This year’s best score from a failed musical is now on disc and worth much more than a listen. David Yazbeck’s score is mercifully separated from the show that obscured most of its strengths and is delivered by a sterling cast with clarity, energy, humor, pathos and beauty … all features that Yazbeck wrote into the sixteen songs recorded here along with a brief, tone-setting overture and an even briefer entr’acte (all 47 seconds of it).The quality of the score is something of a revelation to me, as I only heard it that one time in the theatre and I was so distracted by the disaster of a production that I didn’t recognize its strengths. This isn’t quite as startling an admission as you might think. Critics and reviewers often opine on a score they’ve only heard once and often they are wrong when they say a score is “short on memorable songs” or “undistinguished” … the sort of criticism Sondheim lampooned as “that’s just not a hum-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mm-mable melody.”
Of course, before the invention of the original cast recording, scores were heard only once by people who hadn’t a clue what they were about to hear and then receded into memory. After Oklahoma!‘s cast recording became a sales phenomenon, however, and the audiences started filing into the St. James theatre already knowing the songs, the reputation of a given score still relied on its success within its initial Broadway production. While there are exceptions to that rule – a handful of “lost gems” that have become widely appreciated after a Broadway flop (some of Sondheim’s come quickly to mind) – the scores of failed shows have a harder row to hoe in the effort to find an audience.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is one that deserves to find the audience that will appreciate it. The new Original Broadway Cast recording of this marvelous score is a revelation. The show opened to caustic reviews in November last year. It closed after 69 performances. Yes, that was longer than Wonderland, but that’s hardly the test the creators wanted to pass.
With a cast – as they say – “to die for” and sterling credentials of its creative team, the show was expected to be absolutely mind-blowingly wonderful. Sherie Rene Scott, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti and Danny Burstein performed at the Belasco Theatre under director Bartlett Sher whose handling of the revival of South Pacific and the premiere of The Light in the Piazza gave us reason to believe he’d put on one heck of a show. The choreography, set, projections, costumes, lighting, sound – all by top notch big names.
None of it helped. The production was such a mess that people like me who bought tickets in the absolute certainty of a fabulous time sat with our mouths agape wondering “What went wrong?”
Perhaps it was the fact that there was just too much to convey in less than three hours. The historical background of its story is not familiar to a large cross section of the American public, or for that matter, the presumably slightly more well informed portion of it that attends live theater. How many in the audience were knowledgeable about the emergence of Madrid from the repression of the Franco years in the frenzy of “a hedonistic 24/7 party?”
Still, what a score by David Yazbek! The lyricist/composer of The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has a sound of his own which, it turns out, is adaptable even to the latin rhythms of a story set in Spain in 1987. Driving rhythms such as are found in the opening number “Madrid is My Mamma” which Danny Burstein delivers with flair, facile repetitive pop melodies such as the faux top 40 number “Time Stood Still” that Patti LuPone wails, or the head-bopping drive of Sherie Rene Scott’s delivery of “Lovesick” propel the album with a drive is exciting and satisfying on record but was exhausting and confusing on stage.
Scott’s performance shines among a string of shining moments for her co-stars.
Brian Stokes Mitchell’s crooning about the wonder of a microphone is syrupy smooth and a fine match for the accompanying lyric. (“From the ear to the brain is a matter of an inch or so. / The ear to the heart, a little more. / From the ear to the rest of the woman’s quite a way to go / and that’s what our friend the microphone is for.”)
Laura Benanti’s hugely entertaining torrent of words in “Model Behavior” is a kick even if you do need to read the synopsis in the booklet in order to have any clue what she’s singing about … “I’m feeling kind of woozy, I’ve been crying for an hour, and my boyfriend has an uzi and he doesn’t clean the shower” are not your normal pop song lyrics, but here she makes a comic gem of a mini-play out of one five minute song.
Patti LuPone has a one-act one-woman show of a song as well, “Invisible,” which also runs just about five minutes. In it she carries you through the history of a woman just out of a mental institution after twenty years.
How do all those plot lines fit together? If your test of a musical score’s value is how well it tells the whole story of the play, you will find Women on the Verge of a Musical Breakdown a disappointment. But if you take it as a collection of songs that are musically infectious, lyrically inventive, and performed with style as individual mini-scenes, you’ll have great fun with this recording.
One of Yazbek’s lyrics has a single stanza that could be a review of the show: “You keep trying to follow the plot / like there must be some twist you forgot / but the logic is tied in a knot. / You’re tangled up.” Ah, but the fun of listening to these stars sing these songs!
Not a great show — but a great album.