ON THE RECORD: The New Broadway Cast Album of Kinky Boots and Audra McDonald's "Go Back Home"
By Steven Suskin
This week's column examines the new cast recording of Cyndi Lauper's Kinky Boots and Audra McDonald's CD "Go Back Home."
Kinky Boots [Masterworks Broadway]
Broadway's big winner at the 2013 Tonys was Kinky Boots, which took six awards including Best Musical. Cyndi Lauper's score won as well, receiving high praise in many quarters. The show, which opened on April 4, quickly worked its way into a significant hit, and has steadily been the highest-grossing new musical of the past season. Masterworks Broadway has now brought us the original cast album, which we are told is the fastest Broadway seller since The Book of Mormon.
Kinky Boots is a crowd-pleaser, yes, and it is safe to say it's the best new American Broadway musical of the 2012-13 season. I must confess, though, that I wasn't quite so swept away as some of my critical colleagues. No matter; I am clearly in the minority, and that's okay with me. Most people I run into who have seen the show loved it; many others have expressed their eagerness to see it. I guess that is why they are breaking $1.6 million a week.
For me, the new musical about distressed shoemakers in a distressed town in a distressed time directly brings to mind two relatively recent musicals, The Full Monty and Hairspray. (The three, not so coincidentally, share the same choreographer: Jerry Mitchell, who also served as director of the current show.)
The Full Monty came from David Yazbeck, a first-time-in-the-theatre composer who turned out to have the Broadway-song gene inbred. The Monty score wasn't quite successful for me. Some of the songs were excitingly right, real-seeming characters expressing themselves to inventive music with true-sounding and often sly lyrics. At other places, though, it sounded like someone told the composer, "We just need to plug a song in here." Yazbeck did just that, but I found these spots to be the musical comedy equivalent of filler. (Let us add that he quickly figured it out. While The Full Monty was the work of a beginner, his subsequent Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown were the work of a seasoned and skillful pro.)
Hairspray also came from a new-to-Broadway composer, technically speaking; but Marc Shaiman, before embarking on considerable success in Hollywood, had been a busy Broadway pianist/arranger. Sure, there are some production numbers in Hairspray that might qualify as "filler," but Shaiman (working with co-lyricist Scott Wittman) saw to it that they enhanced the show and were exceedingly droll as well.
With The Full Monty and Hairspray as examples, Kinky Boots sides more closely with the former than the latter. The new musical came from yet another first-timer, yes; but one who has sold over 80 million albums, nabbed Grammys and Emmys, and whose work has often displayed humor and flavor. Lauper's songwriting abilities, it turns out, transfer well to the stage. "The History of Wrong Guys," a song that comes along late in the first act of Kinky Boots, delightfully demonstrates that Lauper has a future on Broadway if she so desires. This is a wonderfully devised and written song, by the way, which works on many levels. It is perfectly performed on the cast album by Annaleigh Ashford, who earlier in the season also stood out as the girl with the blackened-out teeth in Dogfight.
Ashford supports the top-billed Stark Sands and Billy Porter, both of whom do good work. I have found Porter to be an exciting performer since I first saw him in the legendary Adam Guettel concert at Town Hall in 1999, holding his own against a group of talents including Audra McDonald, Jason Danieley, Theresa McCarthy and Jubilant Sykes. He was an excellent Belize in the 2010 Signature revival of Angels in America, and with Lola in Kinky Boots has found himself the perfect role and a Best Actor Tony Award.
The Kinky Boots score is at its best when it is smallest; when the songs got big and flashy, in the theatre, I found myself overly distracted from the characters. Listening to the CD now, I find myself surprised: I appreciate the score considerably more than I did the first time through, sitting at the Hirschfeld — enough so that I'm thinking I might go back and give it another try. Playgoers who loved Kinky Boots in the theatre will surely be delighted with the cast album.
One of the advantages of being a critic-at-large in Manhattan is the opportunity to see repeated performances from favored performers. Folks like Barbara Cook, Audra McDonald and John Pizzarelli — in cabaret or on the concert stage — never fail to enthrall their audiences, present company included. It can be especially magical to watch their current act more than once, performing the same songs and the same patter. McDonald can stand there and make you think she is absolutely, unquestionably doing it the first time, even when you've seen her do it before.
Thus, I had heard most of the songs on McDonald's new recording, "Go Back Home," twice before first pressing the play button. Sitting in Carnegie in October 2011 and at Avery Fisher last May, I repeatedly thought, "Well, that's a song I want on my iPod." And now I have them.
"Go Back Home," of course, is the beauty John Kander and Fred Ebb stunned us with midway through The Scottsboro Boys. I say "of course," but I am well aware that too many theatre lovers were unable to get to see that musical during its brief run in 2010. (Don't blame the show or the production or the producers; chalk it up to a lack of appeal to the mass audience.) The song is extra-special, with Kander's modulation coming out of the bridge — not merely for effect, but illuminating the dreams of the character represented in Ebb's lyric — lifting this gem to pure perfection. Among the other tracks is another late-and-little-known Kander and Ebb ballad: "First You Dream" from Steel Pier. In the show, the song is sung by a ghostly pilot who died in a plane crash. In concert, McDonald dedicated the song to her father who died while testing an experimental aircraft in 2007.
Other tracks which stand out include "The Glamorous Life" (not the one from Sondheim's A Little Night Music, but the different and enchanting one he wrote for the film version); Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler's wry "Baltimore," cautioning listeners to "avoid navel-contemplating floppy-haired actors originally from Baltimore"; Adam Guettel's "Migratory V" from "Saturn Returns/Myths and Hymns" (which McDonald did not sing on the studio cast recording of that score); "Some Days," by Steven Marzullo, set to text by James Baldwin; and Comden, Green and Styne's "Make Someone Happy." Andy Einhorn does a fine job as musical director, also adapting some of the orchestrations for the recording; others come from Bruce Coughlin.
Most astonishing is Adam Gwon's "I'll Be Here," from the Roundabout's 2009 experimental musical Ordinary Days. I have heard this song about a dozen times now, on the original cast album, in concert, and on this recording. Even now, I can't listen to it without feeling a jolt. Audra does it especially well; I remember how the audience at both Carnegie and Avery Fisher gasped as the power of the song hit them. (On both occasions, McDonald introduced Gwon, who was sitting in the audience.)
To those of you who decide not to get a copy of "Go Back Home," I would suggest that you at least download "I'll Be Here." And while you're at it, also get the title song (Kander and Ebb's "Go Back Home"). You won't, I dare say, be disappointed.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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