Commentary Magazine


Musical Wastes

There was once a handy mode of argument available to those who felt the need to be positive about the achievements of the American theater. Faced with a season that had produced a succession of grim comedies, tired performances, and a moment or two of antic philistinism that was intended to be fresh experiment, the theater’s advocate could always fall back on the musical comedy as a justification for continued loyalty to the American stage. All else in the year may have indeed been overwrought or moribund, but the musical comedy, the form of entertainment indigenous to Broadway, always was on hand with an example or two of expert ebullience. Some enthusiasts of song and dance would go even farther, and maintain that the musical is the American theater, is the only form that has produced a unique national excellence that has caught the imagination of an audience large enough to include both rough and fastidious tastes. And, indeed, it is hard to argue against this enthusiasm. What, for example, does one remember from the dramas and comedies of the 30’s that has the sharp delight of a lyric by Larry Hart or Cole Porter? What has been so universally popular and inimitable as an Irving Berlin thirty-two bar narrative? What really tops the theatricality of the moment when the song begun by the star is augmented by a chorus, transformed into a dance, and ended, after a harrowing swirl of choreography, in a frozen tableau that demands, as its emotional climax, an explosion of applause?

Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, Brigadoon—these and others not quite so dazzling kept up a notion of imaginative fantasy while serious American drama was bogged down in minute social and psychological observation. During the 40’s and 50’s, which was the time of the personal statement in our theater, the time of Williams, Inge, Anderson, and Miller, the musical continued to be a glorious product of collaboration, an extraordinarily complex working out of a common enthusiasm. The enthusiasm,, coaxed as it was out of a book, story, or play that had already achieved some sort of a reputation, was generally based on the second-hand. But that mattered little, for, like Elizabethan drama, the musical seemed to find its genius in embellishing a popular plot with intricate elaboration and outlandish sentiment.

One knows that the brilliant tumult of a musical comedy usually rests on a distant, fragile, and often very foolish premise, and that life is being thinned out a bit to let in a reprise or rousing first-act curtain for the ensemble. But the wonder of a musical is the theatrical behavior it presents, the direct and self-assured demonstration of a style that can turn the ingenuousness of an ingenue in love into a theatrical tour de force. The success of this style depends, of course, to a great extent on the talents a performer brings to a role, not on the substance he finds in it. But the history of musical comedy is more than a collection of show stoppers by Merman, Bolger, Martin, Harrison, Channing, and Mostel. It is, rather, a long, variously-styled proof that, artfully put together, elements which seem to have no theatrical affinity can coalesce into a work of more than fugitive delight if our imaginations can be prodded by wit and professional dazzlement into allowing that life may be performed truthfully. In short, somehow a mood must be created that permits us, as an audience, to accept parodies, caricatures, and general exaggerations of our behavior for the sake of seeing human action displayed in a context that makes poetry and a soft-shoe routine acceptable allies in entertainment.

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It is sad now to go on and report that either I have become too numbed by time and the realities of the ordinary world to respond any longer to these moods, or else these moods of happy tolerance are now nearly extinct. I have seen four musicals in the last month that have been proclaimed by critics and audiences to be successes, and that will, most likely, occupy their theaters for years. In all, this has meant that only some ten hours of my life have gone into acquiring the specific information necessary for an article on current American musical theater. Only ten hours! And yet I have seldom felt such a profound sense of waste or lamented so much the meaningless obliteration of minutes that could have been better spent in almost any other enterprise—staring at a stone, for example, or memorizing mystical aphorisms. Even during moments of my most tedious profligacies, I have never felt existence to be so barren and ungraceful as I did after watching half an act of each of these four works. They hammered away at me until I had no critical fortifications left—no perspective, no sense of proportion, no cognitive factor, no irony, no social curiosity. All I could feel while I should have been enjoying the moment, or at least reflecting on why I wasn’t, was, as I have said, a deadening sense of waste.

This, I know, is a strange confession from someone who has confronted as much theater as an obsession can tolerate. By now I should have become so hardened to the facts of the stage that no ineptitude should cause such an extreme response. Yet I must plead the circumstances—in this case Applause, Two by Two, The Rothschilds, and Company. To have endured their combined onslaught has merit in itself; that I can here force myself to reflect on their affronts argues a devotion to critical duties that is heroic. I would prefer to leave all those perfunctory situations of plot, those frenzied, overblown performances, those tuneless scraps of song, and those explosions of lyric gibberish out of mind and unexamined. The readers of COMMENTARY have enough outrage thrust at them over issues that are of much greater importance than a dismal quartet of musical comedies. And yet I feel obliged to articulate my distaste, if only to be certain that such readers, buffeted as they are by the involved polemics of our time, do not, in seeking a little diversion from the world, arrive at one of these musical spectacles and thereby come to know an altogether unmodulated despair about our age.

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Let us begin first with Company, a work that has been applauded because it broke away from the old musical-comedy forms and chose to be a play with music rather than a series of songs and dances that occasionally allows a sobering bit of life to peep through. This, in any event, is what the popular critics have told us and what the audience seems to believe. Company, then, is the sophisticated musical of the group, something that is going to take us past the shallows of conventional entertainment. About that, more later. Let me first get to the details.

Company presents us with the adventures of an unmarried man in his thirties who moves as a sort of amiable raisonneur in and out of the lives of his married friends, who observes their problems and joys, and who broods over his reluctance to take the step that would keep him from being that extra man at the party. Each couple, of course, creates a little vignette about the peculiar difficulties of living with a mate in contemporary New York. Some, for example, take karate lessons, some try smoking pot, some play at old, extramarital-affair games. They all, of course, have the fashionable amount of desperation about them to be taken seriously as examples of love and life in a complex world.

It may be that George Furth, who wrote the series of playlets that make up Company’s book, and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, know such couples and their friends, and find them a dull, silly lot. Perhaps they felt an honest need to share this information with us, to show us how existence wears life down in the big city. For this we might be grateful, except for the fact that Company has nothing to do with life anywhere on this planet, so that what finally wears down is our patience with the arch notions and fashionable attitudes that the authors wish to substitute for our experience of how human beings behave. The sophistication of Company is that of a mildly imaginative innocent who thinks there is something profound in being a little bit clever and very, very, neurotic. The people in Company think, feel, and behave with such cute incoherence and instability that they end by being nothing more than old, music-hall conceits that humbly serve a comic situation or a song.

And what situations! What songs! The former are plucked out of the stockpile of domestic crises and fun that has brought television profits for two decades; the latter are hardly more than bursts of tuneless patter that reiterate again and again the conviction that words should never coalesce into something resembling an idea. Both produce contemporary babble at its worst.

Finally, Company stays in the mind as one of those grim instances when Broadway decides to be audacious, when it announces with great righteousness that, this time, it is not going to settle for flashiness and old formulas. The experienced theatergoer has learned to be wary of these moments of adventure, for they generally mean that a narrow, facile sensibility is going to forget its proper station and aspire to something it takes to be experimental art. The result is always predictably pretentious, an example of aesthetic social-climbing that makes for both an ill-mannered and ill-starred night.

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About Applause, let me first say that it has, as its leading lady, Lauren Bacall. Like most men who went through adolescence in the late 40’s, I hold her in veneration. She and Bogart still seem to me to have created a male-female balance in their movies that has yet to be improved upon, and I feel I owe both his memory and her presence the duty of being graceful about any reservation I might have about this musical based on the film of some twenty years ago, All About Eve.

So, admitting that I am held in restraint by memories, I will only say that Applause is an innocuous little fable about the theater in which people who read fan magazines might believe. The story by now should be well known. Eve Harrington, a stage-struck young thing, is found waiting in a theater alley after the opening night of the celebrated Margo Channing’s new play. She is brought backstage to meet the great star. She gushes with innocence, devotion, and admiration. Miss Channing is touched and takes her into her life. Slowly Eve begins to climb up in the world of the theater, and slowly we begin to see that she is not all froth and innocence. Could she really be ambitious? Could she really want, in essence, to replace her benefactress, Margo, in the big hit play? Soon we have the answer. But along the way, she is uncovered, and her terrible truths are revealed. She gains stardom, but, alas, loses a lot of friends.

Applause tells this fairy tale as ploddingly as possible, with songs and chorus numbers that have nothing essentially to do with the backstage saga, but that keep up quite nicely the sentimental traditions of show business. “Applause,” the title song, is the last in a long line of effusions about life on the stage, a close relation of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “That’s Entertainment.” It seems to me no better or worse than the others. It is, like the entire play, merely an imitation of what was originally a bad guess about the nature of the theater world. However, lest I be accused by the book writers of not noticing the modern touches they have added to the original story, I will mention that in this version of the Eve legend, Margo Channing has, as her faithful companion and hairdresser, a sweet, loving homosexual. How worldly and inventive the theater has become in twenty years!

As for Miss Bacall herself, if she ever plays any role on the stage that has a small bit of intelligence or sting to it, she would be formidable indeed. There seems to be enough intelligence and sensuality about her for a heroic range, and yet, so far, she has done this warmed-over cocktail hors-d’oeuvre and a vapid little farce called Cactus Flower. Ah, but the theme of this review is waste, and it must, regrettably, also include Miss Bacall.

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There has always been a mystique about Danny Kaye that has baffled me. Some very intelligent people have found him a master of comedy, a perfect embodiment of aerial whimsy. On the other hand, I have always considered him a gross, obtrusive performer who begged for his laughs by mugging, bodily exaggeration, nonsense sounds, and other similarly infantile devices. However, I had never seen Kaye on the stage, so I went to Two by Two hoping to be disabused of the bad impression of him that I had culled from the movies and television. What took place on the stage of the Imperial Theater proved that I had been too generous in my evaluation. If anything, this retelling of the legend of Noah, his ark, and the divine inundation, made Kaye seem more outlandishly grotesque than ever before. It is one thing to wink and wiggle through a performance of The Kid From Brooklyn; but to bring those attributes to the portrayal of a patriarch and agent of God, goes beyond poor performing into blasphemous self-indulgence.

I do not mean by the above that Noah’s divine charge cannot be treated humorously. I only wish Two by Two had treated it thus. What it does instead is to make something trivially vulgar out of a situation that is terrifyingly funny. One and only one joke pervades the entire play, and that has to do with Noah’s longevity. Examples: Noah to his son: “Stop behaving like a child. You’re almost a man now. You’re one hundred and one years old.” Noah to his wife: “If only I were three hundred again.” There is even a song, “Ninety Again,” that drags this conceit around the block for a good five minutes.

Apart from this, Two by Two—which, by the way, is based on Clifford Odets’s The Flowering Peach, a play I did not see, but that could not have been so imbecile as this adaptation of it by Peter Stone—tries valiantly to make a family farce out of the destruction of the world. All the points of interest in this work are so low, that it is hard to single out the most egregious example of tawdry modernizing, but I shall choose a number in the first act as a representative of the kind of sensitivity that has gone into this 1970 version of the myth of the Flood. Noah has just told his children what God expects of them, and their response is to move to one side of the stage and start up a number called “Put Him Away.” It makes one wish for Central Committees or Inquisitions when one sees such criminal acts and knows that their perpetrators are not going to lose a few years of freedom or at least a pair of ears.

And to think that one of the perpetrators is Richard Rodgers, who for so long was part of the really antic and innovative in musical theater. His songs for this work float about in aimless conspiracy with the lyrics of Martin Charnin, and one feels that they end only when they have exhausted themselves. Indeed, over the whole evening there is a heavy feeling of fatigue, as if all concerned knew that they were struggling to make something viable out of the stillborn. In something so disastrous as Two by Two, every effort becomes visible, and all the straining sinews stick out and show their labor. It is a wearying sight that can send one into a doze early in the second act.

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On the subject of The Rothschilds, I have little to say. It purports to be about the rise of that celebrated banking family and how, along the way, it achieved certain rights for fellow Jews in 19th-century Europe. Of course, it is not about this. It is about old Jewish jokes and attitudes that theater parties expect when they contract for such a musical, and so one of the great financial dynasties of the world is presented as though it were little more than an oversized candy store run on the wit and wisdom of old Second Avenue. One might actually suspect an attempt at satire in this treatment, if one didn’t know that the minds responsible for The Rothschilds are demonstrably incapable of such a subtle mode of thought.

But I am finally out of patience with the whole experience. These are not really musicals; they are dull, market calculations. As such, I suppose, they are successful, and I leave it to those who feel apprehensive about our society to analyze what sort of audience could tolerate such dull commodities at $15 a ticket. As for me, I believe I have discharged all obligation ever to think of them again.

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