Mourning becomes electric
An original cast album haunts
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
There was a time when original Broadway cast albums actually made it into the top ten on the hit parade. I suspect it had much to do with the quality of the music and the fact that composers and lyricists like Lerner and Loewe and Rogers and Hammerstein worked hard to imprint on the audience and, as well, organized a production to have one or two show stoppers. It was no joke that shows were written so that people left humming the tunes. This was all, of course, before the Beatles, when songs from My Fair Lady, for instance, were played on the radio and were showcased on must-see-TV like The Ed Sullivan Show.
When I was a kid we had a lot of these albums in the house. Fair Lady was one, Camelot, West Side Story. You didn't need to see the musical. They were not souvenirs of a visit to Times Square. They were both stand-alone and a passport to an imagined place. As I got older I became a collector of cast albums for so many shows I never saw and would never see (so much Sondheim). Many of them have no hummable tunes to speak of (as lovely as it is, I think immediately of Sondheim's Passion). However it's been a long time since I've bought a cast album (Lion King may have been the last one). Then, this summer, I watched the Tonys and for the first time in a very long time was hypnotized by a piece from one show: Once. It stood out from all the drek among this year's nominees. (Newsies? Really?)
Once is based on a movie. (Are there any Broadway shows that aren't?) But it's a small, unassuming film that everyone who has seen it has told me to hunt down. IMDB tells me it's, "A modern-day musical about a busker and an immigrant and their eventful week in Dublin, as they write, rehearse and record songs that tell their love story." I assume the Broadway version is similar. No matter. I decided to judge the cast album as a stand-alone.
I was worried from the start. "Leave" - perhaps the most mournful song I have ever heard - left me devastated...blubbering. Male lead, Steve Kazee, has a voice that pierces and when he wraps it around a sad song it is wrenching. Quite fine, too - if not as blessed with the best songs - is Cristin Milioti as the Girl. (Her loveliest song, The Hill, in both accent and tone is incredibly reminiscent of the haunting songs from Björk in the film Dancer in the Dark.)
Less successful are pieces like Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka which suggest things were hopping on stage but are musically weaker than the more gently-performed songs. Also novelty numbers, like "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy" and "Abandoned in Bandon" are ear-sores.
But then along comes "Gold" - the number that brought the house down at the Tonys. The staging was spectacular, but - better - stripped of the staging it is still a gorgeous ballad incorporating the musical ensemble showing their musicality and, again, ripping your heart out. This song - sung again later in a slower, haunting a cappella version - was written by Fergus O'Farrell. Another hold-over from the movie, Falling Slowly - an Oscar winner - is also unforgettable.
Once's principle song-writers, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who also played the leads in the movie), don't display the lyrical pyrotechnics of a Sondheim or a Lerner, however their reliance on simplicity and more emotionally percussive words truly works. Wound through the folky, Eastern European and Celtic sounds of the music are hard phrases like "Leave, leave and please yourself at the same time" and "When your mind's made up there's no point trying to change it."
What I may do is what I did with Lion King - create a mix; remove the showy, show numbers (created for people who don't like theatre) and keep all that beauty. And Once, finally, will take me to that place where musical theatre is a perfect thing that lingers in your dreams.