Volume III, Issue I Spring 2004

New York theater: Artistry and politics animate this season's musicals

By Lucy Komisar


Forget the morose assertions that the musical is doddering or dead. It has never been more relevant and alive. Whether they are new works or revival or adaptations of novels, when musicals dare to confront real social issues, they are vibrant and exciting and – if the music and lyrics and acting keep pace – they are exhilarating theater.

Look at four good examples that came to the stage this season. Their excitement comes from a mixture of artistry and politics:

Two young women conquer New York

"Wonderful Town"
Book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
Script Adaptation by David Ives
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 W. 45 St.

Wonderful Town
Photos by Joan Marcus

With the backdrop of 1935 Greenwich Village and the sounds of '30s jazz, this affectionate feminist confection tells what happens to sisters Ruth (Donna Murphy) and Eileen (Jennifer Westfield) when they arrive from the provincial Midwest and discover, one, a pervasive contempt for women intellectuals, and two, the casting couch.

Wonderful Town It's all done with clever, pulsating dance numbers and witty tuneful songs. A smashing opening ballet is a brassy pastiche of village people. Director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall gives the show a zingy elegance. The sisters warble about "Ohio yo-yo-yo." They harmonize in rich soprano and alto tones.

There are lessons in songs such as "One Hundred Easy Ways" to lose a man. They all involve showing woman letting it show that she is smart. That's Ruth, a sharp lady who wants to be in publishing.

Wonderful Town Eileen's troubles start when she looks for an acting job and discovers that producers want to hold auditions prone.

There's a clever lampoon of macho Hemingway mixed with the sense of a Noel Coward divertissement. And a good-humored joke about ethnic stereotyping when a line of policemen do an Irish jig: One of them is black.

"Wonderful Town" is funny, witty, clever, joyous. It makes you think. It's subversively feminist. It lifts your spirits. The sultry, jazzy dancing doesn't hurt. Nor does Leonard Bernstein's scintillating sounds. John Lea Beatty's pastel sets are so evocative you wish you could buy copies at the annual art show at Washington Square Park.

Wicked witch fights privilege and repression in Oz

Book by Winnie Holzman
Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Directed by Joe Mantello
Gershwin Theatre, 222 W. 51 St.

Photos by Joan Marcus

This behind-the-scenes revisionist view of "The Wizard of Oz" is a political allegory about racism and discrimination. It's fascinating as a literary work and stunning as theater. Based on the novel by Winnie Holzman, it's an updated "Animal Farm." It's a play that exists on two levels, one for the kids and another for adults, who will find it intellectually stimulating. It's Oz before Dorothy got there.

You might think this was a typical high-tech Broadway extravaganza. After all, a dragon belches smoke from the top of the proscenium and a huge witch's hat flies around. (The set wizardry is by Eugene Lee.) Susan Hilferty's costumes are great gobs of color and feathers.

But then there's the subversive ironic story of the self-absorbed good-girl (good witch) Glenda (Kristin Chenoweth), who is so full of herself she declares, "It's good to see me, isn't it?" Then, "No need to respond, that was rhetorical." Glenda is utterly self-involved, has 24 pairs of shoes, and is popular and empty-headed – though good natured.

Wicked Her princely boyfriend, by the way, is appropriately shallow and pretentious.

Expect a lot of tongue-in-cheek references. There's the bedraggled 19th-century mob, for example.

So, getting down to the racism: Elphaba (Idina Menzel) the wicked witch is green! And there is privilege and discrimination aplenty. The girls go to a private school for the upper classes, where Elphaba is a charity case.

The rich kids don't like to be reminded of how these class divisions happened: "I don't see why you can't just teach history, instead of always harping on the past."

The professor (William Youmans) is a goat who, like many other animals, has forgotten how to speak. He writes on the blackboard that animals should be seen and not heard. By the way, animals are also forbidden to work. Well, what can they do? The professor declares, "There is so much pressure not to." Elphaba is indignant: "It can't happen here."

This is the lightest, frothiest political treatise you ever saw, with a bubbly Chenoweth holding forth in a lilting soprano, and stomping about with cute, quirky gestures. Idina Menzel is a passionate, intelligent Elphaba.

Wicked The vividly green Elphaba sets out for the Emerald City where wizard Joel Grey is out to stop subversive animal activity. His tactic? Inventing an enemy for people to coalesce against; he even puts wings on monkeys and makes them spies. Storm troopers chase around and arouse shivers. The wizard's contraption of cogs and wheels makes us wonder about the evils of industrial society. His snooty press secretary spins lies.

It appears that people are willing to grovel and submit to feed their ambition, that they are not comfortable with moral ambiguities. A message for our times, for all times. And a superb Broadway show.

Celebrities self-destruct on self-involvement

"The Boy From Oz"
Book by Martin Sherman
Music and lyrics by Peter Allen
Choreography by Joey McKneely
Directed by Philip William McKinley
Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45 St.

Photos by Joan Marcus

What can you say about the message of real life? This is a different kind of Oz – Australia. The story perhaps is how overriding ambition takes over the soul and can destroy all in its wake. Or, more generously, about the unyielding dedication of artists.

Oz I never saw Peter Allen, about whom the play is made, but Hugh Jackman, who portrays him, is a consummate artist, a charmer, a showstopper, so here's where art seems to excuse the peccadillos of life.

The charming boy singer – there's an engaging bit by the young Peter (Mitchel David Federan) at an Aussie saloon – had a protective mother and an alcoholic father, and got out of the outback as soon as he could.

The problem with artists is that their egos demand audiences, not other artists. Liza had to deal with the added neurosis provoked by an overwhelming Judy Garland.

Oz Allen (Jackman) fell into a family stalked by tragedy, so it's eerily unsurprising that this bisexual man saw his main chance in connecting with Garland (Isabel Keating) by marrying her daughter (Stephanie Block). They never really had a chance. Liza and Allen were both fixed on their own career successes, and then he turned out to be bisexual. Poor Liza: "If it wasn't for sex, we'd have been so happy." If only she had had the character and fortitude of the fictional Ruth, Eileen or Elphaba!

Though the story gets a bit melodramatic – well, hokey even – and it never makes me overcome my basic disinterest in the career paths of pop singers, Philip McKinley's staging is deft and entertaining. There's a witty satire of bandstand singers, smart sets by Robin Wagner, including tunnels that turn into a New York skyline, and all the voices are smashing. Jackman is sensual and riveting. Keating is stunning as Garland, and Block could be a double for Liza Minnelli.

Making a revolution in Russia

"Fiddler on the Roof"
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Musical staging by Jonathan Butterell
Choreography by Jerome Robbins
Directed by David Leveaux
Minskoff Theatre, 200 W. 45 St.

Fiddler on the Roof
Photos by Joan Marcus

There's no dearth of strong women in this fine revival of the 1964 play about Russian-Jewish peasants confronting modernity and pogroms. And they were partnered by some very strong men.

"Fiddler" has always been anchored as an ethnic play, but this production makes it clear that the themes speak to all societies in social and political conflict. What rural society hasn't had a conflict over the role of women? What minority in an autocratic land hasn't suffered discrimination and reprisals? The value of "Fiddler" is that it speaks to this human condition, not to the experience of one group alone.

Fiddler on the Roof Demonstrating how it resonates, Angel Kreiman, former chief rabbi of Santiago, Chile, told me that some time after the 1973 coup, dictator General Augusto Pinochet called him to lunch. Pinochet, concerned about the influence of Jews around the world, wanted to explain why he had banned the 1971 film of "Fiddler on the Roof." Pinochet said, "You know, there are people running around with red flags against the Czar. I wouldn't like to show that to the Chilean people!"

This is why I was astonished by the hurt cries from some critics that this production isn't "Jewish" enough! "Fiddler" will live because it is universal; that makes it a classic.

The story of, of course, is both ordinary and exceptional. Tevye (Alfred Molina) and Golde (Randy Graff) worry about marrying off their daughters and get constant advice and suggestions from the Yente the Matchmaker (Nancy Opel) who proposes, for the eldest, a rich old man. The marriageable girls, alas, fall in love with youths who are inappropriately poor or of the wrong religion or have dangerously radical views.

Fiddler on the Roof Director David Leveaux seems to want to emphasize that their problems are part of a wider experience. The action takes place in an ethereal and glittery wood of birches often lit by glittering stars – evoking the familiar sets of plays by Chekhov. The men are boisterous in their drinking, not so different from the soldiers who first appear threatening, but then join them in dance.

Indeed, the book by Joseph Stein based on stories by Sholom Aleichem in turn-of-the-century Czarist Russia seems to be a tug between the humanity of everyone pulling together – of the radical Jewish scholar and one daughter going off to join the revolutionaries, of the Christian soldier going off to wed another daughter, and of the family finally setting off for America, where they'll still be a minority but one (relatively) at peace with their Christian neighbors.

Alfred Molina is a warm, vulnerable Tevye who doesn't need much manipulating by his clever partner. Randy Graff leavens Golde's toughness with sensitivity. They do the famous musical numbers – "If I were a rich man," "To Life," "Do You Love Me?" – with charm and conviction, even if nobody brings down the house. Nancy Opel nearly does that with her "Topsy-Turvy" ditty with two busy-body compatriots. With his comic angular movements, John Cariani turns Motel the tailor into an unforgettable character.

The Jerome Robbins ballets are still dazzling. And Leveaux outdoes himself in the dream sequence when Tevye conjures up a ghostly vision that combines the woodland creatures of "A Midsummer Nights Dream" with a levitating apparition that rises heavenward in smoke.

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Other long-running musicals worth seeing: "Chicago," "Gypsy," "Hairspray," "Movin' Out," "The Lion King," "The Producers" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Musicals I wish were still running: Quirky, clever "Urinetown"; the stunning Baz Luhrmann production of "La Boheme"; the amazing "Les Miserables"; and "Amour" (libretto by Didier van Cauwelaert, music by Michel Legrand and direction by James Lapine), whose sophisticated French critique of society and politics, alas, was not appreciated by most American critics and theatergoers.

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