Michael Bruce: Unwritten Songs

Some of the new musical theatre composers find a groove and stay in it. Take Scott Alan, for example. While he does compose the occasional lighter song (e.g., Seventeen, What Was His Name?) he specialises in the angsty torch song that makes for a good audition and/or cabaret number.

Try and categorise Michael Bruce, though, and you’ll have a harder job. As his debut album, Unwritten Songs, shows, he is as comfortable with the plaintive love ballad as he is with the raucous, crowd-pleasing, uptempo pastiche. Launched last night with a sold-out cabaret at the Delfont Room, this is an album which never sits still, refusing to rest in any genre.

Several of the tracks on Unwritten Songs come from Ed: The Musical (songs by Michael Bruce, book by Stuart Price), which won two Musical Theatre Matters Awards at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, including the nod for Most Promising New Musical. Look for an indication of which songs they are within the CD sleeve notes, though, and you won’t find any. Each song is treated as a standalone number, mixed with some of Michael’s other songs, either from other musicals (e.g., Someplace Beyond the Moon), cut from other projects, or written as standalone pieces. The overall result is a disc that’s chock full of variety.

You could categorise Unwritten Songs’ tracks into “musical” and “cabaret” numbers if you wished. There are certainly a preponderance of comedy songs, from Emily Tierney’s “Continental”, which mixes operatic trills with a Cole Porter-ish eye for comedy with bite, to I Want a Man (a duet sung by Sarah Lark and Sarah Earnshaw on the album, with Earnshaw’s role being taken by Zoe Rainey at Sunday’s cabaret), a shopping list of requirements for an ideal partner that will spark recognition from any person who is, or who has ever been, single.

Perhaps the least successful of the comedy numbers is “The Musical Theatre Song”, sung by Anna Jane Casey, but only because its freneticism and melody owe far too much to Stephen Sondheim to be really indicative of Michael’s skill.

In contrast, there is a comedy song which Julie Atherton sang at Michael’s 2009 gala concert at the Apollo theatre and has revived several times since. Known until now to those who have heard it as In a Disney Way, Portrait of a Princess shows the darkness behind the incessant perkiness that characterises the Hollywood idea of the fairytale princess.

The song is the crowning glory of the album, and it’s no surprise that it’s effectively being treated as the “single release”, with its own video which, even within 24 hours, shows signs of becoming a viral hit on the internet:

The sheer silliness of Portrait of a Princess does threaten to overshadow the rest of the album, though. And that would be a shame, as away from the comedy numbers, there is a sensitivity and truth in the more conventional songs that deserves closer attention. Jessie Buckley gives a haunting rendition of It’s Not Gonna Rain, while Michael Xavier closes the album with the delicate, poignant Unwritten Song.

Whether your musical theatre taste veers to the serious, the romantic, the comic or the downright hilarious, Unwritten Songs offers something to satisfy you. One of its biggest downsides is that we’re surely now going to have to wait quite a while for Micahel Bruce’s second album…

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.