Resembling one of those Blue Note collections Starbucks sells as a side dish to cappuccino and biscotti, Side Man: Jazz Classics From the Broadway Play epitomizes everything spurious about a show that epitomizes everything spurious about contemporary live drama. The centerpiece of both this new CD and the second act of Warren Leight’s long-running play is Clifford Brown’s recording of “A Night in Tunisia” from a Philadelphia jam session the night before Brown’s fatal 1956 turnpike collision. This electrifying performance wasn’t commercially released until 1973, by which point tapes had been making the rounds for years. It’s 1967 in the play, and one of Leight’s terminally out-of-it white jazz musicians, a former member of Claude Thornhill’s trumpet section now scuffling for society dance gigs, has come up with a dub he can’t wait to play for his buddies, fellow ex-Thornhillites on a job with the dreaded Lestin Lanin (and such fuckups that their idea of a good time is swapping yarns designed to illustrate what fuckups all musicians are). As Brown masterfully elongates a phrase from his first chorus into his second, one of Leight’s sidemen lets out a “whew!,” only to be told “wait!” by the sideman who’s heard the tape before—meaning, it gets even better. Both reactions ring true: this is how such men would listen to music, and the monosyllabic way they would talk about it. A few minutes into Brown’s solo, one of these guys jumps up and yells “I quit!”—delight giving way to frustration, the precise reaction of several generations of trumpeters to Brown’s unreachable technical prowess and improvisational sorcery.
But the reaction the staging and lighting make most of is that of Sideman number one, the narrator’s father, who scrunches his eyes shut, silently mouths Brown’s lines while fingering them on air trumpet, rocks back and forth so hard he looks like he’s having convulsions, and breaks into beads of sweat I could see from the fifth row. I once sat next to Bill Evans during a set by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and though I could tell Evans was listening intently to Blakey’s pianist, James Williams, and digging what he heard, he looked like he was waiting for a bus. Whether because they’re too cool or just physically inhibited, musicians don’t play air instruments or jitterbug in their chairs; this is the behavior of wannabes. But to show us a character listening as musicians actually do would require a subtlety no one in theater trusts audiences to get—an interiority we take for granted in movie close-ups, but nowadays assume to be impossible onstage.
Today’s theater types are hypocrites; they prattle on about Artaud and Stanislavsky, but their actual models seem to be Norman Lear and Garry Marshall. Like so much theater these days, Side Man is played as broadly as a TV sitcom, right down to pausing for laughs (the director Michael Mayer seems more to blame for this than his cast, though I swear the sideman with glasses and a lisp is doing Charles Nelson Reilly). A show about underdogs that gets an awful lot right with its in-jokes about Lanin, Tiny Khan, and “Club 92” (the 92nd Street state unemployment office), Side Man minus Christian Slater is itself an underdog on Broadway at a time when a hit drama requires both classic status and a bankable star (Brian Dennehy in Death of a Salesman, Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh, etc.). This is a show with its heart in the right place, one you want to root for. But it’s just one more helping of warmed-over Eugene O’Neill—the semiautobiographical story of a hesitant young man burdened with a demented alcoholic mother and a dreamer artist father. All of theater has become one bickering Irish family in which Mother is to blame for Son, but—wait a minute!—Father is to blame for Mother. The irony is that Side Man is playing at the Golden, the site of the first New York production of Waiting for Godot, the show that supposedly put an end to this sort of overwrought nonsense more than 40 years ago.
Side Man‘s lone flash of originality is its jazz milieu, but for those of us who know the turf, the very same musical performances that thrill us in their original context are the show’s falsest touch of all. Whenever we hear the music that Leight’s sidemen are understood to be playing, what we actually hear are classic recordings by Clifford or Miles or Dizzy—the black trumpeters guys like these worshiped and to whom (if wrongly, and on only one level) they considered themselves genetically inferior. We should be hearing the likes of Tony Frusella, Doug Mettome, and Don Joseph, and if their names are unfamiliar, that’s exactly my point. They were the real-life counterparts of Leight’s beautiful losers, white trumpeters of the 1950s who fell casualty to rock’n’roll, the demise of big bands, and the black nationalism that had been synonymous with jazz since hard bop (and which Side Man alludes to only once, in passing). By substituting Brown, Davis, and Gillespie, the show betrays its own characters.
The odd thing, of course, is that few Broadway theatergoers would be able to spot the difference. CD shoppers are presumably another story, and Side Man‘s companion album appeals to the most casual of them with a random assortment of great performances by names they’re likely to recognize. Who actually buys such anthologies, though, is a mystery to me, given that I don’t drink caffé latte.