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10.04.10 My Top Ten RIGHT NOW

On how music might be more important than story…

Music is essential. This is especially true with someone like me who actually soundtracks my every day existence. The very goodness of a day can be completely swayed by my musical inclination. For instance, last week, I rediscovered the amazing Andrew Bird (he hadn’t gone anywhere, he just got lost in my 30,980 other tracks of music to choose from every day). Thanks to that rediscovery, I had a thoroughly lovely and productive day. Given the importance of music, I found it fascinating that I have experienced a number of cultural moments in which music may in fact be more important than the effectiveness of the story being told (when they’re both excellent, well, that’s just sublime, but let’s face it, that’s a rarity).

First let’s tackle the musical genius of the folks behind ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. They composed what might be my most favorite musical ever written, Chess, and I was fortunate enough to see a rare staged version of said show in Arlington Virginia at the Signature Theater. What I had always known was further proved, the story is convoluted, with international intrigue superceding human emotion. It’s a notorious show for its incoherence, and this version did an amazing job overcoming those deficiencies. A small round of applause for the Euon Morton, continuing to prove that he should be a Broadway star by now.

So then I went back into my vault and listened to the recent recording of Chess Live at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a more full score, and more full sounding with a massive chorus, but throws in even more intrigue and backstabbing to the point where it’s impossible to remember who is Russian and who is English. Hands down the best recording, both on an emotional level and possibly a storytelling one as well is the 2002 Danish Cast Recording. That one sends chills down the spine! And then there’s the Original Broadway Cast Recording, which turns the score into a completely singles based showpiece, without the lush interludes that make it an opera. Sadly, the version that holds the most weight in my heart was never recorded, and that would be the 2002 Actors’ Fund Benefit performance, which I had the immense pleasure of seeing live.

So what have we learned? Well, I probably own too many recordings of Chess. Aside from that, the story might not actually matter. In every iteration, as songs move between characters in different versions, one thing stands, and that’s the music. It’s gorgeous. It’s sumptuous. It’s thought provoking even without knowing the story.

And this is by no means a one time happening for the greats behind Swedish pop. Their follow-up to Chess is the heartbreaking gorgeous pop opera Kristina. The story of a woman’s journey from Sweden to America is not exactly thrilling. The main climactic moments are people succumbing to illness, an infestation of lice, and the epic debate about having a ninth child. But thanks to the incredible music and the even more incredible performances from voices that are not even human in their perfection, the two and half hour opera soars. Thankfully the first time it was performed in English at Carnegie Hall, it was recorded, and I swear to god you can hear my ecstatic shouts after the incredible performance by Helen Sjöholm of “Here I Am Again.” And yet, I’m not sure I ever need to see a fully staged version.

So what of other musicals? One could argue that the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, as showcased by Promises, Promises carries that show along and even overcomes the lackluster but enjoyable vocals of Sean Hayes. And sure mini-Kristen Chenoweth can sing gorgeously, but she’s completely wrong for the role. And in the end I don’t really care. I could sit through that show over and over, lapping up the period dress, the over articulated dancing, but more than anything, the music that is by far better that Neil Simon’s script based on that unbelievable and untouchable cinema classic The Apartment.

PLAY Bottom of the World – seriously? Someone thought it was a good idea to stage this crap-tastic play about a lesbian dealing with the death of her sister, mirrored in an awkward country bumpkin parallel tale? Drama school students have produced better writing for exercises than this garbage… F

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