Frank Wildhorn has a habit of releasing recordings of the songs for his musicals long before the shows open on Broadway. His next foray onto the Great White Way is Wonderland, slated for an April, 2011 opening, but you can hear some of the songs now.
A “concept recording” has been released by Sony’s Masterworks Broadway. It has fifteen of the songs from the show in pop arrangements, sung by members of the cast of the premiere production, plus one “bonus track” of a demo recording of a song for the show sung by Rob Evan, who has recorded and performed work by Wildhorn for years.
Be aware, however, that it isn’t easy to come by a copy of the CD. The album is available for downloading in the MP3 format from Amazon or Apple’s iTunes Store (it comes with a pdf of a booklet if you buy the complete album for $9.99 but you can download individual tracks for 99 cents). An actual CD, however, was only made available through the gift shop of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, Florida, where the show had its premiere. There they charged $20 plus a “fee” of another $2.50.
The score not only marks Wildhorn’s return to the New York stage after nearly six years, it marks his return to the pop sound that was his style before he became a theatre composer. Although he began composing for theater while in college, he had his first successes in the pop field with hits for the likes of Whitney Houston (he wrote her big hit “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”). Some of his songs from the stage have success in the pop world as well. For a while it seemed you could not find an Olympic program or a figure skating competition that didn’t feature “This Is The Moment” from Wildhorn’s first Broadway show, Jekyll & Hyde.
Wonderland was subtitled Alice’s New Musical Adventure when it premiered in Florida last December and the album carries the same title. The show had further work at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas and now, with a slightly different title, Wonderland: A New Alice, it is to be re-mounted in Tampa in January before transferring to Broadway in “a Nederlander theatre to be announced.” Of course, there are many shows that have announced openings at “a theater to be announced” that never actually opened on Broadway, but this show does have an official opening night slated for Sunday, April 17, 2011.
The concept album’s songs are given distinctly pop performances by the cast members of the premiere production in Tampa, including Janet Dacal as Alice. She’s not the Alice of Lewis Carol’s books. Instead, she’s a modern woman trying to balance career, marriage and childrearing. As lyricist Jack Murphy puts it for her big opening number, “Worst Day of the Year,” “I’m not the star they say I am / just one more pathetic sham / I’ll never make it. / How can I expect to hold this pose / mother, writer, wife or friend / where does one begin or end? / O God, I feel like such a fraud / like every inch of me is flawed / but still I smile while they applaud. / My life has gotten so complicated / so underwhelming, so overrated.” These are classic examples of Murphy’s style, using a simple vocabulary with a fascination for the words involved and the way he can combine them to amplify meaning. His lyrics are evidence of a love of wordplay similar to the way Wildhorn’s music evidences a passion for music that stimulates emotional responses.
It’s Alice’s daughter who runs away to “Wonderland.” This “Wonderland” isn’t on the other side of a “looking glass” or down a rabbit hole. Instead, it is down a distinctly modern kind of hole, an elevator shaft that descends to a strange world below the streets of Manhattan. The show uses Lewis Carol’s device of outlandish episodes involving the Queen of Hearts, a Mad Hatter and the like.
Most of the critics who covered the early tryouts commented that there were songs for each of the characters to have their big moment in the spotlight. For some critics that was a strength of the show and for others it was a weakness, but it does mean that the score lends itself to a recording of many highlights.
The style is a wide sampling of pop sounds from contemporary pop to latin beats and romantic ballads to vaudeville shtick. One moment you think you might be listening to a souped up Desi Arnaz beating out “Babalu,” and the next it seems the emphasis is on a lovely long-lined melody of a duet for lovers. Nikki Snelson, the bolt of pizzaz from Legally Blond, sparks the numbers for the Mad Hatter and the always impressive Karen Mason tears into “Off With Their Heads” because she is, after all, the Queen of Hearts.
A full jazz band works behind the vocalists under the direction of long time Wildhorn team member Jeremy Roberts who also arranged and orchestrated the package.
The album follows in a long tradition for Wildhorn. His first release of a “concept album” was Jekyll & Hyde which hit store shelves (remember when albums were sold in brick and mortar stores that had shelves?) years before the show finally got to Broadway to start its three and a half year run. The fan base that the pre-opening recordings built created a demand for tickets among enthusiasts who became known as “Jekies.”
Wildhorn did the same for The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War (which had lyrics by his lyricist here, Jack Murphy.)
Those three musicals were all playing at the same time on Broadway, making Wildhorn the first American composer to have three musicals running on Broadway simultaneously since Stephen Schwartz accomplished that feat 22 years earlier.
His musical Dracula was in something of a rush to reach Broadway, and the concept recording wasn’t even released. That may not have accounted for its disappointingly short run, however. The score was not well served by a confused and confusing production.
Since Dracula closed on Broadway, Wildhorn has been busy with projects both overseas and across America. Cyrano de Bergerac, Rudolf, Never Say Goodbye, Carmen and The Count of Monte Cristo all premiered overseas while Bonnie & Clyde and Wonderland have premiered on American soil. He has ranged in style from pop-opera to pop-operetta and pop-oratorio to mere pop. The latest release is pure pop.