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Pros and Concepts by Matthew Murray

  • LoF-PaC.jpgIt was announced yesterday that Leap of Faith, the new Broadway musical based on the 1992 movie starring Steve Martin, would close this Sunday after playing 24 previews and 20 regular performances. The lone Tony Award nomination the show received, for Best Musical, was not enough to help the show overcome the critical drubbing and poor word of mouth it's received. But the question is: How did this come about? With a name property as its source, a star composer (Alan Menken), and a theatre star (Raul Esparza) in the lead role, shouldn't it have fared at least a little better? What turned off people so much about the show?

    Allow me to suggest that it might be because people didn't like that nothing in the musical actually happens.

    No, I'm not kidding. When you consider the amount of action in Leap of Faith that verifiably occurs, it's less than in almost any other recent musical you can name. And that's something that's not only off-putting to critics and audiences, but is symptomatic of a deeper problem afflicting current musical theatre itself: one of trust. No, not just the writers not trusting the audience, but the writers trusting that the material is valid, worthy enough, and able to stand on its own. Look at Leap of Faith and other recent shows and you'll see that the creators' applying a concept, in many cases a framing device, is what keeps audiences—and their feelings—at a chilly distance.

    But let's start with Leap of Faith. The film centers on Jonas Nightingale, a traveling "preacher" who rides around the Midwest holding elaborate revival meetings that he uses to fleece people out of thousands of dollars. But he meets his match in a tiny drought-stricken Kansas town when not only do a lot of his usual games not work on a couple of key members of the populace, but he falls in love with a local woman whose crippled son is in desperate need of a real miracle. Will Jonas make off with all the money before he's found out? Will he give up his life of dishonesty in favor of more genuinely godly pursuits? Or will the arrival of much-needed rain somehow prove that everything he's selling may, against all the odds, be true?

    There are obviously opportunities for drama, sensitivity, and redemption built naturally into the narrative; they merely need to be allowed to run free (the way they did in two very similar musicals, The Music Man and 110 in the Shade). Alas, librettists Janus Cercone (who wrote the original screenplay) and Warren Leight, lyricist Glenn Slater, and Menken refused to let that happen. Rather than treating the material in a forthright and matter-of-fact way, they scripted it so that it all occurs as part of one of Jonas's revival meetings. Which is being held at the St. James Theatre in New York City.

    First of all: a literal revival meeting on Broadway? Seriously? How much would the theater rental alone cost? I realize you're not supposed to think along those lines, but the creators invite just that sort of question by raising the issue in the first place. Beyond that is the question of the meeting itself. It's not even a revival meeting, it's more like a passion play, complete with elaborate sets (including a revolving revival tent onstage) and, in the finale (I'm going to trust this isn't spoiling too much) real rain onstage. Would Jonas, or anyone, go to all this expense and trouble merely to sell his own story?

    Of course not. But you're not supposed to think about that, either. You're supposed to just focus on what Jonas presents. But as the framing device is executed, everyone we see onstage the entire show, with the exception of Jonas, is either an actor or a member of the Angels of Mercy choir. The Broadway performers playing them aren't portraying people experiencing and trying to work through different circumstances, they're peddling to Jonas's Manhattan audience a story that may or may not have existed at one point, but by even the most liberal interpretative standards absolutely does not exist now. That means you cannot get caught up in wondering whether Jonas will successfully woo local sheriff Marla McGowan (Jessica Phillips), because Marla is not onstage. You cannot become involved in whether Jonas will make Marla's wheelchair-bound son, Jake (Talon Ackerman), walk because he is not onstage. You cannot even generate interest in whether a cloudburst will rescue Sweetwater, Kansas, from certain dry doom because Kansas is not onstage. You are in the St. James Theatre in New York, which you know because Jonas—and your Playbill—told you so. Worse, because of Jonas's admitted con man tendencies, everything he tells you has to be suspect anyway.

    Why would the authors impose so many new troubles, when neither the movie nor the previous 2010 incarnation of this show (which played in Los Angeles) evinced any need for them? I'd guess that, even if the writers believe in the material, they needed or wanted something to explain away the cheap-looking scenic design (by Robin Wagner), and claiming that all the things onstage are supposed to be bargain-basement set pieces is one foolproof way to do that. But whatever the reason, the writers and director Christopher Ashley made it abundantly clear that an actual story with actual emotions was not on the menu, and audiences—who, ultimately, want to be affected by theatre—responded by staying far, far away.

    This is not the only example of this that occurred this season, however. A number of other shows, either outright musicals or heavily musical in nature, also took this approach, with varied results.

    PatS_PaC.jpgThe most amateurish of all in my view is Peter and the Starcatcher. Rick Elice's stage adaptation of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's young adult Peter Pan prequel is one of the most tangled messes of conceptual confusion I've ever seen on any stage. The argument runs that the show is intended as a performance piece, essentially a British pantomime, and that the endless string of anachronistic jokes and super-cheap set pieces and props are justified as ways of depicting big events in a small way.

    Unfortunately, the script itself and the performances (directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers) contradict this. The show begins with all the actors onstage waxing rhapsodically about the transitory nature of time, how they wish they could fly, and so on. Then, says one cast member, "Supposing all these planks and ropes are now the British Empire," with others contributing, "And we are lords / And captains / Mothers / Orphans / Sailors / Pirates / Tropical kings / And use your thoughts to hoist the sails and deck the ships awaiting in this early, gray and misty dawn in 1885." In other words, the setting has been invoked. So who were the actors before? They certainly weren't British pantomime performers, unless every single one was speaking in an American accent until this point. The charade is maintained for the next two hours and a half hours, going as far, at the beginning of Act II, as featuring an olio in which every cast member portrays a mermaid with some "comically" terrible costume.

    Forget, for the moment, about the actors invoking the setting. How exactly did they invoke a concept that wasn't in force when they began speaking at the beginning of the show, that they never explain they're creating, and that, when the show ends, they don't bother dispelling? Elice and his directors establish something for a certain purpose after they've already established something else for another purpose and not only don't bother to reconcile the two, they don't even bother to return you to your own world at the end.

    Those really interested in using this form intelligently know, and have for centuries, that you have to completely immerse yourself in it—and you can't open a door without closing it later. Notice that in Henry V William Shakespeare balanced his famous "O for a muse of fire" prologue, which exists solely to explain away the preposterous notion that the stage could ever contain such sprawling events, with an epilogue reminding the audience of the artifice that was employed and releasing them to reality once again. This is what you have to do if you care about what you're doing: both telling the story properly and ensuring that the way you tell it makes sense. Leap of Faith may be muddled, but it knows enough to close off the frame it opens. To do otherwise is to employ a gimmick, and gimmicks like that in the theatre are almost impossible to sustain for a single scene, let alone a full evening.

    Once_PaC.jpgThe musical Once has a problem similar to, but less extreme than, the one afflicting Peter and the Starcatcher. Librettist Enda Walsh and director John Tiffany have set the entire musical in an Irish pub because... er... sorry, I can't finish that sentence. There's certainly no dramatic reason for it, and unless it's to justify why every cast member must play some sort of an instrument (the idea being they're all gathering in the bar to tell their communal tale on open-mic night) it's hard to come up with even a halfway plausible explanation. Thankfully, Once doesn't use it to explain away too many of its narrative indiscretions. There's one horrific moment at the beginning, when the lead guy and girl (Tony nominees Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti) meet, when he mentions that he fixes vacuums for a living, and she says she brought along a vacuum cleaner in need of repair, only to have one pushed to her from someone offstage. She was just walking around with a broken vacuum cleaner? How often does that happen? It's a cheap, incredibly dishonest laugh that makes it impossible to take the rest of the evening seriously, but otherwise the show unfolds essentially as you see it. (Though it's worth pointing out that Walsh never closes the conceptual door at the end, either, though the effect is less damaging than in Peter and the Starcatcher because of how narrowly it was opened up in the first place.)

    Again, you can't care about anyone onstage because those people are not there, but Walsh knows better than to call too much attention to that once he's established the prevailing unreality. This makes Once, to use the glorious term coined by Peter Filichia, sit-throughable, but not much more than that. What would have happened had Walsh trusted the audience to not need to be pretended to, but instead addressed as capable of following a simple, unadorned romance without conceptual filigree? Unless it's (again) merely so that Tiffany and scenic designer Bob Crowley never have to waste time or money on more than one unit set, I'm afraid we'll never know. But the original 2007 movie worked without a concept, and someone saw it as worthy enough to spawn this musical, so one might think... Ah well.

    I could go on, just with more examples from this season—why, pray tell, did the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever need to unfold as a recollection during a speech as part of psychiatric convention?—but I'd rather cite a recent example that worked. One Man, Two Guvnors is an absolutely hilarious play, featuring a tear-down-the-house performance by James Corden that, if there's any justice, will become the stuff of Broadway comic legend. But it's also notable for giving itself entirely to its concept and making it fly.

    OMTG_PaC.jpgIts idea is that you've been transported back in time to the audience of an early-1960s English variety show. Not only are you entertained from the moment you first enter the theater by the on-site band, The Craze, playing three delightful Brit-Pop songs before the curtain even rises, but they reappear during the evening's scene changes to accompany and melodically comment on the things we've just seen occur. Eventually, the play's characters show up in these interludes as well and become part of the party, until the final stage picture is of everyone onstage rocking out as one giddy group. Playwright Richard Bean, composer Grant Olding, and director Nicholas Hytner worked tirelessly to ensure that everything that happened in the show was of a singular world and that nothing spoiled the flow—so the absurdly two-dimensional and rigorously unbelievable sets (by Mark Thompson) and audience-baiting performances (all, like the show, based on commedia dell'arte tropes) here make chemical sense. You're thrust into this very quirky, very "back-then" universe immediately, and you're not let out of it until after the curtain call.

    If you're not going to tell your story "straight," that's how to do it. Writers need to jump in with both feet to reassure those watching of the show's dedication to itself as well as to the audience. This is what the great conceptual stage works of the past have always done, whether with the intent of presenting (Our Town) or critiquing (Cabaret, Chicago). It's the only way to go if genuine artistic success is the aim. Too many theatre artists today have decided that it's okay to be lazy, that stepping back from reality and/or saving money somehow trump the need for common sense in the script. They don't. In fact, the writers need to work even harder because they have nothing else to fall back on—and the impact of any shortcut will only be amplified.

    I would prefer to see more musicals and plays with music told in the old-fashioned way: nakedly, so that neither the writers nor the audience can hide behind some artificial construct designed to convince them that they aren't seeing what's happening in front of them onstage. Failing that, concept shows need to be conceived with the rigor and care of Allegro or even this season's revival of Godspell, where the production makes its own rules, and thus doesn't need to worry about violating the laws of the universe around it.

    Whatever devices shows now and in the future may utilize, they need to remember that theatre is ultimately about truth, and anything that gets in the way of that truth will hurt, rather than help, their cause. One musical this year has learned that lesson already. I'd like to believe its failures will inspire other writers to do things much better (or, preferably, not at all), but given only what we've seen in the last year and a half or so, I'm not sure I'm comfortable making that particular leap of faith.

    Image credits (top to bottom): Leap of Faith (photo by Joan Marcus), which wants to convince you it's set in Kansas last year but is actually set in a Broadway theater in 2012; Peter and the Starcatcher (photo by O&M Co.), which wants to convince you it's set in either London in 1885 or a British musical hall in 2012, but is actually set in a Broadway theater in 2012; Once (photo by Joan Marcus), which wants to convince you it's set throughout Dublin but is actually set in an Irish pub; and One Man, Two Guvnors (photo by Joan Marcus), which wants to convince you it's set in an early-1960s British musical variety show and is actually set in an early-1960s British musical variety show.

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