Theater archives

Broadways and Means


In another era, on a different Broadway, I might not be so enthused about this revival of On the Town; you’ll find quibbles in plenty below. But why kid ourselves? If a musical’s supposed to transport you to another world, I’d rather be in the world of On the Town, even as renovated here, than in that of any other current Broadway musical, at least until somebody leverages the script and Elton John out of The Lion King, or lights a firecracker under Ragtime. The rest are, frankly, garbage for tone-deaf peasants, at elite prices. (Minor exception: Titanic, the oratorio for people who can’t take their Elgar unplugged.) Those musical Darwinians who think the form has been evolving toward maturity must find today’s Broadway a sorry sight.

Not that we can ever, as they sing in Ragtime, “go back to before.” The context of On the Town‘s birth is especially unrecapturable: It opened in December 1944; thousands of uniformed Americans were still overseas. Virtually every ticket holder must have had a son, a brother, a lover, a spouse, or a friend in combat. New York was a madhouse of refugees, wartime bureaucrats, and servicemen on leave. The city’s atmosphere has never been so fevered since.

On the Town rode in on the wave of that frenzy, and won hearts by dancing lightly over its crest. To revive it today, you have to create onstage an atmosphere that no longer exists, and then make it live in a way that speaks to today’s public.

Inevitably, George C. Wolfe’s version will seem a little bland and coolish by comparison. Inevitably, too, it’s lost some of its own moonstruck charm by moving from the Delacorte, where set designer Adrianne Lobel got such terrific help from Olmsted and Vaux. But the way some of my colleagues rage on, you’d think Wolfe had done something truly hideous, like the score for The Scarlet Pimpernel. Okay, so the choreography, even after doctoring, hasn’t improved that much, but at least it looks like dancing now. I won’t pretend that I’m wild about Kevin Stites’s musical direction; his rigid beat is a real hindrance to the ballads. Still, each time someone swings into an up number, you get that raucous, syncopated, Bernstein thrill, and everything’s okay.

That’s the feeling musicals are supposed to give, and On the Town is the only one on Broadway— apart from Lion King and Ragtime (with aforesaid reservations)— to offer any reasonable amount of it. Comden and Green cleverly built the work as an objective correlative for the audience’s problem: You finally have to go back to reality, just as the three sailors have to get back to their ship. But the reality you have to face is their dilemma and ultimately their joy: the craziness of New York. You’re the crowds getting in their way as they try to find each other. The sensible moral: It doesn’t pay to be priggish; you might end up on a wild-goose chase, like the law-and-order prudes who pursue Gabey and his pals from the subway start to the Coney Island finish.

Like much of Wolfe’s staging, the antics of the pursuing prudes are less nuanced, and hence less funny, than they ought to be. His direction tends to explain what’s going on, rather than simply let it happen. His principals, on the other hand, seem to have been left freer, and some of them have improved perceptibly since the Park. Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Chip now displays a goofy, aw-shucks ease that makes him a partner, instead of a prop, for Lea DeLaria’s fierce energy. Sarah Knowlton’s Claire, half elegant composure and half spastic dislocation, builds an almost perfect bridge from 1944’s more brittle comic style to today’s. And the new Gabey, Perry Laylon Ojeda, if vocally unexciting, is both better looking and a better actor than his Park predecessor.

Best of all, On the Town is like today’s New York in having twin towers— of comedy. Lea DeLaria and Mary Testa have little in common, other than not being sylphlike in shape. DeLaria, carrying a major role, proceeds by what they used to call main force, projecting so much energy it’s a wonder she doesn’t burn out the building’s circuitry. Her power tends to come out largely unmodulated, but who cares, when it comes out so triumphantly? Testa, with a smaller role and a few million kilowatts less ferocity, uses subtler tactics. As Madame Dilly, the alcoholic singing teacher who plays nemesis to Gabey and Ivy’s romance, she gets her laughs by sheer disassociation, staring at the bottle she’s retrieved from inside the piano as if she hadn’t the faintest idea who put it there. Always on the make, concealing even from herself who she really is, she makes a matched pair with DeLaria’s gloriously crude, good-hearted, appetitive Hildy— cartoon caryatids of NYC fakery and blunt truth.

Granted, On the Town ought to be blow-you-away great, and isn’t; it’s pleasant fun that reminds you what blow-you-away greatness used to be. But compared to the dental-drill torments that surround it, with their dank, tin-eared earnestness, it’s practically manna from heaven. If Wolfe and his colleagues haven’t got the recipe for manna just right, at least they’re trying to cook up something other than the sand and locusts that have been the musical theater’s diet during these desert decades.

Nobody’d dare offer Gerard Alessandrini a dish of sand, though— he’d throw it back in your face, with a suitable sneer. For well over a decade, his Forbidden Broadway revues have been nasty little Davids, kicking down those deadly musical Goliaths. Now settled in a new midtown location, he’s taking on the new Times Square. F.B. Cleans Up Its Act is as dark a show as Alessandrini has turned out— the only edition ever to contain a political figure. Giuliani, of course: He disrupts the opening spoof of Cabaret to demand 60 percent family entertainment, which immediately causes the arrival of Julie Andrews, in full Mary Poppins fig, for a tour of our local Disney world. Her conclusion: Too bland is worse than too sleazy.

The darkness continues as Alessandrini roasts Chicago‘s cheapness in charging top prices for a concert staging, Footloose‘s amateurish inanity (“Grease without the sex or fun”), The Lion King‘s injury-abetting designs and lack of human characters. The Beauty Queen‘s stars maul each other with slapsticks while warbling, “How Are Things in Irish Drama?”; Ragtime‘s Brian Stokes Mitchell threatens to hold the cast hostage till he gets a Tony (Make them shoot you,” his costars advise); and another bit of Mary Poppins salutes “super-frantic, hyperactive, self-indulgent Mandy” Patinkin. For a finale, Cabaret‘s one-note sordidness and The Sound of Music‘s gooey inanity get tangled together.

Alessandrini’s tone has often been this sharp, but rarely for so much of the evening; the proportion of actual satire to showbiz japery is so high here that the numbers joshing individual performers seem unusually cruel. His somber tone is justified. Broadway has always catered heavily to tourists, and the machine-made shows of the last two decades, with their heavy group marketing and worldwide replication, have taken the habit to new heights. Until Giuliani, though, Times Square had always had a distinct personality: The theaters clustered in it might produce this or that kind of show, but they remained an organic part of the city’s life, and sooner or later would revert back to their local connections. Giuliani’s revamped midtown blocks, in effect, turn the area into a tourist mall, where native New Yorkers will want to spend as little time as possible. More and more, the three cartels that own the Broadway theaters will peddle tourist goods, instead of shaping their taste, as theaters do where they function as part of civilization, in response to their community. When On the Town was first produced, musicals meant something to New York that they did not mean anywhere else, no matter how many outsiders might enjoy them. Well on its way to losing its individual meaning as a place, the theater district may at the same time be losing its ability to create— ironically— the kind of theater that first turned it into a site tourists wanted to visit. If it’s just like the malls back home, offering the same mechanized shows, why schlep to New York?

1998­99 Obie Award Judges

Director Liz Diamond, performer Dael Orlandersmith, P.S. 122 head Mark Russell, and NYU
department of drama chair Una Chaudhuri will be joining Voice critics Michael Feingold and
Alisa Solomon and Voice theater editor Brian Parks as judges
for the 1998­99 Obie awards. Charles McNulty returns as
secretary to the committee. This season’s award ceremony will be held May 17, 1999.