Album Review: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
If you missed New York City Center’s Encores! Off-Center sweet and smart production of Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, you’re in luck: Ghostlight Records just released a cast recording. Though the production was mounted just over a year ago, the quality and heart of the recording make it well worth the wait.
What makes this release particularly special is the fact that it is the first time that this show– the very first musical collaboration between storied composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman— has been professionally recorded. The musical dates back to 1979 when it had its off-Broadway premiere. Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel of the same name, the piece follows the journey of Eliot Rosewater (Santino Fontana), the millionaire President of the Rosewater Foundation, as he returns to his crumbling hometown to make a difference in the lives of its downtrodden residents. But trouble brews when Norman Mushari (Skylar Astin), an upstart lawyer, attempts to orchestrate Rosewater’s downfall in order to reap the financial benefits.
But, despite the fact that it was the first collaboration between the musical team that created some of the most beloved show tunes– from shows like Little Shop of Horrors, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin— Rosewater never really caught on, and has more often than not appeared as an overlooked footnote in musical theater history. Thanks to the New York City Center production and the excellent recording it has spawned, however, a whole new generation of audiences get to fall in love with some of Menken and Ashman’s most charmingly quirky music. Led by Santino Fontana as Eliot Rosewater and Skylar Astin as the scheming Norman Mushari, the spirited cast gorgeously brings this music to life once more.
Menken and Ashman are generally revered for their melodic music, and this show is no exception. The stand out is easily “Thirty Miles from the Banks of the Ohio,” a song that is moving in its simplicity. It serves as Eliot’s explanation for why he has turned his attention to the stalled residents of Rosewater, Indiana: they are all stuck in a post-industrial town that cannot offer them a future, and so Eliot believes that it is his responsibility to love them, since no one else will. For a song written nearly 40 years ago, it is shockingly relevant to America in 2017, and Santino Fontana performs it with stirring empathy. The melody also serves as a delicate refrain throughout the whole score, acting like a musical expression of Eliot’s longing to do good in the world.
But what makes this recording such a joy to listen to is the fact that it offers musical variety. Brynn O’Malley’s delightfully manic “Cheese Nips” sounds like what would happen if one of Sondheim’s ladies who lunch ended up in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. “Since You Came to This Town” is a tender hymn to a forgotten America. Pitch Perfect fans will also delight in hearing a different musical side to Skylar Astin in songs like “Mushari’s Waltz” and “Plain Clean Average Americans.”
Though Fontana, O’Malley, and Astin deliver first-rate performances, theater fans will also recognize other members of the Broadway community in the cast, like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812‘s Nick Choksi and Submissions Only‘s Kate Weatherhead. Perhaps the most exciting inclusion in the cast is none other than James Earl Jones, who provides the voice of Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater’s favorite writer/spirit guide.
So, whether you missed God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater last summer at New York City Center or are just eager to bring a version of it home, Ghostlight’s lovely recording of an underrated gem is one album that you should add to your collection.
For more information about the cast recording, click here.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus