Sound Advice Reviews
Snapshots & Some Lovers
In the wake of a surprise Grammy Award win for Best Musical Theater Album by something that hasn't been staged, and arrived via TikTok (The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical), I'm reminded to belatedly turn to two other nominees: the Snapshots and Some Lovers world premiere recordings, although the shows themselves have been around for years and seen multiple productions. Most interestingly and coincidentally, they both involve a romantic couple looking back on their past and are staged with actors playing their current and younger selves, allowing for flashbacks and the different-aged incarnations interact. But neither is a recording of a cast that played before a live audience.
Calling all musical theatre mavens! Or maybe just those with open minds. Are you very familiar with the original contexts and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz's oeuvre? Well, odds are that you'll feel you entered an odd alternative universe the first time you encounter the repurposed repertoire in Snapshots. Don't fret. You haven't been zapped to some musical theatre Twilight Zone, even though unfamiliar characters are delivering familiar things as if only they and their plot owned them, confidently singing sometimes vastly different words as though these were the only ones meant for those old melodies. Stephen Schwartz's Snapshots: A Musical Scrapbook combines an original plot (about a married couple recalling key moments in their lives) with those pre-existing songs, several newly tethered or bouncing off each other. The result is kind of irresistible–except for the purist who wants to leave well enough alone. Mr. Schwartz is not among the latter group, since the self-tweaking revisionist is fully on board.
While this is its first recording, the property has seen numerous productions since the 1990s, with some songs exiting or entering along the way. This 2021 appealing cast was slated to do a live production (at A Contemporary Theatre in Connecticut), and its pandemic-caused plan B was a filmed version for streaming. Accompanying the singing is a fine four-piece band, with conductor/music supervisor/pianist Bryan Perri joined by Alex Nolan on various guitars, Michael Blanco on acoustic and electric bass, and percussionist Dennis Arcano. A six-person cast allows the spouses to be portrayed at three ages/stages of life. The middle-aged Sue and Dan witness, and sometimes "interact" and/or harmonize with, their younger selves. Four of the actors also take on other characters (such as ex-paramours) as recollections materialize. They go back to childhood, recalling how it felt to be the "New Kid in the Neighborhood" (led by bright-voiced John Cardoza, who ably projects the sensibilities of youth) and cascade through school graduation, dating, marriage and parenthood.
Throughout the trip down Memory-Tugging Lane, Mariand Torres and Ryan K. Bailer effectively anchor the proceedings as the present-day incarnations of the couple. In this musical salad that can be hyperactive, the two bring poignancy to the endearingly delicate "Chanson," sweetly buoyed by group harmony. Her voice is redolent with emotion, bringing bittersweet colors as well as steely assertiveness to key numbers. She, Monica Ramirez, and Olivia Hernandez are affecting solo and in combinations on such fare as the sweeping "Meadowlark" and the wistful standouts "Lion Tamer" and "I'm Not That Girl." Michael McCorry Rose bubbles with charming enthusiasm in one of the zippy choices from Personals, although the title "Moving in with Linda" is name-switched to be about "Susan." The musical this one came from had Schwartz as one of several contributing melodies. Also in the mix for this hybrid are four items from the album Reluctant Pilgrim, on which he sang some of his stand-alone songs, including the one serving as Snapshots' title number.
Analogous to the interesting experience of being privy to early, rejected drafts of the lyrics of songs you know in their famous forms, it's refreshing fun to check out wordsmith Schwartz's resourceful reupholstery work here. Melodies, titles, and basic messages are retrofitted, and old verbiage–specific to characters and plots that would have made adoption a deal-breaker–are replaced with language appropriate to the situation. Most prominent in this category are "All for the Best" (now about relationship impasses, wishing he weren't so "clueless" so she could be a "shrew less") and a mash-up of the new cousins of "No Time at All" and "Popular" for a Cardoza/Ramirez meeting of the minds more suited to younger carpe diem and zest.
Surprisingly, it might be easier to feel at ease with these skillfully done "alter ego" substitutes than with a couple of earnest feelings about probable separations and final farewells that can seem overwrought in their new skins compared to their heavier ancestry, if you were acquainted with that. I mean, is "If We Never Meet Again," which we first met in the intense Rags (music by Charles Strouse) as burdened, ship-sharing refugees made their goodbyes, be suitable when it migrates to a more prosaic potential adios? Likewise, do the woes of contemporary Dan and Sue in their suburban home seem disproportionately dwarfed when they lament with material designed for the dramatic dilemmas confronted by the Bible folk in Children of Eden ("The Spark of Creation" and "In Whatever Time We Have")?
The packaging for the physical CD includes photos, synopsis and comments, but there's more than meets the perusing eye in the track list. Umbrella titles for montages such as "Graduation Day," "Cacophony," and "Finale" don't name their component parts, so there's no indication that they are populated by Pippin's nicely done "Corner of the Sky," an impactfully woven-through "Extraordinary," and "With You," Wicked's cut "Making Good," and the aforementioned throbbing "In Whatever Time We Have". They carry plenty of weight, despite abbreviation and being easily assimilated into the melange.
If not everything truly scores in this recycled score with its own frame, the "hybrid" does bring new perspectives with a different genre of "bonus tracks." As the box of snapshots lets Dan and Sue explore their thoughts, looking back, it lets us all think outside the box instead of how we might otherwise look back at a major writer's durable contributions. And that makes Snapshots more than a long shot to be engaging entertainment.
BURT BACHARACH & STEVEN SATER'S
Although it's been ten years since Some Lovers had the first of its various productions, none of them resulted in a cast recording. We now have songs preserved, but not by just four singing actors playing the show's grand total of four roles–the older and younger versions of lovers Ben and Molly–who are all on stage throughout and interact. Instead we get a bevy of 21 talented performers taking turns on the tracks, mostly duets, that track the couple's meetings, break-up, memories and regrets.
An inspired idea for this concept album's duets is to reunite co-stars from past musical theatre projects. It's also notable that a few participants have ties to other scores co-written by either composer Burt Bacharach or lyricist Steven Sater: Veteran Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the Bacharach/Hal David Broadway hit Promises, Promises way back in 1968, supplies those duties here (for an eight-piece band), and a star of its revival, Kristin Chenoweth, solos plaintively on the request "Just Walk Away." The opening is "Molly," sweetly done by Colton Ryan and Molly Gordon who were in the Sater/Duncan Sheik Alice by Heart, and Jonathan Groff and Lea Michelle, passionately pleading "Love Me for an Hour," were in the Sater/Sheik Spring Awakening. (Another member of that original cast, Lilli Cooper, also appears.)
The revolving door of performers is a mixed blessing. While it's great to have so many prominent contemporary musical theatre pros sharing songs or going it alone (there are emotional solos for Ramin Karimloo and Jennifer Holiday), it's difficult to feel involved or invested. The physical CD's included synopsis and lyrics help us follow along, but in the songs not a lot of plot can be spotted (such as the financial and career issues, locations, or their connection to O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi"). Lyric content is more generalized and consists of rather plainly worded expressions of desires and disillusions, featuring more in the way of repetition than revelations. Luckily, we longtime admirers of Bacharach's recognizable style can again welcome his signature touches of ear-tickling licks and inventively shifting rhythms. But we're often in low gear, with a paucity of oomph or joy.
Despite some artful singing, and the efforts and precision of the band led by keyboardist Ben Hartman and the kick of the drums by Michael Croiter (the two are also album producers), some melodies feel muted and modest. They can be distractingly dragged down when their sharpness seems dulled by the lyrics' many false rhymes and using similar words and themes from song to song. "This Christmas," presented as the song which Some Lovers' male protagonist has been struggling to write for years begins with these words: "This Christmas/ Stay a little while/ And hold me like a child again/ Let dreams take us/ To dream places." When we finally get to this last of the 13 tracks, it's the ninth song whose lyrics talk about being held in a lover's arms and the ninth song to reference dreams. Another example is the title selection which has seven verses, and the last three are identical: "Some lovers are dreamers/ And maybe that's me/ Can't look for some meaning/ Just leave it- Come, hold me in your arms."
While Some Lovers may have some problems, Burt Bacharach's melodies still please, and it's intriguing to witness stars like Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana, Betsy Wolfe, etc. etc. all assembled for their contributions to one project. Its assets are growing on me.