Alan Menken is on something of a roller coaster ride. He has just pulled off that exceedingly rare feat of having three musicals with his scores playing on Broadway at the same time and, what is more, all three were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Still, it was a brief trifecta. With last season’s Sister Act which was nominated but didn’t win the Best Musical Tony still playing, March saw the opening of Newsies and April had the opening of Leap of Faith.
Newsies, which tells the story of the real-life 1899 strike by the young newspaper boys who were exploited by papers like Joseph Pulitzer’s World and William Randolph Hearst’s Journal, looks like a solid hit playing to near-capacity houses grossing between 83% and 95% of the Nederlander Theatre’s potential take.
Leap of Faith, however, has become that rare bird – a show with a Tony Nomination for Best Musical of the Year which closed after the nomination was announced but before the awards were given out.
Having posted terrible box office figures, never getting above 22% of potential gross, Leap of Faith had its last performance on Sunday. (If you can’t sell more than $171,000 in a theater, where the potential gross is $1.3 million, in the week you are nominated for the Best Musical Tony Award you might as well admit you’re never going to make back your investment and close up shop.)
It doesn’t look as if we will get a recording of the score of Leap of Faith, but the original Broadway cast recording of Newsies is being released today and it is a gem. A well produced album with all the features you need to appreciate the score’s ample strengths delivers this almost relentlessly upbeat score with clarity, energy and flash.
Every time I listen to the album I like the score more, at least until I get to the oh-so-predictable bad guy song for the heavy of the piece, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer played by John Dossett. The dreary song “The Bottom Line” is, however unfortunate, a single deviation from an otherwise very high standard of exciting musical story telling.
Based on the Disney live-action movie musical which flopped quickly in 1992, this stage version retains half a dozen of the better songs from the film and adds an equal number of new ones by Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman. Some of the most stick-in-your-head big chorus numbers for the dancing Newsies are still here – “Seize The Day,” “King of New York,””The World Will Know” (which, for some reason, sounds like it is from Elton John’s score for Billy Elliot) and “Carrying the Banner” which should really have been titled with its most insistently memorable phrase “Ain’t It A Fine Life”).
New numbers have been written. In addition, the movie’s tender “Santa Fe” has been decked out in new lyrics which make it even more heart-touching in its new context. The music hall songs for the hostess of a vaudeville house have been replaced with “That’s Rich” which Carpathia Jenkens puts over solidly and a new big chorus/dance number, “Brooklyn’s Here” adds two minutes of excitement.
These songs are mounted within a book by Harvey Fierstein who proved with his book for La Cage aux Folles that he can balance comedy and schmaltz with the best of them. That’s what he does here. His most noticeable change in the story is the combining of the roles of the reporter who covers the newsboys’ strike, which was played in the movie by Bill Pullman, and that of a young girl into a single character. That character, played by Kara Lindsay, is the daughter of Pulitzer who has gone off on her own to establish a career as a reporter, only to fall in love with the leader of the “newsies.” She gets one of the best new numbers, a plot-moving elaboration song called “Watch What Happens,” which she delivers with a flare. She also handles a more sentimental song, “Something to Believe In” where her somewhat shrill voice is an early distraction.
She sings that song as a duet with the star of the show, Jeremy Jordan – yes, the same Jeremy Jordan who starred in that other musical nominated for a Best Score Tony this year, Bonnie & Clyde. I don’t know if it is unprecedented for an actor to have sung the leading role in two best score nominated shows in the same season, but I would be willing to bet this is the first time one actor’s face is featured on the cover of two Tony nominated best score original Broadway cast albums released within a month of each other.
Jordan sounded appropriately West Texan in Bonnie & Clyde while, here, he’s decidedly lower east side Manhattan. Both performances impress and it is fortunate we have both recorded for future listening as it is fairly certain that Jordan will be around for a while.
The recording grows on you because it isn’t all surface glitz, although there is enough sparkle on the seventeen tracks of the main portion of the recording to entertain you even if you aren’t paying much attention. Pay attention and you will find much more to like than just its generally genial first impression.
Alan Menken’s music makes no effort to establish a period feel for the turn of the last century tale but he pulls a number of rhythmic riffs that build to exciting climaxes and he keeps his tenderer material free of distractions so simple melodies can work their magic.
Feldman’s lyrics are notable for the different voices he uses for different groups of characters. The street argot of the “newsies” who sell “papes” on the streets of New York is used again and again with phrases like “We goes where we wishes / We’s as free as fishes / sure beats washin’ dishes” or “Suddenly I’m respectable / Starin’ right at’cha / Lousy with sta’cha” while the young girl reporter’s lyrics resemble tight newspaper prose when she sings “Those kids will live and breathe / Right on the page / and once they’re center stage / You watch what happens.”
The relatively short disc (just 64 minutes) holds three “bonus tracks” following the finale. One is a piano backed vocal by Jordan of the song “Santa Fe.” The song is the show’s opener with dialogue and a brief duet between Jordan and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as another one of the newsies. It is worth having it as a solo and the first bonus track is interesting because he is backed by the composer on piano.
The other two bonus tracks are of big chorus songs that have extended dance breaks.
Often, the dance breaks that are so exciting in the theater when you can see the choreography being executed can be a bit dull and repetitive sounding when you only have the audio. Ghostlight Records solves the problem for this score which has quite a bit of dance music by offering edited versions of some of the more dance-intensive numbers in the order they appear in the show but then including un-edited versions at the end. Thus, “Seize the Day” runs 5:23 as track 9 of the album but the full 6:40 version is track 19. The Act II opener, “King of New York,” is just four minutes long as track 11 but you can listen to all five minutes as track 20.
This is a fine solution, giving full exposure to Mark Hummel’s work as dance music arranger. Besides, the album would only run 50 minutes without the “bonus” tracks. With so much time left in the capacity of a CD these days, I wonder why they didn’t bother to record the music used for the bows and the “exit music” played while the audience leaves the theater. That would have been appreciated.