I was not the perfect audience, since I am not a dyed-in-the-wool devotee of the form. But I was assailed during intermission by real aficionados, who had picked up every reference to every show. My curmudgeonliness, however, qualified me to appreciate things from another angle, since the writers (Eric Rockwell, music; Joanne Bogart, text) take a mordant pleasure in skewering the platitudes of the Great White Way.
The approach is simple. An actor enters the bare stage with a sign: "In the style of ... " some famous composer. The first is a team: Rogers and Hammerstein. The fictional Musical is Corn! And, shucks, Ma'am, it's downright heartland -- like Kansas in August and normal as blueberry pie. Big Willie, the hero, wants to run off with a circus and see the world, but he's soft on June. (That's a girl, not a month.) Their love song is all about how they reveal their affection for one another, by refusing to admit it to each other. Jidder, the nasty landlord, wants the rent from June, or in lieu of that, to marry her. Meanwhile, Mother Abby encourages the young lovers with an inspirational hymn about a rainbow on a mountain and that rainbow is their dream. This leads, logically, to a dream sequence, which is a highly symbolic dance (Vaht vould Dr. Freud say about von of the symbolic schteps?). Well, we're in the '40s, and although film noir villains were wreaking havoc on the silver screen, Broadway wanted happy endings.
Perhaps, what convinces our hero to marry his gal is the thought that he could have a son with her: "Even if some guys might think it silly / I could stay home all day / and play with my little Willie."
I quote the lyrics to give you an idea of the blend of satire, wit and silliness that make this show such a pleasure.
Anyway, the second segment is in the style of Stephen Sondheim. We are whisked forward in time to a dark, postmodern ambiance of dissonance and angst. The locale is a New York Apartment complex called "The Woods." The structure of the show becomes clear as we realize that -- although done in a very different style -- we are seeing the same basic plot. The tenants are Jeune, Billy and Abby and the villainous landlord is once again Jitters, although this Jitters has a psychopathic murderous streak, not unlike Sweeney Todd.
Of course, it's easy now to scoff at Roger and Hammerstein's hayseeds. But even Sondheim's most ardent fans will find it hard to hold back a smile, when a character proclaims: "Sometimes I think I'm having a thought."
Next comes the style of Jerry Herman, one of whose most enduring shows was Hello Dolly, with one of history's most enduring of star-turns by Carol Channing. Well, a star-turn is certainly front and center in Dear Abby. Auntie Abby rolls in splendidly under the spotlights, on a ladder. She spends much of her time -- since, as the chorus tells us, she can't sing or dance -- exiting and entering in ever more extravagant costumes.
At one point, the musical stops so Abby (the charming Elizabeth Argus) can shamelessly milk the audience for applause by pretending to be shy and touched and nearly overwhelmed by this outpouring of love for her.
Aspects of Juanita, a pop-opera (a popera, if you will) in the style of Andrew Lloyd Weber follows. Juanita begins and ends with a fog machine. All dialogue is sung. The soaring melodies "sound just a teeny, like something by Puccini." Whereas, in Dear Abby, the audience (we are told) applauds the star's entrances and exits, here they applaud the set changes.
Last stop is Kander and Ebb. Speakeasy is a mishmash of Cabaret and Chicago with "slutty dancing girls" and "lots of foreign phrases."
The above summary gives a rough idea of The Musical! But, in fact, there's really no way to sum up this show. There's nothing else quite like it. You would think the premise would run out of steam, but it stays fresh and funny. I mentioned Elizabeth Argus, who has some of the brightest moments, but the rest of the cast -- Christopher Bentivegna, Leslie Castay and Craig Fols --Êalso are a treat. Jonne Dendinger narrates and accompanies on the baby grand piano. Brandt Blocker co-directed with Castay, who also choreographed the work and performed a role.
In brief: The Musical! will be a hit with folks who love musicals, as well as folks who hate them.
- The Musical of Musicals entertains as it satirizes the best of Broadway.