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Thinking about musicals, as we grit our collective teeth and start to face the nasty realities of the Bush Depression, seems a paradoxical activity. Isn’t the musical a big-money form, costly to produce and, in recent decades, expensive to see? Well, not necessarily. Theater production overall may shrink during bad economic times, but the proportion taken up by musicals remains roughly the same. The musical is American in essence, partly because its lavish fantasies of wealth are inherently democratic, offering the less-well-off a vicarious trip through the dreamworld of the rich, complete with rich people’s problems in lieu of their own; concurrently, it offers the upper class a chance to commiserate with the problems of the poor and victimized. In boom times, it offers the idea that anyone can strike it rich here in the land of opportunity; when the downturn hits, it offers the consolation that we’re all stuck in the muck together.
An immigrant toddler who began his working life as a child peddling newspapers on the Lower East Side streets, Irving Berlin became enormously wealthy through his songwriting, and ultimately married a daughter of the millionaire class. He was the best of Broadway’s great songwriters at embodying the full spectrum of American fiscal experience, possibly because he had known its extremes better than any of his colleagues. Berlin’s father, who died when Irving was five, was a synagogue cantor. His cultural distance from his triumphantly secularized, Americanized son itself sounds like material for a musical—or, if he had lived, the climactic confrontation from a song-filled melodrama like The Jazz Singer. Many cantors’ sons became Broadway composers; only Izzy Baline, having become Irving Berlin, wrote the two songs with which Americans identify Christianity’s two major holidays: “Easter Parade” has faded somewhat from public memory—though the movie named for it has spawned a stage version, which may yet arrive here—but “White Christmas” is still inescapable.
Written originally for the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, “White Christmas,” too, gave its title to a later movie that has spawned a stage version, which is currently failing to warm up the cold and unforgiving space of Broadway’s Marquis Theatre. The movie, White Christmas (1954), starred Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. The new stage version’s creators, incomprehensibly, have cast their roles with two personable and gifted performers, Stephen Bogardus and Jeffry Denman, who are as unlike Crosby and Kaye as possible. Bogardus, an actor of serious mien with a pleasant, light-lyric baritone, plays every scene as if yearning for some tense drama that’s been chopped from the text; Denman, a demon dancer, zips through his lines as if desperate to get his feet in motion. You can’t blame them: Any charm that lay in the original screenplay has been carefully bleached out, leaving an incoherent story so dully told that its only arresting moment occurs when you spot the name “David Ives” among the writer credits, making you wonder if the author of All in the Timing has been kidnapped by space aliens.
But there’s lots more to wonder at in this White Christmas, though not of the pleasurable winter-wonderland variety. Why does each of choreographer Randy Skinner’s tap numbers look just like all the others? (He gives Denman one decent chance to cut loose in “I Love a Piano.”) Who, in a musical theater full of delightful performers, cast the drab second-rankers who play the supporting roles? Why do the characters dress for Fifth Avenue, or a Hawaiian vacation, when they’re rehearsing in a barn in Vermont? Why does each new set look more like a discount-store Christmas card? In the last and worst one, Skinner’s dancers do a tap number in the new-fallen snow, a kind of apotheosis of the show’s systematic wrongheadedness.
The only artist who comes off without reproach is the dead one whose name has been nailed to the title, for this is, officially, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. That’s a mercy. People are more suicide-prone at this time of year, and the thought of, say, Elton John’s White Christmas, added to our economic woes, might have been too much for holiday theatergoers to bear. The show fiddles extensively but not too egregiously with Berlin’s catalog; Larry Blank’s orchestrations are brassy without being strident. When Kerry O’Malley pours her creamy tone into a ballad, it’s even possible to forget her lipstick-red wig. She and Bogardus, Denman, and Meredith Patterson are among the artists who might have made White Christmas mean something to a society genuinely in need of the solace that musicals can give.
Musical solace was supplied, too briefly and only in limited doses, by the Encores! concert staging of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, commemorating the composer’s centennial year. Berlin is to Bernstein as the self-taught immigrant is to his college-grad son. The latter always faces the struggle of loving both the old raucous immigrant tradition and the elite one dinned into him at school; Bernstein’s whole career was a struggle to merge the two. Equally full of horn-honking vaudeville and newly jivey classical ballet, On the Town (1944) is a carefree urban cartoon of our cultural dilemma, too discordantly complex to ever stop being fresh. John Rando’s concert staging, a little undercast and a little hampered by space limitations, still caught the freshness. Leslie Kritzer (Hildy) and Andrea Martin (Madame Dilly) drew some big laughs, but had to work awfully hard for them.
Nobody currently onstage in New York works harder than Shonn Wiley and Karen Murphy, the entire cast of My Vaudeville Man!, at the York, an ineptly written musical based on source material that could have produced something much better. Wiley’s feet, the show’s two strongest assets, must ache like hell after a performance; the demands it puts on him are devastating. My heart ached for him and Murphy throughout.