No one ever went broke, they say, underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But even underestimating is more complicated now than it used to be: The simple public is very knowing and doesn’t like to be told how simple it is; it likes to have its smartness praised while you’re hitting it over the head with the simplicities it really craves. Try a subtlety— or the kind of direct simplicity that appeals to purer hearts and more genuinely jaded palates— at your own risk. This situation makes the act of creating popular entertainment an unnaturally contorted hell, with too much of everything and not enough of any real satisfaction. Artists scuttle this way and that, reworking, subverting, rethinking. And nobody has a wholly good time— at best, we get a revised edition of somebody else’s good time decades ago.
Band in Berlin, at least, rechews one of the past’s less familiar pop genres: Male close harmony, German style. The Comedian Harmonists, its subject, were six guys (five singers and a pianist) who became one of the Weimar Republic’s showbiz icons, just in time to watch it crumble and fall into Hitler’s hands. After which they hung on till the Nuremberg Laws split the group in two. The Jews emigrated, the Aryans stayed; both teams formed new groups that somehow lacked the old magic.
That’s a good story, with the songs to highlight it ready and waiting, but the makers of Band in Berlin seem confused and hesitant in telling it. The Harmonists are represented onstage by their closest contemporary equivalent, the local vocal group Hudson Shad. But the production, by Patricia Birch and Susan Feldman, doesn’t attempt to do more than put them through a few jolly moves for each number. There’s minimal dialogue, even less interaction, and asking concert singers to dance while they’re warbling a cappella would definitely be unwise. Instead, the show blitzes us with slides, film sequences, and a live voice-over narration spoken from offstage by Herbert Rubens.
Some of Birch’s musical staging brightens things up— the jaunty,
umbrella-swinging treatment of “Stormy Weather” is exactly right— but Feldman’s text, skittery and repetitive, is an active hindrance. Instead of details that would clarify the Harmonists’ place in their teeming Berlin culture, we get name-dropping, clichés, and dreary MGM-biopic-style bragging about what a big hit they were. The singers are so unindividuated, and the script so reticent about their personal lives, that you start to wonder if some secret’s being suppressed: Could these five guys all have been named ‘mo?
Politically, it’s even more of a muddle, since Feldman doesn’t convey what made the Harmonists so problematic to the Nazis. Their mixed racial and national origins— one Bulgarian, one Polish Jew, one half-Jewish Prussian Lutheran— were only the surface of a deeper aesthetic cosmopolitanism. Feldman’s narrator says, dismissively, that they sometimes sang “folk songs.” But in Germany, folk songs are the nation’s history, as recovered, revised, imitated, and enshrined by artists and scholars from the late 18th century on. The folksinging male quartet, by the 1920s a hokey rural joke to urbane Berliners, was a mainstay of the tradition, its style trafficked in by every major poet from Goethe to Stefan George, and every important composer from Weber to Weill.
By adding a fifth voice— a notion the group’s founder, baritone Harry Frommermann, derived from American vaudeville acts— the Comedian Harmonists were able to enrich the sound of their traditional repertoire, while their urban pop sensibility augmented it with everything from orchestral standards to new fox-trot tunes. On one of the several CD reissues available, their version of Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” is followed by the Gennan folk song “Muss i’ denn” — along with “Tea for Two,” Dvorak’s “Humoresque,” and a fake-folk setting of Goethe’s “Heidenröslein.” In the charged atmosphere of early ’30s Germany, you could see them either as multicultural modernists expanding the horizons of a moribund art form, or money-grubbing degenerates out to destroy the purity of an organic native expression.
Feldman doesn’t delve into such matters. What Broadway musical could, especially these days? Worse luck for her, since in more conventional terms, the group’s story lacks political drama: All the Jews got out alive (though they had rough economic times afterward). And the whole group survived the war. So somebody shouted “Juden raus!” at one of their concerts. Tell it to the entire orchestras who died in Theresienstadt.
Despite all these objections, however, Band in Berlin has a musicality that makes it fairly unique in the overmiked purlieus of Times Square. When Hudson Shad gets going, particularly in “Whispering” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (in which Hugo Munday gives an immaculate imitation of Cootie Williams’s trumpet), their creamy sound carries on the Harmonists’ tradition. What they lack in stage presence— only Munday and musical director Wilbur Pauley, with his wild-eyed gaze, come across as distinct personalities— they make up in musicianship, for those with responsive ears. View the show as a slightly kicky concert, instead of theater, and you’ll have a much better time. Only then you’ll wonder what it’s doing up there at Broadway prices.
The answer might be, not being Annie Get Your Gun, an object lesson in how to unmake a Broadway musical. In 1946, Irving Berlin and the Fields siblings carpentered up a pleasant, workable set of simple, square-cut elements to fit the simple, square-cut personality of Ethel Merman. Instead of testing Bernadette Peters’s mettle against these elements, the new production has unwisely dismantled,
muted, and fussed with them, creating an evening that doesn’t showcase Peters’s spunkily endearing personality and throws Annie Get Your Gun down the drain. Old-style musicals were simple and stupid; the new style kills the simplicity and keeps the stupidity.
Three songs have been cut, the rousing “Colonel Buffalo Bill” and “I’m an Indian Too” because they say politically unacceptable things about Native Americans, and “I’m a Bad, Bad Man,” presumably because it demeans women. In their place we get more dialogue— what musical needs more dialogue?— by that guarantor of pointless verbosity, Peter Stone. And what is the new dialogue? Anti-Indian bigotry from a caricature spinster, while the Fields’s original use of Sitting Bull as a stereotype ugh-how wisecracker is left intact. All that’s been suppressed, besides Berlin’s tunes, is a painful truth: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show displayed Indians attacking settlers and being routed by the U.S. cavalry. It seems late to rewrite that particular piece of data, especially now that gambling casinos are giving the country back to the Indians, so that the final joke is on the rest of us. Maybe when the Pequots buy back Manhattan, they can restore authenticity to Annie by having the Weisslers scalped onstage at every performance. Even the critics would pay to see it.
Graciela Daniele’s production makes what’s left of Annie seem oddly drab and unlively. Her approach is wistful to the point of elegy: it starts with explanatory narration, a tent going up— did Daniele think she was doing Carnival?— and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” sung softly. Tony Walton’s pallid sets seem even paler under Beverly Emmons’s stark lighting; even William Ivey Long’s graceful costumes lean toward pastels, with Peters getting no less than three lavender-hued gowns. Her acting’s watercolorish, too; she makes Annie a vulnerable kitten, much readier to whimper and turn aside than to sass back. Give Tom Wopat’s Frank Butler a limp and some puppets, and it would be Carnival. Wopat, who moves through the remaining shards of his role with easy charm and big-toned vocal warmth, deserves better. In the few moments when he and Peters face off, or one of them tackles a Berlin song, without the production’s incessant pointless fiddling, you see the musical Annie Get Your Gun once was, and might be again if they’d let it.