Treasure every moment

December 31, 2013

2013 was a rather extraordinary year for musical theatre. I’ve lived through plenty of lean years, so I know a fat one when I see one. Even if I haven’t seen everything I’m mentioning here, there’s something revivifying about activity, about shows getting raves, about a seemingly-widening cadre of people talking about the world of musical comedy.

When you’re enduring an awful year (1994, for instance), you long for a season in which there will be a certain number of new works by writers you respect, and if a new creator should pop up out of the blue, with an intriguing voice, that’s good, too. When musicals seem to be an ever-diminishing pinpoint blip on the cultural landscape, you might even pine for the added exposure only television can bring. If you follow composers who’ve impressed you in the past, and it seems like many years since their last outing, it can feel like your ship has come in.

April brought the American premiere of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s Matilda, based on a Roald Dahl story. I remember reading the reviews and thinking, “There’s no way this doesn’t win the Tony.” (And I was wrong: Kinky Boots did.) First-time theatre songwriter Minchin is just the sort of neophyte I get skeptical about, someone who’s been successful in another, wholly unrelated field. But, as those go, he’s certainly interesting. A stand-up comedian who, without really trying, became a figurehead for the British anti-religiosity movement, he’s always included original comedy songs in his act. Something must have clicked with the anti-establishment ethos of Dahl, because Matilda stands tall as a rebuke to those shows that sugarcoat childhood (like Annie, which also played this year).

When you hear a show described and think to yourself, that’s the sort of show I love; hell, that’s the sort of show I write! – well, isn’t it a delight to see it praised to the hilt? What I keep hearing about A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder is that the songs are well-crafted, the humor uproarious, and there’s not one, but two sopranos among its four leads. Now, I’ll admit, it took me a while before I could remember that title. But isn’t that another plague of our times? It’s easy to recall the names of shows whose names are already famous. Producers of such things, it sometimes seems, are trying to cash in the source’s fame. You loved that movie a few years back, now you’ll love the musical! Funny thing is, Ebb-honorees Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman set out to adapt a sort-of famous old movie, Kind Hearts and Coronets, but failed to hold on to the rights. Instead, they bought the rights to the novel on which the old Alec Guinness vehicle is based. That’s called Israel Rank; hence, the original title. I’ve followed the progress of this show over its many years of development, and have laughed at Lutvak’s songs for decades: how nice to witness its ecstatic critical reception at long last.

2013 was also the year that Jason Robert Brown’s musical comedy, Honeymoon In Vegas, was finally produced, to much acclaim, in Milburn, New Jersey. As I reread that last sentence, the word that jumps out at me is “comedy.” One element that has made previous Brown works so dreary to sit through is their tendency towards turgid seriousness. Oh, how depressing it is to be falsely accused of murdering a child, so let’s give voice to that for over two hours, etc. But the first half of his comedy song, A Summer In Ohio indicated that if he put his mind to it, he could get a laugh every now and then. While a different, far-more-serious Brown musical is headed to Broadway, I’m tickled to note that, in Honeymoon In Vegas, he did put his mind to it. Comedy – without it, “shits and giggles” is just “shits.”

Long-time readers of this blog know that it’s rare I find positive things to say about certain songwriters. I’ve been more than a little appalled by Sondheim-mania, for instance, and was a bit wary tuning in to James Lapine’s HBO documentary a few weeks ago. But Six By Sondheim was so informative, so helpful to what we do, that it marks this as a banner year even if other small box would-be musicals marked it in the way wolves do when they claim their turf. The man who was hailed as “the boy wonder of Broadway” soon after he turned 40 (!) lets us in to the way he thinks. The hour-and-a-half is mostly spliced-together interviews spanning fifty years. But it’s all coherent and fascinating. And Sondheim takes no pot-shots at the masters like he did in his books.

Joan’s there, somewhere

Television ended its brief affair with the idea of episodic series featuring songs woven into the plot, as Glee and Smash ended long after they should have. The bona fide hit, Glee, couldn’t recover its loopy mojo after the suicide of one of its young stars. At its best, it could be both funny and moving, unlike Smash, which rarely tried to be funny, but was often unintentionally so. In many ways, Smash was the anti-Glee: tremendously expensive, with household name producers and stars, and achieving just about the lowest Nielsen ratings of any show ever to be given a second season. It got my gourd for many reasons, but its worst sin was just being stupendously boring.

And I’ll say something positive about The Sound of Music, done live on NBC. They didn’t monkey, much, with the text and score. Painful as every minute was, the words were Lindsay, Crouse and Hammerstein’s, the music, Rodgers’. Another network broadcast the box-office-topping film, so one could observe the differences, if one could stand that much treacle.

There’s such a strong gravitational pull, when you’re a new parent, to stay home. This wonderful year, I didn’t get out as often as I did in my pre-Dad days. But I did get to experience the sort of moment I live for: when you’re seeing a new musical and hearing a song that you know is one for the ages, one that performers will love doing again and again long after the show is forgotten. It was Alexandra Socha singing Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s ballad about a lover named Joan in Fun Home. I can’t describe it; you had to have been there. And, in 2013, I was.

Advertisements

I can do this

December 25, 2013

I’m staring at fresh-fallen snow as I write this, through windows on three sides of my little office in my new home. It’s always a bit of a stretch to connect these musings to Christmas, but I’ve said very little about the big move so far, and a few words about a work environment might be helpful to some.

There was a time I believed that what I needed in my field of vision, as I wrote, was a large collection of posters and pictures from my past shows. The theory went that it would be easier for me to create new musicals if I could be reminded I’d done it before. Or perhaps – since I worked in the living room – the gallery was there to impress visitors. But there’s something in all of this that hints at mental imbalance. For one thing, I should have enough self-confidence to know I can do this again and again. I was 19 when I began writing my fourth musical; at this point, I’ve lost count. And the framed and unframed memorabilia created a false impression: On the industrial, The Making of “Larry: The Musical”, a huge show poster, complete with Hirschfeld-like caricature, was made up as a prop and then given to me; also, as something of a gag gift, I received a framed CD and Playbill like you might see in a record producer’s den. Both make the show seem far more important an accomplishment than it was. And so my visitors were being misled, in a way, which fills me with chagrin.

In the new house, visitors won’t see any of my show posters unless they visit our basement. And, in order to do that, you have to duck your head, which most people (well, me, mostly, at this point) forget to do. So, emerging from the clonk like a cartoon character eying orbiting stars, they’ll see evidence of my many productions but it will seem, as such things do, like a dream. And it will remain inexplicable – as things in dreams often are – why The Making of “Larry: the Musical” takes up so much space.

You know I’m far prouder of On the Brink, which has a huge poster, in red – all text, no graphic – that fails to convey the feel of that show. I have a black-and-white production still, by Joel Lipton, which does a much better job, but gee, black-and-white, did this show play during Sarah Bernhardt’s time? Or even Sandra Bernhard’s time, which is true but seems just as distant.

In what seems like a wild architectural oddity, there’s a small room jutting out from the living room. You enter through a glass door, and, as I said, there’s nothing but windows on the other three sides. So, virtually no wall space to hang anything on. I quickly claimed this as my office. I can stare out at nothing but nature and picture myself Oscar Hammerstein, who preferred to write his ground-breaking musicals in the fertile grounds of his Bucks Country, Pennsylvania farmhouse. It’s said he used a standing desk, which I can’t quite fathom doing. But the principle remains: instead of being haunted by my pass successes, I’ll see the limitless future through wraparound windows.

Writing this now, I don’t have my new desk (everything here is written in advance, and the desk and chair may be Christmas presents). So, while it’s still in stack formation, I’d like to describe the vertical creation I set up about a year ago in an effort to increase productivity. In the forward corners of the room are two small chests of drawers. Crossing them, I’ve made a bridge of my midi keyboard, fairly wide at five octaves. On either side of that are the legs to the hutch, a wide piece of hard wood. So, that plank-on-pylons hovers about ten inches above the keyboard, which is as accessible as I need it. (I never fiddle with the buttons, one of which makes it sound like a fiddle.) (If you groaned at that last parenthetical sentence, imagine the restraint it took to keep from making a pun about a minty pylon’s flying circus and be glad.) Little, now, is on top of the hutch: the monitor, the computer keyboard, and one of those little clock radios that is also a phone charger. I’m enjoying the lack of clutter: This is all very new to me.

Recently, I was called upon to sight-read and sing the old show tune, This Is All Very New To Me, which, of course, is about finding love for the first time. As actors often do, I used a substitution from my personal life, to make it about home ownership, and living in a suburban town for the first time ever. That little sing-through was a very emotional experience, the wonder of my new life a burst of happiness I never anticipated.

Today marks the first year my daughter will wake up in our new home to see a Christmas tree sheltering a panoply of presents. And, at some point, I’ll be through assembling them, and can then return to my glass box to write something. If I lose heart, I can always run down to the basement, bump my head, and, when my vision eventually returns to focus, see the show posters that will inspire me to bound up those stairs to write and bump my head again.


The Rooster Parade

December 20, 2013

Seems like I’m breaking promises: I outed myself as someone who’s not into opera, and shouldn’t be writing about it. I swore I wouldn’t let this blog become a sad series of obituaries. But if I’m going to comment on what’s going on in the musical theatre world, I can’t ignore the demise of New York’s most lovable opera company, The New York City Opera.

This blog, you know, is about writing musicals, and operas are entirely different things. In the minds of most. But not New York City Opera. For decades they’ve done Broadway shows like Brigadoon and A Little Night Music. Their creators intended them as commercial entertainments, mounted in some 1000-1800 seat house in the West 40s – not an opera house. But NYCO wanted to focus on American composers, and Broadway musicals are a uniquely American creation. We on the lower side should be flattered by high culture’s nod.

NYCO started its life at City Center, and, in that same massive venue, revivals of recent musicals were presented. (This was back in the day when NYCO was only doing true operas.) Then, City Center was ditched in favor of Lincoln Center. Soon, there wasn’t a place you could regularly go to see show revivals, and, cynically seizing an opportunity, more and more Broadway producers started mounting revivals on Broadway itself. And therein lies a problem.

The mania for revivals has a deleterious effect on the creation of new musical theatre, one that hardly anybody is willing to talk about. There’s the issue of resources. There is a finite quantity of Broadway theatres: the more houses filled with the old, the less room for the new. And productions utilize people – designers, dressers, actors, crew – that are therefore not working on original productions future generations will want to revive. All are employed but the writers, and the writers of the shows that get revived are often dead, not benefiting from seeing their work done again. This casts a pall on our community. We’re told, by happy revival-viewers, “Nobody writes ‘em that way anymore” and don’t yell back “When they wrote ‘em that way, they didn’t have to compete with revivals and idiots saying ‘Nobody writes ‘em that way anymore.’”

People argue with me that the old work needs to be seen, and I start thinking about paintings. New canvases get painted, and seen in galleries, available for purchase. Old masters are hung in museums, and we can all go and gawk and think how brilliant artists were in the good old centuries. The great musicals, I believe, should get done in places we think of as museums (such as City Center) and not on the commercial thoroughfare, Broadway. Then we could see them, when and if we feel like it, and the working practitioners of the craft could work in an environment in which Golden Era classics weren’t literally across the street.

Strayed from my topic, didn’t I? Over its 70 year history, NYCO premiered quite a few operas. Their final production, Anna Nicole, was an accessible work with quite a large amount of profanity and fun (of all things). Another recent premiere was Séance on a Wet Afternoon by the most successful of living musical theatre writers, Stephen Schwartz. One could say he strayed too far from his comfort zone, but I have to give NYCO credit for giving him a chance. Schwartz’s shows for the legitimate stage (seems an odd term in this context, but you know what I mean) have been so widely-embraced, the NYCO brass may have believed he could draw in a huge new audience to the opera house.

And this makes me think of NYCO’s genesis. In the 1940s there was, in the New York area, a large number of opera fans, and not all of them could afford or obtain tickets to the Met. The idea behind NYCO was “popular opera at popular prices” and along with that went an emphasis on American talent and fare far more adventurous than what the dowdy Met was serving up. Trouble is, after both companies moved to Lincoln Center, in huge travertine boxes facing the same plaza, NYCO became “that other opera company, with slightly cheaper ticket prices.” Yet another case of competing with the venue next door. I may be wrong, but I think, eventually, the community of opera-goers shrunk to a level where too few were willing to go with Avis just because they try harder.

And so, a noble cultural endeavor bites the dust, leaving the Met to do what it pleases as the only game in town. Which is: very few new works, little adventurous repertoire, no focus on American talent, and, by all means, no musicals. But I really shouldn’t knock the Met. Once I was there and saw Jacqueline Onassis, standing in front of the men’s room, waiting for her boyfriend to come out. It was very exciting.


Risk

December 15, 2013

Seen any good musical theatre on television recently?

Used to be, you could see show tunes any night of the week, and whole shows were not a rarity. The tube’s recent fragmenting into a zillion stations seemed to hold a promise of narrowcasting. You could put on a channel hardly anyone was interested in – Golf, say – and that would be financially feasible because the station would be bundled with so many other stations with small constituencies, somebody would want to see it and order it from their cable provider.

So where have all the musicals gone?  Long time passing.

That most forward-thinking of premium cable networks, HBO, recently put on a less-than-ninety minute documentary that went into great detail into our topic, how musicals are made.  Six By Sondheim, from executive producers James Lapine and Frank Rich, pieces together many of the interviews Stephen Sondheim has given on the small box over the years. (The title is misleading: of the six featured songs, only half were staged for this special, and we never hear anything about the creation of Being Alive, per se.) The time covered is about a half a century, and Sondheim’s barely moved an inch in what he wants to convey about his process.

But there’s never been an hour and a half quite like this. You get a lesson from the man who considers teaching a sacred profession, and lessons from the man who taught him, Oscar Hammerstein. Among these are the principle that each song should be like a three act play, i.e., have a beginning, a middle and end. That it should take the character (and probably the listener) to a different place, dramatically, than where it started. The words need to fit on music with the natural accents of real conversation. That you best not be too complex, because lyrics are heard at the speed the music insists upon, and usually only once. Being immediately understood is paramount. And that the diction, the sound of the speech in song better fit the character’s education, experience, where they live and what they know.

Which brings us to a terrible example.

“It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension”

On the show, we see a clearly impressed Diane Sawyer ask Sondheim how he came up with that and she gets an instructive answer about process.  But neither the Sawyer interview nor Six By Sondheim acknowledges how completely out of character and unbelievable the line is. Petra, an uneducated servant who has previously shown appreciation only for engraved stationery and grave servant men is, in her solo, super-articulate. I mean like a savant, running off at the mouth a thousand words a minute. Once, Sondheim knocked alliteration as that thing you do when you can’t come up with a joke. Here, as A Little Night Music draws toward its dawn, he doesn’t have a joke, so it’s fun with p-words time. Never mind that Petra knows nothing of pensions, thinks nothing of them: it’s all very clever. And hypocritical. And me, I’m getting hypercritical.

Because one bad example doesn’t ruin a brilliant broth. Six By Sondheim is exceedingly valuable as an education in how one winner of multiple Tonys does what he does. You hear the man talk, you hear the man sing, and, really, the performances of the six songs are the least important aspect.

A few weeks ago, I passed the 1,000 friend milestone on Facebook. (I say this not to brag.) Most of them are young people I met when they were studying acting. And what I most admire in them is their diligence. They worked impressively hard to develop the skills of a thespian. They took risks, putting themselves out there, trying new things, staring failure in the face.

At this point WAY too much has been written about a rather famous young woman who took the risk of putting herself out there before a large number of people trying something new and failed spectacularly. In an artistic sense. In my opinion and the opinion of practically everyone I know. Keep reading: I’m talking about Carrie Underwood in NBC’s The Sound of Music but won’t be talking about her for long.

In what should have come as a surprise to nobody, Underwood proved wholly unable to act. And, earlier that day, I heard some Rodgers and Hammerstein performed by a young soprano who could have made a great Maria. And that’s hardly surprising, considering the number of good singing actresses I know. But none of them are famous, and, the unfortunate reality of our time is, you can’t put a special on TV without a famous person starring. Network Idea Men – NIMs, I call them – thought Carrie Underwood could play Maria because she’s fairly young, has a wholesome vibe, and was willing to take the aforementioned risk. Bully for her! and a shame her every line-reading lacked conviction.
It’s not just NIMs, you know. In many quadrants of the entertainment world, there are decision makers chasing fame. They figure that if a talented person has been very successful doing one thing, they’ll likely do another thing similarly well. Which is, of course, idiocy. If you needed open heart surgery, would you hand Kobe Bryant a scalpel?  Why not?  He’s an exceptionally good basketball player, isn’t he?

A few days from now, Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark will turn off its last Broadway audience, having lost more money than any stage exploit has ever lost. I happen to think Spider Man is a good idea for a musical, since romance (impressing a desired girl) is at the heart of what he does. The writing of the songs was assigned to Bono and The Edge of U2, based on the principle that since they’d written hit rock records, they should certainly be able to write a Broadway musical.  Now, how’d that work out for y’all?


Saint Blaise

December 10, 2013

Another big anniversary of another of my shows. So, naturally, I’ve an inclination to share some memories of the experience. But I’ve also a strong disinclination: the author of the book and lyrics has gone on to considerable fame. As I predicted he would. But if I’m being honest with you, I’ll end up speaking rather negatively of someone the theatre world admires. And so, a name shall be changed to protect the guilty.

It started with a post card.  I’d run into my old friend Kim on my block.  We discovered we lived in neighboring buildings.  Kim now knew my address but not my phone number, so she sent me a card that read: “I’ve a good friend looking for a composer.”

And now, to draw a conceited and invidious comparison: Young Stephen Sondheim thought of himself as a composer first and lyricist second. He really wanted to do both, and felt he was hiding his main talent under a bushel by accepting the assignment as lyricist only on West Side Story and Gypsy. But he went against this feeling because it might be instructive to work with a fascinating music-writing genius, Leonard Bernstein (on West Side Story).  At 22, I thought of myself as a lyricist first and a composer second, really didn’t want to work on anything in which I wasn’t responsible for the sung words. But when I met Kim’s friend, I immediately recognized that here was someone with an intellect so fascinating, a talent so promising, I’d surely learn something being just the composer.

“Blaise”

Blaise (not his real name) and I worked together for the better part of a year and a half, the time period right after I graduated college. The first show was an historical drama that required one song, biting off a small piece to begin a collaboration. The idea of the play was to portray a handful of political assassinations that took place at the end of the 19th century. Each occurred in a different country, and Blaise had the bright idea to tell each tale in a different theatrical style. For the French one, he wanted something akin to an Offenbach operetta. I was given a lyric to set, and, less than a year out of college, could say I had a song in an off-Broadway play.

Musical theatre buffs know that, many years later, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman created something similar for off-Broadway, Assassins, which portrays many of the wackos who took shots at American presidents. (The two projects have Leon Czolgosz in common.) Blaise’s play, I feel, is far superior to the musical, which has a little bit too much fun with how crazy many of the American assassins were. (The scene with the two women who shot at Gerald Ford is juvenile in the extreme.) Blaise’s play illuminated the politics behind each shooting, and it’s rather moving when Emma Goldman is jailed and persecuted for inspiring the killing of McKinley.

Blaise, then in grad school, aspired to direct. He called on me again for his staging of Herakles by Euripides. He wanted a certain section to sound like a baroque opera, and I was asked to set a dialogue as if I was writing for castrati.  Ouch.  No, the assignment wasn’t that tough: I just automatically utter “ouch” whenever I think of castrati.  One of my singers was Stephen Spinella, who later played all the grown-up men in Spring Awakening.

For Blaise’s thesis, he wanted to direct an original musical, and that would require a lot of commitment. I trusted his mind, his dialogue, his wild and wonderful sense of what’s theatrical, his way of dramatizing political ideas. Could I trust him to write decent lyrics? This was the potential flashpoint between two headstrong lads in their twenties, and Blaise had many other issues to worry about. It was his thesis in directing, not writing; he had to work with student designers and actors – not a large school, not a lot of choices there. And he’d never written a musical before.

The setting was medieval France, and I researched the modal music one would have heard then and there. I wanted to give the score a tinge of verisimilitude and avoid diatonic harmony where I could. Blaise’s script fascinated me: a troupe of roving players participates in a peasant demonstration against high taxes. The mayor has them murdered, and they haunt him, as ghosts, by putting on a musical about the events leading to their deaths. I had a huge amount of emotional investment in doing this project, working with Blaise, creating something truly extraordinary and seeing it done downtown. But the lyrics I was handed to set were like none I’d ever seen. They lacked titles, meter, structure. They were reminiscent of some modern poetry: yes, there were rhymes, but nothing came at regular intervals, each line a different length from the others. I found them extremely hard to compose to.

A good collaborator articulates his needs, sends his partner back to the drawing board to make changes. Of course, there will be give-and-take, ample discussion of what those changes will be, and each side’s needs. Compromise is de rigueur. How did Blaise react to my requiring a modicum of structure?

“You think everything I do is a piece of shit!”

“Blaise, that’s not how I feel at all.  I love the script, and all of the ideas in the lyrics.  But they’ve got to repeat a rhythmic hook now and then.  Like lyrics in all good musicals.  You know my experience is in writing musical comedies.”

“Musical comedy is an inherently conservative art form, meant to lull the audience into bourgeois complacency.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.  We’d previously spoken of our shared love for many Broadway musicals. Now my request for a title or two was seen as proof that I was way too far to the right, politically, to possibly share the vision for what the show should be.  (I don’t talk about politics here, but trust me this was a ridiculous assertion.) What to do? Hold my ground, or knuckle under? I made the choice to fight.

Blaise fought back:

“Look, the lighting designer’s not arguing with me. The costumer designer’s on board. Only you, Noel: Only you are giving me trouble.”

“You know I’ve no experience collaborating with a lyricist. I’m just trying to communicate…”

“Let’s face it: We’re not collaborating here. You’re working for me. Now, if you don’t like it, resign from this now, while I have time to get a different composer. Take the weekend to think it over.”

I know most of you reading this would have walked. Had I no spine? I don’t use this blog for self-analysis, but the fact is, I was at one of the weakest points of my life. More than a year out of college, and I still had no job. My live-in girlfriend of two years had just departed for a graduate program in Japan. I’d met the cast and they seemed like family to me. I had a crush on one of them, and she later went on to star on Broadway as one of the “girls” in the original cast of Jersey Boys. Blaise may have treated me miserably, but I never stopped thinking he was a genius. I seriously weighed both sides all weekend long and opted to stay on.

Blaise barred me from rehearsals because he didn’t feel he could direct with someone who disagreed with him sitting somewhere in the room. I had to trust musical director F. Wade Russo and he was wonderful; many years later we got to work with each other again, right before he left New York. Eventually, I got Blaise to bend on those lyrics: Whatever he rewrote became clearer, more powerful, and – my real need – settable. I was allowed to see the final dress, and wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was captivated. The actors were fully engaged – our leading man later won a Tony – and a political/historical ghost story, filled with humor and high drama, was stirring and spooky. At our curtain call, I kissed Blaise on the cheek.

He made it very clear that our work together was finished. That if he ever staged our show again, he’d start from scratch with a new composer. And, many years ago, there was an announcement in the paper that the show would come to Los Angeles’ Music Center. But it never did. Blaise then collaborated with a friend of mine on a musical that came to Broadway and is considered by many, to be one of the best twenty-first century musicals. You know the one: the lyrics have very little form.


One of a kind

December 4, 2013

One night, my collaborator and I checked in with each other.

He: Just saw BIG FISH. It made me misty. Also very antsy.

Me: We just saw a grown child’s investigation of father’s myth musical, too

He: A DIFFERENT one?

Me: Yep

He: Wow. Was it called “Medium Sized Parakeet?”

Me: No, silly: Title is two words; first is three letters, second, four

He: FAT PANTS?

LIP LOCK?

DEF CARP?

Me: Now THERE’S one I want to see.

‘Tis the season, I guess, for emotionally searing journeys of discovery involving a father’s infidelities, and when, if ever, he told the truth. You’d think this sort of thing would be right up my alley, but Fun Home, while very well-wrought, managed to leave me cold. I was similarly dissatisfied by Big Fish, and wrote about it some weeks ago. The composers (Jeanine Tesori and Andrew Lippa, respectively) are both pushing fifty, have ample experience, and tend to be highly regarded. In 2000, Lippa had a show called The Wild Party premiere off-Broadway while, at the same time, on Broadway there was another show called The Wild Party, based on the same source. And now I can’t get his song, Two of a Kind, out of my head.

But Fun Home is a very different kettle of, er, fish. It avoids trading on sentimental tropes. Big Fish gives us love at first sight, a wedding, a fetus’ first kick, and a character’s death and seems to expect us to be moved because, well, aren’t those always moving things? Fun Home presents a middle class family full of delightful quirks. Both Sam Gold’s staging and the plot (Lisa Kron did book and lyrics based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel) create a world where anything can happen. There are surprises of both the delightful and devastating variety.

I won’t spoil the plot, but there’s something major – both immoral and illegal – and it’s so extraordinary, I expected far more dramatic repercussions from it. A wife stands by her man, understandably angry, but persevering. For our central characters, as dramatized, it doesn’t seem to be such a big deal.

And the biggest shortcoming in Fun Home is similar to a central problem with Big Fish. Those grown children, doing the investigating, do not appear to be all that damaged by the experience of having a difficult father. Both are successful regularly-published writers. If there’s some ill-effect, due to Dad, in their present-day psychological make-up, I couldn’t tell what it is. They do not slog through an emotional arc.

Am I asking too much of these musicals? Am I just thinking about how I’d write the shows differently? It seems to me that if, over the course of an evening, we’re to watch an adult learn more and more about a father and his hidden secrets, than the act of ferreting out clues needs to heal that grown child in some way, to fix a problem they have. Otherwise, it’s investigation for investigation’s sake.

Fun Home uses three actresses to play the daughter – roughly age 10, 20 and 40, allowing the oldest one (Beth Malone) to observe what the younger ones experience. A hoary device, perhaps, but one I found pretty fascinating. The solos the younger girls sing are compelling and prickly. The show’s at its strongest when not dealing with the parents; just watching Alison grow up is riveting enough.

You might take this with a grain of salt, since Jeanine Tesori is an old friend, but Fun Home’s score is terrific, tuneful. I’m reminded that, in her career, she’s consistently worked with lyricist-librettists who’ve never had a musical produced before. And all of their first efforts are so impressive, it’s exciting to have a new and fresh creative force hit the scene. (Two won the Kleban Award for their efforts, Brian Crawley and David Lindsay-Abaire.) The one number that deals with love (and lust) positively – I don’t know the title but it includes the words “changing my major” – is so delightful, I predict it will be done by college-age performers for years to come. In common with Tesori’s Caroline, or Change, there are sudden flights of fancy connected to period kitsch, with appropriate music connected to the pop of a recent decade. It’s an instantly admirable score.

But there’s a difference between admiring and loving, and I can’t say I loved Fun Home. I appreciated that just about everything in it was extremely well-done. The performances were all excellent; the set was a feast for the eyes. Admired all that, but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.