CD Review: “Bright Star”

“Bright Star” the musical with the music, lyrics and story written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre on March 24, 2016.  The show was directed by Walter Bobbie, and stars Carmen Cusack and Paul Alexander Nolan.  The cast also includes Michael Mulheren, A. J. Shively, Hannah Elless, Stephen Bogardus, Dee Hoty, Stephen Lee Anderson, Emily Padgett and Jeff Blumenkrantz.  The musical has been nominated for 5 TONY Awards: Best Musical;  Best Score; Best Book; Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical and Best Orchestrations. The Original Broadway Cast recording will be released on May 27, 2016, and comes with a beautifully illustrated 10-page lyric booklet which includes a synopsis as well as statements from the authors, Steve Martin and Edie Bickell.  It is available today at sh-k-boom.com.

"Bright Stat" cover art
“Bright Stat” cover art

After repeated listenings I found the music to be lively, upbeat and easy to take.  It has a warm wonderful sound of back woods down home–plucky, toe-tapping’, banjo strummin’, foot stompin’, goin’ to revival meetin’ sound.  The superb orchestrations by August Eriksmoen and the Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements by Rob Berman keep the recording moving at a fast pace and interesting.  Against my better judgement I found myself liking the sound of this score, and I should add the sound of the recording.  It’s clear, crisp–a bit like a cold night in the woods when every tree, every star, every footstep is distinct.

Carmen Cusack, making her Broadway debut in “Bright Star,” has  performed on the West End and toured the UK, as well touring the U.S. as Nellie Forbush in the 1st National Company of the Lincoln Center production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”

Carmen Cusack, star of "Bright Star."
Carmen Cusack, star of “Bright Star.”

She also starred as Dot in the Chicago Shakespeare production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday In The Park With George.”  Her voice is strong and likable with a hint of breathiness that I find reminiscent of Tammy Grimes.

Unfortunately, while Ms. Cusack’s voice can be heard in nine of the twenty one tracks, she does not have a true solo among them.  She is either singing with an ensemble or the entire company.  Even in one of two bonus tracks where she sings the song with the most repetitive lyrics (more to come on that) she is augmented with back-up singers. The other unfortunate fact of this score is that Ms. Cusack, who as noted above has sung lyrics by Hammerstein and by Sondheim among others, finds herself here, along with the rest of the cast, saddled with lyrics by Martin and Brickell.  Lyrics that are cliched, dumb and say nothing in a dramatic musical. The lyrics are also infinitely repetitive, saying nothing over and over and over and over and over again.

Let me give you a few examples.  The first song on the recording is entitled “If You Knew My Story” and starts it with a melancholy fiddle leading into the song. Ms. Cusack sings “If you knew my story you’d have a hard time believing me you’d think I was lying.” From that fiddle I get the sense that this is perhaps a memory piece.  After listening to the recording numerous times, however, I still don’t know whether to believe that she’s lying or not because have no idea of the story.  A musical score that starts with “If You Knew My Story” and then over twenty subsequent songs doesn’t clearly tell you the overall story nor identify the central character is poor musical story-telling.  The listener shouldn’t be forced to rely on the printed synopsis and/or the lyrics to understand what is happening.

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, authors of "Bright Star."
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, authors of “Bright Star.”

Then there are the repetitive lyrics, starting with that first song. The words “if you knew my story” are repeated ten times throughout the three minute track. This is followed closely by the title song where “bright star” is repeated at least a dozen times. Not long after the dumb and meaningless lyrics “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do when a man’s gotta do what he’s got to” make their audible presence known, and again later in the reprise which serves as the Act One closing song.  The song with with most repetitive lyrics though has to be “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” where the lyrics “the sun is gonna shine again” are sung over thirty times.  A rousing church song?  I dunno, maybe.  We’re well into Act Two and someone needs cheering up but I don’t know who or why. Theatre lyric writing has changed and someone who prefers a more traditional musical score may not warm up to this.

Thanks to the orchestrations I do find the “Bright Star” score to be infectious and an enjoyable way to get moving.  Still, when the best track on the recording, hence in the score, is the “Entr’acte” that alone says you have a words problem.   Now I’ll go read the synopsis or better yet, perhaps go see the show.

RECOMMEND.

brightstarmusical.com, Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48 St., Broadway

Visit: sh-k-boom.com

2 Replies to “CD Review: “Bright Star””

  1. While I agree with you about the repititive lyrics (and some bad rhymes) I think that you’re being unfair about having to understand the story from the score alone. One “Bright Stars” virtues is in the way they tell the story-not just through dialogue and song but through dance as well. The score is just one element of the theatrical experience. For instance in Back in the Day” one has no way of knowing that Ms Cusack gets 23 years younger through the magic of Josh Rhodes choreography .Listening to the “Bright Star” recording is a joy for those of us who have seen the show. The synopsis that comes with the album is written in a clear and direct style and perhaps instead of just listening to the recording you could have read it and appreciated the shows virtues more. After all the score was written to be seen within the context of the show and not just heard on a recording.

    1. Hi Gibson, Thank you for sharing your thoughts and comments.

      I believe we each make valid points. You’re correct in that a musical is comprised of many elements that create the whole–the sets and lighting, the choreography, the book and the music and lyrics, among others A theatre-goer should indeed experience the show in a theatre to reap the benefits of how well those work together.

      Not everyone, however, has the advantage of being able to see a show of their choice as it was created to be seen and heard. Whether it’s because of distance, time or money. That’s one reason the score of a musical should stand on it’s own, without the other elements. The score should make clear the overall story being told as well as the central character. As well meaning as “Bright Star” may be, if after repeated listening without seeing the show or reading along with the lyrics, a fairly intelligent listener (me) has no clue as to story or central character there’s a problem with the score. Bear in mind too that I was reviewing the recording as it stands on its own, not the show one sees in the theatre.

      I plan to see the show this weekend. I’ll share my reaction to the show after that experience with you if you’re interested.

      Thanks again,
      José

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