BWW Album Review: Raise a Glass to SPAMILTON
One would have to have a heart of stone not to like Lin-Manuel Miranda. No, love Lin-Manuel Miranda. He is not only tremendously talented but one of the most endearing figures on Broadway. Devoted to his wife, son, and parents; committed to raising money for worthy causes; a pop-singing child, a FIDDLER ON THE ROOF-dancing groom, and an endlessly versatile professional; author of Disney's latest girl-power anthem; Tweeter of endless kind words to his fans and the general public...how could Gerard Alessandrini, the impresario behind Forbidden Broadway, hold him up for mockery, making "Lin-Manuel as Hamilton" the subject of his latest spoof, SPAMILTON? Well, the monolith callEd Hamilton has a life of its own, and with its well-deserved status as not just a Broadway sensation but an American cultural landmark comes an invitation to parody.SPAMILTON, playing at the Triad, now has a cast album from DRG Records. As with all of Forbidden Broadway albums, the test is whether the hilarity holds up without a two-drink minimum and visual effects (in this case, for example, the puppets used to populate a one-woman trio of Schuyler sisters, a perfect Daveed Diggs mop of hair, and a facsimile of Andy Blankenbuehler's bodice-flexing choreography). It does, and the album is most definitely worth hearing. HAMILTON's legions of fans, who tend to know every word of the libretto by heart, will appreciate the humor, and the ideal listener will be well-versed enough in musical theater to get the many references to other shows.
As "Lin-Manuel as Hamilton," Dan Rosales has a puppyish charm and winsome voice that are just right. The opening song takes a few liberties with the real LMM's background and biography, but it may also be true that our standards for the much-parodied song are higher than they might be. Alessandrini's advantage over other parodists is his encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway, and his love and concern for the medium, his ability to track and spoof trends. Here he offers an unexpected take on King George's song, "You'll Be Back," with "Straight Is Back," a dire forecast by a mincing King George (the delightful Glen Bassett, who makes the most of his one song) that Broadway audiences have tired of "cloyingly gay" themes in shows, and that HAMILTON marks a return to heteronormativity.
As one might expect, the humor seesaws between dead-on wit and easy laughs--having the Schuyler sisters sing "smirk" and "twerk" instead of "work" doesn't add much, nor does the idea of LMM texting, rather than just writing to, his idol Stephen Sondheim (in a parody of "You Made Me Love You"). In fact, it would be more characteristic of LMM to tweet. In the midst of the song "Look Around," the actors imagine hybrids of existing (or recent) shows, one of which is amusing (AN AMERICAN PSYCHO IN PARIS, in which the lead sings, "I kill my friends in my underwear" to the tune of "I'll build a stairway to paradise"). But the others are less so, and the interruption seems unmerited except as an effort to include more of the Broadway scene. When the lyrics in the show are insulting, they are overkill. Forbidden Broadway has scored this way in the past, as in its ferocious send-up of Christina Applegate in SWEET CHARITY. But belittling the rhyming in such a massive libretto seems almost petty, and when LMM sings, "My syntax is horrendous," it fails to convince.
Any show that mocks the rhyming in HAMILTON had better have some good lyrics of its own, and Alessandrini rises to the challenge. He instinctually zeroes in on the weakest lines of HAMILTON for satire: "Put a pencil to his temple and stuck it into his brain, and he wrote his first refrain while hollering in pain." "What Did You Miss?" hilariously mocks the glut of information in HAMILTON's lyrics and its juxtaposition of historical detail and nonsensical pop ("Chick-a-pow!"). He alters a famous line from WEST SIDE STORY's "Cool" to become the memorable "Got a rifle in your ruffles." I won't spoil the intentionally terrible movie casting choices put forward in "The Film When It Happens," but it is both hilarious and heartbreaking (for those of us who are often infuriated by the casting of film adaptations of musicals) to hear Chris Anthony Giles as Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr wail, "I'm not gonna be in the film when it happens."
One of the greatest treats Forbidden Broadway has always provided is the chance to hear fantastic mimicry. I have never been able to listen to Raul Esparza or Steven Pasquale in quite the same way after "hearing" them on these cast albums. On the SPAMILTON album, we can enjoy both a veteran and an extraordinary newcomer. Forbidden Broadway mainstay Christine Pedi, an expert mimic, sings as Bernadette Peters and Liza Minnelli as a version of the Beggar Woman from SWEENEY TODD who, in this case, is begging for tickets to HAMILTON. (Her Liza, once recognized, breaks into a parody of "Down with Love" called "Down with Rap.")
Nicholas Edwards does an excellent Daveed Diggs impression. But the real standout in the cast is the amazing Nora Schell, who plays all three female stars of HAMILTON (and Audra McDonald--not a task for the faint of voice). Her brassy Renee-Elise Goldsberry takes center stage in the Schuyler sisters' number, in which Schell has to alternate quickly among all three voices. But her Phillipa Soo impression in "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cries," one of the funniest songs in the show, is perfection: sending up the weepy ending of HAMILTON, she croons, "I'll tell you how everyone dies and I'll make you cry...Martha Washington lives on with her feral tomcat Hammy, who gets eaten by Jefferson's dog, who dies of rabies...Just when you think I can't wrench more tears out of you, I tell you about the orphanage..."
A piano is all one needs for parody, or for cabaret, and Fred Barton's is expert. In fact, the blending of his playing and the rich voices in the cast makes for a full sound that mimics HAMILTON's even without the elaborate orchestrations. HAMILTON is not a score that lends itself nicely to solo piano, but Barton makes the best of it, and serves as the ideal musical counterpart to Alessandrini's lyrics and their inspired free-associative ramble through the Broadway songbook. Melodies in the score come from, just to name some: THE MUSIC MAN, 1776, THE MAN OF LA MANCHA, THE UNSINKABLE Molly Brown, ANNIE, THE BOOK OF MORMON, GYPSY, CAMELOT, and most major Sondheim shows.
SPAMILTON's humor and lyrics are as hit-or-miss as any Forbidden Broadway, but at its best it is uproarious and impressive. We need Alessandrini as not only a check on Broadway's potential self-satisfaction (and HAMILTON may be the biggest target he's ever had), but as a wickedly funny analyst of the state of the art. In his hands, a merciless satire is an act of love.