Strong Songwriters & Singers with Soaring Stories/
Don't look for much in the way of simple little ditties belowwe've got writers and singers with more meat on the musical and theatrical bones. The songwriters' collections feature plenty of richly specific and emotionally charged character pieces with actor-singers digging in. There's a little overlap in our singers and musicians, in material by composer-lyricist-pianist-arranger-orchestrator-(co-)producer Michael Patrick Walker and then similarly multi-tasking Georgia Stitt and her collaborators. She takes on many duties on her own album and on the latest offering from Susan Egan, a sometime lyricist herself.
The song titles may be short (only one is more than three words long, and five numbers have one-word titles), but don't expect any shortness of ideas, emotion, thoughts, details or power in the 13 songs on this dynamic new album. In his lyrics and music, with a contemporary musical theatre flair, Michael Patrick Walker gives his characters lots to say and feel as emotion churns, anger burns, crossroads are crossed, philosophies are trumpeted, and catharses and epiphanies are rampant. He doesn't sing on the collection, but on acoustic and electric piano, and as arranger/ orchestrator, he gives his own music quite the pulse and propulsion. Never rambling, the music can be taut with tension ... or tenderas in the case of the musical sorbet of Kelli O'Hara on a calm "Moonflower." Things often build (and build) to explosive release(s) oroccasionally, after some stormmore quiet resolve.
There's excitement here in the writing as well as in the work by the musicians and a group of talented musical theatre veterans up for the challenge. Most work very well, a couple are a bit exhausting or overplay their hand, but by and large this is splendid work from a still very young writer and a wealth of singing talent. Eight other musicians participate, with strings bringing depth, and the head of the Yellow Sound Label, Michael Croiter (who co-produces with Walker), giving plenty of kick and drive as percussionist.
Although the songs written for characters in musicals may be presented, as the title says, Out of Context, the commitment of the acting and the specificity of the lyrics makes them remarkably self-contained and satisfying. This is true whether it's a seething bullied kid rejecting pacifist dad's advice (sung with fervor and a dash of humor by Noah Galvin from The Burnt Part Boys) or telling a story (Jim Stanek folksy and charming with a saga of a guy who tied many a job and many a town before finding his bliss in Pittsburgh in "Finding Me"). Craftsman Walker (and his chosen singer-actors) are, in fact, so skilled at almost immediately giving us the guts and crystallizing a mindset that some tracks can feel like they crest early and then go on for more. Perhaps Walker doesn't realize how well and quickly he's let us know these characters and thinks we need one more ride or set of evidence. His characters tend to be articulate and/or exploding with rapid-fire thoughts they need to express. Fortunately, the lyrics later in songs don't just repeat and re-state. And, perhaps in context, some need all the material.
No information is given in the packaging about the musicals the songs come fromnothing beyond the credits. However, the talented and versatile Mr. Walker, who's also been accompanist for Chita Rivera, may have come to the attention of many as writer for part of the score of the hit Altar Boyz. From that musical, we have the sweet (and less complex) "I Believe," sung in attractively honeyed pop tones by Cheyenne Jackson, who was in the show in its early incarnation before its Off-Broadway run. And Andy Karl, also of that likeable musical, is on board, with "Never Added Up," an unleashing of anger and pain as a man, now single after years of coupledom where efforts to make it work ...didn't. Also on the topic of divorce, but exulting in its sense of liberation and new opportunities ("no more chauffeur, no more go-fer") is "All About Me" (orchestrated by Lynne Shankel), from a web series called "The Battery's Down" and Anne L. Nathan takes it to town, bursting with confidence and carpe diem determination as she lists all the things she can and will now be able to do. In the midst of the long list, the character includes climbing the Matterhorn, then stops for a self-knowing reality check to add, "Well, probably not." It's a small but key moment that makes it special. This hint of being able to show a woman really looking at and knowing herself, but with more layers and drama, laced with self-chastisement (a sarcastic note to self: "good job!" when she fails) comes with Lisa Howard superb as "Irene." (This selection and Rachel York's raucous "Pour Poor Me" come from the musical The Distant Bells.)
Walker's craftsmanship in lyrics is nicely shown wherein a guy tries to make a case for himself as the man who can give "More," as compared to the one his love is about to walk down the aisle with ("I guess I should have told you before you put on your dress and before I seated your parents in the front row.") The metaphors here are crisp and feel right, especially as Andy Mientus whirls them pleadingly in a socko performance: "I'm an ocean, he's a lake ... He's a burger, I'm a steak ... I'm champagne, he's Diet Sprite ... He's a desert, I'm the Nile." It's in the mold of the many comparisons of the good and the less so in Cole Porter's list songs "You're the Top" and "the good turtle soup or merely the mock," etc. in "At Long Last Love," but with more bite and urgency rather than cheery playfulness.
There's neat rhyming ("Geek can mean unique") to characterize Being Theo's "Weird Little Man" and being attracted to him with incremental eye-opening awarenessbut lingering doubtby Kate Wetherhead, delivered with panache. Perhaps the most vulnerable heartbreak moment comes in another consideration, focused on how a son feels when he knows he's a "Different Kind of Man" than his father wanted him to be. Two gorgeous-voiced performers who sing with heart and aching beautyTelly Leung (now in Godspell) and Michael Arden, an expert at projecting a natural-vulnerability and yearningshare duties here, capturing the laments laced with hurt and an underlying sense of self-worth. It's a trunk song, written for a project called Kinky Boots taken over by another writer, but well worth the keeping. This often dazzling album is a keeper, too.
"If I Could," sung wistfully, wondrously and warily by Michael Arden on My Lifelong Love is about the wishes we know can't come true, but the desire remains and we make our peace. As the song, with melody by the gifted Sam Davis who also arranged it elegantly, says, we can't "freeze the clocks" and "summer wouldn't fade to fall." If I had a more possible wish at the moment, it would be that the new Georgia Stitt collection I'd been anticipating was all songs I didn't know and hadn't been recorded before. Those of us who've sought or stumbled upon her work have found gems of eclectic styles and we are greedy, wanting more. The good news is that, familiar or new to the ears, the material is choice and well served. Another Davis/Stitt collaboration is "Invested in You," an adorable old-fashioned charm song (also appearing on Davis' collection), here delivered with panache and smarts by Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli, breezily knocking out the pecuniary punny payoffs. Susan Egan's plaintive singing of "The Wanting of You" can also be heard on her own album (reviewed below) which beat this CD to the marketplace by a couple of months. With words by Marcy Heisler, it's from Alphabet City Cycle, a suite of several songs released as a short-length CD, with vocals by Kate Baldwin, who also turns up here for more of her involved singing, with "More of My Mother" with a sense of realization, maturing, and the the awareness of the passing of time, frequent touchstones in Stitt's lyrics and music by David Kirshenbaum (Summer of '42). (Sometimes she does music and words, sometimes one or the other, such as when she shows her gift for setting poems, enriching already formidable words and thoughts from Shakespeare, Dorothy Parker and others.)
It's difficult to think of many such CDs that show such variety from track to trackwith tone, subject matter, genre, type of accompanimentthat hang together so well. So, adding that to the fact that Georgia Stitt is the prodigious, thoughtful writer, producer, sometimes pianist, conductor, or arranger or some combination thereof, it's quite an accomplishmentagain. Whether listening to the (intentionally) very short and sweet zips from Laura Osnes ("Communication" and "A Very Short Song") or grander pieces with strings and hearts aloft, these are satisfying sounds.
Other theatre names, all with material whose music and words are Stitt's, include Heidi Blickenstaff (who performed an off-Broadway one-character, one-act piece, Mosaic, represented here) kinetic, connected on "Not Yet"; Jesse Tyler Ferguson, on the CD's title number, nailing the long-ago memories and sensibilities in a growing-up saga; and Anika Noni Rose with the sentimental but strong comparison of "Kites and Children." Brian d'Arcy James is potent, soaring in a gorgeous orchestral setting by Don Sebesky of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 29" (the one that begins "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes ..." Oh, and keeping it in the family, personally and theatrically, husband Jason Robert Brown does piano and orchestration for the big number for big-voiced and commanding Christopher Jackson: "At This Turn in the Road Again" (remnant of a musical with lyricist Bil Wright, before he and Stitt parted ways).
We're looking forward to more and more from Georgia Stitt. Keep an eye and an ear out.
The relished role for the musical theatre world's Susan Egan is, apparently, real-life Mommy. She's joined by another musical mom, friend and collaborator Georgia Stitt, producer of the album, musical director, keyboardist, arranger, and writer of some of the material. The two sing together with a decided sense of understanding and admonitions on Stephen Sondheim's adviso, "Children Will Listen." "The Me of the Moment" is a statement about a person's self-tracking through life as a developing work in progress. It's a number with music and lyrics by the multi-talented Ms. Stitt who brings grace and restraint to the CD.
Sunny, warm 'n' fuzzy spirits, with some spunk, are what Susan has often projected in shows and on her CDs, in ingenue parts and beyond. Embodying the viewpoint of "A Cock-Eyed Optimist" is a natural fit as she wears the mantle and sings that South Pacific classic as if born to the breed. Born to her have been two young daughters and they become the focus of her new CD, The Secret to Happiness, with a song about each of the girls, for which she has contributed lyrics. Their names are on a chain around her neck in one photo and the girls' arms (Isla, Nina or both) are around her neck in others. If you're the sort of person who cringes when doting parents whip out dozens of baby photos and regale you with tales of toddler triumphs, some parts of this CD may not be your cup of strained apple juice. There's some motherly clucking and cooing going on here and there, but it's not a children's album with children's songs by any means, though such an endeavor would hardly be a stretch given her Disney resume, experience in the California schools, and eternal girlishness and sense of wonder. "Momsense" is Anita Renfroe's collection of dozens of parental instructions, warnings and nags set to the famously galloping music of The William Tell Overture. This may be too cartoony cutesy-pie for some, but it also shows off Susan's voice on the big high notes in the latter part.
Much of what we have here seems directly or indirectly informed by the awe of the perspective-changing experience of parenting. One number with music by Brian Haner and a lyric by him and Susan tells of how her daughter had a runny nose, needed diapers changed, etc., wanting her attention, but "Nina Doesn't Care" about her mom's reviews in The New York Times and how her last show went. I suppose a purist would carp that a babe in diapers can't care about what she's not old enough to really understand and know about. But we get the point.
Though there's some other subject matter, too, with affirmations and comic relief, it's the family ties that bind this together. The CD ends with a kind of precious, crooning lullaby-like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with keyboards and arrangement by Jason Robert Brown. He does the same honors on his song, "All Things in Time," about patience, and it is a major highlight, sung with evenhanded maturity and thoughtfulness. On this CD, as usual, Susan brings bounce and goodwill, a radiating voice and joie de vivre.