Like the madwoman in the 1969 Off-Broadway musical Promenade, who thinks that two escaped convicts are her long-lost babies, I have to live with my own truth, whether you like it or not. And one truth I’m living with these days is that, for me at least, the Broadway musical is over as a phenomenon. The future of the American musical, such as it is, lies Off-Broadway. Experiments tried there may naturally dream of emigrating upward to the magic boulevard of pricey tickets. If they succeed, they’ll carry with them the flickering memory of an entertainment genre that had, during seven or eight glittering decades of the 20th century, evolved into its own distinctive art form—inventive, free-spirited, and unlike anything else.
Otherwise, Broadway musicals will mostly continue to be, as they are now, either threadbare revivals, usually from England, scaled and directed downward into a brutish parody of their past, or branded mass-media objects—animated cartoons, old sitcoms—reconstituted in three dimensions. Even that prospect isn’t completely bleak: Not everyone in England is as talent-free or musically clueless as recent revivals might suggest, and the people transferring pre-sold “properties” from elsewhere to the stage often actually possess, and are occasionally allowed to exercise, theatrical imagination. Critics keep their sanity by clutching at these slender straws of hope.
Hence, today’s column covers a Broadway revival, a mass-media replication, and the concert staging of an old Off-Broadway musical. Next week’s will cover American Idiot, a Sondheim revue, and another revival. Elsewhere, the musical theater may be blooming, or at least sprouting up a few green shoots. On Broadway, recycling proceeds apace, and not in an eco-healthy way.
Even the one treasure found in this week’s recycle bin was discovered Off-Broadway. The occasion was projected as a double celebration: Maria Irene Fornes, who wrote the book and lyrics for Promenade, turns 80 this year; the show’s concert staging was the closing event in a “Fornes Fest” of readings and discussions celebrating her work. It also served, simultaneously, as the debut offering of Legacy, a new organization that hopes to supply for classic Off-Broadway musicals the kind of concert stagings the Encores! series brings to past Broadway shows.
Promenade was an excellent first choice. Fornes, whose achievements deserve far more space than I can allot her here, is probably the finest of America’s unfairly neglected playwrights. College theater students often know Mud; musical-theater people of a certain age know Promenade, though mainly from its original-cast album, which holds about half of Al Carmines’s captivating score. But given the state of the world today, it makes zero sense that resident theaters haven’t seized on prophetic works like The Danube and The Conduct of Life; it makes even less sense to me that Fornes’s delicious short works like Successful Life of 3 or Dr. Kheal aren’t universally known. The world is missing out on some real delights here.
First performed Off-Off Broadway by Judson Poets Theatre in 1965, then expanded for its Off-Broadway run in 1969, Promenade marks the apex of Fornes’s earliest playwriting style. A cartoon-baroque extravaganza with a dark, sardonic undercurrent, it evokes but never mimics “Absurdist” writers like Ionesco and Arrabal. Two convicts, motivated by the desire to know evil, break out of jail. Instead of evil, they discover the privileged obliviousness of giddy rich people, the perpetual bitterness and docility of the working poor, and the soothing effect of even misplaced motherlove. Meekly, they go back to jail. “And for those who have no cake,” runs a final chorus that may or may not mean what it says, “there’s plenty of bread.” Sure.
Carmines floats the barbed ironies of Fornes’s lyrics on a fizzy outpouring of mock-operetta vocal acrobatics, drawing playfully on a staggering range of musical vocabularies, from bel canto to honky-tonk. Orchestrated with equally imaginative wit by Eddie Sauter, Promenade‘s score is a gigantic joy to hear, and a daunting challenge for even the best-equipped theater singers to tackle. Though undaunted, bless their bravery, the cast that Legacy assembled was mostly either unequipped or insufficiently rehearsed, resulting in an unhappy experience through which the extraordinary writing only intermittently glowed. Ken Lundie’s orchestra often found itself and the singers going separate ways; Pamela Hall’s perfunctory staging often made confusion even where Fornes’s text makes simple sense. I went home glad they had tried it, sorry I had seen it, and heartily wishing them better luck, or better preparation, next time.
I was even sorrier while sitting through the shoddy revival of La Cage aux Folles (Longacre Theatre), Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 musical, in which a drag nightclub star and his club-owner hubby battle each other but unite to confront the right-wing parents of hubby’s son’s fiancée. The original production made the gay couple’s Côte d’Azur nightclub the goofily glamorous place Herman’s lyrics salute. Terry Johnson’s new production, with misplaced Anglocentric cultural memory, reduces it to a tatty, skimpy pier-end revue where drag equals stereotype plus ineptitude. The familiar gestures pall almost instantly, the songs get trampled into incoherence, and Douglas Hodge’s simpering, ad-libbing cliché of a drag diva shoots down any glimpse of emotional truth. Amazingly, in the midst of this rag heap, Kelsey Grammer pulls off a genuine star turn, investing the role of Hodge’s spouse with easy charm and projecting his ballads with graceful feeling. He should keep classier company artistically.
Neither musical nor play, Million Dollar Quartet (Nederlander) is a harmless synthetic replica of the famous 1956 occasion when Elvis (Eddie Clendenning), Johnny Cash (Lance Guest), Carl Perkins (Robert Britton Lyons), and Jerry Lee Lewis (Levi Kreis) all turned up to jam at a Memphis recording studio. Kreis’s wisecracks and pianistic stunts guarantee the loudest applause, but both Lyons’s dour-mouthed, envious-eyed Perkins and Guest’s sheepishly sturdy Cash offer him strong competition. If you don’t care how deep they delve as long as you’ve got your plastic Elvis settin’ on the dashboard of your car, it passes the time harmlessly.