Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Has the parade passed the musical by?

Brendan McNab and ensemble in Parade.

One of the happiest surprises of Boston's burgeoning theatre scene has been its newfound expertise in musicals. A decade ago, musicals were rare on the small theatre circuit; today, they're the highlights of many theatres' seasons - Company at SpeakEasy, Into the Woods at the New Rep, and Urinetown at the Lyric all immediately come to mind.

Lately, however, this triumphal march has suddenly stumbled - over the musicals themselves. This spring, the Lyric produced Michael LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See (which I tore into here), the New Rep mounted Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, and now SpeakEasy has staged Jason Robert Brown and Albert Uhry's Parade - all local premieres, all recent New York "hits" (that is, they played on or near Broadway) and all produced at the same high level we've become accustomed to. But in all three cases, the performances easily eclipsed the quality of the material (see my earlier post, "Please, more masterpieces" for similar complaints about productions of new plays).

What gives? Is the musical in crisis? Well - yes, obviously; whatever people may say about LaChiusa or Brown, Sondheim has no heir - or rather he's got heirs but no rivals. Strange as it may sound, if and when a major new musical talent emerges, his voice will probably not be in the Sondheim tradition - indeed, he will probably challenge, if not repudiate, that tradition.

Because it's obvious that Sondheim sans Sondheim himself is pretty thin stuff; with lesser hands at the helm, his through-sung pop operas easily drift onto the bland shoals of arty pastiche. In fact, even with an extant model for the lyrics (as Lippa had for The Wild Party, Joseph Moncure March's original, book-length poem), his younger followers often fall short.

Take, for instance, just a few lines of March's classic ode to Jazz Age excess (below, an image from Art Spiegelman's illustrated edition):

Her body was marvellous:
A miracle had fused it.
The world had seen it -
And a good part had used it.

Imagine what Kurt Weill could have done with that. Or how about:

Black took a drink as they passed the table.
A long one;
A strong one;
Then suddenly felt unstable.
The room blurred.
The room receded.
Another drink was what he needed!

The tone is immediately apparent: casual, callous and drolly misanthropic - the exact opposite of today's earnest, self-aware-yet-blinking-back-tears default mode. And as long as Lippa can toe this line, The Wild Party is at least somewhat bracing. But as if pulled by the gravitational force of new-age schmaltz, the composer soon slips from period jazz into all kinds of light latin and pop-rock styles, and his lyrics likewise slide from stringent to sappy, as in:

Out of the blue
Out of the blue
Your choices now are growing few
Today is what you make and how you make it
The step is yours to take
But can you take it out of the blue?

You see the problem. Or how about this:

Poor child,
Poor child,
Beautiful and bruised.
Poor child,
Pure child,
Virginal and used.

Yikes! Some party. It's hard to imagine William S. Burroughs being inspired by that (he once said March's poem made him want to be a writer). And with such lame lyrics, it's no wonder that Lippa, LaChiusa and Brown are also melodically challenged; they're pretty good at snappy hooks (such as Brown's "Big News!" or Lippa's "Raise the Roof"), but their ballads tend to "soar" the same way 747s do.

Marla Mindelle and Ensemble in The Wild Party.

Sigh. Still, I suppose we can't expect theatres to stop doing new musicals just because they're bad. Of the local directors, Rick Lombardo has the biggest jones for this kind of thing, and his flamboyant, relentless production of The Wild Party probably came closest to putting over its script and score through sheer energy. Lombardo's leads, Marla Mindelle as bad-girl Queenie and Todd Alan Johnson as sad (as in sad-istic) clown Burrs, threw themselves into their roles with abandon, but their gonzo performances almost got lost in the chaos of the eponymous party, which erupted into a dancing show like Boston has never seen; the chorus literally did backflips, and if choreographer Kelli Edwards gave her tireless hoofers no respite, at least they got to shed their clothes as they overheated. This wasn't the only attempt to shock us that was touching in its naivete: folks often squatted over a toilet when they weren't miming spread-eagled coitus. (You haven't lived till you've watched simulated sex next to a little old lady with a walker.)

Alas, despite all this strenuous decadence, the production only fitfully connected with us, or its material. Leigh Barrett stopped the show with the evening's one truly witty number, "An Old-Fashioned (Lesbian) Love Story," but as Noel Coward might have quipped, at the time the show was basically running in place. Still, there was a nicely brassy turn from Sarah Corey as a belting flapper, and Maurice E. Parent brought real sizzle to his moves as Mr. Black. Over the long haul, however, the show's very energy tended to work against it; it's hard to look cool when you're constantly breaking a sweat.

Brendan McNab (Leo Frank) with Bridget Beirne (Lucille Frank) in Parade.

Parade, by contrast (at SpeakEasy Stage through June 16), was beset not only by undistinguished lyrics but by book problems as well. Some local critics felt the piece, which deals with the famous railroading, and eventual lynching, of Leo Frank for a murder in 1913 Atlanta, was painted with too broad a brush, but its real problems were subtler - Alfred Uhry, of Driving Miss Daisy fame, simply failed to dramatize the fascinating crux of this case: why did Atlanta turn against the Jewish Frank and instead trust the testimony of African-American Jim Conley, who most likely committed the crime? Both were members of minority groups, after all, and if anything, one would imagine - to put it in the horrid calculus of bigotry - that Frank's religion would trump Conley's race (especially given the assimilation of Jews into Atlanta society at the time). Yet the opposite occurred - the mob sided with Conley; but why?

To tease apart this conundrum, of course, would lead to fascinating, but ticklish, questions of assimilation, resentment, and religion, with, perhaps, black as well as white villains - always a problem in our politically-correct culture. Parade wants to think of itself as daring, but no Broadway show would venture into the moral territory that a truly probing examination of the Frank case would require. Thus there's a void at the heart of the musical, which Uhry and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown try to plug with such standard tropes as the growth of Frank's wife into a crusader for his liberty. Uhry and Brown also obliquely stress Atlanta's nostalgia for Confederate culture (the tree at Tara from Gone with the Wind looms over the set) but never allow this idea to crystallize into a statement - are they implying that Frank's Northern pedigree sealed his doom, rather than his Jewishness? If so, it would be better if they actually said so.

Edward M. Barker, Kenneth Harmon, Shavanna Calder, and Nicholas Ryan Rowe in Parade.

Given the awkwardness of this material, the SpeakEasy cast navigated the show skillfully, and director Paul Daigneault orchestrated a smooth parade (sorry) of stage pictures. The capable Brendan McNab made a strong, but almost too sympathetic Leo Frank (the genuine article was an odder customer), and Bridget Beirne stood by her man admirably as wife Lucille. Meanwhile Timothy John Smith put over the first act's best number, "Big News," with energy to spare, and Edward M. Barker, Kenneth Harmon, Shavanna Calder, and Nicholas Ryan Rowe brought even more power to "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'" (Barker, who played Jim Conley, was equally impressive on the chain gang in "Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.") But elsewhere Brown's music and lyrics failed to catch fire; like Lippa, he tends to write direct, almost banal recitative, and then tries to goose these flat statements into song with rippling arpeggios and sudden flights up the scale. Often, however, Brown's lyrics resist his ministrations, as in this memorial to the murder victim:

Did you ever hear her laugh?
When she laughed, you swore you’d never cry again.
Did you ever see her smile?
Her smile was like a glass of lemonade.
And she said funny things,
And she wore pretty dresses,
And she liked to see the pictures at the VFW Hall,
And she loved ridin’ swings,
And she liked cotton candy,
But I think she liked the pictures best of all.

Or how about this bald statement of identity politics from Leo:

I'm trapped inside this life
And trapped beside a wife
Who would prefer that I'd say "Howdy!", not "Shalom!"
Well, I'm sorry, Lucille,
But I feel what I feel
And this place is surreal,
So how can I call this home?

Is this sort of thing Sondheim's fault? I suppose not - but it may be the fault of those who too-easily buy into the idea that the musical should "progress" into opera. There's no reason at all why the lines above shouldn't be lines in the book (except, of course, that they're not very good!). Indeed, it's hard to think of a topic less amenable to "pop opera" treatment than a complex, political story about the entanglements of racism and anti-Semitism. Yet good liberal sentiments tend to walk hand-in-hand with post-Sondheim attitudes. Perhaps someday this partnership will bear artistic fruit. In the meantime, I guess we'll have to settle for Parade, and hope that somewhere, someday, somehow, the anti-Sondheim will arrive.

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