Taylor Swift has had some writing credits on other people’s songs in the recent past, most notably “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris and “Better Man” by Little Big Town, but this is the first new song she’s actually sung on since the release of the 1989 bonus tracks. Yes, it’s a single written for the soundtrack of a reprehensibly terrible movie, but so were Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” and Bruno Mars’ “It Will Rain”, to name just two fairly recent examples, so it’s clear even bad movies can have outstanding soundtrack items. To tell the truth, former One Direction member Zayn Malik sings more of this song than his more famous duet partner (displaying some of his most beautiful falsetto singing to date, I might add), but Swift was the one who wrote this song, which is the really important thing. It’s a gorgeous piece, darker and more sensual than most of Swift’s earlier work yet still clearly building on the innovations of her last album. Granted, we’ve had more than our share of songs about toxic relationships in the past couple of years (“Closer” by the Chainsmokers in particular helped wear out the genre’s welcome), but Swift basically started that trend with her 1989 songs like “Blank Space”, “Style”, and “Out of the Woods”, so that gives her a certain license to continue writing them, especially since she does it better than pretty much anyone else. And I give her credit…much more so than The Weeknd or Ellie Goulding on the first Fifty Shades soundtrack, she seems to grasp that there is nothing romantic or healthy about the relationship portrayed in the film. Granted, I’m not sure the filmmakers themselves know that, but Swift certainly does, and this song of twisted, co-dependent obsession almost qualifies as a kind of stealth deconstruction of the franchise. In any case, this is easily the best song to come from a Fifty Shades soundtrack to date, and it only makes my anticipation for the next Taylor Swift album even more wild than it already was.
Archives for December 2016
I have a very high opinion of Pentatonix…they’re a vocal ensemble comparable in quality to the cast of Glee, only this one doesn’t come attached to an ineptly-written television franchise. They really do have beautiful voices, and their harmonies are some of the best heard from a Pop group since the days of the Brian Wilson-era Beach Boys. Some people, perhaps understandably, resented this cover for charting above Leonard Cohen’s original version in the wake of his passing, but it seems a bit harsh to blame Pentatonix for that fact. Like the Glee cast, their covers of contemporary Pop songs frequently surpass the original singers’ versions, but it’s probably understandable that they didn’t manage that feat with this song. And this really is one of the most beautifully sung covers of this song ever recorded, and given how often this particular song is covered, that title does not lack for competition. The vocals are simply breathtaking, and if this rendition does not really pay as much attention to the lyrics as it might have, it at least struck a correct tone of melancholy and anguish instead of trying to make it sound uplifting like so many covers. Granted, Cohen’s version managed to do both at once, but he was, after all, Leonard Cohen, and it isn’t really fair to fault this cover for not matching the depth of his original. And to be honest, in terms of sheer sensual musical beauty, this is actually prettier than even the Cohen version. Pentatonix, for some reason, only seem to chart when they release their Christmas singles, and this is easily the best of those singles to date…and even if a lot of that it thanks to the superior source material, they still do a more than respectable job of interpreting it.
This song is mostly notorious right now for having one of those idiotic novelty music videos that are trying to go viral no matter what the cost to their dignity. But I tend as a rule to ignore music videos when I review popular songs, and frankly, even leaving that aspect aside, there’s more than enough wrong with the song itself. This song’s melody is catchy, I’ll give it that, but it’s also maddeningly repetitive even by the standards of the current year’s Pop music. And it’s not repetitive in an artistic, minimalist way like much of Future’s output, but in a formulaic Pop earworm way, a la “The Macarena”, an effect accented by the dull Trap beat in the background, which does not match the perky vocal melody at all. On top of that, the subject matter (a rather pathetic breakup song about desperate denial and drowning your sorrows in alcohol) is completely at odds with the brainlessly upbeat sound of the music. Again, this can work if done right, but there’s no real attempt at irony here…just a complete disconnect between the music and the actual topic. And Kendrick Lamar’s subpar guest verse doesn’t help. Don’t get me wrong, Kendrick is a genius on his own albums, but on his guest verses, he’s a kind of stylistic chameleon…his trademark talent is a gift for blending in perfectly with the styles of the main artists he’s appearing with. When he’s working with someone talented, this is usually a blessing (e.g. Pusha T’s “Nosetalgia”), but it means that when he appears on a bad artist’s song, he usually gets dragged down to their level. It’s been true since “Fuckin’ Problems” in 2013, and it’s certainly true here. In fact, this is probably the worst song Kendrick’s ever appeared on, and I certainly hope it stays that way.
We’ve had a surprisingly large number of what Ken Mandelbaum used to call “Heartbreaker Flops” in the past few Broadway seasons…shows that fail, but for one reason or another still qualify as glorious in their ambition and achievements. After Big Fish, If/Then, Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas, Bright Star, and Shuffle Along, came the last of the current crop to debut, Tuck Everlasting. Based on Natalie Babbitt’s beautifully-written young adults’ novel, this gentle, strikingly different show tells the story of a family that accidentally gains eternal life by drinking from a magic spring, and a young girl’s life-changing encounter with them.
You know how I observed, when I reviewed Lestat, that it apparently saw itself as some high meditation on the torment of immortal existence? Well, here’s a show that actually pulls off that idea a billion times better than Lestat ever dreamed of doing (even if both shows wound up as flops). Every plausible reaction to the idea of living forever is represented by one of the members of the family…the father, Angus, who is tormented by the heavy weight of time; the mother, Mae, who tries to make the best of her situation as much as she can; and older son Miles, who is anguished by the loss of his long-dead wife and son. The only one of them who seems to enjoy his situation is youngest son Jesse, and even he seems desperately lonely under his callow facade.
Winnie Foster, the sheltered eleven-year-old girl who comes into contact with the family, has a kind of suggested love plot with Jesse, but it’s all kept well within the bounds of the kind of relationship a seventeen-year-old can have with an eleven-year-old in a wholesome family show like this (especially if said seventeen-year-old is technically 104). Jesse does consider the possibility of marrying Winnie when she grows up, though, and this leads to the show’s central dilemma…namely, is life really worth anything without death? It’s an idea that’s been brought up many times, and even musicalized before, as any good Queen fan knows. But the novel this show is based on was always one of the most eloquent of the theme’s many reiterations, and the musical preserves that eloquence in adaptation.
The intensely lyrical score is responsible for much of that eloquence, and it is for the most part exquisite. The music is drawn largely from Country and Soft Rock influences, but it not only never feels anachronistic (the show takes place in the late 1800s), but does a breathtakingly beautiful job of expressing the show’s gentle and tender feelings. And if the lyrics do occasionally descend into cliche, they are still extremely effective is communicating the show’s themes, and their poetic language compliments the music perfectly. The adorable “Good Girl Winnie Foster”, the tempting “Seventeen”, the heartbreaking “Time”, the show’s key philosophical number “The Wheel”, Winnie’s contemplation of her loaded choice “Everlasting”, and the music for the final ballet are particularly wonderful.
Given all this, why did the show fail? Well, it does have one large artistic problem: as exquisite as it is when it focuses on Winnie and the Tuck family, it falters whenever it turns its attention to the villain (known only as “The Man in the Yellow Suit”), or the pair of buffoonish lawmen who serve as the show’s excuse for comedy relief. True, Terrence Mann is certainly the biggest name in the cast, and he does give an entertainingly hammy performance as The Man in the Yellow Suit. But these parts of the story don’t seem to have inspired the authors…the portions of the book and score that deal with them, including the cheesy villain song “Everything’s Golden” and the groan-inducing comedy duet “You Can’t Trust a Man”, are far less accomplished than the parts of the show that focus on Winnie and the Tucks. And the hyperactive overproduction of Mann’s carnival-themed production numbers does not remotely match the delicate tone of the rest of the show.
That said, I really thinks Broadway was just not ready for a show this different from what it was used to. This show is really more unusual than the above description may make it sound. The score is very oddly structured: there are really only twelve full vocal songs in the entire score. The rest consists of reprises and little musical fragments clocking at less than a minute each, and the actual climax of the story is told entirely through ballet. The same sheer refreshing sense of difference that won the show its small but devoted fanbase was just too much for mainstream Broadway, at least in a small, starless, low-key show with no overwhelming box-office draw like this one. But even with only thirteen tracks out of twenty-four being of real interest, and two of those being comparative duds, this show’s cast album is still well worth picking up. The good songs more than make up for the abundant filler, and the performers, particularly Sarah Charles Lewis as Winnie and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Jesse, do a wonderful job with them. I hope we haven’t seen the last of this fascinating little show, because it just seems too interesting and unique to simply disappear into the mists of time.
This poignant musical fable, an early effort by Broadway composing superstar Jeanine Tesori, took seventeen years to make the leap to Broadway and even then didn’t find the success it deserved.
Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a young woman disfigured by an accident who makes a journey to a faith healer she believes can fix her face. On the way, she falls in with two soldiers, one black and one white, both of whom wind up falling in love with her in different ways. When she meets the faith healer, he turns out to be a pathetic fraud, but she finds comfort in the arms of the more sensitive of the two soldiers, named Flick, and the curtains falls on a bittersweet but intensely happy and hopeful ending.
Because the show was based on a short story, the plot is rather thin in terms of actual event, but the show is full of very intense feelings: the heroine’s symbolic confrontation with the spirit of her dead father and the heartrending final scene are among the most moving moments in modern musical theater, and the show’s journey from blind hope through despair to tentative happiness is one of the most moving stories to be found in any musical.
These powerful emotions are conveyed largely through the show’s melodious and intensely moving score. The score is still arguably Tesori’s best, with its only logical competitor being Fun Home, and ranks as one of the most underrated theater scores of the Nineties. Employing the Country and Classic Rock idioms that grew naturally out of the setting, it features two of the decade’s most rhapsodic ballads, “Lay Down Your Head” and “Bring Me To Light”, and two of its most inspiring anthems, “Let It Sing” and “On My Way”.
There are two intense musical confrontation scenes, “Hard To Say Goodbye” for Violet and Flick and a sequence consisting of the anguished “Look At Me” and the tender “That’s What I Could Do” for Violet and her late father. “You’re Different” is one of the deepest and most insightful character songs you’ll ever hear, as Monty, the callow womanizer of the two soldiers, privately admits just how much Violet has managed to get under his skin (one of the few flaws in the Broadway revival was the decision to replace this song with the far less interesting “Last Time I Came to Memphis”).
To lighten the heavy emotions of the piece, there are the clever “Luck of the Draw” for Violet’s father in a flashback and the sparkling “All To Pieces”, where Violet imagines all the features of famous movie stars she’d like to ask the faith healer for. And this is a rare show that manages to save its best song for its final curtain…the aforementioned “Bring Me To Light”, which is quite seriously one of the greatest final curtain numbers of all time, and does a perfect job of capturing the tentative love and joy that ends the show’s story.
You may ask, if the show has all these good qualities, why every one of its production in a major venue has failed. I can’t say for certain, but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it had something to do with the thinness of the plot. Remember, the show is based on a short story, and for all the sheer emotional punch it packs, there simply isn’t enough happening in this plot to fill two hours of theater. Don’t underestimate how fatal this problem can be…a number of otherwise wonderful musicals (most famously The Baker’s Wife) have been consigned to perennial failure by a lack of sheer plot.
This show seems like it would be a natural for local productions, given its modest set demands and overall simplicity, but it has one difficulty: the title role is extremely challenging, because nearly all productions of the show choose not to use a cosmetic scar for the character. The actress has to convey the impression of being scarred, through her bearing and her reactions to the world, which means the show essentially cannot be done without a superb actress in the lead.
But with its incredibly moving story and largely glorious score, the show deserves far more success than it has received, and I can only hope its short-lived Broadway mounting will at least draw enough attention to it to lead to more productions. After all, the phenomenon of the Broadway flop that becomes a sensation in local theaters is a reality now (9 to 5, 13), and this seems like exactly the kind of show that would do well in that market, even if it is a bit hard to cast.
In any case, this is one of those cult flops scores that should be mandatory listening for serious theater fans. The original Off-Broadway cast album with Lauren Ward is probably the best overall recording, though I know most modern Broadway fans will probably gravitate to the Broadway cast album with Sutton Foster because of name recognition. Either way, this is a score well worth hearing, all the more now that Fun Home has made Tesori one of the biggest names on Broadway. The last two Broadway seasons have given us more than our share of genuine Heartbreaker Flops (Big Fish, The Bridges of Madison County, Rocky the Musical, If/Then, Honeymoon in Vegas, Bright Star, Shuffle Along, Tuck Everlasting), but this is something special even by those standards, and if you’re serious about Broadway, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
The original 1983 film A Christmas Story has its detractors, but it occupies such a special place in the pantheon of Christmas classics that nothing can destroy it…not even being made into a musical that has no interest in any of the qualities that actually made it great.
The thing that makes the original film so unique among the canonical Christmas movies is just how aggressively real it is…at once a model of old-fashioned simplicity and displaying an almost brutal honesty about how childhood actually feels in the moment. That’s why this slick, manufactured Holiday-novelty-item approach is so profoundly wrong for this material, even more so than it was for the other holiday classics thus adapted.
Of course, the most interesting thing about this show is that the songwriters are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who, thanks to Dear Evan Hansen and the movie musical La La Land, are now one of the most acclaimed teams in modern musical theater. Unfortunately, it’s clear from the noxiously bland score they contributed here that they were working on autopilot for this project. This isn’t a case of artistic immaturity, either…Pasek and Paul were responsible for the brilliant and brutal off-Broadway masterpiece Dogfight that very same year, so they clearly already knew how to make honest and dramatic music. Presumably they just saw this show as a piece of soulless product not worth their actual effort.
One could argue this is similar to Jeanine Tesori working on ‘commercial’ projects that are unworthy of her talents, but when Tesori ‘slums’, she at least elevates the material by her presence (for example, the Shrek musical would have been far worse without her tuneful and sophisticated music). Here, Pasek and Paul’s score might as well be the work of any random hack songwriters. That’s a shame, because their other scores point up exactly the qualities that might have worked in a true musicalization of A Christmas Story, so they were ironically the perfect team for the job if they or the producers had had any interest in actually matching the film.
The only number that is even remotely successful at capturing the feel of the film is the touching “What a Mother Does”, particularly as performed by Liz Callaway on the cast album. The two centerpieces are a pair of grotesque, embarrassing production numbers, “Ralphie to the Rescue” and “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out”, and the score in general follows the Young Frankenstein school of musicalization, simply turning every famous joke into a musical number…even the familiar flagpole scene becomes a song, “A Sticky Situation”. The lyrics are mildly clever in places but have no real content, mostly just continually rehashing aimless wordplay to fill in for the lack of it, and the music sounds like your typical borderline-Muzak Christmas novelty music.
The score also has a very non-period-specific sound, which might be an advantage in a musical fairytale like How the Grinch Stole Christmas but drains a lot of the character out of a movie that was specifically focused on capturing the authentic color of a bygone era…the movie is full of very meticulous period detail, and it needed a period-flavored score to match it.
An even bigger problem comes from the fact that in the film, the child actor playing Ralphie barely speaks at all…the vast majority of his ‘dialogue’ comes from his future self as the narrator, looking back on his own internal monologue at the time. But because Tom Wopat’s adult narrator doesn’t participate in the music, the original film’s ruefully philosophical commentary on childhood becomes much more of a straightforward story from the perspective of a child, which makes the material far less sophisticated and interesting. In short, this is ultimately just a glorified Radio City Music Hall-type production…big, flashy production numbers to entertain the kiddies in the audience…that tries to cash in on the name recognition of the film without actually understanding it.
Fortunately, this is not one of those terrible adaptations that wind up eclipsing their more worthy predecessors…the musical is already forgotten just a few years after its debut, while the film itself is still being marketed to the point of overexposure. And while the critics were fairly generous at the time, it should tell you something, given what passes for seasonal holiday fare on Broadway, that this show has not made another appearance there. Remember that such dubious items as the Grinch and Elf musicals were brought back multiple times over the years, whereas this show essentially vanished after one holiday season, leaving nothing behind but an incomplete cast album and a bad taste in Broadway-goers mouths. I hope Pasek and Paul’s next ‘commercial’ project, the upcoming live-action film version of Disney’s Snow White, goes better than this, but given their apparent belief that they have to ‘turn off’ their talent on projects like that in order to communicate that such things are beneath them, I’m not especially hopeful.
This was probably the best of the crop of live television musicals up to that point. It probably isn’t as good as Hairspray Live, given that it doesn’t live up to its source, but to be fair, that source was a pretty hard one to top.
Apart from importing a few lines from the audience participation script into the actual show and reinserting the stage version’s final song, “Super Heroes”, the script is almost dogmatically faithful to the original screenplay. Indeed, given today’s politically correct world and the pressures generally placed on primetime television, I was amazed at how much of the transgressive debauchery that made up the original plot was unapologetically retained in the finished version.
Much was made of an actual transgender actress, Laverne Cox, playing Frank N. Furter, but I tend to judge these cases solely on an artistic level. Fortunately, Cox more than passes muster on that front. If she doesn’t equal Tim Curry’s original (which, let’s be honest, no-one will ever do), she still has all the evil charisma and twisted sex appeal to be worthy to fill his shoes, and that alone is more than you’d expect from practically anybody.
The supporting cast are equally excellent. If I had to lodge any criticism, it would be that Reeve Carney and Christina Milian as Riff-Raff and Magenta, while certainly capable enough, are a bit too normal compared to the terrifyingly weird Richard O’Brien and Patricia Quinn in the original.
But several of the performances actually improve on the ones in the first film. Ryan McCarten is much more likable as Brad than Barry Bostwick, although I suppose you could debate whether that’s really a good thing given that being unlikable is essentially the point of Brad’s character. But Annaleigh Ashford is a much more human and touching Columbia than ‘Little’ Nell Campbell’s hyperactive cartoon, and Victoria Justice is indisputably a huge improvement on Susan Sarandon in singing, acting, and even looks.
Ben Vereen is, to be frank, a far more interesting Dr. Scott than Jonathan Adams, and, in a nod to the show’s legacy, Tim Curry plays The Criminologist, providing a sense of gravitas that is at least equal to Charles Gray’s original. And Adam Lambert is a natural choice for Eddie, given that he is modern Pop’s closest equivalent to Meat Loaf, albeit thinner and prettier.
This may not equal the legendary project on which it was based, but it did as good a job at recapturing what made it work as anyone could possibly expect. It’s often helpful to think of these TV adaptations of musicals that are already famous on film as revivals, rather than remakes, and if this were a stage revival, it would be the best we’d gotten since the Tom Hewitt Broadway revival back in 2000.
Certainly it did a vastly better job than any previous live TV musical except perhaps The Wiz Live, and that one was dealing with a much more minor classic whose earlier film adaptation had been an unmitigated disaster. This one, on the other hand, chose source material that seemed impossible to improve on and even pointless to attempt to duplicate, and if its reach to equal the original ultimately exceeded its grasp, its frankly astounding quality serves as a reminder of the benefits of reaching for the impossible.
This was the first decent single Luke Bryan had released since his breakthrough hit “Do I”. Since then, he has been known mostly for either dull, near-identical midtempo ballads or idiotic, posturing Pop-Country party songs. The reason for this song’s unusually high quality is obvious when one looks as its writing credits today, but of course in 2013 no-one had any idea who Chris Stapleton was yet. Yes, the current Messiah of Neotraditional Country was responsible for penning this song, which makes this sort of a pattern for Bryan, since “Do I” was penned by the members of Lady Antebellum. But regardless of who really deserves the credit for this song, about the one thing country music still did as well as it had ever done circa 2013 is dirges for the wartime dead, and this one was the most touching to make the Country charts since Lee Brice’s CMA-winning “I Drive Your Truck”.