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Welcome to On the Record, our brand-new series celebrating original cast albums.
Have you ever listened to an original cast album of a musical you saw and discovered new things to appreciate about it? In the case of Finding Neverland, the tuner about the man behind Peter Pan, that happened to me twice: when I heard the traditional cast recording and then again when I listened to the pop-star concept album.
Finding Neverland's tunes are by Gary Barlow, front man for the beloved British boy band Take That, and his frequent collaborator Eliot Kennedy, who's also worked with the Spice Girls, Bryan Adams, and others. Their background is evident in their pop-infused melodies, especially when their songs are performed by veteran music stars like Christina Aguilera, John Legend, and Jon Bon Jovi on Finding Neverland: The Album.
Take a number like "Believe," a celebration of imagination that in the stage production evokes circus music and the marching drive of a parade. Nick Jonas's version retains that sense of whimsy, but the processed vocals transform it from cute musical number to radio-ready hit. Similarly, Kelsey Grammer's talk-singing on "Circus of Your Mind" works well in the theatre, but Paloma Faith's big, brassy rendition has total diva appeal.
On an album, songs can function differently than in a production, since they can be divorced from the narrative. So it makes sense that the tracks on Finding Neverland: The Album were rearranged to create the best listening experience as opposed to following the show order. It opens with Zendaya's take on "Neverland," immediately placing the listener in the mindset of that fictional world filled with lost boys, mermaids, and pirates. The cast album, on the other hand, attempts to replicate the experience of being in the theatre, and so begins with an instrumental prologue and doesn't get to "Neverland" until track 9.
A few of the show's songs don't even appear on the concept album. For example, "All of London Is Here Tonight" takes place at the opening night of one of J.M. Barrie's plays, is out. It's a more traditional musical theatre piece, introducing characters and themes, which would likely feel out of place on a pop album. The same goes for ensemble numbers, which are often highlights of cast recordings but don't make sense for solo reinterpretation.
Some numbers are totally reimagined on Finding Neverland: The Album. In the show and on the original cast recording, "Play" is an anthem about the joys of being young, with lyrics like, "Play. Play. Remember and you will see. The world is so mysterious and wild when you start to see it through the eyes of a child." Rita Ora & Sage The Gemini's version is rechristened "Are We Gonna Play?" and features a much more adult take on playing around: "You're looking like you’re my type, so I wanna know baby are we gonna play? Play. I just can't wait any longer. Let's get it on." In this way, the concept album resembles a movie soundtrack featuring songs inspired by a film but not necessarily used in it.
Finding Neverland is the latest in a long line of musicals that have tried to appeal to listeners beyond the theatre crowd with a pop release. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar started as a rock opera concept album before it was ever mounted on stage. Elton John's Aida concept album featured LeAnn Rimes, the Spice Girls, Boyz II Men, and Sisqó. Recently, Sting released his recording of The Last Ship prior to the Broadway production. And of course there have been more informal musical-pop crossovers, like The Fifth Dimension's medley of "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In" from Hair, and The Beatles' cover of "Till There Was You" from The Music Man.
Yet interestingly for Finding Neverland, the best example of how the pop and musical worlds can mix is actually on the Broadway cast album. Its bonus track is an enchanting, banjo-fueled variation on "Play" arranged by two cast members, Rory Donovan and Mary Page Nance, and performed by the ensemble. It's simultaneously hip and innocent, appealing to adults and children, bridging the two recordings and fully capturing the spirit of the musical.
Linda Buchwald tweets about theatre as @PataphysicalSci
Top photo by Carol Rosegg