BWW Review: BACK WHERE IT BEGAN: AN EVENING WITH JEFF THOMSON AND FRIENDS at The Duplex Showcases Music Stands
Jeffrey Thomson is a songwriter of note whose presence in the musical theater community is on a continual path of growth, as well it should be, because Mr. Thomson is a gifted composer, creating melodies of varying styles, sounds and themes, all of which fit nicely into the projects upon which he works; and he also has great taste in lyricists because his songs are well mated to their words. It is a wonderful catalog of music that Thomson is creating, and some of his most popular tunes were held up for showcase last night at The Duplex in a one-night event titled BACK WHERE IT BEGAN: AN EVENING WITH Jeff Thomson AND FRIENDS.
And it has to be said: Jeff Thomson has friends.
The cabaret room at The Duplex was packed last night. There was not one available seat for any door business - the reservations had the win. It's a wonderful thing for an artist to step onto a stage and see a full house, but it is not an everyday occurrence, and while Mr. Thomson's star is on the rise, it is questionable as to whether or not his name alone would pack a 70 plus seat nightclub. Also, the ovation upon his arrival onto the stage was a clear indication that this was a crowd made up of people who already know Jeff Thomson, come to celebrate his success. It should always be that way - lots of friends around you to help celebrate you. Judging by the music performed by his other friends last night, there is much to celebrate. It's just a matter of time before the whole world knows the name Jeff Thomson - he is a really good composer, given the 14 songs performed in BACK WHERE IT BEGAN, a title which refers to his longstanding relationship with The Duplex.
Maybe it is because of the friendship factor between Mr. Thomson and the club, and the audience that he felt like it would be easily forgiven if the show put on were a little underrehearsed. After all, we have to forgive our family members when they disrespect us - it's what family does. So if you put on a show and ask your friends to pay for a ticket and two drinks, and the show isn't quite up to speed, your family will forgive you, right? Of course, right. You know who isn't a member of Mr. Thomson's family, though? This guy. Maybe there were others at The Duplex who have no connection to Thomson or his crew, and maybe they don't mind sitting in a theater for 75 minutes watching artists who are unprepared put on a show, but this guy does mind it. This guy, the one writing this review, doesn't approve of singers standing on a stage reading their lyrics off of a music stand, and this guy is going to keep saying it until the people who put club acts onto cabaret stages realize the gravity of their mistake.
This evening wasn't billed or described, at any point, as a workshop, a work in progress, a benefit, or any other variety of concert that would necessitate the reading of music off of a music stand. All of the very good songs in Mr. Thomson's show are from musicals he has already written, some that he has seen produced, some that have a cult following. None of them was described as a new work. It should, therefore, follow that the singers performing the songs might, conceivably, have been able to get their hands on a lead sheet a few weeks ago, two weeks ago, one week ago. We're not talking about people being given a score and told they have to learn it by tomorrow - this was a group show in which most singers sang one song. Yes, there were exceptions; but for the most part, the singers on the stage at The Duplex were given the task of performing, for a paying audience, one song -- and for the duration of that one song, this is the sight to which the paying audience was treated:
Taylor Pearlstein, Lexie Lowell, Haley Hannah
Do you know who doesn't read their lyrics off of a music stand? Two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy. Do you know who didn't read one lyric off of a music stand when she did her week of shows at 54 Below? Two-time Tony Award winner Chita Rivera. Do you know who never has a music stand on the stage with their words on it? Tony Award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tony Award winner Lillias White, Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young, Tony Award winner Cady Huffman. Hey, all you singing actors out there reading your lyrics off your music stand -- where's your Tony Award? Yeah, that's right.
Last night, at Back Where It Began, Kate Loprest and Michael Salonia carried out their music and put it on the music stand, then never looked at it:
Last night, Alexa Green referred to her music fewer times than any other singer in the show using a cheat sheet:
Last night, Matthew Darren, an American Idol who learned a different song every week he was on the show, used his music stand the most:
Of course, the tone was set by Jeff Thomson himself, whose every on-stage moment looked just like this:
Dear directors, musical directors, producers, it is time for this to stop. Make some demands on your casts. Ask them to do their jobs. You're putting on a live show, not shooting a documentary about studio singers. Hire actors and tell them they are expected to learn their lines because as long as they know they can look down at that piece of paper, that's what they're going to do. If the crutch is there, they're going to use it. It's up to you to put an end to this appalling acceptance of shoddy work.
Dear singers, I challenge you to make 2020 the year that you show some respect for your lyricist, show some respect for your audience, show some respect for yourselves. Invest some time and energy in learning the words to your song, then go out on the stage and connect to your audience. Tell them a story. Tell them the story of how their enjoyment of your performance is more important than their observation of how badly you need to have your roots done. Tell them, tell employers, tell yourself that you respect the tools of your trade enough to ply the craft for which you have been trained. Make 2020 the year that you throw away the music stand and the lyric sheets.
All of you gifted, talented, beautiful people whom I respect, who have the privilege of performing great works of art for your living, not only do I challenge you to learn your lyrics and throw away the cheat sheets...
I beg you.
Do your jobs.
Photos by Stephen Mosher