There’s an expression, “even Homer nods” and I can recall being very puzzled as I learned its meaning. Homer the Greek bard? What does it mean to nod? Finally I gleaned that it’s something said when normally great people, especially the richly talented, do not-so-great things.
Now at Encores! you can see the worst of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, Pipe Dream, in a clear and cogent Marc Bruni-helmed production starring Will Chase and Leslie Uggams. And while there are some very nice songs and a couple of surpassingly romantic scenes, you scratch your head a lot, going “What the hell were they thinking?”
This is a musical with almost no plot. There’s a man and a woman,
and the friendly town madam decides, by looking at their astrological signs, that they’re perfect for each other. This is one of those shows where everybody in the town is sincerely devoted to getting this couple together. There is no villain, although there’s briefly a rival. The shred of a subplot involves an elaborate plan to raise money, but here’s the thing in this show: Outside of a lonely policeman, nobody in the show draws a salary. The female chorus are whores, and the male chorus are, literally, a bunch of bums. They choose to have no jobs, feel unemployment is some sort of a virtue. So, to see them involved in selling raffle-tickets is to see them go against their nature.
There are glaring inconsistencies in the main couple. Doc, fairly early on, says he’s utterly changed by Suzy. “I’ve got ambition now.” Really? The only pursuit we see him involved in is trying to write a scientific paper. He wants to do this because it’s been suggested he can’t. And that suggestion is right: he fails. But trying to prove you can write something to someone who doubts you is not what is traditionally thought of as ambition.
Recently a friend showed me a script, thinking I might want to turn it into a musical. The more I read, the more it felt like this property could never be a musical, partly due to the fact that the protagonist didn’t have any particular passion. If your characters lack a burning desire to do something, it’s hard to pull for them. And this is true of every single personage in Pipe Dream.
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote nine Broadway musicals, and in the seven that are excellent, passionate people try to do extraordinary things. A widow from Wales travels across the world and demands the respect of an Eastern potentate. A nun-in-training tries to bring a touch of humanity to a family that’s being run like a naval vessel. A flawed husband, who died while committing a crime, tries to get into heaven. That’s big stuff. Doc and Suzy might want to go on a date; or might not.
A pianist I know told me he loves Pipe Dream, especially the sentiment expressed in the first song:
It takes all kinds of people to make up a world
All kinds of people and things…
And brother, I’ll tell you my hunch
Whether you like them, or whether you don’t
You’re stuck with the whole damn bunch!
We’re being set up for something, in that opening, that the show doesn’t follow through on: diverse characters. A theme that runs through most of Rodgers and Hammerstein work is a clash or conflict between different kinds of people. We see the schoolmistress and the king reach a rapprochement. The fresh-off-the-boat Chinese are accepted by assimilated denizens of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The song, All Kinds Of People, can be said to sum up Rodgers and Hammerstein’s career, but it doesn’t belong at the top of Pipe Dream.
For comic relief, there’s a character who’s so stupid it literally pains him to think. He complains about it. This may be personal taste, but I can’t stand it when a show’s filled with jokes about how dumb someone is. Seems to me the lowest form of humor. And, ever-so-conveniently, this dope’s idiocy leads to a day-saving turn in the plot.
I’ve recently heard it argued that Me and Juliet, not Pipe Dream, is the worst of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows. But the former’s a loving valentine to the theatre, filled with effective songs. The Pipe Dream score contains some honest-to-God clunkers, such as A Lopsided Bus, Bum’s Opera and Fauna’s Song. As I often say, the title can be the most important part of a song, and these certainly come up short. Plus, the score contains some diegetic numbers that may be intentionally terrible. The Happiest House On the Block is introduced as the work of a poet friend of the madam’s. Will You Marry Me is supposed to be a pop song everyone knows. We’re a Gang of Witches is from a show-within-the-show about Snow White. You remember, don’t you? That gang of witches from Snow White? Supposed to be funny, somehow.
But the best songs in Pipe Dream demonstrate Rodgers and Hammerstein’s customary excellence. So many of their shows are set in far-off times or places. In contemporary California, there’s not a lot of harmonic color to glom onto. So, they wrote breezy if unexotic numbers like The Next Time It Happens, The Man I Used To Be, Everybody’s Got a Home But Me and, best of all, All At Once You Love Her. The couple’s finally on their date, in a comically fancy restaurant, and a roving guitarist sings the song in Spanish. Suzy says she doesn’t speak Mexican, which prompts Doc to translate. Naturally as that, all at once, they’re singing a fine love ballad to each other. Romantic, magical, and worth sitting through the clunkers to get to it.
Pipe Dream‘s at City Center through April 1.
(presented with scripts in hand, so Uggams won’t be doing this to R & H)