Book by Rupert Holmes
Original Book by Peter Stone
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Additional Lyrics by John Kander and Rupert Holmes
Directed by Scott Ellis
Starring David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk
Al Hirschfeld Theatre / 302 West 45th Street / (212) 398-8383
Reviewed by David Spencer
There could not be a more entertaining or satisfying mediocre musical than Curtains. And in this it is a curiosity. It comes in an era where Broadway musicals exist in a high-stakes environment, costs and ticket prices so high that if it isn't a kickass hit, it's a bomb (unless—to honor new millennium realities—it happens to be an inept show brute forced into being a tourist hit by dint of connection to brand names and a corporate machine powerful enough to keep it alive past the memory of reviews, as Disney did with Aida and has now done with Tarzan).
I never reviewed High Fidelity in these pages—it closed so fast, I decided to forego a notice, since I know key people on the creative team and under those circumstances it wasn't worth venturing near "conflict of interest" territory, which I always judge on a per-case basis—but I think it's safe to say, now, that it was nobody's disaster. Hugely flawed, yes, and structurally misguided, but earnestly professional, respectful of its source material and possessed of a (mostly) solid and sometimes first-rate score. But after lackluster reviews, two weeks, boom, and out. Was a time, something like High Fidelity could have hung on a while.
Was a time too, way back, when there was even a place for the middling musical—for the Bajours, the What Makes Sammy Runs, the Minnie's Boyses, the Seesaws, the How Now, Dow Joneses—that could cling to life for most of a season, maybe more. Not intending to be less than hits, but because their aspirations were too low or their creative teams not bold or focused or brilliant enough, they missed the mark—but not by so wide a margin that casual audiences wouldn't sample them. Ticket prices were not only cheaper then, they were proportionately cheaper too, and you could hit most shows for not much more or not much less than the cost of a first run movie. (What killed it for everyone was Nicholas Nickleby, in 1981; a brilliant two night epic at the Booth, imported from Britain's RSC, it charged patrons $100 for every and any seat in the house. And sold out its run. Worth it too. And once producers knew audiences were willing to pay $50 per night, ticket prices—at least it seemed this way—started to zoom up.) To put that in perspective, let's say, mid-70s, an orchestra seat was $15; you could get a balcony seat for about $4 to $6. If inflation had held proportionately to most other leisure expenses that existed then (books, movies, recordings), orchestra seats today would cost you between $35 and $60, that balcony seat about $12 to $15. The midlist musical would still be possible. But them dayz iz gone at prices ranging from $60 in the balcony (and that with a discount) to (I shudder to even think it) $110.
Yet Curtains may wind up being a strange exception, for the equally idiosyncratic reason that, mediocre though it may be, it hews precisely to the path it wishes to take, and in achieving that goal (or as I like to say, fulfilling its own assignment), its mediocrity—which is of course unintentional—isn't made manifest by insufficient realization; but rather by uninspired realization. It's all exquisitely professional, perfectly competent and thoroughly entertaining...it's just never extraordinary.
To some degree this has to do with the limits of the concept—a backstage musical comedy murder mystery.
It's 1959, we're in Boston at the Colonial Theatre, and a wild west musical version of an English legend—Robbin' Hood—is in trouble during its out-of-town tryouts. Among other things, its leading lady, Jessica Cranshaw (Patty Goble) is in over her head. Going up on her lines, tripping over her choreography, "pitching out" on her notes. Dying onstage. And not long after the curtain call doing so offstage as well. With some anonymous help.
As the show's producers (Debra Monk, Michael McCormick) and the effete director (Edward Hibbert) try to figure out what to do; as the once married songwriters (Jason Daniely, Karen Ziemba) try to fix the score; as the ingenue/star standby (Jill Paice) and her understudy (Megan Sikora) wonder if they're rising in the food chain—and as various others contemplate their own futures—in walks Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (David Hyde Pierce), a plainclothes detective from the local precinct, to solve the murder (the first of what will be several). He seals off the theatre—no one allowed in or out, since all are suspects—but he fits right in: he's a dedicated theatre buff and desperately loves musicals. All of which sounds like fodder for an entertaining, lighthearted romp—and it is. However—
Bear in mind, a mystery by definition depends upon withheld information. Conversely, in a musical, characters sing because they are expressing something passionate, and that by definition has to come from a true and unguarded place. (Even if a character is singing something on the surface that plays against his deeper feelings, we almost always know what those deeper feelings are—he can lie to others, perhaps even to himself, but never to us; that's what creates the dynamic of subtext in a song,) And that clarity of objective, or desire, is what supplies the fuel for song. In addition, there's also something about the very quality of music as a medium: in a dramaturgical sense, it's a lie detector, because for all that it may be composed exactingly, it works on the audience's senses in an abstract way that accesses a communication deeper and richer than mere words. It makes a pact with the listener such that insincere music—not music used insincerely, which almost always conveys irony (and thus identifies guilt), but music used to deliberately mislead the audience—is damn near impossible. If a character is in a withholding posture, there's no passion; if there's no passion, there's nothing much for him to sing about.
And THAT means, kids, that a musical mystery can't have many credible suspects. Once a character sings, you pretty much see into his soul. Remember too, musicals have to do their thing compactly. Even the most complex and rich characters are painted in bold, iconic strokes. For reasons of time and narrative compression, your average supporting character gets only one solo or featured turn to define him, and that can't get squandered on a red herring, otherwise you're lying to the audience and not using song fairly. An audience will turn on a show that makes them sympathize with a character only to learn the character is an unrepentant fink in disguise.
Unless your guilty party simply doesn't sing.
OR: have a character sing about something else he may be sincerely passionate about, off the topic of his culpability (though in the end, also of course, the topic would have to be related to his culpability)—but that would have to be a character we spend enough time with to allow for the additional facet. And that's not a supporting player.
With a light, showbiz story, there's also the implicit promise that, in the end, everything will turn out okay. And that means the guilty party can only be someone dispensable—otherwise the show within the show could never survive. (And if it did, you wouldn't believe it. Verisimilitude is fragile here and you can only take the fantasy so far.)
This makes the intended mystery of Curtains kind of thin. Transparent if you think about it too much. So you're not allowed to: a large proportion of the show is given over to "rehearsals" of numbers from the show within the show. And since it's a wild west thing with guns and cowboys and dames and stuff, there are light allusions to the "real" relationships outside the show, plus the added anticipation of something that may (or may not) go wrong or go boom during the runthrough. And this is clearly padding—and misdirection, to keep you looking the wrong way for your killer. It's fun padding and misdirection. But it stops forward movement dead, weaving a wild west revue in and out of a "contemporary" book musical, and thus robs solving the crime of visceral urgency.
All this now established—
Do most audiences really care about all that stuff? Deconstruct it that methodically? Even think about it?
Of course not. Even most critics don't. Even I didn't, that consciously, in the theatre.
But audiences know it all the same, on the preconscious level that supports instinctive reasoning, and familiarity—even if only a fan's familiarity—with the conventions of both musicals and murder mysteries.
And that's what keeps Curtains boxed in, and keeps the viewer's blood from racing. The show is never a transcendent experience because on a fundamental level it simply can't be. In fulfilling its own assignment it confronts its limitations.
So what's left it how the creative team operates within that reach.
And here, as I said, is where Curtains is a real curiosity. For within the score—originally written by the legendary team of composer John Kander and his late partner lyricist Fred Ebb, finished and refined by Kander and librettist Rupert Holmes providing additional lyrics—and the book—originally written by the late Peter Stone, taken over and (re?-)realized by Holmes—there is almost nothing fresh. The impact of the songs is a mild one, most are shadows of far superior songs written for far superior shows, some of them by Kander & Ebb themselves. And the genre archetypes are likewise a rehash. There's not a single character spun uniquely enough to create genre iconography—only to honor signature icons of the past, and at times to mildly lampoon them. (Actually, to be fair, lieutenant Cioffi has a few genial personality tics—but they inform a nice, smart man who's decent company, not a driven, deductive bloodhound. Despite David Hype Pierce's charming portrayal, he's not as high octane a personality as Columbo or Nero Wolfe or Mike Hammer or Rockford or Ironside or Lew Archer—or even the high-kitsch Ed Noon or the high camp Inspector Closeau or the cozy Jessica Fletcher. Then again—the show doesn't seem to want one.)
Yet, because Holmes and Kander are consummate pros (as were Ebb and Stone), they aim true at their targets.
The songs, deftly delivered, punch every button they mean to punch.
The jokes land.
The characters, since they aren't fresh, are brazen celebrations of their templates.
And Curtains thus becomes, I don't know how else to put it, the equivalent of musical theatre comfort food. It feels good now because this kind of thing done efficiently always feels good. It doesn't hurt that under the direction of Scott Ellis (which, as always when he's directing new material, comes off as admirably clean and focused, yet somehow generic too), the cast all rip into their archetypes with conviction and sometimes outright gleeful gusto. In a way, co-headliner Debra Monk, as the sassy producer, is her own archetype—she's filled variations of this role before, done so, in fact, in Steel Pier, the last original Kander-Ebb musical, that also directed by Ellis—but she's comforting too. You know why she's there, she knows you know, and she delivers the goods. But really they're all cast to type: Michael McCormick is deliciously peeved as Monk's producing partner, but then he was peeved as John Adams in the revival of 1776 (also directed by Ellis). Karen Ziemba is terrific as the ubiquitous trouper who steps in after the star leaves because, with the exception of a few roles, she has spent most of her career as the ubiquitous, terrific trouper who steps in after the star leaves (thus deservedly attaining an odd kind of stardom herself, as everybody's favorite go-to girl). Edward Hibbert's assays the bitchy, droll director because like many great bitch-drollers before him (Roderick Cook, Paul Linde, Daniel Davis, etc.) he's turned his "take" into the equivalent of a trademarked franchise. And on and on. Though perhaps the hardest job of characterization is carried by Jill Paice, because—and I know this from having worked with her—while she is naturally a sweet and bubbly ingenue, she also has a reservoir of darker, more complex colors that the role doesn't let her access. For reasons I won't explicate here, because analysis would be a de facto guilt-or-innocence spoiler, she is required to keep the bubble afloat without variance in tone or demeanor—so hers is the burden of maintaining a one-note character interestingly throughout the evening. And it is a testament to her skill—which may be invisible behind the pert energy and undying dimples—that she does so.
I suppose, in the end, the real gift of Curtains is the fond farewell it sends to Fred Ebb and Peter Stone. Maybe it's right that it's not the masterpiece they never got to finish, but rather just the good time that reminds us of their buoyant and irrepressible personalities, their wit, their enthusiasm and their love of the game.
It says look: theydunit.
And maybe that's why it maintains its strange equilibrium. Because all parties concerned knew there would be a real crime if it didn't...