ON THE RECORD: Sutton Foster, Joshua Henry and Colin Donnell "Let It Sing" in Broadway Recording of Violet

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27 Jul 2014

Cover art
Cover art

This week's column visits the recording of the Broadway production of Violet.

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Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's adventurous Violet [PS Classics] received admiring but cautious reviews when it opened at Playwrights Horizons March 11, 1997. The uncompromising subject matter worked against it — it was hard to interest commercial producers in the tale of a disfigured girl who rides a Greyhound through the Deep South, becoming involved with both a white and a black soldier — and the show was unable to find backing for a transfer. (This had been the same situation a year earlier with the Playwrights production of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins. While both would surely have been hard-sells on Broadway, they would have significantly enhanced the quality of seasons in which shows like Swinging on a Star and Juan Darien received Best Musical nominations.)

Violet languished 16 years, during which it received occasional productions. Then came City Center's new Encores! Off-Center, a summertime series of concert versions of Off-Broadway musicals. Artistic director Tesori not unreasonably slotted her first-produced musical into the initial season, and happily so. Violet was presented July 17, 2013 as a one-night-only affair, starring Sutton Foster, to a critical and audience reception so rapturous that it was picked up by the Roundabout and transferred to the American Airlines April 20, 2014. The revival — with Off-Center cast members Foster, Joshua Henry (Flick) and Emerson Steele (Young Violet) joined by Colin Donnell (Monty) and Alexander Gemignani (Father) — was lavished with a reception considerably more favorable than it had received at Playwrights in 1997, garnered four Tony Award nominations and has enjoyed an extended run through Aug. 10, which gives you two weeks still to see it.

PS Classics, which recently released the smashingly-good original cast album of Tesori's smashingly-good Fun Home, has followed up with a wonderful new recording of Violet. The show was trimmed to one act for the City Center engagement, with the authors cutting some material and adding a new song for Monty ("Last Time I Came to Memphis"). What's more, the Off-Center administration — i.e. Tesori — gave the creators free reign to perform what might be considered an edit and polish. Tesori, who has learned a lot about creating musicals in the past decade, and Crawley have re-formed and enhanced their work. As a result, the current Violet seems more gripping and emotionally uplifting than the earlier version. More gripping and emotionally uplifting, from my seat on the aisle, than any of last season's other Broadway musicals, new or old.

The cast album is every bit as effective as the show in performance. In a way, the score sneaks up on you. What sounds like a Nashville-twanged country blues score turns out to be far more; it's Tesori's voice, cloaked in Nashville-twanged country blues. Sitting in City Center for last summer's concert, I was impressed by the opening sequence (building to "On My Way") but absolutely amazed by "Luck of the Draw," a musicalized poker game. Or rather a musicalized poker lesson played simultaneously — 12 years later — against a musicalized poker game. The number features four characters (played by five actors) in two different scenes in two different times and places, all singing together and against each other to a gloriously jaunty tune. This is no country pastiche; this is musical theatre writing at its best; in retrospect, the earliest indication that the composer of Caroline, or Change and Fun Home is an important and out-of-the-ordinary theatrical dramatist.

Sutton Foster

The score, while steadily advancing the story and exploring the characters' emotions, is salted with treasures. "Let It Sing" for Flick, the more sensitive of the two soldiers; "Lay Down Your Head," a beauteous lullaby for Violet; "Promise Me, Violet," a multi-part musical scene for the three main characters which transmutes into the score's most moving passage ("I'll Be Waiting"); "Look At Me," the heroine's big soliloquy; and more.

Tesori and Crawley — mustn't forget lyricist/librettist Crawley, who is an equal partner in the show's strengths — are fortunate in their performers. Foster is a given; she has been tied to Tesori since Thoroughly Modern Millie, and starred in the composer's biggest Broadway show, Shrek the Musical. One suspects that Foster's availability and willingness was key to the selection of Violet for Off-Center, and she was clearly the selling point for the Roundabout. The result is stunning; as far as I'm concerned, Foster gives her finest performance thus far. You might say that Foster makes Violet look good, and Violet makes Foster look great. Get thee to the Roundabout before Aug. 10, if you're able.

The star is ably supported by Henry as a soldier, trapped by his skin color. Flick is the only character Violet can find who actually looks at her and sees her; Henry — who was so impressive in his Tony-nominated performance as Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys — does this with such truth and urgency that we believe it. The third side of the triangle is provided by Donnell, who appeared in a very different guise opposite Foster in Anything Goes. The 14-year-old Steele gives one of the finest child performances in memory, while Gemignani (Assassins) provides a strong singing and acting performance as the Father.

The score sounds wonderful, noticeably moreso than on the original cast album of the Playwrights Horizons production. The 1997 version, recorded on a restricted budget and released by a non-theatrical label specializing in religious music, includes about an hour's worth of the score. (The new two-CD set runs 85 minutes, including some patches of dialogue.) I for one recall listening to the thing once, years ago, and finding it promising but not compelling; I left it in the stack of recordings that I wanted to play again, sometime, but never did. Hence, my shocked surprise when the score unfolded at City Center last summer.

Driving the show from the piano is Michael Rafter, the musical director from 1997 and a close long-time associate of Tesori. The orchestrations have been significantly revamped. The originals were by Joseph Joubert and the late Buryl Red (Tesori's teacher and mentor). The capabilities of electronic keyboards have improved so much in the interim that the music dept. decided to take advantage of the technology and rethink the orchestrations. Listen to the deliciously buoyant tuba in "Luck of the Draw"; that's a keyboard, although you could have fooled me. Rick Bassett (the keyboard programmer in 1997, and co-orchestrator with Joubert and Red of Caroline, or Change) has joined with Joubert (musical director of Motown) to redo the orchestrations — which might be another reason the PS recording is far more effective than the original. The pit band has been augmented in places for the recording by actual woodwinds, which sound so much better than the synthetic kind.

Violet seemed like something of a dark horse for future life when it was announced as a single-performance hearing at Encores! Midway through the show, that evening last July, it was already clear to some of us that this thing had what you might call legs for Broadway. As it turns out, Violet seems to have been before its time, back in 1997. With Tesori and Crawley taking advantage of the intervening years, the revised and now "finished" version of Violet turns out to be an important and impressive modern musical.

PHOTO EXCLUSIVE: "Water in the Well!" A Two-Show Day at Broadway's Violet With "Young Violet," Emerson Steele

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And now Sutton and I sing "Don't Touch the Blood", a BEAUTIFUL song we wrote and composed together! Haha! Just kidding... It's not THAT beautiful!
Photo by Emerson Steele