NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE
HERE LIES LOVE
MATILDA THE MUSICAL
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
A number of musicals have opened one upon the other, late this season, the general audience response to which has made the notion of my reviewing them—offering appraisal of bad-middling-good-great in any definitive-seeming manner—an exercise in sounding off for the sake of sounding off. There are too many intelligent people of taste—theatre professionals (some of them friends and colleagues of mine) and “civilian” patrons alike—who are proponents of one or more of these offerings, and these proponents metaphorically stand toe-to-toe and in equal opposition to the detractors; and so for me to recommend or not is to mislead.
Which is not to say I intend to, or even can, hide my opinion. Truth to tell, I fall anywhere from gently-to-vehemently on the side of those opposed, for the most part, because by a weird coincidence of timing or a shift in the cultural Zeitgeist, all these musicals represent a disturbing trend: Putting forth writers whose work seems to mark them as lacking comprehensive musical theatre training, and putting forth shows which have almost nothing (and sometimes absolutely nothing) in the way of subtext.
Most of you who care about musicals know what I mean by subtext, but for those few who don’t, a VERY quick and VERY oversimplified explanation. Subtext is what engages the audience’s active, if tacit, participation, and makes for rich characterization. It’s what goes on underneath the song. There are many kinds and uses of subtext, but I’ll cite three as examples, just for a broad-strokes primer.
There’s the subtext of self-delusion, in which a character understands himself less well than we in the audience do, which creates irony, and points toward a path of self-discovery the character must take: when Henry Higgins sings “I’m an ordinary man” the fact that he’s anything but tells us a great deal about him. But what it tells us is implicit, never articulated. The material trusts us to bring that understanding to the mix.
There’s the subtext of hidden intention: When Sweeney Todd starts to shave Judge Turpin, he doesn’t sing, “You lying, filthy, lecherous hypocrite, now you die!” What he sings is “Pretty Women”—feeding into the Judge’s libidinous desires, lulling him into a false sense of security, the better to make the point of revenge sweeter. This creates dramatic tension between text and objective.
There’s the subtext of declaration. This subtext rides most closely to the surface because while it’s a form of direct expression it’s achieved through the use of metaphor. When Harold Hill confesses that he’s incomplete without Marian the librarian, he doesn’t say that, he sings that “There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing, no I never heard them at all, till there was you.” When Pippin announces his desire to find his perfect niche, it isn’t that he sings, it’s “Gotta find my corner of the sky.” What this technique does is lift the character’s speech out of the prosaic by introducing a kind of poetry specific to his vocabulary and/or frame of reference. And it’s a poetry that lends itself to expansion.
What the following shows do is pretty much remove subtext as a tool. Which makes the lyrics artless (except occasionally in the pop song sense of riding a hooky title idea over and over, with negligible expansion) and the characterizations shallow. (I say that—believe it or not—neutrally, without judgment. The shallowness and the limited characterization are facts when subtext isn’t present.) It also quite often makes the shows seem longer than they are, sometimes even literally play longer, because they need more time to tell their stories. You’d think it might be the reverse, if characters are just planting their feet and declaiming what they’re about, but overall, skilled writers who work with subtext cover at least twice as much ground in less time because they’re not always explaining everything. When you have the benefit of implied and articulated content occurring simultaneously, you also have the benefit of compression. And with the benefit of compression comes an emulation of human complexity and dimensionality. Subtext-free shows can only showcase representational archetypes. Interesting actors may fill them interestingly, but the material itself can only exist in primary colors, without pastel shadings.
So: how do these shows find their niche?
In part: production values that speak to the multi-media, high tech, digital era—not merely and not always portraying the tech, but always with an eye toward exploiting what’s possible in terms of SFX in lighting, projection, sound and etc. that may not have been even a few short years before.
Also in part: novelty. The value of a unique milieu.
established lines of demarcation, as I say, I’m not going to suggest whether or
not to attend. I’m just going to tell you—with a touch (or more) of editorializing—what to expect; which should
give you all the info you need to make an informed decision. You'll know what to do…
One of my gigs, for a time, was screening applications for musical theatre awards and grants. And somewhere around a decade ago, I came across an adaptation of a world literature classic (I think by Dickens but that’s irrelevant). It was intriguing for the first, say, five pages, because the sung text seemed to exist outside the story, looking upon it in an analytical, narrative way, rather like musicalizing a Cliff’s Notes summary. What an interesting way of setting up the world, I thought. Then I got past the opening sequence and onto pages 6, 7, 8 and onward and the approach never changed, never segued into real character writing, the characters only ever describing their states of being, never inhabiting them, never leaving sung text for spoken, and I realized this was not a deliberate technique, but a naïve notion of adaptation. It was all the author knew how to do. As to the score (demos were included of course), there was a certain amount of proficiency, but it was mostly generic stuff filtered through indicia of the storytelling nationality and era, flourishes of, again generic, period-place color. Obviously I set the submission aside without positive recommendation. And I might have forgotten it if I didn’t eventually hit another musical just like it. And another. Over the years I may have encountered a dozen or more. All by different writers, all employing exactly the same approach, as if it were a codified school of writing, or even evidence of a pathology.
Thus, my overriding reaction to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (book, music and lyrics by Dave Molloy) was amazement—and ultimately a bow to the inevitable—that one of these had finally slipped through the cracks into production. NPGC1812 is no better and no worse than most of the others of its type that I screened, though perhaps it is more ambitious, focusing on several story threads from Tolstoyy’s War and Peace. Whether or not you go for the ride will depend entirely upon whether or not you (a) buy into the approach of its opening moments and (b) whether or not you can be satisfied that those opening moments essentially define the remaining two-plus hours, because the show is a one-trick pony.
NPGC1812 also has the advantage of a crackerjack cast; an imaginative production (director Rachel Chavkin), lavishly designed; an environmental staging (rather like the Chelsea Candide, for those whose point of reference goes back that far, it happens on connected ramps and playing spaces all around the audience) and a fun venue where they feed you a full meal before the show and/or at intermission (Kazino, a Russian restaurant in a tent, downtown west in the meat packing district).
Here Lies Love, which I have come to think of as Imeldavita, is a glossy overview of the life and reign of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos. There are indeed certain similarities between her story and that of Eva Peron (that is, as presented in the Webber-Rice musical Evita; actual history paints a far more complex and debatable portrait), in that she became the wife of a corrupt president and attained the iconography of one who has risen from poverty to great power. The difference is that whereas Evita died young, while her legend and popularity were in full bloom, in the Imelda story, it is her husband who became fatally ill. She was generally believed to have been the power broker behind the scenes at this point, and suspicions and charges of corruption ensued. And, like Evita, here lies love began as a concept album (released in 2010), and the current production at the Public Theatre is its subsequent stage adaptation.
The authorship is a typical pop song committee mélange: conception and lyrics are by David Byrne, music is by Byrne and Fatboy Slim, and additional music is by Tom Gandey and J Pardo.
Like NPGC1812, Here Lies Love has an environmental staging, but one that is almost its inverse. Whereas NPGC1812 happens all around you, in Here Lies Love, you flow all around it. The canvas is a discotheque environment with multiple playing spaces, several of which move. Unless you arrive at the theatre early enough to stake your claim among a small number of chairs set in two opposite rows, well above the proceedings, you’ll be with the great majority of the audience, “on the dance floor,” so to speak, on your feet for all of the intermissionless 90 minutes, following the action and being shepherded hither and yon by some helpful guides in orange overalls, whose job it is to make sure you experience the show from all angles and stay out of the way of moving platforms.
Director Alex Timbers’ production is immersed in the context of a media circus: there are projections ranging from impressionistic pop art animations to news videos, and, as in a disco, all the music is pre-recorded (except of course for the vocals) ad managed by a DJ high above it all, working a Mac laptop.
Excellent cast, sensory-almost-overload, theatricality in spades, zipnothingnada in terms of thematic revelation or interesting characterization. Liker Evita, Here Lies Love is a folk opera demonstration of how power manipulates media, with more bells and whistles for the new millennium.
Arguably the best of this lot is Murder Ballad at the Union Square Theatre, a remounting of the production that played at the Manhattan Theatre Club top of the season. Essentially it dramatizes a New York city love triangle in post-modern noir fashion. Bad girl (Cassie Levy) has steamy relationship with Bad Boy (Will Swenson) which then inevitably has a tempestuous breakup, whereupon Bad Girl is by chance “rescued” by a validating, sensitive Good Guy (John Ellison Conlee). But the problem with stability s that it’s stable and can you spell b-a-c-k-s-l-i-d-e? A little spice is added to the stew in the presence f Rebecca Naomi Jones as a kind of Greek Chorus figure who’s a bit more invested than most. As the title indicates, the long game is a dance of death. For someone.
Even though the score (music by Juliana Nash, lyrics co-written by Nash and librettist Julia Jordan) is basically hard rock and full on pop, the mere fact of having a love triangle where perforce secrets are being kept, likewise perforce avails the songwriters a certain amount of unavoidable subtext, which allows the characters more dimension than usual within the musical vocabulary, and the actors, under Trip Cullman’s direction, play it for all the verité they can.
Stories that are about nothing but love (as opposed to other plots in which love is but a factor) are “soft” in musical theatre terms and since song slows story time and songs without subtext attenuate substance, Murder Ballad doesn’t earn the whole of its 90 intermissonless minutes; it could do with some tightening.
And inevitably now we wind up at the big one, very likely to dominate the season’s new musical awards:
Matilda, imported from London’s West End via the Royal Shakespeare Company, who originally commissioned and produced it, comes by its lack of subtext more authentically and deliberately, as this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s YA novel is consciously modeled on the British “panto” tradition, which has a distinctly “music hall” sensibility, though panto's roots go back to commedia dell’arte. (From Wikipedia: “Pantomime [informally, panto]—not to be confused with the theatrical medium of mime—is a form of musical comedy stage production, designed for families, developed in the United Kingdom and mostly performed during the Christmas and New Year season. Modern pantomime includes songs, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.”)
Audiences for this one—about a special little girl navigating two awful parents and one horrific headmistress with the encouragement of one lovely teacher—tend to fall into two distinct camps, and it matters not whether, as individuals, they’re musical theatre savvy or not.
Camp #1, which has to be identified first as it is (one assumes) the majority responsible for Matilda’s success, just goes with the flow. They understand that Tim Minchin’s score is weak and Dennis Kelly’s book features rickety construction, but they’re happy to be persuaded by Matthew Warchus’s eye-popping direction, a set and costume design (Rob Howell) that conjures the Dahl imprimatur in three dimensions, and the commitment of the cast.
Camp #2, and I have to admit this is my group, finds the whole thing unfocused and a bit bewildering. Most of the lyrics don’t really travel and are written in the cram-a-lot style that thwarts comprehensibility because there’s no real attention paid to how sung lyrics exist in linear time and need a craftsman’s touch to rhyme the right words, rhyme them correctly and create phrases that don’t battle with clear diction (i.e. easy coordination of tongue, teeth and jaw) and don’t overwhelm the ear’s ability to follow. The music is somewhat better but fully complicit in enabling the impression of musical logjam. And as to Bertie Carvel’s heralded performance as the evil schoolteacher Miss Trunchbull—yes, this is the obligatory “pants” role, in which a man in drag plays a woman—I mostly find it disturbing in affect and lukewarm in effect. And overall, the show strikes camp #2 as not merely broad, which is appropriate for panto, but assaultively noisy and hyper.
But—and this is key—when I saw Matilda for the first time in London (and had pretty much the same reaction I would have seeing it on Broadway) I knew that, popularity-wise, this one could go either way in the States. I guess that alone qualifies it as a must-see. Just don’t get your hopes up…or down…you may very well be surprised in either direction…
And for postscript, two shows that do not employ original scores:
Motown is sort of the highlights A-side history of the famed pop record label and it’s not a little silly. After a fashion, it’s a revue that dare not speak its name, featuring several dozen recreations of Motown hits, with accompanying imitations of the Motown artists that introduced them; and it does that admirably (as, I suppose, it would have to). But not content with that, the decision makers—creative team? producers?—have opted to present it as a dramatization of the history. The book scenes are rendered in the kind of efficient, silly, broad-strokes and nuance free declamation of certain musical bio-pics, in which the lines are low on character and high on context-setting exposition to get you quickly from one turning point to another. The focal point s Motown bigwig and architect Berry Gordy and oh, did I mention? He’s he author of the libretto. Based own his own book (as in book between covers) The Music, The Magic, the Memories of Motown. Attend with your eyes wide open (as it were) and Motown will deliver exactly that, exactly as described. No mysteries, no surprises and, s far as it goes, no disappointment.
Cuff Me: The “Fifty Shades of Grey” (Unauthorized) Musical Parody is nothing more nor less than a lowbrow date evening. Delivering precisely what its title announces, it’s the output of a group of writers from the worlds of improv comedy and audience participation event shows. The book, such as it is, can be most charitably described as attenuated sketch comedy with slapdash construction. As for the score, there’s not even original or live music; rather, all the songs seem to be performed to a random anthology of pre-recorded Music Minus One tracks (and perhaps a few other “cover” versions created especially for the show) drawn from pop and musical theatre; so the lyrics not only parody the “mommy porn” trilogy of novels, they parody the familiar source songs as well. Predictably, this dilutes the comedy, not only because the two kinds of parody are often at odds, but because people who stoop to this kind of “karaoke writing” rarely have the chops to deliver lyrics as sharp as the originals (the theatre-derived songs of course suffer the most grievously, as things like proper accent, motive parallelism and perfect rhyme go out the window) and it’s all rather like stupid partytime hijinks.
then, that’s kind of its intent. The cast of four (Laurie Elizabeth Gardner, Matthew Brian Bagley, Tina Jensen and Alex Gonzalez) give
the material and the, likewise predictably, haphazard direction by Sonya
Carter far better than they deserve. The
show doesn’t elicit much in the way of what I call “dependable
laughter”—that is, expertly elicited set-up/payoff, joke-landing hits
that cleanly rock the house each time—but its low-rent innuendo and
double entendre do elicit hoots, hollers and whoops from those predisposed to
find such things amusing. And there were many such the night I attended.
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