True, I got fidgety about 15 minutes into the show, which chronicles the contentious romance between composer Kurt Weill and actress-singer Lotte Lenya. The show was hampered by the battle between Alfred Uhry's sentimental book and Harold Prince's moody, stylized direction. Partly, Prince was trying to stage the tension between the public performance of love and the private failings that can make relationships impossible. But his symbolic techniques didn't mean nearly as much when they were deployed on standard scenes about a bickering husband and wife.
However, as evidenced by the show's just-being-released cast recording (Ghostlight Records), the score is much more in line with Prince's sensibility. It helps that all the songs are by Weill himself (working with a variety of lyricists ranging from Bertolt Brecht to Ogden Nash). The composer's work tends to have a cerebral chill, and Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations highlight its sharp edges. The staccato rhythm of "Alabama Song," for instance, sounds more aggressive here than on Lenya's own recording.
Stars Michael Cerveris and Donna Murphy both do exquisite technical work, even if they sound like they've mapped out every choice in advance. You can almost hear Murphy's mind clicking during her nervous breakdown on "Surabaya Johnny," and the same is true of Cerveris' calculated sobs on the ballad "It Never Was You."
Plus, there's those accents. Every cast member sings with over-emphasized German diction, so that a word's pronunciation is as noticeable as its meaning. For the production being preserved, though, these alienating choices are appropriate. Flagrant emotion has little place in a Weill song to begin with, and Prince's vision makes it even more intrusive. That intellectual rigor means casual listeners -- myself included -- may never put this album into high rotation. But it's still a valuable artifact of one of last season's most unlikely Broadway offerings.
If I'm especially smitten with Clark's album, it's partially because I saw her perform last year in Lincoln Center's American Songbook series. So I already know the back story for a song like "Thomas," a gentle lullaby about Clark's son, which was written by her friend Jane Kelly Williams. But really, anyone could hear the genuine emotion in Clark's performance. Her voice surges with feeling, even when she's whispering.
The same power floods the rest of the album, which mixes a few musical theater standards ("I Got Lost in His Arms," "Before the Parade Passes By") with an obscure track from Adam Guettel ("Life is But a Dream"), an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem set to music ("Departure"), and even a religious hymn, "How Can I Keep from Singing?," that was once covered by Enya. Overall, Fifteen Seconds of Grace presents Clark as an impeccable artist with a lively, open-hearted personality. It's like a letter from a friend that you're always hoping will write.
On the other hand, it's hard to imagine anyone but a devoted completist listening to Jonathan Sings Larson. As anyone familiar with recent theater history knows, Jonathan Larson died when he was 35, and other than his landmark show, Rent, all he left behind was some odds and ends and a cabaret that was later refashioned into tick... tick... BOOM!
Sadly, he barely had time to get out of the awkward, early phase of his career. And awkwardness is on full display in juvenilia like "London Faces," a turgid ballad about urban isolation. The song features the following lyrics, sung without a trace of irony: "Nothing left but beer and sugar/A dream is just a candy bar/ No one in church, no one at school/ Do you know where you are?"
There is historical interest, at least, in hearing early drafts of Rent. The collection, which also includes a DVD, features five numbers from that show, including an extended version of "La Vie Boheme." A song called "Valentine's Day," about a woman addicted to violent relationships, is intriguing because it was an early inspiration for the character of Mimi.
But the best way to celebrate Rent is either to see it or listen to its original cast recording. That's Larson at his best, and it's how he deserves to be remembered.
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