What would Gloria Steinem say?

There are few shows that ever actually inspired me to try to write a show on a similar theme, but Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford’s I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road set my mind racing when I was young and impressionable.  A musical concerned with raising consciousness, as the feminists termed it: I loved that the show racked up such a long run.  Perhaps it changed minds while it entertained.

And that seemed intriguing to me.  Quite possibly it had a similar effect on Comden and Green, who filled their Doll’s House sequel, A Doll’s Life, with the exact jargon one might find in Ms. Magazine. In the mouth of Nora Helmer, these terms seemed ludicrous.  Plus, director Harold Prince returned to the device he’d used in Sweeney Todd, of bringing on a chorus to comment upon the action.  They go one step further and sing to Nora like they’re her conscious, again with that oh-so-70s language.  A Swedey Todd destined for obscurity.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road hasn’t been seen much in the past 30 years.  Producers (of revivals – the worst kind), must consider it too “of its time.”  But this is why it’s wonderful that the Encores! series gives us a chance to take another look.  Seeing it today forces us to consider the course feminism has taken.  Do men, like the buffoonish manager the show portrays, still not get it?  Is Feminism a term or concept younger women no longer embrace?  Did it become passé?  Whatever happened to Ms. Magazine? (Or magazines in general?) Once I suspected that my effort to mine musical entertainment out of the topic, The Company of Women, is the only show I’ve written that never got a full production because people didn’t want to hear about it any more.  Then, Sex and the City premiered, stealing my thunder.  (I invite the curious to do a side-by-side comparison and see if my show isn’t far funnier.)

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road is, ultimately, a musical more interesting for what it has to say than its execution. Song after song appears, each one perfectly pleasant and competent. But it’s a little like a collage, the pieces hung on the spine of an argument that has too few surprising turns in it to be truly interesting. The songs are too similar to each other, especially in what they have to say. They tend not to amplify or intensify the emotions in the script. As a result, a short evening grows wearying.

Do you detect a tinge of condescension in my calling the songs “perfectly pleasant and competent?”  Sorry, but rock music is supposed to have some edge to it, a sense of danger, and more than a little sexiness. The creation of female songwriters, I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road has a score that fits into the unfortunate cliché of femme-created (womanufactured?) rock.  The songs are softer than most male-written rock from the period.  When there are jokes, the produce smiles not laughs.  A very dramatic off-stage action is played for humor’s sake.  It’s a nice show, and I hope you know The Price of Nice.

But the key trouble with I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road is that it never gets dramatic enough to motivate a non-diegetic song.  It feels more like a play with a large number of songs performed by the performers who are characters in the play.  The band’s manager has the same reaction to so many of them, we can predict his every action.  Then, something very strange happens.  The main character, after lambasting him for the show’s entire length, sings an incredibly tender ballad about how much she appreciates his friendship.  And we go “His friendship?  But he’s an asshole.”  This is an example of a show tune that is absolutely wonderful when you’re hearing it divorced from its context.  In the show, it’s puzzling and a tad uncomfortable.

Speaking of which, this show concludes the Encores! summer season devoted to off-Broadway musicals.  It was curated by my old friend Jeanine Tesori, who, one suspects, feels a kinship with Cryer and Ford.  Tesori, I think, is the first female composer to have two shows playing on Broadway at the same time.  She also presented a one-night-only reading of her masterpiece, Violet, one of the best recent-vintage shows I can think of.  So, it’s great that people got the chance to see these three shows (the first was The Cradle Will Rock) but I’ll go ahead and state the obvious: Musicals designed for tiny theatres simply don’t look comfortable in City Center, an auditorium with more seats than any Broadway house.  I was very taken with Derek McLane’s set, but you can’t simulate intimacy in a Masonic temple.

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