by Ben Prayz · August 9, 2014
The notes in the program to ANTHEM, a new musical conceived by Rachel Payne and composed by Adele Powers and Zak Sandler, state “Americans today question why it has remained…” the “it” being our country’s historic National Anthem. This is certainly an intriguing question, and, as many singers have noted how difficult the song is to sing, a practical one at that. Additionally, and as briefly touched upon in ANTHEM, the song’s lyrics contain words that most people cannot define and images that some might deem offensive. There is much to explore in our country’s anthem, from many perspectives: musically, historically, etymologically and lyrically. Unfortunately, ANTHEM presents, as the notes go on to state, a “musical work about real people and experiences”. Which can just about describe a lot of other musicals.
ANTHEM presents 16 songs sung, one by one, directly after each other, with no connecting dialogue or spoken narrative. (The exception is the inexplicable conceit of most of the songs being introduced by the singer who says the state and year associated with the song – inexplicable because these pieces of information are simultaneously projected behind them). Each singer also states the war associated with each song, everything from Civil straight up to Afghanistan. Musically, though, instead of perhaps, creating songs that reflect either the specific time or place or war, we get synonymous dirges and ballads, with one or two up tempo character/funny songs. Additionally, while each song is based on (the notes tell us) “actual letters written during times of war”, and therefore linked ostensibly to the aforementioned “real people”, we are presented with generic archetypes from “protestor to private, warrior to widow”, (again, as informed by the notes).
Though the songs make no effort to distinguish themselves from one another, or from their context, there are some interesting compositions. “Red, Blue and Black”, given a deep and arresting rendition by Stephen Conrad Moore, had one of the only thought provoking lyrics of the show: “Why does war make us the same and peace tears us apart”. “Four Letter Word”, is a cute and inventive piece about a girl’s woes in written correspondence with her soldier boyfriend, winningly performed by Marissa O’Donnell.
The staging was alarmingly simplistic. Singer starts either stage right or left, and eventually ends up center stage. Or starts center stage and stays there. The three duets presented a singer stage left or right, and they eventually crossed each other. The group numbers were equally static. There is something to be said for simplicity and letting the material speak for itself, (when it has something to say), but simplicity does not mean mechanical.