’I hate musicals” is a sentiment I hear a lot—for instance, when friends ask me to recommend a show. (Typical exchange: “Well, there’s this terrific musical called Spring Awa—” “God no, I hate musicals.”) This season, though, it’s been tougher for people to make such a blanket condemnation. Beyond the rock music and hip-hop infiltrating Broadway, composers have stretched to accommodate all sorts of dark, dour musical dramas, and established theaters are producing them. Stephen Sondheim has been laying track on this terrain for half a century, of course, but there are plenty of styles and subjects left to explore. And the more broadly composers explore them, the more saying “I hate musicals” comes to sound as nonsensical as saying “I hate movies.” And who the hell says that?
Not surprisingly, the most adventurous work has bubbled up downtown, like Adding Machine, a musical version of Elmer Rice’s play about a human cog in a soulless office (imagine Kafka with show tunes), or Hostage Song, a rock musical about two prisoners marked for execution that follows the “Space Oddity” blueprint: hopelessness through power chords. But the highest-profile proponent of the New Gloom is the just-opened A Catered Affair. Harvey Fierstein and songwriter John Bucchino have turned the 1956 movie (an adaptation by Gore Vidal of Paddy Chayefsky’s story) into the anti–Mamma Mia! Jane (Leslie Kritzer), the only daughter of poor Bronx parents (Tom Wopat and Faith Prince, hiding her light under a frown), wants to marry her beau (Matt Cavenaugh). Though she’s content to have a simple civil ceremony, her mother insists on a lavish event, to be funded with money they received after Jane’s brother was killed in combat.
Like I said: gloomy. And not always so compelling. Bucchino’s moody score keeps inviting unflattering comparisons to Sondheim. (That the two share an orchestrator, Jonathan Tunick, doesn’t help.) John Doyle, whose actors-as-musicians versions of Sweeney Todd and Company are two of my favorite Broadway productions, gets stuck between a literal, slice-of-life treatment (worn furniture, working kitchen) and a suggestive, urban-panorama treatment (projections, towering fire escapes. It’s a look that recalls, but doesn’t work any more gracefully than, the colossal walls he used in Peter Grimes at the Met).
Yet as unmoved as I felt at the time, the show somehow left a chill that’s persisted, an echo of the heartbreaking, unyielding way Prince’s Aggie insists that somebody in that family get some kind of dream fulfilled. As an added bonus, it’s always nice to see Fierstein back on Broadway—and in a pants role, no less. His warm, ingratiating performance as resident “bachelor” Winston makes the show feel like a rare sort of musical indeed: a life lesson from Uncle Harvey.
If there’s any justice in the world, we have not seen the last of John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The great South African actors have just left town with Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, which they reportedly plan to stop performing now that this last run at BAM has ended. The show may not be as pressing as it was in 1972, when they co-wrote it with Athol Fugard and began performing it in defiance of apartheid. But much like The Island, the other wonderful Fugard-Kani-Ntshona collaboration that BAM revived five years ago, the play’s method transcends the regime that provoked it.
The actors tell the story of a man who eludes an unjust government by swapping identities with a corpse. Kani and Ntshona talk to unseen people, mime many props, and generally interact with a world that isn’t there. In short, they’re playing make-believe, but raised to a level of such delicacy and sophistication that the game seems at once radical (as it’s a way to perform within the limited means of dissidents) and profoundly human (as it strips away the inessentials that separate a storyteller from his listener’s imagination).
Yet for all the hardheaded realities the characters voice (“This world and its laws allow us nothing, except ourselves,” says Kani), the play has a near-miraculous uplifting effect. When Kani impersonated some of the 29 family members posing for a photo, the litany of goofy “Cheese”s brought tears to my eyes. Elsewhere, the show’s physical comedy was sly and subversive: Beckett without the despair.
This is potent stuff, which is why the government was quick to arrest the actors when the play premiered. Today that government is gone, and Kani and Ntshona are still here. So let them take another victory lap: They’ve more than earned it.