What Is happening to America's greatest contribution to the theater,
musical comedy? Why so many jukebox musicals? Why so many paltry shows?
Why haven't you even tried to hum a song from a show as you were
leaving it? The answers tend to be forbidding. Can it be that
possibilities are exhausted? There has not even been a brand new
Sondheim show for some time now, and the recent "Road Show," is merely a
third version and even so not a real success. Is there nothing new
under the limelight? Is every new note really an old note? No use
pointing to new operas, few of them hits and having, as a genre, options
that the Broadway musical doesn't have and the off Broadway musical
doesn't afford. Some of the new or newish Broadway musicals smell to me
of desperation. Take "Hadestown," which, to my nose, is redolent of that
desperation, holding no other real interest than Andre de Shields's
marvelous performance. But can a single safety belt save a shipload of
drowners? The plot is part exhausted myth and part farfetched
claptrap.That this elicits ovations reminds me of the German saying "In
compulsion, the Devil will eat flies." That is what keeps a mediocre
show like "Frozen" going, that children love it and their parents can
at least bear it. Only two recent musicals have earned my approbation, with
"The Prom," despite a sensational performance by Brooks Ashmanskas,
already closed, and '"Tootsie," based on a popular movie that offers
an adroit actor a timely genderbending role.
Still, with the excellent exception of "The Band's Visit" gone after a
respectable run, shows like "Waitress" and "Mean Girls" offer
audience-flattering elements that differ from real quality. Such shows
depend largely, if not quite exclusively, on the hunger and gullibility
of audiences willing to stand, and stand up for rather meager fare.
Most often these are cult favorites, like "Beetlejuice," aimed at and
cherished by specific minorities. Another, "ain't too proud," caters to
nostalgia for "the life and times of The Temptations," and has at least decent
choreography by Sergio Trujillo well executed by an able cast. However,
some shows boggle the mind. I am thinking of such nonmusical dramas or
comedies as the double bill of "Sea Wall" and "A Life," whose two
British authors seem to have gone out of their way to make things
needlessly complicated and barely comprehensible as tokens of presumed
profundity. In the former, by Simon Stephens, you never know why a hardly mentioned, submerged wall of sea shore should have become
titular; in the latter, by Nick Payne, we never know whether we are
dealing with a stepfather's dying or a wife's birthing, the two
becoming somehow scrambled.
But to return to musicals, what are we to make of "Bat Out of Hell,"
with book, music and lyrics by the songwriter Jim Steinman?
He is known for stuff written for, or performed by, the likes of Celine
Dion, Barbra Streisand, Bonnie Tyler, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a
whole trilogy performed by Meat Loaf. But basing an entire show on
preexisting numbers is almost like finding a button in the street and
having a suit made to go with it. It does not make much sense. Its young
hero, Strat, is lover to both Raven and her mother, Sloane, on a rather
unbecoming set by Jon Bausor which, not only hard to decipher, does not
follow locations called for by the script. The chorus that provides
most of the backup is labeled the Lost, though we never find out what they have lost and how. The presumed villain, Falco, is just as vague as
the rest, provenance and relationships remaining obscure. The title song
does not emerge until the end, and does not explain much of anything.
The show's young hero, Strat, gets little help from having to say or sing
things like "Though it's cold and lonely in the deep dark night,/ I can
see paradise by the dashboard light." A car and motor bike do indeed
figure prominently. The latter "explodes apart/ and his heart explodes
out of his chest." "He is drenched in blood" as the Ensemble goes on repeating without respite oohs and ahs, and we wonder "if life
is just a highway. and the soul is just a car" and our hero "seems dead
or near dead" in an ambiguity rather hard to enact. Oddly named characters such
as Tink and Zahara sprout out of nowhere, the former to have his name comedically mangled, and finally "disappear in a cloud of feathers,"
which the costume designer, again Jon Bausor, does not quite manage to pull off. And
what are we to make of characters named Ledoux, Valkyrie, Kwaidan and
Jagwire, among others, who may emerge from the chorus without much conviction or function?
question haunts the mysterious proceedings: "On a hot summer night/
Would you offer your throat to the wolf with red roses?" As it is worded, I could not even
tell whether the red roses come from the unseen wolf or from your throat. After
two and a half hours, we get several iterations of a "bat out of hell,"
when all we want is for the whole damn thing to be over already instead of
coming up with ever more quasi endings. Why doesn't it just go to hell or Hadestown and let us go home? There we can at least play our recordings of
true musicals past.