REVIEW: Anything Can Happen In the Theater - The Musical World of Maury Yeston
One of the delights of listening to the new cast album of Anything Can Happen in the Theater: The Musical World of Maury Yeston is realizing what a musical chameleon Maury Yeston is. Unlike say the songs of Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, or William Finn, Yeston’s music and lyrics are happily sui generis, always perfectly suited and crafted to the project at hand yet not always immediately identifiable as a “Yeston tune.” Tracks on the album (which capture this musical revue which premiered at the Triad Theater in New York in fall 2019 and then at the York Theatre Company) tend to alternate between upbeat catchy group numbers and sensuous ballads culled from both known Yeston properties like Nine and Grand Hotel (Yeston’s Tony Award-winning musical Titanic isn’t represented here), but also lesser-known projects such as In the Beginning, Death Takes a Holiday, and The Queen of Basin Street. Rounding out the revue are a number of stand-alone songs that don’t come from any specific project but which happily more than hold their own.
It’s these lesser-known numbers where the album really shines, introducing listeners to new sides of Yeston that are both wonderfully toe-tapping and deeply moving. Take “Danglin’” a song I knew from Sutton Foster as recorded on her 2009 debut solo album, Wish, a lyrical pop ballad I would have pegged to teams Justin Paul and Benj Pasek or Ryan Cunningham and Joshua Salzman, but not Yeston (an assessment that I’m not the first to note as Tommy Krasker describes in the album’s loving liner notes). The song’s relaxed melody and wistful yearning about an ex-lover (as beautifully performed by Alex Getlin) reveal an unforced ease that doesn’t sound anything like the lush European strains of Grand Hotel’s “Love Can’t Happen” or Nine’s “Cinema Italiano” (both included on this album.) Then there’s the quirky and wonderfully witty honky-tonk “I Don’t Want to Rock and Roll,” written while Yeston was still in college at Yale, which extols the virtues of classical music in the most unclassical of musical styles all while showing off Yeston’s clever wordsmithing (“I know I go stark starin’ crazy/ Whenever I hear Pergolesi.)” Funny too is “No Women in the Bible” from In the Beginning (1987) which laments the fact that the only women who appear in the Bible play second-fiddle to the men. If there’s one song that I found disappointing, it’s the show’s opening title number, written specifically for this revue. Meant to extol the uncertainty, craziness, and precariousness of an actor’s life, the song’s lyrics feel less cohesive than in other Yeston songs and reminded of what I imagine could have been a cut song from Maltby and Shire’s Closer Than Ever (“Anything can happen in the theater /No matter how unusual the quirk /Anything can happen in the theater/ ’Cause an actor will do anything to work!”)
What also makes the album a worthy listen are the out-of-the-park orchestrations by three-time Tony Award-winner Doug Besterman. Replacing the revue’s solo piano with 8-piece orchestrations especially for this album, Besterman has created arrangements that are full and rich and which perfectly match the songs’ content like the jazzy “Cinema Italiano” and Charleston-inflected “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree / I Want to Go to Hollywood” and gorgeously simple on the plaintive “Danglin’.” In fact, it’s sometimes hard to believe that there are only eight instrumentalists with so much doubling of parts and lushness of sound.
For the most part, the songs are well-served by the show’s cast of five: Mamie Parris, Alex Getlin, Jovan E’Sean, Justin Keyes, and Benjamin Eakeley. The women (Parris and Getlin) tend to fare a bit better than the men on the their solo tracks, and Jovan E’Sean is a standout as he smoothly croons on “Mississippi Moon.” If there are just a few tracks that disappoint, it’s those that feature Benjamin Eakeley who has a pleasant enough voice but seems miscast, offering renditions of “Love Can’t Happen,” “Guido’s Song” and “Only With You,” which one might describe as “competent” but which hardly rival original performances by Brent Barrett, Raul Julia, and others. The album is best when the cast comes together as a tight ensemble on the many group numbers like the catchy cakewalk “Feet” from In the Beginning and “The Mardi Gras Ball.”
Through the show’s careful curation of songs (overseen by director Gerard Alessandrini of Forbidden Broadway fame) and its first-rate orchestrations, this album has the wonderful distinction of feeling more like the discovery of a new voice in American musical theater; rather than a by-the-numbers rote homage to a career that has spanned decades. Whether you’re a long-time Yeston fan or simply want to hear some lesser-known but top-drawer theater songs, Anything Can Happen in the Theater is well worth a listen.
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Wish - 2008 Sutton Foster Anything Can Happen in the Theater - 2019 Original Off-Broadway Cast Closer Than Ever Death Takes A Holiday The Queen of Basin Street In The Beginning Titanic Nine Grand Hotel Forbidden Broadway Justin Keyes Jovan E'Sean Justin Paul Mamie Parris Benj Pasek Benjamin Eakeley Tommy Krasker Joshua Salzman Ryan Cunningham Gerard Alessandrini Alex Getlin Brent Barrett Sutton Foster Maury Yeston Stephen Sondheim David Shire Richard Rodgers Richard Maltby Jr. Doug Besterman William Finn Raul Julia Oscar Hammerstein II I Want to Go to Hollywood (5) Cinema Italiano (2) Shimmy Like They Do In Paree (4) Love Can't Happen (3) Only with You (8) Guido's Song (7) Toggle Additional (35)