Originally published on CastAlbums.org.
When Side Show hit Broadway in 1998, I became fascinated with the career of lyricist Bill Russell. I had never heard of him before, but I discovered he somehow went from penning tiny, queer off-Broadway musicals like Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens (music by Janet Hood) and Pageant (music by Albert Evans, lyrics written with Frank Kelly) to working with the composer of Dreamgirls. I wanted to know more, but at the time Elegies was only available as an import and Pageant had never been legally recorded. (An unauthorized album had been made in Australia, but I’ve never seen or heard it.)
Since then, Elegies was made available in the U.S. (and a second, American recording was produced in 2001), and although Pageant popped up at regional theaters all the time, a recording remained elusive. That has finally changed, thanks to an off-Broadway revival and John Yap of Jay Records.
In many ways, this is the best possible cast recording a show like Pageant could receive. A drag revue featuring six beauty queens representing different regions of the country (e.g., Miss Bible Belt, Miss Industrial Northeast) competing for the title of Miss Glamouresse, the musical is slight enough that the album includes quite a bit of the script just to reach an album-length running time. The show is very much a product of its time — 1991 to be specific — when a different understanding of gender and racial politics meant smirking double entendres about women-played-by-men possessing “Something Extra” and humor that relied on ethnic stereotypes was not only given a pass, but given a hand.
That’s not to say there aren’t charms to be found within. The songs are catchy, and if the humor has dulled with time, this winning cast (anchored by the perfectly cast John Bolton as master of ceremonies Frankie Cavalier) certainly sells the material for all it’s worth. Each of the contestants has her moment to shine, but Curtis Wiley wins the cast album competition hands-down with “Banking on Jesus.” Although backed only by a two-piece band (Micah Young on keys, Shannon Ford on drums), the music never sounds understaffed. The sounds of an appreciative audience — thoughtfully limited to where it’s truly welcome — further enrich the listening experience.
The material, it should be noted, has been lightly updated since 1991, and the bonus track of “It’s Gotta Be Venus” from the original production will make every listener grateful for advances in synthesizer technology in the intervening two decades.