Theater archives

The Moment’s Musicals


The millennium is finally dragging to its strict calendrical end, taking with it the century in which America altered the world’s musical taste irrevocably. It’s a good time to take stock, and New York’s musical theater, where much of the alteration occurred, is a good place to start. Six musicals crowded their way onto the list of openings for the first two weeks of December, after which new theater events give way to holiday parties, so a good supply of specimens is available for study, comprising everything from a giant Broadway warhorse to a tiny workshop and an obscurity from the past in staged concert form. Taken together, they sum up a glorious history, paint a woeful picture of present conditions, and show enough signs of hope to make it clear that history could start turning glorious again any minute—though holding your breath while you wait would be ill-advised.

One thing’s clear: We’ve come to the end of the road for one style of musical, the giant pseudo-Romantic pop-rock sludge pile. I never liked these things; now nobody likes them. As far as I’m concerned, Cats (closed) and Miss Saigon (expiring next month) have been flops all along—the public simply didn’t take my reviews to heart until now.

Mostly produced via London and bearing some sort of antique literary cachet, these musicals had little to do with Broadway tradition. They were mainly attempts to update with an amplified pop sound the century-long British tradition of failed operetta. In addition to famous-name subject matter, they tended to feature darker versions of the lavishness that had been the selling point of Ivor Novello’s otherwise pallid 1930s and ’40s spectacles. The need to bolster the form with a presold literary title indicates, not high-art aspirations or love of the past on the creators’ part, but an insecurity about the salability of their product. Broadway musicals, when not created out of whole cloth or built round a specific star, tended to be based on current bestsellers or news events (Ferber’s Show Boat, Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Perle Mesta’s ambassadorial appointment), or on once-loved works that had slipped out of the public eye (The Warrior’s Husband, Street Scene, They Knew What They Wanted, The Matchmaker). Currency kept the form from being ponderous; relatively obscure source material freed it from the need to be literal.

Nothing could be more literal than Jane Eyre, which we may hope will be the last of these pretentious pop sludge-piles to ooze across a Broadway stage. John Caird, who gets first billing as coauthor and codirector of the depressing object, was second in command to Trevor Nunn on Nicholas Nickleby (not a musical) and Les Misérables; his principal idea here seems to have been to turn Charlotte Brontë’s quasi-Gothic female fantasy into a sort of Miz Nickleby. The actors march by as in Nickleby, reciting one line of narration apiece; Rochester’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, gabbles like a whole sextet of Thenardiers. Caird appears not to have noticed that Jane Eyre—the kitschy prototype of all Harlequin romances—is a different sort of creation from large, sprawling social novels with multiple plots, and might demand a different sort of treatment onstage. A closed-off work by a woman who led a comparatively sheltered life in the country, its events are projections of psychological fantasy, not products of observation. Told in the first person, it needs some imaginative mediating factor to move off the page; that’s why the most successful film version of Jane Eyre is Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943), which duplicates the novel’s fevered compulsiveness with its shadow effects, shifting points of view, and mock-anthropological toyings with the occult.

Nothing so interesting happens in Caird’s version, which trudges from one incident to the next, making predictable song opportunities (hymn here, waltz there, bravura aria there) for Paul Gordon’s pallid, inbred music to exploit ineffectively. (This is a score that makes Andrew Lloyd Webber sound good—at least he knows three chords, where Gordon only seems to know two.) John Napier’s scenery, an elaborate mix of projections and three-dimensional sliding objects about which much fuss has been made in the press, is the worst he has ever designed, ingeniously subtracting from the work any sense of either its haunted emotional atmosphere or the solid reality in which the haunting takes place. Even the climactic fire is unconvincing: A British experimental troupe that briefly infested BAM last year with an arch deconstructed version of the novel did it better by simply having Rochester’s mad wife scatter down sheets of manuscript.

While great acting, in New York, is so often the art that makes lousy nonmusicals bearable, the pop-rock invasion and the flotilla of amplifiers that accompanied it have meant that inadequate musicals are now rarely rescued by great singing. If anything, the squalls and squeaks emitted by the speakers on either side of the proscenium arch—these days they hardly ever seem to come from the actors’ mouths—do more than the authors and director can to spoil a musical’s pleasure potential. Whether the pop-rock repertory of vocal tactics is or isn’t musically valid in itself, the fact remains that virtually nobody since the time of Hair has been able to make it function for musical theater. For half a century, Broadway drew on a very wide range of voices and styles, from blues shouters and bopsters to opera singers, who relaxed into the vernacular without the condescending label of “crossover.” The electronic straitjacket of amplification has shrunk the range of vocal techniques along with the composers’ range of harmonies and melodic devices. (“I can’t listen to Broadway songs anymore,” a classical composer complained to me. “They’re all anthems.”)

This is not a blanket indictment: Our musical theater has any number of singers, conductors, orchestrators, vocal coaches, and even sound designers who know and care about voice production, and are anxious to ensure the life, the freshness, and the individuality of every voice in their charge. But they are outpaced as well as outnumbered; miking is a perpetual invitation to vocal laxity, and the long-run system can grind down the warmest and best-trained voice. The splintering yells that escape from Marla Schaffel’s Jane Eyre and James Barbour’s Rochester at the end of every number—applause-catchers that reduce any sense of ongoing musical drama to rubble—reverberate like announcements that these voices will soon need replacing. The remarkably named Aloysius Gigl, who sings the lead role in the tiny Off-Off musical A Child’s Garden, has toured in Les Miz and Phantom; the metallic rattle of his upper register now sounds exactly like your mother getting down the cookie sheets for her holiday baking. It doesn’t have to happen: Jane Eyre boasts, as Blanche Ingram, the would-be Mrs. Rochester, Elizabeth de Grazia, whose tones are free, bright, and carefully supported, and as chattery Mrs. Fairfax, the redoubtable Mary Stout, who knows how to husband a comic actress’s smaller but more varicolored resources. The two best voices in A Child’s Garden, of which more next week, belong to Jessica Walling and Thomas Scott Parker, whose program bios are low on musicals but heavy on Shakespeare.

And then there are, perennially, the astonishing vocal (and physical) mimics whom Gerard Alessandrini unearths for his Forbidden Broadway series. The current edition, less generally satirical and more personally targeted than its immediate predecessor, features two women whose skill at this sort of parodic makeover is beyond brilliant: Christine Pedi and Felicia Finley. Pedi, who can instantly reproduce the flaw in any star’s sound box, must have a dozen sets of vocal cords waiting backstage to be Velcroed into place; I can’t think of any other way by which she could morph from Judi Dench’s nicotine-scarred tonal breakup to the gin-watered gargle of Elaine Stritch (during which you can virtually hear the polyps growing), without injuring her own voice. Finley’s principal comic weapon, in contrast, is the body: You can watch her grow Rebecca Luker’s stately neck, or reshape her elbows to the exact angle of Heather Headley’s when the latter hits a high note. She’s acquired Marla Schaffel’s lofty cheekbones, too—had them before Jane Eyre opened. The male half of the cast, Danny Gurwin and Tony Nation, are funny and strong, but it’s the divas who scoop the evening.

Next week: More small musicals, and some general conclusions