By BRUCE DENNILL
Josh Groban: Stages – Live
Albums of standards tend to be, well, standard. Songs that are loved by millions are also heard by millions, thus exponentially expanding the pool of potential “this version isn’t as good as that one” critics.
Josh Groban has the benefit of a career taking classics – as well as his own material – to the upper regions of every chart he qualifies for, but still, there are no guarantees that focusing entirely on material drawn from stage musicals would be a strategy that would work for long enough to sustain an album.
Groban, however, plays a few trump cards here. Firstly, he picks the songs from that niche that he loves most – an obvious first step but an important one, as it guarantees undistilled passion in his performances. On that latter theme, he has opted for live recordings, so anything that’s impressive – range; vocal tone; arrangements – is instantly rendered more so, because it’s been achieved in front of an audience with nowhere to hide.
He also introduces a number of less obvious choices to the mix, delivered with such conviction that you listen to them the first time around almost out of respect for the production, before ending up committing to them for the long term because something exceptional has been revealed.
As a huge fan of musicals, Groban knows the value of a narrative. He begins Stages with Pure Imagination from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, which begins with the line, “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination” – as good an introduction as it’s possible to give to a series of songs created to evoke emotion via the combination of great music and storytelling lyrics.
Following that is the powerful one-two of Marvin Hamlisch’s What I Did For Love (from A Chorus Line), which is, somehow, one of the less mainstream numbers on the album – certainly for South African listeners – made into the undisputed album highlight; and an aching, heartfelt version of the ever-sublime Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.
There follows one of only two missteps, as Groban indulges his striking gift for languages with Le Temps Des Cathedrales from Notre-Dame de Paris. There’s nothing wrong with the performance, but as a the only non-English track, it jars slightly in context. The other good-but-not-great inclusion is If I Loved You from Carousel, sung with Audra McDonald who, though a technically excellent singer, has a voice that doesn’t gel with Groban’s as well as might have been expected, given the overall production values.
There are no issues in that area in Groban’s collaboration with Kelly Clarkson, who injects both rock and soul into her part for All I Ask Of You from Phantom Of The Opera – arguably the most predictable choice, but given an overhaul that invigorates what might otherwise be something of a cliché.
Try To Remember is a song more widely known than the show it comes from (The Fantasticks), and Groban does such a fantastic job with it that you’ll immediately want to track down either the closest production or DVD version. There’s probably no better known single track from a musical than Over The Rainbow, but again, creative use of the raw materials – and there are few better – results in a wonderful new take on a tune you probably thought could not be done this effectively again.
The best showcase for the arranging skills of Groban and producer Humberto Gatica, however, is the Sondheim mash-up of Children Will Listen (from Into The Woods) and Not While I’m Around (from Sweeney Todd), which flow so seamlessly into each other here that you’ll be confused next time you hear one or the other song in isolation.
You’ll Never Walk Alone is finally reclaimed for non-Liverpool fans before Chess centrepiece Anthem aims for the maximum dynamic punch and achieves it by combining everyone on the stage – Groban, a full choir, his orchestra – going at full tilt for the big chorus at the end.
The bonus track is actually a bonus, too, being another lesser-known gem – Unusual Way, from Nine – the unconventionally sympathetic lyrics for which Groban imbues with subtle yearning.
Stages is a masterclass in the interpretation of the songs of others, and a display of a talent that, world-beating though it already is, is still developing.
- Pure Imagination 7.50
- What I Did For Love 9.00
- Bring Him Home 7.75
- Le Temps Des Cathedrales 6.00
- All I Ask Of You 6.75
- Try To Remember 8.00
- Over The Rainbow 7.75
- Children Will Listen/Not While I’m Around 9.00
- You’ll Never Walk Alone 7.00
- If I Loved You 6.00
- Anthem 9.00
- Unusual Way 7.75