REVIEW: Violet and Here Lies Love

Principal among the reasons that many of us still collect cast recordings is the desire to capture the evanescence of musical theater. Indeed, cast recordings can be so much more than just a compendium of songs from a show, but instead can transport the listener deep into the theatrical experience itself by including dialogue and underscoring. With this purpose in mind, I turn our attention to two new recordings which on the surface might appear entirely dissimilar: the 2013 disco musical about Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, and the 2014 recording of the Broadway revival of the Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley musical Violet. Both shows get handsomely produced double-disc recordings that aim to capture their 100-minute productions in almost their entirety, yet each album offers a different strategy on how to preserve their “in-theater” experience which make for intriguing if slightly uneven listens.

Violet was my personal favorite Broadway musical of the 2013-14 season. First produced off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 1997, Violet received multiple regional theater productions since its premiere, but was only now making its Broadway debut. The show requires a lot of heavy lifting by a major musical theater actress and gets it in two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster who plays the title character, a young woman who is accidentally struck by her father’s axe blade as a young child. Scarred for life, Violet sets out on a journey to meet a TV evangelist who she believes can heal her damaged visage. Along the way she meets two soldiers, Monty, white and full of braggadocio and Flick, an African American who quickly exhibits true romantic feelings for Violet. Given that the musical takes place in 1964 in the South, Flick’s sense of racial ostracism in society is meant to serve as a parallel to Violet’s own sense of physical damage. Filled with deliciously hummable country pastiche tunes, Violet is perhaps composer Jeanine Tesori’s most enjoyable score and the original cast recording has remained one of my favorite recordings.

For fans of the show who may be wondering whether or not they need to purchase this new recording, the answer is a resounding yes. Sutton Foster, who at times has come off as overly perky in other roles, gives a moving and career-defining performance in this show. There’s no doubt that she can sing the hell out of big numbers like “On My Way” and “Look at Me,” but it’s the subtle humor and deep sense of pathos that make her Violet truly compelling. Foster is backed up by a strong ensemble, most notably Alexander Gemignani who offers a sensitive and touching portrait of her father, as well as Joshua Henry, who dazzles in his big number “Let It Sing.” What perhaps makes this album most enjoyable is the fact that a great deal of dialogue has been incorporated into the recording. The show moves seamlessly from spoken word to song with much musical underscoring and so despite the fact that this new Broadway version is actually shorter than its off-Broadway predecessor (it’s one act without an intermission), this new recording offers a fuller sense of this deeply emotional and haunting show. The score remains the same as the earlier version with one major exception, Monty gets a new song “Last Time I Came to Memphis” that replaces an earlier song titled “You’re Different.” The new song is fine and winningly put over by Colin Donnell, but ultimately doesn’t add much to the narrative. The score shines one number after another with great ensemble pieces (nicely orchestrated by Rick Bassett, Joseph Joubert, and Buryl Red), especially the gospel-inspired “Raise Me Up.” Simply put, Violet is a must-have for lovers of musical theater.

Leaving the American South, we turn our attention to the Philippines and the years of dictators Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda (most infamously known for her love of shoes). If a disco musical about Imelda Marcos sounds like a joke, you’d be sorely wrong. Here Lies Love was, in my view, the best musical of 2013, and is currently enjoying an extended return engagement at the Public Theater in New York. What makes this show most remarkable in person was the fact that the audience stands for the entire performance, dancing along with the actors who perform all around them in a disco environment. If it sounds overly kitschy, it isn’t and instead is a moving musical event as composer David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (under the direction of wunderkind Alex Timbers) take us on a journey of Filipino politics in ways that are both highly entertaining and deeply moving. While on paper, all this might sound like Evita, another musical about the rise of a dictator’s wife, that’s where the similarities end. Here Lies Love provides its characters, especially Imelda, with nuance, an element that Lloyd Webber’s musical wholly eschews.

The catchy and pop-inflected score was first recorded in 2010 as a concept album featuring a slew of famous singers covering the tunes including Cyndi Lauper, Florence and the Machine, and Nellie McKay. Rewritten since then, the show features songs like the title number and “When She Passed By,” that are both danceable and theatrical. The cast here is first-rate and it’s a treat to see roles for Asian American musical theater actors that go beyond Miss Saigon and The King and I. Ruthie Ann Miles has a rich voice and a commanding stage presence that makes her a compelling Imelda, while Broadway vet Jose Llana shines as her husband Ferdinand and newcomer Conrad Ricamora is terrific as Marcos rival Ninoy Aquino. Like Violet, Here Lies Love is a two-disc set (gorgeously produced with shiny cover and detailed liner notes) that captures almost the entire show, and yet despite the great cast and score, this recording remains something of a disappointment. Whereas Violet interweaves dialogue and song together in seamless fashion, Here Lies Love is closer to the original concept album, showcasing the songs in versions that have new endings not heard in the theater. Indeed, the stage show is quite the sensory experience with a DJ who oversees the proceedings, teaching the audience all the dance moves they need to follow along. This exhilarating participatory aspect is erased in the cast album which feels like the sterilized studio experience it is, and one wonders if perhaps a live recording of the show wouldn’t have been a better option. This decision is particularly sad especially given that we already have a studio recording of the show. Aspects of the show that were so mesmerizing in the theater, namely the startling assassination of Aquino at the end of his song “Gate 37” is provided here minus the gun shots and its purposely truncated ending. Gone are the deafening sounds of the helicopter that carries Imelda off at the show’s conclusion (“Why Don’t You Love Me?”) as well as the entire presence of the show’s DJ communing with the audience. These choices might make for a cleaner recording, but it’s surely a less theatrical one. This producing decision aside, Here Lies Love is still an album worth owning. David Byrnes and Fatboy Slim’s score is great and as fellow reviewer David Levy said to me at the show, Byrnes possesses the unique skill as a writer of pop music to have even the most unrhyming lyrics feel incredibly natural and easy on the ear. Given the unique staging needs of the show, it’s unclear as to whether or not the musical will have much of an afterlife post-NYC (the show is slated to play the smaller space of the National Theatre in London later this year), so this the cast recording may be your only chance to hear one of the best musical theater scores in recent years.


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