By Brad Hathaway
Theater Shelf, a recurring feature, reviews recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some are popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others are works you’ll be intrigued by, but didn’t even know about.
Fun Home — Original Cast Recording
The nominees for this year’s Tony Awards for Broadway musicals will be announced tomorrow and we’ll take a look at the recordings of the nominated shows before the June 8 award telecast but, right now, there’s an original cast album of an Off Broadway musical that deserves your attention.
Fun Home is an Off-Broadway musical that is showing up on almost all the lists of nominees for award nominees that include Off-Broadway. PS Classics captured an original cast recording before the show’s limited run came to an end in January. That run was a world premiere at the Public Theatre where A Chorus Line, Hair, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson and Caroline, or Change, were first mounted.
It has been nominated for 9 Lucille Lortel Awards which recognize outstanding work Off-Broadway, 8 Drama Desk Awards and 7 Outer Critics Circle Awards which recognize quality both On and Off Broadway and it has been nominated in both categories for which it is eligible for the Drama League Awards.
What is more, it has just been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, becoming one of only ten musicals in the 96-year history of that prize to be either awarded the prize itself or named as a finalist for the award. (The award itself went to Annie Baker’s drama The Flick.)
Fun Home has a book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori who has an admirable ability to compose in a mode that fits her subject. Here she’s not composing big production numbers and catchy tunes as she did for Shrek: The Musical or the throwback pop sound of the material she added to the film’s score for the Broadway version of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Instead, for this small, intimate and serious piece, Tesori is composing much more in the style of her more serious works such as Caroline, or Change which went on to multiple award nominations both Off- and On-Broadway after its transfer to a full Broadway house, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Here she’s uses melody more as connecting tissue than to construct hummable tunes.
As a result of the more complex and interconnected nature of the score as an integrated part of the story-telling along with the book, PS Classics rightly made the decision to record not just the songs from the show, but the underscored scenes as well. This provides a listening experience something akin witnessing the show itself. In support of that experience, the booklet includes the full lyrics, as well as the text of the dialogue in the underscored scenes and a fine three-page synopsis by Kron who wrote both book and lyrics.
There are also 17 color photos of the production which give a fairly good feel for what it must have been like on stage. However they give barely a glimpse of the projections of Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, which must have provided a linkage to the source of the story, the graphic memoir of cartoonist Alison Bechdel whose comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For was syndicated for over 20 years.
Bechdel’s story (and, thus, Fun Home’s story) is neatly encapsulated in Kron’s script where she has Bechdel say “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay, and he killed himself, and I … became a lesbian cartoonist.”
Such a short précis! But what Kron and Tesori do with that tale is quite engrossing. They tell it from three perspectives simultaneously, one weaving in as the other weaves out. There’s fully grown Alison, writing and illustrating her book in order to figure out just what happened and how she really feels about it.
Then there’s Small Alison, the pre-teen who, along with her two siblings, cope with their father without knowing of his closeted infidelity or even the reason for the acrimonious arguments between him and their mother behind closed doors.
And finally, there’s Middle Alison in her freshman year at Oberlin College where she discovers her own homosexuality, falls in love with, an activist from the Gay Student Union named Joan and, as her song says, “changes her major to Joan.”
As the three Alisons Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas and Alexandra Socha manage to deliver dialog as if in performance on a stage and not the often stilted sound of unsung lines in a recording studio. This is true of the rest of the cast as well and I don’t know if the stage director Sam Gold or the record producers Tommy Krasker and Philip Chafin deserve the credit. Whoever deserves it has my thanks for making the listening experience absorbing instead of disjointedly slipping from spoken to sung material.
In the roles of the parents are Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn, both turning in performances of richness and texture. This comes as no surprise, of course. Both have been doing so for quite a while. From time to time the do it together. In 2002 they teamed up with Marin Mazzie as the three principals of Passion at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration. Thanks in large part to their work, (and that of Mazzie and director Eric Schaeffer) that was hands-down the finest production of Passion I’ve had the privilege of attending.
As this isn’t an album of songs from the show but an audio presentation of the storytelling as an integrated whole, this is an album to settle in with – booklet in one hand and perhaps your favorite libation in the other. It takes just over an hour. It is a wonderful hour.
As a side–bar, I should report that the source material for the show, Bechdel’s book, has caused a bit of a stir in South Carolina this month. A member of the state House of Representatives said he received a complaint about the College of Charleston selecting the book for the “College Reads” program which the college’s website describes as a “campus-wide common reading program designed to connect students, faculty, and staff around a single book to promote the idea that liberally educated people read broadly and discuss with one another ideas arising from the books they share.” The legislator, Representative Garry R. Smith, (R – Simpsonville, SC) succeeded in getting the House to reduce the state’s appropriation for support of the College by the $52,000 he determined was the cost of the program. The reduction was offered because of the college’s use of a book he said “could be considered pornography.”
Original Cast Recording
PS Classics Catalog PS-1421
Running time 1:04 over 25 tracks (14 vocal, 11 dialog)
Packaged with notes, synopsis, lyrics and photos
Scenes and Monologues from Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Finalists 2008 – 2012
Read any good plays lately?
I have a confession to make. I can’t read a play and come away with anything approaching the emotional satisfaction I get from the experience in the theater. Some people can. I can’t.
It takes the skills of actors, directors and designers to bring the stories to life for me – to convert the playwright’s words into the play’s worlds, and to connect all the threads the playwright spins into the fabric of human experience.
However, I find I can read a single scene and “get it.” I can absorb the interconnections of a speech pretty well on my own. I can read a single scene and thrill to the craft involved and the emotional content placed there by the author. Concentrating on a single scene or a single speech, I can get a glimpse of what the full play must be like.
There are so many new plays being developed around the country. I’d love to be able to tour the nation to catch a premiere here, a second production there and perhaps a revival somewhere else. But time and money are both scarce resources, so some sort of sampling technique comes in handy.
Of course, following the writings of many of my colleagues in the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) can provide a way to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of current programming in regional theaters around the country. But for a chance to actually sample the output of some of the current crop of fine playwrights, there is a new book that can be of help.
The book is by Bruce Burgun, one of my colleagues in the Association. (I suppose this is the place for a disclosure since the Association receives royalties from sales of his book and I served on the Association’s Executive Committee and as its Treasurer.) In over 300 fairly large type pages, Burgun presents some of the strongest scenes and monologues from many of the finalists for the annual new play award that the Association administers with funding from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.
The Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award is the largest and most prestigious award of its kind outside New York City, and it concentrates on plays that have received their premieres during the year but have not had a production in any of the five boroughs of New York. Each year the New Play Committee of ATCA reads dozens of plays that members of the Association have discovered in their local theaters and recommended for consideration. Somehow, the committee members find a way to narrow the field to six finalists, and eventually, to a grand prize recipient and two citation recipients. The top recipient gets an award of $25,000 while each of the two citation recipients receive $7,500.
In this volume, Burgun reprints nearly 70 scenes and monologues from 27 plays that were finalists for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award between 2008 and 2012. They are by such sterling playwrights as Karen Zacharías, Lee Blessing, Donald Margulies, Tracy Letts, Steven John Dietz and Sarah Ruhl.
One scene from Legacy of Light by Karen Zacharías lets us eavesdrop on an infertile couple’s interview with a prospective surrogate to carry their effort at in-vitro fertilization to delivery. Dietz’s intriguing Becky’s New Car is represented by two monologues as well as the scene in which the titular Becky meets the multimillionaire who wants to buy nine cars from her dealership as gifts for his employees.
Sarah Ruhl’s wonderful Dead Man’s Cell Phone is here with three multi-female character scenes and a monologue, while Bill Cain’s 9 Circles about a returning soldier who finds himself accused of atrocities during his service in Iraq is represented by three two-character scenes. In one, the accused vet meets with the public defender who is to walk him through his arraignment. Then there’s the meeting with his defense attorney preparing for trial, and another with a pastor who believes he needs not a lawyer but Jesus.
The riches continue with scenes from Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days, Lee Blessing’s Great Falls and the intriguingly titled Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Pamatmat.
Burgun, a critic who is also an Associate Professor of Acting and Directing at Indiana University in Bloomington, selected these snippets as material for scene study instructors to use in teaching actors how to analyze individual scenes in preparing a performance. He says that “The individual scenes were chosen for their balance of conflict, arch of transition, and the ferocity of the circumstances.”
Those criteria also happen to produce a set of selections that the cold reader, not having either the pleasure of seeing full productions of the plays or the luxury or ability to read a full script, can get a feeling for the richness and diversity of the best of the plays that are being written for theater around the country these days.
In a superb introduction to the volume, Bill Hirschman, editor of Florida Theater On Stage and chair of ATCA’s New Play Committee, makes the point that today’s theater is undergoing “sea changes in playwriting” which he identifies as “an increasing reliance on shorthand in storytelling for savvier and younger audiences, stylistic and elliptical approaches, cinematically visual tableaux, (and) the incorporation of digital technology to re-create seemingly impossible visions.”
Burgun gives us a glimpse of how today’s writers are rising to that challenge.
Scenes and Monologues from Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award Finalists 2008 – 2012
Edited by Bruce Burgun
Paperback 350 pages
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
List Price $19.99
With A Little Help From My Friends:
Jarrod Spector Live at 54 Below
Some artists who put together a cabaret show just pick a bunch of songs that they like to sing or that show off their talents. Others pick a theme or turn their cabaret show into an autobiography. Either way, with enough talent and a sense of taste, these shows can be thrilling – as those of us who have collected at least a good portion of the nearly a dozen recordings of Broadway stars’ shows in the Live at 54 Below series of Broadway Records know so well.
The latest release, however, is something a bit different. It isn’t often that a cabaret performance is also a history lesson – and when that does happen it usually isn’t either a very good lesson or a very good show. Jarrod Spector, on the other hand, has pulled off that rarity: a fascinating lesson that is a rousing musical experience.
Spector, despite having been a Star Search attraction at age 6, is best known to the theater community as one of the line of high-tenor actors that the producers of Jersey Boys keeps coming up with who can handle the demands of that oh-so-demanding show in the role of the most identifiably high-tenor star of the second half of the last century, Frankie Valli.
His stint as Valli started out with the alternate slot, performing matinees in the U.S. tour of the show. He moved up to be the headliner with the opening of the Chicago company and later was a replacement Frankie Valli on Broadway. He says he’s performed the role now about 1,500 times! His career is moving on, however, with his role in a new musical where he again performs in the character of a real live person. This time he plays songwriter Barry Mann in the new show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical that opened in January at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway.
If you learned what you know about high-tenors from attending a thrilling evening of theater called Jersey Boys you may think that the sound of a Frankie Valli came from out of nowhere to enrapture songwriter Bob Gaudio and capture the public with hit after hit with the Four Seasons from “Sherry” to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and the definitive high-tenor pop song, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.”
Spector uses his time on the stage of the Broadway nightclub 54 Below (so named because it is in the basement of the building that houses the Broadway theater Studio 54 on – naturally – 54th street) to trace the evolution of the sound from its roots in the opera world of Caruso to Brian Wilson’s use of the “wail” above the bass grounding of Good Vibrations and beyond. He gives due credit to those who informed his own musical world like Billy Joel.
Spector really begins to detail the history when he works in Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Sweet Home Chicago” but he doesn’t just tell us that Johnson was a force in the development of the blues as a jazz/pop genre, he demonstrates it with his own high-energy stage presence before segueing into something more people probably recognize “When You Wish Upon a Star” – the song Leigh Harline and Ned Washington wrote for Disney’s Pinocchio which Cliff Edwards warbled in a distinctive high-tenor.
Moving forward, Spector introduces his audience to the influence of “A Guy Named Little Jimmy Scott,” as the 1940’s segment of his show is titled. Spector’s rendition of “Unchained Melody” is as theatrically entertaining as it is historically informative. Moving into the 50’s he’s throwing his distinctive high-tenor wail into “Good Golly Miss Molly” and other rock and roll classics.
When he throws a Four Seasons/Jersey Boysish “woooooweeee!” into his opening number, the song from which his cabaret show takes its title, the Beatle’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” the audience reaction says they are there primarily because of his Frankie Valli work. But with his samples from the work of Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Little Richard, Billy Joel, Elton Joel, and Enrico Caruso – yes, Caruso! – each delivered with panache, energy and obvious affection, Spector makes his history lesson a highly entertaining musical show that had to satisfy even those who wanted a full evening of just Frankie Valli.
For a guy who has been doing his “Frankie Valli” for years, his honest admiration and love for the work of those other high-tenors who helped create and popularize this particular element of the popular music field comes through on the recording. It also comes through in his notes in the album’s booklet when he says: “To be even a bit like one of them is to be a bit like all of them.”
There is much more here than just a whole lot of songs featuring high-tenor. This is more than a history lesson about how that sound came to be – it is an homage to that distinctively thrilling sound.
With A Little Help From My Friends:
Jarrod Spector Live at 54 Below
Running time 1:17 on 24 tracks