Washington discount

May 10, 2017

I’ve long felt a certain kinship with John LaTouche, my fellow Columbia Varsity Show veteran, who wrote the single greatest lyric about the passing of a venereal disease. (Sorry, I Got It From Agnes fans.) It was written for, and cut from, Candide (1956), which explains the heightened language:

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir
I shall never forget.
‘Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scot
He received he believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She’d forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn’t sure
How the whole thing began,
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well, the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well, the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me;
Makes us all just a small family!

LaTouche’s now having his second musical in as many years done at Encores, the all-sung epic, The Golden Apple. Seeing this Holy Grail of rarely-revived musicals, I’m thinking about whimsy and wit: How a little of it goes a long way, and how too much of it makes for a long evening.

Ber, Ber, Ber! It’s chilly in my office this morning. But I’m also thinking of the Encores troika of musical director Rob BERman, choreographer Joshua BERgasse and director Michael BERresse. They gave this Apple a fine polish, but you know me: I care about how shows are written. And I got a problem with that.

It’s said that the authors never stopped for dialogue because they conceived their musical as an incessant series of show-stoppers. The music by Jerome Moross is unfailingly energetic: I’m a particular fan of the overture, which ratchets up excitement. Every lyric contains showy rhyming, that is, they call attention to themselves. We don’t react to Ulysses and Penelope as people; we react, favorably or un-, to LaTouche. God love him, he gets a laugh rhyming “cobra” with “no bra” and I’m tickled by that kind of stuff. Been known to do it myself.

The Golden Apple was first produced in the 1950s, a decade in which clever rhymes were appreciated. That time is long behind us. But the problem isn’t so much that tastes have changed and the show has aged, it’s that the whole idea of a procession of show-stoppers is wearying. The Homeric epics on which the show is based are, indeed, episodic. But do you really want to see a musical that’s a long chain of pointless episodes, even if they’re individually entertaining?

We long for emotional connection to the characters. Instead, we witness vignettes that somehow relate to ancient Greek lore, but they add up to nothing. There are a huge number of characters, but let’s focus on two: Ulysses and Helen. Ulysses returns from the Spanish-American War, which allows LaTouche to rhyme “Theodore, the Roosevelt that we adore.” There’s a reunion with Penelope, expressed in a ballad called It’s the Going Home Together. So, early in the show, they’ve played the inherent emotion of long-separated lovers returning to each other’s arms. Hold that thought.

For reasons that are never made clear, Ulysses decides to leave with his war buddies on a mission to the big city. LaTouche actually plays the pointlessness for humor, as they’re asked the principal of the thing they’re fighting for and can’t name it. So no one knows. Cut to poor Penelope, pining away that she’s not with Ulysses. In the big city, the big lug gets tempted by sirens and such, but then returns for the happy ending. And I’m feeling nothing. Ulysses’ abandoning Penelope seemed so arbitrary; how are we to trust he won’t do that again?

The marriage between Helen and Menelaus is even worse. Their trouble – and what a stuck-in-the-1950’s idea this is – is that Helen likes sex. Since her husband (played by Jeff Blumenkrantz) is portrayed as not-very-virile, she’s bound to stray. And I suppose we’re supposed to get behind this, emotionally. The only hit song to emerge from this score, Lazy Afternoon, is how she seduces Paris:

It’s a lazy afternoon
And my rocking chair will fit you
And my cake was never richer
And I’ve made a tasty pitcher
Of tea
So, spend this lazy afternoon with me.

A few problems with all this. LaTouche forces rhymes in a playful “look at me! I’m clever!” way and we’re not quite invested in this seduction working. Paris is completely silent – lanky Barton Cowperthwaite gyrates very impressively – but, given what’s happened to left-behind Penelope, do we really want Menelaus left-behind, too?

Jerome Moross was in Aaron Copland’s circle, and boy, can you hear it. There’s that familiar jumbling of arpeggiated major triads, and all manner of rhythmic tropes evoking the turn-of-the-century. And you don’t get a sense of “here’s a serious composer writing classical-sounding music” because the harmonic palette is never overly elevated. These are show tunes, and fine ones.

I heard riffs that turn up in later scores: a bit of West Side Story’s dance music, Sondheim’s incidental music to Invitation to a March. The big ballad in William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s Dynamite Tonite is a clear echo. And I caught a rhyme I used once myself: graduate/glad you ate. That ended the first act of my Varsity Show, but even then I knew that clever rhymes are a special sauce, best used sparingly.

But something positive deterred me from remembering the most prominent homage of all. You see, Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Silverman deliver, dazzlingly, the sound of fine 1950s musical comedy stars. She’s a clarion, jazzy and fun. He’s powerfully masculine. They’re such pros, I nearly forgot Christopher Guest’s celebration of amateur theatre, Waiting For Guffman. It has a intentionally bad number called Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine, perhaps inspired by Nothing Ever Happens In Angel’s Roost, the inauspicious opener to The Golden Apple.

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Anything for a laugh

March 23, 2017

The New Yorkers, the Encores concoction at City Center this week, transports us to a world where nothing makes sense and, even better, nothing has to. While we in the twenty-first century labor strenuously to make sure everything’s motivated and logical in our musicals, it’s refreshing to be reminded that nearly 90 years ago, silliness reigned. Jokes that are unimaginably corny or improbably blue are thrown across the footlights with not an ounce of shame and a surprisingly high percentage land. A huge cast and a 29-piece orchestra (!) swinging out winsome orchestrations by Josh Clayton and Larry Moore do more than right by sixteen sumptuous Cole Porter songs, many of which you won’t know. And it’s all lunacy: It’s as if we’ve the great good fortune to be included in a bathtub gin-besodden soirée at a well-appointed speakeasy (laugh-out-loud funny sets by Allen Moyer) and we’re all drunk and, magically, everything’s funny and romantic.

But doesn’t the very name, Cole Porter, evoke all that? (You’d think it would bring to mind a menial dirty job in a never-coming-back energy industry, but no.) Like The Great Gatsby, he was a mysterious millionaire from the Midwest, and what he chose to do with his life was to entertain his friends with jokes about concupiscence (“I want you to holler ‘hooray!’ when first you see me in my so-to-speak”) and sinuous melodies. After Yale and military service, there was a dilettante period where he married someone even richer, resided in Europe and didn’t much care if his songs made it on Broadway. Once he did, The New Yorkers was his third creation for The Great White Way, the third of many; he was in his late thirties, but still early in his prodigious career. You may have heard me complain about comedy songs that go on and on and just aren’t funny. Here are masterpieces of the genre: clever 32-bar mirth-makers that actually make people laugh. And one gets the sense Cole is just tossing them off.

But, amidst this madness, there’s an extraordinary and utterly serious imagining of what a prostitute’s life is actually like. It stands out like a sore thumb, sure, but what a plum thumb Love For Sale is! The harmonies travel to unexpected places: listen to what’s happening during the line “Love that’s only slightly soiled; love for sale.” then go back and consider what an amazing thing to say that is.

The New Yorkers is frank and thoroughly unromantic about sex. A society woman with a psychological malaise keeps eagerly asking her doctor, “Shall I strip?” and the madcap highlight of this evening has a dancing chorus running around a bed with huge turkey legs while a couple tussles under the sheets. “A romp and a quickie is all little Dickie means when he mentions romance,” goes a song.

But it’s here where Porter nerds like me express appall. That line’s from Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love, written seven or eight years after The New Yorkers. What’s it doing in this show? What’s Night and Day doing in it? Or the patter song introduced by a young Danny Kaye in the forties, Let’s Not Talk About Love? The addition of these Porter evergreens to an already very good score makes absolutely no sense. Jack Viertel and his team at Encores, missing certain songs, arrangement and script pages, opted to jettison accuracy in order to give an impression of what musicals of the period were like. And then call attention to their prestidigitation by quipping “We’d sing Friendship now, but that’s from a different show.” The same show, in fact, that gave us Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love

This is, of course, a minor nitpick. If the move to stuff this evening with some other Cole classics makes no sense, well, not much in the show makes any sense in the first place. Take Wood, for instance, written by the show’s star comedian, Jimmy Durante. During it, the cast builds a barricade a la Les Misérables, for absolutely no reason at all. And the senselessness of this stage action astounds us into such fits of giggles, we don’t stop to ask if musicals were ever really this stupid.

My less minor nitpick is about jazz star Cyrille Aimée’s pitch accuracy on Love For Sale. This is a jazz number too brilliant to be played with. An audience new to the song wouldn’t be able to tell where Porter ends and the surreal (for that’s how her name is pronounced) begins. But mostly the songs are delivered with winning aplomb; the large cast includes all sorts of characters actors you’ve loved for years (Eddie Korbich, Kevin Chamberlin, Ruth Williamson) and the ace leading lady is the British phenomenon Scarlett Strallen.

The New Yorkers doesn’t invite serious analysis – the sort of thing I’m used to doing here. And a disclosure is needed: In the company of 31 lunatics on stage is a close friend of mine, Matthew Griffin, making his professional debut. It strikes me as a perfect match: he’s delightful and ridiculous just like the show is. And there’s a line towards the end about things that can only happen in New York. Like 60 people, actors and musicians, on a huge stage in a huge theatre, performing this totally forgotten bit of whimsy from 1930. I Happen To Like New York is the finale, and tears streamed down all our faces, in part, because we know nothing like this could ever happen anywhere else.


Shore to water

February 8, 2017

Just as Rocky Horror sings of a pelvic thrust that will drive you insane, Narrative Thrust is that thing that will drive your audience to emotional investment in your characters and their plights. A show that fails at this, no matter how strong its other elements may be, will leave viewers uninvolved.

I just caught Encores’ mounting of Big River, the Tony-winning Huckleberry Finn musical. There were some entertaining things about it, but narrative thrust was nowhere in sight. Don’t blame Mark Twain, author of the source material for two other musicals Encores did in a way that captivated. The authors of Big River, William Hauptman and Roger Miller, were completely new to musical theatre and made many beginners’ mistakes.

Before getting to those, pause to acknowledge the many ways in which the original Big River production, 32 years ago, lucked out. It opened in one of those woebegone Broadway seasons in which the whole community is so desperate for a hit, great praise and a slew of awards get heaped on something that would have been considered mediocre in any decent year. It had a particularly beautiful set by Heidi Landesman, fluid direction (Broadway debut of Des McAnuff, who’s been back many times since) and vibrant lead performances by fresh faces Daniel Jenkins and Ron Richardson. Country songs from an actual star of country music – well, that was a pretty novel thing back then. (These bits of luck don’t exist this week at City Center; it runs through Sunday.)

Landesman’s husband Rocco had the idea, back in the days when producers would get notions and will musicals into existence. So Hauptman was commissioned to adapt America’s most-hailed novel even though he’d not written a play in the seven years prior. There’s one very moving speech, and some funny parts, but the libretto is a collection of episodes, barely connected to each other. I was reminded of another odyssey of a naïve young man, Candide. Either show can be described by a popular title from contemporary children’s literature, A Series of Unfortunate Events. Various bad things happen to good people, and more than a few seem fairly arbitrary. What’s lacking is the sense that one thing is leading to another, with cause and effect. Huckleberry Finn and Candide are both portrayed as young men of limited intelligence. Choices they make are sometimes made for no good reason.

But the real problem is that nothing matters. In successful storytelling, events lead to other events, like dominoes falling. Actions have consequences. When actions don’t have consequences, you’re training your audience not to care. What the characters do shouldn’t or needn’t be invested in, since they lack lasting implications. They don’t affect the things to come.

Act Two of Big River (the better of the two) is filled with oddities. Huck watches as two charlatans con a grieving family out of a large inheritance. He then steals the money – a bold action with absolutely no consequences for him – and stashes it in a coffin which is then buried underground. Habitual theatre-goers would naturally see this as something similar to Chekhov’s gun on stage. It’s bound to get fired, right? Alas, no consequence; nothing made of it.

At least, you might think, Huck has learned some lesson about imitating relatives who are likely to show up a day or so later. Nope: In the next scene, he does the same thing, albeit for a nobler purpose. Lucky for him, the late-arriving kin is his old pal Tom Sawyer.

Books can afford to be episodic. We don’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at one sitting. We put the book down, at the end of a chapter, and return to it later. Twain addresses the ethical crisis of his century, slavery. A century later, over two hours, this musical makes the stunning political pronouncement – Slavery Is Bad – and it’s too many years after Emancipation for this to have much piquancy.

In an odd coincidence, Roger Miller had not written a song in six years prior to Big River, and, on the day of the first rehearsal, he still hadn’t written a song for the show. It’s easy to imagine a musician with limited knowledge of theatre and how it works, picking little moments to musicalize. Some of his songs are quite charming. I’m a sucker for a country waltz, so get some pleasure from You Oughta Be Here With Me, well-warbled by Laura Worsham here. But each act has a moment when a minor character runs on stage and energetically presents a dumb little ditty that has nothing to do with the rest of the show. There’s way too many numbers that don’t move the plot and I suspect Miller and Hauptman had no concept of how this might be a problem.

When a song lands in Big River, it seems it’s almost by chance. So the passion and energy behind Muddy Water is a pleasant uplift. The raft leaves the dock and it feels as if something’s taking flight. That’s the seventh song in the show: I was quite impatient by this time.

But it’s better than one might expect of neophytes. The bigger question remains: Why do producers, again and again, call upon people who’ve never written for the theatre before to give it a try? Are they hoping for another Big River? That good fortune will emerge from the combination of a famous title and the quirky talents of a music world superstar? Usually, the Twain don’t meet.


String quartet

January 1, 2017

Suppose you’re attending a show because an old friend is in it. And that old friend does great, but the writers of the show screwed up somehow, marring your experience as an audience member. Now, the writers aren’t greeting you at the stage door afterwards; the performers are, and you congratulate them on their fine work. The productions – sets, staging, musicianship – may be glorious, but you’re left with an unscratched itch, the nettlesome shortcomings that, then and there, you couldn’t comment on.

Now that we’re through with 2016, on this blog that looks at how musicals are made, I hope you’ll allow me to get some things off my chest. Five seasons ago, nobody was surprised when the Tony for Best Musical went to Once. I finally caught it about a month ago. The songs, by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, were mostly written for the cute little film on which it’s based. The book is by Enda Walsh. And the show starts before the house lights go down. We see an Irish pub, and people are playing their own instruments. It seems an informal entertainment, supposedly impromptu Irish songs, filled with the usual mythic narratives and humor. When the houselights dim, these same folk are now playing the show’s songs, effectively setting us up for a whimsical tale-spinning, perhaps with a bit of magic thrown in.

And what we get is: the exact opposite. We see the halting romance between a Guy and a Girl (that’s what the Playbill calls them) and it’s notably lacking in myth and magic. They communicate in a true-to-life way that I might have found admirable if I hadn’t been set up for just the opposite. For long stretches, Once plays like a solid two-character play, well grounded in contemporary reality. When a song comes in, it’s passionate pop. One of the things that struck me is that the Guy’s unusual singing voice is a big part of what’s entertaining about this musical. That’s impressive; so’s the hard strumming on guitars that seems an emotional expression by a character. Once is rather innovative in this.

But I was reminded of one of Lehman Engel’s Key Components: Subplot. In Engel’s view, the audience needs a distraction from the main characters and what they’re doing. (I worry about this, because I’m now writing a show with no subplot; it’s half as long as Once, though.) Guy and Girl take their realistic relationship baby steps, and the trouble is, there isn’t enough interesting plot for a whole musical. We get tired of watching them. I’ve never seen something that cried out more for a subplot.

There is also no subplot, and a songwriting central figure, in Tick Tick…Boom. The librettist is David Auburn, who, like Enda Walsh, is a major playwright with no musical theatre experience. The music and lyrics – and, in a sense, the first draft of the book – are by Jonathan Larson. It’s a posthumous work; he and Auburn didn’t work together. But back when Larson was a little-known musical theatre writer, he had the idea of depicting his life and struggles in the field. So, for readers of this blog, Tick Tick…Boom is something of a must-see. It is unusual in that Auburn expects the audience to know that Larson went on to write the biggest hit musical of the 1990s but died on the eve of its first performance. Poignantly, he didn’t live to see Rent succeed – the raves, the Tony, the Pulitzer. We watch Jonathan apply himself to writing musicals with no acclaim or recompense. Given that emotional backdrop, Auburn structures a plot (sans subplot) that we invest in, to an extent, because we know what will happen after the curtain drops.

You can’t say that about a lot of shows, although I’m just remembering seeing, as a small boy, a musical set in Illinois called Young Abe Lincoln – something of the same thing. In Tick Tick…Boom, Jonathan rewrites Come To Your Senses “over and over and over till I get it right.” It’s supposed to be the emotional climax when we finally hear the full song, but every time I hear it, I find its message hard to grasp. The concepts in the lyric come at the ear too quickly:

The fences inside are not for real
If we feel as we did, and I do
Can’t you recall when this all began
It was only you and me
It was only me and you
But now the air is
Filled with confusion

I’ll say it is.

In Jonathan Larson’s masterpiece, Rent, we also meet a songwriter, Roger, struggling to write the perfect song about his relationship. Turns out to be one of the weakest numbers in the score.

There’s something I should’ve have told you
When I looked into your eyes
Why does distance make us wise?
You were the song all along

This is, as another character in the show says, “less than brilliant.” Is the point supposed to be that Roger isn’t a particularly good writer? (I ask the same question about Mr. Holland’s Opus, when I hear that awful symphonic piece at the end.)

So, on my recent re-visit to Rent, I was most struck by how overly-rhymed it is. Larson famously bridged the rock and musical theatre worlds, but, even twenty-one years ago, good musicals no longer were littered with showy rhymes that call attention to themselves. Lesbians I knew at the time didn’t call each other “Pookie” but hey, a rhyme for “spooky” was needed and what are you going to do? At one point, the whole problem is summed up when a character says, of what he’s just said “That’s poetic. That’s pathetic.”

Any writing error in Rent, though, is one I suspect Larson would have fixed had he lived to shepherd it to Broadway. We don’t go to edgy musicals about East Village squatters in order to hear “control freak” paired with “droll geek” (I kid you not). We might go to children’s theatre for such alleged cleverness, but that’s a genre in which we can’t expect a plot to hold our attention for long. Which brings me to Seussical, by Eric Idle, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This is, I believe, the most-performed show of the new century, and everything that happens in it is so silly, so lacking in import, the show becomes a mere pageant of fanciful design. What Happens Next is so frequently arbitrary, you give up caring What Happens Next rather quickly. An elephant interacts with a tiny town smaller than a clover, then can’t find the clover on which it’s located, then a bird who loves him finds it off-stage. My four-year-old kept whispering in my ear “When is this going to be over?” which – don’t tell my friends in the cast! – was exactly what was on my mind, too.


Thoughts: in transit

December 11, 2016

“Please, God, please! Don’t let me be normal.”

This famous bit of a monologue from The Fantasticks, by Tom Jones, has been much on my mind because of a persistent worry: That my musical may be too ordinary. The characters are hardly larger than life; they face problems that all sorts of people face every day. So, is my show too mundane to entertain?

Perhaps you’re thinking, right now, “Of course not” – this is a silly fear to have. And yes, I’ll admit that quite a few of my fears fall on the silly side of things. But I’ve seen a new Broadway musical in which each iota of plot is so expected, so everyday, so the-sort-of-thing-we’ve-seen-a-million-times-before that it seems utterly doomed by its own lack of imagination. In Transit is an original musical that marks the Broadway debut of each of its four creators, Sara Wordsworth, Russ Kaplan, James-Allen Ford and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Of these, only the latter is famous, an Oscar-winner for her lyrics to the most-sung song of the current century, Let It Go. (If you don’t believe Let It Go is the most-sung song of the current century, you must not have a daughter under the age of 10.) I like the fact that these are musical theatre writers, who’ve honed their craft for many years, veterans of the BMI workshop, and not some neophytes from other fields. Many years ago at the York’s annual NEO Concert of songs from new works, they and I were each included. So, I was predisposed to like In Transit, think of them as kindred spirits, and it’s playing in the theatre where I work, Circle-in-the-Square.

So there’s a single woman who’s unable to get over the ex who dumped her months ago. She still e-mails, texts, contrives to bump into him. All of this is intelligently rendered, and would be fine IF WE HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. Luckily, that’s not the only plot line. There’s an actress who’s growing weary of waiting for her big break, working as a temp, and I might have sympathized with her IF I HADN’T SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE. There are certain things about In Transit that are fresh, haven’t been done on Broadway, but there’s also the gay groom who’s having trouble coming out to his mother. Say it with me, now: SEEN IT A MILLION TIMES BEFORE.

What’s original? The fact that there’s no orchestra. A cappella vocals have become a hot genre over the past decade or so, and accompanying soloists with a collection of rhythmic Doos and Baos is something you haven’t seen on Broadway before. Off-Broadway, you have. My wife cast an amusing show called Voca People, and long before that there was Avenue X (1994), which shouldn’t be confused with Avenue Q, co-written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s husband. Pause to say something positive: It’s a neat trick. You don’t miss instrumentalists, but your ear quickly adjusts. After the opening number, you go, “Oh, that’s what this is going to be.” and then your focus goes back to the plot. And then you go “Oy.”

There’s a fourth plot, about a handsome Wall Street type who loses his job. This is far fresher than the other three plots, and I held out hope that the show would have something to say about White Privilege, that the good-looking guy has doors open to him that someone who looks different wouldn’t. The cast of In Transit is multi-ethnic; we even meet a black ice hockey fan. But nothing in Subplot Four had any sort of an edge. His phone is turned off when he can’t pay the bill, so he misses an important call. That is exactly as dramatic as it ever gets.

We who think about the effectiveness of theatre pieces often talk about unearned moments. One of the characters has a series of conversations with a kind and philosophical street musician. Towards the end of the show, he lays a rather common Zen concept on her and she looks at him as if all her life problems are suddenly fixed. Then the entire cast pops out to joyously warble an energetic setting of this precept. This is precisely what is meant by an unearned moment. The character hadn’t evolved, the wisdom being passed was far from profound, and so the hallelujah chorus rang hollow. In a ninety-minute show, sans intermission, you don’t have time to waste on hollow moments, and this wasn’t the only one during the denouement.

The shame, here, is that so many other elements of this show are competent, and even appealing. There were songs to admire, plenty of good performances, and one outlandish costume gets a hand. I found a video of its 2010 staging off-Broadway, and you get the sense that, for the prices charged by a little theatre way back then, In Transit might be a worthwhile way to spend an hour and a half. For Broadway prices today, something more than a collection of clichés is needed. “Please God, please: I paid well over a hundred dollars. Don’t let it be normal.

 


Alone in the night (reprise)

July 7, 2016

I wish I could tell you I enjoyed myself at Encores Off-Center’s Runaways (now through Sunday at City Center) because its only asset, a cast made up of teens mostly found by combing New York City high schools, is impressive, singing and dancing and acting their hearts out. You gotta love ’em. But then there’s that show.

I’ve railed against spinach musicals before. Like one of those long pathetic Sunday infomercials that ask you to give all you can. A good cause is a good cause: I don’t dispute that. But, usually, the illumination of a societal problem doesn’t make for good entertainment. Audiences are looking to be moved, sure, and the plight of runaway children is undeniably sad. But why should the show last longer than an infomercial? After one number made the point, “It’s tough to be a homeless teen,” on came another number, convincingly stating, “It’s tough to be a homeless teen.” And then another. And then another.

I got the feeling I got at Cats. Some human in a big fur costume did some cute shpiel. And then another. And then another. And then I started checking my watch. Reductio ad absurdum.

Like Cats, which came later, auteur Elizabeth Swados wisely utilized an ever-changing mish-mash of styles. This fends off boredom, to an extent. And it goes beyond musical styles. Here, monologues are delivered in different cadences, some of the show is in Spanish, and some in sign language. You hear a passel of rap. (Just so you don’t think last season’s shows were doing something totally new.) I found myself admiring how Swados overlaps different sounds and songs. One of the more amusing numbers is called Where Are All the People Who Did ‘Hair?’ and you want to check your program because the music is so reminiscent of that hit from the previous decade. On the way out of the theatre, I found myself humming the Hair song that mentions “emancipator of the slaves.”

Maybe, though, this was my way of celebrating my emancipation from that theatre. Relentless adolescent angst wears pretty thin, pretty fast. Spring Awakening, Bare, 13 – can we grow up already? At least Runaways came before.

But unlike those others, there is no plot, no named characters. Telling us that it’s hard to be a teen is telling us we all already know from experience. Telling us that it’s hard to be a homeless teen – well, does anyone think their life is cushy? And why do nursery rhymes keep getting quoted: listen for Catch a Tiger By the Toe and the tune to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Seems like there must be a point to all this. The opposite of Peter Pan, here are kids who are forced to grow up before their time. I give it points for verisimilitude, but you can score a few points and still lose.

As you know, I tend to focus on the writing of shows. (Really, I could rave about the performers, but I suspect you didn’t come here for that.) Runaways has book, music, lyrics and was originally directed by Elizabeth Swados, who died earlier this year. It’s an impressive accomplishment, but I wonder if that much control in the hands of one young person meant that nobody ever said to her “Liz, we get it. Make another point, now.” And one could toast to the show’s uniqueness. “She’s an original!” is a thing you might say, as gallery-goers utter in the second act of Sunday in the Park With George. But, that’s a line someone says when they can’t quite bring themselves to praise an artist. Original doesn’t necessarily equal good. And Runaways doesn’t necessarily equal entertainment.

 


Ninth waltz

May 11, 2016

Sometimes what a musical needs is alchemy. You can have the greatest living composer pouring out gorgeous melodies. You can have the playwright responsible for the books to Gypsy and West Side Story adapting his own fairly solid play. For lyrics, you can have Stephen Sondheim. But if there’s no alchemy, no magic, no secret sauce, all you’re left with is a tasteless muddle.

Do I Hear a Waltz? is now playing at City Center. The fine folks at Encores occasionally slip up, and they miss the mark as badly as they did last time they mounted a Rodgers-post-Hammerstein (No Strings). Music is their specialty, so it’s no surprise Richard Rodgers comes off best. Richard Troxell delivers a delicious performance of the big ballad, Take the Moment, unquestionably the highlight of the evening. And one of my favorite female trios, Moon In My Window, was sumptuous enough. Outside of those, the songs were a string of disappointments.

Stephen Sondheim, one must admit, was simply the wrong lyricist for this project. It required him to write large quantities of comedy songs, and what I’ll call Happy-Love love songs. If I say these are the worst lyrics of his career, that’s taking in the context of the rest of his oeuvre: show after show with excellent lyrics. Do I Hear a Waltz? isn’t bad, lyrically, but comedy songs and Happy-Love just aren’t his strong suits and that’s what he dutifully churned out here. There are plenty of Sondheim songs that make me laugh – Pour le Sport, Instructions To the Audience, that Hail Brooklyn chorale – but, as someone who writes songs that get audiences cackling, I’ve little use for songs that merely get audiences to smile: This Week Americans, What Do We Do We Fly, Bargaining, No Understand, We’re Going To Be All Right – many attempts; none score.*

A song in which someone expresses love for another and is actually happy about it: that’s Rodgers’ thing, not Sondheim. Unhappy love songs he does well. In the title song, “roses are dancing with peonies” which, to my ears, sounds like an attempt at poetry by someone with no real experience of love.

One romantic ballad is even sung from the point of view of a middle-aged shopkeeper and a wine goblet, both lonely, both looking for a mate. “We waited for someone” – “we” being a guy and his glass. Who’s responsible for such a ridiculous idea? One can enjoy the melody but I sure couldn’t feel anything and my heart’s not made of glass.

The last time I saw a collaboration between three writers of such esteem was when Laurents hamstrung Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby, Jr. (Nick & Nora – even more lacking in alchemy). Here he’s the source of most of the problems, giving his characters way too little to endear themselves to us. But the more major problem is that there’s nothing major happening in the show. A romance hits a few roadblocks, then the show ends. Good musicals tend to be about larger-than-life characters; here, everyone’s rather smaller-than-life. Someone drinks too much at a party and spills some secrets, threatening a marriage. Big deal.

Now it happens I’m working on a musical about ordinary people and there’s nothing extraordinary about most of the roadblocks along their way. So, it’s my job to make a big deal of things, to rev up the emotion until they burst out in song. What Laurents, Sondheim and Rodgers fail to do is to ratchet up any moment’s feeling in a way that singing seems natural. An example occurs to me: the unseen character who’s the other leg in a triangle: What does the heroine feel about her, imagine about her? Why isn’t there a song there?

For this Encores staging, we get to hear an eleven o’clock number, Everybody Loves Leona, that was cut before the Broadway opening. One can see why – it lands with a thud. There’s a natural tendency to want to write another Rose’s Turn (from a previous Laurents-Sondheim collaboration) but, for a character to have a great big emotional eruption, we have to care about her. We, in the audience, don’t love Leona enough to justify that moment.

I wrote a bit about We’re Gonna Be Alright in a recent post. I liked Sarah Hunt as Mrs. Yeager so much, I was happy to see her get more to do; but the rest of the show doesn’t have these characters expressing sharp-witted cynicism as they do in the song. It’s a sore thumb, though fairly piquant as sore thumbs go. Another performer, Sarah Stiles, enlivened the usually drab No Understand, and, again, I was glad to be in her presence.

But Rodgers sets the would-be wit to some of his dullest melodies. Bargaining keeps banging the same note as if it’s a Jason Robert Brown song. The creator of Do-Re-Mi settles for Mi-Re-Mi in the verses to the song about air travel, which seems awfully uncreative. A lively ensemble late in the show is brought down by a descending chromatic scale interspersed with the tonic – presaging his I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You a few years later. It seems like he knew a day when he was out of good ideas.

I see I’ve said not a word about the leading lady, Melissa Errico. To say she is completely wrong for this role is to indulge in understatement. Her persona is that of an alabaster princess, not a New York noodge. She over-articulates everything like she’s been to finishing school. The script has her calling everyone “Cookie” but it seemed wrong every time she said it. “Petit four,” I’d believe, not “Cookie.” Opera star Richard Troxell gets referred to as “molto bello” umpteen times in the script, but is he? His body language is stodgy and unsexy; his line readings are dreary. His Italian accent is believable, unsurprisingly, but it was never clear why Leona found him irresistible.

Do I Hear a Waltz? was a sad experience for its creators, recalled fondly by none. But the idea of an unsophisticated American falling in love with a native in Italy: there could be something truly romantic and dramatic about that. I know: I saw The Light in the Piazza with music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers’ grandson.

*If you want to hear comedy songs that cause paroxysms of laughter, I humbly suggest you attend The Things We Do For Love, a collection of my songs May 25 at the Duplex in New York, June 13 at the Gardenia in Los Angeles.