Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Power of Song
I have just watched the PBS target="new">Great Performances production of Chess in Concert, a version of the hip 1980's musical that spawned the classic "One Night in Bangkok."

I am not a musical theatre fan, but I must confess that I love Chess. I played the original recording so much that I can still sing almost all of the songs by heart. This version was a bit disconcerting because they changed the lyrics, gave songs to characters that weren't in that number in the cast recording, and added some music I don't ever recall hearing. I even saw the musical in London in the 80s and remember loving it.

This version stars PBS's own velvet-voiced fair haired favorite, Josh Groban. He's one of those performers where I love his voice. (No, really I do.) But don't like any of his recordings. I think he has a gorgeous instrument but his over-the-top smarmy love songs just make me want to puke. So it was interesting to hear him sing songs that I like and, I have to confess, I thought he did a great job. In fact I liked pretty much all of the male cast, but was less enthusiastic about the females. (Idina Menzel, while no doubt having a lovely voice, is no Elaine Paige.)

But then Groban got to "Anthem," the show-stopping love song to a homeland that ends the first act. And that's where the melancholy kicked in. You see, my late, lamented friend Stephen Frugoli used to sing this song. It was a favorite audition number of his, a signature tune when he'd perform cabaret while touring with Les Miserables and the song he sang at the pre-wedding cabaret for some dear friends. I swear I can still picture him getting up on that stage. A bit frail as he'd been fighting pneumonia and overwhelmed by the clothing that was too large for his too-rapidly-shrinking frame. And then he belted out "Anthem" and I swear everyone in the room got tears in their eyes. Perhaps I'm romanticizing the moment, but I don't think I am. Even though he voice was obviously not at its best, he still managed to make the crowd erupt. It was one of my all-time sweetest, most favorite memories of him and so I cannot hear this song without thinking of him.

In many ways I think Stephen did it much better than Groban. Stephen's voice was a bit deeper and he managed to bring a sort of melancholy passion to that song that made it soar. Groban did an outstanding job and is no doubt a better singer. But Josh Groban never brought me breakfast in bed or helped me paint my bedroom. And while I miss Stephen and his partner (my best friend and brother, Steve Sutherland) every day of my life, it was sweet to be reminded of that one night when we were all together, happy, celebrating, and alive and Stephen made the room fall in love with him.

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