Wednesday, March 10, 2010

CD Review: Glory Days

Two years ago, Broadway and theatre in general were in the midst of a high school phase. The glorification of that adolescent rite of passage could be found on tour (and TV and in movie theaters) in Disney's High School Musical, the high profile off-Broadway bare: a pop opera and the hottest ticket at the time Spring Awakening, all about actually being in high school. Then came Glory Days, a pop/rock/Broadway musical all about high school, one year out. Written by the age appropriate James Gardiner (book) and Nick Blaemire (music and lyrics), the show is now mostly famous for being a one night only Broadway bomb. I was fortunate – yes, fortunate – to be among the 50 or so people who actually saw the show (as opposed to the thousands who claim to have been there).

Title: Glory Days
Artist: Original Broadway Cast
Label: Ghostlight Records
Number:7 91559 44362 2
Format: Single CD
Case: Standard Jewel Case
Booklet: One page, with creators note, cast, orchestra and crew list. One color photo.

Since most of you will have no idea what I’m talking about, here is a brief synopsis (including spoilers):

Jesse JP Johnson, Steven Booth, Andrew Call and Adam Halpin

Glory Days chronicles the reunion of four high school best friends, one year after graduation. They have gathered to commit a prank as payback for the event which ultimately brought them together five years earlier. I won't spoil what that event was, but I will say it will sound kind of minor, but when the characters are remembering it from a ninth grader's perspective, the embarrassment is still very real and painful. And this shows just how in tune the writers are. Naturally, the four young men are distinct people, but it is immediately clear why the four of them are bonded for life – these are the guys in high school the popular kids picked on, but survived. Thankfully, none of the four are blatant stereotypes, another clue to the quality of the writing. Will (Steven Booth), the introspective writer of the group, clings to the past with a desperation that suggests that he fears the worst – that he has peaked in high school. He cherishes the bond the four have, but realizes that inevitable change might change that bond. Andy (Andrew Call), also Will's college roommate, comes from a long line of athletes, but he never quite reached the status accorded such guys. Loud mouthed and somewhat crude, his interests include how many girls he can sleep with and the fraternity he has joined. There is much more going on underneath the surface with Andy, and when it finally gets out in the open one can see that the old adage is true – never judge a book by its cover. Skip (Adam Halpin), the former Army brat, also had trouble fitting in, and he seems to be the one of the four most easily adjusting to growing up – he trades in being outspoken for being introspective, and has developed a very mature acceptance of all things different then he. But, even though this has proven a relatively easy transition for him, one senses that these guys will always be close to him, no matter how much work it takes to keep it so. Finally, there is Jack (Jesse JP Johnson), always suffering from "little guy" syndrome, who found a family in these buddies of his. But, like in all families, Jack has a few secrets that he is just now willing to share. All four have, to varying degrees grown, and just like the event that brought them together in the first place, the events of this reunion will change their lives forever.

Call, Johnson, Halpin and Booth

On the Show: I remember this show very vividly for some reason. Mainly, it is, I think, because I can so completely relate to it. Each of the four characters reminds me of me in one aspect or the other. It might be easy for some to simply dismiss the show simply because of its subject matter, but to do so would be a serious mistake. For a first musical, heck for any musical, Mr. Blaemire and Mr. Gardiner have fashioned a work that gives you access by showing us the familiar: types of guys we all know, tons of pop culture references, and some now conventional plot twists (one of the characters comes out of the closet). But that is what gets you into the story. What keeps you there are the spot on observations about their own generation, and the very realistic, if decidedly more messy depiction of friends in turmoil. Glory Days does not fade out on a pat ending – you are left wondering how things turn out, but you are also left with a pleasantly optimistic outlook for their future. There is a lot more going on here than meets the eye, and that gives you something to chew on while you are there, and much to ponder in the hours after the curtain call. Most refreshing is that the writers have gone into some relatively uncharted waters with a musical about real male bonding and honest friendship. It may very well be the first time on stage where one guy says to another, "I love you," that isn't sexual or familial. It's about that elusive thing – real emotion between grown men. Perhaps that is the greatest glory of this terrific new musical.

On the Book and the Score: Gardiner's book is pretty much fat-free, and doesn't take chronological liberties, which a more "artsy" take on the same subject matter might. It is a wise choice. These people are 19 and still pretty concrete in their thinking, which is also portrayed nicely in his dialogue, spot on and endlessly clever – not clever in that "I am writing the book of a musical, aren't I smart?" way, but in that clever way guys do, influenced by each other, surges of testosterone, and years spent in front of the television and computer screen. Blaemire's songs match the accuracy of the book, and are extremely tight to each character. Each song is unique and similar, in that each is different for what is going on in the moment, but similar in that Blaemire, like other theatre composers, has his voice stamped onto each number in that same way that you can tell instantly a song by Sondheim or Kander and Ebb. His influences are clearly contemporary music, and a variety of theatre writers including William Finn and Jonathan Larson. Both young men are well on their way to creating their own brand of theatre. Sure it is a little rough around the edges, and there are a few places where a little more depth would add a lot to the show, but their simplicity combined with their complexity and their willingness to be influenced by masters of the craft while finding themselves bodes well for a long, successful career.

On the Stars of the Show: The four young men of the company are excellently cast, and are an ensemble in the very truest sense of the word. Their rapport and ease with each other indicates a sincere bond between them as characters AND actors. It is that intangible "thing" that elevates the piece. Any one of the four has the talent to carry a show, so it is a testament to them that they easily coalesce. And in depicting that, the “adult” critics might have missed the two really great things about Glory Days, its sincerity and honesty.

Steven Booth shows us Will's shy introversion and observation in the opening number "My Three Best Friends," a wordy expository number, paired with a growing Will, resigned to change, but with optimism on the closing number, "My Next Story." Will's earnestness and care for the others make him a likable character and Booth's portrayal endears him to your heart. As Andy, Andrew Call  (left) was visually perfect for the role - a hulking mass of muscle and testosterone. His slightly vague expression and hyper-sexual body movements easily convey a dim, macho man, confident in his prowess with the ladies. Of course, we all know it is a shield to hide insecurities. But Call's portrayal digs far beyond that surface, so that when he finally breaks and lets the emotions flow in "My Turn," the years of keeping quiet and the torment that he feels knowing that even amongst these odd balls he doesn't really fit in, it actually makes sense and finds one empathizing rather than wondering where the heck did that come from. Jesse JP Johnson is Jack, the friend who finally feels free enough to come out to his friends, and he played the part with sincerity and infinite warmth. Not once does he lapse into any stereotype. His genuine concern for his friends, rather than a self-absorbed "don't hate me" take is refreshing. While a gay character has become rather expected, Johnson's "I'm like everyone else" acting shows us instantly why Jack bonded so well with the guys in the first place, and why they gave him the strength to reveal the truth. His heartbreak at Andy's reaction is shared by everyone in the room. Jack's big solo, "Open Road" is beautifully sung, and actually made the coming out a surprise. When he and Andy confront each other in the musical argument "Other Human Beings," it is gut wrenching to see to best friends try to destroy each other just enough to save face. Finally, Adam Halpin, as Skip, plays the least stereotypical type in the cast with a calm that is as mysterious as his sly smile. His big solo, "Generation Apathy," reveals him as the wizened friend who comes back the most grown up, and the number shows a profound understanding of this age group's place in the scheme of things, both by the character and the writers. I think his role is probably the most difficult because it is the least recognizable from any high school stereotype.

On the Recording: In between all the explanation and summary, I hope you noticed that I have highlighted a number of songs from the score. Each is a gem. Each is a fine little piece by itself, exposed flaws and all, for as I said, it is not perfect and a superb first show for a duo I hope we hear from again and soon. What is best about the CD (aside from the fact that one even exists) is that all of that character and attention to detail comes out on the recording. You needn’t have seen the show to enjoy the recording.

The quality of the recording is most excellent. The band sounds great, and Jesse Vargas’ musical direction, arrangements and orchestrations really give the piece a full sound and a contemporary coolness. And the quality of the performances is as good if not better than any recent Broadway Cast Recording. All four young actors have excellent voices, and when they sing together ("Are You Ready?" "Right Here" and best of all, "The Good Old Glory Type Days"), the harmonies are, well, glorious. They have created a group of people you care about and want to know (and maybe even regret ignoring when you were in high school

If you get the CD, and you really should, be sure to read the very poignant authors’ note. It just goes to show you that there is a class about these guys and the future of Broadway looks bright.


(PHOTOS by Scott Suchman, Signature Theatre, Virginia)

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