“Stages” by Josh Groban

A year or so before he would make his Broadway debut in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Josh Groban released this album, which consists entirely of covers of Musical Theater songs. I have to assume that he must have already been aware of what his future held, and that this album was meant to serve as a kind of dry run for his attempt to conquer Broadway.

Groban had had a very respectable career up to this point, his music falling somewhere between the ‘Crossover Classical’ acts like Andrea Bocelli and the higher grades of the Easy Listening genre. However, his album immediately prior to this one, 2013’s All That Echoes, had been poorly received due to a higher proportion of underwhelming original compositions and an awkward attempt at a more Pop-friendly sound than his earlier work. That said, it also contained a cover of the song “Falling Slowly” from the then-recent hit Broadway musical Once, which was widely considered the album’s highlight and which marked the first sign of Groban’s growing interest in Musical Theater.

This album, on the other hand, seems to be a reaction to the negative reception that All That Echoes received. The tracklist, obviously, is entirely composed of covers, and the arrangements represent a return to the florid, orchestra-heavy sounds of Groban’s earlier albums, which is much better suited to his voice and singing style. The album opens with a rendition of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He uses the same additional second verse that Michael Feinstein used on his album of the same name, and if Groban’s version lacks the subtlety and nuance of Gene Wilder’s original, it is nonetheless eloquently delivered and beautifully sung.

The same can be said for most of the album, in fact. Groban goes mostly for fairly obvious choices, but given that his last album had been poorly received for deviating too much from his usual sound, choosing songs that play to his strengths seems like a sound strategy here. He does stretch himself a bit with his rendition of the jazzy Finian’s Rainbow standard “Old Devil Moon”, and does an impressive job of capturing the sensuality the song requires. And his version of “Dulcinea” from Man of La Mancha, here sped up into a kind of giddy waltz, is a bit unusual, but he manages to make it work.

His renditions of “Bring Him Home” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miserables are particularly impressive…indeed, these might the best versions ever recorded by anyone but Colm Wilkinson and Michael Ball themselves. “If I Loved You” from Carousel is another highlight, although that’s to be expected when your duet partner is the legendary Audra McDonald. And his version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is note-perfect…he actually sounds like he’s singing it to keep his spirits up while plowing through a storm.

Inevitably, there are a few less successful tracks. His version of “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park With George is beautifully sung, but he delivers the lyric as though he has no idea what it actually means. And while I dearly love Kelly Clarkson, she was just not meant to sing the part of Christine in Phantom of the Opera, and her unsuitable vocal style lets down her half of “All I Ask of You” on this album. And of course, as always, “What I Did For Love” from A Chorus Line loses most of its actual content when taken out of context, but that’s not really Groban’s fault, and he does sing it nicely.

There are also two song from foreign musicals not much known in the United States included here. “Le Temps Des Cathedrales”, from the French musical Notre Dame de Paris, based on the Victor Hugo novel commonly known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, sounds worthy to compete with the music from the Alan Menken musical drawn from the same source. And “Gold Can Turn To Sand”, from a Swedish musical by the songwriters from ABBA, is a heartbreaking narrative of grief with a ravishing melody. Both renditions make you want to seek out these works and hear the rest of their scores, which is presumably just what Groban intended. And speaking of the ABBA songwriters, Groban’s earth-shattering rendition of “Anthem” from their musical Chess makes for an appropriately epic way to close out this album.

We don’t get a lot of ‘Traditional Pop’ albums on this level of quality these days (maybe one a year, if that), so it’s best to appreciate them when they come along. Interpretational singing seems like a lost art in these singer-songwriter-dominated days, so an album like this is a rare treasure. Some have quibbled with the unadventurous song choices, but I think it says something positive about Groban that he knows what his real strengths are and is not too proud to play to them. And certainly the singing on this album, even on the few weaker selections, is nearly always gorgeous, and many of the interpretations are genuinely interesting and distinctive takes on these familiar songs. If you love Show Tunes, this album is well worth acquiring, and even if you’re relatively new to the Broadway scene, this could easily serve as a very useful and accessible introduction to some of Broadway’s greatest songs.

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