Friday, August 29, 2008

I mean this as a compliment

I realize this is going to sound like faint praise, but there is genuine enthusiasm behind it, which I hope to explain if you'll bear with me. What I want to say is this: [title of show] is much less obnoxious than I expected it to be.

I avoided this show through its festival-buzz era and its Off-Broadway run because the more I read about it, the more irritating it sounded. But finally, improbably, it opened on Broadway, and I felt obliged to check it out and see what I was missing. What kept me away all that time was the constant, breathless gushing about how "original" and "clever" it was, this extremely metatheatrical musical (so daring and outside-the-box it doesn't even have a real title!) about a couple of guys writing a musical. To read the press coverage, you would think no one had ever used metatheatrical tricks before, when in fact they are at present an absolute staple of musical theatre. You would think the creative process had never been examined in drama before, when in fact it has long been a favorite subject for navel-gazing artists. And you would think the young, underemployed, creatively inclined, showtune-obsessed community had never before turned its gaze inward to focus on its own fascinating existence, when in fact it often seems unable to focus on much else. From what I was hearing, [title of show] sounded like another Musical of Musicals: The Musical, a parade of empty references dressed up as "jokes," and its supposedly original concept sounded to me like the absence of an original concept. So I stayed away.

I get it now. [title of show] is more than just self-regarding blather and referential humor. It's just hard to explain how it transcends that, because the appeal of the show is all in the execution, not the ideas. Make no mistake, the whole "it's a show about writing a show" idea is essentially the absence of an idea. No plot description can make the show sound bracing and original, because on that level it really isn't. What makes [title of show] exciting is how committed its creator-stars, Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, are to telling that story well, and how deft their command of musical-theatre storytelling tools turns out to be. The show has a level of integrity and faith in its own methods that you won't find in other recent self-aware Broadway shows, from silly musicals like Xanadu to acclaimed plays like Well. It works within the frame it establishes, a frame that is freeing but has its own restrictions. Where other shows use meta tricks to maneuver their way out of creative traps or to get a cheap laugh, [tos] commits to telling its story in a certain way and then sticks to it. Instead of being falsely self-effacing, something you find in a lot of "humorous" shows that try to excuse their faults by not taking themselves too seriously, [tos] dares to take itself seriously in the most important ways.

There has been some fretting about the show's dependence on inside jokes and intentionally obscure musical-theatre references. That's all well and good in an Off-Broadway, fringe-festival run, folks have said, but will it be an obstacle to reaching a broader audience? I know that this is something the creators (or at least the producers) worried about, because it's mentioned in the show -- too many times, in fact. If you're really concerned about missing out, the NYT just published this primer to help you navigate the names. But it's misplaced worry, in my opinion. There are a lot of obscure jokes in the show, to be sure, and even I heard a lot of names I didn't recognize. But unlike, for example, Musical of Musicals, [tos] doesn't live or die by its references. In this show, the jokes are a character trait, and as such they perform a function beyond getting laughs from the in-the-know few. I mean, I giggled myself silly when Susan Blackwell deadpanned, "Don't say that, of course you were meant to have children…" So maybe it's hard for me to judge whether the not-so-obsessed will recognize the function that those references perform. For me, seeing Hunter and Jeff banter about Mary Stout or about having opinions about shows they haven't seen worked because I've had those kinds of conversations and shared that enthusiasm with my own friends. I suspect that kind of experience is widely accessible, even if the particulars are foreign, but I can only say it rang true for me in spite of the fact that I didn't know who Mary Stout was. It seems to me the only reason an audience should find the inside jokes a turn-off is that the show can't stop calling attention to them. Also, of course, it's always irritating to be stuck sitting next to one of those people who needs to let everyone else know how much they know about musicals… Those people are another reason I avoided seeing this show in its earlier, smaller incarnations. But that's all the more reason to see it now, in a Broadway theatre, where the insecure musical geeks are outnumbered by the other groups that make up your average Broadway audience. (Plus, that Into the Woods line could never have been as funny as it is now, being delivered from a Broadway stage.) There are the people who love musicals but are amateurs when it comes to trivia -- you'll know them because they hear the number "525,600" and actually applaud with delight -- and, perhaps most important, there are the people for whom a Broadway musical is just an evening's diversion, who come to be entertained and don't bring a lot of genre-related baggage. What surprised me most about [tos] was its ability to reach those people, to entertain them and draw them in and give them a real experience of theatre. It's that old truth about the specific being the best path to the universal. The success of [tos] comes from being faithful to that truth, in spite of the potential for fuzzy generalizing.

The moment when [tos] does give in to generalizing about the state of the Broadway musical is actually its weakest point. The observations in the song "An Original Musical," where the creators imagine the forces that would keep their show from being a success, are oddly stale -- a show like [tos] can't succeed, they imagines critics saying, because Broadway is inhospitable to original ideas, and musicals require chorus lines and big budgets and spectacle. That criticism might have felt accurate in 2004, when [tos] first took the NYMF by storm. But we've just ended a season when Passing Strange found critical success and In the Heights found commercial success, while the big-and-flashy, based-on-a-movie shows didn't even crack the Tony nominations. A Catered Affair hardly made a splash, but it is one more data point suggesting that Broadway does indeed have room for musicals that don't fit the description offered in [tos]. And let's not forget Glory Days, which blundered into the midst of all that genuine excitement and tried to pass itself off as a refreshing alternative, the unlikely success story of two young men with big dreams of making it on Broadway. That didn't fool anybody -- lousy is lousy, it turns out, whatever your intentions might be. The lesson that should have been learned there is to be cautious about patting yourself on the back when it comes to the new ground you think you're breaking. The situation for new musicals on Broadway is much more complicated than [tos] acknowledges. All that crowing about being "An Original Musical" comes off as protesting too much -- invent some characters with a little more distance from yourself, and then we'll talk about original.

I get the impression [tos] isn't doing so well, box-office-wise, but if it closes soon it won't be because it's just too intimate or too daring for Broadway. It actually feels quite at home in the shabby, small Lyceum Theatre, and it provides enough entertainment and energy to justify Broadway prices. I don't know when I've seen an audience more enthusiastic than the one I saw [tos] with a few weeks ago. Whether you get the Mamie Duncan-Gibbs reference or not, you will be entertained, I promise. The one thing that doesn't quite fit the venue is the score, which would have benefited from another three weeks of work. And I wouldn't have objected if they'd found an excuse, somewhere along the road to Broadway, to get another instrument or two onstage. Two guys with basically the same voice singing unspectacular songs, accompanied by a single electric keyboard, gets old really fast.

Thank heavens for the two women in the cast, who pull much more than their own weight: Heidi Blickenstaff has the pipes to bring much-needed dimension to the songs, and Susan Blackwell supplies the personality and warmth that allows the audience to connect with the characters. (Blackwell also manages to make nearly every one of her lines funny in a way you have to see to believe.) My favorite moments in the show concerned the two female characters and the tentative relationship they build. Their song "What Kind of Girl Is She?" is a crucial moment, tangential as it is to the central "story." It provides actual character development and sincere emotion to satisfy an audience thirsting to connect with someone onstage. By the time that's over, you never want the women to exit, and when they do you're waiting for them to come back.

Ultimately, [tos] goes on a bit too long, especially once the push toward Broadway begins. There isn't a lot of tension in the drawn-out whining about wanting to make it to Broadway, since we do know how that part of the story will end. In fact, after a while it starts to feel like pandering, something "Hunter and Jeff" made a point of eschewing early on. And the closing number indulges in a misty-eyed "up to us, pal, to show 'em" sense of achievement that doesn't feel totally earned (especially since that song is particularly underwritten). If [tos] does end up posting a closing notice soon, the silver lining will be the element of poignancy that will animate the last twenty minutes. But I'd like to see it stay awhile. I think it more than deserves its place on Broadway, and audiences will be glad they took a chance on seeing it. It's likable, it's intelligent, it's fun. I'm just hoping it won't be the most "original" musical to open on Broadway this year. Somebody must have a story to tell where the stakes are higher and the roots go deeper than their own, age-old, commendable but hardly original desire to tell a story.


floretbroccoli said...

Where did you sit when you saw [tos]? I was so far away from the stage that I did get the feeling that the show might not work so well in a large, Bway house.

I was all the way up near the ceiling, in the balcony. The interminable climb left me in a bad mood. And the Lyceum's balcony tilts away from the center. Climbing a gazillion steps, setting on an angle, and the audience members who laughed ahead of the jokes left me more than a little hostile.

I'm sure the show's charm would have gotten to me a lot sooner if I'd been closer to the stage.

I agree with you about the terrific performances of the two women.

Loved, naturally, the drag-queen-names thing. I remember far too few of them. I'm surprised that I haven't been able to find a list online.

Mollie said...

I was in the mezzanine, but not farther back than the 5th row. It didn't bother me to be that far from the stage, probably in part because the Lyceum is smallish. I wasn't impressed with the theatre (though I seem to have blocked out the climb), but I didn't feel particularly removed from the show -- although I was a little thrown off by the people laughing much harder and applauding much more enthusiastically than seemed warranted. But that's certainly better than laughing before the joke is told, so I guess I lucked out there.

Yes, the drag-queen-names bit is great. I wonder if they swap new ones in as they go along?