Album Review: 50 Shades! The Musical: Original Cast Recording

I’ve recounted the story before of how I came to actually enjoy a musical. To recap quickly, I love rock music; show tunes, not so much. And having read the first 30-40 pages of 50 Shades of Grey, I found it to be the most amateurishly written piece of junk I’d ever read (and I was an editor of a music mag with college students on staff, so trust me). But when 50 Shades! The Musical came around, I had to go see it, as the subject was simply ripe for parody.

And they nailed it. The evening spent at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville TN was a side-splitting way to spend a few hours. Laughs aplenty; the writers crafted a show with just the right tone: making fun of the book, but acknowledging its place – however tenuous – in popular culture. The sold-out audience couldn’t stop laughing.

And therein lay a small problem. The lyrics of the songs were filled to the brim with jokes and double entendres. So clever were these sung parts that the audience often found ourselves in a laugh uproar that prevented us from hearing what came next. By the end of the show, yes, we had laughed and laughed, but we had missed half of the material.

Seeing the show again wasn’t a practical option; the players quickly moved on to other cities. So when I discovered that 50 Shades! The Musical: Original Cast Recording would be released, I was keen to give it a spin.

It delivered more than I could have ever hoped. Just as I suspected, quite a lot of great material was drowned out by our peals of laughter.. But now with this twelve-track disc, audiences can catch what they missed. Definitely not safe for work, this album presents all of the musical numbers from the stage production. But one needn’t have seen the show (nor read the book, thank goodness) to enjoy it. All one needs is a good sound system, and a filthy (or at least open) mind.

I’ve decided that writing songs for a musical is a tricky business: there seems to be a definite stylistic format that must be followed. Unlike rock’n’roll, the vocal lines must be way out front, and the singers must enunciate clearly (no Bob Dylan-style vocalists need apply, thank you). And the song’s dynamics must be shoehorned into that style, too. The five-person team who wrote the songs clearly knows what they’re doing. On tunes like the soaring ballad “”There’s a Hole Inside of Me,” the female “Anastasia” lead (Amber Petty) delivers the ridiculous lyrics in a faux-sincere manner that strikes just the right tone. She emotes the lyrics that play with the listeners’ preconceptions. For example, when she sings, “How I’ve been waiting here on the block / I’ve had so much time to just take stock / He’ll have the key to open up my lock / And show me his huge throbbing…” Well, you can guess what comes next. Right? Wrong: it’s “confidence.” Elsewhere rhyming couplets include moister/oyster and other pearls.

“Could This Be the One” is a duet between Petty and improbable male lead Chris Grace. It moves the story (such as it is) along in hilarious fashion, and features one of the soundtrack’s few instrumental interludes. The tango-flavored “Mi Amor” makes less sense if one doesn’t know the story, but Nick Semar‘s fake-Latino accent is not to be missed, and once again the lyrics are a scream.

The entire ensemble is on hand for “Follow Him.” Not a Godspell number, it nonetheless has a gospel-ish flavor in arrangement (if decidedly not in lyrical subject matter). Grace’s spotlight number, “I Don’t Make Love” is at once the best and (for some of tender sensibilities) most delightfully offensive number on the soundtrack. The song sports an ersatz funky vibe, kind of a Below Average White Band feel, but that approach is clearly intentional.

“Red Room” is a melodramatic number that moves through several different musical styles; on one hand it’s the most traditionally “musical theatre” number, but lyrics about hot wax, bondage and “titty twisting” make it, well, a little outside. But funny; very, very funny. When the chorus double-times the litany of devices and practices, it’s just plain nutty.

“Any Other Couple” is another duet, one in which the two leads insist that they’re mundane and normal. Don’t believe it. As Grace sings, “We’re just like any other couple / Like anyone you’ve ever met / We get take-out at McDonald’s / And go home in my private jet.”

The title track is a showcase for the ladies’ reading club, as is the opener “Open Your Book.” The tune pokes fun at the demographic who actually read EL James‘ dreadful softcore softcover. The whole gang joins in for the obligatory big number and big finish, “How Much Can I Take” and a reprise of “There’s a Hole Inside of Me.”

Even if musical comedy isn’t your thing, check out 50 Shades! The Musical: Original Cast Recording. Or give it to someone you love. It’s a better, classier gift than feather handcuffs.

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