The Tony Season has officially begun. Last week’s announcement of the nominees in twenty-six competitive categories set off an avalanche of opinion, prediction and bragging that will continue to cascade until the winners are announced on June 9.
Never one to resist joining the parade, I’ll add my own two cents’ worth to the discussion with columns between now and then focusing on the nominees in the four categories most relevant to the topic we concentrate on here, the recordings of theater scores. Those categories are Best Musical, Best Revival of a Musical, Best Original Score for a Musical and Best Orchestrations.
I’ll deal with the two of the four nominees for the Best Musical award that are still playing later in the series, after there are recordings of both available. Today we can start with the two nominees that are only available on cast recordings. Each opened as a limited run and closed up shop when it had to vacate its house, but each can bask in the glory of the nomination … at least until June 9 when the battle between the open-run and highly favored newer entries, Matilda and Kinky Boots, will probably take the spotlight away from them.
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Bring It On: The Musical may be “the cheerleader musical,” but it is no mere repeat of the fun time but non-theatrical, flamboyant but plotless, spectacular but decidedly non-Broadwayish show that came in as a limited run a few years back based on a sanctioned extra-curricular activity, Blast! That one, you may recall, offered the best of marching band precision, but did so as a demonstration, not a musical. Here, cheerleading is at the heart of a fairly traditional coming-of-age story of teenage angst in contemporary high schools told in a fairly traditional musical theater manner, but with a distinctive sound in both its music and its lyrics.
The difference between the marching band show and the cheerleader musical should have been expected by anyone who looked below the title. After all, Blast! was assembled by a creative team with credentials in precision marching unit competition and not in musical theater. What was more, it didn’t have ANY credits for “book” “music” or “lyrics.”
How very different the credits for Bring It On!
Here the libretto (or “book) is by Jeff Whitty, who won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Avenue Q. The score is by Lin-Manuel Miranda (Tony Awards for In The Heights) in collaboration with – on music – Tom Kitt, whose Tony Award was for Next to Normal and – on lyrics – with Amanda Green. She may not have a Tony yet but she has been nominated this year twice, once for these lyrics and once for another show that is not still playing, Hands on a Hardbody. (Her earlier Broadway outing as a lyricist was High Fidelity, a short-lived show that had a classic case of second act problems, but her lyrics for the first act were absolutely fabulous.)
Bring It On‘s director, Andy Blankenbuehler, may have been making his Broadway debut as a director, but his roots run deep on the Great White Way as a choreographer (9 to 5, In The Heights, The Apple Tree revival, The People in the Picture) and a dancer (Man of La Mancha revival, Saturday Night Fever, Fosse, Steel Pier).
Here he both directs and handles choreography. While you can’t tell from the CD just how effective those choreographed moments were in the theater, the sense of excitement does come through and there are a couple of photos in the booklet of amazing-looking routines. Also, the fact that he has been nominated for a Tony for Best Choreography for the show should give you a clue.
So, what did they come up with? Well, while it seems a bit formulaic and more than a bit predictable, it sounds like it was a whole lot of fun. What is more, the original cast album, expertly captured and packaged by the show’s musical supervisor and dance arranger Alex Lacamoire, co-composer Kitt and record producer Kurt Deutsch for Ghostlight Records gets better with each listen. Sit down with the synopsis and lyrics printed (in a font that is a tad too faint) in the handsome, well illustrated booklet and delve into the score and you will find many tiny details to delight.
The mixture of Broadway-pop and contemporary rap works well, especially when drawing distinctions between the wealthy/white Truman High and the economically challenged and racially diverse Jackson High, and then dramatizing the growing together of the characters as they get to know and then begin to rely on each other.
For example, this lyric about the kind of problems faced by the kids:
“Oh whoa, some kids used to tease me / and put me through hell / some people are mean but most people mean well / It’s just their thinkin’ — it’s stinkin’ / and a little outdated / or maybe they’re merely underedumecated.”
Lyrics and music combine at times to re-enforce each other, which is one of the key elements that make musical theater such a rich field for collaborative endeavor. Look at one tip of the hat from this musical to another, the climax to “Killer Instinct,” the big number for the evil “Eva” that parodies with delicious affection “Defying Gravity,” the big number for Elphaba that closes the first act of Wicked.
Whitty’s book is said to be “inspired by” a little-known movie of the same title. That is different than being “based on” a screenplay. Whitty builds his own story in a form that has proven itself to work in a two-act musical. All the songs seem well placed to tell the story and let the audience understand and begin to care about the characters. Even the obligatory performance numbers, when the competing cheerleading teams do their stuff, have lyrics that fit the story and reveal the inner motivations of the team members.
A cast of newcomers (well, Joshua Henry of The Scottsoboro Boys does have one solo) all strut their stuff with energetic oomph and the eight member band with its three – count ‘em three – electronic keyboards puts out just the sort of sound you would have thought a 2013 Broadway musical about cheerleader squads from competing high schools would sound like.
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A Christmas Story: The Musical also came to Broadway for a limited engagement this season, closed when the holidays came to an end, and now finds itself a nominee for the Best Musical Tony. While Bring It On got an original Broadway cast album out of the deal, A Christmas Story came to town with its own “World Premiere Recording” already available.
The album had been recorded based on the pre-Broadway productions at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre and Kansas City’s Repertory Theatre. Those mountings had been directed by Eric Rosen but the Broadway outing was under the direction of John Rando. Of the Broadway cast only John Bolton, who played “The Old Man,” appears on the recording.
Larry Blank’s bright and marvelously detailed orchestrations and the accompanying vocal arrangements by Justin Paul are preserved here, but the recording has the dance arrangements of August Eriksmoen which were replaced for the Broadway run with arrangements by Broadway veteran Glen Kelly.
The score is the work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, both making their Broadway debut as was the book writer Joseph Robinette.
Unlike the celebrated creators of Bring It On, newcomers Pasek, Paul and Robinette didn’t have the flexibility to change much from the movie on which it was based. After all, a huge percentage of the audience at each performance would already know what Ralphie wanted for Christmas (a Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle B-B gun) what father won (a lamp in the shape of a lady’s leg), what it looked like (incredibly tacky) and – of course – what happened when Ralphie’s friend Flick was presented with the triple-dog-dare that he lick the frozen playground pole.
At the time of the recording, the show seemed to have just two emotional levels – high and higher, at least until the last moments when it turned gently schmaltzy.
I don’t know how well the new director and the new cast succeeded in finding ways to insert some variation into the progression of scenes because I was unable to get to New York to see the show during its eight week run. Still, the recording, with its big-band heft offers much to enjoy.
Bring It On: The Musical
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Running time – 59 minutes over 20 tracks
Packaged with full lyrics, synopsis and eighteen color photos
Ghostlight Records / Back Lot Music catalog 5797-00022-5
A Christmas Story
World Premiere Recording
Running time – 59 minutes over 18 tracks
Packaged with full lyrics, notes and four color photos
Masterworks Broadway catalog 88725-45981-2
Tony nominated scores
Bring It On and A Christmas Story
May 7, 2013