Springtime for Broadway: Listening to the Season

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One year ago, at the 2006 Tony Awards ceremony, Southern California Theaters received a fair bit of attention, as the two new musicals that won awards that night were seen first here on the West Coast. Jersey Boys, which won Best Musical, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse; and The Drowsy Chaperone did some tuning up at the Ahmanson Theatre before heading to Broadway, where it won awards for Best Score and Best Book.

This year however, only one new, LA-based musical went on to Broadway: the singing murder mystery, Curtains. And sadly, on Sunday at the 2007 Tony Awards, it didn't win any of the big awards, which suggests that unlike Jersey Boys (now playing at the Ahmanson) and Chaperone (returning there next summer), Curtains probably won't be making an encore visit to the southland.


For those who missed Curtains, or who loved it and wish to experience it again, the original cast album was released last week by Broadway Angel records. Curtains is the final musical collaboration of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the songwriting team responsible for Cabaret and Chicago. On stage at the Ahmanson, their show felt long, with genuine musical highlights few and far between.

Listening to the disc, though, the silly plot doesn't slow things down. The tracks move by quickly, and it turns out Kander and Ebb's show tunes need no dramatic context to work their old-fashioned charms. The disc also preserves the winning performance of David Hyde Pierce. Pierce has what is politely known as a "Rex Harrison" voice, but he gives the song "Coffee Shop Nights" some emotional depth--and his deadpan, "aw shucks" stage presence comes across through his voice alone.

The song that the CD best highlights, "I Miss the Music," is one that was lost amidst the onstage clutter. On disc though, this number—about a songwriting partnership that is no more—can be better appreciated as a tribute from Kander to his departed collaborator. Curtains is not a great musical, but this recording adds (albeit modestly) to the enduring legacy of Kander and Ebb's old-school Broadway melodies.


The musical that did win all the big awards at this year's Tonys was Spring Awakening, a rock musical with songs by an indie rocker frequently heard on KCRW, Duncan Sheik. Spring Awakening will certainly be headed to major LA theater soon, but in the meantime, the cast album (released by Decca Broadway) is a worth a listen--in fact, perhaps even worth more than the price of a ticket.

Spring Awakening was the toast of the Tony's because everyone thinks it represents musicals finally finding a younger audience. It's an exciting show, with an energetic, youthful cast--but its mix of indie-pop music and German symbolist drama doesn't quite work.

Listening to the Spring Awakening cast album proves a much clearer experience, as the jarring dissonance between the songs and Franz Wedekind's 19th century play is gone. Sheik's music plays like a concept album about frustrated youth. The naïve rants and ballads play better on CD since they don't strain connect to a more sophisticated theatrical source.

Spring Awakening is not the artistic triumph everyone is making it out to be, but its victory at the Tony's is a big step for the American musical. The trend on Broadway has been to recycle old songs in so-called "jukebox musicals." Last year, Best Musical was awarded to a show featuring songs from 40 years ago; here's to Broadway acknowledging music in the style of today.

The cast albums of Spring Awakening and Curtains are available at iTunes and CD stores everywhere.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.