Leap of Faith

We have Ghostlight Records to thank for capturing a moment in Broadway’s history. Their release today of the original Broadway cast recording of Leap of Faith is not only a first class documentation of a first class score, it commemorates something that has never happened before.

In 1955 the Tony Awards started announcing nominations, rather than simply announcing the recipients of the award for Best Musical. Since then, there have never been two shows by the same composer nominated in the same year – until now.

Leap of Faith original cast recording

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The nominees for the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical included both Newsies, the score for which was composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman, and Leap of Faith with a score by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater.

Neither won – the award went to the Irish-pub musical Once – but it was an historic moment nonetheless.

Menken may be getting used to being nominated in this category but not winning. In 2011, Sister Act with his music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics was also a nominee. He didn’t have to feel too bad in 2012, however. He took home the Tony for best score which was awarded to Newsies.

As it turned out, all three of the shows – Sister Act, Newsies and Leap of Faith – were playing at the same time. This is a rare event on Broadway. Stephen Schwartz had three up at the same time in the 1970s (Pippin, The Magic Show and Godspell) and Frank Wildhorn had a trifecta going not too long ago. Then, of course, there have been a number of times that Andrew Lloyd Webber pulled it off, most recently last year when Phantom of the Opera, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were all on the boards at the same time. But that’s about it in recent times.

While Newsies ended up with the Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre, Leap of Faith not only ended up with no award to take home on Tony night, it had already closed before the ceremony. It had a total of only 44 performances at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street – 25 of which were previews.

Raul Esparza and Leap of Faith ensemble (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Raul Esparza and Leap of Faith ensemble (Photo: Joan Marcus)

So, what went wrong? That is probably a question to be answered by someone who actually saw the show – not someone reviewing the original cast recording. Some attribute it to the fact that its producers had to move the opening up from the fall to the spring when the earlier show in the theater, the woefully received revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever closed abruptly. That may not have given the creative team enough time to fix problems that the pre-Broadway production in Los Angeles made clear. Or perhaps the problem was that it didn’t give the marketing team enough time to mount a successful campaign to drum up advance sales.

On the basis of the recording, the financial failure of the production remains a mystery. What one finds on this recording and in its well constructed booklet, is ample strength in the music, lyrics and performances to make the short run a surprise.

Menken’s music echoes the gospel revival style you would expect for all the scenes sung with full chorus but modifies it with a southern/country pop sound for the more intimate moments between individual characters. It comes as no surprise that Menken knows how to build a number to carry an audience along for extended periods. He’s been doing it for decades (think Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Little Shop of Horrors not to mention movies like “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” or “Tangled” that haven’t had Broadway adaptations) but there is a sense of sure-footedness in the personal moments that is unusually impressive here.

Slater’s lyrics are notable not only for the clever use of vernacular English, but for the way they move the plot forward or reveal the essence of essential characters. More of the songs here than you find in many musicals are full scenes set to music rather than traditional 32-bar, two and a half minute, AABA songs. There are just twenty tracks on the album but nine of them – nearly half – are in excess of four minutes long. Three are more than five minutes long. These feature extended lyrics that efficiently deliver the important elements of crucial scenes.

This isn’t to say that all of them are as finely polished as possible. Slater puts an occasional inappropriate word into the mouth of a character in order to accommodate a rhyme. For example, a down-home country sheriff who admits to never seeing big city lights is not likely to say she “ain’t seen ‘em, I’ll attest” rather than “I admit” but Slater needed “attest” to rhyme with the last word in “I’ve barely left the nest.”

However, for every instance of a word choice that calls out for a good polish, there are two nifty images or twists. Consider: “I’m the lowest of all the lowly! The baddest of all of the bad! My criminal record is so friggin’ checkered, its plaid!” or “Even Helen Keller could see through you.”

Leap of Faith

Original Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records
Running time 1:12 over 20 tracks
Packaged with synopsis, notes, lyrics and 19 color photos
ASIN: B009XY1WAQ
List price $14.99 (disc) $11.99 (download)
Listen to 2 selection here

The performances are all satisfying, with Raúl Esparza hitting just the right ingratiating charm for the role of a slick swindler running a revival con designed to take the poor people of drought-stricken Sweetwater for all they are worth (which is admittedly not much) while Jessica Phillips is assuredly in charge in public as the local sheriff but tenderly approachable in private as a romance develops between the two of them.) Add Kendra Kassebaum with a sly sense of humor as the con man’s sister, who prompts him over a Bluetooth earpiece with all the revelations that he makes seem come from some sort of divine intervention. Big voiced gospel belters add to the mix.

Particularly impressive is the sound of the 25 player orchestra with a thumping underscore driven by four woodwinds, three trumpets/flugels and the trombone and bass trombone of Timothy Sessions. The orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Joseph Joubert, and the vocal arrangements of Michael Kosarin, give a very hefty feel for the entire proceeding.

We’ve been extremely lucky in the number of new Broadway musicals this year that have been captured with cast recordings, either from their Broadway run or from an earlier London production. Only Scandalous seems destined to go undocumented.

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Richard Seff reviews Leap of Faith

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