A Second Chance and Swan Esther
The gentle, low-key A Second Chance brings us a nice enough later-in-life man and woman who meet at a party and soon begin dating. And the score itself and the recording are nice enough, too. But excitement, high drama, and soaring melodies are in short supply. Sung in what feels like spurts or swirls of stream-of-consciousness or gabby conversations, piling on short-lined musical phrases, things are mostly at a restrained low simmer. Some tension and wistfulness change things a few notches, but it feels more like a ripple or blip on the radar screen than an emotional earthquake. This is true even when the subject sung about is intense: the man mourningor addressinghis late wife or the new couple declaring their love and devotion or yearning or frustrations.
Ted Shen's music, book and lyrics all feel very civilized as these mature, modest, cerebral New Yorkers chat, flirt a bit, stumble, vent, and open up. While some pieces feel like miniature art songs, with some real grace, the more mundane and earthbound words prevent them from taking wing or sneaking up on us to touch a raw nerve near the heart. Brian and Diane Sutherland, married in real life, portray the coupleDan, widowed after a 25-year marriage, and Jenna, past what she calls "that blessed divorce"and one senses deep affection and ease with each other. The characters' metaphorical mating dance of attraction, one tip-toed step at a time, is endearing, but can be enervating. Their singing is pleasant and understated. These actors are listening to each other and reacting. As performers, they complement each other. As characters, they compliment each other as they encourage communication and reinforce accepted feelings without judging. But it can feel very pre-meditated, with disclaimers more than declaiming. While Jenna can be glibly bubbly, attempting to cajole and cheer the burdened fellow, it can come across as apologetic, complete with justifications, rather than just bubbling over. Notably, her solo singing talking out her feelings in her psychiatrist's office doesn't come across in a very different tone from her all-alone soliloquies or some gushing dam-breaks talking to him. And he can sound matter-of-fact and businesslike when explaining how lost and lonely or in love he is or was.
The attractive decorative orchestrations that cushion and embellish little phrases, especially John Romeri's flute, are delicate and classy. It's a missed opportunity not to let the six-man band led by pianist Zac Sandler be more the handler of the under-expressed emotions burning beneath the surface.
Here are some lyric samples: In "Dreams," he stoically states, "I just accept the way things are/ I don't look ahead too far./ For now, I'm managing on my own./ I've already lived my dreams." In "Damaged Goods," he warns her, "All you'll find in me is pain and guilt/ Being kind to me is/ Something you'll come to regret./ I'm someone you need to forget." When she visits his home, she's surrounded by "Ghosts" of his wife and marriage: "Why can't he simply get rid of these constant reminders/ Those mementoes [sic] he's amassed? ... Unless they disappear, I can't continue on." And, back with her shrink, she dares to think, in "Here I Go Again": "I don't know exactly who I should blame/ But it's making me sick to/ Hear the sound of her name ... I know it's my fault I cannot be happy! / I know I just deserve to be happy." In "I Can't Wait," she tells him, "I miss your smile/ Those mystery lips that so beguile." One wonders if people talk that way. Or is it the artistic license giving carte blanche for musical theatre characters in love? Likewise, perhaps, along in their thoughts, would they sing the same exact detailed thoughts?
Still, they bond over common interests: "strangely addictive" TV shows they like or hate, a visit to a museum where they discuss famed artists, remembering that a Seurat painting inspired Sunday in the Park with George and the mention of it is set to the notes of that title phrase by the man Jenna calls "one of my heroes, Stephen Sondheim." Or is it the writer's hero? Another number uses his rhymes from "I Feel Pretty": alarming, charming, and disarming. Their own day the park, picnic and celebration, comes, too, and we can't help but root that they'll get together and get it together. She's never been to Brooklyn and he's never walked a dog. Plenty of included dialogue comes along the way, paving the wayor getting in the way, depending on your fondness for talk on a cast album. Highlights include a respite from the small talk, analysis, and catharsis with the romantic images of a winter day's beauty compared to a "Snow Globe," but next it's post-snow talk about "I didn't realize how soaked my feet were." The title song, at the end, is quite lovely in its gratifying hopefulness and her "Lullaby" has an effectively balm-like caress of acceptance.
As a slice of life, A Second Chance is a thoughtful, if sometimes lugubrious, excursion for grown-ups about grown-ups who might wake up and smell the coffee and wish it were champagne. Like Neil Simon's Chapter Two or the more engaging and outwardly emotional musicals Ballroom, Do I Hear a Waltz? and, in its own way, Hello, Dolly!wherein a widowed character also asks for the late spouse's blessing to try love againA Second Chance brings an "It's never too late" message of dignity and humanity.
In the mold of the earlier Biblical pop-rock musicals, the "concept album" of the British entry Swan Esther, from the 1980s, has been issued on a CD, along with demos of a revised version retitled Swan Esther and the King. The story of Jewish heroine Queen Esther and the evil Haman, it cheerily and cheekily marches through its tale, adopting and discarding various musical guises along the way. There's bouncy, bubble-gummy pop for one number, a relentless rock drive for a declamatory moment, a splash of vaudeville, a Gilbert & Sullivan-esque chorus echoing protagonists' lines, a sing-songy simplistic and repetitive round that may sound like a children's playground chant, then a power ballad where the leading lady lets out with her powerful Bible belt. While one lyric may be long-winded, dryer exposition, another may pack in a flurry of rhyme time, machine-gun style.
For example, consider this boast: "They'll cheer me!/Revere me/ They'll hear me/ And fear me/ ... They'll pay me/ Obey me/ Array me/ Display me." The song is called "I Am Great," that adjective rhyming with "capitulate," "rate," "no debate," "get it straight," "no debate." You get the idea. Sometimes the verbiage feels like lazier "filler" as when behavior is reported in the gushed line, "They robbed! They stole!" (Isn't that the same thing?) And often there's a strong sense of a children's theatre/ Bible Study studied effort to make a history lesson palatable and cutely accessible. A spoonful of Kosher sugar helps the education go down? And add a spoonful or five of anachronisms and plucky pastiche of 1950s rock, old-school musical comedy and more, to the point that some melodies sound a whole lot like something you might vaguely remember.
Note that the cover looks like a comic strip and that's a hefty hint. (The lyricist was an established cartoonist; a few more small samples are in the booklet which has background info on the show as well as a two-page summary of the Bible story told in simple, direct language kids could understand.)
Harmless fun? Over-simplification trivializing history? Irreverent romp? Or tedious wanna-be with occasional sparks? It's all a matter of taste and maybe all of the above. Twenty-one tracks, some extremely short, with the 1983 disc's tracks of the score by Nick Munns (music) and J. Edward Oliver, the lyricist who got the gig when a busy Tim Rice declined the invitation proffered by his and Andrew Lloyd Webber's agent. The show, originally presented at schools and a church, certainly retains that educational kind of presentational and narrative approach. British theatre performers Stephanie Lawrence, Denis Quilley, Clive Carter, and Stephen Hill gave the concept album energized polish and panache. A choir, sometimes too generic to indicate attitude and emotion, also participated, directed by Michael Stuckey. Stanley Black was music coordinator. Several months after the vinyl release, the show was mounted for a three-week Christmas holiday run at London's Young Vic, with a different cast.
While Stephanie Lawrence does some showy but earnest work, the men are more playful and chipper, in that cartoony kiddie way. There's sturdy and sassy singing, with Quilley going for silly, making horrible Haman more a pompous buffoon than scary sort. Frisky fluff dominates and the songs zip at a clip that can be dizzying. But that doesn't necessarily always mean engaging, as some blur together. Attentive listening does yield some rewards, with points for some glibly clever bits and winking devilishness for spice.
Judging by the eight demo samples from the revamped, retitled version, an attempt was made to make the piece heavier and more intense, less cutesy. Anger spits in the first two selections, the raging "Men Are Pigs," followed by the relentless argument set to music, "Take Away My Crown." Anguish and despair, as determinedly serious as can be, with no more leavening than has matzoh, the song whose title is "Which Way Shall I Turn?" repeats that questioning line over and over, adding and reiterating also "Which way shall I go?/ Why does he hate my people so?" The show's title gets its nod in lyrics in a number called "Country Girl," where the Queen grouses, "They call me 'Ugly Duckling'/ It's clear that I'm no swan," while a chorus taunts, "She's a frump!/ What a chump!" Contrastingly, "Golden State" is a pep rally with an ever-enthused chorus, infused with some pop gospel-esque flourishes. These tracks are sung by Richard Barnes, Debi Doss, Jackie Marks and Shirlie Roden. The last two were in the cast of a 1985 tour, and Ms. Roden, along with John Miller, provided "additional music and lyrics"though it's not clear from the liner notes by Munns if they all collaborated or the new pair contributed new numbers of their own, or some of each. While the "newer" tunes are maybe more in tune with pop rock opera sensibilities and stylings, they are either heavy-handed or extra light. As demos, sound quality/clarity varies, though they were recorded in the same studio the same week (late January 1985).
The last track features a stronger selection not from the score, but related in that Stephanie Lawrence sings it and Shirlie Roden wrote it: a powerful "Here Stands a Man" from an unproduced musical version of How Green Was My Valley, dated 1992. What a mixed bag this recording is!