Sound Advice Reviews
A new musical drama based on an old tale
Although it has its tender moments, almost everything about the new studio cast recording of songs from the ambitious score of In the Light: A Faustian Tale is, in a word, BIG! There's a 30-piece orchestra, recorded in Austria before other musicians and soaring vocals were added separately in several locations in the United Statesa sign of the pandemic times for preserving music. The arrangements' instrumental figures swirl and throb as characters' intense emotions of anger, anguish, or romantic ardor explode and simmer. High-stakes high drama is kicked up even more when a choir or solo obligato voice in counterpoint prominently adds emotional heft and heat. One might say that the only thing that is notably not big is the amount of the score we get on this release, as the 15 tracks on what's billed as Highlights from ... represent a bit less than the 32 songs composer-lyricist Michael Mott says make up the current version of this piece he began in his last year of high school. It's had workshops and readings and a live concert at Feinstein's/54 Below in Manhattan.
Originally titled Faustus, the musical is in the long line of literary, film, stage, and musical creations inspired by the plot of a goal-driven mortal making a deal with the Devil. Sometimes it's a close retelling of the centuries-old tale and sometimes that is lightly referenced. In musical theatre, we've had Faust with songs by Randy Newman and its all-star pop/rock CD cast and, in a lighter vein, there's Damn Yankees.
The booklet includes the texts of all the lyrics and dialogue heard, with detailed summations of the story interspersed to bring us up to speed with the speedily thickening, complex plot. Much would not be obvious without these updates, partly due to the absence of those songs not included. And what a saga it is, with concealed identity, marriage proposal, deception, threats, imprisonment, killings, a possible airborne trip to the heavens, plus reflections on the oppression of women, the potency of organized religion, and the meaning of life (and the afterlife, too!). So, no wonder In the Light is absent a light touch. There may be a torrent of tumult and terror, but there's room for some sweetness, too, thanks to the brighter-hued, pop-friendly perspective of the lilting "Tomorrow Begins Today" which recalls a wide-eyed affirmation not such a distance from the Disney take on Hercules.
Our hero is an astronomer named Johann; he is charged with blasphemy during the Inquisition as the proceedings begin. Not everybody wants to follow the science. (Sound familiar?) The role is sung with earnestness and flair by Jeremy Jordan. There are also committed performances by this studio cast that includes the fine work of such performers as Solea Pfeiffer, Ciara Renée, Antonio Cipriano, and Bobby Conte Thornton. The singing actors dig into their assignments, pleading, pontificating, power-ballad blasting. We hear some lines of the dialogue credited to both the original bookwriter Justin Silvestri and Nathan Wright who came on board later.
Fiercely held ideas and idealism get much focus. The material doesn't put forth showy turns of phrase or tongue-tricky wordplay. Rhyming tends to use common words but is laid out adeptly in patterns. Here's an example using the ABAB scheme and economical short phrases: "Pay your price/ Make your deal/ It feels nice/ It's not real." That's in "Sign, Shake, Spit!". Two selections with the same titles and melodies and main thrustsbut mostly different lyricswere included on a recording called Where the Sky Ends: The Songs of Michael Mott. They are the attractive "Dare to Dream," which reinforces hope for achieving goals, and the love-drenched "Her Embrace."
In a recent interview, the composer-lyricist used the word "sweeping" a couple of times to describe the score and that's apt. In the same chat, it wasn't surprising to hear him say that he'd been influenced by and admired the scores of Les Misérables and The Scarlet Pimpernel and classical composers with grandly romantic bent. Those who like their musical statements and performances bold and stirring, favoring fervor and fortitude, filled with anthems and declarations of devotion to a cause or a lover may greet In the Light with pulse-quickened cheers. The orchestrations are by Kim Scharnberg, whose same duties for the large-scale doings of Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Civil War make him an understandable choice.
The sturm und drang of this show will be the style of swooping and swelling musical roller coaster ride melodrama fans will willingly sign on for, as is presented in In the Light "highlights." Others may want to reserve full, fair judgment until they can sample the full contents. In any case, fasten your seatbelts and hold on to your hat and heart.
Those of us who have relished attending Broadway shows and have surely sorely missed them while the Great White Way went dark might wish we could trade places with those who were flocking to shows in the year of 1910. Then, the operetta Naughty Marietta was just one of the crowded field of 181(!) plays and musicals that opened in the calendar year. It has been a staple of its genre, trotted out on many a stage over the decades, and adapted as a film in 1935 and for live TV in 1955. Other shows seen in New York in 1910 already had a past (lots of Shakespeare, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Mikado in its sixth visit) or would have futures in some form (The Scarlet Pimpernel, then a non-musical), and the season offered the fourth edition of what would be a long series of The Ziegfeld Follies.
While many titles are likely forgotten, such as The Girl in the Taxi and The Girl in the Traina play and operetta, respectively, both opening in OctoberNaughty Marietta has survived, spawning recordings of its score. Usually that has been in truncated form as "highlights," taking up one side of a vinyl record album, but a couple of labels opted for much more. One was sponsored by the history-conscious Smithsonian, capturing a 1981 cast just after a four-day run of a semi-staged production in their Baird Auditorium in Washington, D.C. With a young star-on-the-rise Judy Blazer in the title role, that splendid version, sung with vitality and panache, is now reissued for the first time in CD and digital formats, by Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project.
With 21 tracks, it's sumptuous. There are nine principal singers and a huge chorus and even larger chamber orchestra. The sturdy, memorable Victor Herbert melodies bubble and bounce or stride forth pompously. The lyrics contributed by Rida Johnson Young (a female collaborator was a noteworthy rarity in those years and beyond), which haven't aged as well for dazzle potential, owing to traditions of the day to be more coy than clever, are in service to sail on the the lilting music. As was the case for other revivals, the book was tweaked. (We do hear some dialogue, but not a whole lot, and some is apt or mildly amusing.)
The most famous songand one that became iconic enough to be spoofed and referenced over the years as an over-the-top "Eureka moment" of ecstatically recognizing true loveis the plot-important "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life." (It was incorporated into Thoroughly Modern Millie and briefly in the film Young Frankenstein.) It's definitely here, in its early cameo appearance and fully blossoming at the end, but isn't listed by the title that we know it as. Fans of operetta songs and casual listeners will also likely recognize the brisk tour de force coloratura soprano showpiece called "Italian Street Song," which Judy Blazer nails, and the rewardingly robust romantic realization "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" that Leslie Harrington dashingly powers through. Some will at least find familiarity with the trademarks of this type of declarative sentimental number to mark a key moment of rhapsodic bliss. Likewise, there may be a sense of following in familiar footsteps with the self-congratulatory marching theme infused with male bonding as the uniformed Rangers uniformly "'Tramp, Tramp, Tramp' along the highway." Liebman and Leslie Harrington lead this and the latter has zing in his "denial" duet with the leading lady "It Never, Never Can Be Love" which even newcomers will guess will prove to be a false prediction about their developing relationship.
This is a splendid version with sturdy voices and accompaniment that has vigor and sparkle. A big plus here is that the tone achieves finding the happy middle ground between the extremes of being either overly formal, stuffy and arch or condescendingly winking too forcefully at and thus mocking the quaintness of the genre. The mood is playful and fun, but the performances don't come off as smirkingly self-aware parodyan approach that would risk being unsustainably engaging in a full-length piece. (The fact that these are the musical selections from something that had just been rehearsed and performed for audiences, with in-character dialogue included, would tend to avoid that temptation.) Although we can be in on the fond teasing of operetta excesses, we are not shortchanged musically because the singing and playing are done full out with rich voices and style.
Singers seem to be solidly in charge and in a comfort zone with this genre and their characters. When they go big and indulge in flourishes and embellishments, it's just enough. There's an implied unapologetic embrace of the trademarks of this early European-bred form and what we acknowledge as stock characters, clichés, forced situations, with absurd and/or predictable plot twists. Yes, there are coquettish flirting ladies, macho marching men, people pretending to be other than who they are, instant romantic attractions, and featherweight motivations. In a word: Fluff!
I've listened to much of the score before and admired it, but I don't have all of it verbatim in my memory bank. As is sometimes the case with such fare, it is more difficult to catch all the words sung by the higher female voices and ensemble. Men and the effective, entertaining lower-pitched Dana Dreuger as Lizette and Elvira Green as Adah present less need to strain. I missed a lot of words and nuances in my first listening sessions, and some sprinkling of French and Italian words can add to the "what?!" moments. The booklet does not, unfortunately, include the lyrics, but I was later able to find the full sets of sheet music pages online and this eliminated the frustration and increased my enjoyment immensely. The booklet does, however, have some historical perspective, with comments by Frederick S. Hoffman who tweaked Rida Johnson Young's book (and lyrics, too), as well as his plot synopsis, and there are remarks by the Smithson's Dwight Blocker Bowers, including a tribute to the director/conductor James R. Morris who passed away just last year. Judy Blazer contributes some recently written reflections, accurately describing Victor Herbert's music as "schmaltzy." In a good way, of course.
Three cheers for schmaltz; it makes the sweet mystery of life extra sweet and delicious. Thanks to the history-conscious Harbinger Records and The Musical Theater Project, we can welcome back to the world of in-print recordings the 1981 take on Naughty Marietta! There's plenty of saucy, sassy life left in the old gal after a full century plus a decade.