Sara Bareilles, Tina Fey, Lamar Odom Jr. and the Year of the Philadelphia Musical Theater Nerd.
In a year of curious musical trends that included greater inclusivity, longer albums (then much shorter albums), and a raging emphasis on trap everything, one currently en vogue musical tendency – one still growing, when you consider the rise in popularity of local theater and its box office receipts – is that of the Broadway musical star turned live concert sensation, and its devoted fans, the Philly musical theater nerd.
In general, the rise of the musical theater nerd that started with the viewership of Fox Television’s “Glee,” and grew in stature and ratings success with NBC’s live rendition of “The Sound of Music,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” with John Legend, or ABC’s recent “The Little Mermaid,” has reached towering proportions. The mere interest in all things musical theater – a la FX’s “Fosse/Verdon” and its hummable tale of two legends of the Great White Way – signals that the stage-y genre’s stretch into the every day has reached epic proportions.
Locally, all you have to do is check out the opening night of Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” at the Academy of Music (November 19) or “The SpongeBob SquarePants Musical” at the Forrest (December 1) and watch the young crowd seething to get in, and sing each musical’s storied soundtrack. That both of these national shows feature local actors in headline featured roles is commendable. Take a bow Philadelphia native and former Kimmel Center intern, Mary Kate Morrissey (Mean Girls) and 2019 University of the Arts graduate and Scranton, PA native Lorenzo Pugliese as ‘Spongebob Squarepants.’
It is, however, the live solo star concert that is the biggest deal when it comes to the Philly musical nerd, the chance to more closely connect with one of the stage scene’s most epic stars – who just happen to usually be nearly as young as its fans, and therefore, get treated as close confidantes or contemporaries.
Looking backward, there was May 2019’s swift, sell-out, Met Philadelphia show with Ben Platt of “Dear Evan Hansen” fame who wowed the tween t-nerds with tender songs from his then-new debut solo album, “Sing to Me Instead.” For the immediate future, two-time, Tony Award-winning Sutton Foster (both for musicals, “Anything Goes” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie”) plays the Merriam Theater, Friday, November 22. Coming in 2020 is Philadelphia’s own Leslie Odom Jr., who, along with savoring his Tony Award win as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, has a new album just out, “Mr.,” filled with self-penned songs, and can be found in the new film, “Harriet.”
Then there is Sara Bareilles, who just sold out two shows between Saturday and Monday at The Met.
Though known for her strong mezzo-soprano vocal range, her four singer-songwriter-y albums since 2004 and her 2007 hit single “Love Song,” Bareilles was little more than a female Billy Joel-esque performer with a so-so musical career until the one-two punch of her song-score for 2015’s “Waitress,” (which was eventually Tony-nominated), its still successful Broadway run (it ends in January 2020, but, is currently playing throughout the globe), and her role as Mary Magdalen in the aforementioned “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Suddenly, Bareilles was a Broadway musical baby worthy of slavish devotion, the likes of which she got, in bunches, at The Met.
Make no mistake, past smashes such as her pounding version of “Love Song” and her lilting “I Choose You,” along with new songs from her T. Bone Burnett-produced “Amidst the Chaos” were well and screamingly received. The tremulous “No Such Thing” (written for Barack Obama) and the heartily anthemic “Armor” (penned for the #MeToo Movement, and in dismay over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) rousingly featured an emotively alive voice and a frustrated lyrical tone – angry that the former was gone while the latter is in our midst, and in a position of ruling. “Fire” was as contagiously melodic and percussively rich, as “Poetry by Dead Men” was pensively pretty, as “If I can’t Have You” –sung with her neighbor and opening act, Emily King – was inspirationally soulful and truly groovy.
All good, and great, right?
Still, the best and most rousing part of Saturday night’s show at The Met was during what Bareilles called “The Waitress Suite.” It is here where you got, not only a sense of rabid fandom but of close community, that this audience was here because “Waitress” is where they found Sara and got turned on to her mix of soft cell vulnerability and mighty wisdom.
While “Waitress” and “Soft Place to Land” found band members such as pianist Butterfly Boucher and guitarist Misty Boyce joining Bareilles for a dewy, high harmony trio – an alterna-world Andrew Sisters – Boucher’s duet on the musical’s “Bad Idea,” found her taking the male part on the messed up sexual relation part of “Waitress.” After Bareilles’ bassist Solomon Dorsey came up the front to face Sara, head-on, for a stirring, R&B-ish take on the usually hammy, “You Matter to Me,” the star of the show embraced her “Waitress” fanatic fans by herself for “She Used to Be Mine.” Here, with a tearful closing stanza (“She is messy, but she’s kind/She is lonely most of the time/She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie/She is gone, but she used to be mine”), Bareilles showed off her lyrical and vocal talents as a stage composer’s tool and as a pop purveyor while merging both genres seamlessly and with stately elegance.
Anyone here saying, “Hey, I want to see more of ‘Waitress’,” stay tuned. It is coming May 12-17 at the Merriam Theater.