Reviewed by David Spencer
It's not impossible to write a solid, successful musical about prosaic (meaning "regular folks") characters, with no one larger than life to drive the story, but it's bloody difficult, because musicals are an elevated form, and characters who are not likewise elevated tend to be a bad match for it. The compensations have to be derived from innovation (Company), poetic presentation of the universe (i.e. Falsettos takes place more in the landscape of its characters' minds—Marvin's in particular—than in apartments, which is why its physicality is so fluid), or a universe that is itself somewhat romantic (Oklahoma!). But to present prosaic people prosaically makes almost no sense—and none at all in an adaptation, because there's no point in musicalization unless you can improve upon the source material. (Here's something to think on: Why is it that film adaptations are often so much less good than the sources they're based on, and musicals are usually so much better? There's probably no one-size-fits all answer, but I'll tell you this much: improvement is endemic to the musical as a theatrical form.)
All this said, there's a parlor trick that can be pulled off, if you have the sensibility and savvy for it. You can take a story about ordinary people and really hone in on the perspective that makes them view their ordinary struggles in life and death terms, so that they seem noble and poetic. But it isn't easy to do, and it takes a very particular touch.
One of the greatest theatrical heartbreaks that few even know about is that the musical based on Paddy Chayefsky's Marty never got its fair hearing. Not the authorized one by Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Rupert Holmes (book) that briefly emerged in Boston a few seasons ago—but the one by Jeff Harris (perhaps best known as a songwriter, arranger and principal musical director for Maureen McGovern). The heartbreak is that Jeff couldn't get the rights: the Chayefsky estate was looking for stars—at the time Jason Alexander was involved (the role would eventually be played by John C. Reilly)—and in order to indemnify themselves against any possible plagiarism lawsuit later, agreed to hear anything Jeff wanted to send them except his score for Marty. This is a score that had been successfully BMI Showcased and presented at the Dramatists Guild to acclaim from the likes of Sondheim, Harnick, Maltby, Charnin and Stone, there was an industry buzz about this work—I participated in the presentations and was there to see it flower—and the unwillingness of The Powers to even give the stuff a hearing is to this day one of the most profoundly sad (if also, alas, grimly understandable) lapses of judgment I know of in musical theatre history; because unlike any other writers who'd attempted the material (Marty was a favorite of aspiring writers in the 70s and 80s), Jeff absolutely nailed it: the tone, the diction, the musical delicacy—but also somehow the grandeur of a plain, "ugly" man who finds a chance to be beautiful in the eyes of another—and without even meaning to, he broke new ground. And like the character Marty himself, did it without fanfare.
I tell you all this because I wish you could have heard it.
Because if you'd heard it, you'd also be hearing not only that A Catered Affair is missing the boat (should you attend), but exactly why, despite sincerity, a certain amount of authenticity and, at least in spirit, faithfulness to its source material. Which happens to be yet another Paddy Chayefsky teleplay, and a subsequent screen adaptation of it by Gore Vidal. You'd also be hearing that the balance between verite and musical theatre is possible without sacrificing the delicacy of the first or the boldness of the second.
Like Marty, the story of A Catered Affair is an uncomplicated yet deeply human one. It takes place in New York City. Daughter Jane (Leslie Kritzer) is getting married. She and fiancˇ Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh) have decided to have an immediate-family only ceremony at the courthouse, for a number of logistical reasons, but it isn't entirely irrelevant that, timetable expedience aside, her parents are on the low end of the financial scale, living in a walk up tenement flat. Yet Jane's mother Aggie (Faith Prince) wants for her daughter the kind of wedding she never had, to make the most important day in Jane's life special. And when a large check arrives from the Army—compensation for the death of Jane's brother in battle—a check that her father Tom (Tom Wopat) had been quietly, secretly counting on to buy his share of a taxi, so he can finally be an independent driver—Aggie decides that a real wedding is what it will pay for. Abetted by her brother, Winston (Harvey Fierstein) Jane's euphemistically called "bachelor uncle," who has what he himself acknowledges as the inbred knack of "his people" to know about such things, Aggie embarks upon making it happen. But despite all her efforts to contain costs, it gradually starts to spiral out of control, making what started as a beautiful idea threaten to rip the family apart.
The key to making such a small, verite story sing involves two steps: The first is framing the evening in a musical theatre context; somehow shaping the opening moments to articulate the theme (ideally in an opening number), give the audience permission to understand and embrace a small story writ large, with that prism of "what it's about beneath the story" through which to view it. Needn't necessarily be a "concept" number, but it does have to draw you into the world and the purpose (as, say, "Tradition" does in Fiddler). The second step is expressing the beating heart of the story in passionate song that lets the actors "sing big" (where appropriate) but never shatters the verisimilitude of intimacy. As I say, not easy. But the combo of thematic focus and careful musical magnification (by which I mean not exaggeration, but rather dramatic amplification) is what pulls off the illusion.
And this, of course, is what A Catered Affair lacks.
It isn't that the creative team have failed to be faithful to tone and texture; in that, they've been quite sensitive. Even allowing for some light alteration (i.e. Mr. Fierstein explicitly re-rendering the uncle as indisputably homosexual, despite a modicum of '50s-era discretion), this musical absolutely represents Chayefsky's (and Gore Vidal's adapted) A Catered Affair with affection and respect.
The problem is—they haven't done much of anything except represent it authentically. the play may have had some particulars altered. been compressed here, streamlined there, reshaped a bit ... but it essentially hasn't been reborn a musical; the alchemical transformation that makes a musical seem necessary hasn't taken place.
The authors' approach—their very conscious approach, that I believe is also a very conscious mistake—has been to maintain the verite so assiduously that the musical never truly makes the case for its own existence, never convinces you that anything the characters are singing truly needs to be sung. For all that Harvey Fierstein's libretto is a loving makeover, it might as well be a TV movie paraphrase, for Hallmark Hall of Fame, as a musical; it hasn't truly been theatricalized, which is to say uprooted from its cinematic origins such that its new life can only be lived optimally in theatrical terms. Likewise, the music and lyrics by John Bucchino tend to make the show feel like a play with songs; and the songs—even the ones that have a discernible, classic shape—whisper in and often whisper out (the seemingly perverse lack of buttons [articulated musical endings that give closure to songs and allow the audience to applaud] where they seem most earned and wanted is flabbergasting)—sounding literate, suitable and unremarkably attractive, making the score feel like it's mostly what Ed Kleban liked to call "wretched-tative." (I should add, though, that the avoidance of buttons seems to be a trademark of director John Doyle, who eradicated many from his avant-garde-ish revivals of both Sweeney Todd and Company, with mixed results. Imposing this upon classic shows by way of exploring new values within classic material seems valid enough, even if the experiment doesn't always work; but taking buttons away from new material that earns them honestly makes the device seem like a philosophical manifesto being applied arbitrarily. This quirk aside. Mr. Doyle's direction is quite respectable, in terms of staging, work with actors, design concepts, lighting, etc.; but insofar as providing a distinctive vision, the direction, like every other element of the show, retreats into the quiet realities as they exist in the source material, rather than redefining them in musical theatre terms
Commensurately, the performances are fine, as far as it goes, but they're likewise reined in and muted by the style of the writing. All actors acquit themselves well (even Mr. Fierstein, with that gravelly voice and narrow range, demonstrates a surprising musical delicacy), but nobody really gets to land a song or own his/her role. Any expert cast of New York professionals with similar credentials and suitability to the roles would do just as well; by which I mean to say, lovely as Faith Prince and Tom Wopat are, you don't need to see their signature marks—not the way you needed to see Marty played by Ernest Borgnine, or the way you need to see Patti Lupone play Mama Rose, or the way you just had to clock the difference between two great Sweeneys, Len Cariou and George Hearn. There's a temptation to say that the cast of A Catered Affair is wasted in it, but of course that's not true, because they certainly anchor it and realize it as the authors intend. What's wasted is the opportunity for people of that caliber to run with it. Really run with it.
Subsequently, A Catered Affair is neither wonderful nor horrible, it just sort of pleasantly is. Which is why opinion on it is so split: mildness in such a context tends to divide opinion.
Where's Jeff Harris when you need him...?