Home » Arts & Life, theater

Pros Take On the Cons

It has been a rough era for Broadway musicals. Two of the most highly acclaimed off-Broadway transfers died early deaths when they moved to larger venues. Not that they didn’t deserve their fate. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was an emo-meets-SNL take on the 8th president that was not nearly as entertaining or clever as it thought it was, and those who might best appreciate it—the emo set—probably found the ticket prices out of their reach. The Scottsboro Boys, the last effort of one of the greatest of songwriting teams, John Kander and Fred Ebb, took on the infamous Alabama trial of nine black teenage boys falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1931, telling its story by way of a minstrel show. A provocative idea in 1965, perhaps, but the disconnect between the “blackface” genre and a national scandal made me queasy, and its liberal pieties seemed rather tired in 2011.

American Idiot, another nod to the youth market, brought the songs of Green Day, tied them to a flimsy story, was well-received by critics, and had a decent run, but it closed without returning its investment.

Flawed as they were, though, these works at least attempted to breathe some life into the genre. Meanwhile, the bland and the tiresome juggernauts continue to run: Memphis, Wicked, The Addams Family, Mamma Mia. (And will Phantom of the Opera ever close? Nearly a quarter of a century and counting?)

A mixed bag of musicals opened this spring from the truly frivolous, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (drag queens on a bus) to the truly awful, Wonderland (Alice meets Dr. Phil). Three of them, though, are worth discussion, and not just because they all are comedies dealing with con jobs. One is a failure, the other an unlikely success. And the third is a vivid reminder of what made the Golden Age golden.

Catch Me If You Can
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Witman and Marc Shaiman
Directed by Jack O’Brien
Neil Simon Theater, New York City

There is among musical theater aficionados the sub-genre known as the “why musical”—those shows adapted from a source, be it novel or play or film, that don’t necessarily lend themselves to song or that are strong enough in themselves that adding music neither expands or enhances them.

Stephen Sondheim has famously argued that the enormously popular My Fair Lady raises the question “Why?” As richly entertaining as it is, the musical doesn’t improve on its source, Bernard Shaw’s masterpiece, Pygmalion; it merely adds a bit of show biz glitter and a solid score to the source. A current production at Lincoln Center, The Minister’s Wife, echoes his point: a musical redo of Candida, another of Shaw’s major works, the show adds music where none is needed and ends up diminishing the play. And there’s probably a reason that more than one set of songwriters have tried without success to musicalize Our Town: the play can’t be improved.

Which brings us to Catch Me If You Can, adapted from the 2002 Steven Spielberg film based the real-life fortunes of Frank Abegnale, Jr. Abegnale’s memoir recalled his life as a flamboyant flimflam artist and forger whose skillful cons bilked millions from his marks, all the while passing himself off as an airline pilot, surgeon, lawyer, and any other profession likely to get him laid. Heading the FBI’s relentless pursuit of Abegnale was Agent Carl Hanratty ; their Javert/Valjean relationship gives the film its shape (as it does the musical).

The film was a pleasant diversion, not first-rate Spielberg, but not a waste of celluloid, either. But for me this is a “why” musical because its creative team haven’t discovered its raison d’etre, other than their apparent interest in pastiche and the recent Mad Men hullabaloo.

This tack worked extremely well for them in their previous effort, the marvelous adaptation of John Waters’ film, Hairspray. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, director Jack O’Brien, and a handful of great visual artists, found gold in the source; not surprisingly, the film was already a musical, although without original songs. Their superb work added a high gloss to what was already there.

But nothing in Catch Me as a film cries out for songs. The creators have said that they were drawn to the vehicle from a photo of the film showing Leo DiCaprio standing amid a line of “stewardesses,” and they immediately thought of a chorus line. Not necessarily a bad way to start, but the subject’s surface seems to have been more seductive than its content.

The challenge of adapting what is essentially a chase film to the stage (not an easy task) has eluded book writer Terrence McNally. Instead, the show uses the framework of a 60s TV variety show—think Hollywood Palace or The Dean Martin Show, if your memory extends that far—with Abegnale as the host. Could be fun, right? Kind of, except when the show drops the conceit entirely to allow for scenes of Abegnale’s Oedipal conflict with his father, himself a con-man but on a far more minor scale. As for the faux-60’s production numbers, what could have been satire and cheesy fun are replaced by frenzy and noise.

Expensive misfires are only fun if they’re laughingly execrable. Catch Me has too many high-powered pros at work to be a true failure. Shaiman and Wittman wrote engaging, polished songs that will probably result in a pleasant cast album. But they do little or nothing to deepen character. A number that extols the lineage of the woman Abegnale falls in love with, “Our Family Tree,” comes out of nowhere, seemingly to inspire an ensemble number around a maypole. And “Fly Fly Away” gives the girlfriend a second-act power ballad, but it has no emotional resonance because we scarcely know her. Choreographer Mitchell has created two or three inventive, exciting production numbers. And director O’Brien knows how to keep the action moving speedily past its bumpiest moments.

Where the production also stumbles is in the casting of the lead: Aaron Tveit, making his Broadway leading-man debut. Tveit is easy on the eyes, moves beautifully, and sings and acts convincingly. And yet he remains a hollow core where a star should be. Lacking that indefinable inner glow, Tveit could easily be mistaken for a talented understudy. Of course he’s supposed to be something of a blank, able in real life to slide from identity to identity, but a true comic actor would have had a field day bringing distinctive fillips to each new transformation. Tveit remains his amiable bland self throughout.

This isn’t the case with Tveit’s co-star. Hanratty is played by Norbert Leo Butz, who has become the go-to Broadway guy for quirky, inventive characters as unlikely as his name. In the huge flop, Thou Shalt Not, based on Zola’s Therese Raquin (speaking of “why” musicals!) and in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, based on the Steve Martin-Michael Caine film, Butz was the best reason to buy a ticket. His dumpling body hides a demonic dancer, and in “Don’t Break the Rules,” his collaboration with choreographer Mitchell and chorus produces a showstopper that sets a standard the rest of the show misses by a mile. In fact, Butz as Abegnale may have given this show a real reason to exist.

How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying
Book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock & Willie Gilbert
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Directed and Choreography by Rob Ashford
Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York City

Fifty years ago, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying opened on Broadway to unanimous acclaim, eight Tonys, 1,417 performances, and a Pulitzer Prize (only the fourth musical to win one). Based on a slim fictionalized memoir by Shepherd Mead that was a brief best-seller in 1952, the musical adapted Mead’s tale of his rise from mailroom clerk to vice-president of a major New York ad agency and made it into a first-class satire. The creators—producers Feuer and Martin, book writer and director Abe Burrows, and composer-lyricist Frank Loesser—had made history a decade earlier with Guys and Dolls, which many consider “the perfect musical.” And for How to Succeed, they were joined by legend-in-the-making Bob Fosse as choreographer.

It was the dawn of the Kennedy era, when capitalism—“big business”—wasn’t scary, nor the object of nostalgia (thanks again, Mad Men!). Issues of greed, sexual harassment, adultery, sexism, and ruthless ambition could be hit with rubber-tipped arrows and gentle swipes because really, folks—the show suggested—isn’t this what all guys aspire to? Big plush office, hefty expense account, cozy home in the suburbs, adoring vacant wife and zaftig mistress on the side? (The movies of the time were taking a much darker look at the same world. In The Apartment, released in 1960, Billy Wilder dipped his arrow in bile as he limned the darkly comic effects of naked ambition on his hapless hero.)

For the musical, Burrows and company fashioned a straightforward success story for their hero—Horatio Alger in a funhouse mirror. J. Pierrepont Finch is a mere window washer with his nose literally pressed against the glass of the World Wide Wickets Corporation when he decides to apply inside. But he’s a prole with limitless ambition, no scruples, and a handbook (“How to Succeed”) guiding him at every turn. Trickery, deceit, cunning, charm, and plain dumb luck propel Finch up the ladder, and like the classic rogues of literature, we cheer his every triumph. So fatuous and foolish are his foils—CEO J.B. Biggley, pompous and clueless, and the boss’ nephew, Bud Frump, craven and clumsy—that Finch dispatches them like ducks in a carnival gallery.

How to Succeed is one of those rare musicals whose book is so tightly written and so funny that it that may have triumphed without songs. But Loesser’s genius made the show a classic. His songs deliciously zing the era’s corporate culture: a pre-Starbuck’s coffee addiction (“If I can’t take two daily trips/Where shining shrine benignly drips/And taste cardboard between my lips/Something inside me dies”); the sexual allure of the secretary pool (“A secretary is not a pet/Nor an erector set./Her pad is to write in/And not spend the night in”)—an unheeded admonition; the dreams of a secretary that extend no further than being a housewife for a young executive (“Oh to be loved by a man I respect/To bask in the glow of his perfectly understandable neglect./How to belong in the aura of his frown/Darling, busy frown.”)

The show resists every temptation to sentimentalize. Even the best love song—the one breakout hit of the score— “I Believe In You” (“You have the cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth/Yet there’s that slam-bang tang reminiscent of gin and vermouth”) is one of self-love: it’s sung by Finch to himself in a bathroom mirror. Clearly, any production rises and falls on its Finch. The original, Robert Morse, parlayed his genius performance into a long career, including his in-joke casting as the aged founder of Mad Men’s original ad agency. (His sui generis stamp on the role can be seen to good effect in the film version.) The 1995 revival gave us Matthew Broderick as a Finch easy to warm to, but a bit passive in a production that foolishly pulled away from some of the book’s sexism, not seeming to notice that it was treated as a spoof way back in ’61.

As for Daniel Radcliffe, it’s the spunky musical debut of the year. With no previous experience in musical theater, he took on one of the most sizable and iconic roles in history at a time when he could easily be extending the Harry Potter brand in a series of tween-baiting projects.

But here he triumphs, despite having a merely serviceable voice and lacking the insane comic chops that made Morse a star. On the plus side, Radcliffe takes on the tricky and exhausting choreography like a pro and, more importantly, exudes an indefatigable likability and star power that can’t be learned. (In the charisma versus skill department, he’s the anti-Tveit.) I’ve rarely seen a performer receive such waves of warmth from an audience. And he happily returns it.

The production serves him well, with a strong supporting cast and energetic direction and choreography by Rob Ashford. But Ashford needs to learn to leave well enough alone. Certain songs that were meant to be simple, vaudevillian turns have been bloated almost beyond recognition by frenzied production numbers. (Much of Fosse’s work can be seen in the film version, and it’s a master class in subtlety, precision, and humor.) Loesser’s songs stand alone as comic gems; they don’t need their lilies gilded.

Finally, the surprise and delight of this revival is how fresh and funny the show remains after a half-century. The expert writing from all concerned still shines, a testament to the craft and skill prevalent in Broadway musicals of that era—although few survive as brightly as this one.

The Book of Mormon
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker
Eugene O’Neill Theatre, New York

When the 1999 animated film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was released, many considered it the best musical of that year. An offspring of the successful TV series devised by the demonic team of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, it was a riotously funny spoof that turned a campaign to censor an R-rated film into an all-out war with Canada. (The song “Blame Canada” nabbed the songwriters an Oscar nomination; the music was from the pen of Catch Me’s Marc Shaiman.) Satan and his lover Saddam Hussein popped up in prominent supporting roles, and Winona Ryder, in an unforgettable cameo, shot ping pong balls from her ladyparts.

Well, Stone and Parker are back, uproariously, joyfully, and salaciously. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that this is the first time the word “cunt” has been heard in a Broadway musical (at least onstage). To be precise, the lyric, sung by frustrated African villagers, is “Fuck God in the ass and the mouth and the cunt.”

For The Book of Mormon, the duo (abetted by Robert Lopez, one of the creators of Avenue Q) wisely moved away from the little miscreants of South Park, Colorado, to a more international—and spiritual—setting. Two young Mormons, Elders Price and Cunningham, are teamed by the church to perform their required missionary work on the road. Elder Price fervently hopes for Orlando, the next best thing to Mormon heaven he can imagine; the chubby, eager-to-please Cunningham is happy just to serve. Neither are prepared for their appointed destination—Uganda, in a remote village rife with poverty, AIDS, political thuggery, clitoral mutilation, and maggots. (We’re a very long way from Oklahoma!) The Elders they join have not made a single convert.

And that’s just about all you probably should know before entering the theater. One of the true joys of this show is the surprises it offers. Every scene, every lyric brings forth something unexpected or shocking. Song titles are not listed in the Playbill lest they leak a joke. My admonition to friends who haven’t seen it is to close their ears to anyone attempting to recap the show in detail.

The writers gather a handful of popular genres in the narrative—the buddy film, the Bildungsroman, the quest, the forbidden romance, the fish out of water—and squeeze them into classic musical comedy conventions. Sly references to The King and I, West Side Story, and The Lion King are affectionate nods to the genre, and they stage several fantasy sequences that walk the uninitiated through Mormon history and theology, all in inimitable Parker-Stone style.

Early fears that Mormons would be enraged by this musical have so far been unfounded, although Mitt Romney has yet to weigh in. Mormonism here is seen as goofy and misguided, but not particularly destructive; the Elders are sweet, earnest, well-intentioned; you want to chuck these cuties under their chins. It gradually becomes apparent that Stone and Parker have a larger point in mind: organized religion is silly and laughable and maddening. Except when it’s not. To impoverished and besieged villagers, faith is better than the hopelessness. God as your dictator is better than a murderous maniac. The cock-eyed if somewhat muddled conclusion they’ve fashioned is wildly funny and strangely moving.

Co-directors Nicholaw and Parker and choreographer Nicholaw make a seamless team. I’m guessing that Nicholaw did all of the staging, with Parker in charge of the delicious character bits. High points are the songs (and I’m making a stab at the titles here) “Hello!” where a troupe of Elders cheerfully do their door-to-door proselytizing duties; “Turn It Off” as the Elders describe how they resist their sybaritic urges; and “Scary Mormon Hell Dream” a descent into the underworld, inhabited by a gang of pop-culture villains. The music is not timeless, but it never gets in the way of delivering the barbed and jolly lyrics. And if things get a bit sophomoric and a bit undisciplined, that’s part of the joy of the South Park ethos.

Granted, it’s not a joy everyone will share. Stone and Parker walk a thin line with their anarchic take on the world. The humor is often misogynistic, racist, and homophobic (oh, and did I mention that baby rape draws some laughs?), but they are equal-opportunity satirists and conduct their business with such brio that they simultaneously seem like naughty little boys and the smartest guys in the room.

Broadway musicals have traditionally been the haven of the comforting and the predictable. The Book of Mormon shatters convention in outrageous ways, but so skillfully marries its content to familiar Broadway tropes (its musical numbers are staged in classic form) that the results are exhilarating and non-threatening. It’s a glass of warm milk laced with a strong shot of brandy.

The cast of virtual unknowns could scarcely be better, particularly Andrew Rannells as Price, Josh Gad as Cunningham, and Nikki M. James as Mafala, the young village woman who imagines her own paradise in Salt Lake City.

The future of this musical will be interesting to follow. It will surely win multiple Tonys and right now tickets are hard to come by. But theater geeks don’t make long runs over the long haul; those depend on tourists, theater parties, and the loyal old folk. Will old folks resist the “Fuck God” musical? Or will the laugh their asses off, like the rest of us? I’m betting that even they will appreciate one of the funniest and most original productions in years.

____
Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.