Crass Appeal

There are two ways to be beyond criticism: being above it or being below it. Shakespeare, for example, was above being shot down by the fusillades of even such eminent marksmen as Voltaire and Tolstoy. Others, however, are so firmly entrenched in the lowest public taste that they are as invulnerable to criticism as low-flying stealth bombers to detection by radar. Such a one is Frank Wildhorn, who, with the opening of The Civil War, has three shows simultaneously dumbing down Broadway.

A genuine education, if such a thing were widely available, might teach people that artistic value is not to be measured by the number and volume of standing and yowling ovations. Critics, to be sure, are often wrong – especially those who reflect the majority taste. But the under- or miseducated public is wrong even more often. Yes, good folk knew enough to enjoy Dickens; they also know enough to love Judith Krantz, Danielle Steel, and Stephen King. The only real test is the slow but true test of time. By dint of being drilled, bullied, shamed – and, yes, even taught – the public eventually accepts Shakespeare. Even so, as Georg Kaiser has the goddess Athena declare in his drama Pygmalion, “The populace / Would sooner stone a genius than perceive him.”

But the populace is perfectly pleased to anoint Wildhorn instantly as Messiah to the Unwashed. And when it comes to commercial savvy, he is indeed a genius. To be sure, as head of a popular division of Atlantic Records, he is well placed to peddle all sorts of advance concept recordings of his gestating shows and to engage pop celebrities as his recording “artists.” Beyond that, he picks subjects of timely or proven popular appeal, e.g. Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and now The Civil War.

The good news is that the show does not use all the numbers Wildhorn has contrived for evolving versions of his opus; the bad news is that he does use 23, plus three reprises. These songs have only ghostly pseudo-tunes stretched out ad nauseam and uncannily resembling one another, revealing the two chief instruments for which Wildhorn composes: the meat grinder and the cookie cutter. Of course, someone who, like him, has churned out pop songs for years has or acquires a certain facility, but facility is not the same as felicity.

As this essentially bookless show’s book writer, Gregory Boyd, explains, the show tunes of the great theater composers were the pop music of the day, and so we get here “country, pop, gospel, folk, r&b, and rock.” What he does not say is that the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers, etc., though influenced by jazz, were good enough not to imitate but be imitated by the pack. And in no case would they have stooped to some of today’s musically and verbally monotonous genres.

But there is further confusion here. Wildhorn and his unimpressive orchestrator, Kim Scharnberg, attempt to reconcile contemporary and period musical idioms, and come up with a hybrid that is neither fish nor fowl. Even their striving for variety – following up a thunderous march with a soulful guitar number – proves formulaic if not, indeed, disjointed. It all comes down to a personal style, which Wildhorn doesn’t have, unless you consider generic banality a style.

Jack Murphy’s lyrics do not help. This, for instance, from “Virginia”: “There was a land … / A land to pleasure the eyes / Where the old was new / And the foolish wise.” What does this seemingly clever paradox mean? At most, it describes the Wildhornian modus operandi. Or take this much-reprised bit sung by a slave couple about to be “sold apart”: “If prayin’ were horses all of us would ride / And ever I’d be by your side.” Aside from rhythmic clunkiness, what sort of trope is this? Who but an Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan would conceive marital bliss as riding side by side? Or what of the following, from the war profiteer’s song, “Greenback”: “Get it any way that you can / Lie, cheat, sugar sweet / Elite, Easy Street …” What does the inept switch from verbs to not especially apposite nouns accomplish except an indigestible glut of rhymes on eat?

The book is all songs and vignettes, with the odd crumb of action or smidgen of spoken words. In itself, this could pass if it weren’t so schematic. We are told that much of what is sung or spoken was assembled from Lincoln and Whitman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, as well as contemporary letters, headlines, and diaries. But bear in mind that the heedlessly pieced-together patchwork quilt can be as displeasing as homogenous sludge. Any show that can use the drab voice of David M. Lutken to drone out Lincoln’s most powerful utterances is tone-deaf.

Even the portrayal of the Union Army, Confederate Army, and slave population, each played by seven actors, displays something reductive in its pat symmetry, and neither Jerry Zaks’s direction nor Luis Perez’s musical staging rises above the serviceable.

On the credit side, though, there are some splendid projections by the evidently inexhaustible Wendall K. Harrington, intensely dramatic lighting by Paul Gallo, suggestive scenery by Douglas W. Schmidt, and nicely restrained costuming from William Ivey Long. And there are some fine performances, vocal or histrionic, or both. I was particularly taken with Michel Bell, Lawrence Clayton, Cheryl Freeman, Carpathia Jenkins, Keith Bryon Kirk, and Irene Molloy, with several others behind only because of less ample opportunities. Gene Miller, though, as the Confederate captain, showed (possibly temporary) vocal strain. Leo Burmester simply reprised his performance in Les Misérables, although the show’s most rousing number, “How Many Devils?” derives from the same source.

The Civil War has been treated successfully in only one musical, Shenandoah (not much superior, to my mind), which the authors of The Civil War do not mention in the record booklet, though they list a couple of obscure others. So this very choice of theme in these days of Bosnia, Kosovo, etc., etc. is shrewd enough. And when that war’s 620,000 dead are evoked – along with the names of famous battles and their casualty numbers projected on the backdrop – unearned emotions are instantly elicited. Yet from any serious artistic standpoint, Wildhorn’s musical merely augments the casualty list to 620,001. Still, as I mentioned earlier, criticism is powerless here, and the loudest sound you’ll soon be hearing is wild Wildhorn laughter all the way to the bank.

Crass Appeal