Since the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, and the Future Bible Heroes are all, more or less, frontispieces for Stephin Merritt’s singular, warped, and brilliant reading of American popular music, it’s both surprising and fitting that Merritt does not sing or play a single note on the moniker-less Showtunes, a compilation of 26 selections from three theatrical collaborations with theater director Chen Shi-Zheng. Two of the pieces, The Orphan of Zhao and Peach Blossom Fan, were adapted from traditional Chinese plays, while My Life as a Fairy Tale, the most recent production, is a non-narrative interpretation of the writings of Hans Christian Andersen.
The Magnetic Fields’ masterpiece, 69 Love Songs, was originally conceived of as a stage production, and most Merritt recordings hint at the theatrical and melodramatic, but something in Showtunes is definitely amiss. This album is one of the more bizarre releases from Nonesuch to date—and remember that Philip Glass and John Adams are on the label. Perhaps it’s the tracklist’s mangling of the storylines; the three plays are excerpted at random, so the songs about Danish fairy tales intermingle with songs based on legends from 14th and 17th century China. But that’s not really it: Despite an ensemble of pipas, jinghus, yangqins, and stroh violins, there are only a handful of melodies or arrangements that would be out of place in a Magnetic Fields song. And in spite of the subject matter, Showtunes is chock-full of the witty, quirky lyrics Merritt is famous for: “He keeps his braggadocio/Through years of fall and squalor/And toasts the maid who loved him so/The collar and the garter!”
So it must be the singers. Merritt’s lyrics have been reverently compared to the phrase-turning and giddiness of Oscar Wilde, but even The Importance of Being Earnest is awkward and dull if the players don’t get the jokes. So while the collaborative work with the 6ths showed Merritt’s success writing songs for hipster celebrities like Lou Barlow and Bob Mould, the cast members on Showtunes rarely seem at ease with couplets like, “We’ll show that nasty, vicious little fool/The stork is not the bird to ridicule.” To dub Showtunes as ridiculous and silly is to miss the point, but then why do I sometimes feel like I’m listening to the cast recording of outtakes from Waiting for Guffman?
That said, for every gutter ball, Merritt rolls a strike. The goofy “What A Fucking Lovely Day!” is rather inane, but the glee-club romp through “Ukelele Me!” (sample lyrics: “Ukulele me-kulele/How happy we could be-kulele!”) and “Fan Dance Cha-Cha” are as irresistible as a fistful of marshmallow Peeps. I suppose there is a class of people who hate marshmallow Peeps, and I suppose there are any number of listeners who would hate to hear quirky pop songs about the Little Mermaid and the Ming dynasty sung by performers from Lincoln Center—I’m just not one of them. But there can be too much of a good thing, and making your way through all 26 tracks of Showtunes will definitely leave you with a tummy ache.