The musical Bright Star didn’t have a long run on Broadway, but the soundtrack is grassy enough to deserve a spot on the playlist of anyone who loves bluegrass and story songs, or who just wants to thank Steve Martin for all he does for the genre.
The songs—the latest marriage of Martin’s banjo-based melodies and lyrics from indie star Edie Brickell—have bluegrass roots that are deep enough to show through the orchestration and big-stage choruses that are standard fare in musicals.
The arc of the story in Bright Star tugs at a range of emotions. There’s love and loss, hope and despair, country vs. city, birth and death, domineering parents and even a train. And all play central roles in the tender, touching score that, like a well crafted novel, leaves you rooting for the good folks and hoping the evil ones meet a painful demise. (The evil ones don’t, but hope springs eternal.)
From the spare banjo opening of She’s Gone to the finale, At Long Last, the Martin-Brickell tunes are singable and, for the most part, memorable. Aside from When You Get to Asheville, which had a fair amount of radio play from an earlier CD that the duo recorded, these songs won’t show up on the bluegrass charts. But they will most likely have a life beyond Broadway, in traveling ensembles and community productions, as well as in the music catalogs of those willing to stretch beyond traditional bluegrass arrangements.
In addition to Asheville and the title song, standouts include What Could Be Better – “10 minutes in my arms can’t do any harm” – Another Round, a raucous drinking song, and I Had a Vision, a lament about how life would be “if I could see my way back to you.”
On stage, Broadway rookie Carmen Cusack traces protagonist Alice Murphy from strong career woman in the 1940s, back to a spirited teen in the 1920s, and forward again. Without spoiling the plot or giving away the slightly too sweet ending, let me say that she and others in the cast must deal with life-altering challenges, as we all must. Cusack handles the songs with enough panache to tell me that we’ll be hearing from her and seeing her on the big stage again.
Here’s hoping, in the not too distant future, we get to hear from Martin and Brickell again, too. The partnership is magical. As terrific as Martin is at just about everything he touches, Brickell’s lyrics and vocals always seem to take him to a new, special place.
Having the Broadway run come to an end has to be painful, but as one optimistic anthem on the CD announces, The Sun is Gonna Shine Again.