Given my upbringing on musical theater, I figured it was time to do something on a show I recently had the pleasure to see on Broadway. The show is A Bronx Tale: The New Musical, and the particular tune from it that caught my attention was Roll 'Em, which you can listen to here.
A Brief Overview of Menken
He was born and raised in New York City with a boogie woogie pianist / dentist father and an actor mother. He studied at NYU, where he floated between disciplines before finally settling on Musicology. His direction as a composer became clear not long after that when he attended the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.
His breakthrough piece is considered to be God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which he cowrote with Howard Ashman after the Kurt Vonnegut novel. This team also cowrote one of my favorite musicals, Little Shop of Horrors, which won Menken his first of eight Oscars (after it was converted to a film).
A bit about the piece
Upon listening to it, Roll 'Em is a pretty standard contemporary musical piece. It has the bizarrely formulated rhythmic schemes that provide a rhyming structure far less typical to the lyrics in any of his Disney songs (admittedly, this show is not G-rated, and definitely geared towards a more mature audience). While watching the opening of the show, I was a little perturbed by the sudden appearance of a child actor, who plays a significant part in the first third of the story. My initial thought was this was going to be plane crash like Tommy (yeah, I said it!), but thankfully, the kid was held in reserve and was used more for his movement than his voice.
This particular song is the first time the... hero? Supporting hero? Quasi-anti-hero..? Sonny takes the main character into his club and teaches him how to throw craps, as well as the first time you ever hear him sing. Though I have not yet seen the original movie from the early 90s, I have seen a number of editorials that describe this particular scene in the original as pure genius. The musical scene did not disappoint.
What is missing from the audio track are two significant things that I would say are important to the appreciation of the song: the recording removes the majority of interjections between stanzas of the song, mostly where Sonny keeps throwing members of his crew into the bathroom because he believes them to be bad luck for the kid. What is maybe more important—and impossible to capture with audio—is the exceptional movement and choreography that permeates the entire scene. The staging is quite simple: the kid and Sonny are center stage and Sonny's crew surrounds them in a semicircle. Movement across the stage is minimal, but the stunningly synchronized movements of shoulders and arms, presumably recalling the act of throwing dice, filled the stage with a visual counterpoint that made the song explode into color and intrigue. Even more subtle yet, if you can cue into the chattering counterpoint enters as the climax of the song is approached, you can hopefully imaging a feast for the eyes and ears alike.
Even if it is a bit off of the radar, this is a show I would highly recommend you go see when it inevitably goes on tour in the next year or so. Its striking simplicity, executed with the highest level of artists is something we are missing from the theatrical arts, and this approach is refreshing.