REVIEW: Stages - Josh Groban

Recording CoverPopera superstar Josh Groban is out with a new album - his seventh solo release - devoted to classics of the musical theatre world. His first album to feature only showtunes is sure to excite his fan base and some musical theatre fans, but theatre purists and the uninitiated will likely find that Stages grows weary after more than one listen.

This is not through any fault of Groban’s as a performer. Although his vocal style can sound unvaried, he isn’t a bad singer by any means. The problem here stems from the set list and the arrangements. Stages is an album overladen with pseudo-Romantic strings and langering tempi. This ends up detracting from, rather than supplementing, Groban’s voice and the underlying rich musical material found on the disc.

The songs on this album follow a familiar formula: a lush string introduction is followed by Groban’s simple interpretation of the verse and chorus, before the drums and guitar join in and, inevitably, the key modulates up. Suddenly we’re not in a Broadway theatre, or even in a cabaret venue. We’re in a large arena, witnessing that vague style of “crossover” or “adult contemporary” music made famous by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman (both of whom, incidentally, were important to Groban’s early career). Old standbys such as “Over the Rainbow” and A Chorus Line’s “What I Did For Love” are given this cookie-cutter treatment.

The numbers that could have provided some relief from the monotony unfortunately don’t. “Try to Remember” is morphed from a gentle waltz into a funerial four-four. “Old Devil Moon” loses its sexiness and luster in Chris Walden’s arrangement, even though the efforts of trumpeter Chris Botti try hard to keep them there. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” adds a backing gospel choir, turning it from a hymn-like song into a weaker version of Groban’s hit “You Raise Me Up.” Even “If I Loved You” with Audra McDonald couldn’t rouse excitement in me. By this point in the album I was too listless to enjoy hearing one of the bona fide queens of musical theatre sing one of the greatest songs written for the stage.

The question that returned to my mind again and again while listening to Stages is: why? Why did Groban choose this setlist? Why didn’t he sing at least one medium or up-tempo song? The easy - and presumed - answer is “money.” The cynic in me says that’s true. At this point in Groban’s career he should trust his fan base enough to know that they will buy his albums and attend his concerts no matter what, even if he sings a song that’s faster than their resting heart rate. (He has said that this album was a risk, considering it was all musical theatre music, but he shouldn’t have feared non-success with this recording. It debuted in the top five of the Billboard 200.)

I wish Groban would have been a little more adventurous in his programming and arrangements. He has proven his artistry and developed a fan base; now would be the perfect time for him to vary his routine. Anyone who follows Groban on Twitter or has seen his talk show appearances knows that he has a sense of humor and lively personality. I miss that on this album. A little humor or wit could have made the entire project stronger.

And besides: If Kelly Clarkson can dip her toes in the waters of The Phantom of the Opera on their duet of “All I Ask Of You,” Groban can chance to explore beyond his conventional boundaries. Even Chess’s “Anthem,” the album’s closing number, is turned into a song more reminiscent of Nelson Riddle’s lesser arrangements than the powerhouse, well, anthem, that it should be.

It is this stasis throughout the album that hurts it, but ultimately, that won’t matter to his fans. Theatre aficionados might turn up their noses at some of the arrangements, but taken on their own there are a few nice moments. “Bring Him Home” features Bernie Herms on piano in a crafting thankfully dissimilar to the myriad of other recordings available. It is different enough to retain interest, yet similar enough to please Les Misérable fans. “Le temps des cathédrales” (from the “other” musical based on Victor Hugo’s Hunchback novel) isn’t heard much out of context in the States. There are three Sondheim songs featured - a medley of “Children Will Listen” and “Not While I’m Around,” and “Finishing the Hat” - in more than serviceable renditions. (There is a deluxe version of Stages available, with the bonus tracks “Gold Can Turn To Sand” from Kristina and “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” from Les Mis, not available on the review copy.)

Groban sings from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the start of the album: “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.” I presume it was not a subtle decision to open the album with this, but it’s misleading to the listener. Clearly, Groban loves the material here, and this is a project more personal than his other outings. Yet I would be hard-pressed to find that passion here, or to differentiate from his other albums. Unfortunately, the musical world that follows the opening is one of more of the same. There isn’t much imagination here, but in those few glimmering spots, we catch a glimpse of what could be.

1 Comment

Stuie wrote on May 7, 2015

Dude go to see Book of Mormon again thats your speed You should not be reviewing music You obviously know NOTHING lmao

Submit a Comment

This website does not approve of the selling and/or trading of illegal copies and illegal bootlegs of commercially available cast recordings & soundtracks. We reserve the right to delete any message or notation that, in our opinion, violates these rules.