Once again we are experiencing a glut of cast albums, which is a wonderful thing to see and hear. Interestingly enough, a good number of them tackle topics one would normally think uninteresting (or downright unappealing) to see on stage, much less hear set to song. However, as Stephen Sondheim and Bat Boy have proven, there is no idea too odd or subject too weird to set on stage.
All right, we might as well get it out of the way first thing: Urinetown is a horrible name for a Broadway musical. Heck, the show even admits it during the opening number, the oh-so aptly entitled "Too Much Exposition," in which Officer Lockstock (yes, there is an Officer Barrel ... which provides a major clue about Urinetown's sensibilities) and Little Sally not only set up the story, but dismantle every theatrical convention, completely shattering the fourth wall in the process. While Urinetown has been labeled everything from 'neo-Brechtian distopia' to being a chief contributor to the ironic death of musical comedy, it actually is a music theater lover's musical: in order to fully understand and appreciate Urinetown, one must be well versed in the conventions and mores of musical theater. It is definitely one of those 'the more you know, the more you'll get' kind of affairs, as it quotes, both musically and thematically, scores of musical scores.
Urinetown, which recently transferred to the Henry Miller's Theater after a highly acclaimed Off-Broadway run, is the brainchild of Greg Kotis. After burning through most of his money in a backpacking trip through Europe, Greg reached the point where he could not even afford a pay toilet. This set him to thinking and he came up with one of the strangest plots ever to be set on a Broadway stage: a distopian future where, due to a severe water shortage, all urination is controlled by a corporation that ruthlessly enforces its draconian laws. Not only is it a privilege to pee (as is stated in one of the more entertaining numbers), but those who can't afford the surcharge or who pee illegally get sent to Urinetown, an inferred concentration camp locale from whence no one ever returns.
Urinetown just drips with irony and satire and is so self aware that it makes your CD player resemble HAL 9000, making it long on intellectual charm but short on actual heart. As every critic under the sun has noted, Urinetown owes a lot to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, both in its 'theater of representational detachment' style and its sound. It opens with a distillation of every overture by Weill and his stylistic fingerprints are all over the score. The two young lovers, the soon-to-be-anarchist-leader Bobby Strong (passionately sung by a very strong Hunter Foster) and his ultra-literalist, oh-so-adorably naive beloved Hope Cladwell (sweet voiced Jennifer Laura Thompson), sing a prototypical Weill/Brecht love ballad, "Follow Your Heart," which takes the whole "You Gotta Have Heart" message literally. Iron hearted (and lunged) urinal manager Penelope Pennywise (delightfully sung with much gusto by Nancy Opel) gives her all in "It's A Privilege To Pee," a fusion of "Pirate Jenny," Sweeney Todd and "The Ride Of The Valkyries." The first act finale (literally called "Act One Finale") fuses Marc Blitzstein with Les Miserables to hysterical results (although, to be honest, South Park did it first and better). I would recommend making a drinking game out of identifying musical quotes and/or styles (everything from Music Man, Fiddler, Stop The World-I Want To Get Off, and Pippin) if not for the fact that by the end of the disc one would really need to use the facilities.
The cast is absolutely superb and in excellent voice. It is a pleasure to hear two-time Tony winner John Cullum in a musical again and he fairly oozes with evil in the 'Brecht/Weill meets Danny Elfman' mantra against humanity, "Don't Be The Bunny" (which closely resembles another Brecht/Weill inspired number, "Crooked Path" from Grand Hotel, as seen through a manic depressive Lewis Carrol looking glass). The music by Mark Hoffman is fun, and he and book writer Greg Kotis have crafted some clever lyrics. The only flaw with the show is that it is almost too self-knowing and has its tongue so firmly planted in its cheek that it is amazing the cast can speak at all, much less sing. I am not sure how the album will age, as the humor is the sort that diminishes with repeated listenings. Nor do I imagine Urinetown appealing to those who don't possess an encyclopedic knowledge of musicals married to a warped sense of humor. But for those of us out there who happily possess said twisted souls, this album provides a rare treat.
Another entry in the 'odd choice for a musical' category is Fermat's Last Tango, which is inspired by mathematician Andrew Wiles' discovery of a solution to Fermat's Last Theorem, which for centuries has been the mathematical equivalent to the Holy Grail. In 1637, Pierre de Fermat scribbled "Where x+y=z, (xn)+(yn)=zn has no solutions where n is greater than two - I have discovered a marvelous proof that this margin is not large enough to contain." He never did provide that proof, and it took until 1993 for one to surface when Andrew Wiles, a Princeton professor who locked himself in his attic for seven years to come up with one and stunned the world with his findings. (Indeed: Proof was the original title for the musical, until a certain Pulitzer and Tony winning drama came along). This obsessive quest led the husband and wife team of Joanne Sydney Lessner (lyricist/librettist) and Joshua Rosenblum (composer/lyricist) to create a musical which tells the story of a fictional professor, Daniel Keane (Chris Tompson) who becomes a celebrity when he presents his proof of Fermat's Theorem to the world. Unfortunately, his proof has a hole, presented to Keane in an inspired piece of whimsy by the ghost of Fermat himself (the delightfully wicked Jonathan Rabb), and Keane's single-minded pursuit of a patch to this flaw results in an odd love triangle between Keane, his wife (Ewardyne Cowan) and mathematics/Fermat.
Fermat's Last Tango is almost completely told through song, which is its biggest drawback. It is proof positive (pardon the pun) that not everything needs to be, nor should be, musicalized. Far too much time is spent on setting what should be spoken dialogue into mind and ear numbing recitative which all sounds the same musically and dynamically. This is not helped by the fact that Chris Thompson as Daniel Keane sounds exactly as you would expect a mathematics professor to sound (i.e.: Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller's Day Off), which is not so much a fault of the performer but of the writers. It isn't until Fermat appears to liven up the place that the musical gets its much-needed shot in the arm. From that point on the show is inventive and whimsical with inspired creations, such as "Aftermath," a reward where great mathematicians sit around for all eternity debating math problems (proving that one person's hell is another's paradise), and having Keane forced to fix his ailing proof on a game show hosted by Fermat. There are some fun songs, chief of which being "Math Widow," a hysterical blues number sung by Anna Keane (Edwardyne Cowan) to show-stopping effect. Overall, the show works better than I ever thought a musical about my greatest phobia could (Jonathan in Mathematicsland being a reoccurring nightmare of mine).
Fermat's Last Tango is a perfect gift, in fact, for people (like myself) who have a mathematically inclined sibling who also appreciates musicals; might as well exercise both sides of the brain, after all! For those interested in viewing the show as well as listening to it, The Clay Mathematics Institute has a VHS/DVD version of Fermat's Last Tango available. For more information visit http://www.claymath.org/events/fermatslasttango.htm
While hardly possessing a novel subject matter (30 year old writer feels the clock ticking on his life, both artistically and romantically), tick, tick ... BOOM! gets its impact from it being the autobiographical story of Jonathan Larson, best known for the mega hit Rent and for dying before seeing it grow into the phenomenon it has become.
Originally entitled 30/90, tick, tick ... BOOM! was written by Larson in 1990 and was performed by him as a monologue in which he expressed his fears and frustrations at turning 30, all the while waiting tables in SoHo and writing a futuristic musical, Superbia (one song of which, the beautiful, exquisitely melodic ballad "Come To Your Senses," is featured in tick, tick ... BOOM!). There are echoes of Rent throughout tick, tick ... BOOM! and one can readily hear Larson's evolution from a lighter, more theatrical pop style into the harder edged sound evidenced in Rent. "No More," in which Jonathan (Raul Esparza standing in for Jonathan Larson) and his best friend Michael (Jerry Dixon) celebrate Michael's moving on up to the East Side (literally to a deluxe apartment in the sky), sounds like an early draft of "Rent." "30/90" bears more than a slight resemblance to "What You Own," while the delightfully sensual "Green Green Dress" is almost "Out Tonight" from a male point of view.
tick, tick ... BOOM! is hardly a carbon copy of Rent, however, and possesses one of the funniest numbers to come out of a musical in quite a while; the Sondheim pastiche/tribute "Sunday," in which the title song from Sunday In The Park With George is deconstructed and set in a diner. Funnier and more intelligently written than anything in The Producers (or even Urinetown), it is sure to make any Sondheim fan giggle uncontrollably. "Sugar," in which Jonathan seeks solace through his one true love (in the form of Twinkies) is equally entertaining as is "Therapy," in which Jonathan and his girlfriend, Susan (Amy Spanger) have the prototypical lovers' quarrels about everything and nothing.
The cast is wonderful and superbly suited to the material. While suffering from an unfortunate title given current events, tick, tick ... BOOM! is a refreshing and very entertaining cast album; in all honesty, I find it vastly more enjoyable than Rent and it makes me feel for the first time that we really lost a major voice in musical theater with Larson's passing.
The next album hardly represents a unique theme in regards to musicals. The idea of accepting those who are different has been the driving force for everything from South Pacific to Bat Boy. However, HONK! the recent adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's most personal fable, The Ugly Duckling, is more akin to another children's story, The Little Engine That Could, as it beat out two heavyweights, The Lion King and Mamma Mia!, for the 2000 Olivier Award for Best New Musical. The recent cast album does not preserve that National Theatre production, but is a recording of this past summer's staging of HONK! at Music Theatre of Wichita and is a fine recording indeed.
The story is more fleshed out than in the Andersen fable, but it still retains the essential charm and innocence of the original tale. Ida (Susan Hofflander) and her husband Drake (Dave Ruprecht) have a new batch of eggs. Most of them produce 'normal' ducklings but the last one is different. He is larger, is considered odd and ugly, and produces a rather distinctive "HONK!" rather than the more refined "quack" a duck should make. Hence, he is ridiculed and shunned by his siblings, his father, and the rest of the barnyard animals. One animal, however, the hungry Cat (Josh Prince), considers him delightful (and potentially delicious) and attempts to make friends with the little duckling for culinary purposes. Ugly escapes the Cat's clutches but also manages to get lost. The rest of the musical is Ugly's quest to find his way home and gain self-acceptance along the way.
HONK! is by the writing team of George Stiles (Music) and Anthony Drewe (Book/Lyrics) and is a truly delightful theater piece that manages to be equally suited for children and adults. Be warned: if you are pun-phobic this is not the musical for you. However, underneath the bad jokes and groaners of puns beats a tender heart augmented by strong performances and a winning score. As Ugly, Arthur W. Marks is the waterfowl equivalent of Candide and shines on all of his numbers, especially the heartrending "Different," which should strike major chords with anyone who ever felt outside of the mainstream. The superbly voiced Susan Hofflander as his mother, Ida, is given the lion's share of the great material, ranging from high comedy ("The Joy of Motherhood," in which she talks about Lamaze classes given by the stork) to high pathos (the wrenching ballad, "Every Tear a Mother Cries"). Great songs are given to secondary characters as well. Josh Prince nearly walks off with the album with the sensual, lounge-lizard inspired "Play With Your Food," in which he tries to lure poor Ugly to be his lunch. The anthem of the show, "Warts And All," is sung by Bullfrog (LaQuin Groves) and the Froglets, and states the essential message of the show; namely that "out there/someone's gonna love ya/warts and all."
While HONK! recycles some melodies (or at least snippets of them) a bit too much throughout the score, it is a delightful breath of fresh air after a rash of shows that rely on irony and sarcasm rather than true emotions to give impact.
In 1969, a New York Public School English teacher named Stephen M. Joseph put together a haunting book of real-life stories written by inner-city kids entitled The Me Nobody Knows. He was immediately approached by composer Gary William Friedman (best known for writing 40 some odd songs for The Electric Company, including the "Spiderman" theme) and playwright Herb Schapiro, who wanted to turn it into a musical. The musical version of The Me Nobody Knows opened Off-Broadway in 1970, where it won both the Obie and Drama Desk Award for Best Musical, before moving to Broadway where it was nominated for five Tonys.
The cast album for The Me Nobody Knows has recently been re-released on CD. As can be expected, it is not always an easy album to listen to, partly due to the material, but mainly due to the vocals, which are poorly recorded and thus are muddy or shrill in spots. However, there is no denying the power behind the lyrics. While the music sounds like a fusion of Hair and Promises, Promises, the lyrics provide the true driving force behind the show. There are few light numbers (the most up-beat being "If I Had A Million Dollars," a telling look at what the kids think money can buy and what it will cost), the majority of the songs vacillate between the somber and the defiant. "The Tree," sung by Jose Fernandez, is a bittersweet examination of worth and is my favorite track on the album. "War Babies" (Northern J. Calloway) is a hard-hitting sung poem of abandoned children and the last track of the album, "Let Me Come In," is an examination of bleak defiance.
With a cast that cannot be considered to be strong singers by any stretch of the imagination (although it does include a very young Irene Cara, of Fame and Flashdance theme fame), there is a power and poignancy to the album that cannot be denied or ignored. The Me Nobody Knows is set for an Off-Broadway revival in the Spring of 2001.