Sia’s last solo album, 1,000 Forms of Fear, proved she was still a legitimate purveyor of smart, insightful deconstructions of the usual Pop conventions, but her This Is Acting album was destroyed by a spectacularly misguided concept…taking rejected tracks written for other singers’ albums and performing them in an attempted impression of whoever they were written for. The first single, “Alive”, made it sound like it had potential, but not only was it actually a good song, but Sia’s style was close enough to Adele’s that she could perform an Adele song without venturing too far out of her comfort zone. The other songs proved to sound exactly like the leftovers and rejects they were, and Sia’s attempts to do impressions of, say, Rihanna or Shakira just resulted in her embarrassing herself. This song, originally written for Rihanna’s Anti, has somehow managed to become the biggest hit from the album, but it illustrates perfectly what a terrible idea this was in the first place. The album version of this song is pure trash, and even if it wasn’t the version that actually became a hit, I’d say it justifies my including this in my “Worst Songs of the 2010s” section. The remixed version that actually got popular is a slight improvement, thanks to a reinforced beat and Sean Paul’s colorful vocal contribution, but even it can’t overcome the sheer vapidness of the original song. The fact that this feeble mediocrity actually made Number One of the Billboard Hot 100 for the entire month of August just highlights the lack of legitimate competition on the charts in 2016, and serves as a sad commentary on just how bad this year has been for the Pop charts.
Archives for October 2016
I’ve been surprised by a lot of artists changing for the better (Kesha, One Direction, etc.), but I have to admit, if you told me that the best EDM act working in 2016 would be the people responsible for “#Selfie”, I would have laughed in your face. But with Calvin Harris working at far below his usual standard, most of the other top-drawer EDM acts absent from the charts altogether, and the genre largely being dominated by Justin Bieber of all people, the fact is that this and “Roses” are arguably the two best EDM songs of the past year. Here, they seamlessly blend the ambitious dance balladry of acts like Calvin Harris and David Guetta with the distinctive sounds of Trap acts like DJ Snake, creating a genuinely moving EDM ballad that still has a sufficiently modern sound to compete with today’s dance music. Making this song’s quality even more baffling is that the featured vocalist is Daya, best known for one of the worst songs of 2015, “Hide Away”. That said, despite her extremely poor choice of material, Daya was touted from the beginning as having a exceptionally strong voice, and while that wasn’t really particularly evident on “Hide Away”, it sure as Hell is evident here.
This song gave Shawn Mendes’ second album, Illuminate, a reputation as a Sophomore Slump before it was even out, and even among people who wound up liking the album, only Mendes’ most hardcore devotees seem willing to defend this song. Oddly, some people have complained about the subject matter, which seems to have touched off some internet-specific cultural buttons related to the meme of flipping the term ‘nice guy’ into an insult. But this basic song model dates back at least to the Fifties and Sixties (the most famous example being The Beatles’ “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”), and the real problems with the song are artistic and musical. For one thing, while I usually quite like Shawn Mendes’ rich tenor voice, the faux-Reggae vocal showboating he attempts here is not at all a good fit for it, and the tuneless vocal melody doesn’t help. Also, whoever produced this is desperately trying to sound like T Bone Burnett, and not only are they failing miserably, but that sound is not a good fit for Mendes to begin with. And the insultingly pretentious and sensationalistic video, which tries to pretend that this shallow ‘take-your-girlfriend’ song is some kind of treatise on abusive relationships, probably hasn’t helped the song’s case. So, yes, even though I enjoyed quite a bit of Mendes’ first album, I can definitely see why this song is so widely hated, and I can’t say I like it much myself either.
This was the third major effort by the team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the librettist and composer who had given us such classics as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon back in their genre’s heyday. But while it fared little better than Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s shows at the time, it was actually a much more worthy and successful piece than any of Webber’s late-career efforts prior to his 2015 comeback. Indeed, it seems likely that the ‘Pop Opera’ genre falling temporarily out of fashion contributed to this show’s failure more than the other way around, since there’s really no other obvious reason for the lukewarm reception it received on both sides of the Atlantic.
The version of this show that toured the U.S. and almost came to Broadway was actually inferior to the original version seen in London in the mid-Nineties, which was arguably a better show than Miss Saigon. The main difference was that the English-language lyrics to the piece had been rewritten from start to finish, and whereas the original lyrics were about on a level with those of Les Miserables, the new ones tended to be fairly uninteresting cliches. Granted, “The Deluge” is a huge improvement on the stupid comedy number “Where’s the Child?”, whose melody it shares, and “Who?” is more interesting than “Me”, the original solo for village fool Benoit, but other than that, the original lyrics were vastly superior.
However, as disappointing as these unnecessary changes were, the second draft still retains two great strengths—the strong story, which is based largely on the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre and which actually gains in tension in the second draft, and a largely glorious score. The actual retelling of the Martin Guerre story may have little to do with its historical basis, but the overall ambiance and cultural mindset of the period is captured meticulously and with great regard for accuracy. The picture of a desperate, drought-stricken town turning to religious hatred and prejudice as a outlet for their fear and desperation is vividly captured, and the complex triangle of characters caught at the center of it are portrayed with great ambivalence and emotional nuance. Unlike in Les Miserables, the guiding hand of Providence does not seem particularly discernible to either the characters or the audience (one song is titled, “When Will Someone Hear?”), and the ending, in contrast to the inspiration uplift at the end of Les Mis or the tragic but triumphant sacrifice at the climax of Miss Saigon, is barely short of despairing, especially in the British version.
The music for this show is vintage Schonberg, lyrical and ravishing, with his usual blend of Pop-Rock and Classical influences and the emotional weight that has become his trademark. Highlights include the lilting “Louison”, the first-act finale “All That I Know”/”The Day Has Come”, the tender “Someone”/”All That I Love”, the fascinating choral number “The Imposters”, and the melody that forms both the title-song and “Tell Me To Go”/”Don’t” (the dual song titles are a result of the lyrical rewrites, which obviously resulted in many of the songs having new titles in the second version). The new version also adds an entirely new opening number, “Live With Somebody You Love”, which is beyond ravishing.
I understand why the American version of the show is considered inferior to the earlier version…in addition to the lower quality of the lyrics, it tended to place more emphasis on the central triangle, whereas the British version was as much about the village as a whole as it was about the supposed main characters…but in spite of all that, this is still an excellent show in both versions. Perhaps it just seemed a little too similar to the team’s earlier smash hits (it does deal with their favorite themes…religion and social unrest…and while far from a carbon copy, it does echo several individual plot elements from Les Miserables and Miss Saigon). Still, it deserved a far better reception in both countries than it received, and certainly did not deserve to be treated as a signpost of the supposed ‘decline and fall’ of the ‘Pop Opera’ genre (which obviously failed to happen, but was treated as an article of faith among theater snobs throughout the late 90s and 2000s). In any case, for a glimpse of what real declining quality looks like, one need only look as far as this team’s next show, the disastrous The Pirate Queen.
Well, the good news is that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella finally got a Broadway production. The bad news is that it didn’t survive the process of getting there totally unscathed. One of the problems that every subsequent production of this show has faced was having to compete with a nigh-perfect original that none of them could possibly have lived up to. Granted, the original television film of this show was unavailable to the public for many decades after its release and even now is only preserved on a very primitive kinescope recording, but it had perfect casting, a flawlessly charming and witty script, and the purest delivery of the show’s message that would ever be achieved.
Unfortunately, the later productions used to fill in for its long absence have been mixed at best. The 1965 version was an abomination, with stilted, faux-operetta dialogue, a dull cast, amateurish production values, and R&H’s unique take on the story deleted altogether in favor of something more akin to the Disney version. The 1997 version was a distinct improvement, but still far from perfect. At least the cast had sparkle, and the dialogue was often amusing. But the overall feel was more Disney than R&H, and the film offered a somewhat heavy-handed and belabored delivery of the show’s empowerment message (though to be fair, that’s still better than deleting it altogether like the previous version had).
As for the long-awaited Broadway mounting, it would probably have been much more effective as a one-act. After all, the original version was only 76 minutes long, and it was already about 70% padding (charming, witty, entertaining padding, but padding nonetheless), since you can tell the plot of the original fairy tale in about ten minutes. To reach the length of a typical two-and-a-half hour Broadway show, this version had to waste time with a ridiculous plot about kid-friendly versions of Les Mis-style revolutionaries and an evil Prime Minister manipulating the Prince, which is all ultimately beside the point of the material. The Broadway production was more interesting than the 1965 version and less homogenized than the 1997 version, but it turned the show into a gigantic, over-the-top cartoon version of the material, with frantic tempos and the songs blown up into big production numbers (not to mention Laura Osnes’ frighteningly perky performance in the title role).
The only thing that saves these later versions is the strength of the original material. Rodgers and Hammerstein had a very unique concept for their Cinderella, a retelling that was about empowerment as opposed to wish-fulfillment, a world where, as Ethan Mordden put it “You don’t just deserve happiness…you have to work for it.” Applying this idea to the Cinderella mythos would become very popular in later years (for example, the Drew Barrymore film vehicle Ever After), but R&H were, to my knowledge, the first ones to do it, and all of those later iterations owe something to their original vision.
And the original ten songs the team wrote for the production are easily the best of their efforts outside of their five big hits. Granted, the extremely unique, perfect fairy-tale sound they capture has become as much a curse for producers as a blessing, since it makes padding the score out with interpolations (which is necessary in any longer version, given the short length of the original score) difficult and awkward; the interpolations, even when drawn from the team’s other work, never quite match the original sound. Still, even in the 1965 film’s stodgy operetta-lite performances or the stage version’s hyperactive renditions, songs like the achingly lovely “In My Own Little Corner”, the ecstatic love-at-first-sight duet “Ten Minutes Ago”, the wryly hilarious “Stepsister’s Lament”, and of the course the show’s all-important message song “Impossible” are almost impossible to destroy.
If you preserve both the Rodgers and Hammerstein message and the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, then however much you muddle them up with overcomplicated plotting or oversell them in performance, the thing you create will have too much merit based on those elements alone to be easily dismissed. This is why the musical as an entity has endured so well even though the only completely successful version of it was utterly unavailable for almost sixty years, and it’s why almost any adaptation (with the possible exception of the 1965 Lesley Ann Warren film) is going to be at least worth your time…this is one of those properties that are essentially indestructible.
This is, quite simply, a beautiful show. To start with, it’s a beautiful story, gentle, tender and intimate, in the tradition of Light In the Piazza and A Man Of No Importance. It’s also a very unique kind of love story rarely seen on Broadway, or anywhere else for that matter. Based on a simple, bare-bones Indie film from 2007, it relates a beautiful, low-key story of love and art between two singer-songwriters.
The script is superb, with the relationship between the leads (who, in the interests of making the story more universal, are never given names) written with impressively conscientious naturalism, with little openly expressed…and indeed, they part without ever acknowledging that there was anything between them. The characters are beautifully drawn, he a charming, brooding slacker who’s lost his sense of direction and she a solemn, Gibraltar-like visionary who refuses to give up on him.
The ending is certainly palpably bittersweet, but it’s not so much a story of love lost as it is a story of love never quite found. Admittedly, the two leads come closer to acknowledging the odd connection between them here than they do in the original film, but they still never quite speak the words.
It’s also a beautiful production. The stylized Irish-flavored choreography is exhilarating, and the show makes a much more natural-feeling use of the technique where the cast plays its own instruments than John Doyle’s productions ever did.
But above all else, this is an unbelievably beautiful score, the most beautiful heard on Broadway since Spring Awakening, five years earlier. The songs contain most of the show’s emotional content, since all the unspoken attraction, affection and yearning between the show’s main characters is expressed almost entirely through the songs they write together.
Written by the film’s lead actors, who in fact had a very similar relationship in real life, these songs constituted the finest original score for a musical film in the entire length and breadth of the decade. Indeed, despite the film’s relative obscurity and lack of fanfare, the film’s most memorable song, “Falling Slowly”, managed to win a well-deserved Oscar for Best Song. And while this score will perhaps always sound best when sung by its original singer-songwriters, Broadway leads Steve Kazee and Christin Milioti did an impressive job of bringing them to life onstage.
The film would eventually receive the vindication it deserved when its stage adaptation became a Broadway smash hit and the Tony winner for 2012. Given the increasing trends toward raucous comedy and splashy razzle-dazzle productions on Broadway, it seems odd, even bizarre, that the show to cause one of the biggest sensations in years was an intimate, bittersweet, atmospheric story of two ordinary people in what may or may not be love, but I don’t think anybody is complaining.
Probably the classiest Jukebox Musical of the current century (so much that many will no doubt be enraged that I called it one), this show might be the first since the original production of Pal Joey to get raves and pans not only at the same time, but within the same reviews.
It’s a bio-musical based on the lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, featuring Michael Cerveris (as Weill) and Donna Murphy (as Lenya) performing a selection of Weill’s songs, one that does not overindulge in the obvious and includes several seldom-heard gems. Cerveris provides his usual molten-silver vocal quality and gives a fine, incisive acting performance that manages to capture Kurt Weill’s reported real-life personality quite accurately.
Donna Murphy brings all her experience and talent to the monumental challenge of playing one of theater’s greatest and most unique leading ladies, and does an uncanny impression of Lenya’s style while doing a more than superb job on every song she was given. The show also featured direction by the legendary Harold Prince, who gave it an authentically Brechtian performing style that perfectly fits the material.
Unfortunately, all this is rather spoiled by the show’s utterly inept libretto, which plays like a trite Hollywood composer bio from the Forties, and does not remotely match the style of the direction. The dialogue is irritatingly cutesy (e.g. ‘You are loonybirds!’), and the songs, fine as they are in themselves, are as awkwardly dropped into the script as in the most inept jukebox musicals you’ve ever seen—rarely do they have anything to do with the dramatic situation beyond their title. For example, the blatantly sleazy “Wouldn’t You Like to be on Broadway?” from Street Scene is utterly out of place in the scene where Weill and Lenya decide to move to America, and the rapturous love song “That’s Him” from One Touch of Venus makes no sense when Weill sings it about his wife’s latest lover.
That said, there’s a reason the critical consensus on this show basically boiled down to “This is terrible, but you can’t afford to miss it”. However dire the space between the musical numbers may have been, and however incongruous the songs were with their dramatic function, the show still featured mind-blowing performances of brilliant songs (many of which you were unlikely to hear anywhere else) from two of Broadway’s most gifted performers under the coaching of the greatest Musical Theater director of our lifetimes. Yes, the book is an embarrassment, but there is no book I can think of bad enough to make this not worth seeing…I’d willingly sit through the books of Dracula or Lestat if the musical portions were this good. And the cast album, which mostly minimalizes the show’s problems anyway, should be required listening for every Broadway fan.
This song seems to be universally accepted as one of the most inspirational songs ever written…so am I the only one who think the worlds described in the lyrics sounds more like a dystopia than a paradise? I’m aware John Lennon’s martyr status probably has a lot to do with the way people feel about this song, but the lyrics still sound more like a Sixties hippie interpretation of Brave New World than anything I’d like to live in. Granted, Lennon wasn’t by any means a crazy revolutionary…he was very much against using violence to achieve this ‘perfect world’ he dreamed of, and apparently thought it would just happen when enough people agreed with him on it. Now, I’m not normally in the habit of criticizing canonized classics, and for the record, I understand that artistically, this song is as good as everyone says it is…breathtaking melody, moving lyrics that do an impressive job of making these questionable ideas sound convincing, and Lennon singing it like he believes every word. Of course, given that the entire point of Brave New World was that any real utopia would be a dystopia, perhaps the real problem was that Lennon was too honest about what his earthly paradise would require us to give up…there’s a reason most inspirational songs about the future are a lot vaguer than this. That said, it doesn’t seem to have hurt the song’s popularity, but at the same time, I’m not the first person I’ve encountered who’s observed that the song’s message comes across as just the tiniest bit creepy.