I Love-Hate the Eighties

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Richard Kornberg and Associates

Normally a show as demoralizing—not just bad, but demoralizing—as Lestat should be allowed to expire in peace. Faced with this vampire musical’s cheesy effects, vapid score, and ridiculous hickeys of death, what is there to say besides “No, they’re really not kidding”? But this week, a sense of mercy will have to wait.

Lestat has opened within a few days of another big-budget musical adaptation, The Wedding Singer. If the former encapsulates many of the ways in which, as somebody once said, “A new musical is an organism bent on self-destruction,” the latter shows how a musical can resist that urge, delightfully. Comparing the two helps to pinpoint why some new musicals thrive today while others make your eyes bleed. So we’ll linger over the flatlining Lestat—for a little while, anyway.

Though their idioms could scarcely be more different—deathless French vampires, Jersey youngsters in love—the two shows share a reference point: the eighties. With its shoulder pads (big), guitar solos (big), and hair (enormous), The Wedding Singer can only be set in 1985. As in the Adam Sandler–Drew Barrymore film, wedding-band front man Robbie Hart (the funny, charming newcomer Stephen Lynch) falls for sweet waitress Julia (the lovely-voiced Laura Benanti). Their fitful courtship lets choreographer Rob Ashford quote your favorite music videos, leading to a grand finale featuring impersonators of some of the decade’s defining figures. (I don’t want to give anything away, but a mohawked member of the A-Team may be among them.) Producer Margo Lion seems to think all this clever toying with eighties nostalgia will do here what early-sixties nostalgia did for her last big crowd-pleaser, Hairspray. She’s probably right.

While The Wedding Singer lovingly sends up the eighties, the adapters of Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” swallow its values whole. They declare that they’ve taken the high road and avoided falling chandeliers and helicopters and such, but their show is just as empty a spectacle as the hits from the decade of Mackintosh. As the ever-sucking Lestat walks his lonely road through the afterlife, dazzling projections set the scene or punch up the action; once or twice, somebody flies. The display never rewards its audience for sharing any particular knowledge or experience the way, say, jokes about a DeLorean do. It asks you merely to gawk.

I found plenty of laughs in Lestat—the hero smooching his vampire mom, for instance—though I don’t think they were intentional. That may be the sharpest difference between the two shows, and Lestat’s deadliest flaw. From start to finish, pompous writing abounds, with no irony to leaven the result. Bernie Taupin’s lyrics pivot from the banal to the overwrought— e.g., “The blood-red scent of slaughter fills my lungs.” Elton John’s music compounds the hollow sincerity. “God … where is He in all of this?” runs one of the sillier lines from Linda Woolverton’s libretto. (Bad libretto, good question.) The show barely acknowledges that we know this routine already, from a lifetime of vampire books and movies and even Broadway musicals—two in the past four years, in fact. We’re a step ahead of this show when it starts, and it never catches up.

Where Lestat lacks any trace of irony, The Wedding Singer all but shivers with it. When Robbie first meets Julia, the theater fills with an angelic tone. It seems corny, until one of Robbie’s bandmates starts banging on the side of his synthesizer. “Sorry—the keys got stuck,” he says. Later Julia serenades Robbie with a genuinely romantic song titled “Come Out of the Dumpster.” It’s this kind of winning self-deflation that makes the show an heir to Avenue Q and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. John Rando, the director of Urinetown, finds ways to tug on theatergoers’ heartstrings without burying them in sentimentality (which, in this disabused age, they’d dismiss with a smirk). On the heels of Jersey Boys, another period musical that was smarter and funnier than it needed to be, The Wedding Singer adds to the evidence that when audiences go to a splashy musical these days—a few exceptions aside—ironic comedy is what they’re after.

And why shouldn’t they be, considering the alternatives? As with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White last fall, neither the familiar material of Lestat nor its bland presentation seems attuned to the way people think and react now; even the choice of composer could have been made any time in the past 30 years. The Wedding Singer, by contrast, meets a demand: It’s a romantic comedy that’s actually funny, a genre that Broadway desperately needs to populate. Paradoxically, the neat way the show’s nostalgia, cleverness, and deceptively soft irony suit the current mood means it’s sure to outlast the dinosaur down the block. “I am the vampire Lestat,” declares our hero, “and I will live forever.” Not in this town, sucker.

What would Hector, the outsize teacher who leads The History Boys, say about all these flashy musicals? Would he be faintly dismissive or genially approving? It’s a credit to Alan Bennett that his central character can be imagined this way, wholly independent of the play in which he appears. Hounded by quantifiers and corner-cutters, Hector is a humanist on the run—or the wobble, at least. Richard Griffiths plays him with ruddy good humor, amiable sensitivity, and a voluminous three-piece suit—he could be Denny Hastert, if Hastert were utterly different, in every way but the physical, from the man he is.

In this story about English prep-school boys being torn between opposing teachers, views of history, and outlooks on life, Bennett wears his CV on his sleeve. The funny parts issue from the madcap Beyond the Fringe portions of Bennett’s brain; the quiet interiors come from the dramatist who wrote the lovely solo portraits in Talking Heads. Though Bennett skimps on the story’s grief, and leans too heavily on his co-author, Bartlett, and his book of quotations, the play is never less than smart and compelling. (It helps that Nicholas Hytner has drawn richly quirky performances from a top-notch ensemble.) In a healthier Broadway, maybe these compact virtues wouldn’t seem as extraordinary as some have claimed. But with the vampires biting nightly, I’ll take it.

Lyrics by Bernie Taupin. Music by Elton John. Book by Linda Woolverton. Palace Theatre.

The Wedding Singer
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Book by Tim Herlihy and Chad Beguelin. Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

The History Boys
Alan Bennett. Broadhurst Theatre. Through September 3.

I Love-Hate the Eighties