A capella musical theater

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As a still – if not eternally – aspiring musical theater orchestrator, it may seem self defeating to be lauding a show that uses no instruments at all. But this a capella musical is so extraordinary, especially in its use of voices in a panoply of sonic textures, that it’s truly inspiring on any music level.

Along with Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, this show by polymath composer Dave Malloy was the talk of New York’s theater scene in the summer of 2019, and in my opinion should have split the Pulitzer Prize. The piece (the Times dubbed it a “chamber opera” but it could also be called a multi-voiced song cycle) is an almost dizzying exploration of the effects of our obsession with and addiction to the digital world. And even with no instrumental backing, the score holds nothing back: this is as demanding a piece as you’ll find in any genre.

Each singer/character is given an aspect of internet addiction to explore. Much like Loop, this is also a raw, no holds barred work that is giddy with achievement.

This recording, funded by public contributions, was culled from several live performances which adds immeasurably to the viscerality of the experience: audience reactions are great signposts throughout the show.

Audacious and acclaimed new musical

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It seems bizarrely fortuitous that Michael R. Jackson’s musical A Strange Loop, which last week won both the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama (musical or otherwise) and the 2019 Hull-Warriner Award, was actually on my list to recommend this week. I was lucky enough to get in to one of the few remaining performances last summer after the show won across-the-board critical raves, and it literally blew me away. This is a daring, take-no-prisoners work, almost stream of consciousness housed within in an enfilated concept: Usher is a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical: a piece about a black, queer writer, working a day job he hates while writing his original musical… etc etc. Jackson’s challenges to the boundaries he views from the world at large, the gay community, and the black community are searingly conveyed in a stream of funny and furious numbers.

This superb recording by the original cast captures the entire show.

Warning: this recording is Not Safe For Work nor for culturally sensitive types. Many expletives and trigger words are used.

Violet

Violet

The recent marvelous news of Jeanine Tesori’s commission by The Metropolitan Opera led me to reacquaint myself with this superb recording of the 2013 revival of her first full show, Violet from 1997. As I didn’t see the original production, and was blown away by the revival production – particularly Sutton Foster giving a gripping performance, and the incomparable voice of Joshua Henry Dixon… God this show is good: honest, un-sugar-coated, straight forward, unflinching, and for all of that all the more heart touching and arresting, with an inventive and evocative score that easily heralds the Tony-award recognition of Fun Home. Performances across the board bring the show to incredible audio life.

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One of the highlights for me of this past New York theater season, which was overwhelmed with great new work both musical and non, was the new show Bandstand, with a score by Richard Oberbacker and Robert Taylor. This trenchant, poignant yet unfailingly exuberant and toe-tapping show garnered great reviews and much enthusiastic word of mouth, and rightly so. Sadly, amidst the competition this season it never found a strong foothold, and is closing on September 17. So if you’re in New York or coming, I can’t recommend this show enough: catch it live while you can. It’s a big, complicated show and I imagine a tour is a long shot.

Aside from Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography that rightly won this year’s Tony and stellar performances across the board, this score has some of the most amazing arrangements and orchestration in recent years by Greg Anthony Rassen and Bill Elliott, and given the genius work that’s been coming in lately that’s saying a lot.

Seriously, catch it live if you can. Failing that, or better yet in addition to, the original Broadway cast recording superbly captures this show.