Review: Defying Gravity

By Clive Paget
February 13, 2016

Somewhere near the middle of this wonderfully swanky concert of his finest songs, the great composer Stephen Schwartz tells us that he’s often asked by young writers and actors how they can get started in a profession that’s always looking for the next big thing but seemingly never interested in anything new.

It’s a salient point, especially coming from the man who burst upon the world of musical theatre 45 years ago at the tender age of 23 with the ground-breaking and off-Broadway box office record-breaking musical Godspell. The success of Pippin a year or so later cemented his reputation, but there were lean times too, as we learn from the stellar cast during some relaxed between numbers chat.

It wasn’t until Alan Menken introduced him to Disney in the 1990s that Schwartz was catapulted into the multiple Oscar-winners’ enclosure care of a slew of hit animated musicals including Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.

Defying Gravity – the concert – tells a tale of hits and the misses via Schwartz songs famous and obscure with judicious use of video clips that ensure the man himself remains a benign presence throughout. And the line up assembled by producer Enda Markey would be hard to beat anywhere in the world: Broadway stars Sutton Foster and Aaron Tveit, the West End’s Joanna Ampil, Australia’s David Harris (fresh back from NYC) and Helen Dallimore – oh, and the legendary Betty Buckley as special guest artist. A magnificent 15-piece band under Guy Simpson accompany it all, smoothly directed by Andrew Pole on a simple but glitzy set, neatly lit by Christopher Page. Yes, at the end of the day it’s just a concert, but such entertainments don’t come much better than this. Everything about the show feels thought through and given proper attention, including David Tonion’s impressive sound design.

So what do we learn? Well, if we pay attention we get quite an insight into Schwartz’s craft and style – not so much from what he says, but from the way the six singers bring each of his songs to life with such care and attention to detail that each number becomes a mini-master class in the art of the Broadway musical. Don’t worry, there’s nothing academic about it – and each of them blows our socks off at some point – but what emerges is a portrait of a composer and lyricist whose tunes may seem easy to assimilate, but beneath the effortlessly lyrical surface we see a remarkable craftsman at work. In other words, as Helen Dallimore sings in a comic gem from the largely forgotten 1978 collaborative musical Working, “it’s an art”. Rejecting the cynicism and clinical tone of a Sondheim, there’s an openhearted honesty in a Schwartz song. His characters are often desperately vulnerable, but there’s a pint-half-full optimism about much of his work and boy, can he tell a story through a lyric!

As I mentioned, the cast are quite superb. Joanna Ampil has a lovely, light soprano, perfectly connected to her lower range. She can act too, as evidenced by a cute little song about lion taming from the 1974 one-act musical The Magic Show. Her standout though is a soaring rendition of Pocahontas’s Oscar-winning Colors of the Wind, bedded down on a gorgeously detailed orchestration. Helen Dallimore comes into her own in fine comic turns like Popular (she was the West End’s original Glinda) and Endless Delights, a saucy, sexually voracious duet from The Baker’s Wife. Sutton Foster has to be among today’s top three Broadway leading ladies and it’s a thrill to have her in Sydney. A unique artist, originally cast in character roles in shows like Anything Goes, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone and Young Frankenstein, she showed a more intense side in the recent Broadway revival of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet. Equipped with this dramatic arsenal and a voice to die for, she can subtly caress a lyric as in the beautiful When You Believe from Prince of Egypt, or I’m Not That Girl from Wicked, but she can let rip too, as she does in an 11 o’clock rendition of Defying Gravity, which brought the entire opening night audience to their feet.

The two men are perfect foils – the Aussie and the Yank – mates one minute, gently sparring with good humour the next. Both have light, lyric tenor voices, David Harris (last seen here in Victorian Opera’s Into the Woods) excelling in a finessed ballad like Corner of the Sky and bringing the house down with his cheeky comic timing in Endless Delights. Aaron Tveit, star of Broadway’s Catch Me If You Can and Next To Normal) is a mean hand with a text, acting the pants off of numbers like the preening Proud Lady from The Baker’s Wife (complete with money notes galore), and Cain’s chilling Lost in the Wilderness from the vastly underrated score of Children of Eden.

Defying Gravity keeps its special secret weapon tucked away for the second half. Betty Buckley has a special relationship with the work of Stephen Schwartz since spending two years in the original cast of Pippin on Broadway (to pay the rent and the therapy bills, she jokes). So impressed was the composer, he wrote the title role in his next show, The Baker’s Wife, with her in mind. Forced to audition for the show six times, she was ironically never cast, and that’s showbiz, I guess. Buckley begins her set with a charming rendition of No Time At All, the catchy song in which Pippin’s roguish grandmother explains her ‘do it while you still can’ philosophy of life. Then it’s Baker’s Wife time as she wistfully caresses the verses of Chanson – the café owner’s song about stability and change. After a brief chat she launched into a blistering reading of Meadowlark, surely one of the greatest songs in all musical theatre. In three verses, Genevieve, the complex, passionate young wife of the amiable baker, tells a tale of a blind lark, kept by a kindly old king, who is given sight by a handsome sun god but can’t bring herself to follow him, instead choosing to die in captivity. I’m sure more than just me had tears streaming down their cheeks. The standing ovation was well deserved.

I won’t spoil the final reveal, but suffice it to say that it’s a real icing on the cake moment, which brings the audience to its feet once more. As Broadway gold goes, it doesn’t get much more glittery than this. I believe tickets are still available for the two remaining performances. Don’t hold back.