There’s always something of a gamble when the work of an iconic composer gets reimagined by a composer from another discipline—Sondheim or Schwartz through the filter of jazz, for example—because the very details that define the composer’s profile often get swapped away for familiar genre riffs around a melody, and a distillation of the harmonic structure; rather than getting something new, you get something a little processed. Far better than Muzak but rarely revelatory.
Exceptions? The Gershwin piano rolls. Harvey Schmidt’s piano arrangements of popular songs (you can’t get them commercially, alas; these were private recordings he sent to friends every Christmas). Lalo Schifrin’s early-career recordings that featured big band arrangements of classical works. What distinguishes these treatments from the others I mentioned is that Gershwin, Schmidt and Schifrin aren’t really functioning as specialist interpreters. All three are fantastically gifted composers and what they’ve done is to put the musical source material through the prism of their compositional style. Rather than merely adapting from one style of music to another, they’ve tacitly signed on as co-composers. Schifrin’s album New Fantasy transcends classical music as jazz; it’s classical music as Schifrin. Huge difference.
Young performer-arranger Kyle Riabko is really operating in the first realm—that of genre reinterpreter—with his show What’s It All About?: Bacharach Reimagned, which has been extended at the New York Theatre Workshop. But for the first, oh, two-fifths of the show, not quite half, he manages to pull off the impression of the second. This is due to two factors: (1) he hasn’t limited himself to a single style of contemporary pop, but has brought to bear many filters drawn from the vocabulary; (2) Bacharach’s signature style, a staple of the 60s and 70s, is in its pure form so totally its own thing that it defined an entire school of pop theatre writing; merging his melodies and harmonies to the very different styles that evolved after his most prominent years and split off into a kind of studio/electronic approach that in some ways seemed the rock equivalent of progressive jazz does indeed create a bracing sense of novelty: one kind of revolution meeting another. And here was almost always a sense of theatricality to a Bacharach tune, as exemplified in his score for Promises, Promises.
And let’s not discount that Riabko and his fellow singer-musician performers (Daniel Bailen, Laura Dreyfuss, James Nathan Hopkins, Nathaly Lopez, James Williams and Daniel Woods) put on a helluva show, under the direction of Steven Hoggett. Physical and sound design, choreography and movement, mood, tone, the entire package, come off with sass and savvy that could easily rival the best and most memorable music videos you ever saw.
But beyond that near-half point, the novelty fades, and that’s because tropes of popular music finally stalled in the 90s. If you discount the anti-melodic, anti-harmonic aggression of rap and punk and metal—and in this context one must—there wasn’t really a great distance to travel, along the progressive route; in large measure, it was merely a refinement of rock styles that had debuted in a rawer state. And that’s because rock music tends to exist in primary, rhythm-driven colors. A rock song is about its backbeat and overriding feel. Even in his heyday, Burt Bacharach’s stuff was classified as MOR (middle of the road, an area between old-time standards and unequivocal rock) and the pastel shadings of his emotional and rhythmic range didn’t survive into what followed because it alchemically couldn’t. To be sure, rock encompasses many styles of delivery—an infinite number of performers can find ways to make their respective marks—but compositionally the well simply isn’t that deep: a primary color backbeat and a pastel shading (being harmonic or rhythmic) are literally antithetical to each other. And without pastels, the color choices are fewer. And there aren’t enough of them to accommodate the range of variation in the Bacharach catalog. And at the point where Riabko runs out of novel juxtapositions, the show is then primarily an essay in contemporary easy listening.
And then it’s really about your stamina, and what may charm you. If you’re happy just to be in the presence of the youthful troupe—and they are, no mistake, very persuasive—you may remain enthusiastic throughout. If you’re more interested in musical revelation, you may find your interest starting to flag, albeit not to the point of boredom. But considering how awful the previous, Broadway Bacharach revue, essentially a theme-exploring vanilla variety show, was (as hooky as they were one at a time, the last thing you want to do is examine the deeper meaning of Hal David’s collected lyrics), What’s it all About?, whose theme-relation explorations are all about the music, at least takes a noble risk worth checking out.
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