My e-mailbag recently contained a note from a young composer — an ardent reader of this column, he said — urging me to listen to the new CD of a not-quite-off-Broadway musical he wrote. This is a not uncommon occurrence; as usual, I replied that my column space was limited (which it is) but that I would try to get around to it. The fact is, the press agent for the recording had a week earlier also urged me to listen to it; not simply because he was representing it, but because he himself loved it. So I already had it near the top of the stack.
I listened to the CD, which — I'm afraid — hurt my ears. If you know what I mean. This composer has some very good ideas, I think, and his lyrics contained provocative and intelligent images; but the music was loud and abrasive, so much so that I decided not to review it. (A review would have meant listening to it another couple of times.) I have a hunch that this fellow might well be talented; perhaps the harsh style of the music was dictated by the subject matter of his show, which I didn't see during its brief run. I will certainly give him another chance the next time 'round, but this particular musical is not one that I can recommend.
Immediately thereafter — like the next day — came another e-mail from another young composer. Urging me to listen to his cast album, adding that as a longtime reader he was sure I would like it. I gave him the same answer and trepidatiously — if that be a word — dropped the CD into my computer. It turns out, the guy was right.
Calvin Berger had been on my try-to-see list when it was produced at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ, in February 2010. (This followed two preliminary productions, the first at Gloucester Stage in 2006 and the second under the guidance of William Finn at Barrington Stage in 2007.) A youth-oriented retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, the George Street production had attracted director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall (between The Pajama Game and Anything Goes) and an A-list production team including set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, and orchestator Douglas Besterman. This, in turn, attracted me to the extent that I intended to trek out to New Jersey, but something or other intervened and I never did get through the tunnel. I vaguely recall a favorable reception at George Street, but hopes of a New York transfer were dashed. And that was the last I heard of Calvin Berger until the e-mail from Barry Wyner.
Who this Barry Wyner was, I didn't know. A BMI Workshop writer, he won both the Jerry Bock and Richard Rodgers Awards for Calvin Berger. (Bock and Rodgers are good company, seems to me, for a budding composer.) He also won the Kleban Prize. So, I suppose it is fair to say that his work had already attracted attention, at least in some circles. It didn't take me long to discover what the Bock and Rodgers and Kleban administrators already knew.
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Calvin Berger is, indeed, derived from Cyrano, but at moderate length; none of that convent stuff here, the thing takes place over less than a semester. And Calvin's schnozz is merely bigger than average, although to a 17-year-old boy it surely might seem enormous. The show itself isn't enormous, like Cyrano; the scale is cut down to a manageable, four characters. Calvin loves the fair Rosanna, Rosanna loves the athletic Matt, Calvin provides Matt with the words; you know the story. But it is the manner in which Wyner does things that gives his musical life. The current-day marketplace is overrun, I suppose you could say, with what you might call high school/college musicals. It has reached the point where you are accustomed to a string of pop-type songs, occasionally with lyrics that kinda apply to the situation; after awhile, you start to hope for songs that at least do no harm. The Calvin Berger score offers the opposite: songs that express the characters, move the action, and consistently entertain. The music is, yes, in the contemporary mode. Wyner doesn't have much opportunity to write big songs here; all but a handful are group numbers filled with plot details. But then, this is the type of music called for by the style of the piece. (Wyner does give us two nice ballads, "Saturday Alone" and "Perfect for You." There is also an ever-so-charming ditty for his hero called "Mr. Potato Head," sung to a toy with the capacity to simply change one nose for another without needing a surgeon.)
More impressive are the lyrics: funny, smart, and forever propelling the action along. And sly; Wyner keeps throwing in comments — Calvin is a musical-comedy rendition of the loquacious Cyrano, after all — that add another layer to the already bountiful humor. Less Rostandish than Harnickish, but therein lies the charm.
The Ghostlight CD features the cast from George Street. Noah Weisberg leads things as Calvin; Krystal Joy Brown and David Hull play the pretty lovers; and Dana Steingold is the other girl, Bret. Weisberg and Steingold are especially refreshing, perhaps because they have the best material. But the whole thing is refreshing, bubbly fun. Aron Accurso leads a five-piece band in Besterman's effective small orchestration.
From the scraps of dialogue included on the CD, it seems that the show has a snappy libretto (also by Wyner). While Calvin Berger is perhaps unlikely to find its way to a commercial run, it seems like a natural for stock & amateur groups. Especially those looking for a small, tuneful, contemporary musical with a youthful cast of characters and lots of laughter.
'Tis the season for the newest edition of the annual "Broadway's Carols for a Cure: Volume 14" [Rock-it Science Records, available at selected theatres or online from broadwaycares.org]. The 2012 version fills two discs with 21 songs, performed by cast members of (mostly) Broadway shows. Starpower this time around includes Ricky Martin, Elena Roger and Michael Cerveris from Evita; Chita Rivera, Stephanie J. Block, Jim Norton and others from The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Cyndi Lauper, presently prepping Kinky Boots; and more. But it's not the stars who are the backbones of "Carols for a Cure"; it's the actors and musicians who have contributed their time and talent. Once, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Newsies, Peter and the Starcatcher, Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, Bring It On: The Musical, Wicked, Newsical, Chaplin, Rock of Ages, Mary Poppins, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys are all represented. And the cast of Rebecca, too.
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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series 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.)