A New Musical

Book by Jack Heifner, based on his play
Music and Lyrics by David Kirschenbaum
Directed by Judith Ivey
Second Stage / 307 West 43rd Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

There is a deceptive smattering of successful “relationship” musicals (about the minutiae of “average” people weathering the ups and downs of finding themselves, dealing with family and/or just getting along)—Company by Sondheim & Furth, the Falsetto plays by Finn & Lapine, arguably Next to Normal by Yorkey & Kitt, for example—and in an art form that leans with good reason toward adaptation, these tend to be originals. It’s a precarious subgenre, as musicals thrive on dramatic elevation, and most times, prosaic characters just aren’t interesting enough for such emphasis over the course of an evening, the bigness of music unintentionally only emphasizing the mundanity or self-absorption of their concerns. However, those musicals that pull off the challenge, because they’re originals, at least have the benefit of being conceived with a musical energy, pace, compactness and poetry (i.e. the techniques of theatrical metaphor that allow audience imagination to be engaged in creating an illusion of place and scope) that let the art form do what it does best. If their characters are rarely iconic personalities, they nonetheless keep moving from event to event in interesting ways.

               Thus it’s a problematic idea at the root to adapt—more still, to faithfully adapt—a talking heads/character study play consisting of three long, realistic ensemble scenes, very little story and minimal incident, about three tight-knit young female friends who gradually lose their bond over the course of 11 years (from senior high school to college and beyond). And that’s because you can only sing about several things: their personal philosophies (thesis songs, which can be entertaining and witty, but are on aggregate dramatically static), how they feel life is treating them at the particular juncture (reactive, state-of-mind songs, again, not moving forward) or how things have changed (songs which purposefully look backwards). Which adds up to a score more or less about social commentary. Which leads to a musical that unintentionally defaults to being a revue. Yet it has characters you’re expected to follow and invest in, who behave throughout as if they’re in a “traditional” book musical. Which means a show has one foot planted in each camp, neither satisfyingly.

               And that’s at the heart of why Vanities, the new musical based on the hit, off-Broadway play of the mid-70s, doesn’t land with the impact the quality of work would seem to deserve. Jack Heifner, librettist, has adapted his play without mercenary “updating” or sentimental possessiveness—where it used to be three acts that ended on a downer, he and composer-lyricist David Kirschenbaum have rebuilt it as a fluid one act with a fourth scene that allows for reconciliation. The happy ending is “correct” and the reduction hasn’t compromised the dramatic essence. The score is commensurately literate and sharp. But the skill doesn’t overcome the dramatic inertia; and Kirschenbaum’s soft-rock reflex makes the line between non-genre character music, and music meant to exploit era-specific pop styles by way of cultural comment (i.e. Bacharach), too blurry to be meaningful, which keeps the two functions from being effectively distinctive.

               This is a shame, because it adds up to great work in the service of an unworthy cause. All through the show I found myself trying to will the applause meter for individual songs beyond polite, the laugh meter for jokes beyond respectful—actresses Anneliese van der Pol, Lauren Kennedy, and Sarah Stiles, under the brisk direction of Judith Ivey, could not have served the material better—but with the exception of a few moments, too few to matter, those meters refused to bounce into the high zone. They simply couldn’t…because the problem is the notion of musicalizing Vanities in the first place. The audience does care, sort of, which is why the feeling of concentration never leaves the house, and the response is always at least decent. But they don’t care enough to be fully complicit with it. At best, they express a level of mild enthusiasm, notwithstanding energetic appreciation of the performers at the curtain call.

               That said: Vanities is not dull, it’s small and easy to produce, and has enough exploitable “chick flick” appeal to possibly do well on the stock, amateur and academic circuits. Which would certainly make the badness of the idea relative…

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