Rosie's Bum Rap: In Defense of Taboo

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There's nothing Broadway loves better than a juicy backstage drama. And Taboo — the musical about '80s rock star Boy George, with music by the grownup Boy, George O'Dowd, and produced by talk-show diva Rosie O'Donnell — offered plenty of fodder. There were cancelled performances, reports of backstage fights, a star who walked out of a rehearsal, a director nearly fired. All that and a producer shuttling between the theater and a Manhattan courthouse, where she was involved in a lawsuit with the former publisher of her defunct magazine, Rosie.

More than just watching the backstage story unfold, however, the chroniclers of Broadway love to play a part in it. This kind of pre-opening brouhaha generally can have only two satisfying endings. First scenario: a determined creative team works through the problems, pulls off a miraculous turnaround, and the show is a surprise hit. Second (and more frequent) scenario: the troubles really do turn out to be as bad as everybody suspected, no one can fix them in time, and the show is a big, sloppy, they-got-what-they-deserved flop.

There's enough wrong with Taboo — a messy book and a less-than-ideal production — that probably no one in good conscience can make a case for Scenario 1. Still, that doesn't mean the howling critics who are gleefully writing their Scenario 2 endings are treating the show any more fairly. Not since Urban Cowboy has Broadway been littered with so much smoldering wreckage, announced the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post's critic found the show so awful that it drove him into questioning the entire institution of Broadway. The New York Times' Ben Brantley gave the show that ultimate put-down from the guardians of Broadway taste and class: it reminded him of Cats.

Just how Cats, the most successful musical in Broadway history (and an adventurous one in its day) has come to be a synonym for mass-audience schlock is the subject for another day. The real question is why the critics are so eager to turn Taboo into Rosie O'Donnell's personal Titanic. I liked Taboo when I saw it in London a year and a half ago. And I liked it on Broadway, though it is much changed — in some ways for the better and some for the worse.

Junked almost entirely is the old book, which focused on a middle-class kid from the provinces who leaves home to join the glitzy, decadent London club scene. The rewrite, by Charles Busch (creator of off-Broadway drag spectacles like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom), eliminates this somewhat clichéd character and plunges us more directly into the club underworld, and the rise and drug-addled fall of its most famous denizen, Boy George (Euan Morton). The book is better now, but still too unfocused, with too many characters vying for stage time, among them the campy, cross-dressing narrator, Philip Sallon (Raul Esparza), the flamboyant performance artist Leigh Bowery (played by O'Dowd himself) and assorted other men and women in their lives. Rather than a bustling tableau, this just seems like indecision on the part of the creators. Director Christopher Renshaw, who managed nicely in the small West End space where the show debuted, seems at a loss how to organize the action on a big Broadway stage. And the choreography, which should be a highlight of a show like this, is pretty lame.

But jumbled as it is, this musical is not to be sniffed at. The portrait of the freewheeling, sexually adventurous, pre-AIDS club world is vivid, uncompromising and often funny. And as a study of the perils of fame, the show is miles beyond the other biographical musical playing down the block — The Boy From Oz, a candy-coated account of the life of pop star Peter Allen. With the exception of O'Dowd, who's a little stiff as Bowery, the cast is superb, especially Morton, a sweet-voiced doppleganger for Boy George, and Esparza, an electric Broadway star, who touches the humanity behind the high-camp shallowness of Sallon.

The real triumph of Taboo, however, is O'Dowd's music and lyrics, among the best I've heard on Broadway in the past few seasons. (With the exception of two old hits, Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, all the songs are new.) The show opens with an infectious cabaret number that launches the show as effectively as the Wilkomen number in Cabaret: "I'm known/ In all the wrong places / I'm one of those faces / You'll never forget." The score ranges from Brecht-Weill for the age of irony (Ich Bin Kunst), to disco with a touch of wit (Tell me what you feel / I'll show you what to do / We don't do sincere / Everything taboo"), to a haunting lament for the passing of Warhol's 15 minutes (You're Out of Fashion), along with a batch of soulful and melodic ballads. At times, the show has the over-the-top rock emotionalism of the 1980s musical Chess — another great score scuttled by a problematic book. Ten years from now, I can see a cult developing around the music for Taboo the way it has around the score of Chess. Count me a charter member.

The real problem with Taboo, for most critics, is the unspoken one: Rosie O'Donnell. The comedian and talk-show queen may well have been over her head. But let's give her some credit. She saw a show in London that was at the edge of what Broadway audiences would accept, and she gambled her own money to try to make it fly. She ran up against, not only some sizable creative hurdles, but a Broadway establishment that secretly resents an outsider (from TV, no less!) who presumes she can show the old guard how to do it. And so the fate of Taboo becomes a morality tale of theatrical hubris.

It's not true, folks. But hey, it makes a great story.