Sunday, February 5, 2017

Album Review: DEAR EVAN HANSEN (Broadway Cast Recording)

Of the emerging generation of composers, few have achieved the same sheer variety of accomplishments as Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. After exploring the pop-rock sensibility that permeates much new musical theatre with their work on shows like Edges and Dogfight, they took a considerable turn with A Christmas Story, their musical adaptation of the film by the same name, where they drew from a decidedly more traditional bag of tricks in their catchy and warm score. Now, in the same year they contributed lyrics to the hit film La La Land, we get Dear Evan Hansen, a return to pop-rock composition that showcases a newfound artistic maturity in the young composing team. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


It's not often that I'm gifted with the staggering experience of seeing a raw, powerful piece of music theatre without knowing a thing about it beforehand. I saw Spoon River just freshly after it opened at Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre, and nobody knew anything about it yet. And I knew within five minutes of the show that it'd be one to get people talking. By the end of the show, I was a quivering mass of tears. It devastated me. I went back to see it another three times.

Spoon River is a musical adapted from poetry anthology of the same title by Edgar Lee Masters, which focuses on a rough little American town in which we visit a graveyard and the dead are given a voice from beyond. Here, the poems are set to an original score by the incomparable Mike Ross. Ross, no stranger to adapting poetry to musical composition, has here done what is inarguably his fullest, most stirring work to date. It deserves to be a landmark of Canadian musical theatre.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


I had a tough time making a list this year... not in choosing the ten albums (there weren't a lot of albums released this year that punched me in the gut) but in choosing the order. We've got a wide mix here: Some more mainstream, and others you may not even realize had been released this year. But I'll stop rambling now and get going with it. Here are my Top Ten Musical Theatre Albums of the year 2014. Starting at the bottom with #10...


 Did we really need another recording of Stephen Trask's cult-hit glam rock score? Turns out, yes, with the unmatchable talents of Neil Patrick Harris and the revelatory Lena Hall at the helm. Harris makes Hedwig his own and Hall gets to show off an insane rock belt on songs like Midnight Radio and The Long Grift. Plus, with some fun new arrangements and a few surprises along the way, this is an ideal inclusion into anyone's Hedwig collection. The reasons behind Harris and Hall winning Tony Awards this year are abundantly clear here.

Marisa Michelson is not a familiar name in the musical theatre composing world, but it should be now. Her innovative score defies convention and classification, taking little bits and bites out of a variety of eclectic music styles like Middle Eastern folk, pop, classical, rock, African tribal music, and gospel and moulding them into something that works, and that really gets under the skin. Voices are used to haunting effect for buzzes, hums, trills, chromatics, and yelps. This is music that stays with you. It crawls inside and refuses to leave.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Pop and rock musicians don't have the best track record of writing truly effective musical theatre scores. Many have tried, with varying degrees of success. Even celebrated scores, like Duncan Sheik's pop score for Spring Awakening, earn their praise just from being great music while, in the context of the show itself, those songs stop the narrative action dead in its tracks. The crossover into musical theatre isn't as simple as a lot of these musicians seem to believe.

But, I dare say, Sting of all people might be an exception. It's not entirely propulsive music, but it gets far more right than any of its predecessors. And besides that, it's just a great score.

The Last Ship is so clearly a labour of love. Inspired by Sting's upbringing with exposure to the shipyards and ship builders, the music sounds like work that only Sting could have written. Don't go in expecting high energy rock anthems and danceable pop tunes... this music is brooding, melancholy, heartfelt, and poignant. With Celtic-flavoured Irish folk songs, stirring pop ballads, and rousing foot-stomping anthems, Sting has crafted a colourful and achingly poetic score that is character true, that advances the story, that sounds like it has a proper place in a musical. It rides a fine line, but it rides that line with ample balance and assuredness. And through it blazes a passionate fomenting heart.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Nail-biting anticipation accompanied this album. Many musical theatre fans have listened to the original Broadway cast recording of Into the Woods countless times, myself included. And we all know that movie soundtracks have a reputation for being over-produced, flat, commercial, boring, and lifeless. Would Sondheim's masterful score meet a similar fate?

Not so, I say with a sigh of relief and a cheer of happiness. This brand new movie soundtrack of Into the Woods holds up.

Sondheim's music is seriously hefty and alive in the hands of a full movie orchestra. It has never sounded so full, so exciting, particularly with Jonathan Tunick's epic orchestrations. It simply sweeps you up. And from the opening bars of the Prologue, you know this score is in good hands with the all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, and many more. Not many among them are people you'd call a 'singer', but they are exactly what Sondheim's score demands: Actors who can sing. The focus here is on acting the material, and on those grounds, there is not one weak link in the company. In fact, they are all considerably strong. They carry Sondheim's dextrous, rapid-fire lyrics and winding melodies with aplomb that suggests seasoned experience with the material.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


When I was sent this album to review, I was a bit nervous about it. It looked like everything I'd dislike in a musical theatre album. Not only was the list of songs full of material that I'm not particularly fond of, but to top of off, sung by two young girls I'd never heard of before.

Young performers can be dicey. We forgive their shortcomings because, of course, they're kids. I didn't want this to be an album full of things I'd have to overlook.

Luckily, it isn't. I'm pretty floored by the talented Millie and Abigail Shapiro. They surprised me. Big time.

These sisters, ages 11 and 13, already have some pretty serious accomplishments under their belts. Millie played Matilda on Broadway in rotation with three other young actors, and was a Tony Honoree for Excellence in Theatre for her performance. Abigail played the leading role of Cindy-Lou Who in the Madison Square Garden production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Sunday, October 5, 2014


Where to start on this recording? How do you talk about a score so unclassifiable? Marisa Michelson's music for Tamar of the River teases and tastes at an endless list of styles and genres that simultaneously make the score sound like it was written in the distant past as well as the distant future.

The fact that Michelson's palate is so expansive is part of what makes this score such a joy to listen to. It electrifies and jolts us. It gets under our skin. It twists and turns in such unexpected and jarring ways. It floats with melodic beauty.

There's American and European classical influence here, but there's just as much contemporary pop, African tribal music, gospel, Middle Eastern folk, and sprinklings of so much more all over the place. All of these are used to new effect that shatters expectation. This is one inventive, even innovative, piece of musical theatre writing.