Two talented ladies I knew at the dawn of their careers are involved in the staging of Pump Boys and Dinettes at City Center. But before saying word one about them, I have to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the last part of that sentence: Pump Boys and Dinettes at City Center. City Center is a huge auditorium, larger than any Broadway theatre. Pump Boys and Dinettes is a small-cast revue, too small for any current Broadway Theatre, and so the Encores Summer “Off-Center” series, with its goal of reminding us of the virtues of rarely-produced off-Broadway musicals, is presenting another minuscule peg in an impossibly enormous hole.
Mission statements tend to be more bendable and flimsy than the paper they’re no longer written on. And that’s fine. Pump Boys and Dinettes concludes the second warm-weather trio curated by Jeanine Tesori, quite possibly the greatest composer of musicals currently producing. I can’t say enough about her as an artist, as a person, as my musical director on The New U. but as an impresario – well, I’m kind of stuck, still, on that phrase, Pump Boys and Dinettes at City Center. The winter trio Encores has put on for more than 20 years has always made sense to me: Big Broadway musicals that New York hasn’t seen for some time rendered with a sizable orchestra on-stage in a house used to seeing revivals of large shows. The summer Summer “Off-Center” shows have been an odd bunch, each burdened with the unsolvable problem of filling the gargantuan former temple.
I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road, last summer, fit that mission: a huge off-Broadway hit in its day, never revived since. Tesori’s own masterpiece, Violet, was deemed so wonderful, it transferred to Broadway, where it had never previously been. So, two for two. But the choice to do The Cradle Will Rock, a Broadway musical produced at a time when there was nothing called off-Broadway – I’m not sure what the point was supposed to be. I mean, on paper, it’s an interesting show, a relic of the edgy political theatre of the 1930s. At Encores, casting mistakes were made, and the staging failed to echo the verve of eighty years ago. It just seemed rather odd.
This summer we had Tick Tick…Boom, a hardly forgotten off-Broadway musical from 2001: it gets a fair quantity of productions around the country. The cast of three was filled with major stars, which is the sort of thing that happens at Encores and nowhere else. They were able to carve two weeks out of their schedules. Commercial shows all require a much longer commitment. So, good to be in the presence of Stars You Wanna See, but boy, did that little show seemed dwarfed by the cathedral with two balconies it was presented in. I was out-of-town for their one-night presentation of Faust, but can comment, sight unseen, that this was a total abrogation of that mission statement. Faust is a musical that never made it to New York. It was not conceived us as an off-Broadway musical. Despite bringing on David Mamet to fix the book, its regional reception was disastrous, and that’s why it never made it to New York. Now, it’s a show I’ve long wanted to see, but I still can’t fathom the justification for doing it.
Which brings us to Pump Boys and Dinettes. Like many a musical from the 1980s, it started life off-Broadway, and sold enough tickets to engender a move to Broadway, where it played for quite some time. Or at least that’s what the Encores Off-Center folks would have you believe. In reality, this was a cabaret act: a group of six performers wrote their own country songs, and so many of these had to do with waiting tables or pumping gas that they assumed characters, and that descriptive title. Three decades ago, there weren’t all that many places you could hear original country music in New York, and there were certainly enough transplanted southerners (may I call them “ex-pats?”) to make up a steady audience for the act. The two women in the group, Debra Monk and Cass Morgan, both went on to substantial careers performing in musicals (the men did not) and in fact essayed the same role – the nosy neighbor – in the film and musical versions of The Bridges of Madison County. Some producer got the bright idea to book the act into the Times Square cabaret formerly known as Latin Quarter. As luck would have it, Broadway powers-that-be allowed this to be considered a Broadway show for the sake of 1982’s Tony nominations. Pump Boys and Dinettes got a nod, but this was merely to avoid having to fill out the category with a long-closed bomb like Marlowe, The First or Merrily We Roll Along. The other nominees are now considered classics: Nine (which won), Dreamgirls (which assumed it was going to win) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (a new production of which, cast by my wife, is now touring the country). One imagines Pump Boys came a distant fourth in the voting.
Mamie Parris, who was the ingénue in my musical comedy, Area 51, and Hunter Foster (late of The Bridges of Madison County) head up the cast at City Center. I’ve gone into detail about the show’s history because it must have been rather novel to walk into a cabaret space 33 years ago and see singers playing their own instruments. Today, that’s an overplayed cliché. The songs are pleasant, not without humor, but, the moment you, as an audience member, are paying more than the usual two-drink minimum, you expect something more than a mildly-entertaining evening. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s not that it’s not well-done, but what it is certainly isn’t a musical. And what might have been cute in a small space is, at City Center, as out of place as a plain country bumpkin at a prince’s ball.
One concept I’ve found myself restating quite a bit is that writers need to take into consideration the venue their show’s going to be performed in, what kind of audience they’ll get, and what that audience expects for its entertainment dollar. John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel and Jim Wann may have done just that and succeeded admirably, but boy are they put in a horrible light here.