Reviewed by David Spencer
The premise is almost absurdly simple in description. Theres this team of musical theatre writers: talented but not particularly realistic, savvy or possessed of the sharpest taste. And theyve written a musical called "The Big Bang", which is about nothing short of the history of the world. It is to be (they say) the most expensive musical in history (budgeted at $83.5 million), and the longest (more evenings than "Nicholas Nickleby"), with the largest cast and the most extravagant sceneryever.
And what were watching is their 90 minute backers audition, featuring highlights. It takes place in a swank, East Side apartment (as so many do) which has been donated to the occasion by its absent owners (we are told), though one gets the feeling that the word guy has been asked to house sit for them and is taking advantage of the privilege. Anyway, were in the audience, "playing" the prospective backers. And theyre before us playing well, everything and everybody. This is, after all, a musical that spans recorded time.
Okay, now in real life, the premise Ive just describedthe faux backers; auditionis fraught with peril. The world history thing can conceivably get old very fast, as parody numbers pile on; in addition, the show within the show will clearly be scattershot, with no continuing characters topardon the phraseinvest in. What are we to follow here, and will we be stuck with an elaborate one joke premise?
The answers to these questions are as surprising as they are entertaining. For the real-life composer Jed Feuer and his lyricist-librettist partner Boyd Graham (who also directed), play characters named for themselves, and the characterswhether despite or because of their daffy ambitionare almost touchingly endearing in their naïveté. In short order it becomes clear: the musical within needs no characters to root for: the ones were rooting for, preposterously, are the authors themselves.
As for getting stuck with a one-joke premise well, we do, sort of. Theres this over-arching single joke, but its so ingeniously devised that you just crave each subsequent variation. See, as our guys take us through the history of the world, they borrow props from the borrowed apartment. An upside down black lampshade worn on the head turns the composer into Nefertiti. T-shirts pulled inside out and lifted over the head make both guys look like beleaguered slaves in Egypt. ("Vere buildink da pyramids," they sing to a downtrodden soft shoe, and every now and again pause in their refrain to sing, "Vere Jews," in case the accent didnt tip us off, and "Ve sing de blues," to make sure we know theyre oppressed. It shouldnt be that funny. But you roar.) To create a belle from the Civil War south, take two umbrellas, hook em into your pockets, open em, grab a curtain, pull it down, wrap it around the umbrellas, bingo, hoop skirt. (Howard Crabtree, wherever he is, should be very pleased; his legacy continues.)
The improvisations become more and more outrageous and somehow this keeps upping the stakesdont ask me how.
As for the songstheyre funny. Often Mel Brooks funny, because theyre so brazen. Theres actually a torch song for Eva Braun to sing about Hitler, whose refrain is "Loving Him Was My Big Mistake." At first you cant imagine that they can overcome the distastefulness of the subject matter; and then she sings that for the first months of their romance, she thought her lovers first name was "Heil." Laughter? Explosive. The music, though often relying on pastiche, uses it craftily, applying unexpected styles to seemingly incongrous historical periods, with hilarious results.
The notion of musicalizing a backers audition has been realized before (by the very funny team of Denis Markell and Doug Bernstein, who envisioned theirs as a more traditional book show that examined the players behind a specific Broadway-bound production), but I think ultimately "The Big Bang" has more staying power, because its essential theatricality transcends the "insider" aspect of the occasionmaking it a tour de force on its own termsand because it is so consistently dangerous: the escalating gag keeps threatening to self-destruct, and it never does. (And before I forget, a vigorous nod to those who keep it afloat with the authors: musical director/accompanist/midi-orchestrator extraordinaire Albert Ahronheim, set designer Edward T. Gianfrancesco and costume designer Basil du Maurier.) "The Big Bang" also has the advantage of not needing its authors around to make it work, charming as they are. As with, say, "The Mystery of Irma Vep," it can withstand the performances of others, and indeed thrive on them.
Now God knows there are better musicals out there than "The Big Bang" and by more formidable writersone could (perhaps speciously) argue that the very sensibility that allows Feuer and Graham to concoct "The Big Bang" is the same sensibility that would limit them in deeper explorations of the human spirit.
But give them this, and give it to them with full marks and full heart, because you must understand that what they have accomplished is harder to do than almost anything: they set out to be funny, from start to finish. Book, music, lyrics, all of it, for 90 minutes, no intermission, funny. And as Ive written before, comedy is the most democratic form of entertainment. If the audience laughs, you got funny. If they dont, you die. That simple. Granted, "The Big Bang" doesnt get the big laugh with every bitnear the end, a few of them flag, dont quite kill the way some others have but the daring duo always recovers, and by then they have long since earned the audiences trust, affection, enthusiasmand even complicity.
Whod have thought such a show, indeed such a premise, could actually live up to its title? Too cool, that. Talk about the best "Bang" for your buckGo to David Spencer's Bio