Sound Advice Reviews
Two recordings on the serious side from Ghostlight Records
In these post-Golden Age years of musical theatre, many styles are embraced as envelopes are pushed and boundaries are stretched. Breaking new ground and breaking with tradition is no longer breaking news. Here are two Ghostlight Records recordings featuring the work of women writers. And there's some overlap between the two releases. These include participation by music-making men Kris Kukul and John Murchison (the latter playing the not-commonly heard string instrument called the qanun on both offerings). Also, almost all of In the Green's cast members appear among the many on The Liz Swados Project, covering the output of that late pioneer.
Tonight's free live-streamed show that is a tribute to the late theatre multi-tasker Elizabeth Swados, and the 2020 multi-performer recording surveying her output, are my cue to time my review to this week. With 19 tracks, The Liz Swados Project samples a wide range of scores from her oeuvre. Most of the pieces haven't had public audio representation before, so this culling is noteworthy from a historical perspective. As years went by, it became more and more fruitless to try to categorize the prolific creator's styles or sensibilities, since the ever-surprising Swados was chameleon-like. Her melodies, wedded to her own words or someone else's, evidenced many influences and traditions. An early attraction to world music rich in ritual, her use of rhythm could dominate in some cases; in other instances, everything takes a backseat to intense lyrics.
Almost all songs are from shows produced between the late 1970s and first years of the '80s. Digging into this potent potpourri, we find a range of sounds and genre-mixing. It's provocative. In this a-taste-of-everything musical menu, there are things funky, brash, exotic, sweet, sultry, sulking and sinuous, with open-vein visceral solo confessions and open-hearted, rich group harmonies. (There's even a choir that appears.) Much may be challenging for impatient seekers of easily accessible, feel-good "entertainment." For example, 1997's "The Dance" sung by The Bengsons becomes increasingly harrowing.
Hum along at your own risk; melody lines are often unpredictable or elusive, yet intriguing and seductive in their own ways. Lyrics and character attitudes presented can be enigmatic on their out-of-context faces, needing concentrated attention to absorb, but the immediate and immersive personalities portrayed by the singer-actors can't be denied. When so powerfully pounced upon, sometimes the broad strokes are sufficient to sell the material.
While we get just one or two numbers from each of the other many scores (or, in the case of The Beautiful Lady, three), Runaways has four of its unblinking portraits of homeless youth. All are delivered with punch (as in punch-in-the-gut grit) or pathos. The greedier score-scavenging collector types (Is that me looking in the mirror?) may carp that, since that show got a full-length Broadway original cast album, things from the more obscure shows showing up would have been preferred. (But let's note that other Swados scores that got recorded are not visited at all here.)
Two leads who shared the Broadway stage in the recently rethought Oklahoma! are among the standouts making The Liz Swados Project striking. Both are assigned things from Beautiful Lady, made up of musicalized translations of Russian poems. Damon Daunno is disarming as he addresses "Isadora" with honey-voiced grace. Ali Stroker is irresistibly effusive in her engaging take on "Take Me to Paris."
The classic escapades encountered by Lewis Carroll's Alice, entering through mirrored glass or rabbit hole, have inspired many a musicalizer, including Swados. Two treats that appear here show her ability to compose in simpler, more straightforward, even kid-friendly style. On the gentle side, there's "In This My Green World" (words: Kenneth Patchen) delicately painted by Stephanie Hsu with Preston Martin. And what a hoot is the appropriately gleeful and maniacal Taylor Mac attack in his romp advocating beheading, titled for the tough character "The Red Queen," although the monarch meanie Carroll had calling for head removal was the Queen of Hearts.
Owing to the vast variety of musical landscapes, I suspect that a casual poll of theatre adventurers of different stripes and leanings would turn up differing contenders for favorites. One with wide-ish appeal could be the attractively sung tour of "Salvador" (from Missionaries, 1997) by members of the cast of In the Green: Ashley Pérez Flanagan, with Rachael Duddy and Hannah Whitney. Also among this generous scrapbook's participants are some who worked with the writer/director/choreographer and, duly noted, younger singing composer/lyricists, some inspired by her. These include Dave Malloy, Shaina Taub, Michael R. Jackson, and the late Michael Friedman. And then there's Grace McLean of In the Green with a persuasive politically conscious reality check, "War Gets Old" from Dispatches (lyric: Michael Herr). Kris Kukul deserves a bow for handling most of the arrangements and orchestrations as well as conducting, co-producing, and sharing keyboard duties with Cody Owen Stine. And, as a kind of bonus that serves as extra evidence that there wasn't much the Renaissance woman being tributed couldn't do, we hear the piercing voice of the lady herself, albeit without any words at all, simulating the sounds of aviary creatures in "Bird Lament."
The live follow-up to this swath of Swados can be seen online live tonight (November 24, 2020), beamed and streamed from the downtown Manhattan stage of Joe's Pub, neighbor of the Public Theater (not a first visit there for stage pieces and concerts connected to the honoree), at publictheater.org/productions/joes-pub/2020/j/the-liz-swados-project---joes-pub-live/. The program will be available on YouTube for two weeks.
IN THE GREEN
While the nuns portrayed in the musicals The Sound of Music, Sister Act, Look to the Lilies, and Nunsense (and its several sequels) had their own challenges and triumphs, it all seems easy compared to what those in In the Green discuss and deal with. Intense and ambitious, it's haunting and it's heavy (and can feel heavy-handed), often overwhelming with its piling-on of quests and questions, woes and warnings, laments and life lessons. If you're looking for artful drama, you've come to the right nunnery.
We know from history that the remarkable and influential Hildegard von Bingen accomplished much back in the 12th century (voluminous and influential writings on religion and health; heading her own order; being accepted as a visionary who had numerous messages from God; extensive lecturing; correspondence with world leaders; writing songs for liturgy and a morality play). Rather than concentrating on these known achievements, In the Green only gets to Hildegard the confident and celebrated leader latermuch later. Her family pledged her to a Benedictine abbey when she was a child. This backstory imagining of her years-long early training has most of the material and agenda absorbed with her teachings of hard truths through discipline and discovery. Taking up most of the 22 tracks, it's a long haul in slow-mo to advocate for the value of the "no pain/ no gain" approach.
Passing on her point of view in morose mentor mode is the six-years-older Jutta, presented as Hildegard's only companion as they dwell in a cell-like location for years on end. The younger girl is told that both have been "broken" due to past traumas treacherous to processand healing means Herculean hurdles that can be their own torture. Does misery love company? In the Green shows power in pondering self-empowerment and self-flagellation on this psychological thriller/ religion roller-coaster ride.
Jutta is played by Grace McLean, who wrote the songs and book of the piece. Turning in a committed performance, she is a strong presence and appealing singer. This is true for all five members of the all-female cast. Three of them simultaneously portray Hildegard to represent different "parts" of her and what those parts experience: Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Rachael Duddy and Hannah Whitney are, respectively, Mouth, Eye and Hand (they also take on other smaller roles). Handling two characters, Mia Pak adeptly completes the cast.
While the proceedings can be riveting, taking in In the Green all in one sitting might feel in its own way like the clinging claustrophobia of cloistered Hildegard and Jutta. This is exacerbated by the go-to reliance on repetition and echoes. It is especially flagrant in instances when Hildegard parrots Jutta's terse statements, then Hildegard repeats it as if chewing it over, being stunned by it, trying to accept it, or simply dutifully being the student tasked with memorizing and internalizing it. As the receiving Hildegard, there are always the three voices, so we sometimes hear the phrase separately by each, robot-like, in cloned harmony that suggests massive mind control. Often, the key phrase comes up again later in a lyric, or is paraphrased in another song, championing a small set of mantras drilled into the brain over and over.
Lastly, but definitely not least, there's looping. While impactful and diverting initially, Ms. McLean does lean on the novelty of this device that overlaps the first "live" words (or other vocal sounds) with the immediate playbacks of the recorded bits. A little goes a long way and then it's a "Here we go again" gimmicky game of diminishing returns. The whole can be less than sum of its parts, so I find myself appreciating In the Green a few parts at a time.
Here are a few examples of the lyrics that invoke some of the most-returned-to phrases and images for the saga of Hildegard whose first assignment is to prepare her own grave:
"What am I learning and where am I bound?/ And I'm still broken/ I'm still broken/ Watch wait try dig/ Watch wait try dig" (from "Ritual")
"I'm here to find the truth, and the truth will set me free/ If I can teach you how to be whole/ I will see the light" (from "The Rule")
"You are the night exhaling darkness but/ You must become light" (from "Integration")
It's not all gloom and doom. Among the highlights for me are the two appearances of "Sun Song," lovely melodic respites from the dour doings with hammered staccato. The title number has a gratifying patina of elegance. And each moment when hope or understanding may be dangled feels like coveted release as a step toward Hildegard's release from isolation. (And speaking of releases, this cast recording released digitally and streamable as of last month gets a physical CD release next month.)
A kind of extended denouement with Hannah Whitney as Old Hildegard inspiring her followers adds a satisfying bonus. And, while one might risk drowning in this drama-drenched whirlpool, as audience members we can make the leap to identify with characters for thought-provoking second-hand benefits akin to auditing someone else's tutorial with an element of psychiatric theory.
The talented folks on display here are worth following as they show up with other endeavors, such the six appearing on The Liz Swados Project: all cast members except Mia Pak, as well as four of the five cast members, are among the many participants, plus the instrumental quartet's player of the zither-like qanun, John Murchison, and Kris Kukul, In the Green's musical supervisor and its composer's co-orchestrator. But for now, this look at the medieval time period is over and we return you to your regularly inhabited century.