Paul Schierhorn, who teaches in the drama department at Tulane, is one of the most versatile and talented theater people around. You have to look at his resume carefully, because he is often credited for different or multiple contributions: "The Laundry Hour, New York Shakespeare Festival, 1981-- composer, actor, music director" is a typical entry. Locally, he has been nominated for Stoorer Boone Awards for Best Play (Glad All Over, 1992), Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
His best shot (so far) at a commercial breakthrough was The News, a musical for which he wrote the music, book and lyrics. It opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater in 1985, for a dishearteningly short run of four performances. Nonetheless, Schierhorn received a Tony nomination for the score. Andrew Lloyd Weber, who also had a show on that year, was not nominated. The award went to Edwin Drood. In other words, Schierhorn had some heavy competition.
Schierhorn recently gave local theatergoers a chance to see The News, in a student production at Tulane, which he co-directed with choreographer Beverly Trask. And one can only second the nomination of the Tony committee -- the music is just great. The songs run the gamut of pop styles: disco, R&B, gospel. They are accomplished, beautifully arranged, catchy and fresh.
The book is less satisfying. It is a dark, satiric fantasia on mass media; newspapers, in particular. On either side of the stage, one sees a desk with a PC, and the apartments of the protagonists, Guy (Greg Morabito) and Gail (Sarah Reardon). Most of the stage is taken up with a series of granite steps that might be the entrance to a large urban building. Overhead, there are three huge video screens that contribute a MTV feel to the proceedings (although, during the light show accompanying the overture, I felt transported to the Fillmore East of 1968).
Guy is a security guard. He gets sacked for insubordination. On his answer machine, there is nothing but creditors dunning and threatening him. On his TV, there is nothing but sex and violence. Whatever he does, he gets trampled on, pushed around, neglected. He is a real sad sack, no doubt about it. Gail, well, Gail doesn't really do anything but fantasize about the "wonder man" she hopes someday to meet.
Meanwhile, on the main stage, a musical indictment of the media alternates with a musical celebration of a typical daily paper, section by section. A no-nonsense editor (the poised, high-voltage Nick Reginio) is joined by a trio of reporters (Chad Pentler, Alysha Rooks and Kristen Foucher) for these numbers. They sing a song about front-page exposes, a song about Dear Abby-type columns, a song about sports, a song about celebrities, a song about horoscopes, and a song about the personals. The music is always good, sometimes wonderful. But, unless you are a certified media freak, a paean to grub street this elaborate begins to pale.
The song about the personals, however, hooks back into the love story. For Guy and Gail find each other via personal ads. They start talking in a chat room (we see the chat on the video screens).
Gail paradoxically wants both her idealized "wonder man" and a "real" guy. Amid philosophical discussion of what a "real" guy would be, Gail casually remarks that some one ought to kill all those disgusting people who control the news. This idea lodges in Guy's distraught brain as a way to win her love, and he starts knocking off media stars. He, in fact, becomes famous as "The Shooting Star Killer" -- a moniker Gail submitted to the paper to win the $500,000 "Name The Killer" contest, which was a brainchild of the cynical editor.
Curiously, the same editor decides to frustrate the killer by refusing him any further publicity (the only truly improbable twist of the plot). Guy convinces Gail to risk an F2F (that's a face-to-face meeting for you chat-room illiterates). But he blows himself away in the confusing climactic confrontation.
Well, look, a lot of Shakespeare's plots are pretty muddled. The problem here is that the whole affair doesn't hold together. The three parts -- the celebration of "newspaperness," the social satire and the intimate love story -- don't convincingly relate to each other. We delight in the music, we admire the staging, but we are not involved by the story or the themes.
The young cast put on an exuberant show. The chorus effectively put over Beverly Trask's inventive choreography. And the video footage added a bit of splashy fun to the staging.
Hopefully, Schierhorn will let us see more of his work. If The News was uneven, much of it was right up there with the best.
- Patrick Babin and Andrew Belcher commiserate over the 'newspaperness' of the business in Paul Schierhorn's The News, presented recently at Tulane.