BWW Album Review: ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE Shares Frustrations and Hope

By: Jul. 01, 2020
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BWW Album Review: ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE Shares Frustrations and Hope

It's going to be a long time before we can congregate in theatres and immerse ourselves in new music and new stories again. In the meantime, however, artists are constantly putting out creative and impressive art that's adjusted for our current times. Among the highlights of pandemic theatre is Artists in Residence, the playfully titled album that brings together some of the brightest minds of the musical theatre community with new songs all about this tough moment. Alternately funny and touching, these songs are a reminder that, even in frustrating days, creativity and community shine a light.

Amber Gray, currently on hiatus from Hadestown, brings some of that show's jazzy, dreamy vibe to Todd Almond's "I Don't Know About You," an ironically chipper description of the low-key madness that comes with being quarantined. Playful rhymes (when was the last time you heard "bifurcation" used in a song?) underline that "going insane but pretending it's fine" mood that we can all, unfortunately, relate to. The quieter moments on the album often are among the best, most notably Peter Mills's "Two Buoys." Sung by Victoria Huston-Elem, it's much moodier and more evocative than the poppier offerings on the album, and in its beautiful, bittersweet central image, it captures the "alone together" paradox we all find ourselves in.

Some of the songs on the album lean more heavily into humor, with varying degrees of bite. "Essential," penned by Ben Wexler and sung by Victoria Clark, reads a bit like a COVID-era "Santa Baby," cheekily listing off things considered "essential," but also pivoting to a thoughtful musing on what we didn't realize was essential until we couldn't have it anymore. "Stay Home," an Alan Menken/David Zippel collaboration sung by Menken himself, has that playful Disney-esque cheesiness, but in the best way. If there was a Disney movie made about this time, this would be its anthem: straightforward, to the point, and with delightful rhymes like "groucy" and "Fauci."

Along with the more generic songs, a few moments on the album feel like full-fledged character moments from a future musical about the pandemic. Jay Armstrong Johnson actually features on two of them, one with considerably more success. On the one hand, "What a Thought" by Ryan Scott Oliver and Shirley Jackson, plays with the merry murderousness of couples stuck together for way too long during quarantine. The increasingly hilarious daydreams of violent retribution tap right into the increasingly dark humor we're all using to deal with these days. On the other hand, however, Andrew Gerle's "Rooftop Girl" feels like a more tired trope: the shy, awkward guy singing about a manic pixie dream girl who brings spontaneity to his humdrum life.

Some of the songs are clearly tributes to New York itself, the center of life turned to a virus epicenter and a near-ghost town. Joseph and David Zellnik penned "New York Day," an old-school-sounding paean to the joys of New York as it was and hope for New York as it can be. It's perfectly sung by Santino Fontana, whose smooth crooning evokes that kind of familiar, nostalgic charm. Similarly, Jonathan Tunick and Sara Teasdale's "Central Park at Dusk" pairs Harolyn Blackwell's lovely soprano with a short, sweet, longing description of the park's beauty. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty take a slightly different tack with "Calle Santa Barbara," a gently yearning meditation centered on a photograph of a distant place. Rachel Bay Jones, who does "wistful" better than almost anyone, taps into a real undercurrent of longing for a time when things were easier and just normal and the pressures to pretend like everything is fine.

The highlights of the album are both sung by top-notch Broadway divas conveying the grief and the hope we're all going through. Patina Miller sings Adam Gwon's "Find My Way Home," an elegantly mournful song about the fear and loneliness of these times. Gwon uses fairytale imagery ("tucked here like some far-off kingdom where I washed ashore") to evoke the strangeness of all this and the fear that "normal" may never happen. And, to close out the album, Laura Osnes sings "When I See You Again" by Will Reynolds and Eric Price. On the surface, it's about being able to see one another again, but it's not hard to read it as a metaphor for the theatre community as a whole. It paints a beautiful picture of when the streets will come alive, curtains will go up, and we can hug each other and share stories again. It's a lovely thought, and one to hold onto as we wait out this long intermission.