Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE, coming to you live from New York all week!
If music(als) be the food of love, play on…
One of the things I love most about New York is how deeply embedded musical theatre is into its fabric. Broadway is essentially synonymous with musicals, and is its commercial heart; though it also loves to embrace a hit play, too (often from London, like the imminent transfer of Martin McDonagh’s HANGMEN, or star-driven vehicles, like Daniel Craig’s MACBETH, opening at the end of April).
But musicals have a deeper currency beyond the shows currently playing. Their heritage is constantly being celebrated in performances around town, like the BROADWAY BY THE YEAR season, created and curated by critic and writer Scott Siegel that opened its 21st season at Town Hall last night, putting together themed evenings of songs from the shows.
Last night’s programme celebrated what it called Broadway’s New Wave of contemporary composers, from 1988 (CHESS) to 2019 (Joe Iconis’s’ BE MORE CHILL, with the composer, 3rd from the left below, on hand himself to perform its most downloaded song, ‘Michael in the Bathroom’, plus two new theatre songs from shows that are yet to find a home).
The musical choices might be occasionally idiosyncratic — to illustrate Disney’s influence on Broadway, for instance, it offered songs from the flop THE LITTLE MERMAID alongside an entry from THE LION KING, as well as a curtain call song from FROZEN (which also flopped on Broadway, wiped out by the pandemic); it also squeezes in a song from CHICAGO, premiered on Broadway 47 years ago, to mark the 25th anniversary of that show’s revival which has now become the longest-running American musical in history. But ‘new wave’? Hardly — especially given that the Disney songs were written for films, not the shows they became incorporated within.
But no matter. It is essentially an opportunity for Broadway performers, mostly in the second division of covers or cabaret artists, to showcase some favourite songs, from shows that stretch from RENT to HAMILTON and DEAR EVAN HANSEN that have variously changed Broadway history in the last three decades.
Amongst personal highlights: Ben Jones, whose version of Jason Robert Brown’s “It All Fades Away” (from the short-lived THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY) was a gorgeous rendition of my favourite Brown song; he was also joined by Sara Niemietz for the beautiful “All the Wasted Time” from Brown’s first Broadway show PARADE. Alan Menken’s One of the Great Ones (from A BRONX TALE) was sung, also by Jones, as a tribute to performer Nick Cordero who sang it in the original production, and who died of Covid aged just 41 in 2020.
Inevitably, given how personal such choices inevitably are, there was plenty left out: there was nothing, for instance, from NEXT TO NORMAL, my favourite musical of the century so far, or from either of Tim Minchin’s masterpieces, MATILDA and GROUNDHOG DAY. Cyndi Lauper was the sole female composer represented (with a song from KINKY BOOTS) — but if you’re doing the New Wave, it seems odd not to include Jeanine Tesori, easily the most prolific female composer around now, or Sara Bareilles’s hit WAITRESS. And given the current super-charged drive towards inclusion, there was nothing from a non-white composer, either, apart from the Latino Lin-Manuel Miranda (HAMILTON).
Group evenings like BROADWAY BY THE YEAR offer an opportunity to see a wide range of mostly younger performers. But New York also has a resurgent cabaret scene, now centred on 54 Below, the swanky club in the basement of Studio 54 (now a Broadway theatre), where on Friday I’m looking forward to seeing Liz Callaway, one of my favourite Broadway voices ever, in a tribute to Sondheim, in whose 1981 Broadway flop MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG she made her Broadway debut; she would go onto do a long residency as Grizabella in CATS.
Talking of CATS — Broadway’s original Grizabella, for which she won a Tony Award in 1983, was Betty Buckley, who also has an impressive legacy as a cabaret interpreter of Sondheim, and whose new digital album pulls together her previously-recorded Sondheim tracks, plus two new, previously unreleased ones.
Until last night she was appearing in a short cabaret run at Joe’s Pub, the beautifully intimate room at the Public Theatre, and I happily caught her there on Saturday, for a programme that included a generous slice of Sondheim, plus Bob Dylan, Cole Porter and Jason Robert Brown, amongst others. She really has one of the best, most individual voices from Broadway musicals of the last half century
Shows opening in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway
My regularly updated guide to shows opening in the coming weeks and months in London, seleced regional theatres and on Broadway is available here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-march-21-onwards/
SEE YOU TOMORROW
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