The discomfort zone of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music exposed the oft-covered gulf that has long existed between the performers – those who interpret and those who imitate. Lloyd Webber barked the advice of “words, words, words” and he could not have been more simple or direct. Sing a Broadway tune without understanding the character generally generates an overwrought booming performance – hello, “Impossible Dream” – leaving a singer with only one option if they are not playing it straight: Make it a pop tune.
David Cook and David Archuleta took “Phantom of the Opera” tunes and presented them in a way we have not really heard since the early 1970s, the last time pop singers turned to Broadway for material. Cook was restrained and precise; Archuleta swapped gender and worked within an arrangement that was more Babyface than Broadway. The two of them understand interpretation better than the rest.
Syesha opted, sans roller skates, for a “Starlight Express” number – “One Rock and Roll Too Many” – and ostensibly auditioned for the 2009-10 season on the Great White Way. Carly Smithson did a straightforward reading of one of ALW’s few classic rockers, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and neither impressed nor offended. Not sure how the Christians view “JC Superstar” these days. It was blasphemous to some in the early ’70s, but that probably had more to do with sexuality within the love songs and the great King Herod line daring Jesus to walk across his swimming pool.
Worst of the night, Jason Castro and Brooke White proved themselves straight imitators. Castro apparently could not dig up a Jeff Buckley version of a Lloyd Webber tune and went “Hallelujah” on “Memory” – as bad a song selection as we have seen this year, complicated by a strained and unconvincing performance.
White, who chose to stop and restart, gave a Carly Simon treatment to “Evita’s” “You Must Love Me” that garnered major thumbs down from the three judges. She, too, strained throughout the perf and failed to find the confessional aspect of the tune. (She’s big on that element, usually).
Intriguingly, though, whereas Castro was sent packing after getting his verbal lashings, White was brought back from the ledge she must have climbed on to hear some encouraging words. She seems mighty fragile and the producers’ behavior may be giving her some sympathy votes.
Bottom three prediction: Jason, Brooke and Carly; Jason goes home.
And for the record: The musical theater is a training ground that Karaoke does not provide. It teaches a singer how to look inside a song, how to use dynamics and convey a story or emotion. The theatricality differs between the concert stage and theater stage, but it’s a key element in both. The Beatles did showtunes, the Jackson 5 did showtunes, many enduring country stars did musical theater as youths and the lack of interpretations of modern Broadway tunes on the pop charts is society’s loss. Were the judges from another era, their bias against music from the stage would be far less and sadly, not once on did the judges note any elements of sophistication or elegance that is so missing from modern pop music. And I’m not even a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his overblown productions. If they really wanted to separate the best and the brightest, they would bring out Stephen Sondheim and make the kids sing brilliant, timeless music. But they probably have never heard “Send in the Clowns,” either.