Let’s echo a phrase that Frank Rich wrote nearly thirty years ago.
Rich, the esteemed theater critic for The New York Times, saw the Disney animated film BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. His reaction to composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman’s work?
“It’s the best Broadway musical score of 1991.”
Rich was being ironic but serious too. At the time, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST wasn’t a Broadway score (and no one knew then it would be). But the music and lyrics were in the grand Broadway tradition. Never mind that they were seemingly sung on a screen by animated characters and not on a stage by real live people. That little detail wouldn’t disqualify it in Rich’s mind.
Well, now I’ll say that despite its being an animated film, OVER THE MOON, thanks to Christopher Curtis, Marjorie Duffield and Helen Park, has the best Broadway musical score of 2020.
Granted, it’s been a lean year for musicals. But even if 2020 had brought twenty or so shows to our consciousness, OVER THE MOON would still be able to hold its head high. See if you agree once you get the soundtrack, now available at Masterworks Broadway.
The score is a marvelous synthesis of twenty-first century theater music with the sound that pleased those who became interested in Broadway when MY FAIR LADY was becoming its longest-running musical.
The writers’ backgrounds reveal why. Curtis wrote the solid traditional-sounding score to CHAPLIN while Park was one of the writers of KPOP, an off-Broadway rock sensation. (All things being equal – which of course they aren’t at the moment – it has plans to come to Broadway.)
As for Duffield, she and Curtis are writing a musical about two people from two different worlds who meet during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Yet they took time out to join Park and write music and lyrics for OVER THE MOON.
It’s the story of Fei Fei, the daughter of a Caucasian father – Ba Ba – and an Asian-American mother – Ma Ma. The family is a happy one, thanks to a successful business where all three bake “mooncakes” – little round pastries the size of silver dollars. Inside are little fortune-cookie-like sayings such as “Cherish life and everything you love.”
As delicious as the family’s wares is “Mooncakes,” a song that’s its own treat.
After a hard day’s work, the parents read Fei Fei a bedtime story in song: “On The Moon Above.” It tells of Chang’e, whose great love Houyi dies. In her grief, Chang’e exiles herself to the moon in hopes that someday he’ll meet her there.
Sad to say, the hearts of Fei Fei and Ba Ba will be similarly broken when Ma Ma dies of an illness. (Sadder to say, Audrey Wells, the film’s original scriptwriter, died of cancer in 2018, which necessitated Jennifer Yee McDevitt and Alice Wu to finish the project.)
Fei Fei envisions a life where she and her father will press on. But Ba Ba has found a widow in Mrs. Zhong. In Fei Fei’s opinion they’re on too fast a track to marriage.
Mrs. Zhong certainly tries to be nice, even when Fei Fei is livid that she’s inventing her own recipes and not just replicating Ma Ma’s. To make matters worse, Mrs. Zhong has a rambunctious son in Chin, who’s delighted to have a step-sibling.
Fei Fei cannot say the same. She can’t stand the lad.
Now the story encompasses magical realism. Yes, the writers are careful to show early on that Fei Fei knows a great deal about sophisticated state-of-the-art transportation. Nevertheless, you still might not expect that she’ll be able to make a (as we hear in another fine song) “Rocket to the Moon.”
Fei Fei will take it because her relatives don’t believe that Chang’e exists. So she’ll go up and get her. As she, her pet rabbit Bungee and the rocket soar, so does the song.
Imagine Fei Fei’s fury when she finds that she has a stowaway: Chin. His extra weight causes the rocket extra grief, but they do get to the moon, although they don’t land with finesse.
If Fei Fei was expecting a wounded and disconsolate Chang’e, she’s utterly surprised. Chang’e has reinvented herself as The Moon Goddess of the land that she’s dubbed Lunaria. In “Ultraluminary,” she sings with confidence, power and style.
Ah, but notice that in the song’s middle section, Chang’e does show that she’s been unable to lose the hurt of losing her love. Once she realizes that she’s displayed vulnerability, she returns to the original tempo and drive to unquestionably establish her as Lunaria’s leader.
As for Chin, he’s impressed with Chang’e’s power, but his competitive spirit makes him believe he can beat her at his game: ping-pong. And what better musical form for ping-pong than another hyphenate? Hence, hip-hop.
Although the song is called “Hey Boy,” as Chang’e condescendingly expects to beat the boy, her unexpected loss could have her say “What the hey!”
(Did the songwriters conceive the song as hip-hop before or after Phillipa Soo was signed to portray Chang’e? Originating the role of the title character’s wife in HAMILTON certainly made her a hip-hop quantity.)
There’s a little of THE WIZARD OF OZ at work here. Think of Fei Fei as Dorothy and Toto as Bungee (although the bunny gets a genuine story of his own that’s quite moving).
Standing in for The Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion is Gobi. He’s a green gelatinous creature who chatters away so much that he may make you believe that the Moon has a Blarney Stone.
Just as The Wizard doesn’t welcome his visitors and demands a difficult object brought to him, Chang’e’s challenge is greater. The Wizard at least tells the foursome that he wants that broom; Chang’e demands a gift but isn’t any more specific than that; Fei Fei and Gobi must figure out what it is.
A different version of THE WIZARD OF OZ may come to mind when you encounter the song title “Wonderful.” Gobi sings it and accompanies himself on an instrument that harkens back to years ago: the ukulele. That may suggest an amiable pop tune, but there’s deep meaning to what Gobi has to impart: love for someone who dies is not necessarily obliterated by someone new coming into your life – someone who’s worthy of love as well.
When Houyi does arrive, Chang’e sings to him that she’s “Yours Forever.” This leads her to tell Fei Fei to “Love Someone New,” which the girl will do once she arrives home.
The animation is nicely realistic and the production values are handsome. The voices are superb and, more importantly, they imbue the lyrics with strong emotion. In addition to Philippa Soo, there are two notables from the last revival of THE KING AND I: Conrad Ricamora, who was Lun Tha, is Houyi and Ruthie Ann Miles, a Tony-winner for her Lady Thiang, plays Ma Ma.
John Cho, best-known as Hikaru Sulu in the 2009 STAR TREK, is a sensitive Ba Ba. Fei Fei is Cathy Ang, one of KPOP’s stars who’s expected to be in the Broadway production.
Glen Keane, who shared an Oscar in 2018 with Kobe Bryant for their short subject on basketball, was the supervising animator for such characters as Ariel, Aladdin and Beast. Now that he’s finally had the chance to hold the reins of a feature-length film, he’s grabbed the opportunity and succeeded mightily.
If OVER THE MOON didn’t have a note of music or a single lyric in it, it would still be a marvelous and – more to the point – valuable film. It can ease the pain of a young child who loses a parent through death as well as show that life can go on, a new happiness can be achieved and such feelings don’t take away the love you have for the deceased.
Thus, “Cherish life and everything you love” doesn’t just become a forgotten mooncake fortune.
In the meantime, cherish the best Broadway musical score of 2020.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.