Monday, June 17, 2013

Thoughts on the "Giant" Cast Recording

Thoughts on the Giant recording after the jump:


There are many, myself included, who consider Michael John LaChiusa one of the greatest modern musical theatre composers. (I would go so far as to call him the greatest, since Adam Guettel hasn't premiered a new show in almost a decade.) But others view his work a bit less positively, which I totally understand. Especially if your first exposure to LaChiusa was through Marie Christine or Hello Again, complaints about the music not being at all easy on the ear—keeping the listener or theatergoer from becoming emotionally involved in the story—make perfect sense. I don't agree, as I find both of those works immensely beautiful and emotional, but I definitely understand it. (This could have something to do with the fact that I haven't yet had the chance to see one of his shows live. It's entirely possible that the shows themselves don't live up to the quality of the scores.)

I have a much more difficult time understanding any objections to Giant, at least as a piece of music. After a half-dozen or so listens, I think I can fairly safely say—with the caveat that I have not heard some of his more minor works—that this is the LaChiusa score I'd recommend listening to first. In the past, his songs have frequently been sweeping and lush (Marie Christine is full of soaring arias), but they've also generally been fairly dissonant and harsh. The Texas setting of Giant, however, has led LaChiusa to embrace a more consonant—though by no means conventional—sound for the majority of the score, as he crafts expansive songs that often have a distinctly earthy feel to them, even as the voices reach for the skies in the composer's usual fashion.

Take "That Thing", sung as part of the second act opening number. A lively and deeply profound tune sung by Bick (Brian D'Arcy James) about how different his son is from the son he'd imagined, it ultimately branches out in several directions, including a stirring passage in which he laments that his son never asks to "stay out and ride till the moon comes out" (repeated later as he discusses his daughter, who is much more like him). But the song's center is the character's search for "that thing" that makes his children his children, and it keeps coming back to a simple and catchy—while still beautiful—refrain that varies lyrically but generally contains those two words. As a result, it feels at once like a catchy American folk song—one that could have easily been written during the time period Giant is set—and a soaring Broadway anthem. (The "Our Mornings" duet between Bick and his sister Luz that bookends this song is perhaps even more beautiful.)

Some of the credit for that—and for the success of all of these songs—must of course go to Bruce Coughlin's stellar orchestrations, which tend to favor folk and country-infused instrumentation over all else. It all begins with LaChiusa, though, who has written melodies that are at once musically complex and surprising while also being immediately engaging, as well as some absolutely remarkable lyrics. "He Wanted a Girl", for instance, opens simply enough, with Katie Thompson singing a pair of almost identical stanzas, before launching into a staggeringly powerful and gorgeous section describing the life she thought she'd have with Bick. Then it transforms into something else entirely, before eventually returning to the sound of the beginning. All of it sounds glorious upon first listen, but subsequent returns to the song reveal just how remarkable the seamless transitions between these different parts are.

Seamless describes Giant as a whole as well, thanks to a predictably excellent use of reprises (LaChiusa is an expert at these) to tie the whole score together, as well as a definite logic to the musical style that ensures every song fits both character and mood. "Did Spring Come to Texas?" sprints to the finish line, mirroring Bick's excitement over Leslie's impending arrival; while "Heartbreak Country's" optimism is reflected in the powerful yet gentle contours in its melody. And the penultimate number "The Desert" might very well be LaChiusa's masterpiece to date: a 10+ minute song containing about five distinct parts (at least, that's how I counted them) and several callbacks to earlier songs, all of which is rooted in character and emotion. It's as fine a piece of theatre music as I've heard in a long time.

Of course, part of what makes "The Desert" so powerful is the singing by D'Arcy James and Kate Baldwin (Leslie): especially Baldwin's gloriously crystal clear vocals as she sings of her own dreams for the future towards the song's conclusion. It's arguably the most beautiful and moving passage of music in the entire score, and her interpretation of it—and of all of the character's songs—is equally blissful. (This should come as no surprise if you've heard her equally wondrous renditions of "Look to the Rainbow" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" from the recording of the recent Finian's Rainbow revival.) D'Arcy James is no less terrific in the other lead role.

Giant's supporting cast, however, is what really elevates this recording to one of the very best. There are just a huge number of supporting roles, and every one of them is performed brilliantly. As Vashti, who Bick was supposed to marry, Thompson flat-out stuns in both her numbers: the aforementioned "He Wanted a Girl" and (especially) "Midnight Blues", in which Vashti and Leslie describe their frustrations with their marriages. John Dossett is heartbreaking on "Place in the Word", in which he recounts his dreams of being a pianist and how they were dashed by his failure to stand up to his father. Natalie Cortez has one of the best voices in the cast, and uses it to stirring effect on "There is a Child". I could go on, but you get the gist of it. I want to save a few additional words of praise for Miguel Cervantes and Mackenzie Murray, who lead the showstopper "Jump" with an astonishing amount of energy.

But as with all musical theatre masterworks, Giant is ultimately LaChiusa's show. He's written one of the best scores of any composer since the end of Sondheim's heyday: filled with an enormous variety of styles (blues, folk, country, etc.) and with every song fitted to its dramatic context perfectly. Hopefully this show will get some high quality regional productions in the coming years, as it deserves them. In the meantime, both musical theatre aficionados and casual fans need to hear this recording pronto.

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