Like Professor and Mrs. Keane, Pete 'n' Keely are reunited at the final curtain, proving that these are old-style musical comedies run thin. No one could sit down today, as the Bolton-Wodehouse-Kern team did in the 1910s, and simply build a show from a series of farcical misunderstandings. The alternative to heavy drama of the Hal Prince school, with its lynchings and tortures, is either the equally heavy pop-rock Masterpiece Theater, Cameron Mackintosh style, or a lightness that, to perk up the audience, must draw on arcane topics (like Fermat's Last Tango) or recycle familiar motifs (like Pete 'n' Keely).

If not for the success of The Full Monty, the only current Broadway musical that's willing to put a story about human beings and their feelings at its center without comment, the inescapable conclusion would be that the form was dead, since all its basic pleasures had now become rarefied and marginalized even in Off-Broadway's more intimate context. That The Full Monty's music is undistinguished isn't, in this context, such a big deal. What matters more is that it offers, as the pop-rock megaliths didn't, a convention through which a greater composer might engage the audience; it updates the traditional language of show music rather than attempting to replace it en bloc.

Updating the language is just what the Broadway musical did when it began. Though unlike any other form, it didn't simply appear out of nowhere. Its formative lyricists—Porter, Hart, Ira Gershwin—all took W.S. Gilbert as a model, but never tried to duplicate him exactly; they did not discount the contemporary evidence of their own ears. Their composers drew from a much wider range of sources, but always hewed to a tradition of song and of light entertainment. The Broadway artists who've striven, over the last 30 years, to turn the musical into opera seem not to have noticed that it evolved from light forms which had always coexisted with opera: Sullivan wrote at the same time as Wagner, Lehar at the same time as Alban Berg. Rodgers and Hammerstein, in trying to put the musical's dramatic component a notch higher, were building American equivalents for Yeomen of the Guard and Land of Smiles, not Die Meistersinger and Turandot.

Chris Thompson (left) and Jonathan Rabb in Fermat’s Last Tango: math appeal
photo: Carol Rosegg
Chris Thompson (left) and Jonathan Rabb in Fermat’s Last Tango: math appeal

Details

Fermat's Last Tango
By Joshua Rosenblum and Joanne Sydney Lessner
Theatre at St. Peter's
619 Lexington Avenue, at 54th Street 212-239-6200

Pete 'n' Keely
By James Hindman
John Houseman Theatre
450 West 42nd Street 212-639-6200

Foxy
By Ian McClellan Hunter and Ring Lardner Jr.,
songs by Johnny Mercer and Robert Emmett Dolan
Musicals Tonight! (closed)

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Gilbert & Sullivan came to the fore when Mel Miller's raggedy but invaluable "Musicals Tonight!" gave the first performances of Foxy since 1964, which sets Volpone loose in Dawson City during the Yukon gold rush. Among the concert's many surprise delights was the restoration of a courtroom number, deleted before Broadway, that showed Mercer, master of casual colloquialism, emulating Gilbert's ornate rhymes and triple-tongued patter. The show has its weak points; the cast gave it a cheerful air of parlor entertainment, so that Jonson's fable of greed punished conveyed more of the Christmas spirit than anything else around. Flaws and all, it evoked what Broadway once was, and—with some mega-myths out of the way—might be again.

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