The stock joke about lunatics used to be that they all thought they were Napoleon. The stock joke about New York theater people should probably be that they all think they know exactly what makes a good musical. Ironically, they’re all at least partly right: The Little Corporal may be dead, but the musical, as a form, persists because it’s too multifaceted to die. Key works from its past keep coming back; new ones constantly arrive to challenge the criteria that made those earlier works key. Always seemingly on the verge of its Waterloo, the musical actually lives on a perpetual Elba, always ready for a comeback.
Let’s pass over Happiness (Newhouse), a new work that offers painfully little of its title quality, in favor of three classic musicals that have lately come back. The best of the lot, the City Center Encores! Concert staging of Finian’s Rainbow, had only a brief weekend run, but enthusiasm ran so high that it’s now scheduled to reappear in the fall. Meanwhile, nostalgicists can content themselves on Broadway with West Side Story (Palace) and Hair (Hirschfeld).
Finian’s Rainbow (1947) outclassed its competitors, as successful musicals often do, by adding good timing to an improbable mix of good qualities. E.Y. Harburg, its principal author, famously funneled a whimsical streak into his quirky-snarky leftist politics, giving the show’s puckish, slightly bemused take on the post–World War II economic boom a neatly topsy-turvy resonance in our own collapsing economy. With its gibes at credit transfers, materialist culture, class barriers, racism, and even eco-conflict, it gave vivid proof that old shows should never be updated, by managing to be deliciously out of date and utterly relevant at the same time.
This added another layer to the giddy story, which Harburg and co-librettist Fred Saidy had already dense-packed with cheerfully unblendable elements: mortgage melodrama with a populist update; mock Irish folklore, complete with befuddled leprechaun; and high-art balletic stylization, by way of a mute girl who can only communicate through “foot talk.” For a topper, they made the show’s central love affair virtually devoid of internal conflict: Boy meets girl; wish accidentally turns racist senator black; boy gets girl. Who could resist a plot structure so shamelessly cubist?
Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle’s concert staging had its mild letdowns: Jeremy Bobb made an appealing but unmagical leprechaun, and Philip Bosco wasn’t optimal casting for the big, plummy caricature of a Dixiecrat politician. But Carlyle marshaled, skillfully, assets that easily swept you past the momentary lulls: the warm presence and lush singing of Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson as the crock-of-gold-crossed lovers; Terri White’s booming alto claiming ownership of the “Necessity” number; the cunningly persnickety wistfulness of Jim Norton as Baldwin’s oh-so-Irish father. To cite one moment that perfectly conveys the free-spirited atmosphere Carlyle created, Sunday night’s audience applauded when they saw that Norton was about to dance a jig, not doling out applause in glum recompense for work done, but clapping in anticipation of an expected treat.
That delicious sense of anticipation, which has always been part of the musical’s essence, doesn’t affect a show’s degree of seriousness, or realism, or any of the other non-issues that devotees bicker over on the chat sites. From some of the arguments waged online, you’d think the form was a course in cultural anthropology instead of a mode of vernacular entertainment. Even in the shade of the largely rave reviews they’ve both received, you can hear grumbling that neither West Side Story nor Hair is quite “truthful” enough about its subject matter. Newsflash, folks: They never were. Both are lovely creations in their way; both have been re-created in ways that, perhaps inevitably, dampen a bit of their original fire, but add new shadings that refresh their intrinsic interest.
Quibblers might say that West Side Story lacks the fevered urgency Jerome Robbins gave it originally; the revival’s surprisingly coarse sound design doesn’t help, either. But Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh make an attractively matched pair of lovers physically and vocally; Karen Olivo supplies a fierce, leggy Anita. The darkening touches that librettist-director Arthur Laurents has added seem natural rather than intrusive: the cops more nakedly bigoted than of old, the “Somewhere” dream and the ending more overtly hopeless. With a story and score so widely familiar, putting much of the Boricuan song and speech into Spanish adds a salsa flavor instead of confusion. Are the rival gangs too clean-cut, their behavior too show-bizzy, their dialogue too tidily arranged? Get real: Injecting an old romantic tale with street smarts doesn’t make it a documentary; romance is its basic purpose. When the panther-leap syncopations of Leonard Bernstein’s score grab you, and the sudden lunges of Robbins’s dancers rivet you, romance doesn’t turn socio-analytical; it lives refreshed. People who don’t think that’s preferable should consult Officer Krupke’s staff shrink.
Hair always had a socio-analytic tinge, living its Broadway commercial life, as it originally did, in the aura of a reality actually occurring further downtown. Hair espoused that life in a lovable, consumer-friendly way, with such success that it became an iconic part of what it beheld. Simultaneously, it stretched the genre’s boundaries with its whimsically half-finished songs and half-told story, and most of all with the free-form visual extravagance through which the late Tom O’Horgan set the artistic tone for the Broadway-rock musical’s first phase.
Diane Paulus’s revival, staged in the shadow of O’Horgan’s passing and in the Iraq War’s painful echo of our Vietnam misadventure, eschews O’Horgan’s inventive excess, but rekindles, through its cast’s devotion, a good helping of the original’s sassy spirit. Watching them romp up and down the aisles as they pass out flowers, drag the willing onstage to dance, and sing their energetic hearts out, you accept Hair for the kind of classic it is: not a classic piece of writing and composing like Finian’s Rainbow or West Side Story, but the theater’s perpetually favorite interactive fun toy.