Old Things Considered

Thoroughly Modern Millie unexpectedly put me into a philosophic mood—not precisely what you want a large, noisy Broadway musical to do. I didn't find a focus for my broodings over it until, by chance, I read a book review by the legal philosopher Thomas Nagel, in which he describes two current schools of thought about human perception. It seems that a few philosophers think that we experience our sensory impressions first, and then sort them into categories we already understand. These days, though, a much larger school of thought maintains that the reception of experience and its processing are the same act, that we receive external impressions only on the basis of what we already know. This is called representationism, and its definition switched the light on for me: Millie is Broadway's first representationist musical. Almost every moment in it is meant to echo some category of experience you've already had. Whether the categories fit together or the moments make a coherent whole isn't important; the important thing is for each to cue some image already stored in your synapses.

So now you see why I've been brooding. I'm an experientialist, one of the unhappy few, and I object to a representationist theater. Everything that happens on a stage is a representation anyway, so the last thing I want it to be is a representation of a representation. Even when a musical is structured on the completely predictable patterns sanctioned by tradition, I want it to be itself. And the most frustrating part is that Millie's perpetrators are a lot of bright young people, onstage and off, who constantly convey hints of the pleasure they might supply if they were dealing in direct experience, rather than conveying a comment on a recollection of an image of an experience somebody else once had. I'm not supposed to but do like some of David Gallo's sets, which suggest ribbon candy designed by the art deco painter Joseph Stella; I like the entire mix of oddball and dapper in Martin Pakledinaz's costumes; and my only problem with Donald Holder's lights is his agreement with the kids on the sound console that louder equals better. Tucked in among the huge problems of book and score (see below) are tiny patches of good giddy fun by Dick Scanlan, and good pastiche tunesmithing by Jeanine Tesori; Rob Ashford provides slightly larger patches of good dance interspersed with what I mostly have to call replicatography.

And I like virtually everyone in the cast to some degree—even Sheryl Lee Ralph, who seems to believe that she can turn the show into Dreamgirls II by sheer willpower, and almost does for a minute. I like Sutton Foster's big, cheerfully assertive chin and collapsible knees (the moment when she gets tangled in an office chair is the show's one brief flash of physical comedy); Gavin Creel makes her an amiable partner, and Marc Kudisch, as the eccentric but handsome loser in this love triangle, displays terrific assurance and skill in both the romance and comedy departments. Then there's Harriet Harris, whose role as the principal villain consists equally of explanations and dementia; she makes the brilliant choice of playing the explanations as the dementia and vice versa. Add to her Ken Leung and Francis Jue as her shanghaied sidekicks (it was especially nice to discover that Jue could speak Chinese; after so many seasons at the Delacorte, I thought he only spoke Shakespearean blank verse), and Angela Christian, who can tap-dance while singing coloratura, as their principal prey. And another few moments of wry comedy by Anne L. Nathan as an inevitably gorgonish head secretary. What kind of musical could present all these delightful people and simultaneously seem to be pulling them away from us?

Piper Laurie and Buck Henry in Morning's at Seven: dysfunctional family values
photo: Joan Marcus
Piper Laurie and Buck Henry in Morning's at Seven: dysfunctional family values

Details

Thoroughly Modern Millie
By Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan,
music by Jeanine Tesori and others
Marquis Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-301-4100

Morning's At Seven
By Paul Osborn
Lyceum Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street
212-239-6200

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That's where the representationism comes in. You see, these people aren't out there as themselves, or as part of a show that is itself. They're icons in the Microsoft Windows sense; when your brain clicks on the image they present, other files are supposed to open up. Thoroughly Modern Millie is the new musical that's old, but not because it was once young; it was born 40 years after its time in the first place. The movie producer Ross Hunter, famous for lushly upscale shlock, wanted to film The Boy Friend, and its author-composer, Sandy Wilson, wouldn't sell him the rights. Hunter accordingly set out to make a replica, a sort of android Boy Friend; the spirit of revenge in which the movie was conceived has probably lingered, to radiate blighting effects, at the core of the show. What Hunter missed, in his ire, was that The Boy Friend, an affectionate 1950s parody of 1920s musicals, already existed at one remove from its substance; the free-form, not-quite-like imitation that resulted, with a screenplay by the late Richard Morris (Scanlan's co-librettist) and a ragbag of new and old songs by various hands, added at least three more removes. Besides mimicking The Boy Friend, it borrowed plot motifs and copied famous sequences from 1920s films, and Hunter's penchant for emptily glossy production values made it all seem to be taking place in some pricey, anonymous late-modern hotel (like the Marriott Marquis, come to think of it).

The unkindest thing one can say about the stage version is that it looks like the fulfillment of Ross Hunter's dream, and it's hard to imagine its creators taking that as their goal. Disconnected and frenetic, Michael Mayer's staging looks alternately like an attempt to put the 1920s on MTV or a misguided stab at an Expressionist musical. (It periodically reminded me of Lincoln Center's ill-fated effort, many years ago, to turn Beggar on Horseback into a quasi-Busby Berkeley musical.) Foster's Millie is supposed to be a small-town girl newly arrived in Manhattan; she starts the opening number and within seconds has the entire chorus singing and dancing in unison with her; so much for dramatic tension. The villains, in contrast, have been politically corrected with elaborate behavioral excuses that make not an ounce of sense. Where an infusion of fresh songs might have flooded out the overall sense of secondhandness, the score is now even pastichier, if that's a word, than in the film, extending back to Gilbert & Sullivan and Victor Herbert. In 2002, the hit tune of the latest new musical is "I'm Falling in Love With Someone," which is garishly burlesqued in the staging but makes its effect anyway. It's been in my head ever since. Of course, I learned it in childhood (it was a favorite of my grandmother's), so it was already stored there: Representation, not experience, reminded me of it. Still and all, I'd rather experience it sung straight in Naughty Marietta, where it belongs, than kidded in an '02 show based on a '60s movie cloning a '50s show spoofing the '20s. Putting all those decades of quote marks around everything just wears me out.


Fortunately, the tonic to pick me up was near at hand: Morning's at Seven is 64 years old; most of its current cast is even older. It was a flop when first performed; Vivian Matalon's revival 20 years ago gave it a better reputation, which Daniel Sullivan's new production confirms. Matalon's rendition, which didn't scant the play's dark side, was brighter and more eccentrically funny; I remember howling with laughter at the frazzled pathos with which Nancy Marchand greeted Elizabeth Wilson's skittish histrionics. Sullivan's soberer reading doesn't shirk the laughter, but Elizabeth Franz's intensity (in the role Wilson played) pairs with the pained delicacy of Frances Sternhagen (in Marchand's) to create a different, equally toothsome flavor. Nouvelle cuisine has taught us to relish bitterer tastes than we did in 1981.

Food metaphors seem in order: An extended WASP joke about the incomprehensibility of love (and sex) among four sisters, the spouses of three, and one distressingly mother-bound offspring, Paul Osborn's comedy is as culinary as theater gets. And it's a salutary reminder of how much wisdom, skill, and humanity you can find in a commercial dish served up with care, by chefs whose sense of honor is part of their technical skill. Sullivan's roster overall is actually stronger than Matalon's, though the latter's graceful staging had the added joy of discovery (and a third memorable performance, by David Rounds, to match Marchand and Wilson). Estelle Parsons and Piper Laurie here, the latter in especially fine fettle, are better than their predecessors, and so is everyone on the male side of the cast list, with the arguable exception of Steven Tobolowsky, whose dear dolt of a son is first-rate work. The trouble is that Rounds seemed to do it without working.

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