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Highs and Lows

 By B.A. Nilsson

Original Broadway Cast Recording

Curtains (Manhattan)

Seeing David Hyde Pierce peering out from the cover of the Curtains CD is a reassuring reminder that local boys sometimes make good with a vengeance. The Saratoga Springs native made his name on TV’s Frasier, but his Tony Award-winning Broadway role proves him to be that rare all-around entertainer who can also sing and dance.

We learned that, of course, from his acclaimed turn as one of the original Spamalot leads, but Curtains gives him the juicy role of a stage-struck detective whose murder investigation draws him not only into the lives of the suspects—all of them associated with a musical foundering in its Boston tryouts—but into the show itself.

Curtains began life as a Kander and Ebb show, a promising prospect given their history of providing songs for such shows as Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman. It would reunite them with book writer Peter Stone (1776, Sugar) with whom they’d written Woman of the Year. But the project was delayed by the deaths of Stone and Ebb. Rupert Holmes was brought in to rewrite the book and add more lyrics. When it opened on Broadway last year, reviews were mixed, but audiences were enthusiastic, and Curtains netted eight Tony nominations, winning the abovementioned award for Hyde Pierce.

Although the recording is an obvious souvenir for one who’s enjoyed the show, it also exists independently, and as such it’s a welcome return to the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, that period in the 1950s when such shows as Hello, Dolly! and Gypsy overflowed the stages.

And Debra Monk has a 1950s kind of presence and brassy voice that makes a number like “It’s a Business” arresting and timeless, as if you’ve been hearing it on the radio for years. She’s teamed with Hyde Pierce in the show’s anthem, “Show People,” which I’m hoping might replace a certain overplayed Irving Berlin song for a while.

As a singer, Hyde Pierce isn’t what you’d call a honey-voiced balladeer. His solo, “Coffee Shop Nights,” shows to be in the James Cagney tradition—he puts the number across, dammit, and it’s full of character.

Shows about shows risk losing themselves in eddies of narcissism and in-jokes, but this one clearly is written as a crowd-pleaser. Even the clever trashing of critics in the song “What Kind of Man?,” which will please actors forever, has wit enough to appeal to those outside the biz.

As a recording, Curtains is a trip back in time in this post-Sondheim, Spring Awakening era of musical theater. If it delivers no standards into the repertory, that’s more the product of a world that no longer prizes such songs. But it’s a wonderful last look at a tradition that never should have disappeared.

—B.A. Nilsson

Smashing Pumpkins

Zeitgeist (Reprise)

This summer brought the return of two things that were comfort culture for me, and likely for a number of 20- to 30-somethings: Transformers and Smashing Pumpkins. We lost Optimus Prime, fearless leader of the Autobots, when he sacrificed himself for the greater good; later, we lost Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan to the pillar of crappy electronica. But now our geeky father figures have returned.

Some people were upset that the Transformers of this summer’s blockbuster film weren’t realistic enough. (No, alien robots from space never were realistic.) Other critics are upset that Zeitgeist, the disc from the reunited Smashing Pumpkins, is way too metal, with too many loud guitars. But Smashing Pumpkins have been metal since their debut disc, Gish—they just tricked people into thinking they were alternative with a couple of acoustic ballads. Siamese Dream was drenched in the kind of slabs of thick distortion and guitar squealing that could have made Tony Iommi blush. Yes, the last few years of the Pumpkins’ first stage were focused on boring, half-assed synth-pop, but that is not the stuff fans have been clamoring for. They, like me, wanted that warm blanket of guitars, not heard since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, to sweep them off their feet. Does that happen on Zeitgeist?

In places, it does. Opener “Doomsday Clock” has that gnarly Corgan spite wrapped up in raging guitars; “Bring the Light” and “Come On Let’s Go” return to the old Pumpkins formula of basing songs on sparkling guitar leads and big, dumb emotion. “Starz” could be a Cars track, thanks to the production.

But by the album’s end, it seems that something is missing. Zeitgeist never hits the emotional and musical heights of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. The one attempt at a typical, epic-Corgan guitar-fit freak-out, “United States,” feels rigid, structured and boring. The emotional release, the explosion of a true album closer, is just not there; instead, on “Pomp and Circumstances,” Corgan returns to his dull, plodding electronic BS.

Optimus Prime will never win an Oscar and Billy Corgan will never make it as an electronic-pop balladeer. Just keep playing your guitar, Billy.

—David King

Badfinger

Badfinger (Collector’s Choice) Wish You Were Here (Collector’s Choice)

The contrast between Badfinger’s music and the crushing reality of their bleak history is staggering. Emerging in 1970 on the Apple label, Badfinger scored four hit singles that found them harking back to a sound like the Beatles (before they began their disintegration). Newly signed to Warner Bros. in 1972, the band looked to have a rosy future, but this quickly proved to be far from true. A litany of bad management, bad advice, and disappearing label support gave momentum to a downward spiral that ultimately ended in the suicides of primary songwriters Pete Ham and Tom Evans. (Legal wranglings continued unabated for decades: Read the full account in Dan Matovina’s book Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger only if you’re on solid emotional ground.)

Newly reissued are the quartet’s final two albums, Badfinger and Wish You Were Here. A few subsequent releases kept the name going, but bore little resemblance to the six they did during the four years that found the flush of early success giving way to the belief that, by making another solid album, they’d be able to climb out of the ditch they’d fallen into. The self-titled release had the misfortune of coming out at almost the same time as their final Apple album. Its follow-up, again produced by Chris Thomas, is equally strong and sounds today like an album that would’ve been a popular favorite at the time. However, the band’s business manager absconded with $100,000 from a Warner Bros. escrow account, causing the label to immediately pull the album from stores and sue the band.

Perhaps due to the tragic arc of their story, critical judgment of Badfinger in recent decades has elevated them to a position not in keeping with what they did. They crafted a wonderful range of pop songs, from exuberant romps to somber ballads. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, and never claimed to. These two albums have a fair share of gems that resonate today, but they also have some numbers that sound merely quaint at this remove. The world is full of music, newly minted and a century’s worth of reissues. There’s dignity in having created songs like “Shine On” and “Just a Chance.”

—David Greenberger


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