Wednesday, December 13, 2023

ReDISCoveries: The Beautiful Game (Original Cast Recording)

ReDISCoveries: The Beautiful Game

(Original Cast Recording)

Jeff has kindly invited me to revisit and review some of the older cast recordings in my collection. Every other week or so, I’ll write about a new CD, offering some general impressions followed by my thoughts about each individual song. This week I’ll take a quick tour through the 2000 Original Cast Recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Beautiful Game.

An ambitious show about love, soccer, and terrorism, The Beautiful Game lasted just under a year in its original London production. It closed ten days before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which destroyed any chance of such a show transferring to Broadway (I don’t think it has ever been performed in this country). A revised version, which has been produced in the United Kingdom and Australia, bears the new title The Boys in the Photograph.

Coming in the wake of shows like
Sunset Boulevard and the ill-fated Whistle Down the Wind, this first ALW musical of the 2000s was much smaller in musical scale than any of his earlier, more familiar works. Nothing here comes close to the lushness of “The Music of the Night” or “With One Look,” but there are several charming and effective songs in the score - frankly, more than I had remembered before I revisited the recording. The book and lyrics are by comedian Ben Elton, whose jokes and wordplay mostly work very well. Overall, I think this is one of the better set of lyrics for an ALW show without Tim Rice, but some of them are sure to frustrate true-rhyme purists. 

The fairly complicated story focuses on the members and associates of a Catholic soccer team in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, particularly John, a star player, and Mary, one of the team’s fans. The two grow closer and eventually marry; John, originally uninterested in politics, is gradually drawn into the IRA underworld by his best friend Thomas. John and Mary have a baby, but John becomes entangled in a tightening web of violence. In the end, Mary no longer recognizes the man she married, and she prays for a better future for her son.


I use a star (*) to mark the songs I particularly like, and my overall favorite gets two

stars (**). 

Overture: The funky meter, ethereal flute (playing a version of “God’s Own Country”), and urgent chords that begin the show immediately place us in a vaguely Celtic, vividly chaotic world. The energetic dance music that follows solidifies both of these first impressions. 

The Beautiful Game: As might be expected, this catchy song, with verses propelled by an insistent rising rock vamp, celebrates the glories of the titular game (“it isn’t a game, it’s more important, sacred, holy, and divine”). The rousing chorus, right out of an Irish drinking song, certainly gets the listener in the right mood for what’s to come.

Clean the Kit: Not quite as rousing is John’s (David Shannon) first number, which sounds like a lesser song from Rent; the fast-paced lyrics have him contemplating his bright athletic future while he’s stuck cleaning up the team gear. His friend Mary (Josie Walker) is openly dismissive of his prospects. In a mid-song spoken section, we’re also introduced to Protestant-turned-atheist teammate Del (Ben Goddard), who is mixing it up with some Catholic nationalists who want him off the team. 

Don’t Like You: When a boy and a girl sing a song called “Don’t Like You” this early in a show, what do you suppose is going to happen? (Only halfway through the song, Mary already admits: “all right, I vaguely like you.”) This gentle duet features some cute banter that takes John and Mary on a quick journey from low-key contempt to incipient romance, but it gets a bit repetitive by the end.

*God’s Own Country/Protestant March: In this beautiful anthem-like ballad, Mary extols the glories of her homeland (“God is love, and I know he loves this land”). Walker gets to really show off her vocal talents for the first time; I find her voice pure and pleasant, if a little squeaky near her top notes. She’s soon joined (vocally) by a Protestant girl (Dianne Pilkington), who echoes her love for Ireland, but the political fissures between the two camps soon shine through in the lyrics. An immediate reprise establishes the anger of a group of Protestant protesters (“you’ll be buried in the dust, for if not you’ll bury us”).

Let Us Love in Peace: The protesters have trashed the Catholic team’s locker room, as has been witnessed by our more sexually progressive secondary couple, Del and Christine (Hannah Waddingham), who had been making love there. As the title implies, they hope (à la “Somewhere”) for a future space where they can love each other without fear of violence, as they sing this trance-like post-coital duet: “just for fun/think of one/ordinary day.”

The Final:
Echoing some of the music from the overture, this song accompanies the team’s final (winning) match of the season. It’s mostly instrumental, with some outbursts from the team, coach, and individual players. Written to accompany some innovative choreography created to simulate the game, the song comes across as a little monotonous on the recording, and I admittedly don’t know soccer well enough to follow the lyrics in detail.

Off to the Party/The Craic: To music reminiscent of “The Lady’s Got Potential” from Evita (the original album and the movie), the soccer boys go out to celebrate (the lyrics emphasize that they’re going to get very drunk). Their coach, Father O’Donnell (Frank Grimes), encourages them to celebrate in the spirit of friendship and tolerance towards their rivals. The boys do indeed party and get drunk with their girlfriends in the trippy, dissonant music that ends the sequence.

Don’t Like You (reprise): Another couple, Ginger (a guy, played by Dale Meeks) and Bernadette (Alex Sharpe), get together at the party. 

**Our Kind of Love: Christine convinces her very Catholic best friend Mary to approve of her relationship with atheist Del in this sweeping number (“our kind of love’s for those who dare”), which gives future theater and TV star Waddingham the opportunity to show off her impressive belt.

The song’s main melody began life as “The Heart Is Slow to Learn,” which was written for an early attempt at a Phantom sequel (and the tune indeed ended up in the Love Never Dies title song). Having first heard this quasi-operatic original version (sung by real-operatic Kiri Te Kanawa), I was disappointed to hear it stripped of its beautiful verses and luxuriant orchestration for “Our Kind of Love.” Despite this disappointment, the melody - and Waddingham’s delivery - is so gorgeous that I still have to consider it the best song of the show.

Let Us Love in Peace (reprise): The friend group has found out that Ginger has been murdered by a rival gang of thugs, and they gather to mourn and comfort each other as the first act ends.

The Happiest Day:
The bells are ringing for John and Mary’s wedding day; both are excited but nervous (“will this be the day I go to prison, or is this the happiest day of my life?”). 

*To Have and to Hold: All doubts have disappeared when it comes time for the vows, which the couple delivers to this poignant song, which I’m sure has been played or sung at at least a few ALW fans’ weddings. The singing, particularly the choral arrangements, are a highlight here. 

*The First Time: I’ve always had a soft spot for this tenderly comic song, which endearingly portrays John and Mary’s respective difficulties navigating their wedding night bliss (“close my eyes/try to rise/to the occasion”). Of course, they figure everything out, but their night will be cut short when John’s best friend Thomas (Michael Schaeffer), an IRA member, asks for John’s help in an urgent situation - a different kind of “first time” for the previously apolitical John.

I’d Rather Die On My Feet Than Live On My Knees: Thomas begins to persuade John of the necessity for fighting in this brief electronica-tinged rock song, reminiscent of Starlight Express

God’s Own Country (reprise): Del and Christine give a bittersweet farewell to their friends as they leave for New York to escape the violence. The lyrics are particularly powerful here: “tears have always flowed from God’s own country, a nation’s children scattered far and wide… it’s the story of our race, gone to seek a better place”). Mary agrees that it’s probably time for her and John to move on to a safer place to raise a family.

Dead Zone:
In jail after his foray into violence, John sympathizes more and more with the IRA prisoners. The obsessive, repetitive music is not particularly fun to listen to, but appropriate for the song’s setting. 

If This Is What We’re Fighting For: Mary, with her newborn baby, directly witnesses an act of extreme violence. Singing mostly a capella, Mary condemns this violence (“though our cause is just, we’ve betrayed its trust… we’ll be one nation in the grave”).

*All the Love I Have: John has discovered that his friend Thomas betrayed him, and he kills his former friend. As he prepares to flee to England to work for the IRA, he leaves some treasured mementos for his son and says goodbye to Mary, who no longer recognizes him (“and so we all must pay the price/for such a stupid sacrifice”). Frankly, the song is probably too low-key for this weighty moment, but the wistful music is evocative of the couples’ feelings of regret for what’s happened and yearning for something better (though their disagreement on how to achieve it proves irreconcilable).

Finale: Looking at a team photo left by John, Mary memorializes those who have been killed or crippled, fled Ireland, or gone off to fight and kill; her young son goes off to play soccer with his friends. The show ends with a reprise of “Our Kind of Love,” with Mary determined to build a better world for her son and his generation (“no child was ever born to hate”).


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