Required Listening – Hadestown

Antonia Gentile writes about the 2017 cast recording of Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell. 

“After reading “Mythos – The Greek Myths Retold” by Stephen Fry, I have become a little obssessed with Greek Myth and how stories are so often revisted and reinvented for a new audience. Probably one of the most revisted of all Greek Myths is the fateful story of Orpheus and Eurydice which has been adapted into countless operas, ballets, films and books.

Fellow MusicalTalk presenter Michael Gordon Shapiro recently pointed me in the direction of the one of the most recent adaptions of this myth – the musical Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell which despite being set in a 1920’s prohibition era dreamworld, is very much a retelling for the modern age.

Hadestown might have been advertised as a “folk opera” but there are a lot of traditional musical theatre influences at play. The musical evolved from a concept album, not unlike Jesus Christ Superstar and uses popular music to tell a story, like Hamilton.

Structually, there might be much about the musical which feels familiar, but there is much about the score which feels incredibly fresh and new. I particularly enjoy the jazz infused numbers, such as “Way Down Hadestown

What IS new about this musical is the angle from which the Orpheus myth is told. Those familiar with the myth need not worry, the musical is definitely true to the original story, but there are some incredibly resonant themes.

One of the themes brought to the forefront of this version is the theme of fear. The best example of this is probably the song “Why We Build the Wall” sung by Hades. In this version, Hades is a powerful business owner who exploits his workers and uses fear to motivate them to “build a wall” to keep the enemy out –  in this instance the “enemy” is described as those “who have want we have got”.

Despite the song being written before Donald Trump, the refugee crisis, or even the UK taking back control of it’s borders via Brexit, I couldn’t help but think about our current political situation and how the song has now taken on a deeper meaning due to recent politics.

Orpheus is able to resist the pull of Hades and doesn’t believe that people are better off working in Hadestown. Unfortunately, his lover Eurydice is a victim of Hades’ rhetoric – fearing the possibly of poverty, she makes the decision to go to Hadestown.

I appreciate that Mitchell has attempted to flesh out characters and gives Eurydice more agency – she isn’t a passive character taken to the underworld against her will, she makes the choice to go to the underworld because she believes she will find a better life. It turns out to be the wrong decision, but we understand why she makes that choice.

In the song “When the Chips are Down” the fates even ask us what we would do if we were in Eurydice’s shoes.

Fear may be an overriding theme in Hadestown, but the theme we are left with is one of hope. In “Road to Hell II” Persephone’s arrival to the world above ground signals that Spring has come again.

Traditionally, Spring signals a new beginnings and a new beginning is what renews our hope in the potential for things to be better.

I think what makes this retelling a successful one is that despite knowing how the story ends, you can’t help but hope this time the outcome will be different. Perhaps this is the whole point we continue to retell stories time and time again – it’s about hope.”

Hadestown runs at the National Theatre until the 26th January 2019.

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Required Listening – Chess

This week Michael Gordon Shapiro writes about One Night in Bangkok from Chess (1984) which has music by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice and Björn Ulvaeus.

“A showtune featuring a middle-aged British rapper might not sound strange in the Hamilton era, but in the mid-1980s it was a distinct oddity. I first became aware of One Night in Bangkok as an eccentric pop hit on MTV, only later realizing that the song was from a musical and then becoming interested in Chess. (This is probably what the producers had in mind.) 

As a musical, Chess is a struggle between a fabulous score, egregious lyrics, and a story that falls frustratingly short of its potential. The show’s creatives must have sensed the problem, as they made significant rewrites over the years before settling on a compromise book for a concert incarnation. The core issues were never addressed: the most interesting character (Freddie Trumper) is thrown to the sidelines halfway through the first act; key moments of the story happen behind the scenes; and the protagonist, after his fantastic introductory number Where I Want To Be, becomes maudlin and dull as hell. 

I like to remember this song as the act 2 opener of the London version, preceded by a stunning ethno-orchestral prelude from which Richard Rogers could have learned a thing about how to musically introduce Thailand. (If he could time travel.) In contrast to the grandeur of the intro, Bangkok itself is jaunty and streetwise — well, in a mid-80s proto-hip-hop kind of way. Murray Head chants a cynical tourist’s view of the city, exposing the commercial undercurrent beneath the patina of ancient culture. A chorus alternately echoes and questions his disillusionment, then takes center stage for the catchy refrain.

The music follows the eclecticism of the time, mixing New Wave synth riffs with funk bass and rich Abba-esque vocal harmonies. The quasi hip-hop recitative was distinctive for MTV, to say nothing of the West End. Given the present rise of hip hop musical theatre, we might view this tune as foreshadowing trends decades later.

Much like Chess itself, One Night in Bangkok is a guilty pleasure — but heavy on the pleasure part.”

We will be discussing the current English National Opera production of Chess in upcoming episodes of MusicalTalk, so keep checking our podcast feed. 

Required Listening: A New Brain

Nick Hutson chooses And They’re Off from A New Brain as his required listening:

“In families when the betting is done – it’s a joke to believe someone has won”

In a recent episode with Jeremy Sams – I was discussing with him about the art of lyric writing and he brought up the composer and lyricist William Finn (whose work includes The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A New Brain, Elegies and Falsettos). A New Brain is a musical I’ve never actually seen, but I was struck by two particularly evocative numbers on the cast recording –  And They’re Off and Sailing

I’ve chosen And They’re Off as my song of the week as I think the device of using a horse race to describe break down of a marriage is really clever. The song starts at a gentle pace and keeps rollicking forward until we reach the final chorus with such vitality that it feels actually feels though you’re there watching the race (or the divorce) happening.  

Lyrically there are clever moments, my favourite lyric is probably “Betting of course is hell on the horses” – it’s always nice to hear a song that does PROPER RHYMING.  I also like the idea of changing “And THEY’RE off” to “And HE’S off” in reference to the father leaving – I think the song needs this sharp turn of the screw and the fact “there’s blood on the ground” by the end… well, that says all one needs to know about the break up of a family. 

The song is also beautifully arranged by Jason Robert Brown, who shows some incredibly virtuosic string writing – at one point the strings imitate the horses whining. I am also quite the fan of buttons at the end of songs. 

It’s a brilliantly powerful song – so take a listen!

Required Listening – The American Song Book

David Herzog’s writes about a classic from the American song book:

“Thanks for having me back friends! This week, the song I can’t stop playing or thinking about is the classic American Songbook number Manhattan by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

It was written for the Garrick Gaieties of 1925, an old Broadway revue. Since it’s introduction, Manhattan has been covered by many reputable artists, including The Supremes, and Tony Bennett. For our purposes today, I’ve attached the lovely Ella Fitzgerald version.

At its heart, Manhattan is a love song about a young couple taking a stroll through New York City. Layered on top of this, are these brilliant rhyming schemes that Lorenz Hart has beautifully crafted.

Listen to the song, and revel in the strange but satisfying patterns. It’s one of the best feel good songs from the older era of Broadway, and one that still hits on the heart of taking a stroll in New York City.”

Required Listening – Grand Hotel

Dominic McChesney writes about We’ll Take a Glass Together from Grand Hotel (Book by Luther Davis, music and lyrics by Robert Forest and George Wright – with additional music and lyrics by Maury Yeston).

“Forest and Wright made their name by taking the works of classical composers and turning them into musicals –  for example, Song Of Norway which is based on the music of Grieg, Kismet, which takes the music of Borodin and Anya which uses the works of  Rachmaninov. They also composed fully original works too, such as the Grand Hotel, which is happily for me still revived today.

For me, We’ll Take a Glass is the perfect example of when lyrics, music, and choreography come together to get it right in every respect. Everything here seems so effortless to the audience, when I fact the performers are going hell for leather.

The lyrics are also so easy on the ear –  the meaning is clear and the tone solid that you cannot help but get swept up in the sheer joy of these characters, even if you have no concept of their story.

Michael Jeter quite rightly won a Tony for his performance… sheer musical theatre bliss!

 

Required Listening – Ragtime

Nick Hutson chooses the Prologue from Ragtime (1998) by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty:

“Many consider Ragtime to be one of finest musicals of the 20th century and the Prologue one of the best opening numbers ever written for musical theatre. Whilst the 3rd person narrative storytelling might not be to everyone’s taste, one can’t deny the song does an amazing job at introducing every main character in the piece; the show’s key musical motifs (adapted from the show’s main 7 note “hook” that opens the whole show); desires, wants, friction and everything else an opening number needs. 

The opening builds from a simple piano introduction (not too quickly… take note, wannabe jazz pianists; ragtime is not fast) and builds into a full orchestral tour-de-force which was orchestrated by – the maestro himself – William David Brohn.  Bill won his only Tony Award for his work on Ragtime in 1998 and many consider his orchestrations to be some of the finest in musical theatre. The orchestral colours and stylings combine ‘cakewalk’,’ Harlem stride’, ‘klezmer’ and of course, Ragtime which is used to represent an ever-changing musical world.  

The lyrics by Lynn Ahrens also help to capture a massive time of change in America: 

“It was the music
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it Ragtime…”

This show seems more important nowadays – so put down Dear Even Hansen and The Worst Greatest Showman and listen to a musical that combines historic storytelling for our age – blended with whit, political thinking and the best examples of how new music can be created from the music of the past.” 

Required Listening – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Michael Gordon Shapiro has chosen Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) by Stephen Sondheim

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum has been a reliable crowd-pleaser for decades, and its opening number – Comedy Tonight – seems to perfectly embody the show’s whimsical mood and self-reflective wit. However, the musical got off to a very rocky start and the opening number was a last-minute addition to the score.

When Forum faltered during its 1962 pre-Broadway run, legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins was consulted for advice. He concluded that audiences weren’t properly oriented at the opening; in particular, that the then-opening number (Love is in the Air) failed to establish the show’s comedic tone. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim penned the replacement number at the last minute, establishing the show’s humorous intentions in unmistakably direct terms. The show proceeded onto Broadway and became a lasting success.

The song’s catchy melody and clever turns of phrase make Comedy Tonight both effective in context and charmingly likable on its own. But it also represents a lesson about the importance of nimble-footed revision to a show’s development.

P.S. This is an unusual case of Sondheim not consistently using perfect rhyme, instead matching words by their unstressed syllables — for example, the pairing of “familiar” and “peculiar”. But the near-rhymes are chosen so skillfully that we barely notice.”

Required Listening for Valentine’s Day

This week, Antonia shares of her some of her favourite musical theatre songs which deal with the theme of love and relationships:

“Love is such a complex emotion, and it can (and has been) looked at from so many different angles. It is also something that most of us will be able to relate to in some way, shape or form.

So, for Valentine’s Day, I have come up with a list of songs I think reflects all different aspects of love and relationships explored in musical theatre – whether that be romantic infatuation, unrequited love or even platonic love.”

1. If I Loved You – from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (1945)

This is probably considered to be one of the most iconic musical theatre love duets of all time – but it is a little unusual as far love songs go, as the characters are not singing ‘I love you’ but ‘If I loved you’.

This is a good example of a ‘conditional’ love song – which is when the characters won’t or don’t declare that they are in love, but the audience knows that they are.

2. Tonight (The Balcony Scene) – from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (1957)

I don’t think any list of musical theatre love songs would be complete without Tonight from West Side Story.

It is difficult not to get swept up in the romance of Bernstein’s beautiful score, which really gets across the innocent and youthful nature of the characters but also a sense of how exciting it feels to be in love for the very first time.

3. Settle for Me – from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015)

I have talked about the genius of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in depth on this blog before, but I think it needs to be included on this list because the show is brilliant at tackling the more realistic elements of love and relationships.

The show often takes tropes commonly found in musical theatre and turns them on their heads. This is the case with Settle for Me, where the genre evokes the romantic musicals of the 1930s, but the song itself couldn’t be any less romantic as the characters are singing about ‘settling for’ one another.

4. Satisfied – from Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015)

There were so many unrequited love songs to choose from, but I think Satisfied is probably one of my favourite examples of unrequited love in musical theatre.

In Satisfied Angelica sings about how she felt the first time she met Alexander Hamilton – but we have just seen the story from her sister Eliza’s point of view, and we know that Eliza has just happily married him. As the song concludes, we know that Angelica cares more about her sister’s happiness, even if it means that she will never be happy herself. 

5. For Good – from Wicked by Stephen Schwartz (2003)

Who says has a love song has to be romantic? For Good is a great example of a platonic love song in musical theatre, as I think demonstrates that love between friends can sometimes be just as profound as romantic love.

6. Changing my Major – from Fun Home by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron (2015)

There is probably some way to go until non-heterosexual relationships are accurately reflected in musical theatre, but Alison Bechdel (one of the first Lesbian protagonists in a Broadway musical) from Fun Home is a step in the right direction. In Changing My Major, Alison sings about discovering her sexuality after having sex with Joan.

7. There’s a Fine, Fine Line – from Avenue Q by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (2003)

Sometimes love doesn’t work out – I think this song gets across all those post break-up feelings perfectly.

 

 

Required Listening – West Side Story

This week, David Herzog has writes about a classic from Leonard Bernstein‘s West Side Story (1957):

“Something’s Coming from West Side Story is always at the top my most played songs list – It’s not only a fabulous song written by the amazing combination of Bernstein and Sondheim, but it also seems to epitomise the hope and aspirations of all actors and creatives who hear it.”

 

Required Listening – Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Antonia Talks about Let’s Generalize About Men from Season 3 of the musical TV show Crazy Ex Girlfriend (2017):

“There are so many songs from Crazy Ex Girlfriend that I could have chosen as my Song of the Week – the show has both brilliant musical theatre pastiches (like the Fred and Ginger inspired Settle For Me from season 1) and catchy pop parodies (like the ABBA inspired The First Penis from season 3) which get stuck in your brain for days on end. 

In the end, I settled for Let’s Generalize about Men, because I think it demonstrates one of the things the show does so well – using humour and music to tap into how we think and feel and to examine important issues (the show is doing so much to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health).

Structurally, the show really understands how to segue from dialogue to musical number, without it feeling jarring (unlike many modern film musicals, where songs don’t evolve out of emotional plot points or help to further character or story development). Crazy Ex Girlfriend also uses songs to depart from its premise for a moment, to make a comment or joke about something else – this is case with Let’s Generalise About Men, where Rebecca Bunch (played by Rachel Bloom, who is also one of the show’s creators) and her friends sing a catchy 80’s inspired power anthem about how terrible men are. 

Now before you write in, you should probably note that the song is very clearly satirical. It’s not a song about how terrible men are, it’s a song which pokes fun at how we make assumptions about the opposite sex and that even though its wrong, sometimes it can feel cathartic. 

This song, (and many songs from the show) also examines the stereotypes and tropes often found in the romantic comedy or musical theatre genre – For example, Rebecca and pals sing “Gay Men are all really great/every single one/they’re never mean, just sassy/they’re all completely adorable and fun”, thus calling out the ‘gay best friend’ stereotype which has been perpetuated by romantic comedies.

There is much for musical theatre fans to enjoy in this show and I highly recommend checking it out – Crazy Ex Girlfriend is aired on the CW in the US and Season 1 – 3 can be found on Netflix in the UK.”

What’s your favourite song from Crazy Ex Girlfriend? Let us know in the comments below: