Editor's Note: In Cast Album Confidential, look for monthly reviews of theatrical recordings by Jay Gardner. In this month's column, Gardner listens to the cast recordings of Jagged Little Pill and David Byrne's American Utopia.
Jagged Little Pill
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released Dec. 6, 2019
As we all know, jukebox musicals are created not only to celebrate the work of a songwriting team, group or individual artist but to put butts in seats. For producers in the for-profit world of Broadway, butts in seats usually takes precedence over art. Can you blame them? Producers want to turn a profit, so to this end why not mine the back catalogue of some of our favorite pop artists? The material is already well known and it’s a safe way to hedge a bet on a hit.
If the term “Jukebox musical” is relatively new, the concept isn’t. One only has to think back to shows such as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Sophisticated Ladies to see the exact same idea but presented in a revue format. The more recent phenomenon of fashioning a plot around an artist’s greatest and occasionally obscure hits has produced somewhat varying results. Of course, Mamma Mia!, Beautiful and Jersey Boys were huge hits but who remembers All Shook Up (Elvis) and Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys)?
The latest addition to this ever-growing list is Jagged Little Pill based on Alanis Morissette’s classic 1995 album of the same name. The best thing this album has going for it is the way in which the songs have been integrated into the story. All of the iconic hits are present: “You Oughta Know,” “Hand In My Pocket,” “You Learn,” “Head Over Feet,” “Ironic” and “Mary Jane.” The creative team, headed by director Diane Paulus and featuring the orchestrations and arrangements of Tom Kitt, has found a way to make these songs seem like a newly composed score and not just a beloved artist’s back catalogue shoved into a preconceived plot structure to mediocre effect. It makes for enjoyable listening if one can get around the direness of the whole thing, and it’s pretty dire.
Tone notwithstanding, Elizabeth Stanley leads the extremely talented cast (I’m convinced untalented casts don’t exist on Broadway these days.) as the prescription drug-addicted mother of two, Mary Jane Healy. Her son Nick (Derek Klena) isn’t sure whether he should be excited about being admitted to Harvard and Mary Jane’s black, adopted daughter Frankie (Celia Gooding) is stuck in the middle between her mopey girlfriend Jo (Lauren Patten) and the new boy at school (Antonio Cipriano). Issues such as teen sex, binge drinking, drug use, date rape and peer pressure are dealt with in a not-so-subtle fashion. So many hot button issues in one show make for a potential hit with the teen and twentysomething crowd.
The performances are first rate. The entire cast handles the high-flying vocals with ease and music director Brian Perri gets a tight, angsty sound from the cast and band. And Kudos to Alanis Morissette, whose songs sound just as fresh and alive today as they did 25 years ago.
It’s a good guess that this show will find lasting popularity with youngsters and perhaps with people looking nostalgically back to the ‘90s.
American Utopia on Broadway
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Released Dec. 15, 2019
The only issue I have with David Byrne’s American Utopia concerns how to categorize it. In this case, a fantastic problem to have. Equal parts musical, rock concert, theater piece and performance art, this “show,” for lack of a better word, combines numerous theatrical and musical conventions to create something thrilling for both the eyes and ears. (For our purposes, the ears.)
In the same way, David Byrne wears many hats. The co-founder of the ground-breaking new wave band Talking Heads is a singer, songwriter, record producer, artist, actor, music theorist and filmmaker. His collaborations extend to photography, opera, fiction and non-fiction. He has received Academy, Grammy, and Golden Globe Awards and is an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
American Utopia takes its cue from his 2018 solo album of the same title. The stage adaptation features a band of nine instrumentalists and two backup singer/dancers all of which are completely untethered thanks to the wonders of modern technology. This allows the entire “cast, again, for lack of a better word, to move freely about the stage allowing for a deeper Level of expression from everyone involved.
And what a thrilling expression it is! Six of the musicians form a cohesive percussion ensemble that delivers Byrne’s songs with a driving pulse that would have even the staunchest audience member jumping to their feet. “Every Day is a Miracle,” “Here,” “Bullet,” and “Everybody’s Coming To My House” are featured on the new album with classics such as “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House” and “Road To Nowhere” peppered throughout. The songs, both old and new, are fresh, vital and relevant revealing a level of intellect and a specific point of view rarely found, if at all, in the songs that normally chart on Billboard’s Top 40. It is exciting to know that at the age of 67 Mr. Byrne’s well is far from dry.
Also worth mentioning: this album was recorded live, something I wish more shows would do, though I understand live recordings come with their own very long list of obstacles. Regardless, these brilliant instrumentalists feed off of the audience’s energy and draw us into the experience of attending an exciting live show. American Utopia is a must-have for David Byrne fans of all ages.
» Jay Gardner is an actor and singer working in the Dallas area. He has performed with The Dallas Opera, The Dallas Symphony and The Dallas Theater Center. He is currently a professor at Collin College where he teaches song interpretation and commercial voice. His ceramic work can be seen here.
» Cast Album Confidential runs monthly on TheaterJones. See below for a list of previous installments.
- February: The Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the Encores! Off-Center revival of William Finn's A New Brain, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs: Life from the Cafe Carlyle, and an album of Lea DeLaria singing David Bowie songs.
- March: New York City Center Encores! staging of Lady, Be Good; the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof; the Public Theater's 2015 premiere of John Michael LaChiusa's First Daughter Suite; and the latest from British cabaret great Barb Jungr.
- July: Cast recordings of Bright Star, the revival of She Loves Me, Cheyenne Jackson's solo album Renaissance, and Benjamin Scheuer's Songs from the Lion.
- August: James and Jay discuss some of their favorite things, including the cast recording they each first fell in love with.
- September: James and Jay discuss the year of Hamilton
- October: Reviews of new albums by Kristin Chenoweth, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Diana Sheehan and cast recordings of Disaster! and The Robber Bridegroom.
- December: New releases from Carmen Cusack, Leslie Odom Jr., Charles Busch, Barb Jungr and John McDaniel, and Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp.
- February: The Falsettos revival, and Brad Simmons sings Simon and Garfunkel
- March: Jay reveals his favorite theater podcasts, and James crushes on the 2014 cast recording of Here Lies Love
- April: The OCRs for Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away, Freaky Friday the Musical and recordings from Amanda McBroom and Karen Mason
- May: Betty Buckley's Story Songs, and ast recordings of Pretty Filthy and Jasper in Deadland
- June: Broadway cast recordings of The Great Comet, Hello, Dolly!, In Transit, Amelie, War Paint; and Dreamgirls in London
- July: The cast recordings of Broadway recordings: Bandstand, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Groundhog Day and Anastasia.
- August: Jay Gardner on his experience at the St. Louis Cabaret Conference
- September: No column
- October: The early Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical adapted from Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; plus Orfeh and Andy Karl live at Feinstein's/54 Below, and Jessica Molaskey does Joni Mitchell songs
- November: Solo albums from Broadway vets Kyle Riabko and Mandy Gonzalez
- The Music Men recap their favorite listens of 2017
- March: The Band's Visit, and revivals of Once On This Island and Working
- October: New recordings by Betty Buckley, Marissa Mulder, and Joe Iconis and George Salazar
- December: Jay Gardner's thoughts on solo recordings, and his favorite cast recording of 2018
- January: Reviews of solo albums from Heather Headley, Sutton Foster, and Melissa Errico; and a starry benefit album for families separated at the U.S./Mexico border
- March: The new London revival of Sondheim's Company; and Encores! revival of Songs for a New World
- June: The cast albums of The Cher Show and Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, plus new albums from Ben Platt and Meow Meow
- October: Cast recordings of Hadestown, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, and Beetlejuice; and a solo record by Ramin Karimloo
- December: Christmas recordings by Ana Gasteyer and John Barrowman