WITNESS WITNESS UGANDA By Peter Filichia
Wouldn’t you say that African music ranks among the most exciting?
The chants, the rhythms, the drums, the energy, the emphasis on melody: all those elements make many of us who are interested in musical theater wish that there were more cast albums in this genre.
So here’s WITNESS UGANDA, a recording that will thrill those of us who have enjoyed the Soweto-centered musicals GUMBOOTS and SARAFINA!
On those, some selections were in the Zulu language. WITNESS UGANDA must be the only cast album that includes some words in Kinyarwanda – the language that’s prevalent in Southern Uganda.
The musical’s pop-rock and gospel-infused score was judged by David Cote in Time Out as “bold, fresh and catchy.” Jeremy Gerard in Deadline noted that it’s “a score that features several roof-raisers.”
We thought that the thirty-month wait for GRAND HOTEL’s cast album was long. WITNESS UGANDA played off-Broadway in 2015 and is only now seeing its recording released – and under a new title yet.
For when it played its limited engagement at Second Stage six years ago, it was INVISIBLE THREAD, in honor of an Act Two song about the often-unnoticed connections between people.
Actually, WITNESS UGANDA was the first title that Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews gave their book, music and lyrics; that’s what people came to see at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2014. But just as a certain 1970 Broadway musical started out as CRY FOR US ALL in New Haven, changed to WHO TO LOVE for Boston – and returned to CRY FOR US ALL for Broadway – INVISIBLE THREAD has once again become WITNESS UGANDA.
Matt Gould and Griffin Matthews also appear on the recording, albeit in very different ways. The former is the musical director and pianist while the latter is the leading man who plays a young African-American character called Griffin Matthews. In other words, he’s pretty much playing himself.
Trouble arrives for Griffin early on. His friend (if you can call him that) “Will told the pastor I was dating Ethan. I don’t know why he shared my secret.”
The reason that Griffin wanted to keep his sexuality under wraps may be because “I came out to my mom and dad,” he sings. “They tried to deny it, tried to fight it, told me I should try and hide my secret, for the world can be so cruel.”
This is not unlike Mrs. Greene’s take in THE PROM. When she’s confronted with her daughter’s lesbianism, she doesn’t only disapprove for the standard reasons; she genuinely worries that this will mean a tougher life for her Alyssa.
Griffin doesn’t stop praying just because his pastor is disgusted with him. “Heavenly Father, please hear my cries,” he sings. “What’s my place on this planet and how do I fit in it?”
Although Griffin was living in New York, he wasn’t anywhere near Avenue Q. Still, like its residents, he too had concerns about his purpose.
Instead of going to Fire Island, Griffin then went into the fire from the proverbial frying pan by moving to Uganda. There homosexuality isn’t just frowned upon, but is considered a crime worthy of death.
Finding a new beau isn’t his first order of business. Griffin wants to see that local teens who’d been denied an education would get one. He soon meets Joy, a church caretaker who makes one think “What’s in a name?” Griffin has thrown himself into a firestorm, but he doesn’t welcome this wet blanket who throws cold water on his goal.
(On this recording, Cynthia Erivo plays Joy. We’re glad that she found time to fit this in between delivering her Tony-winning performance in THE COLOR PURPLE and her preparing to play Elphaba in the upcoming film version of WICKED.)
Griffin soon meets a number of street kids: Eden, Ronny, Ibrahim and Grace. They explain that their parents have died of AIDS and that they wish they had the life that Griffin must have in America.
Eden asks if New York is beautiful. Griffin answers “If you like small overpriced apartments in Queens with no control over your heat then, yes, it is really beautiful.”
That gets Eden to guilelessly ask “You have queens there?”
A gay man could come out with a wisecrack here, and Griffin does – but perhaps not one you might assume. Instead he opts for “Everybody says that it’s a wonderful town. I say New York is wonderful at breaking you down.”
(Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green would disagree, given that they called their 1953 Tony-winning musical WONDERFUL TOWN and had its main characters reach that conclusion.)
And yet he’s humbled and stops quipping when Grace says “You should see where we live.”
Griffin’s best friend is Ryan – a young woman, even if her name suggests otherwise. (Indeed, she’s had a gender change since INVISIBLE THREAD, where a male performer played the role.)
In their emails, both Griffin and Ryan reminisce about their high school musical. Their drama director told Griffin that he didn’t look like a leading man – meaning that he was black. In those days, non-traditional, color-blind casting wasn’t even considered by many secondary school teachers.
Ryan’s body prevented her from getting any nice roles, too. Here the objection wasn’t to her color – she’s white – but their teacher considered her too heavy to play leads. WITNESS UGANDA shows us that school musicals have come a long way in recent years. These days, students needn’t remind most teachers, as Ryan sings, “about what’s inside.”
This is why Griffin is going to do a better job at being a teacher. He tells the teens that success won’t be easy and that they must “Put It on the Line.” That way, no matter what the odds, they’ll at least have a fighting chance at success. He won’t stomp on Grace’s dream to become a model any more than he will on Ronny’s goal to become a doctor. Only later will Griffin express his doubts to Ryan, in admitting that giving students encouragement can only go so far. But what’s the alternative to trying?
We’ll see how far that is. One would think that Pastor Jim, religious man that he is, would be helpful. No, little by little, we learn that he’s utterly corrupt. He’s such a bad guy that Gould and Matthews decided that they wouldn’t even put him on stage. We’re left to our imaginations to imagine what a terrible guy he is, a situation similar to those horror movies that never show us the menacing force that’s out to destroy everyone.
What isn’t left to our imagination is the joyous and exuberant score. The bonus is Griffin Matthews. As many fans of Broadway music know, there’s something extra-exciting about hearing a composer-lyricist perform his own work. You get a hint of it in the 1987 ANYTHING GOES with Cole Porter, as well as full selections from SUPERMAN by Charles Strouse and BELLS ARE RINGING by Jule Styne. Add Griffin Matthews to the list.
Peter Filichia is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly, a columnist at www.broadwayselect.com and a commentator on www.broadwayradio.com.