'American Idol' Tracker: Titans of song battle Andrew Lloyd Webber
In taking on the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, "American Idol" came face to face with its spiritual creator, the man who elevated vocal performance to the level of spectacle. History has been filled with singing competitions, but until Lord Webber transformed the stage, the idea of singing as single combat -- a combat to master one’s soul and to enslave an audience -- would have been impossible.
But while "American Idol" may have been shaped in the passed-down image of the master, the show has needed time to work its way back to its creator, teaching its contestants to crawl before they can fly with pop tunes and songbook standards.
It is fitting then that now, seven years in, the strongest cast in "Idol" history should be chosen to fight this battle, gazing upon the unalloyed "Idol" text, opening the Arc of the Covenant and seeing whose heart is pure enough to stare into the face of creation.
And for this season, "Andrew Lloyd Webber night" will clearly mark the year’s definitional battle, the night which showed at last who is destined for "Idol" immortality (and the final three) and who has officially written a check their skills can’t pay. Some who faltered tonight will survive to fight on, but having glimpsed the eternal and fallen short, they will never walk with the pride of the innocent again.
As Lord Webber made clear, the challenge of tonight was not just to belt out “money notes,” but to connect with a song, with the character behind it and use it to tell a story. Raw vocal talent has gotten them all this far, to the dizzying heights of Idoldom, but to make these last steps will call for something much more scarier -- emotional depth.
It was a night of pomp in the Idoldome, with the harp-equipped band set up on stage. Music director Rickie Minor walked the floor in formal wear and His Lordship Himself joined us in the audience. As the evening turned out, His Lordship proved to be the greatest of Idol mentors. His Lordship actually worked with and shaped the contestants, to the point of demanding different songs, rather than merely dispensing good wishes as some previous mentors have contented themselves to do.
However, with the crowd near a fever pitch as the season enters the final stretch, tension hung in the air. The night opened with a rousing performance from Syesha Mercado -- enjoyable, and keeps her certainly alive, but ultimately, still lacking the intensity to take her all the way.
Jason Castro and Brooke White both showed that they have risen to about where they belong. Both had strong appeal in their niches and have won legions of admirers, but when this last push was demanded, it was a bridge too far. Brooke in particular, seems to have the Idoldome on edge with concern for her, her fragility so nakedly on display. After being upbraided by Paula for having to restart her version of "You Must Love Me," one could have heard a false eyelash drop clear in the bleachers. Sadly, talented though she is, she gives the impression on coming undone in these recent weeks.
While challenges serve to bring some to their knees, they serve to bring out greatness in others. For the front-runners -- the two Davids -- they once again managed to inhabit their songs to a supernatural degree. But to the crowd, the night was a clear, unadulterated victory for this column’s candidate Carly Smithson, the most electrifying performer in "American Idol" history. Tonight at last, with "Jesus Christ Superstar," everything fell into place for Carly, and it is fitting that Idol’s spiritual godfather should have warned her off a major false step and guided her to her greatest success.
However, it must be said at this point that Carly cannot seem to get a break with the judges. Randy and Simon seem to be on a mission to deny her the just praise she deserves. Even on this night, while praising the brilliance of her work, their plaudits remained tempered, Randy claiming it wasn’t her best, and Simon delivering the very strange backhanded compliment that it was one of his favorites of the night (there had been all of four at this point).
While I will not demand an investigation yet, and while I support the constitutional right of judges to their opinions, I demand some sort of system of instant replays, or bonus voting be instituted to recompense Carly for an undue damage done to her prospects. But as ever, this column has complete faith in the wisdom of the electorate to make this right.
What is happening now to the contestants is that those who survive are completing the process of icon building. It is a source of fascination that in this era when fame is our ultimate commodity, the "Idol" stars draw more attention and fascination than any A-list screen actor. I recently heard of a story of one of this season’s survivors visiting a local Westside mall -- a showbiz-friendly locale where Brad and Angelina could go underwear shopping attracting barely a raised eyebrow -- and that the "Idol" was mobbed and gawked at by seemingly the entire place.
In a recent New Yorker essay on the changing nature of stardom, David Denby discusses how stars of yore, before we knew every intimate detail of the every actor’s life, became vessels for the roles they inhabited. He wrote: “At some point, however, an actor's looks and temperament would merge with a role that brought out, perhaps, an underlay of humor or menace, and the public would take notice, get excited, and the actor would become a star. The actor then imposed a unifying temperament on his characters; he became the characters, they became him, and any given performance offered a palimpsest of his past performances. Everything he had done since he assumed his ‘type’ trailed him like a ghost.”
In an era when we can recite more about our performers’ drunken debauchery then about what roles they have played, "American Idol" is the only star-making machine we have. It is the one place where those contestants, at least those savvy enough to feel their way through it, can -- on a stage that is at once public and yet controlled (not unlike the old studios) -- piece by piece, song by song, create personas for themselves as compelling to us today as the types inhabited by Bogart or Cary Grant in their time.
Through rigorous song choices, performances on stage and in the filmed glimpses they offer into their families and homes, these singers can create characters that become bigger than their mortal shells. And each time they sing a number that touches the audience, that impact serves to make the persona grow and grow.
In confronting Lord Webber, the final six had their greatest opportunity yet to draw a richer, deeper shaper to their persona, and for those who rose to their challenge, they are on the cusp of a place where their stars are about to soar into the heavens to sit among the immortals evermore.
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(photo courtesy of Fox)