Where the bee sucks

One of my favorite cans of worms has been opened! And by no less than the recently-appointed co-chief drama critic of The New York Times, Jesse Green. He states something that, to me, is obvious, but very few musical theatre fans seem to understand. That the elements that make for a good listening experience to the consumer of an Original Cast Album are markedly different than what makes good theatre.

It started, as so much does these days, with a tweet. This came from the composer-lyricist of a score Green didn’t much care for, Groundhog Day. It challenged him to listen to the cast album three times and see if his opinion wasn’t altered. And it was. Green had a more positive view of the show’s songs after hearing the album.

There’s something inherently unfair about that challenge, though. Theatre-goers pay between $100 and $200 for a ticket to witness a performance once. At those prices, they ought to enjoy it the first time. Over the years I’ve talked to countless people who’ve admitted they didn’t like a show until they’d heard the recording a few times. To which I’ve said, “Then the songwriter has failed in what he set out to do.”

Let’s break this down. Are you writing your show for the one-time live person in your theatre’s seat, or are you writing for the repeat listener of a record, someone you hope will grow to enjoy it? I get that hearing something over and over and again can add to your appreciation – that’s fine – but theatre writers are trying to entertain ticket-buyers. Recording artists – a wholly different breed – are fashioning albums that they hope will yield more on iteration.

Green then looks at last season’s new musicals, and places them in three categories:

Those that are more enjoyable on record than in the theatre

Groundhog Day
In Transit
Amélie
Bandstand
War Paint

Those that make a better impression live on Broadway than on an album

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Come From Away
as well as the revivals of Falsettos and Hello Dolly

Those he couldn’t abide in either format

Paramour
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
A Bronx Tale
Holiday Inn
Anastasia

And what did he say of the Tony winner, Dear Evan Hansen? Equally good both ways.

What I find exciting about this article is that, at last, someone’s delineating the different process we go through reacting to live theatre versus reacting to something through speakers.

Minchin’s challenge forced me to consider not only how his songs for “Groundhog Day” sounded after repeat exposure but also how listening to them in a nontheatrical context altered their texture.

Among other things, I realized that a lot of the rhymes I hadn’t liked onstage seemed harmless when I no longer needed to get information from them. But I still feel, and songwriters I spoke to agreed, that a show with such satirical heft would have benefited from the clean ping of exactly matched sounds.

On the other hand, the songs whose musical structure I’d found “baggy” now seemed more compelling than they did in the theater, where the intensity of the action interfered with their reception.

Theatre is a live art form. And our reactions to what we see enacted before our eyes – well, that’s what matters most. We take in a score in a significantly different way if we only use our ears.

And yet we cast judgments based on hearing alone. We open our ears to cast recordings and, naturally and inevitably, come up with some assessment as to whether a show is good or not. But we are being intentionally misled. And I don’t mean to make it sound evil. Creators of cast albums obviously want to make the things sound as good as possible. But let’s look at some specifics.

One of my favorite albums – as a listening experience – is A New Brain, by William Finn. Yes, my friend Liz Larsen is on it, as well as the then-unknown Kristin Chenoweth, and I’d Rather Be Sailing is justifiably hailed as one of the greatest romantic show tunes of our time. You take in this record and go, “My God, this is great.” In the theatre, however, it was more than a tad less compelling. The annoying protagonist undergoes brain surgery and this leads to a long and abstruse hallucination. The viewer loses his bearings and tedium sets in. I’d rather be sailing than be so adrift again.

Ask most of the people I know to name the best musical they ever saw, and you hear Follies a lot. The original production, co-directed by Harold Prince and Michael Bennett, was, I keep getting told, particularly fabulous. The original cast album, however, is severely truncated. It’s widely regarded as botched, a hatchet job, and I think everyone agrees it was better to be there than to listen to that piece of…vinyl.

Another record that comes to mind is House of Flowers. Listening to those sophisticated Harold Arlen melodies, you begin to fantasize that it had to have been quite a treat to see. (Peter Brook was the director. In the cast: Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston, Alvin Ailey and Geoffrey Holder.) But House of Flowers, I hate to report, is a witless tale of bickering whorehouse madams and an ingénue so gullible, she’s too stupid for us to care what happens to her.

The world of musical comedy is filled with people who know shows only through their albums, and that leads to an odd sort of tunnel vision. One can appreciate A New Brain on CD and House of Flowers on disc and have no inkling what a chore they are to sit through. And, if you’re a producer or director, a good album gives rise to a little fantasy that if you put it on you’ll lick all those problems that Peter Brook couldn’t. But A) you’re not better than Peter Brook and B), it’s still about a bordello competition and an idiotic child-woman.

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