Bullets over Broadway and the Most Happy Fella

Last time I was on the bus to NYC, I was mere pages from the end of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation when the bus pulled into Port Authority. This time, I was mere pages from the end of 黑暗森林, book 2 of the 三体 trilogy. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Annihilation, why haven’t you? It’s brilliant and book 2 of the Southern Reach trilogy, Authority, comes out in May. Go!

[There’s no point to recommending 黑暗森林 (yet?) unless you read Chinese… and have the necessary vocabulary to parse space opera in Chinese. Or a dictionary.]

I caught the matinee of Bullets over Broadway. Before I say any more about it I have two caveats:

The cheap joke about the show, right now, may be that it’s too bad that it doesn’t have a hit man backstage to doctor it up. In its current state, I’m not convinced that Woody Allen has ever seen a musical much less know how to write one. Perhaps unintentionally, its book feels like it is in contempt of the conventions of the sort of musical comedy it’s trying to emulate. Characters move schematically through their plot points with little motivation. The book indicates the sorts of event that are supposed to happen in a silly, frothy musical but nothing drives one event into another to transform them into some sort of coherent story. The book is taking a lot for granted.

Intellectually, I can fill in the gaps and construct the narrative and character arcs that are not in the book. Emotionally, I can’t.

If I’m to feel for the jilted girlfriend at the end of act one, I need to know more about her than that she wants to be married. I need to see more at the act one finale other than at some point during its “we’re getting on the train to Boston” number, he dropped the sweater she gave him.

The character who ends up coming off the best is Cheech, the hit man who doctors the playwright’s work. Perhaps not coincidentally, he’s also the only character with an identifiable arc and whose story has a through-line. (The book’s attempt to grapple over whether art or life is more important actually pays off better for Cheech than it does for David, the playwright. I don’t think that was intentional.) Also, Cheech (and the boys) get a lights-out-stop-the-show-OMG-this-is-amazing tap number, “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do.” No one else gets anything nearly as good. (I’m rooting for this to be the number they put on the Tony Awards should they get the opportunity.)

That number points out both what is good and bad about the show. It’s the penultimate number in act one. It goes without interruption into the “we’re getting on the train to Boston” act one finale, which is underwhelming in comparison. “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” also ultimately not about anything (despite the choreography’s best attempts). It has the slimmest of set ups. I.e., no one tells Cheech what he can or can’t do. In a different book, the number might heighten the sealing of David’s somewhat Faustian bargain for Cheech to write the play for him. David actually deciding to have Cheech write in his place might have made for a great act one finale. However, the set up for this number to mean anyway is just plain missing. (Also, if it had an original score, it could have had a song that did exactly what the show needed. More on this later.)

That said, the show is also an embarrassment of riches. Without exception, the highly talented cast is as wonderful as possible under the circumstances. The likable Zach Braff is saddled with an unlikable role as the playwright. Betsy Wolfe is wasted as the underwritten girlfriend. The book asks Karen Ziemba to create a interesting and funny character out of nearly nothing and she does it. The book does much better by Marin Mazzie and her over-the-top diva is a hoot. Nick Cordero actually gets a character arc to play. He’s terrific and I wind up rooting for Cheech and wishing that he were the lead. What’s happening to him seems way more interesting than what’s happening to the playwright.

Also, the show was a lot of great Susan Stroman choreography and wonderful music arrangements. The vocal arranging is especially topnotch. (Disclaimer: I’m partial to vocal harmony.) As long as everyone is singing and dancing, the show is a genuine good time. Both the choreography and music arrangements do a shockingly good job of pushing ahead the story with little to no help from the book or the songs themselves.

Woody Allen insisted on using only songs from the period. Most of them act fit into the show well enough. Some numbers are explicit performance numbers, usually by the scantily clad chorus girls in the night club. In some cases, the numbers fit only through inventive musical arrangements. E.g., if the lyrics can’t move the show forward, then the show must move forward between lines of lyric. In other cases, the music supervisor, Glen Kelly, has written new lyrics. If you’ll allow original lyrics, why not allow an original score?

Also, with an original score, the play within the show would have undoubtedly become a musical. This would have given something for the utterly wasted Karen Ziemba to do. Right now, her big moment is the number that opens act two (which, again, doesn’t serve much function but is entertaining). Coincidentally, the last time I saw her might be in Curtains, another show about putting on a show.

In the grand scheme of things, I suspect Bullets Over Broadway will do well. The house was packed, perhaps sold out, for the performance I saw. The recent Nice Work If You Can Get It, another show with a borrowed score, chorines, and dancing tough guys in suits, ran for over a year. Looking at the material, I can see why people thought Bullets Over Broadway would make a terrific musical. I just wish they’d written one.

Last night, I caught the Encores! production of Most Happy Fella. It’s based on Sidney Howard’s play, They Knew What They Wanted. Unlike Woody Allan, Frank Loesser thoroughly transformed his source material to create an idiomatic, beautifully structured, emotionally gripping musical. (I wished Woody Allen were there so I could say, “Now, this is an act one finale.”)

[That said, it premiered on Broadway in 1956. As a fan American Musical Theater, one quickly learns to engage with these works on their own terms. E.g., without some care, the staging of “Standin’ on the Corner” can easily go horribly wrong, tipping into leering harassment. Like many musicals, your main characters to make some really bad decisions in the opening scenes. The characters are redeemed but in part because they live in the world of Musical Comedy (the most glorious words in the English language!) so things have a way of working out. However, as Bullets Over Broadway shows in one direction and Most Happy Fella shows in the other direction, just because you know it will all somehow work out doesn’t mean you get to make that happen by waving your hands at it. (BTW, I meant that literally. In Bullets Over Broadway, Marin Mazzie waves her hands and Betsy Wolfe returns to Zach Braff.)]

The Encores! production succeeds on practically every level. Laura Benanti, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Jessica Molaskey all nail their roles as Rosabella, Cleo, Herman, and Marie respectively. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could ever perform them better. Jessica Molaskey was the big surprise for me. I knew she’d act the part well but she also showed off a lovely legit voice that I’d never heard from her. I hope she finds more chances to show it off. For me, it’s way more interesting and appealing than the cabaret singer voice.

Cheyenne Jackson is wonderful as Joe. I only sound like I’m damning with faint praise because the Rosabella, Cleo, Herman, and Marie were just so out-of-this-world. Joe is very much a barihunk part and Cheyenne Jackson is very much a barihunk. He could have sleep-walked through this production and he would still have been fine but he didn’t. Instead, he brought out nuances that you don’t always see in productions of the show. (E.g., his rather overt anger at not being able to leave the ranch at the end of act one.)

Shuler Hensley acts Tony beautifully. It’s a detailed, lived-in performance that keeps us on his side regardless of the character’s really awful decisions. However, the vocal performance is somewhat of a compromise. It’s the sort of thing you’d only notice if you’d performed the role (which I never have) or if you’d, say, studied the score in college to the point of memorizing it. And lamenting that the original cast album was incomplete because it’d cut a few measures here and there (and half a scene of dialogue).

Speaking of cuts, I noticed a few in this concert. Nothing major. Nothing that hurt the work. And in one case, cutting “Special Delivery,” arguably an improvement. At that point in the show, no one cares what the postman has to say or how Rosabella actually got from the bus station to the ranch. Even if we did care, it shouldn’t take a minute to tell us. Interestingly, later in the show, no one cares how she got from the ranch to the bus station.

Of course, it’s a thrill to hear the 38-piece pit, sensitively conducted by Rob Berman, play those awesome Don Walker orchestrations. In any other context, even if you got the original orchestrations, you’re unlikely to get a 38-piece pit. (Most Happy Fella requires more strings than Bullets Over Broadway requires instruments.)

The biggest shame of this production (and of many Encores! productions) is that it will go unpreserved. There are so many performances that deserve a longer lifetime than a weekend run. This production succeeds brilliantly in so many ways. I’m glad I saw it.

[The last Encores! concert of the season is Irma la Douce. However, I will be missing it so that I can sing in the chorus of a concert production of Handel’s Saul. That is probably for the best.]


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