Next Sunday’s Tony Awards ceremony will be most interesting for collectors of “show music” when they announce the winner of the award for “Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre.” There are four nominees, but only two of them are scores of musicals: Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman’s Newsies and Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s Bonnie & Clyde. The other two – Wayne Barker and Rick Elice’s score for Peter and the Starcatcher and Grant Olding’s songs for One Man, Two Guvnors are songs written for plays. What is the difference?
A musical is generally understood to be a live theatrical piece that uses songs to at least help tell the story: The characters reveal themselves in song. The plots play out in song. At least some of the information the audience needs in order to follow the story comes in song.
A play, on the other hand, even one that might be subtitled “a play with music,” could be performed without the music and still make sense. The score – if it is any good – certainly makes a contribution to the experience of seeing the show, but it isn’t necessary in order for the audience to follow the story.
Of the two nominees that aren’t musicals, only one has been given a commercial recording and I’m told that there isn’t even a plan to issue a recording of the score for Peter and the Starcatcher – a sort of prequel to Peter Pan. As a result, only those who make it to the theater will get to know just what sea chanties and pirate songs make up this “score.”
But you don’t need to make it to the theater to get to know the other music for a non-musical. The DRG label has issued an original cast recording of the score for One Man, Two Guvnors, a British farce of the first order. The play is an almost painfully funny (at least during the first act) adaptation of a Commedia dell’Arte classic, Carlo Goldoni’s mid-18th century harlequin comedy A Servant of Two Masters, [editor’s note: now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company.] The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Nicholas Hytner staged Richard Bean’s adaptation which set the confusion in the town of Brighton in the early 1960s.
Taking its musical cue from a minor point in the principal character’s past (he’d once been a player in a Skiffle Band) Hytner asked composer Grant Olding to come up with a dozen or so songs that could warm up the audience before the actual play got underway and then be brought back between scenes to boost the energy level. It turned out that the manic performances of Tony nominees James Corden and Tom Edden and their colleagues made it something between unnecessary and impossible to boost the energy level, but the songs are still great fun and give the audience a chance to wipe the tears of laughter from their eyes and refill their lungs before the next onslaught of comedy.
Olding says that Hytner told him to think of the project as “a Carry On film with an early Beatles soundtrack.” This is not a bad description of the final result, although strictly speaking, the Beatles never really were a Skiffle band. It was the predecessor group called The Quarrymen with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison which was billed as a band that blended elements of Skiffle (without its early trademark washboard percussion) with a rockabilly sound. The Quarrymen became “The Beatles” when they took their act to Hamburg, and punched up its rock quotient and brought in drummer, Ringo Star.
DRG’s Original London Cast album features the four player band which performs as the Skiffle Band “The Craze” at the National Theatre of Great Britain. The entire cast of actors and actresses have made the transfer to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre but – whether due to union restrictions, economics or simply producers’ preferences – these musicians stayed in London and a new quartet was recruited in New York.
The band on the recording is led by Grant Olding who wrote all the songs and is featured as the lead vocalist.
The meat of the album is a baker’s dozen of infectious, up-tempo, good natured rock ‘n roll songs that sound as if they were recorded in England sometime between 1956 when Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Group had hits like “Rock Island Line” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Loose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight)?” and 1964 when The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night was really the last collection of theirs that drew from the legacy of the sounds of the likes of the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. They are fun in the theater and they are fun on the album.
Twelve of the numbers are led by Olding but one is a trio for the three leading ladies in the cast, Claire Lams, Jemima Rooper and Suzie Toase who make “Lighten Up and Lay Low” feel like a familiar girl-group number of the period such as the hits of The Marvelettes or The Shirelles.
As in the show, the entire cast is heard in the finale, a surprisingly restrained round titled “Tomorrow Looks Good From Here” that folds many of the gags of the show into the early Beatles type sound of the band. It seemed to me that this number was a rollicking good time when the show was streamed into theaters as part of the National Theatre Live project. On the disc it is a shorter, less rambunctious 2:13. (It is followed by a 37 second “bonus track” of a calypso riff on steel drum that is one of the other gags in the show.)
The album is packaged with a booklet of photos and some notes but no lyrics or synopsis. What is more bothersome is that the running time is not disclosed in the packaging. At only 34 minutes, it is one of the shortest original cast albums in quite a while.
Its not quite what you expect from an original cast album – but, then, we don’t get a lot of original cast albums of scores from non-musicals.
Song and dance in One Man, Two Guvnors