Monday, April 30, 2007

And their stories all follow one line

Speaking of stories in the Times that made me a little bit crazy: Did you musical-theatre lovers read this article about the smearing, defeat and triumphant rise of Donna Murphy? I couldn't understand the impulse to dogpile on Murphy back when Wonderful Town was running. (I suppose Michael Riedel's habitual nastiness explains itself, but seriously, people: why you gotta hate?) I saw the show three times -- once during previews, and twice more over the next several months -- and Murphy went on every time. And she wasn't whispering, either; she gave a great performance each time I saw her. So it all seemed rather unfair from my admittedly limited perspective. And this account of the events only increases my sympathy for her -- especially the part about the miscarriages (although, really, is that any of my business?).

But what this article doesn't discuss is the role the Times played in the whole mess. Ben Brantley, never one to review an entire production when he can write a lopsided appreciation of its star, reviewed Wonderful Town as though Murphy's performance were the only reason to buy a ticket. It was a very valid reason, certainly; he wasn't wrong about that. But he hardly noticed that the show has two leads -- perhaps the Encores! concert was billed as a star vehicle for Murphy, but in reality the role of Eileen is just a smidge less central than that of Ruth, and Jennifer Westfeldt more than held her own. Brantley had little to say about her contribution (though he noted that she made a "charming" debut); the vast majority of his review was dedicated to worshipping at the feet of Donna. I admit, I was slightly less in love with Murphy's comedic stylings than Brantley was -- I was irritated by the way she delivered all of her dialogue out of one side of her mouth, in a style so mannered and "jokey" it made Roz Russell look like Olivia de Havilland. But Wonderful Town's dialogue isn't the point; if it were, they'd just revive My Sister Eileen and save some money. The book of the musical is corny and slapdash, the overall structure bizarre, and this revival's strength was in realizing that the first, best and only reason to revive Wonderful Town is Leonard Bernstein's score. So the orchestra took up most of the stage, to thrilling effect, while the scenery was as airy and insubstantial as the story itself.

Don't get me wrong, Murphy was fantastic, and if she stayed in the role another six months, I'd have gone back at least three more times just to watch her (and the terrific ensemble) perform "Conga!" and "Swing." (I couldn't bring myself to see, or hear, Brooke Shields's attempt to stop the show with those same numbers... Can anybody out there give me a report?) When this Avedon portrait appeared in The New Yorker, I tore it out and hung it over my desk, because it captures so perfectly the exhilaration of musical theatre at its best. (Have you ever seen a still image that seems to sing and dance so joyously?) But Murphy wasn't the only reason to see the show. (In fact, from what I heard, Linda Mugleston, her understudy, was terrific in the part -- I was kind of hoping to catch her at some point. But I saw Murphy every time.)

However, for better or for worse, people listen to Brantley, and if he says, "You must not miss [this star] in [this show]," they buy tickets, not to see that show, but to see that star. And if that star is out, they think they've thrown away their money. It would help matters if Broadway tickets weren't so exorbitantly priced, of course, but it would also help matters if people understood that the point of going to the theatre is that you are seeing a live event, different every night, and sometimes that means you see the understudy. (Which may not be so awful: you could be witnessing the debut of the next Shirley MacLaine!) And it would also help matters if Ben Brantley weren't so narrowly, sometimes disturbingly, focused on the leading ladies of whatever show he sees. (I mean, seriously.)

Wouldn't I love to see an honest discussion of all this in the NYT? Instead they gleefully tossed kindling on the fire with a shallow "investigation" of "Broadway's No-Show Business," written by Charles Isherwood and featured on the front page of the arts section. A bogus trend story! Just the voice of reason that was missing from the discussion of Murphy's supposed truancy.

The story now in question, though laudatory, is salted with more than a dash of insincerity; the Times and the press in general would like nothing better than to see the producers backing Murphy lose their shirts all over again. And I'm not expecting a departure from form in the forthcoming Lovemusik review.

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