New Broadway cast records leave much to be desired
It’s not easy to funk up frumpy old Broadway. No matter how loudly the Great White Way trumpets its periodic paeans to youth (Hair, The Wiz), a Berlin Wall looms between the arch grace of theater music and the vibrant riot of hip-hop, rock, and R&B. Show tunes, roots music, and youth-oriented forms still make wildly different demands on the use of rhythm, the role of lyrics, even the way a song is sung.
At least in terms of glittering prizes and box office receipts, two recent musicals may lay claim to bridging that wide divide: namely, Rent and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. But listening to their cast recordings reveals just how many messy ties they retain to Broadway’s most wizened conventions — and underscores how dramatically they violate the worlds they mean to salute.
Of the two, Rent: Original Broadway Cast Recording gets its milieu the most hopelessly wrong. While the play wants to depict the thrilling rattiness of New York’s East Village (crawling with artists, drag queens, rockers, and the HIV-positive), its music comes straight outta Scarsdale. In the theater, audiences can be distracted by the carefully distressed staging and the actors’ thrift-store clothes and eager delivery. But a cold spin of Rent‘s two CDs brings every self-conscious and over-scrubbed element of the music front and center.
Nearly all the songs, by the late Jonathan Larson, sound emasculated and prefab by rock standards. When Daphne Rubin-Vega sings Larson’s hardest-rocking reach (”Out Tonight”), she sounds less like punk legend Patti Smith and more like rock hacktress Patty Smyth. Even lead actor Adam Pascal belts his songs with all the rock cool of Julie Andrews crooning ”Getting to Know You.”
Similar limitations couldn’t ruin Hair, the ”rock opera” that clearly served as Rent‘s blueprint. But that play eased any disparities with its wry humor and idealized subject matter. Rent, by contrast, centers on characters who stake their identities on protesting the slick values suggested by the music. If Rent‘s characters bitch endlessly about ”selling out,” they needn’t worry. Larson’s corporate rock does it for them. (So well, in fact, that the cast was asked to perform at the Democratic convention.) Besides, any genuine denizen of the East Village would sooner have his tongue ripped out than sing in the overenunciated, theatrically booming voices on this record.
All of which isn’t to say that Larson’s score lacks any measure of pop pleasures. Several songs could make sweet hits for a suburban artist like, say, Whitney Houston (whose reps made a beeline for the show early on). The Latin-tinged ”Light My Candle” recalls the early girl-group tunes, while the elegant pop of ”Seasons of Love” would do a mainstream singer proud. (Small wonder DreamWorks tacks on a second version of ”Love.” Sung by Stevie Wonder and the cast, it’s a clear bid for a hit single.)
Between such fleeting epiphanies, however, we have to endure scads of half-sung, half-spoken psychobabble (with generous references to emotional ”baggage” or ”being in denial”). And the general flatness of the characters begins to grate. For a show that’s supposed to be all about giving voice to the marginal, not a single character is more than a type (the sanctimonious punk, the sanctified drag queen). Which, in the end, costs Rent nearly all its credibility, rendering it little more than Cats in Doc Martens.
Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk: Original Broadway Cast faces an even more basic problem — so basic it’s laughable. Why would anyone listen to a recording of a show built around dancing? While ‘Da Noise features a score that breezes through more than 100 years of African-American music — touching on blues, R&B, jazz, and hip-hop — its focus remains the fleet tap dancing of choreographer-star Savion Glover. He and his hoofing cast make the show a must-see.
But to experience the play shorn of their grace and glide is like sitting down to a four-star meal with a clothespin on your nose. On record, Glover’s brilliant tap work sounds like an amplified bowl of Rice Krispies snap, crackle, and popping with goofy abandon. While the show’s authors make a big point of explaining that true tap isn’t the flashy dancing we’ve seen in the movies — that it deserves to be appreciated as pure percussion — the result belies them. Tap sounds woefully small compared with the show’s other, more authoritative beats.
The clang and crash of improvised drums elsewhere in the score drives home the play’s thesis — that a faith in the beat has sustained African-American life through centuries of indignity. But the show insists on making that truth tedious through lecturing lyrics. To boot, the stagy singing of featured diva Ann Duquesnay misses the subtleties of nearly every genre she tackles.
In a deep and depressing sense, that’s by design. Shows like ‘Da Noise and Rent exist to please audiences who probably never liked pure rock, rap, and funk to begin with.
Which only makes one pine that much harder for the kind of cast album Broadway does just right — like, say, Oklahoma!
Rent: C- Bring in ‘Da Noise: C-