SOUND OFF: GLEEful Glossolalia
A GLEE Season One Soundtrack Round-Up
Today, following this week's sold out run of GLEE: LIVE! At Radio City Music Hall, and in honor of next week's season finale, as well as the just released 4th album of soundtrack songs, we are taking a listen to the four soundtracks of the hit Golden-Globe-winning Fox TV musical dramedy series GLEE starring Broadway veterans Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele, with additional featured performances by Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris and Idina Menzel.
I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore
A week from today marks the season finale of the twenty-two episode first season of perhaps the biggest television phenomenon of the century. The fact that the show unabashedly embraces the conventions of musical theatre, employs Broadway talent in lead roles and has featured countless songs from musicals ranging from GYPSY to FUNNY GIRL to A CHORUS LINE to DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES is just the tip of the theatrical iceberg. Could a TITANIC tune be next? The furthest thing from a fiasco of epic proportions, GLEE also shares the wealth of its hit status by engaging a veritable who's-who of hot Broadway talent, featuring most of the biggest Broadway stars of the last twenty years who have successfully created crossover careers to all avenues of media, among them: Kristin Chenoweth, John Lloyd Young, Victor Garber, Debra Monk, Neil Patrick Harris and, of course, special guest stars Jonathan Groff and Idina Menzel in particularly delectable, memorable and expectedly recurring roles. When GLEE won the Golden Globe Award for Best Comedy Series earlier this year, creator Ryan Murphy thanked Barbra Streisand for giving him the inspiration to follow his wildest, most theatrical dreams by her supreme example and, here, on GLEE, Murphy has reintroduced two of her most famous songs to a whole new generation of fans who are sure to seek out her original performances, as one assumes rightly the audience does with many of the over-one-hundred classic tunes that have been performed on the show this season. From Barbra and Broadway to Olivia Newton-John and XANADU, GLEE seems to have taken the time to pay homage to nearly every facet of entertainment, and every style of popular music, all the while promoting inclusiveness, acceptance and understanding. Above all else: GLEE is about the power of music, and the power of musical theatre. Come and see if you don't agree, with these four fantastic albums as proof.
Straight out of the gate, it is imperative to indicate that precipitous amounts of Auto-Tune and technical enhancement abound of nearly every track and that studio sheen is intentional on the part of the creators. The songs are supposed to sound too good, though many times the performances themselves in the context of the show are mere rehearsals or altogether improvised on the spot by the characters. If you cannot abide a suspension of disbelief then you not only will find it hard to embrace the show, you may also find it difficult to find much to like in these studio tracks of the songs. The performances are spectacular and emotional, but you will not find any earthy rawness or naked nodule-numbing off-the-cuff mellisimas. What you will find are some fantastic performances of some of the best songs of all time - along with a good bunch of curious pop songs and even a few obscurities - and in an age where AMERICAN IDOL and DANCING WITH THE STARS rule the airwaves, that simple idea played out to its full potential is enough to entice, entertain and delight. Which GLEE does. GLEE is a sensation, a world-wide phenomenon that is raising awareness of the talent, material and power of theatre and for that it not only deserves a place in this column and on BroadwayWorld, but due respect from anyone who cares about taking theatre into the twenty-first century. These may seem like lofty claims, but given the dearth of exciting material and respectable scores on Broadway in the last two decades, perhaps TV will end up saving the face that Broadway is failing to save by itself. Acknowledging the fact that most musicals on Broadway are more commercial and lack less creative ambition than the content of GLEE is a good place to start. As with all things like this that are so subjective, particularly in the case of the following critiques: please take what you like and leave the rest, it's easy to hate anything that wears it's heart - so freely and openly - on it's glittery sleeve. It's the whole costume.
It Goes On And On and On And On
Following the premiere of GLEE on the night of the 2009 season finale of AMERICAN IDOL last year, the Glee Cast version of Journey's 80s classic "Don't Stop Believing" flew to the top of the iTunes chart. When was the last time a song performed by a Broadway star - like Lea Michele - performed such a flighty feat? The answer is: a long, long time ago, before most of the cast for the show - and who watch the show - were even born. Barbra Streisand's "Somewhere" from THE BROADWAY ALBUM, by my count. In 1985.
Everybody Loves A Winner
GLEE: THE MUSIC - VOLUME 1
GLEE: THE MUSIC - VOLUME 1 has all the necessary ingredients needed to be digested to understand the show's recipe for success: take the best Broadway talent available; give them at turns exhilarating, funky, unexpected and touching material; and make the songs sound as fresh and sparkling as possible for today, for this moment - but always with a nod to the original recording. In each and every case on each album and song we shall discuss is this the case. Besides the hits - "Don't Stop Believing" and Lea Michele's "On My Own" from LES MISERABLES - there is much, much more to enjoy here. While Matthew Morrison - Matty Fresh in his 90s pre-Broadway boy-band days - may not make you a believer or a worshipper at the alter of Kanye with his fiesty "Gold Digger" or with "Bust A Move", there is enough solid, traditional singing and songs here for even the most refined (and repressed) among us. Take Mark Salling's simple, swoon-y, sincere rendering of Neil Diamond‘s "Sweet Caroline", or Lea Michele's pitch-perfect (Auto-Tune or not) performance of Celine Dion‘s recent hit "Taking Chances". To cite the big guns - the big ballads and duets that indicate the place GLEE gets going on all axels - Kristen Chenoweth does two knock-out duets on this first volume, with a clarion-voices and bombastic blast of Heart's timeless classic "Alone" with Morrison, and that slow-burner show-stopper introduced by Liza with a Z in Bob Fosse's CABARET, "Maybe This Time" with a belting-to-the-rafters finale ultimo with Lea Michele. Kevin McHale's "Dancing With Myself" is a bit saccharine and worked far better on the actual episode than it does here on the soundtrack, but the producers go a long way in giving each and every cast member a moment to shine, but Amber Riley makes a far better case for continuing this practice with her fiery and ferocious "Bust Your Windows". The album ends with one of the biggest anthems of Broadway in the 00s - a song which was, incidentally, introduced by two of GLEE's guest stars, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel - WICKED's "Defying Gravity". The duet version with Lea Michele and Chris Colfer is restrained and elegant, though the iTunes exclusive Bonus Track of Michele alone on the number is surely more what the fans are clamoring for. Everyone does well on this album, and it is here - perhaps more than on any of these other albums - that it is plain to see GLEE has succeeded because of how well this group works together, collectively, and not how bright they each can shine. Though they certainly shine a spotlight alone, too.
Don't Bring Around A Cloud
GLEE: THE MUSIC - VOLUME 2
While this is the weakest volume of the four, there is even enough here to garner a hearty helping of curiosity from the unacclamated to the GLEE-niverse: Merely peruse the song list and you will be compelled to query, "How the hell are they going to pull that song off?" Thus, now your curiosity is piqued and the biggest battle has already been won with GLEE victorious. Soon you will be won over completely. In any event, in most cases here the songs work quite well, it's just that most of the material is not quite of the same caliber as Volume 1 and Volume 3, though there are a few glaring exceptions to that rule. Rather than focus on the less-exciting entries, for the purposes of brevity I shall simply cite the best tracks as far as I can tell and, if you like those, I urge you to seek out the others. The last songs on the show before the winter hiatus were two of Lea Michele's most powerful and persuasive renderings of any songs on the show thus far - and what songs they are: Kelly Clarkson's Max Martin-penned pop/rock anthem "My Life Would Suck Without U" and the legendary Act One Finale from FUNNY GIRL, "Don't Rain On My Parade." There is no sucking, and no certainly no rain to be found in these bright blue skies smiling at us, just the biggest rainbow of talent to come along since, perhaps, Miss Streisand herself. While no one will ever top the inimitable Barbra, Lea Michele comes the closest anyone ever has to making this material entirely her own. The two songs collectively left me with one big "Wow." Amber Riley's two songs are also exceptionally well-chosen and well-performed: a cover of Tina Turner‘s "Proud Mary" and the bravura DREAMGIRLS standard "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going". The strongest duet or group song on the album is without question Matthew Morrison and Lea Michele's take on the r&b classic by Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross, "Endless Love" and it leaves us wanting much, much more of their voices married in music on future soundtracks.
I Hear You Call My Name
GLEE: THE POWER OF MADONNA
Admittedly, I am not a big fan of Madonna, but to deny her influence on pop music and pop culture in the last twenty-five years would be truly asinine. Her power over people is truly incredible. Her chameleon-like changes in sound, style and songs over the years have created quite a multi-faceted catalogue. But, then again, the prospect of eight or nine Madonna songs shoe-horned into a plot about high school students did not seem especially enticing to me at first. But - boy oh boy - was I wrong. This was perhaps the best all-around episode of the season and the accompanying soundtrack EP goes a long to way to help us hear why. By this point in the season, Jonathan Groff had been introduced and he appears on nearly every track here in some capacity and the cumulative performances and the ultimate result are all the better for it. "Express Yourself" is sung better than it ever has been before thanks to Lea Michele and the ladies of the Glee Club. The sextet "Like A Virgin" is intelligent and witty, and also gives some lesser-seen characters a chance to shine with quite wonderful results. "Vogue" is everything we could have asked Sue Sylvester's first song to be and Jane Lynch is in a word: delicious. "Like A Prayer" is one of the best group numbers this season and its power is something truly heavenly. "What It Feels Like For A Girl" is surprisingly restrained and sensitive and sung with effortless charm and evocative empathy by the male cast members. Chris Colfer and Amber Riley get perhaps their best moment of the year with the recent Madonna/Justin Timberlake collaboration "4 Minutes" and they make me wish it was 5. Lastly, Jonathan Groff's predominantly solo song, "Burning Up", was cut from the broadcast version of the show, but it is available as an iTunes Bonus Track and the incendiary candle on the cake of this confection of a collection.
I'm Marvelous, So Marvelous
GLEE: THE MUSIC - VOLUME 3: SHOWSTOPPERS
On this final soundtrack of the season GLEE came into its own. The passion, joy and finesse that each member of the cast and creative team contributes is immeasurable and makes the experience of listening to this album - and enjoying the entertainment onscreen - one of pure adulation and, well, glee. At least for a theatre fan like me, who has been waiting for a show like this to come along. And we are truly blessed that it has arrived in style. Every song is spot-on here, from a truly beautiful "Beautiful" by Amber Riley to Jane Lynch duetting with Olivia Newton-John herself on a reworked, Gaga-ized "Physical" to Cory Monteith's expressive "Jessie's Girl" and Kevin McHale's addictive "Safety Dance". Speaking further of style - and rich, deep substance - this album has both those traits on full display in spades and sparkles every moment of the journey. Perhaps five of the best duets I've heard in ages, each of these is a master class in acting, singing and performance and all are truly exceptional songs in their own right done magnificently well: Idina Menzel & Lea Michele's breathtaking and surprising survey of "I Dreamed A Dream" from LES MISERABLES; Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff's heartfelt and heartbreaking take on Lionel Ritchie's "Hello"; Kristen Chenoweth and Matthew Morrison's positively ravishing take on Barbra Streisand's mash-up of Bacharach/David's "One Less Bell To Answer / A House Is Not A Home"; Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff (again) on the classic power ballad to end all power ballads, Jim Steinman's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"; and Matthew Morrison and Neil Patrick Harris giving absolutely everything to a wildly raucous and over-the-top rendering of Aerosmith's "Dream On". Chris Colfer gets his big song of the season and does better than even expected with "Rose's Turn" from GYPSY and Kristen Chenoweth provides a particularly lovely paean to Broadway with her nearly operatic "Home" from THE WIZ. The first of the two hugely-hyped Lady Gaga songs represents the least inventive - not bad, just carbon-copy, and perhaps that was the point - "Bad Romance", and while nowhere near "bad" it surely isn't everything it could have been. On the other hand, Lea Michele and Idina Menzel's searing, sensitive and tear-jerking acoustic cover of "Poker Face" is everything you could ever ask for and even more. This is the best song of the season and an even somewhat above-Broadway-level performance; the highest praise I could possibly give it. The mind boggles at the prospect of what song Murphy will give these ladies to duet on next season given their inalienable connection as characters on the show. So many possibilities. I have already cast my vote for the Barbra Streisand/Donna Summer blockbuster ballad-come-disco-anthem "No More Tears/Enough Is Enough" - though perhaps, too, that striking and shiver-inducing female duet from CHESS, "I Know Him So Well" could be a great addition to the show's superb song-stack as well. Alas, only time will tell and it is certainly going to be a long, long wait until the season 2 premiere in October! Until then, we have these hundred or so tracks to cherish, cheer and celebrate.
You Keep Me Hangin' On
ITUNES BONUS TRACKS
A number of songs featured on GLEE have not been included on the various soundtrack albums discussed above, but they are available for purchase on iTunes and no fan's collection is complete without some of these gems. Some I would recommend checking out: Kristen Chenoweth's hat-tipped, whiskey-sipped honky-tonk take on Carrie Underwood's "Last Name"; Diane Agron's ingratiating emotional investment on the Bacharach/David song originally sung by Dionne Warwick, "Say A Little Prayer"; Jayma Mays's light and lovely "I Could Have Danced All Night" from MY FAIR LADY; Idina Menzel's sensitive reading of the movie version of the title song from FUNNY GIRL; and Vocal Adrenaline's version of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" which was many people's first glimpse of GLEE as it was the first song used to advertise the show before it first aired nearly a year ago this week. There are many more you can find on iTunes, but these are the best of the best as far as I am concerned - as is GLEE as far as anything on TV, in movies or Broadway goes. GLEE is Broadway for the twenty-first century audience; BWAY 2.1.
My Life Would Suck Without GLEE
GLEE: SEASON ONE - ROAD TO SECTIONALS DVD
We've talked enough about the performances on the soundtrack - go and buy/rent/download the show already! The first nine episodes are available on DVD and the entire series so far (that is: the complete twenty-one episode season one) will be available on DVD and Blu Ray in September, until then all episodes are available for download on iTunes. Check them out, what have you got to lose? We all can use some more joy in our lives. And some GLEE, too - uppercase or lowercase.
PREVIEW: GLEE: THE MUSIC - JOURNEY TO SECTIONALS
Next week we will feature a critique of GLEE: THE ROAD TO SECTIONALS EP which will be released next Tuesday in conjunction with the season finale featuring the six songs on the album. For a complete performance of one of the songs, "Faithfully", look no further than your #1 resource for all-things-GLEE, BroadwayWorld! Stay Tuned!
TOP TEN GLEE SONGS - SEASON ONE
The following is a list of the top ten performances on GLEE thus far, (and this list will be amended following next Tuesday's episode should any of those performances make the cut for this, admittedly, highly subjective list). If you'd like to submit your own, we will be having a poll to determine BWW's Top Ten GLEE Performances later this month. Did some of your favorites make the cut? Check and see!
4. "One Less Bell To Answer/A House Is Not A Home" - Kristen Chenoweth & Matthew Morrison
6. "Like A Prayer" - GLEE Cast f/ Jonathan Groff
9. "Sweet Caroline" - Mark Salling
10. "Don't Stop Believing" - GLEE Cast