ON THE RECORD: Chaplin, Leap of Faith and Now. Here. This.

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06 Jan 2013

Cover art for <i>Chaplin</i>
Cover art for Chaplin

This week's column discusses the original cast recordings of Broadway's Chaplin and Leap of Faith and Off-Broadway's Now. Here. This.

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Our attention turns, for reasons that will become fast apparent, to the original cast albums of musicals we sat through — initially, in the theatre — thinking "I sure never want to hear this again." What pleasures and surprises do these recordings hold for us? How can there be pleasures and surprises in said recordings?

Let us first step back a few historical paces. Broadway has had far more misses than hits, as a result of which numerous unsuccessful musicals — from downright flops to disappointing failures — are represented in the original cast album archives. The mind immediately springs to the great Sondheim, two of whose musicals ignominiously folded within a fortnight. I, for one, have listened to the resulting original cast albums — the 1964 Anyone Can Whistle and the 1981 Merrily We Roll Along — far more frequently over the years than any number of longer-running, financially profitable, award-winning titles; say, La Cage aux Folles or Annie. That doesn't mean much of anything, except that cast albums of quick failures are not necessarily wipeouts.

There are numerous recordings that fall into this category, although not necessarily of the same distinction as the two Sondheim musicals above. Frank Loesser's Greenwillow, say, or Marc Blitzstein's Juno, Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel, David Shire's Baby. And even David Yazbek's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which despite its lack of coherence in the theatre gets my vote for the richest Broadway CD of recent seasons.

There are also decidedly poor musicals that nevertheless left behind cast albums that entertain, like Oh! Captain!! or Donnybrook. For many years — back in pre-CD days — two of the hardest-to-find titles were the first-rate Greenwillow and the bottom-of-the-barrel Whoop-Up! If you want to hear a lousy musical, try Whoop-Up! I promise that like a salty potato chip, though, you will not be able to store it away after only one taste.

It seems, alas, that they don't write bad musicals like they used to. Which brings us to where we started, examining three cast albums of shows that I had trouble sitting through patiently in the theatre.

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Rob McClure as Chaplin
Photo by Joan Marcus
Chaplin [Masterworks Broadway], the first musical of the 2012-13 season, tiptoed into town in September looking like the biggest vanity production since The People in the Picture. Until Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson came along in November, that is. Like Al Jolson, the great Charlie Chaplin seems to repeatedly attract musical comedy writers and producers. A million dollar title, yes, but it ain't so simple to recreate a one-of-a-kind genius and his entire career in two neat hours. The same holds true, mind you, for Marilyn, Judy or Frank.

In this case, the purveyors of Chaplin started with a hackneyed score (by Christopher Curtis) and a cliched book (by Curtis and the hot-or-cold Thomas Meehan). What they did have, and what made the thing worth sitting through, was an actor playing Charlie who was good enough to stand on his own. Rob McClure is his name, and it's a name that we are likely to see in the Broadway spotlight again and again. McClure did not present a faded copy of Chaplin; he took the essence of the star and developed his own version.

The rest of Chaplin, though, was well nigh unwatchable. And unlistenable. The score was generic and tinkly, with few moments of interest; the exception was something called the "Tramp Shuffle." Most of the showbiz songs sound like rejects from the thematically-related Mack & Mabel, one of the musically worthy flops referred to above.

Mention should be made of Christiane Noll, who as Charlie's mentally fragile mom is given songs that sound like rejects written for Nancy in Oliver!, and Jenn Colella as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. Colella was given one of those big, wake-up-the-sleeping-crowd numbers called "All Fall Down." The song and the performer didn't win me over at the Barrymore, but it comes across better on CD. Even so, the only assets here aside from Mr. McClure are the orchestrations by Larry Hochman, which add freshness and life that the score lacks.

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The 2011-12 season ended with an equally ill-conceived musical mass of cliches, which also hailed from good old California. Leap of Faith [Ghostlight] took us into "Elmer Gantry" territory, although it seemed to be more like a new-era Music Man with all the corn and none of the craft. A spellbinding conman who comes to town and charms the local sadder-but-wiser girl (this time a sheriff instead of a librarian) and brings meaning to the life of her lovable-but-lonely son in a wheelchair (instead of a kid brother with a lisp).

Guess what happens? Or maybe you don't need to. Composer Alan Menken, who has had an up-and-down career on Broadway, gave us a score — with lyrics by Glenn Slater, his collaborator on The Little Mermaid and Sister Act — that ranked with Chaplin. Most happily, though, Menken simultaneously came to town with Newsies and finally won his first Tony Award.

Here we get a lot of revivalist-type, gospel-like songs that sound pretty much alike, mixed in with some musical comedy stuff. Raúl Esparza does what he can, but it's a thankless task. Jessica Phillips, Talon Ackerman and Leslie Odom, Jr. do well, too, but there's not much here for us to listen. The Leap of Faith CD is as difficult for listeners as the musical itself.

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The last of the trio at hand is another short-lived musical of last spring, this one from off-Broadway. [title of show] was a trifle by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, in which the authors wrote about trying to write a musical to submit to the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival. They wrote it, in whimsically meandering style; submitted it; and found their piece a hit of the Festival. The show — a four-character musical, featuring the authors along with Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff — was then taken up by the Vineyard, which produced it in 2006 with such great success that they were impelled to bring it back for a return engagement.

[title of show] was a real charmer down at the 125-seat Vineyard. Things went awry, alas, when an intensive Internet campaign helped propel Hunter & Jeff & the girls up to the Lyceum. All that seemed offbeat and lighter-than-air on 15th Street turned leaden in the distinguished house of Frohman. (Daniel Frohman, who built the place in 1903. But that is rather beside the point.) The figurative souffle deflated in the uptown air. Thud it went, despite a veritable valentine from the Times and pleas from the show's overdedicated fans.

With all those fans bloodied but unbowed — and waiting, impatiently, for more — Bowen & Bell returned to the Vineyard last spring with a companion piece, Now. Here. This. [Ghostlight]. The title itself indicates just what this turned out to be: an evening's worth of special material with italics around it, with the quartet of friends spouting overly-intellectualized personal tales and pronouncements. Some of the [title of show] fans saw this as a bonanza personally conceived for their high enjoyment. Many others, though, thought — enough!

The material sounds a bit better on the CD; for starters, it is 40-minutes shorter than the 100-minutes at the Vineyard. The annoyance factor is also reduced by the absence of all those projections of the cosmos. As with the former, Bowen remains a charming and friendly presence. Blackwell turned out to be the most impressive performer of the group, perhaps because she had the strongest material. (This time around, she was credited as co-author.)

From watching the two shows and listening to the two CDs, my hunch is that composer/lyricist Bowen has all the tools to entertain us. His music, here, is restrained by the need to add "colorful" and deprecating lyrics along the way; it is almost as if whenever his music starts to grow emotional, he slips in a joke to tell us that he is only kidding. This is in keeping with the style of the two musicals in question, yes; but I wonder what he would come up with if he was writing for characters who want to sing, and don't care about being funny.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "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.)

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