Bialystock and Gloom

Illustration by Paul WilloughbyPhoto: Carol Ressegg/Courtesy of Boneau/Bryan-Brown

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.

To recap the week in musicals, then: The Producers—hope you scalped a ticket when you had the chance. Legally Blonde—rent the movie. LoveMusik—wait for the CD.

W hen I say that Coram Boy lays it on thick, I mean thick like a mud slide. This import from the National Theatre in London uses a cast of 40 to tell the tale of a highborn English lad who wants to play music but is forbidden to by his father, so he runs away, but first he has a child, and then the child is thought dead, but actually he’s caught up in a world of white slavery and swashbuckling, villainy and noble sacrifice, and an onstage choir—in robes and everything—that sings Handel’s “Messiah.” Thick.

You have to admire hugely (and I mean hugely) director Melly Still’s willingness to pull out every stop, to throw the big set and the big cast and the big song into the middle of a Broadway that likes its straight plays pinched. (You also have to be glad the NT transferred this show in the same season as The Coast of Utopia: It’s boom time for New York stagehands and supporting actors at last.) But Still and adapter Helen Edmundson never quite make us care about the characters from Jamila Gavin’s novel as they zip around the cavernous Imperial. Some people were moved, it seems: The sniffles all around me at the end suggest that lines like “I love you, Alex—I love you still,” followed by harp and strings, are having the desired effect. But more often the show reminded me of a predecessor that did manage to lash the epic to the heartfelt. Now and then, actors plummet from the sky, backed by the full choir singing. Very Tony Kushner, I thought.

The 2004 Tony contest for Best Actress in a Musical should have been a three-way fight, but Donna Murphy fell behind in the throwdown between Wicked’s two witches, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, largely because she missed a third of her performances in Wonderful Town. Insiders called her condition “Donna Murphy syndrome,” and said she’d never be on Broadway again; one producer even said as much. But Murphy recently revealed what really kept her out so often: a vocal cord had hemorrhaged in previews, and she was regularly silenced on doctors’ orders. Now, not only is she back in LoveMusik, she’s all but a lock for a Tony nomination—and has yet to miss a preview.

Legally Blonde
Music and Lyrics by Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe. Book by Heather Hach. Palace Theatre.

Music by Kurt Weill. Book by Alfred Uhry. Biltmore Theatre.

Coram Boy
Adapted by Helen Edmundson. Imperial Theatre.

Bialystock and Gloom