Writer: Steve Martin
Music: Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Lyrics: Edie Brickell
Reviewer: Holly Spanner
Having played the banjo from a young age, writer and composer Steve Martin previously collaborated with lyricist Edie Brickell on their 2013 bluegrass album Love Has Come For You. The collaboration proved to be a success, the title track scooping a Grammy for Best American Roots Song and they return now with their first musical, Bright Star. It premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2014 before opening on Broadway in March 2016.
Inspired by an old newspaper article, Bright Star is an original musical set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina after the end of WWII. At 38, Alice Murphy is a successful, yet formidable editor for the Asheville Southern Journal. Dreaming of being published in Miss Murphy’s magazine is Billy Cane, a soldier returning from war. Unaware of their deep connection, Miss Murphy is amused by an audacious lie told by the young soldier, so considers publishing him. Flashbacks to 1923 reveal traumatic events from Miss Murphy’s past, and how a love lost is never forgotten.
You never know what life will bring; only what you bring to life,
Hopes and dreams and fine imaginings, they happen in their own good time.
This album is areal hootenanny of bluegrass, Americana, gospel, country, folk and swing. Among the usual complement of instruments, the band also includes banjo, fiddle, autoharp, accordion, and mandolin; the vibes joyful and intensely satisfying. In many ways, the recording fits in with the traditional Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, but with its own unique style. The lyrics are perhaps a little clichéd given the remarkable narrative; however that said, the songs are all the more memorable for it and the melodies are seductive, endearing and infectiously catchy.
The production has undergone many changes since its conception, but ensemble number Sun is Gonna Shine has endured throughout each incarnation. Hopeful and determined, this anthem captures the essence of this musical. A song that has been added since the San Diego premiere is opening number If You Knew My Story. Setting the scene for events to come, it acts somewhat as a teaser, ticking all the right boxes as an introduction.
Asheville is a beautiful song, sung with an aching by Hannah Elless as Margo, the girl Billy leaves behind after heading out to pursue his dream of becoming a published writer. A.J. Shively as Billy gets the title track early on in the album. A young man on the brink of something great, his excitement and ambition are motivation enough for the listener to follow their own bright star.
Carmen Cusack makes her Broadway debut as Alice, a role that won her a Theatre World Award, as well as a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, among a host of others. The award and nominations are well deserved, as you really get an appreciation from listening to this album of a lonely and saddened woman remembering her playful, spirited and loving youth. This is particularly evident in Woah Mama, a lively and fun duet with Paul Alexander Nolan, who gives a robust and strong performance as Alice’s love interest Jimmy Ray. Cusack effortlessly switches between teenager and business woman, her persuasive, powerful voice hitting all the right notes, emotionally and musically.
There is a hint of fable in Bright Star, and when the euphorically happy ending comes, it comes at full pelt. With themes of redemption and forgiveness, this is a musical with agreat heart that deserves to be listened to for years to come.
Bright Star is available to purchase from Sh-K-Boom Records