The opening fiddle strains on “If You Knew My Story” — the first song from Bright Star original cast recording, now available for download and on CD next week — sound like something from a Ken Burns documentary: melancholy and rural, with a bluegrassy aroma that conjures backwoods of Appalachia, where the musical is set during the first half of the 20th century.
“If You Knew My Story” is a rich and lovely way to kick off what, from the recording, sounds like a heartfelt chamber musical. Then comes the second song (“She’s Gone”), and the third (the title number) and the eighth (“Asheville”) and 15th, and you see how Bright Star progresses musically like an extended folk ballad.
It’s not surprising how many stringed instruments are plaintively plucked throughout; the score was co-written by Steve Martin, perhaps the premiere proponent of banjo-playing since Earl Scruggs died. But is this thematic consistency or repetitive sameness?
The jury is still out on that point. Most songs are solos or languid duets, some punctuated by background vocals that recall a church choir more than a Broadway chorus line. And the plot of the show, which jumps between two timelines, is perhaps too complicated to be captured solely through the music.
But what’s undeniable is how beautiful and evocative the score is, co-written with Martin by Dallas native Edie Brickell. There’s no bombast here; it sounds less of traditional Broadway musical than of a disc you might stream over the bluegrass channel on Pandora: Tightly orchestrated, cool and refreshing, like water from a mountain creek.
It’s probably just as well. Bright Star (like virtually every musical opening on Broadway in the last 12 months) had the misfortune to arrive just as Hamilton — the biggest monster to hit New York City since Hurricane Sandy — swept up all the oxygen in the theater universe such that nearly every other show has all but suffocated. But Bright Star and Waitress — another score by a composer (Sara Bareilles) better known for pop concept albums than musical theater, both nominated for the music and lyrics Tony Award that Hamilton will surely win next month— offer a distinctly quirky take on what the scope of musical theater is — and better yet, can be.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 20, 2016.