Stages is Josh Groban’s homage to Broadway (even if some opened elsewhere). We have pieces from musicals made current to us through film such as Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera as well older musicals such as The Wizard of Oz and The Fantasticks and in-between with Chess and Notre-Dame de Paris. Stages is a worthy addition to Broadway tributes owing to a first-rate production (and not being overly produced), a straight-forward yet contemporary take on the numbers (it doesn’t try to make them something they’re not) and, well, Josh Groban’s voice. Let’s face it, the boy can sing. Some of these songs seem to have been covered mostly by women, so it’s nice to have a male version but best part is that he has one of the best voices around. While the album is full of nuggets (“What I Did for Love” and his duet with Kelly Clarkson to name two), for me, the highlight is “Bring Him Home.”
“Pure imagination,” from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, is a musically and lyrically lovely song. While the song has been around since 1971, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory didn’t hit the West End until 2013, making it the most recent musical represented. Otherwise, he would be cheating and using a song from a movie. The song reminds us that even as adults we don’t need to be dried up old prunes that no longer are able to imagine fantastical worlds. Gene Wilder’s own rendition of this is wistful yet playful, an amazing combination. We’ve heard it sung sentimentally ala Glee, taken into genres such as Mariah Carey’s smooth R&B, Harry Connick Jr’s jazz overtones or Fiona Apple’s techno folk. Josh Groban takes it head-on, possibly a bit over seriously but beautifully done. So while I would’ve appreciated a bit more fun and frivolity embedded within an homage to the song,it is, characteristically for Mr. Groban, note and pitch perfect. It really is a nice addition to all those who’ve covered it before him.
Mr. Groban’s “Bring Him Home” is, as Mary Poppins would say, practically perfect in every way. He is on par with Colm Wilkinson’s ability to bring out the meaning and character of the song while having an even better voice. He simply has the tone, the talent, and the take on the song. This is the reference rendition of it.
Being the anglo that I am, I had no idea that Notre-Dame de Paris had the most successful first year of any musical. Mr. Groban sings “Le Temps Des Cathédrales,” this love story written in the very stones of the cathedral, beautifully. I love the organ notes opening the song.
One of the things I love about “What I Did for Love” is that despite the fact that Mr. Groban can bring out the big voice whenever he desires, he appropriately keeps it in check for much of the song. When he brings it out, at just the right time, it has the visceral impact desired.
Josh Groban’s duet with Kelly Clarkson on “All I Ask of You” is beautifully done. Yes, Ms. Clarkson brings a bit of a pop edge to it, but in this emotional context, it works well. It somehow brings a more immediate emotional impact to this soulful duet. She seems to convey the driving need to be together and to stay together better than a more formal, operatic voice.
Josh Groban sings “Try to Remember” with a soft, deft touch and emotional appeal yet clearly enunciated. There were a couple of moments when he let it “go big” where some additional restraint might have been warranted, but clearly that’s pure preference on my part.
There are times when you think that nothing more can be added by yet-another-cover to a song. Like Gene Wilder’s magical mix of whimsy and reflection in “Pure Imagination,” Judy Garland’s original take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” seems definitive and, even with its 30’s orchestration, it ages well. But there have been other covers that add to our musical experience, most notably Jane Monheit’s version done for the movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Ms. Monheit added a breathy jazz flavor to the song. We’ve have crooners, ukulele-based Hawaiian folk, indie-rockers, and even techno-dance versions. Mr. Groban’s effort adds a straightforward take in his sonorous voice. There are few strong male voices that take this song on, that in itself makes this worthwhile. One of Josh’s major contributions to covering various songs from musicals is the confidence to simply take them as intending and not bending them to jazz or folk or other genre. While it can be good to morph them a bit, witness Ms. Monheit’s rendition, we don’t always have to “make it our own.” Mr. Groban’s voice is so good that he simply sings the song. That’s enough.
Next Mr. Groban turns to Stephen Sondhein, with a medley from Into the Woods and Sweeny Todd. At first blush, this might seem an odd combination, but as you look at the theme of caring for another, then it’s a bit clearer how they flow well into one another. They also nicely dovetail musically.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” builds perfectly to the emotional moments needed by that extra push Mr. Groban provide. At first, I thought Mr. Groban was holding back on this one, being sung perfectly fine but without the emotional pull I anticipated. All of that was tossed aside, however, as the song progressed and led to the climatic moments. A perfect touch.
Chris Botti joins Josh Groban on “Old Devil Moon;” bringing a level of sophistication with subtle, smooth trumpet. We have that big trumpet introduction, then a light trumpet deep in the background then he lets loose with a fabulous solo. Despite the great sounds of both voice and trumpet, I don’t sense any bewitching or magic carpet rides. The song is about a romance too hot to handle, not a quiet suburban couple saying “love you” before work. There’s nothing wrong with latter but the lyrics bill the former. Check out Judy Garland’s version for a bit more heat.
Seeing “Finishing The Hat” on the track list, I had to wonder how he was going to pull this off. This is a song that’s hard to take out of the context of the musical to stand alone. It’s part of a larger dialog between Georges Seurat and Dot. Wonder of wonders, he did pull it off. You could listen to this song alone and still recognize the theme of finishing your life and reflecting back on it. Well done.
“If I Loved You” featuring Audra McDonald is gorgeous (it’s hard not to be when Audra McDonald’s involved). While Ms. Clarkson’s less formal voice is dead on for “All I Ask of You,” I love Audra McDonald’s more formal rendition of “If I Loved You” with Josh Groban. I’m a huge fan of Ms. McDonald’s and she certainly doesn’t disappoint here. The voices blend well together, present the same emotion together, and have a wonderful way of conveying the lofty idea of love embedded in the song.
“Anthem” is just the sort of song on which you would think Josh Groban would excel and you would be correct. A large, patriotic anthem with a bit of a twist is right up his alley. Similarly, “Gold Can Turn to Sand” is an anthem to love, both of which are served well with his sonorous tone and big voice.
“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” brings the deluxe album to completion. This song drips with sadness and guilt with a dash of worry about the future. While this was a beautiful rendition, it didn’t quite have the depth of emotion he brought to “Bring Him Home.”
Josh Groban adds his voice to a long line of those who have paid tribute to Broadway. It’s a bit intimidating when you’re up against the likes of Barbra Streisand. His contribution stands up well. While I have small quibbles with a couple of the songs, all are sung well and some are brilliant not just in voice but meaning and emotion. This is album worthy of adding to your collection.