April 3, 2012

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Music From)

The surprise of the original cast album Music from Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark is that it is better than its show, which, as everyone even marginally aware of musical theater knows, is reported to be the most expensive Broadway musical ever.

I do wish I could carry that line of reasoning along to a conclusion that this means the album is one that musical theater enthusiasts will enjoy. But I’m afraid the reasons this semi-document of the show comes in as superior to its show are the weaknesses of the show, not the strengths of the recording.

The pop music stars  Bono (real name Paul David Hewson) and The Edge (real name David Howell Evans) of the Irish rock band U2 make their debuts as composers/lyricists in musical theater with this who-knows-how-many-millions-of-dollars production. Their fans will find in the album a number of cuts that they like, although none that would supplant U2 hits in their affection. I’m afraid that “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” is safe as is “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In The Name of Love)” and any number of U2 big sellers.

Still, the sound in the theater, and the sound on much of this “Music From” album, should please U2 fans. Fans of musical theater, however, may find it somewhat less pleasing. This is not because it is rock music. We’ve enjoyed many scores that effectively use rock to communicate something more than one oversimplified thought at a time. But this score has the distinct feeling that The Edge and Bono bought a book on musical theater (perhaps Lehman Engel’s The American Musical Theatre: A Consideration) and said “It says here, we need a ‘Charm Song’ and an ‘I Want Song’ and a ‘List Song’” and so on.

The song “No More” works as a sort of reverse “I Want” duet … its about what Peter and Mary Jane don’t want. Another song, “D.I.Y. World,” on the other hand, doesn’t work at all as a “list song.”

Of the songs that sound as if they have been constructed from a how-to manual, the one that works best on the disc is also the most theatrically effective on stage. It is the slow lament “If The World Should End.” In the theater, it is a lovely moment staged elegantly as the young couple (Peter Parker, the young man who is turned into Spider-Man, and Mary Jane, his would-be girlfriend) share a private, quiet moment on a fire-escape suspended just below the proscenium. On the disc, the song is treated strictly as a solo for Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane. It is effective this way, although in the theater it is just as effective with Reeve Carney joining in as Peter Parker.

Of the 19 songs in the production, 12 make it onto this 14 track, 52 minute long disc. It doesn’t present the songs in the order they appear in the show. Instead of the brief orchestral introduction that opens the show in the theater, the recording offers a 3:10 instrumental titled “NY Debut” which nearly qualifies as an overture.

Next comes Carney’s big Act II number, “Boy Falls From The Sky.” He delivers it well, but its lyrics make more sense in the Act II position than right after the overture.

Three of the tracks on the album feature Patric Page, the classically trained superb actor reduced to vaudeville shtick as Spider-Man’s nemesis, the mad scientist Norman Osborn who is turned into arch villain The Green Goblin.

Mr. Page (and listeners to the disc) can be grateful that his most embarrassing scene in the show, where he has to introduce a collection of the silliest looking “monsters” in the history of fright shows to the strains of “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” has been reduced from its interminable seven and a half minutes which open Act II to a relatively brief, up-tempo 3:42. Given that this sequence actually looks cheap on stage, it is amazing that they retained the lyric “I’m a 65 million dollar circus tragedy.” This draws entirely too much attention to the monetary excesses which have been so thoroughly reported in the theatrical press and in the tabloids.

There’s not much of Page left in another cut, “Pull The Trigger” which, on stage, is a goose-stepping militaristic dance number that makes little sense.

Both The Edge and Bono take part in the recording. Bono does a lead vocal on “Picture This.” The Edge is out front for the song “Sinestero,” which on stage is an ensemble number designed to move the story along. It does so without much distinction while Patric Page slow-motion walks the silly looking monsters down stage.

The booklet provides very little information on the production. No synopsis. No detail of the troubled path to the opening after a history-making 128 previews. There are, however, a dozen production photos and the lyrics of the songs as they appear on this recording.

It is difficult to determine just who you are listening to at times. There is an 18 member band that plays for the show from two off-stage rooms filled with microphones to carry the sound into the Foxwoods Theatre in New York (formerly the Hilton Theatre, formerly the Ford Center for the Performing Arts … one wonders how many times this theater’s naming rights will be sold before Spider-Man can recoup its initial investment).

For this recording, all 18 of those players are credited along with an additional 30. None of the tracks seem to have 48 players, however, so there must have been selective augmentation here and there.

While the “65 million dollar tragedy” line in “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” was just too apropos to ignore, it is not the only line in the score which a lyric writer should never dangle in front of caustic critics. However, “I’ll search through trash for a melody” is just too easy a target for me to take the bait. It would be a cheap shot because the score does contain some decent melodic moments and pop-rock in the style of U2 isn’t about melody. It is about attitude and energy, and some of that comes through on this disc.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Music From)
Interscope Records Catalog #B0015782-02
Running time 52 minutes over 14 tracks
Booklet includes lyrics and 12 color photos
ASIN: B0024X90N4
List Price $18.99