I’m still reeling from my disappointment with Lost in the Stars at Encores (City Center). This is a very bad musical, but I’m not here to trounce a well-meaning show from 1949. An examination of why the piece is so relentlessly boring may save us from further snoozefests.
(My hat is off to critic Charles Isherwood of The New York Times for writing “While some evenings at this series of Broadway musicals in concert bring the intoxicating delights of a bottle of vintage wine, and others savor sweetly of old-fashioned candy, magically fresh, at Lost in the Stars you often feel as if you were consuming a jumbo can of spinach.”)
Lost in the Stars is known (if it’s known at all) as the musical that addressed South African apartheid, and it’s remarkable that no other Broadway show even mentioned the subject until decades later. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m unhappy to report that it doesn’t address apartheid at all: it pays lip service to it. There are some references to the economic conditions of native Africans, and much talk about forging friendship between the races, but the plot doesn’t dramatize anything to do with prejudice. It’s a tragic tale, but none of the sad events relate to the conditions of being an oppressed ethnic group in a white-controlled society. The white people – and all are connected to the ruling power in the country – are portrayed as respectful to the blacks. True, one character says a few things about how the races shouldn’t mix – it’s exactly what you’d expect a white senior citizen to say – but, observing the way the main black characters act, comes to change his mind.
So here’s a problem: nobody is Evil; everyone is Good. Perhaps I’ve overstated. There are two young men who convince a young man to join them committing a robbery. They’re Evil, all right, but they’re presented as young and foolish. I’m reminded of the character of Jigger in Carousel. He, too, convinces someone to commit a robbery with him, with fatal consequences. It’s interesting to note that Dorothy Hammerstein, wife of Carousel‘s author, suggested to composer Kurt Weill and librettist Maxwell Anderson that they adapt Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. Trouble is, Oscar Hammerstein knew how to depict moral issues on stage, and Anderson’s Lost in the Stars doesn’t.
The central character is a Christian clergyman. Let’s immediately throw a red flag. There’s a great danger, dramatically, if your protagonist is 100% good. Portray a man who’s free of flaws and you’ve fallen into a trap. Saints are admired in real life, but on stage, they’re hard to love. Think of Harold Hill, Henry Higgins, Tevye, or Momma Rose Hovic. We understand, watching them, that they won’t automatically Do the Right Thing. A kind, gentle and benevolent pastor? Right away I’m starting to yawn. What’s he going to do that will surprise me, startle me into attentiveness? How am I going to care what happens to him? He’s not like me (a human with flaws); he’s a saint.
This may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to Maxwell Anderson, one of the 20th century’s most successful playwrights: make sure your protagonist does something. He must take actions that affect other people, effect change, and have consequences – that is, cause other things to happen. In the first act of Lost in the Stars, the hero, Stephen takes no actions at all. A series of (sad) events unfolds, in front of his eyes. Eventually, they test his faith, but Lost in the Stars fails to make him compelling because he’s just a naive traveler who is moved by events, rather than one who does things to move events himself. He’s the leaf, not the wind.
Late in the second act, Stephen has a crisis of faith. This causes him to take an action, at long last: he resigns as preacher in a small church in a rural town. This, naturally, has an effect on his parishioners. I suppose one could feel sad for them, but, unfortunately, we haven’t met them before. Later, it turns out that the crusty old bigot witnessed his resignation speech, and was moved to abandon his racism. Good for him, I say, but it’s still not much of a story.
Racial prejudice, as a subject, has a pitfall: We Know It’s Wrong. It’s the obvious knee-jerk reaction. So, bigotry, presented in a musical, can just lie there like a lox. (Sorry if any lox are reading this; I mean no offense.) Lazy writers depict racists and expect us to be horrified. But, to me, an audience reaction must be earned. I’ve an example in mind:
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song addressing prejudice, Carefully Taught, was in their musical that opened the same year as Lost in the Stars, South Pacific. In the context of that story, Lieut. Cable’s self-loathing over his own cowardice (a fear of his Philadelphia family’s prejudice) drives him to accept a suicide mission. He’s trying to explain American racism to Emile, who is a victim of it. Soon they’re both on that suicide mission together, bravely fighting for America. For my money, that’s a very moving scene, fully earned, honest and surprising.
I’ve long enjoyed the original cast album of Lost in the Stars, and would say that Anderson and Weill succeeded in writing songs that are a delight for the ear. I guess a lot of us treasure the scores of shows we’ve never seen. But now that I’ve seen Lost in the Stars, I feel like I’ve lost a friend, as my old admiration for these songs came crashing down when I experienced them as part of a crushing bore.