Music and Lyrics: Elise Marra
The Concept Album is a tricky thing to get right. You need to give the listener just enough context to understand how the various songs hang together while ensuring each piece makes an individual contribution. For theatre, this usually denotes an idea in development, testing out and recording new songs in a studio environment before getting a show on its feet. Teenager Elise Marra’s Frankie! The Musical, released in May, becomes the latest in a long line of theatre concept albums that has included Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Tommy all of which subsequently earned a production run and a cult following.
Based on a true story, Frankie is a high school student considering her place in the world and dealing with the pressures of relationships. The synopsis describes her as a ‘teenage lesbian coming of age’ who ‘contracts a mysterious illness, creating the revival of her dreams.’ While it’s wonderful that more LGTBQ+ focused musicals are being developed – especially in light of the wonderful production of The View Upstairs at the Soho Theatre last year – this is clearly not a sung-through show and listening to the tracks independently doesn’t really tell this particular story.
Marra’s songs are classic musical theatre in tone but across this 10-song album, there is relatively little variation in style or even in the purpose of each song. It is a very introspective piece, opening with Take a Deep Breath in which the protagonist outlines the pressure of her parent’s expectations and her own feeling of isolation, having to deal with each day ‘minute by minute’. In the second song of the same name, she wants her old perfect life back – although it is not clear where we are in the narrative and what has changed since the previous number.
The next thing we know, an overeager teenage boy, Evan (Jason Gotay) is refusing to take no for an answer when inviting the heroine to a ball, insisting she doesn’t have a choice. Consent remains a sticky issue in modern, supposedly romantic, musical theatre songs where male persistence is still perceived as a desirable trait. In Waitress, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me is a worrying refusal to accept when a woman say’s “no”, a suggestion that stalking her will eventually earn a change of mind. And whether it is just a date or something more physical, Come to the Dance strays into some of the same territory.
The remainder of the songs focus on wanting to attract a particular person (Isn’t Too Much) and then being pushed away by them (Something We Can Do), although we only really see the heroine’s side of the story. The moment that Frankie (Caitlin Kinnunen) contracts her illness and how it affects the rest of the story is never really clear while the LGTBQ+ angle is downplayed. The writer will have visualised how she hopes her songs would eventually be staged, but in this format the music and the synopsis are not obviously aligned.
With a focus on sexuality and finding that sense of who you want to become, Marra’s material and the pop-style vocals of her cast are aimed at the Dear Evan Hansen market. There is a good foundation to build a Fringe musical from this Studio Cast Recording and there is a huge gap for pieces about female sexuality, but, while the creator of this show is very young, a writer should never rely on the (here absent) book to do the work, the songs have to drive the story all on their own.
Frankie! The Musical Studio Cast Album is available now from Broadway Records