If the judges refer to a performance on “American Idol” as sounding “Broadway,” that’s considered an insult. Broadway represents an entirely different genre from pop music, and the show’s designed to find pop music stars in the making.
But someone on the “Idol” staff decided to give Andrew Lloyd Webber a call, and thus this week the six remaining finalists had to channel their inner musical theater star. Broadway tunes are not commonly heard on the radio, so Ryan Seacrest understated the case when he opened the show by saying, “tonight it’s time to up the ante, and the top six are going out of their comfort zones.”
“I think somehow they’ve got to make themselves sound memorable, but also contemporary,” Simon Cowell said. That didn’t quite happen, but there was a different name among the top performers this week — in addition to the two Davids.
David Archuleta did the unexpected by picking “Think of Me,” a song from “Phantom of the Opera” traditionally sung by the female lead.
“There’s two bits of advice I have for you. The first is, open your eyes. The second is, open your eyes,” Lloyd Webber said, speaking for millions of “Idol” fans. Archuleta tried his best, and at least managed to squint a little more.
Vocally, however, he pulled off the challenge. The arrangement was different enough and more up-tempo that it didn’t sound silly, and Archuleta made it work.
“I think that was absolutely perfect. You took a risk and it worked,” Paula Abdul said.
Simon’s reaction was more tepid, as he called it “pleasant, one of your weakest performances over the past four or five shows, but it’s absolutely going to get you through to next week.”
The British judge had similar words for David Cook, who dueled with Archuleta on “Phantom” songs by choosing to perform “Music of the Night.” Cook was counseled by Lloyd Webber to sing the song as though it was to the prettiest woman in the world.
“It was a little strange having to stare longingly into Lord Andrew’s eyes,” Cook said of his rehearsal. But once he got onstage, he apparently found a more appropriate muse, because he managed to sound good without turning it into a full-fledged rock song.
“You made the most of the song — this is not the side of you I like, but you made the most of the song,” Simon said.
But the other judges were thrilled with it. Randy called it “an amazing performance,” and Paula gushed that “this proved more and more that you are so well-rounded as a performer.” Under the circumstances, that’s the best of all possible worlds for Cook, who managed to sound good without sounding like his next stop was in Lloyd Webber’s next musical.
Unlike Archuleta and Cook, Syesha Mercado may be in trouble this week because she seems to be in danger of being voted off every Wednesday. Judged on its merits, however, her performance of “One Rock & Roll Too Many,” from “Starlight Express” was good enough that she deserves to stick around.
Picking a lesser known song helped her, because she could be judged on her vocals rather than being compared to those who have sung it before. It was a strong performance that showed off both her vocal range and her stage presence, though it didn’t help that she went onstage first.
“This may surprise you but I feel tonight not only is this your element, I feel like you could be a huge Broadway star,” Randy said.
“Syesha, that was very sexy. You showed masses of personality that we haven’t seen before,” Simon added.
If Carly Smithson survives another week, she owes Lloyd Webber a thank-you note. He talked her out of the dreary “All I Ask of You” from “Phantom” and into the far more rockable “Jesus Christ Superstar.” That type of decision-making is why he’s a Lord and Smithson is a woman trying to win a talent show.
She found a new fan in Simon, who she called out as being hypercritical of her performances during last week’s results show. This week, at least, he tempered his critique with praise. “Other than the fact that it got a little bit shout-y in the middle, it was actually one of my favorite performances of the night,” he said.
That caused Smithson to break out a T-shirt that said, “Simon Loves Me (this week)” when talking with Ryan afterward. She can only hope that the rest of the audience felt the love as well.
Two of the contestants had less luck with the genre.
Brooke White struggled with “You Must Love Me” from “Evita,” and had to do a re-start when she “lost the lyric.” The judges were divided on whether that was a good idea or not, with Paula warning in a schoolmarmish way that “you must never start and stop,” and Simon countering that he’d have done the same thing in White’s situation.
The judges were united, however, in saying that it wasn’t a very good performance. “At (the restart), you were so tense, your voice was straining as you tried to remember the song. It was kind of uncomfortable,” Simon said.
However, White was saved from having the worst effort of the night because of a bizarre song selection from Jason Castro. Castro went with “Memory” from “Cats,” a choice that surprised even the guest mentor. “I never thought I would see a man sing ‘Memory’ — with dreadlocks. It was a bit of a jolt,” Lloyd Webber said.
Imagine how the audience felt.
Whatever possessed Castro to pick this song, it wasn’t a good idea. The vocals were a mess, his timing was off, and the range was too much for him. The best thing about the performance was that after two minutes, it ended.
“Vocally for me, it was kind of a train wreck,” Randy said. Simon added that “it felt to me, and I’m sure to you, like the longest two minutes of your life.” If voters make their decision based on this performance alone, it may wind up being his last two minutes in the competition.