Marc Kudisch, Bobby Steggert and Kate Fry featured
Confession time: I don’t love all scores at first listen. (In fact, there are some I never warm up to, but that’s a different column.)
“Easy to love” scores are usually of the series of songs variety, the best of which have glorious and/or entertaining songs of three to five minutes each which are free standing gems that also serve the story telling and character revealing functions for a play with beauty, poetry and humor.
The challenges are those scores that set scenes to song but those songs are frequently snippets, often strung together with a complex structure that may reveal itself only after repeated hearing. The fact that you may not fully recognize the structural devices right away does not keep them from working a perhaps subliminal effect on your perception of the essence of each scene. In fact, at their best, they may amplify and clarify the main points of the scenes very effectively without your knowledge. Music and verse have magical capabilities to sway your thoughts and emotions at the will of the composer and or author. But the technique delivers scenes rather than songs.
Such is the type of score we have here. The score for Joshua Schmidt’s latest musical, A Minister’s Wife, is one that I admired when I first heard it and that admiration only deepened on repeated hearings. But, while eventually I came to like it, I have yet to learn to love it.
The same was true with his earlier outing, Adding Machine: The Musical, but something different happened with that one. I had the opportunity to attend a fine performance of the piece and there it wowed me. Thus, the original cast recording on PS Classics became a real pleasure as a souvenir of the experience of a full performance.
I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing A Minister’s Wife performed. Its Off-Broadway production at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre on which this recording is based closed before I got a chance to catch it last year. And I have never been to Glencoe, Illinois where it received its world premiere in 2010 at the Writers’ Theatre.
If I had seen it, I might well be singing its praises with more enthusiasm than I can summon based on just the recording.
Schmidt’s new score is a more easily approachable one than the earlier piece because the source material calls for a bit more accessible musical vocabulary. While Adding Machine was a musical adaptation of an obscure, nearly absurdist play by Elmer Rice, the new musical, A Minister’s Wife, springs to musical life from one of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pleasant Plays,” the wonderfully witty social commentary piece Candida.
Like its source material, the musical deals with the strengths and weaknesses of the institution of marriage. The marriage in question is of a Christian Socialist Minister to a supportive woman worshipped by a young man whose adoration threatens to unglue the marital bonds.
If you need a briefing on the very concept of a “Christian Socialist Minister,” a real social force in the England of the late nineteenth century, you will enjoy the notes in the CD’s booklet by the director of the production, Michael Halberstam. He also provides a synopsis that not only neatly summarizes the plot but explains the role each song on the recording plays in telling the story and revealing the nature of the characters. The enunciation of the lyrics in the recording are all crystal clear but the booklet still includes the full lyrics which makes checking specific references a bit easier.
While adopting some melody lines that seem appropriate to the 1898 time frame of the story, Schmidt didn’t resist all temptation to use some tightly wound, acerbic melody lines for scenes involving intellectual rather than emotional exchanges. His structure for A Minister’s Wife’s opening “Sermon” might well fit nicely into the score for Adding Machine but it is followed by a joyous burst of multiple melodies in “Candida’s Coming Home” that would be strange in the earlier score.
The recording includes enough snippets of dialogue to make the songs serve as mini-scenes, which is fortunate as the score is not a string of separate songs, but rather, a musical environment for a progression of ideas and emotions. The lyrics of Jan Levy Tranen use a clipped, energetic speech pattern that feels right for the refined characters that inhabited Shaw’s original play. He and book writer Austin Pendleton lift some of Shaw’s great lines bodily into the text. (How good to hear again the Shavian gem “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die for the harder I work, the more I live.”)
The cast here is first rate. Marc Kudich’s performance comes across on this disc as a full throated, virile and supremely confident husband/minister. It is a characterization that would be unsettling in Shaw’s original text but which fits this adaptation’s vision. Bobby Steggert, who was so very impressive as a yearning youth in the recent revival of Ragtime, brings that same earnestness to the role of the smitten young man. As the object of the desire of both of them, Candida, is Kate Fry, whose voice seems reason enough for men to fight over her favors.
Repeated listening may not be a substitute for the intensity of a live experience of an intellectual score of this nature, but until the show gets more quality productions that is all we have.