Musical theater gets a bad rep, and go figure, with today’s landscape of shimmering esoteric music, there is a glassy-eyed artifice to it all that hasn’t—shockingly enough—permeated today’s pop music. Today’s scores often suffer from an epidemic of unoriginality in a post-Sondheim/Webber era. Sure, audiences love watching choir boys and girls flash their Vaseline smiles while tap dancing in unison to modern-day panaches of Broadway’s finest numbers that were fashionable (and more immediate) then, but for today’s younger audiences, there’s a disconnect. Critics largely quarrel over the same points, that 1.) Theater songwriters aren’t writing what they know, and 2.) Theater songwriters don’t know how to write take-away tunes. But there seems to be another problem: musical theater works for mainstream audiences often lack diversity.
The New York Musical Theatre Festival returns with its second annual “The Music Box: An Evening Of Lady Composers,” a showcase geared to shining a light on women, who are for lack of a better word, largely underrepresented in the world of musical theater. Held within the Ford Foundation Studio Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center for back-to-back one night only performance, the cozy sing-along certainly had its fair-share of soullessly neutered balladry with predictable rhymes, but that doesn’t mean there was lack of talent.
“Our Chit-Chat Hour,” a quirky, piano-plinking affair with music by Linda Dowdell and lyrics by Sara Wordsworth, mélanges Valley of the Dolls and The Stepford Wives for today’s esoteric music lovers and contemporary women obsessed with anti-aging and the ideal body. The Anna K. Jacobs-penned “Echo,” a simmering soft rock mother-daughter duet sung by Angela Howell and Dara Hartman, delivers a killer repetitious hook that stays in your head long after the show is over. Dara Hartman, who also performed as part of the trio of “Our Chit-Chat Hour” alongside mezzos Shannon Tyo and Ali Ewoldt, provided exceptional performances with her warm, sultry pipes and star-quality presence. Ali Ewoldt, a gamine ingénue with a bright soprano, delivered Tony-nominated songwriter Amanda Green’s riotously funny “I’d Rather Be With You.” Green’s savvy was also exhibited in “Waiting On My Thank You,” performed by Allyson Tucker. The song, with its summery pop sound has the chops to really hit on Broadway.
There were also composers with a more pop-oriented sound that airlifted the show to new heights. Emily Walton’s “Open,” a humorous confession of a girl looking to enter an open-relationship with her unsatisfactory beau, produced its desired chap-chap stomp-stomp arena piano rock moment with bombast. Walton’s rendition of Tidtaya Sinutoke’s “Running” from Sinutoke’s and Ty Defoe’s new musical Clouds Are Pillows For The Moon, was heartwarming and celestial.
The highlight of the 65-minute showcase was the schizophrenic fever dream of Grace McLean’s agitpop 11 o’clock number, “Break Up With You.” With the ethereal and acrobatic vocal loop torch song—solidified by a variety of glitches, fade-in/fade-outs, hiccups and stop/starts—Ms. McLean cleverly bridges a gap between Kimbra’s blue-eyed soul and Fiona Apple’s angst, with a song designed to flirt the whimsy of the Skrillex and Calvin Harris fan base. The fiery ginger singer-songwriter, who juxtaposes a puckish Tank Girl joie de vivre with Florence Welch’s waiflike midnight-on-the-moors façade on stage, also thrilled the audience mid-show with a funny rendition of “My Friend’s Roommate,” a comedic tune that blends acoustic folk-rock and reggae that may evoke promises of a duet between Jason Mraz and Lily Allen. Sure, these comparisons are all over the place, but then again, aren’t we the sum of our experiences? Every artist mires in the sounds of their influences before infiltrating the music and theatrical scenes with something new. Grace McLean is no different; though it’s fair she’s far ahead of the curve. It’s only a matter of time until she’s built her empire of dutiful aficionados.
Until then, like the concert suggests, she remains one of the many off-the-radar female lyric composers you’ve likely never heard of. The good new is, for now, that the ticket prices stay cheaper. But discovery is just around the corner.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.