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Hardly Rotten

Filichia just can't seem to get David Yazbek's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels score out of his head. logo
Are 49,999 other people as happy as I am? I imagine so, thanks to the inspired idea of the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels producers to give away 50,000 cast albums of David Yazbek's perky and intoxicating score.

Don't you just love it when you get a disc that makes you want to listen to absolutely nothing else? Well, for the first time since Avenue Q, it's happened to me: I've been whistling and humming Yazbek's songs ever since I got the album. In the middle of watching other shows or having conversations with friends, I find my brain suddenly invaded by "The More We Dance" or "Dirty Rotten Number."

Yazbek's music reminds me of what critic Martin Gottfried wrote about Burt Bacharach's music for Promises, Promises in 1968: that not only were the lyrics funny, but so was the music. That's true here, too. I even love Track 17, which is not a song at all but, rather, an announcement by John Lithgow. He tells us that if we haven't yet seen the show, we should stop listening right here, because the songs that follow give away the plot. Indeed, I have seen the show -- twice, and I'm not through yet. But even if I hadn't, the songs are so good that I wouldn't have been able to stop there. By the way, since the track starts with "Hello, this is John Lithgow," we need never again wonder how the actor's name is pronounced and which syllable is stressed; we now have it from the (clothes) horse's mouth that it's definitely LITH-go. < p> Back to Yazbek. What's most impressive is the native theatricality of his work, which is all the more remarkable if we consider that he didn't grow up wanting to write for Broadway; he fell into it when Adam Guettel recommended him for The Full Monty. Yazbek created a nice, suave melody to introduce Lawrence Jameson but an intentionally ugly one to acquaint us with Freddy Benson. That's as it should be: Freddy's tune has to be crude, for he's a crude guy. In almost every song, though, his vamps are so enticing that they immediately prick up your ears, and make you pay attention to what's coming. Then you're rewarded for your diligence.

Allow me to rave about the beautiful ballad "Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True." Any song that begins with the fresh image "Look at the way the moon behaves" immediately has my respect. If we had more nightclubs and cabarets in which songs like this had the chance to be heard, then it would definitely become a standard in such venues. It's the most terrific example of this type of song since Cy Coleman and David Zippel collaborated on the gorgeous "With Every Breath I Take" for City of Angels (1989). Even if you did get one of the 50,000 free Dirty Rotten promo albums, you really should purchase the "actual" album, for among the three bonus tracks is Sherie Rene Scott doing a sensational version of this tune with ace pianist Bill Charlap backing her up.

True, Yazbek's songs sound more pop-oriented than those of the average theater score. Who'd expect that a song called "Chimp in a Suit" would be a jazz waltz, or that one titled "Here I Am" would be a bossa nova? (Bob Merrill sure didn't make that musical choice when he wrote a song that he titled "Here I Am" for Henry, Sweet Henry.) But these are felicitous tunes. "All About Ruprecht" is the sort of melody that Meredith Willson almost but didn't quite capture for "Arm in Arm" in Here's Love! Here, Yazbek is at his most lyrically audacious, with references to shaved testicles and KY jelly. (I've never heard the former mentioned in any other musical, and as for the latter, I can only think of an oblique reference in the Off-Broadway gay revue When Pigs Fly.)

Yes, Yazbek could have taken a higher road when he has Lawrence ask, "Who likes to save up all his farts in a mason jar?" One word in that line could just as easily have been the slightly more refined "gas." But most of the show's lyrics are chock-full of terrific jokes and are nicely conversational, too. ("Let's get that Greek" is one I that especially look forward to at the recording's end.) Credit Yazbek for knowing how to use an apostrophe to help him with a rhyme ("A medical professional / Before he starts a session'll / Be sure..."). He's clearly no dummy, as is also shown by his building a song on "The Corpus Hippocraticum."

It isn't every day I hear a score this strong -- but David, if I may, there are a few things wrong with your lyrics. You could be one of the great Broadway songsmiths if you'd work at your craft just a little harder, so here are a few suggestions that I'd love to see you take:

1) Avoid false accents. I don't like your trying to rhyme "fence" with "confi-dence," but I'll overlook your hooking "easy" with "B.C." True, we all stress the "C" rather than the "B," but it's sung in Dirty Rotten by an (alleged) doctor from Vienna for whom English is a second language. Similarly, though "veni, vidi, vici" doesn't quite rhyme with "je suis ici," it's sung by the naive Cincinnati native Christine, for whom French is a second language.

2) Strive for perfect rhymes. I'll cut you some slack on "castle" and "asshole" because the character André has a continental accent and therefore might say those words in such a way that they would rhyme. (Not that Gregory Jbara does this successfully.) But I cringe at your trying to rhyme "abattoir" with "samovar," "perceived" with "naive." And though rhyming "obscene her" with "orangina" works in Boston, nothing in your show says that these characters come from the 617 area code.

3) Don't try to top your best joke. In "Great Big Stuff," you have a really terrific one at the expense of Broadway (literally and figuratively), and it can't be one-upped by a quick reference to a disease.

4) Keep your characters in character. While Freddy would certainly say "I wanna mansion with a moat," he definitely would not add "around which I can float." Freddy is the sort of guy who would end sentences with prepositions. I know you did this for a quick rhyme, but if you'd stayed with it a bit longer, I'm sure you would have found a better solution.

These are admittedly nit-picks, David, but the next one is something far more serious: The last time you were at the Tonys, when the camera panned to you during the announcement of the Best Score nominations, you purposely picked your nose. Perhaps this was meant to deride your nomination for what many of your contemporaries consider a corny, stodgy award; perhaps it was just a nervous act of self-deprecation, which would be more forgivable; or maybe it's really true that "David is seven," as you claim in your Playbill bio. My fear is that, when you win this year and go to the stage to accept your award, you'll try to trump your nose-picking by scratching yourself in a place where we'd rather not see you put your hand. But at least until Tony night -- and, I hope, for years thereafter -- I'll use my two hands to applaud you and your score for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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