On Jason Robert Brown’s blog, he reminisces on how Maltby and Shire’s revue Closer Than Ever was the inspiration behind his revue Songs for a New World. (Both, in revival, are sharing the same theatre, the York, this month.)
I’ll start with the positive: You couldn’t pick a better show to be inspired by. I know of no score to premiere in the past quarter century that’s as consistently moving, inventive, listenable and well-crafted as Closer Than Ever. If there’s ever been a better dialogue-free revue, it could only be the earlier Maltby & Shire collection, Starting Here Starting Now. That show aimed most of its focus on the romantic foibles of young people. Closer Than Ever, fashioned when the writers had entered middle age, hits a wider range, the things that are on middle aged people’s minds. That might be a dying parent, or sexual activity among those you’d least suspect; second marriages, or child-care in two-career homes. The characters tend to be extremely smart, and we feel smart watching following their thought processes.
I think Maltby & Shire’s greatest talent lies in finding subjects for songs, things commonly felt that are just dying to be expressed in song, yet nobody’s done that before. In One of the Good Guys, we hear from a husband who’s never had an adulterous affair, although he’s thought about it and come perilously close:
I’m one of the good guys
One of the smart ones, whose virtue survives
Firm as a tree, one of the good guys
Who trades a flash of heat to build a warmer fire
Denies himself a treat to shoot for something higher
And that’s the part that’s sweet
That only the good guys know
In If I Sing, (grown) child expresses appreciation to moribund father about the legacy of a love of music. Who else would think about writing a song on this subject? Or, to choose a more obviously-apt-for-musicalization moment, the new dad staring at his newborn baby, with the awkwardness of self-doubt. Can you think of another song on that subject? Why isn’t there one?
In a very intelligent revue by established professionals (Shire had an Oscar; Maltby a Tony), the life lessons, epiphanies and bits of wisdom are far easier to accept than if some 20-something tyro is busy telling various things he’s learned over the not-so-many years. So when the green-around-the-edges Jason Robert Brown writes a five and a half minute story song like The World Was Dancing and it’s supposed to be profound, well, it’s anything but. I want to giggle. Looking at these songs from the new world (is the title ironic or some pun on Dvorak’s symphony I’m not getting?), it seems as if Brown imitated all the wrong things in his wonderful model.
For example, showy pianism. In the quodlibet arrangement of two Shire tunes from different eras, It’s Never That Easy and I’ve Been Here Before, the keys fly in cascading eighth notes. Now, that’s virtuosic stuff, but it can’t steal attention from the powerhouse ladies singing two different melodies at once. (Right now, I can’t think of a more fantastic female duet.)
Brown’s accompaniments are filled with rococo intricacies worthy of Liszt, and every time they upstage the singer. Listen to I’m Not Afraid Of Anything and be afraid, very afraid, of how all eyes go to the poor shnook on the piano bench. (I’ve been there before.)
The weakest songs in Closer Than Ever are the attempts at comedy for multiple characters. But that’s OK: something had to be weakest. The weakest numbers in Songs for a New World are the attempts at comedy; both are for obnoxious solo women. Surabaya Santa is, for no apparent reason, supposed to sound like Kurt Weill. In it Mrs. Santa Claus bitterly complains about her plight, at one point accusing St. Nick of bestiality. Supposed to be funny. Isn’t. But it’s far better than Just One Step, which is for a middle-aged harridan, threatening to commit suicide if her husband doesn’t let her buy a fur. As I wrote some months ago about the same author’s Shiksa Goddess, the whole thing treads awfully close to anti-semitism. The one thing it doesn’t get close to is humor.
There’s a huge problem with spending so much time (Brown is always overlong) with detestable characters who go about hating on things. We get tired of them; they outstay their welcome. Maltby’s characters tend to be delightful people you’d love to get to know over time, particularly Miss Byrd, the real estate agent nobody ever notices and nobody would guess that five minutes ago she “was not wearing clothes, …in someone’s arms, in someone’s bed.” His sympathy for the lovelorn young man stuck on a roof has us sticking with him until we see he’s not the poor sap we first thought he was. No such surprise or turn exists in Brown. People, who are often dickish, remain exactly the same at the end of songs as they are at the beginning.
Shire’s had hits on the pop charts. Brown’s clearly more influenced by songs on the pop charts than actual show tunes. The best of his melodies have catchy hooks, effectively used, particularly Christmas Lullaby and a passably romantic duet, I’d Give It All For You. In the blog, Brown reveals that Maltby felt Brown’s most popular song, Stars and the Moon bears a distinct resemblance to Closer Than Ever‘s Life Story. I’ve always felt Stars and the Moon, in its message, owes a lot to Sondheim’s verse to his best love song, So Many People:
I said the man for me must have a castle
A man of means he’d be, a man of fame.
And then I met a man who hadn’t any, without a penny to his name.
I had to go and fall for so much less than what I had planned from all the magazines
I should be good and sore
What am I happy for?
I guess the man means more than the means
That takes one and a half minutes to Stars and the Moon‘s four and a half. Plus, it charmingly plays up and down the thirds of a minor ninth chord, while Stars and the Moon insists on hitting the same damn note over and over again. But it and the Maltby & Shire opus are truly polar opposites: Life Story has a woman going through the various chapters of her life, refusing to be defined by a romantic relationship. The long-winded lass of Stars and Moon only describes various men and what they offer her. And yes, she is complaining.