk accustomed to the likes of Hello, Dolly! and My Fair Lady, though, the Hair score was astounding; not only the vibrancy and variety, but the fact that relatively straight-jacketed musical theatre traditionalists suddenly found themselves humming along with "Let the Sunshine In" and whistling about the age of Aquarius.

Rent, of course, had something of the same effect. The score of Spring Awakening, though, is perhaps more explosive. These songs might well sound foreign to some listeners. Yes, Mr. Sater, there is a generation gap; modern-day adolescents might well be rock stars in the privacy of their bedrooms, but I daresay this doesn't apply to a considerable section of the current-day theatre audience. Even so, the Spring Awakening score seems to be converting, rather than alienating, listeners.

Just as with Hair, I suspect that Sheik and Sater have opened a door. And just as with Hair, the radical style is eased along by the beauty of some of the material. (Try to resist "Blue Wind," why don't you?) The entire cast is equally proficient, although Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele and John Gallagher Jr. stand out by virtue of their solo material. So does Lauren Pritchard, who for reasons of plot has little to do but comes in late with two especially strong and important songs.

Mr. Sheik has produced the recording, and done a whale of a job. His seven-piece orchestration, as played nightly at the O'Neill (expanded from the five used at the Atlantic Theatre), has been augmented for the recording with two violas. (This is the only cast album in memory crediting a separate orchestrator for strings.) Kimberly Grigsby, who has been enlivening Broadway pits since The Full Monty, does a fine job leading the band and the young singer-actors. The CD sports a "parental advisory: explicit content" label. A warning merited, I suppose; but in some ways parental authority — and the lack of it — is the whole point of the affair.

A bit of an uproar arose when the cast album of the current revival of A Chorus Line omitted one track, which purchasers of the CD needed to buy separately on-line. Or not buy, as the case may be. It is interesting to note that nobody seems to be complaining that Spring Awakening also offers a bonus track that need be purchased separately. (In this case, it is composer Sheik singing "There Once Was a Pirate.") One expects that fans of the CD will simply shrug their shoulders and pay the extra ninety-nine cents.

The art of writing for the musical theatre is dying, they've been lamenting since round about 1905. Line up The Light in the Piazza, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening — four remarkably different musicals — on your iPod. Enough said?

Barbara Fasano: Written in the Stars [Human Child Records HCR-825]
Readers of this column are familiar with our admiration for the songs of Harold Arlen, as well as our delight with the CD Harold Arlen and His Songs [DRG 19078] (which was recorded 50 years ago and finally released on CD earlier this year). The good news today is that we now have another Arlen collection that can be played alongside Harold's.

Barbara Fasano is a jazz singer with solid credits in cabaret and nightclub circles (although hitherto unknown to me). In 2003, she put together an act called "I Had a Love Once: Arlen Songs." This earned her a slot in the Arlen Centennial Concert last year at Carnegie Hall; her performance there seems to have led to this new recording, "Written in the Stars."

A jazz singer, as opposed to a theatre singer, yes; but Arlen might be described as a composer who partially found his fortune by bringing jazz into the theatre. Fasano gives us 15 tracks, and not just all the old hits; no "Over the Rainbow," "Stormy Weather" or "Blues in the Night" here. (The interlude to the last is woven into the introduction of Fasano's fine version of "I Wonder What Became of Me," but "my momma don' tol' me" is absent.)

In place of those biggest of hits, Fasano brings us Arlen treasures both familiar and non. "When the Sun Comes Out," for example, a non-production song written in 1940 with Arlen's early collaborator Ted Koehler. Koehler (best known for "Stormy Weather") comes off very well in Fasano's hands, actually, with three other titles of his — "Let's Fall in Love," "As Long As I Live" (which Fasano sings with her husband, Eric Comstock) and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" — joining "When the Sun Comes Out" as major highlights. They are joined by "I Had a Love Once" (with a lyric by Arlen himself); Harburg's "Last Night When We Were Young"; and — from Mercer — "This Time the Dream's on Me" and the aforementioned "I Wonder What Became of Me."

Let it be said that a few of the tracks are given rhythmic treatments so free as to interfere with Arlen's melodies, in my opinion at least, but this is a minor complaint that doesn't detract from the strengths of the CD. Fasano is greatly abetted by pianist-arranger John di Martino. The seven-piece band matches the singer with accomplished and delightful playing; I suppose it is unfair to single out Joel Frahm on sax, Tim Ouimette on trumpet/flugelhorn and Sean Smith on bass, so let's just praise the band, and the singer, and thank them for a bluesy, jazzy, swinging album of Arlen.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. Prior On the Record columns can be accessed in the Features section on Playbill.com's front page. Suskin can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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