That Old Feeling: Broadway Revives Itself

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Broadway is a strange beast: a Medea that kills its young while venerating the venerable. Producers and critics routinely discourage new shows with new songs (was “Dance of the Vampires” that bad?) but fall over themselves to exhume musical museum pieces. Next season we’ll see if Broadway welcomes three lively, tuneful British musicals — “Bombay Dreams,” “Taboo” and “Jerry Springer: the Opera” — with the enthusiasm they deserve. For now, the theater district is rigorously retro, and producers are happy to serve as the curators of a theatrical tradition no longer in the mainstream of pop culture.

Broadway’s in love with Broadway. Well, somebody has to be.

I’m not opposed to revivals. Indeed, I was happy to see three — “Gypsy,” “Man of La Mancha” and “Nine” — open last season and last through the summer. For all their familiar luster as musical plays with terrific songs or heart-tugging themes or fabulous sets, these are star-driven shows. Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Antonio Banderas are supposed to bring in the crowds; if they don’t, or if they leave, the show suffers the way a no-star production doesn’t. (That’s why producers love a “Mamma Mia.”) To those who have paid their $100 or so to spend a few hours indoors of a summer’s evening, the lead actors do bring star power. But these days, what exactly is that?

It’s an allure that transcends speaking or vocal talent. At least that’s the case with Banderas, whose English seems to have been learned phonetically. Learned poorly, I thought as I sat there — what’s he saying? what’s he singing? Banderas must get by on charm, and he does so, gliding through the role of Guido, an Italian director stranded between a forlorn film project and a flotilla of women who seek his favors, his fidelity, his love. (“Nine” is based on Federico Fellini’s film “8-1/2.”) Give him or the CD producer credit: his enunciation is more precise on the cast album.

I remember Tommy Tune’s 1982 production of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit musical play as a pristine entertainment. Raul Julia played Guido, but the director was the star. His earlier productions, “A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine” and “Cloud 9,” boasted beaucoup polish and pizzazz; and “Nine,” with its actors perched on movable white blocks of various sizes, was a sexual Rubik’s cube. A graphic delight, but, as I recalled it, emotionally and musically on the arid side.

Surprise! The new “Nine” shows how I’ve matured in two decades (or how severely my musical standards have slipped). Yeston’s score had a lot more melodic grace and invention than I remembered, and Kopit’s book solved the movie’s problem of a mid-life crisis rendered as fantasia. I still prefer Tune’s visual elegance and blocking genius, but David Leveaux’s nicely manages the task of seeming to give equal time to all the houris of Guido’s memory and imagination, played with varying degrees of beguilement by Laura Benanti, Mary Stuart Masterson, Chita Rivera, Jane Krakowski, et al.

The one theatrical innovation — a pool, with ankle-deep water, that appears in the second act — serves little purposes but to put the cast in constant jeopardy of catching cold, or colds. Just because it worked in “Metamorphoses” doesn’t mean every actor on Broadway should get wet.

On a scale of ten, I give “Nine” a five.



THE “MAN”Most times, award ceremonies are a certifying of the artistic status quo. All year long, music, movies, shows drive into unexpected byways or gaping ditches, producing great stuff or anti-matter; and at the Grammys or Oscars or Tonys, the prizes go to those who chose the careful middle of the road. (Now that I think of it, why was that term coined to define caution? Isn’t the middle of the road a dangerous place to drive?)

This year’s Tony awards, though, were bizarre beyond belief. To choose “Hairspray” at the best new musical was a safe choice. To name Marissa Jaret Winokur the best actress in a musical, and Harvey Fierstein best actor, stirred outrage in a show-lover’s breast. Bernadette Peters in “Gypsy” may not have erased memories of Ethel Merman in the 1959 original, but hers was the most brutally honest musical turn of the season. As for Fierstein, a frog-voiced camp artist in a supporting role, he was hardly on the same planet as Mitchell in “Man of La Mancha.” Nothing personal, but he’s a moon, an asteroid, a pebble to Mitchell’s sun.

I know people — I’m married to one of them; I am one of them — who think Mitchell is the most compelling reason for Broadway to exist in the 21st century. Stokes, as he is known, is certainly the one genuine Broadway-bred matinee idol on the stage today. (The horde of swooning fans outside his stage doors attests to that.) He’s what baseball scouts would call a five-tools player: he’s got looks, grace, power, acting skill and a gorgeous baritone voice. As Coalhouse Walker, he gave “Ragtime” a depth beyond its hectoring social message. He was the randy, roistering soul of the “Kiss Me, Kate” revival, and a wonderfully vain tough guy in the Encores! concert version of “Do Re Mi.” He proved his non-singing thespic chops in August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” and topped all these superb pieces this season with “Man of La Mancha.”

In its first incarnation, the show, with book by Dale Wasserman, lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, ran for five and a half years, from late 1965 to June 1971, and was revived twice in the 70s with its original star, Richard Kiley. I guess it’s a one-song show, but that song, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest),” is a dead-serious inspirational anthem that still leaves audiences in tears as it builds, “Bolero”-like, from a whispered prayer to a declaration of spiritual defiance. Coming at the end of both acts, it guaranteed that theatergoers would sail outside wrung from this upwardly moist experience.

That the singer, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, is certainly delusional, possibly mad, doesn’t vitiate the song’s potency. For the character, especially as inhabited by Mitchell, makes a convincing case that he is sane and the “real” world mad — that optimism and gentility are preferable to cynicism and cruelty. For him to mistake a whore for a lady (“I ask of my lady that I may be allowed to serve her”) is to see into her heart, where goodness has not quite been evicted by her mean circumstances.

And since, in the current Jonathan Kent production, the whore-lady is played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, this Dulcinea can walk that fine line of bitterness and pity. (Think of it: two actresses named Mary Mast- in the same Broadway musical season.) Mastrantonio, rarely well used in her film work, has entranced on the stage for two decades, in Andrei Serban’s 1985 production of “The Marriage of Figaro” and that cult favorite, Galt McDermot’s “The Human Comedy.” Her dark beauty and full-bodied soprano voice — sometimes quavering, usually robust — make her a splendid stage companion to Mitchell.

It’s his show, of course. He gives equal weight to the two characters he plays: the honorable Cervantes, using his poetic passion and wiles to defend himself in the prison to which he has been condemned, and the daft Don, whose simple sanctity may make him the one sane man in a mad universe. Mitchell convinces me that he should be a bigger star in many media (where are the top movie roles? where’s the solo CD?) or, better still, be on stage every night. “Man of La Mancha” has closed, after a nine-month run, but Mitchell’s majesty will live in the memories of those privileged to have been there when he realized the impossible dream of restoring masculine glamour and thrilling technique to a Broadway desperately in need of both.



THAT “GYPSY”

The revival of “Gypsy” has a higher bar to straddle, because, by consensus, this is the great American musical. Book (Arthur Laurents), lyrics (Stephen Sondheim), tunes (Jule Styne), choreography (Jerome Robbins), the immediate and haunting impact of a star (Ethel Merman), vision— the works. It’s the “Citizen Kane” of musicals, at least in esteem. In other ways “Gypsy” is closer to a showbiz “Gone with the Wind”: a period drama of a woman whose hurricane will triumphs over all obstacles and all those she would have love her; and a consolidation, an apotheosis of traditional technique, rather than a radical, “Kane”-like break with those traditions. It’s not really different from other musicals that came before. It’s the same but better. Best. Great. Everyone thinks so.

“Gypsy” is the definitive tale of showbiz striving — bad breaks, no breaks, heartbreak, then the big break — disguised as a musical version of high-class stripper Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoir of the same name. Goaded by their mother Rose Hovik, June and Louise play a kid’s act in the vaudeville of the 20s, with Rose believing that June is the star: Baby June headlines the show, while Rose plays the front end of a cow. In the 30s, with vaudeville dying and the act growing whiskers, June bolts, and Rose is left with the leftover, Louise. A demeaning booking in a burlesque theater gives Louise the chance to emerge from Momma’s shadow and become cafe society’s favorite ecdysiast. (June turned into actress June Havoc.) As Rose says toward the end, in a rare lapse into satisfaction, “I always promised my daughter we’d be a star.”

The fevered, unforgiving heart of the show is Rose’s mother love, her smother love. Rose’s erstwhile sad-sack boyfriend Herbie describes her as “a pioneer woman without a frontier.” That’s not quite true, for Rose is the gunslinger who strides into a producer’s office and demands that he put her girls in the show or get outta town. She’s also, by herself, all the cattle that stampede down dusty Main Street. (Rose, sharply, to an impresario’s secretary: “Don’t you dare answer that phone when I’m yelling at you!”) The woman has no scruples, no emotional down-time, no femininity unless she can use it to get a booking, no frame of reference outside the business of show. (Herbie: “Don’t you know there’s a Depression?” Rose: “Of course — I read Variety.”) Like a shark, she has a single mission: to push her daughters toward the stardom that fate or circumstance denied her. “I was born too soon,” she says, “and started too late.”

Sondheim and Styne brilliantly express this hot-plate ambition in Rose’s two signature songs, the first-act closer “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and the second-act climax “Rose’s Turn.” In the first, Rose convinces herself to transfer her star-lust from June to Rose; and when she sings, shouts, brays, “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great,” that’s not a prediction, it’s an order from an Old Testament God. “Rose’s Turn,” which is to sung monologues what “To be or not to be” is to spoken ones, the now-abandoned momma spits out her bile: “All this work and what did it get me? / Snapshots full of me in the background.” It’s the supreme mad scene in modern drama, and reveals “Gypsy” as the all-time monster musical.

The star of the 1959 original was Ethel Merman, who made her Broadway debut when Gypsy and June were still babies, was a creature of the period in which this period musical is set — a dinosaur in a musical about a dinosaur. She blasted her songs to the last row of the balcony in the theater down the block. Her gift for clarifying every lyric syllable made her Cole Porter’s favorite interpreter. For a lesson in the devolution of Broadway belting, listen to her renditions of songs from “Anything Goes,” then Patti LuPone’s in the 80s revival. Merman mines the wit in every word; LuPone can’t be bothered with consonants. One is a whip-crack, the other mush.

To modern ears, though, Merman had schoolteacher notions of enunciation. An anti-mumbler, she hit those final T’s (“greaTTT,” “waiTTT”) with a hammer, while adding vowel endings to one-syllable words (“Some-a hum-a drum people”; “You’ll be swell-a”). It’s one way for a singer to take a breath while emitting a sound, but it’s a cheap way. She was terrif on the brassy and comic songs, but could stomp with verbal jackboots on the softer pieces. Her performances didn’t dig into subtext, the way Sinatra or Sarah Vaughan could do. Merman sang the song — and, Laurents complained, tapped her foot to keep time, even during the sad numbers. (You can also hear her snapping her fingers during “Some People.”) Her vocal precosity could seem inhuman to some. Sondheim called her “the singing dog.”

To her face? I wonder. For Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s melodies for “West Side Story” (also with a Laurents book and Robbins staging), was to have composed the full score for “Gypsy,” until Merman nixed the idea. Her postwar stardom was based on two Irving Berlin hits (“Annie Get Your Gun” and “Call Me Madam”), and, according to Martin Gottfried’s liner notes in the 1999 expanded CD of the original cast album, she wanted someone with a track record. So Styne, who had worked with Robbins on “High Button Shoes,” got the call.

Styne, the old pro who had graduated to Broadway from pop tunes and Hollywood musicals, knew how to write for a star — this star. “Give her a big note to start with, and a big note to finish.” (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” begins with “Cur! Tain! Up!” and ends “for you and for Meeeeee!”) And Sondheim, whatever his misgivings and grudges, wrote perfect Merman lyrics. They played to her need for guidelines for vocal emphasis (“We’ve got nothin’ to HIT but the HEIGHTS”) and her fondness for short, punchy couplets. (There’s just a single word of more than one syllable in “Some people sit on their BUTTS, / Got the DREAM, yeah, but NOT the GUTS!”) I suspect that Sondheim relished the opportunity for subversion: to expose Merman’s purported heartlessness, and make the singing dog perform the fabulous trick of soiling her own blanket.



THIS “GYPSY”

They didn’t care for Merman in Hollywood either, at least as a movie star, so Rosalind Russell played Rose when “Gypsy” was filmed in 1962 (with Natalie Wood as Louise). Since then, the show has given employment to many an aging movie actress, TV cop lady and bathhouse chanteuse. Angela Lansbury starred in an acclaimed revival in London and New York in the early 70s; Tyne Daly presided over a Broadway revival in the 90s; and Bette Midler did swell by Rose in a TV movie version. Now it’s Peters’ turn, and it’s hard to believe that she’s four years older than Merman was on that first opening night. Bernadette at 55 is still the petite soubrette with the kewpie-doll face, the Betty Boop voice and the Mae West bosom. But nearly 30 years have passed since she starred as Mabel Normand in Jerry Herman’s “Mack and Mabel,” so she’s entitled to play grownups.

When I saw the show, Peters was battling hoarseness — had she spent some time in the “Nine” pool? — and when she coughed a few times in her first scenes, the audience seemed fretful that she might not last till 10:30. But she refused to cheat; she invested full lung power in every note, every word. Her cold may have helped her performance; the gravel in her voice gave her gravitas. (Which, to be fair, she also has on the new CD of the show.) Like the lifetime comedienne she is, Peters expertly milked the laughs in the show (especially in the cow number — it’s a moooo-sical) and revved up the sexuality. In a very un-Mermanish gesture during “Rose’s Turn,” Peters kneads her capacious breasts and simulates sex as she sings, “Have these eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone.” She’s doing a strip-tease more primal than Gypsy ever dreamed of.

Rose’s ambition can more clearly be seen as thwarted libido, not simply pure ego. The husbands she runs through like so many quick tantrums (“But Momma gets married / And married / And married / And never gets carried away”) are poor substitutes for the feral love she feels for her daughters. And that love is a stand-in for the love she was never able to give herself, or to accept.

We hear that kids don’t want to see Broadway shows; the old songs sound like Gregorian chants to them; they go for the harder entertainment. Well, “Gypsy” is an adamantine musical that should appeal to every teen who thinks his life is a horror movie and his parents are gargoyles. Come to the Shubert Theatre, children. We have a “Medea,” or a family fun-house mirror, set to music. And honestly, if you can’t respond to the songs, the drama or the pang of this show, that’ll be a signal you have some growing up to do.