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Bialystock and Gloom

The Producers is gone; Legally Blonde is here. And maybe it’s time to slow down the Hollywood-to-Broadway conveyor. Plus: LoveMusik’s lovely music.

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Illustration by Paul Willoughby  

A pair of new musicals has landed on Broadway, but the big news is the one that closed. Six years after The Producers had the most triumphant opening in a generation, followed by all that madness—a near-sweep at the Tony Awards, biblically long ticket lines—the “best show ever” just closed, with a baffling lack of comment. No encomia to a show that made the cover of The New Yorker? No “Metro”-section ruminations on the musical that merited not one but two opinion pieces in the Times? The lack of interest has a lot to do with how mortal the show began to seem after Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick departed, but it’s also a by-product of how aggressively Broadway elbowed into the show’s niche. It’s harder to sustain excitement about a demographic-jumping musical adaptation of a film now that the genre has generated another major hit (Hairspray) and a long-running success (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and promised many more.

Legally Blonde, now glowing pink at the Palace, offers some good news and bad news about what these adaptations are doing to Broadway. As in the film, Elle Woods leaves her sunny sorority life in California to chase a boy who’s gone to Harvard Law, where “the girls have different noses,” in the words of her horrified father. Librettist Heather Hach sticks closer to the screenplay than adapters of other shows have, so the songs by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin mainly expand scenes you remember from the movie, and offer fresh reasons to like them: As Elle prepares for her big date, the Delta Nus belt “Omigod, You Guys!”; the sexuality of a witness in the show’s big trial is pinned down in “Gay or European?”

Yet for all that’s genuinely likable here, especially the sharp lyrics and Christian Borle’s funny, underplayed turn as the elbow-patched Easterner who woos Elle, the show doesn’t inspire much love. It produces the same so-so feeling I’ve gotten, in different degrees, from all the recent movie-to-musical adaptations. Sometimes one part of a show will ignite, like Marc Shaiman’s fiendishly catchy melodies for Hairspray, but rarely do these productions display anything more than a brisk, flavorless competence. Here, director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell does a crisp, professional job whirling David Rockwell’s scenery into place without using blackouts. But that same crisp professionalism makes his work with the dancers seem uninspired.

Though the show hasn’t been tidied up as relentlessly as its predecessors, the move from Hollywood to Broadway costs the material some of its endearing weirdness just the same. That may be the most pernicious side effect of this genre. Laura Bell Bundy can sing, dance, land a joke, and look good doing it, all of which makes her a fine Elle. It’s not her fault that her every smile doesn’t summon memories of Tracy Flick, the steely student-council campaigner that Reese Witherspoon played in Election before starring in Legally Blonde. The fleeting glimpses of a Flickish manic drive just below Elle’s silly Malibu surface are what I liked best in the film. It’s the kind of freaky detail that no amount of cheery blandness can replace.

LoveMusik, by contrast, has freaky details galore. At the Biltmore, Michael Cerveris transforms himself from menacing, murderous Sweeney Todd to play the doughy, neurasthenic Kurt Weill. Donna Murphy, though she has a much lovelier voice than Lotte Lenya, channels his wife: Listen as she caresses a note then cuts glass with it. Outwardly, this highest-of-highbrow jukebox musicals about their tumultuous life has almost nothing in common with the week’s other big new musical, yet before long it ends up in a stylistic corset not unlike Legally Blonde’s.

Harold Prince long ago proved he can direct any kind of musical, from Lloyd Webber to Sondheim. So I wish his work here reflected that this is a Kurt Weill show. The composer of The Threepenny Opera, one of the most theatrically adventurous musicals ever written, deserves better than to be treated like any old pop tunesmith being subjected to a stage biopic: A song runs boringly into a scene, then back into another song. It doesn’t help that librettist Alfred Uhry seems to find Weill and Lenya’s serial affairs inexhaustibly fascinating, or that the show commits a serious art crime in underutilizing Murphy. At the Public Theater’s 50th-anniversary concert last year, her rendition of “Pirate Jenny” blew the roof off. Twice during this show, she seems about to sing it; twice the action shifts away. That is messed up.

Still, Jonathan Tunick nearly provides grounds for overlooking all these sins. His orchestrations of Weill’s songs are beautiful, and the Act II entr’acte, which features a solo violin playing the melody of “September Song,” is exquisite. As long as you only have to listen to the music, you stop wondering what a bolder director might have accomplished by tossing out the biopic conventions and using these artists to create something strange and new and possibly wonderful.


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