Strummer Theater


Ladies and gentlemen, will you kindly quiet down so that we can put this matter to a vote? Thank you. I will restate the motion. The Society for the Alleviation of Critics’ Suffering in the Theater hereby resolves as follows: (1) that the casts of all New York stage productions containing music shall have the same musicality, personality, and ease as the cast of Thunder Knocking on the Door; (2) that all instrumental music played in the theater, with or without amplification, shall mix the fiery and the mellow to the same pleasing degree; and finally (3) that the books of all musicals shall not strive to do too much, nor too actively get in the way of the music.

I think we all understand the substance of this motion. While you ponder it and prepare to vote, I, as your chairman, should like to offer some reflections on the matter. We support the idea of musicals that are, in a word, musical. We are not especially concerned about their being old or new, comic or serious, meaningful or purely frivolous, political or personal. Though we don’t lay claim to an intimate understanding of every musical vocabulary, we like to think that our ears are open to a reasonably wide range of sounds, irrespective of their ethnic or national origins. If these latter are vital sources of inspiration to the artists involved, that is all well and good, but it is not our concern: We go to the theater to have a good time experiencing life artistically, not to sort out racial politics. That the author of Thunder Knocking on the Door mistakenly believes African Americans have spiritual roots in ancient Egypt is his problem, and has only become ours because the set designer, Eugene Lee, has put it in the forefront, by making the characters’ modest family home a pyramid with a mystic eye, in neon, at its peak, as if they lived on the back of a dollar bill. But then, Lee’s gift for inconveniencing plays and musicals of all sorts is well known by now.

More to the point is Glover’s desire to tell several different stories—as well as several different kinds of story—at the same time. This is a folk tale, in which a certain amount of high-pitched language and a fair number of magical happenings are to be expected. But then it’s also a loose-jointed vaudeville comedy, an extended sketch with songs about a ramshackle family putting itself to rights, and its playful tone naturally tends to deflate the lofty language, and reduce the magic to showbiz: Vaudeville is an urban popular mode, while the folk tale is rural. And floating above both of those, you might say, there seems to have been some effort on Glover’s part to write a standard-model serious drama with a supernatural intrusion. Such plays probably exist in the black American theater tradition, but the prior examples that come to my mind are all Broadwayite or European: On Borrowed Time, Giraudoux’s Intermezzo (The Enchanted in English), Mauriac’s Asmodeus. Sometimes the visitor is Death, sometimes the Tempter. Glover’s intruder seems to be both—but then seems to turn human at the end. I have to confess that I found the cosmology involved more than a little confusing, just as I couldn’t ever tell, in this story of a dead blues guitarist’s family squabbling over his two magical six-stringers, which of his two children was supposed to have inherited his genius.

But like many of you, dear colleagues, I didn’t mind the story’s confusions, or its awkward shifts of focus and tone, because there was so much else going on, both in the script and onstage. An excess of ambition isn’t a bad thing in a young playwright; putting a little too much in your play is certainly fairer to audiences, at today’s prices, than stingily rationing out your effects drop by drop. Our late colleague Pauline Kael once quoted Blake—I don’t mean Blind Blake or Eubie but the English poet Blake—as having said, “You never know what is enough until you know what is too much.” I think she was reviewing one of Shelley Winters’s better film performances. And what’s true for Winters in California also applies to summers in New York. Thunder Knocking on the Door may not have much substance or lucidity, but it has a lot of language, a lot of gesture, a lot of action and reaction and event. And I’m not inclined to sneer at that.

Most of all, of course, it has a lot of music, though I’d be hard pressed to find a category that covers it all, since there’s everything from bare country blues to a soupy kind of post-Motown pop. Some of it’s excellent, in every category, and the rest is never less than pretty good—you have to expect a certain variability of effect, given that the show has both a “musical supervisor” and a “musical director,” not to mention three arrangers, plus an “original orchestrator” whose work precedes theirs, and who’s still there in the onstage band, working off this collage of charts. And not only does the five-man band play everything that’s thrown at them extremely well, but two of the actors, Chuck Cooper and Peter Jay Fernandez, give out a climactic harmonica duel that’s as good as any playing I ever heard onstage from people who aren’t primarily instrumentalists.

When an actor as skillful and strongly grounded as Cooper, with a rich singing voice to boot, has an extra string like that to his bow (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor), you’re in the presence of something exceptional that only the American theater —and most often the African American theater—can give you. Leslie Uggams, Cooper, Fernandez, Marva Hicks, Michael McElroy: This is a cast of actors who are fine comically or tragically, fresh and energetic and alive in the moment. And then you hear them sing: Hicks opening up to blast a song through the back wall of the house, McElroy soothing your ears with tones of purest honey. Yes, there are quibbles here, too: Fernandez, a solid actor, is not the magically flamboyant artist you can believe has dropped in from the other world. And Uggams, an epitome of beauty and sweetness, struggles a little with the brassiness and sharp edges of her role. (She made me think, though, of another vaudeville-linked black play, long overdue for revival, in which she’d fit the lead role perfectly—Ed Bullins’s The Fabulous Miss Marie.) But quibbles remain merely quibbles. If Thunder Knocking on the Door isn’t going to stay high on my list of memorable works, I propose to look back on it as a classic instance of the way, in music theater, human values and musical virtues can overcome dramatic limitations. Now shall we have a voice vote on that motion? Carried unanimously—how did I guess?

I’m sorry to report, however, that my reflections took up so much time that you’ve all missed dessert, a double pity because it would have confirmed, totally, the feelings we’ve been sharing here. Dessert, you see, was the first-ever revival of Moss Hart and Irving Berlin’s Face the Music, one of the few successful musicals of the Depression, in a desperately patched-together but nonetheless diverting concert staging by Musicals Tonight! We’d better not ask if Mel Brooks ever saw this show, which has astounding resemblances to The Producers: It’s still Hoover’s presidency, you see, so New York’s gripped by Depression and Prohibition. The only ones with money are crooked cops, who keep it in little tin boxes, for this is also the time of the Seabury Commission’s investigation into corruption in our city government. When the cops have to ditch their surplus cash, they give it to a notoriously lavish loser-producer named Weissman—sorry, Reisman—whom they expect to vanish it for them. Then, naturally, they need their bucks back—to save the city from the Crash, if you please—so they have to turn Reisman’s folly into a hit, by making it so lewd the anti-vice vigilantes get riled up. Amazing, how relevant it all sounds, and without an ounce of updating.

Though there was, to my regret, some tinkering. Hart’s book was left to revel in its loose ends and ancient topical jokes (there was even a Julian Eltinge joke), but Berlin’s score had two film songs of the same era grafted onto it. That’s hardly painful—there’s no such thing as too much Irving Berlin—but Face the Music‘s largely unknown score, which features long “sung-through” numbers, is brilliant enough to deserve close scrutiny without retouching. Its climax, a cartoon trial scene with weird parallels to both Weill’s Mahagonny and the later Weill-Hart Lady in the Dark, dramatizes what’s missing in the sustained sequences of today’s musical dramas: wit. Only Sondheim, whose humor is far darker than Berlin’s, comes anywhere near his comic flair. The young, raw-ish cast of Thomas Mills’s production didn’t come too close to Berlin’s style, either, but a few of them, notably Vanessa Limonides and Patrick Boyd as a feisty dance team, had more than youth and brashness to offer.

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