Nine People's Favorite Thing
[title of show] and Bernarda Alba are now on CD, and the hitherto unreleased 1998 Broadway cast album of Paul Simon's The Capeman is finally available as a digital download.
But there's no need for running and screaming; talent is present in abundance here. Needless to say, that makes all the difference in the world. Both clever and heartfelt, [title of show] is lifted even further above the level of so many other smart-ass musicals in that its cast -- co-authors Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, plus Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff -- is perfection.
Ghostlight's recently released cast album is no substitute for experiencing the show live; little of Bell's book is included here, and the performers' droll on-stage interactions and priceless facial expressions obviously don't come with the CD package, except insofar as they are reflected in some terrific color photos by Carol Rosegg. But the album is a treasure in that it allows repeated enjoyment of Bowen's songs, chock-full of attractive melodies and brilliantly witty lyrics. It's also great to have all of the lyrics printed in the accompanying booklet, the better to savor the dozens of musical theater and pop cultural references.
The song titles alone -- "Untitled Opening Number," "Two Nobodies in New York," "Part of It All," "Secondary Characters," etc. -- clearly indicate the show's themes and concerns. One of the best numbers in the score is "Nine People's Favorite Thing," in which the cast members sing that they'd rather their work be adored by a very small percentage of people than merely well-liked by a much larger percentage. The quirkiness of [title of show], not to mention its intelligence, will keep it from ever being as popular as Cats or Mamma Mia! Is that a bad thing? I don't think so -- and, apparently, neither do the authors.
Last season's Lincoln Center Theater production of Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba has yielded a highly enjoyable cast album, even though the production itself was something of a stylistic mess.
Based on Federico Garcia Lorca's searing classic The House of Bernarda Alba, the musical is about the tragedy that results when a Spanish matriarch becomes insanely protective of her five daughters following the death of her husband. Much of the piece's power is that it offers us a glimpse into this insular society; but on stage at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, as directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, Bernarda Alba had a "family" of women who didn't seem like a family at all. With Phylicia Rashad in the title role, Saundra Santiago, Judith Blazer, Sally Murphy, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Nikki M. James as her daughters, Yolande Bevan as her mother, and Candy Buckley, Laura Shoop, and Nancy Ticotin as the household servants, the cast was disparate not only in terms of race but -- even more problematically -- in terms of acting and singing styles.
Some of the resultant mish-mash is evident on Ghostlight's Bernarda Alba cast album. Buckley's coarse Broadway belt is from a different solar system of the musical universe than the warmer, richer voice of Rashad, which in turn is stylistically unrelated to the singing of Blazer or Rubin-Vega, and so on. But, on disc, we're at least not distracted by the family members' total lack of physical resemblance to one another. Also -- of course -- the CD doesn't document Daniele's staging, which was marred by such unwise decisions as having Bernarda's dead husband and the young stud Pepe el Romano represented by two of the women in the cast. (In the Lorca play, these characters are referred to but never seen.)
Absent such distractions, the score is revealed as the minor masterpiece it is. It can't have been easy to set such a dark, humorless tale to music -- even West Side Story and Sweeney Todd have their share of laughs! -- but LaChiusa has done so with great skill. Among the highlights are "Bernarda's Prayer," the daughters' individual arias about themselves, the lively ensemble number "I Will Dream of What I Saw," and the chilling finale. Adding immeasurably to the power of this gripping score are Michael Starobin's piquant, guitar-heavy orchestrations.
When it opened on Broadway on January 29, 1998, the Paul Simon-Derek Walcott musical The Capeman was generally judged to be incoherent from a narrative standpoint. If memory serves, composer and co-lyricist Simon made much of the fact that he was writing the show his way rather than following the time-honored precepts of musical theater construction. Neither Simon nor book writer Walcott had any previous experience in musical theater; nor had the celebrated modern dance figure Mark Morris ever before directed or choreographed a Broadway show, as he attempted to do here.
Based on the real-life story of Salvador Agrón, a 16-year-old Puerto Rican gang member who stabbed two other teenagers to death in 1959, The Capeman closed after a mere 59 previews and 68 performances; but though critics weren't shy about detailing the show's fatal flaws, many of them opined that Simon's score was something very special. Until now, the only available commercial recording was a 1997 concept album with vocals by Simon, Anthony, Blades, Nazario, and lots of guest artists. A bona-fide cast recording was made after the show hit Broadway, but it has languished in the vaults -- until now. Universal has just released these 39 tracks, though they're only available as digital downloads and not in a CD package. (I believe this is a first.)