18 February 2018

Catching Up With: Scott Frankel’s American Songbook

The cast of War Paint.
Joanna Glushak, a sister veteran of Rags, is third from right.

Last night I braved a “wintry mix” and made my way to Lincoln Center’s off-campus Appel Room for the latest installment in the “American Songbook” series: a concert tribute to lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel. The program featured songs from shows that have played in New York (Grey Gardens, Happiness, Far from Heaven, and the most recent, War Paint), as well as shows that haven’t. I knew Doll and Meet Mr. Future primarily from things Scott has told me about them, the former a portrait of the relationship between Alma Mahler and the painter Oskar Kokoschka (whose name Scott pronounces almost mockingly), the latter a vignette of the 1939 World’s Fair. I knew Scott’s version of Finding Neverland almost exclusively from what I read about it in the newspaper.

The “American Songbook” series is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I don’t ordinarily think of Scott’s music as particularly jazzy — that’s an element of his work, an influence, but not the whole story. Still, two numbers from Meet Mr. Future vouched for Scott’s bona fides, right at the start of the concert, especially as performed by music director Andrew Resnick on piano, Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, Matt Smallcomb on percussion, Zohar Schondorf on horn, and Todd Groves on saxophone, flute, and clarinet. Tony Yazbeck’s rendition of “Just Around the Corner” and Brandon Victor Dixon’s “Progress Shuffles” offered contrasting perspectives in Depression-era New York, the former revealing an almost dogged determination to remain optimistic in hard times, the latter a reeling resignation to the reality that life in Harlem is not likely to get easier any time soon. Both numbers made me eager to hear more from this show.

Scott Frankel.

The “songbook” rubric turns out to be exceedingly apt. Scott has shown a remarkable ability to turn the styles of earlier songwriters to his own purposes. In Act I of Grey Gardens, Big Edie runs the gamut of a century or so of American theater music, including minstrel shows and operetta; War Paint does something similar, with a narrower focus on the years of the action depicted. “Behind the Red Door,” for example, contains a brief “ooh-ooh” chorus that’s perfectly matched to a prevailing style of the year in which the scene is set, 1935. (Think of the Optimistic Voices in The Wizard of Oz.)

I hesitate to use the term of art, “pastiche,” because what Scott is really doing is more like psychically channeling historical styles to his own, thoroughly contemporary purposes. Scott is a prodigious pianist who made his concert debut at age 13 (with the Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, for mercy’s sake) and who one evening entertained me by playing one song (I forget which) in about a dozen different styles, not even pausing when I called out the next request. But his own style always comes through, at once emotional and almost clinically detached: if you think of his arias for Christine Ebersole, “Another Winter in a Summer Town” and “Pink,” or almost any of the music he wrote for Kelli O’Hara in Far from Heaven, then you know what I’m talking about.

Kelli O’Hara in Far from Heaven.

O’Hara was on hand for last night’s concert, offering welcome reminders of how perfectly Scott understands her voice and displays it to its best advantage. But we also had Leslie Kritzer and Scarlett Strallen to show that, no matter that War Paint’s music is precisely tailored to Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, it can be sung effectively by other people, too. (Kritzer and Strallen were, in fact, the first people I’d heard in this music who weren’t LuPone and Ebersole.) Last night, it became clearer than ever to me that Scott doesn’t merely write for an individual voice: it’s the other way around, and he writes music that requires an exceptional voice. He doesn’t merely showcase the singer, he challenges her to do her best work, and that in turn is why his music is so gratifying to the listener.

Exceptional voices abounded last night, and among the concert’s other highlights were two numbers from Finding Neverland from Julian Ovenden (who played James M. Barrie in the original cast) and Kelli O’Hara; “In My Father’s Garden,” Alma Mahler’s regretful résumé of her relationships with men, from Doll, sung by Leslie Kritzer; and Melissa Errico’s aching account of “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” For an encore, Scott accompanied Kelli O’Hara in “Heaven Only Knows,” and while I was grateful for the opportunity to hear him play, I really wished he had played more.

This is not to say that Andrew Resnick was ever less than excellent, but when Tony Yazbeck sang “Happiness the Second Time Around” (from Happiness), Resnick’s expert accompaniment made me realize two things: first, that the song is better than I’d remembered; and second, that the song is a reflection of the way Scott plays piano. His attaca is just that, an attack, and he uses his whole body to wrestle the instrument into submission to his will. While he achieves delicate effects when called for (and he did so in “Heaven Only Knows”), you sometimes wonder whether the piano can survive the passionate communion he creates. It’s as if the instrument is clay to be sculpted, a lover to be fucked. In “Second Time Around,” the character (originally played by Hunter Foster) makes a desperate plea for one more chance, hurling volleys of rage and regret. What Scott the pianist could do with Scott the composer’s work! Happiness turns out to be more personal and more honest than I’d realized on first hearing, and I found myself wishing for a “second time around” with that music.

“Beauty in the World”:
LuPone and Ebersole on Broadway.

I first saw War Paint in previews and vowed to return often; the vagaries of life in New York prevented me from keeping my promise until the final week of the run: I saw the two last Sunday matinées. The latter of these was the closing performance, a love fest without peer or parallel. Ebersole’s entrance stopped the show, and LuPone’s threatened to do the same until that great lady made a “knock it off” gesture that permitted her to proceed with her first number, “Back on Top.” I wouldn’t have thought that the two stars’ powerhouse performances could possibly be any more powerful, and yet they were turbocharged on that last afternoon.

The pleasures of Michael Greif’s production were so numerous that, each time I saw the show, I felt almost giddy. Ordinarily I can scarcely muster any interest at all in fashion, but Catherine Zuber’s costume designs were at once so historically accurate (over a 30-year time span) and brilliantly imaginative that I started to giggle with delight. Since the show closed, I’ve been listening to the cast album, and I’m able to concentrate more on the music. I find myself saying, “No, this is my favorite,” with each track in succession.

Ultimately, my favorite is and must be “Pink,” Elizabeth Arden’s eleven o’clock number and the summit (so far!) of the astonishing teamwork of Christine Ebersole and Scott Frankel. And yet I don’t believe the recording enhances my appreciation: I already appreciated the number when I heard it in the theater, and the cast album serves primarily as a document, a souvenir of a sublime experience. The same is true of Helena Rubinstein’s counterpart number, “Forever Beautiful,” a mini-opera for Patti LuPone. Even while replicas of various portraits of Rubinstein descended from the flies, creating a lasting monument to herself, I never took my eyes off of LuPone. I was completely under her spell, and that’s true, too, when I listen to the album.

“Fire and Ice”:
Steffanie Leigh and Erik Liberman.

The recording enhances my appreciation and understanding of other songs, such as “Fire and Ice.” Greif and choreographer Christopher Gattelli staged this number spectacularly — the blazing debut of Charles Revson (Erik Liberman) as the harbinger of a future that is already leaving Rubinstein and Arden behind. Hearing the song on the album, however, it’s no less effective without its glittering wardrobe, undulating performers, and shifting mirrors. The song comes at you like a tsunami; the bold rhythms and wild percussion won’t let you go. Throughout their careers, Rubinstein has promoted science, Arden has promoted gentility, but this is something altogether different: sex, and by God, it sells. The song is supposed to be a television commercial, and while listening to the album, I can picture Rubinstein and Arden’s horror as they watch — something the staging didn’t show us. Again and again, the album offers comparable revelations and delights.

The rivalry between Rubinstein and Arden is an odd, almost defiantly un-commercial choice of subject matter for a musical — as are all of Scott’s shows, with the debatable exception of Far from Heaven. Like the writer-director of the film Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes, and like that movie’s producer, Christine Vachon, Scott is an old friend, and I often brag that Scott writes shows to please me, just as Todd and Christine make movies for my personal enjoyment. The reality is, of course, quite different. My friends create art that pleases them. I’m sure they’re happy when other people like what they’ve done, but that’s not the goal they’re striving for. The result is art of the highest integrity, and the most gratifying rewards.

The Evolution of the Musical Today:
Christine Ebersole and Scott Frankel,
during the run of Grey Gardens.

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