29 May, 2008

A post for those who LOVE musical theatre

I go to two boys when I want to know about the best thing on (and off) Broadway. The first is Zach Braff (J.D. in Scrubs) and the second is John Gallagher Jr. (Moritz in Spring Awakening). They are my musical theatre gurus, and they randomly post about the coolest theatre happenings in NYC.

If you want to go straight to the sources instead of reading my oh so compelling, but alternately neurotic ramblings, here are their websites:

Johnny "Frigging Awesome" Gallagher's Myspace (read the blog and listen to the tunes)


Zach Braff's Blog

If you're still sticking around to read what I have to say, then you're in for a little review of the music from the new show Passing Strange. I was instructed to "run" not "walk" to see this musical by Johnny Gallagher himself, and the guru does not joke about his musicals. Passing Strange has something to do with church and religion; something to do with sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, blues, and funk; and will probably be the Spring Awakening of this year. We can only hope.

The story revolves around an American musician from a church-going, middle-class family who rebels and sets out on a voyage of self-discovery in Europe (namely Amsterdam and Berlin). The music itself is a chronicle of the character's mental journey. Every song has a different flavor, pulling elements from music styles as diverse as punk and psychedelic music, but remaining Broadway through and through. Every track on the Original Broadway Cast Recording (OBCR) was recorded live, but this is almost irrelevant given the fact that all the music is meant to be enjoyed in the context of the show. Still, the clapping audience adds a nice touch of authenticity for those listeners (like myself) who do not have the option of just hopping in a car and going to NYC to see the actual musical.

The first song is "Prologue (We Might Play All Night)" and it has a distinct blues-rock flavor full of Stevie Ray Vaughn guitar riffs and rough vocal delivery. "Baptist Fashion Show" has some creepy vocal harmonies that remind me of the Beach Boys, but again the main vocals are a soulful, wailing, bluesy presence that make the song shine. "Church Blues Revelation/Freight Train" rumbles and erupts into an apocalyptic fit of divine intervention. It's a strong revelation described by an even stronger song. "Arlington Hill" is a small detour into more mainstream Broadway territory. It's a pretty song without much distinction, and it's followed by "Sole Brother" a metal/screamo/spoken-word poetry bomb that explodes with anger and more than a hint of sarcasm. "Must Have Been High" is the first song that concentrates strongly on the protagonists experiences with drugs. The lyrics try a little too hard (in my opinion) to be Sargent Pepper-esque, for example "chandelier eyes and electric chairs, visit your mind and spend two days there" is one line that is not particularly creative with its trippy sentiment.

"Mom Song" is beautiful chance for the protagonist's overbearing and ultra-religious, but loving mother to have her say. This song also doubles as a catalyst to the underlying tension that has been building throughout the beginning of the play. The lyrics have been pulled in many directions, but the main thread is an idea of self-slavery or self-oppression. The main character is African American so it makes sense that the language of oppression used in the lyrics centers around chains and shackles, and images that are strongly tied to the history of American slavery. This idea of self-slavery is universal though, being basically a mental state, and can be applied in an enormous context. So it is in Passing Strange that the main character comes to associate religion and church with self-oppression of the mind, body, and spirit. The interesting dynamic in "Mom Song" is that the protagonist's mother explains how she associates religion and church mental freedom. Through religious expression she can break free of the constraints placed on her by society.

"Merci Boucoup, M. Godard" continues the story as the young man flies to Amsterdam. The song is a laundry-list of semi-obscure cultural references, but it particularly concentrates on French New Wave Cinema (Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard are both name-dropped). I think it's pretty cool that I just watched Les Quatre cents coups on Monday, and the musical that I'm reviewing on Thursday has a song that mentions Truffaut.

"Amsterdam" is a trip, both musically and lyrically, channeling folk-rock and also making its way through the history of musical theatre into the arms of another protagonist who found herself wishing to be far away from home, and then hoping to find her home again. The mid-song piano drama is so reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, I found myself overcome by waves of nostalgia whenever I listen. Really it makes sense, seeing as this is a modern day retelling of that class fairy-tale. A person searching for adventure and self-realization meeting strange people in strange locales; and finally realizing what they needed all along, closing the circle as they return. The next four songs - "Keys (Marianna)", "Keys (It's Alright), "We Just Had Sex", and "Stoned" - recount some conquests and explorations that are little less than kosher. I'm not going to go into crazy details, they might ruin some of the twists and turns of the story. Let me just write that "Stoned" is the best song of the crazy Amsterdam quartet. It's a powerful song, with visceral highs and lows.

"Berlin: A Black Hole With Taxis" intensely drums its way into your mind. It has military precision, and a cold, dark, mechanical quality that I oddly associate with German cities. (Why do I do this? I honestly have no idea.) "May Day (There's A Riot Goin' Down)" pounds and screams with punk enthusiasm and anger. The song is vicious, but also extremely catchy. "What's Inside Is Just A Lie/And Now I'm Ready to Explode" sounds like reverse cultural brainwashing or at least alternative cultural brainwashing. It strikes me as a deconstruction of all the ideas that are so inherently America. Every person is a beautiful, unique snowflake with emotions that define their character, and qualities and ideas that separate them from every other person. These are ideas that are very Western, and especially very American, but they are not held by people throughout the world, and I think the main character is experiencing some of the alternate modes of thought in Berlin. The song flows into "Identity" which struggles with the very existence of identity, with a swirly-whirly pseudo-Eastern backing track. "The Black One" plays with the idea of minstrel shows, and discusses race in an interesting context. Obviously, racism isn't an endemically American trait. Racism exists across the world in many forms, and even the most basic stereotyping can lead to misunderstandings and common misconceptions. In Passing Strange, the main character pretends to be from a poor family to gain a certain advantage abroad, but he struggles with this deception. Is it ethical to take advantage of people's misconceptions? Is it wrong to benefit from other's stereotypes when you can? These are some of many questions that are raised in Passing Strange, and the journey to discover their answers is the journey that main character takes.

"Come Down Now", "Youth's Unfinished Song", and "Work the Wound" are songs sung in a tamer world. "Come Down Now" is a beautiful piano piece, a request for connection to a person who is lost in their own world. "Youth's Unfinished Song" is a bit of a last-stand, but it has a gentle tone. Where "Sole Brother", "Stoned", and "May Day (There's A Riot Goin' Down)" are all extremely energetic and rebellious pieces, "Youth's Unfinished Song" reaches for rebellion, but ends instead with confusion, weariness, and even a little grief. In mid-song the protagonist forgets the lyrics, forgets the tunes, and is left wondering what comes next. "Work the Wound" goes back to the beginning: the music. It is always the music that is the protagonist's saving grace, and this song is a declaration of his love for the music that is his religion. "Passing Phase" continues the musical theme, but reaches the final climax and revelation. Where Dorothy realized she needed to be home with Uncle Henry and Aunty Em, the main character of Passing Strange realized that his home, his soul, is where he ca play the music that he loves. "Cue Music" finalizes the story. It's a redemption song that validates the character's search and struggle. But "Love Like That" is the epilogue, the little song that declares what Shakespeare said many years ago: "All the world's a stage, and all the people merely players", albeit in a less wordy and more contemporary paraphrase.

There you have it. The play is the thing, or in this case, the musical. You might discover something about yourself that you never realized if you go to see Passing Strange. You might realize that you don't like musicals. What I know, is that you will have an experience that is not available on a stage anywhere else. This musical is one of a kind.

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