The People Choice

In the New York theater, between the crud-mongers who talk down to it, and the culture snobs who yap over its heads, the audience is the one party that rarely gets a voice in the debates. The vagueness of its platform is partly to blame: If the policies it loves aren't accessible, it will seize on those it likes most—or dislikes least—of the proposals currently on offer. If Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers are out of the running, it will pool its votes, temporarily, to support an Andrew Lloyd Webber, while perhaps showing more respect for an alternative candidate, urged by its pundits, of the Sondheim sort. Observers of its shifting enthusiasms naturally conclude that such a party is not to be trusted, but in fact, it always knows what it wants; it's just politically savvy enough to settle for what it can get. It will be cautiously sympathetic toward Kander and Ebb—too Sondheimish in certain ways to be truly haimish—and respectfully suspicious of post-Sondheim wisenheimers like LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown. But whatever experiments are tried or challenges offered, all this party really wants is to enjoy itself at the theater. Its policy doesn't exclude feeling or meaning; it's never rigid about convention, and rarely resentful of innovation. Just give it a good time, and watch what happens.

The Full Monty is likely to be this party's candidate of choice for some time, a fact about which I have some reservations but no complaints. After all, there are only two main points about a candidate: the value of its promises and the honesty with which those promises are carried out. On both counts, The Full Monty gets my vote. Its small failings are the product of honest effort by everyone involved to do their best; its much bigger and more frequent successes come from the impulse to give pleasure simply and sincerely, without pandering, pretension, hidden agendas, or mind games. Its way of doing this, rare on Broadway these days, is to tell a simple story about interesting people, on the assumption that what they are and do will interest audiences. The show's characters are not nonhuman, superhuman, conceptual, archetypal, or prototypical; they're people.

Comparisons with other recent musicals based on movies, like Footloose and Saturday Night Fever, are misleading. Those were already musicals, and what was being sold to theater audiences was the cheap chrome glamour left over from the films, shoved onstage with minimal concern for adaptation. Moved not only from screen to stage, but from nonmusical to musical and from Sheffield, in England's industrial north, to Buffalo, The Full Monty's story, of unemployed steelworkers who put on an amateur male strip show to make bucks, had to be totally reconceived. The situations are all the same—Terrence McNally's script finds cunning use for many lines from the screenplay—but the cultural tonalities, you might say, are all different.

Romain Frugé, Patrick Wilson, and Jason Danieley in The Full Monty: You’ve got male.
photo: Craig Schwartz
Romain Frugé, Patrick Wilson, and Jason Danieley in The Full Monty: You’ve got male.

Details

The Full Monty
By Terrence McNally
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Eugene O’Neill Theatre
Broadway and 49th Street
212-398-1800

The Gorey Details
By Edward Gorey, music by Peter Matz
Century Center for the Performing Arts
111 East 15th Street
212-239-6200

The Unexpected Man
By Yasmina Reza,translated by Christopher Hampton
Promenade Theatre
Broadway and 76th Street
212-239-6200

A Place at the Table
By Simon Block
Manhattan Class Company
120 West 28th Street
212-727-7765

One of the big differences involves attitudes toward gayness. The film's uninflected live-and-let-live has been replaced by McNally with a sly framework involving the hero's confrontation with a professional male stripper, openly gay, whose response to abuse is a left to the jaw. Picking himself up from the floor, Jerry, the hero, starts what amounts to a slow redefinition of his concept of manliness. By the time two of his motley troupe have become lovers—McNally wittily lets us know they're gay before they know it themselves—Jerry's defending them. The motif enriches the story: Jerry's employment problem, one sees, is also partly his macho problem: the boyish desire to play the big man, to be in charge. Already eroded by his failed marriage and joblessness, his ego almost doesn't let him bounce back through the camaraderie of his gender-reversed project.

Each of Jerry's companions has a contrasting hassle: Overweight Dave is letting his sense of inadequacy poison an otherwise happy marriage; Noah is an aging black man in a world where young white males get priority; repressed, suicidal Malcolm is trapped nursing an invalid mother; Ethan escapes into old movies, self-destructively mimicking their stunts; Jerry's former boss, Harold, hides his out-of-work status from the innocently spendaholic wife he adores. The women in their lives, though not so well characterized—the show's about the guys—have tensions and complexities of their own. Unusual in having so many individualized characters, the musical crisscrosses their stories, densely, at a steady but unhurried pace. McNally's sauciest invention is the would-be strippers' accompanist, a smart-mouthed retiree whose wisecracks are crisped to a sizzle by Kathleen Freeman's hilariously dour performance.

David Yazbek's lyrics share McNally's sauce as well as his precision, adeptly building bits of the screenplay into numbers that move the action, deepen the characters, and heighten the show's generally cheerful spirits. Where he falls down is in the music, workably welding Broadway and pop conventions, but rarely breaking through to any distinctive sound or melody of its own. (He gets closest in Jerry's ballad to his sleeping son, "Breeze off the River.") How badly this hurts depends on your length of perspective. The music of The Full Monty may be a speck on the Broadway record of the last 70 years; among scores of the last decade, it's almost a peak.

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