Victorian Shrieklets


Bernard Shaw, writing in the 1880s, said of a young soprano: “She has two accomplishments: She can sing, or she can shriek like a steam whistle. When she shrieks, she apparently pleases herself. When she sings, she pleases me. I recommend her to confine herself in the future to pleasing me.” I offer this quote as a guideline to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who shares my love of Victorian-era culture and, with his colleagues, has made a sincere effort to evoke it in his musical version of Wilkie Collins’s masterful melodramatic novel, The Woman in White. There are a lot of intense emotions in a work like The Woman in White, and every time a character is seized by one, Lord Lloyd Webber sets it to a pounding, frenetic arioso, with lots of painfully belted high notes, and Trevor Nunn’s direction sends the character downstage center to shriek the high notes directly at us. Loud is good to aficionados of the amplified musical, and these moments get big hands from people who, I’ll wager, have never heard of Wilkie Collins. But Victorian audiences would have known better: The soprano Shaw was describing did not go on to make any name for herself, and in my book neither will this version of The Woman in White.

Because the effort involved is sincere, the show probably could be salvaged to some degree. I doubt, though, that its creators would approve of my thoughts on how to salvage it. In the first place, the sound system has got to go. (Actually, all amplified music in theaters has got to go, but that’s a larger discussion.) Carefully redone for a medium-size Victorian theater orchestra, with properly trained singers, about half of the music could be retained. Lloyd Webber has no imagination or individual quality as a composer, but he is a capable pasticheur, and his imitations of various kinds of Victorian parlor songs are sometimes quite appealing—or would be if the amplified reverb that metallicizes every tone and drowns out half the lyrics were thrown out. There would still remain the problem of the dramatic music—all that shrieky repeated-note stuff—but this is easily solved: Dramatic arias from obscure French or Italian operas of the period could be interpolated at these moments, with the show’s lyricist, David Zippel, providing suitable English words. Ponchielli and Mercadante wrote lots of operas nobody knows. And there’s always Meyerbeer.

This is Lloyd Webber’s first work with a competent lyricist (T.S. Eliot, not having written for the musical theater, doesn’t count), and Zippel, though less than inspired here, has done a workmanlike job, from what I could hear of it. I think I’d probably trust him, rather than librettist Charlotte Jones, to rework the book, which badly needs both refocusing and enriching. What’s astonishing is that a piece so long (two hours 50 minutes, with one intermission), telling a tricky but comparatively simple story, should seem so crude. The worst sufferer from this is Ron Bohmer, the usually fine actor who plays the villain, Sir Percival Glyde: He gets roughly two minutes of charming suavity, after which he does nothing but rant, bully, and gnash his teeth uninterestingly for an act and a half. Meantime, his sidekick, Count Fosco, has unwisely been built up into a starring role for Michael Ball, who overplays it amusingly, taking up acres of stage time with his endlessly underlined Italian-ness and eccentricity, complete with a trained white rat that runs across his shoulder blades in his big solo. The rat gets a hand (I suppose I mean that in both senses, since Fosco is a rat too), but really should be removed, since he amounts to nothing but a prolonged stage wait as far as the story goes. And in a melodrama the story is everything. Maybe he could get a job with the Moscow Cat Circus.

Collins himself adapted The Woman in White for the stage, and although I’ve never read his version (the plays he wrote with his close friend Charles Dickens are easier to find), I wouldn’t be surprised if it had both more cogency and more depth than Jones’s, probably much cut-and-pasted in the conflicting efforts to save time and leave space for the Webberian yawp. I suspect, in fact, that if one simply played a cutting of Collins’s script, with a few of Lloyd Webber’s pleasanter songs interpolated, one would probably get better results. One might even be able to use some of William Dudley’s elaborate projected settings, though Dudley would definitely have to be curbed: His scenery has a relentless restlessness: This is the first musical I’ve ever seen in which the sets do most of the dancing; probably they and not the villain should be named Glyde.

What the cast mostly does, under Trevor Nunn’s direction, is tromp back and forth randomly in dim light, suggesting that the most essential repair to
The Woman in White would be a new director. The ensemble’s characterless trudging in every crowd scene nearly kills the evening, while the principals alternate between rigor mortis and frenzy. The idea that we might care about anyone involved (melodrama thrives on audience empathy) apparently hasn’t occurred to Nunn. Maria Friedman’s doughty insistence, as the determined and resourceful but easily misled heroine, suggests heavy labor rather than heavy drama; my heart went out to her with pity for the effort involved. All in all, I recommend The Woman in White, which apparently hasn’t pleased many, to revise itself and strive to please people like me, who know how enjoyable it could be, if done well.