REVIEW: Hello Again - Soundtrack

Recording CoverWhen RCA released the cast album of Lincoln Center's production of Hello Again in 1994, they introduced a bold new voice of the American musical theatre to the world: Michael John LaChiusa. While savvy New Yorkers had already encountered his complex, challenging work in First Lady Suite, that score had gone unrecorded at the time. I remember not quite knowing what to make of the score; I was a teenager who had little to no experience with the subject matter, but I could tell this was the first composer to make a case that the post-Sondheim generation could keep pushing the form in the ways he had without becoming pale imitations of the master.

Over the next few years, with the premiere of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins in 1996 and especially with Audra McDonald's debut solo disc in 2000, it became clear that LaChiusa was on the vanguard of an entire school of composers straddling the worlds of musical theatre and art song/chamber opera. McDonald's inclusion of two songs from the score ("Tom" and "Mistress of the Senator") on How Glory Goes (which drew its name from a Floyd Collins ballad) was the first time I (and I suspect many others) could appreciate the component parts of Hello Again as stand-alone songs, and genius ones at that. That album came in the same six-month period that LaChiusa debuted two new musicals on Broadway (The Wild Party and Marie Christine, a vehicle for McDonald), and his place in musical theatre was solidified.

While LaChiusa has never achieved mainstream success, his music has been debated and prized by connoisseurs of sophisticated musical theatre for more than two decades. And yet despite this -- or perhaps because of it -- when a film version of Hello Again was announced, it was met with disbelief. But here we are in 2018 with an honest-to-God film version of Hello Again that played short arthouse engagements and has now produced a soundtrack.

The film, adapted by screenwriter Corey Kreuckeberg and director Tom Gustafson (the team behind, among others, Were the World Mine), was a stylish curiosity, adding a vaguely science-fiction frame, a touch of gender-bending, and replacing one sequence ("Silent Movie") with a new one ("Performance of a Lifetime/Beyond the Moon") set in 2002 (and thereby breaking the structure of the original, which had one scene for each decade of the 20th century). I found the film mesmerizing -- gorgeous to look at and thrillingly performed by an all-star cast. My sense is that others found it as confusing as I found the original cast recording back in the 90s. Perhaps it will go on to have a life as a cult favorite. The soundtrack album it leaves behind could certainly help propel it in that direction.

The most obvious appeal of the soundtrack is the cast, notably Audra McDonald, Cheyenne Jackson, Martha Plimpton, Rumer Willis and Jenna Ushkowitz. McDonald finally gets to play the "Mistress of the Senator" with a new take on the song she first recorded nearly 20 years ago, and her rendition of the song is reason enough to buy the album. With updated orchestrations and added life experience -- not to mention the benefit of singing the song in context -- McDonald transforms the song from the eager pleas of an ingenue to the knowing calculations of a woman who knows what's up. The film's transformation of the senator in question into a powerful woman (Martha Plimpton) further enhances the dynamic.

Those updated orchestrations won't be to everyone's taste. The style often errs on the side of contemporary (as does most of the cast's singing technique) despite each scene taking place in a very specific place and time. But LaChiusa's score (with specific exceptions) has already sacrificed period-specific songwriting in favor of creating a unified whole. There are exceptions, like the 2000s era dance track "Beyond the Moon" and the 1940s big-band sequence (built on a clever pastiche of the standard "And The Angels Sing"), but even there jazz singer Kingsley Leggs sounds more like Lea Delaria than Ella Fitzgerald. That's not a complaint. It works, and it specifically works at knitting the stylistically adventurous score together. When unmistakably 21st century drum machine effects mark the transition from Leggs's segment to Nolan Gerard Funk's "I Gotta Little Time," they reminds us (as the framing sequence did) that we in a heightened reality/fantasy and ask us to question exactly how the characters played by the same actors in different time periods might be connected; rather than taking us out of the moment, it situates the moment in the larger work.

Hello Again does not make for lovely background music. It's a score that demands to be listened to carefully, repeatedly to mine its deeper pleasures. This new recording provides a happy opportunity to do just that. Will it replace the original album for anyone? Certainly not, but it's a great companion piece for those who already love the score and could win a few new fans among those who first encounter Hello Again via the film.


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