Tuesday, March 20, 2018

T-H-E Peggy Hewitt

In 1991, I played an actress friend’s audition for the role of Mme. Armfeldt in an LA revival of “A Little Night Music.” The waiting room was full of divas of a certain age, all dressed to the nines in period clothes, as is the hilariously excessive LA habit. These actresses were all reeling off their credits to each other and name-dropping and out-granding each other full-tilt. I noticed a professionally-dressed actress sitting quietly in the corner, seemingly a little overwhelmed by the hubbub.

The audition monitor emerged and took attendance, as each lady grandly adjusted feathers and furs and called out “Yes!” and “Here!” Then the monitor called the last name: “Peggy Hewett.” And the quiet lady in the corner replied, “Yes.”

After a pause, I said, in very large and dramatic tones: “T-H-E Peggy Hewitt???”  All the ladies stopped dead and turned to examine this previously unassuming actress in the corner. I continued, in full fan-gush: “You were SO GREAT in ‘Day In Hollywood!” And congrats on that super-well-deserved Drama Desk nomination!”

The suddenly-silenced ladies all lost an inch of height en masse as Peggy Hewett smiled, drew herself up a bit, and she and I sat in our new Cool Kids' Corner and just dived into Broadway shop talk and mutual enthusiasm.

We were both a little down-and-out, our New York triumphs behind us and forgotten all too quickly, as we tried to hack the LA scene.

She began to come over regularly for some coaching in my cute little Beachwood Drive house, with the aim of putting together a new one-woman show. She had a flair for the bon mots of Noel Coward and bittersweet light-operetta and fey Bea Lillie songs. We had a grand old time. Her rendition of “World Weary” was for the ages.

She noticed something off with me, and I confided in her about the nervous breakdown and the multiple misdiagnoses. She immediately proposed I see her psychologist friend Beverly Piontak. I did, and Beverly was magnificent, in her office next door to the Beverly Hills Playhouse (where my brother studied, and I audited constantly.) Beverly’s ministrations and Peggy’s friendship saw me through my drama and the “City Of Angels” experience.

Beverly’s and Peggy’s powerful words of wisdom are with me to this day. I moved back to New York after "City Of Angels" played LA and toured, and never saw Peggy again. I did hear that she moved back to the New York area not too long later as well with her life partner. I was stunned when Peggy died a few years later at the age of 56. She saved my life and I wish I could have saved hers. “T-H-E Peggy Hewitt.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Thoroughly Modern Millie – Then and Now

Loving the original Broadway Thoroughly Modern Millie as much as I did in 2002, I expected to have a great time at its 15.5-year Reunion Concert tonight for the Actors Fund, at the Minskoff Theatre.

Nothing could have prepared me for one of the greatest nights in Broadway history.

Affection and outright love for the show has accumulated over the years, as some of its original participants have gone on to become Broadway legends of our day, as performers, personalities, composers, directors, and choreographers. The show's ubiquity in stock and regional theatre has spread its charms among a whole new generation of young performers and audiences coming up in the biz. The years of accumulated fondness for the show was fully reflected in the historically explosive, shattering response at the Minskoff tonight.

Almost every performer of the original cast appeared in tonight's Reunion Concert, with 14 of the original pit musicians recreating their unparalleled work playing one of the last great orchestrations ever heard on the Great White Way (begun by the late Ralph Burns, and finished in beyond-brilliant fashion by Doug Besterman.) Terrific original conductor Michael Rafter returned to the podium, after overcoming major life challenges (maybe many have – he's just the one I know about.) Jeanine Tesori, Rob Ashford, and Dick Scanlan were present, and how great that they were there to witness the event and the audience reaction.

You'll read elsewhere about the audience's electrified and electrifying response to each of the evening's triumphs, which occurred regularly every 30 seconds. Suffice it to say that Sutton Foster's first entrance, alone on stage, inspired the entire sold-out Minkoff theatre audience to stand up and cheer and scream for over five solid minutes without stopping – as they recalled Sutton's life story, from unknown second replacement in this unlikely Millie Broadway hybrid, to star of Broadway, television and concert halls, and the sheer fun and originality of her original Millie characterization and performance – which she recreated accurately and expertly, along with all her outstanding original cast, that exceptionally rare blend of first-rate talents across the board, then and now.

I thought I'd republish my editorial from my original website, representing my very first impressions of the show shortly after it opened in 2002.  My admiration and love for the show only increased when I subsequently conducted the Gateway Playhouse production in 2006 (cast members of which appeared in tonight's large dance ensemble); and as Broadway has drifted further and irrevocably away from anything I'd be likely to find companionable in 2018, my love for Millie has become a treasured memory of my youth and my Broadway illusions – and seeing this sensational reunion performance was like seeing an old friend I never thought I'd see again. I just wept, and I'm glad I lived long enough.

 -- Fred Barton, February 12, 2018



Ever introduced your latest paramour to your friends and seen the unmistakable frozen smile that says, "You've got to be kidding?"

So shortly before the Tony Awards, I was dragged to see Thoroughly Modern Millie, with the pans of the Times, the New Yorker, and several unenthusiastic individuals ringing in my ears. What can I say? Less than half way through Act One, I was humiliated to find myself thinking, "I'm liking this." At intermission, I turned red and thought, "I'm loving this." And during the curtain calls I found myself standing up and cheering, with 1500 other people, and I had no choice but to publicly admit I really loved it.

Now my friends are looking at me funny. Have I lost my curmudgeonly edge? Or just my mind? I feel almost as self-conscious as the aged artist in Thomas Mann's Death In Venice, falling for jailbait.

Check your personality. For a Broadway romantic, falling for a show can be just as unpredictable and mysterious as falling for a person -- and in either case, all the intellectual cynics in the world, including yourself, might not be able to change your mind. 

According to Lorenz Hart, after all: "It seems that we have met before, and laughed before, and loved before, but who knows where or when?" -- i.e. these unaccountable fascinations at first sight are actually a sudden connection of dots from your past. I might add, "Who cares where or when?" -- but I have a few ruminations on the subject, and it all depends on your personal Broadway history. Whether you find Millie a finely crafted ice-cream sundae or a vat of Cool Whip is partly a matter of taste, but more a matter of your past ice-cream-sundae experience.

I think those poor Times critics and their ilk have spent too much time dining in esoteric downtown restaurants to appreciate this particular confection, if I may drag this metaphor out for another paragraph. I have long suspected Ben Brantley of not "getting" the Broadway musical as an entertainment form, either historically or sociologically; I wish the Times would let him yap about Topdog/Underdog and give the musicals to Ken Mandelbaum or someone with a Broadway musical clue.

But back to Millie. Or rather, back to No, No, Nanette, the 1971 smash revival that inaugurated a huge anti-Hair nostalgia boom that swept the country the following year in the form of MGM's compilation That's Entertainment. I didn't see Nanette, but I heard it, and learned a priceless lesson: there can be something for everyone in the pantheon of Broadway entertainment. What a relief -- not every show had to break the mold and change the world, as Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim were capably and thrillingly doing in their corner.

Nanette producer Harry Rigby reportedly said that Oklahoma! set the cause of escapist Broadway entertainment back thirty years. He put his money where his escapist mouth was in 1980 with Sugar Babies -- movie stars, shtick, great old Jimmy McHugh songs exquisitely orchestrated by Dick Hyman et al., baggy-pants-comics, girls, girls, girls, and a beautiful production design. It ran for about a hundred years at the late, great Mark Hellinger Theatre, although I only saw about ten of those performances. This particular ice-cream sundae was definitely not for the hip experimental downtown theatre crowd -- but it played around the corner from Sweeney Todd, proving again that there was room on Broadway for, to quote the Hal Prince movie, "Something For Everyone."  

You get the picture. I had a great time at Lorelei when I was 15: a big Broadway star (two if you count Li'l Abner legend Peter Palmer), a stage full of color and tap dancing and Charlestons, Jule Styne songs played by a raucous orchestra, and twinkling lights a-go-go. Of course it was a ridiculous star vehicle revival. That's why you went. Hellzapoppin' was another one (now you know I grew up in Boston) with all of the above, including the Jule Styne songs (it was basically Sugar Babies in the wrong hands, but Hellzapoppin' had a million more twinkling lights, so I loved it too).

Nanette spawned a million period revivals. Irene was a killer -- I wouldn't have missed it for the world; I saw the tour with Jane Powell as the enterprising ingenue who heads out of her little neighborhood to take on New York (see Millie, below). Whoopee! had one of the greatest tap dances in Broadway history, choreographed by Dan Siretta ("My Baby Just Cares For Me" at the end of Act One -- what a short memory Broadway has). And on and on, right up to 42nd Street, with an enterprising ingenue who heads out of her little neighborhood to take on New York. C'mon, people, it's a Broadway tradition -- for people who remember those days, or for us misfits who grew up in a rock-and-roll world, watching old musicals late at night on black-and-white televisions instead of doing homework. 

So what is it about Millie? Maybe it helped that I'm no fan of that dumb lox of a movie, so I had the pleasant surprise of finding the musical's book actually funny -- with just enough romance to make me 14 again, and just enough self-parody (unlike Urinetown, which I also found very funny, but with way more than enough self-parody). 

You've heard about Sutton Foster; but have you heard about Gavin Creel, her leading man? Playing the rakish juvenile opposite a powerhouse is not the easiest assignment in the world, but Mr. Creel aces the assignment in spades (I was never good at cards). He sings like a dream, acts wittily with perfect pitch for the style, alternately conjures Robert Taylor and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and is charming and amusing and handsome and I'm gaga for him. There, I said it. And happily, the Tony nominating committee agreed with me.

I dreaded the prospect of a Beatrice Lillie replacement all evening, and I wasn't reassured by Harriet Harris's first scene, with her diction hard to decipher (even factoring in the required accent). But she becomes amusing almost immediately, and ends up being hilarious, nailing one particular line in her scene with Sheryl Lee Ralph with a brilliant stroke of timing that brings down the house.

I could go on and on. Mark Kudisch is first-rate, Anne Nathan is a real find (where was she when they did How To Succeed a few years ago?), the two Chinese boys are only perfect. Sheryl Lee Ralph may not be a world-class voice, and may not be the world's most expertly-timed comedienne, but she delivers the songs in high style, and totally won me over with her merry sense of sheer Broadway fun.

Broadway fun? Well, that's the speech, to quote Norman Maine. 

The choreography is far more than appropriate, and far more than just lively steps, which any number of people might have provided -- it's unpredictable and inventive and fun to watch, and the wild office sequence alone would give Susan Stroman a run for her money, and evidently did. Now our lofty downtown critics have all expressed contempt for those energetic smiles in the chorus; but what would you have in a breezy period show, Fosse-style deadpan ominous glares? Or the poorly-dressed, oddball crowd doing their relentless sinister shuffle over at Sweet Smell Of Success? Get a clue, critics -- it's that type of show, and this is a massively attractive and talented bunch of dancers. 

The orchestrations range from the appropriate to the out-of-this-world: "Only In New York" is the most ravishing Broadway orchestration to hit the airwaves in some time.

As for the songs, they range from the appropriate to the memorably tuneful, with a little Clever thrown in there. My only quibbles (and they are merely that, only quibbles): I would have shortened "I Turned The Corner" by one chorus; and I would have given Harriet Harris a stronger hook. Her song of villainy is not unlike "Revenge" from It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman, and it has a few great laugh lines, but its hook is "They Don't Know" -- which we hold to be self-evident. I would have given it some kind of twist; "What They Don't Know -- Will Hurt Them." Or something. I also would have given Harris a musical exit at the end of the show, to guarantee applause, in place of the one-liner that doesn't. But on the whole, Jeanine Tesori's tunes are fun to hear and Dick Scanlan's lyrics likewise, as are the welcome retention of two of the movie songs and some witty interpolations from -- well, you'll see.

Finally, the show is a gorgeous thing to behold. The clothes are ravishing, the sets are ravishing, the lighting is way above Broadway standards. Our carping critics have complained that the set is lit in "garish" colors. Bravo! It's an Emerald City fantasia version of New York as seen through the eyes of a small-towner. Since my first visit to see Mack & Mabel in 1974, I've always thought of New York as my personal Emerald City with Art Deco towers lit up all night, where someday I would move, embark on a bohemian struggle to the Big Time, immediately bump into the love of my life, do a soft shoe on an 80th floor ledge somewhere, and have my Broadway Ice Cream Sundae and eat it too.

So I'm a sucker for Thoroughly Modern Millie -- sue me.

-- Fred Barton, June 9, 2002

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Couple Of White Assassins Sitting Around Talking (ASSASSINS, 2004)

May, 2004

In "The Producers," two showmen put on a razz-ma-tazzy musical based on the most tasteless, repulsive idea they can find; audiences roll in the aisles, find it delightful and the show becomes a hit. Mel Brooks should sue for a percentage of "Assassins."

"Assassins'" authors Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman were on the cutting edge of concept musical theatre in 1976, with "Pacific Overtures," a magnificent tableau depicting the effect of Western imperialism on Japan's ancient culture in the nineteenth century. This was just before the British revue "Side By Side By Sondheim" catapulted Sondheim from an idiosyncratic, chameleonesque virtuoso of the musical theatre, appealing to epicurean sophisticates, into a household name. Sondheim -- bristling at the humiliation of popular acceptance as an entertainment commodity -- has done his best to paint himself further into dark corners of arcanity ever since, vainly trying to recapture the audience alienation on which he clearly thrives. And now they're even loving "Assassins" -- the poor guy just can't win. He should sue Mel Brooks for a percentage of "The Producers."

Sondheim has always been highly dependent on two key collaborators (librettist and director) for his successes (the greatest of which, for my money, are the Hugh Wheeler collaborations "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd," with George Furth's "Company" trailing in third). The virtuosity and willful bizarreness of Sondheim's musical toolkit can't mask the naiveté of his show's themes and subjects, of varying degrees of self-evidence: It's nice to have a mate ("Company"); mid-20th-century romance was an illusion ("Follies"); love makes us fools ("Night Music"); Big Bad America pushed Japan around ("Pacific Overtures"); revenge will drive you nuts ("Sweeney Todd"); youthful optimism doesn't last ("Merrily We Roll Along"); art isn't easy ("Sunday In The Park With George"); fairy tales are, well, fairy tales ("Into The Woods"); love hurts ("Passion"). Simple themes dominate musical theatre, and that's certainly no disgrace -- but Sondheim's progressive retreat deeper into his peculiar comfort zone of musical and lyrical arcanity throws the simple themes into relief, and makes his idiosyncratic twisting and turning frequently seem all the more unnecessary and unjustified by the subject at hand, the popular medium in which Sondheim has chosen to express himself, and the audience to whom he has increasingly presumed to philosophize using his characters as mouthpieces.

Enter the concept director! It is no accident that a free-spirited random-theatre-generator like Hal Prince was the ideal Sondheim visionary -- the show's about this, so let's have that! The show's about that, so let's have this! Exactly the kind of visual and structural shakeup needed by both the musical theatre, on the verge of meltdown by 1970, and Sondheim, overflowing with ferocious virtuosity. So what happened? My theory: the implosion of the big concept musical, a potent new form of Broadway and a magnificent novelty that began in the restless 1960's and had run through its bag of tricks by 1975 (with a grand finale in the form of "A Chorus Line," the ultimate concept musical folding in on its own art form).

"Merrily We Roll Along," that notorious disaster that revisionists insist was better than it was, gave us (at least many of us who actually saw it) three hours of gory evidence of the limitations, oppressive excesses and ultimate futility of throwing all other musical theatre considerations on the shrine of Concept and lighting a match. You don't even get a good fire -- just a graven image of a highly nude Emperor reminding one of Concept's past glory, melting amidst the myriad elements and potential of musical theatre into a self-conscious, pretentious goo.

And thus to "Assassins."

For all the hails, cheers, and awards, haven't we seen all of this before -- many times over? So a bunch of presidential assassins wander around the stage as contestants in a carnival Shooting Gallery (shooting, get it?), competing for some kind of metaphorical Prize. Life is a Shooting Gallery, old chum. Entertainment-metaphor shows have become as formulaic as an Andy Hardy musical. Hal Prince gave us one of the first, in "Cabaret" (which was largely a happy accident, due to the scenery requiring some in-one numbers out of town, and the presence of the cabaret M.C. in the cast, who was originally hired to do a brief turn and get lost). So life Is a cabaret. Life is also a vaudeville ("Chicago," Fosse's far superior extrapolation of the "Cabaret" drill); life is a burlesque house (Prince's "Grind"); life is a sideshow ("Side Show," the exploitative, sensationalistic musical decrying exploitation and sensationalism); life is an audition ("A Chorus Line"); life is a Ziegfeld show ("Will Rogers Follies") and so on.

"Assassins" even gives us a stand-in for "Cabaret's" M.C. -- the Shooting Gallery's Proprietor, a sneering, sniggering, mustache-twirling bad 'un, as posed by the vastly overqualified Marc Kudisch. "Cabaret's" M.C. luridly seduced his customers to enter his world and lose their frustrations in an ironic opening number ("so life is disappointing? Forget it!"). "Assassins'" M.C., on the other hand, luridly seduces his customers to enter his world and lose their frustrations in an ironic opening number ("Life's not as bad as it seems!" goes the lyric -- Kander & Ebb should join Mel Brooks' lawsuit). The Proprietor sings, "Hey pal, feelin' blue? C'mere and kill a president!" This blunt, ironic non-sequitur is meant to shock and awe, but the tired "life is a carnival" convention makes the intended irony seem like, to quote Dorothy Fields, yesterday's mashed potatoes. "Watch it, no violence!" the Proprietor admonishes, a lyric more leaden than ironic.

And therein lies the essential problem with "Assassins" (and also the reason for its apparent success). The show has been crammed into a familiar Concept, a well-tested device for delivering irony; and two solid hours of winking irony is 110 minutes too long. It reminds me of my days consorting with the inmates of the Harvard Lampoon, who felt that any remark at the dinner table, such as "pass the pepper," could be rendered hilarious and significant if issued with an ironic tilt of the eyebrow.

Fosse and Ebb's "Chicago" was the last word in mordant irony, depicting its murderers as fame-hungry bottom-feeders, fighting the system for a piece of the American pie. "Assassins" has been hailed as a breakthrough, depicting its murderers as fame-hungry bottom-feeders, fighting the system for a piece of the American pie.

And why should Presidential assassins be thrown together in a hash of random acting, musical, and scene styles for two hours in the first place? To quote my tenth-grade English teacher, "what's the so-what?" To show their similarities? (history-bending generalities abound in pursuit of this dubious objective dictated by The Concept); to show their differences? (few are theatrically exploited for our edification, since they contradict The Concept); to humanize the assassins? (camp and melodrama prevail); to make vague claims that Big Bad America has some unique formula that breeds assassins? This is historical rubbish, as even a cursory glance at European or Russian history reveals (check out Boris Gudonov and Russia's Time Of Troubles, or the regular news from Nepal); "Follies" and "Chicago" and Fosse's "Star 80" (to name a few) already contrasted America's optimistic ideals with its realities, and this old irony is depicted on the front page of any daily newspaper lately. It is "Assassins'" intellectual abdication and disingenuousness that distinguish the show as a jaw-dropping one-of-a-kind event, even more than its shameless Broadway grave-robbing, its inartful mash of styles, and its intrinsic tastelessness.

Now let's peek under the hood and see what everyone's raving about. There's a minimal score of about nine songs -- this won't take long.

"Everyone's got the right to be happy!" sings the cast in no fewer than four separate choruses in the opener -- a rather arbitrary ironic conceit imposed by Concept, a trivial, tuneful riff on the "pursuit of happiness" clause of the Founding Fathers. "Free country!" the assassins sing repeatedly on Sondheim's octave motif -- a remarkably naive phrase, since even the least sophisticated Broadway tourist in the audience knows that "pursuit of happiness" doesn't guarantee its achievement, and a "free country" has by consensus precluded shooting people. So from the git-go, we're reduced to spectators watching a carnival of nut-cases -- a far less interesting activity than seeing "Sweeney Todd," for instance, in which the protagonist starts out sane and takes us on his harrowing journey to looney-land.

There follows a solid ten minute scena conservatively titled "The Ballad Of Booth." The good news is that Booth is portrayed by Michael Cerveris, who gives the single solid-gold, legitimate, grounded, exquisitely sung and acted performance of the evening. The bad news is that he is introduced by yet another M.C. (this piece is crawling with commentary), called The Balladeer, played by a mellow all-American of average voice and uncertain point of view -- picture Dennis The Menace after dropping out of college, now wandering around singing about Presidential assassins. Sondheim, whose pastiches normally improve on their source styles, provides the Balladeer with all-too accurate versions of various trivial folk tunes and lyrics to sing: "Every now and then the country goes a little wrong" (like a Civil War and Lincoln's assassination? See Two Hours Of Irony, above). The Balladeer's suggestion that Booth killed Lincoln because of frustration over his own "bad reviews" as an actor got titters the first time -- but not the second time; not even the third time, particularly forecast by the rhymes "shoes" and "booze." Cerveris makes the best of some truly unfortunate lines, as Sondheim reduces Booth to a one-dimensional wretch singing imprecations: "He was a bloody tyrant!" "Damn you Lincoln, you righteous whore!" (I cringed at that one) -- "The country is not what it was" -- "Damn my soul if you must!" Far from humanizing the man, the writers settle for a many-page, one-note pre-suicide rant, summed up by the amiable Balladeer: "What he was was off his head." That's been made more than clear -- but what a lost opportunity for a three-dimensional portrayal of a potentially fascinating individual (to say nothing of the conspiracy, of which several were hanged; and there's the moral dilemma of Dr. Mudd -- but none of that would have fit into The Concept). And even the poor Balladeer is forced to sum up the entire segment with the following lamentable anticlimax: "Guns don't right the wrongs, but soon the country's back where it belongs, still in all, damn you, Booth!"

"How I Saved Roosevelt" is a retread of one of Sondheim's most brilliant pieces, "Someone In A Tree" from "Pacific Overtures," in which history is defined as a consensus of its witnesses, each contributing their fragmentary point of view. "Roosevelt" is sabotaged by its fast 6/8 tempo and incomprehensible delivery by various chorus members; all we get from it is that someone tried and failed to shoot Roosevelt, which we knew, while the chorus leaves us with the obvious remark: "We'd have been left bereft of FDR." I've always had a theory that twisted, dissonant wrong-note rags like Zangara's song are the easiest thing to write (communicative logic is so much harder), and raving one-note nut-job characters like Zangara are likewise easy to construct. How much more interesting it might have been to address the attempted right-wing coup-d'état averted during Roosevelt's tenure (he was considered threateningly socialist by some, but that didn't interest the authors, and it wouldn't have fit in the Concept.) Instead they settle for giving us the nut-job, and fry him in the electric chair (we've had Broadway musical executions before, in "Chicago," but more on that below).

I should add in here that I am a great fan of orchestras residing in the orchestra pit where they belong ("Chicago" being one exception). Many around me at "Assassins" vented frustration similar to mine that the lyrics were unintelligible, drowned out by the orchestra occupying the boxes, with Mr. Gemigniani slumped on a stool, beating time directly into the audience's distracted faces. More Concept, I guess; perhaps an orchestra in the lobby will be the next experiment. It's different -- "but it doesn't mean anything!" (to quote Oscar Hammerstein II). And it's damned impractical and annoying not to hear Sondheim lyrics, even these. Call me incorrigibly retro, but I'm also a fan of actors leaving the stage when they're no longer in the scene; this Brechtian lounging-about of cast-members has become another hackneyed directorial staple of the Concept-musical genre (and I was as annoyed by it in the "Chicago" revival as I was in "Marie Christine" and "Assassins").

"The Gun Song" is run-of-the-mill socialist stuff about the Industrial Revolution and the labor of the masses, combined with a cute little barbershop ditty about how interesting it is that pulling a trigger "can change the world" (an idea I found self-evident from the opening number, even from the title of the show on the marquis). I may have been jaundiced by the Industrial Revolution setting of "Sweeney Todd," and by the stoker's song in "Titanic" which covered the same labor-of-the-lower-classes ground (I know, "Assassins" was written first, but I admired more the social class depictions that drove "Titanic" in plot and theme).

The impeccable Anne Nathan, one of the best things about "Thoroughly Modern Millie," does what she can with her scene with McKinley's killer Czolgosz, which features a joke about Buffalo (the one in a "A Chorus Line" should have been the last word in that genre of humor) and an oft-repeated schtick where she looks at her watch and doesn't have time to canoodle with the guy (poor Emma Goldman has now gotten short shrift in both "Ragtime" and "Assassins"). The song "Czolgosz" disappoints in several ways, both surprising and otherwise. Sondheim is well-known for his fascination with proper names, going all the way back to "West Side Story's" brilliant "Maria." I tend to consider proper names as filler, a substitute for communicative substance in a lyric (much as I love "Company," I'm not a fan of "a Jenny-ish Joanne," and "Johanna" from "Sweeney Todd" is the ultimate waste of three syllables in what should have been a powerful love song). So the repetition of the name "Czolgosz" in another folk song pastiche is merely a Sondheim trademark, albeit disappointing. But the lyric "some men have everything and some have none" is truly extraordinary for one of the greatest lyricists in Broadway history; again, dead-on for the folk song Concept of the score, but a woefully simplistic formula replacing what might have been a unique characterization. But this is "Assassins'" modus operandi -- to reduce the very objects of the authors' fascination into formulas and generics.

I am happy to announce that one song stands out dramatically and musically: "Unworthy Of Your Love." In a glimmer of his former virtuosity, Sondheim doesn't merely adopt the folk/pop genre but transcends it, much as he did with his "Follies" pastiches. And dramatically he ties Hinkley's and Fromme's assassination attempts to psychology and a common bond of motivation -- a welcome relief from the stereotypical, alienated outcasts muttering about America that populate the rest of the piece. Even the oft-repeated proper names "Jodie" and "Charlie" in the lyric couldn't sink this one. (I'm reminded of Ann Morrison's hilarious parody of "Why Can't It Be Like It Was, Charlie," from "Merrily We Roll Along," which I once saw her perform, with all those insistent "Charlie's" completely overtaking the lyric).

Alas, "The Ballad of Guiteau" is all about his name (mentioned nine times), with a rather hideous phrase (sung nine times) about Guiteau "going to the Lordy." Apparently this is what Guiteau actually wrote and read on the gallows, which proves only that presidential assassins do not Broadway lyricists make. The character is written and performed as two-dimensional camp: all we learn is that Guiteau was a religious fanatic and wrote a book (which the character waves at the audience persistently). In a tragically miscalibrated performance, the brilliant Denis O'Hare (presumably in a vacuum of direction and material) falls back on his flamboyantly gay, extravagantly lisping demeanor from his Tony-Award-winning performance in "Take Me Out," further distancing us from a credible characterization. This long and grotesque showbiz turn depicts Guiteau cakewalking up and down the gallows stairs, repeating his inane ditty over and over, with some mysterious stops and starts, and some minimal information about President Garfield thrown in by the ever-present Balladeer. For this number alone, the set designer practically filled the stage with a huge, crude lumber staircase that hulks over the evening (think of the Americana or graphics or stage levels and playing areas that could have filled this space). All this rib-nudging vaudeville culminates with a Guiteau doll being hung by the neck from the flies -- an echo of the stunning show-business hanging of the Hunyak in "Chicago" with which Bob Fosse had shocked audiences in 1975. As Hugh Jackman sings in a far more entertaining musical, "Everything old is new again."

Denis O'Hare is one of a number of superior talents who have been cast adrift by the haphazard writing and direction; observe Marc Kudisch, who cashes in his chips after the opening number and is thereafter seen draped here and there, ominously glowering over the proceedings (I didn't even know who this bald yellow-costumed guy was throughout the show, until I pieced it together from the program afterwards). I am unfamiliar with the talents of Mario Cantone, and regrettably remain so after seeing the shrill gay-stand-up-comic-style yelling he has been encouraged to issue as Sam Byck (I knew nothing of Sam Byck, and still don't -- just another ax-grinding nut job). The very fine Becky Baker, who did such a striking turn in "Titanic," and gives such reliably vivid performances on "Law And Order," is forced to camp it up as a kooky, giggly housewife shticking it up with her uncontrollable gun. The audience thought her accidental shooting of her dog, and her threat to shoot her whiny kid, were the height of hilarity; even Bob Fosse had a conscience, turning the audience's laughing and cheering of his fun-loving murderers into a moral caution -- the "Assassins" people merely attempt to incite lurid laughter for its own sake.

The show reaches its second-lowest point in its big chorus number, "Another National Anthem," during which an entire chorus in pretty costumes, doing collegiate choreography to a little march, suddenly appears from their dressing rooms, where a lot of card games are no doubt in progress heretofore. The assassins all repeat why they did their deed; the Balladeer sings some more surprisingly unenlightening and unchallenging lyrics ("You shed a little blood, and a lot of people shed a lot of tears"); and out come the merry villagers, doing step-touch to the lyric "It's the other national anthem saying, if you want to hear, it says, 'bullshit!'" -- six minutes of the same old hash they've been drumming at us all night about the malcontents and the disenfranchised feeling justified in shooting presidents.

But "Assassins'" eleven-minute Lee Harvey Oswald scene tells us the most about the authors' artistic ethics and purpose.

The authors announce in the program: "Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JFK from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963." The Dallas Police made this striking pronouncement on the evening of the assassination, it's true, after one of the shortest murder investigations in history. Unlike any other assassin the world has known, Oswald protested his innocence (no "Ballad of Booth" political rants for him), declared on national television that he was "a patsy" and called for legal representation, and the rest you know (to varying degrees). Obviously this isn't the forum for a discussion of this matter, but suffice it to say that even though "Assassins" preceded Oliver Stone's controversial movie, it didn't precede volumes and volumes of evidence suggesting an alternative explanation for the events of that day; and Stone's movie and the uproar it created inspired Congress to open up some of the files sealed for 75 years, and many more enlightening documents continue to come to light and inspire yet more books. But you know what I'm going to say. None of that fit the authors' Concept.

Now there are a minority of people who still believe the Warren Commission, and perhaps the authors of "Assassins" are genuinely among them. I hope so; I consider most of that minority innocently ill-read and unenlightened about historical and human realities, but not dishonest, which is the adjective I would have to use for those who might knowingly perpetuate one of history's greatest possible political hoaxes to suit their conceptual ends while purporting to illuminate rather than obfuscate the phenomenon of assassination. Interestingly, actor Neil Patrick Harris (Oswald) stated in an interview that of all the dozens of books on the subject, he exclusively read "Case Closed," by Gerald Posner, a notorious Warren Commission apologist whose book attempted to dampen the firestorm after the Stone film (and which inspired another dozen books refuting the Commission).

But let's say, just for argument's sake, that Lee Harvey Oswald really was the loser that the Warren Commission (and the show's authors) insist he was, despite the volumes of evidence to the contrary. What do our authors have to tell us, in their "Springtime For Oswald" number? In one of the most astounding theories yet thrown into the decades-long debate, "Assassins" posits that Oswald went to work that day in order to kill himself after a fight with his wife (and killed JFK instead). It's a mark of changing times that Stone's meticulously footnoted screenplay (all based on previously published research) created such a sensation, whereas today's docile Broadway audiences don't bat an eye at Weidman and Sondheim's theory.

Of course it's actually some kind of theatrical red herring (or bait) for Booth to enter the fantasia, followed by all his kooky, cranky, fun-loving fellow assassins, who come out of the wings to tempt Oswald to the final self-immolating deed ("Pippin," anyone? Bob Fosse is everywhere in this thing -- but he had already covered Manson in "Pippin," too, as well as the murder/fame/America matrix in "Chicago" and "Star 80"). And here's the crux of it: (Booth) "Fifty years from now they'll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, the Mafia, some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence, but this is the real conspiracy " -- referring to the congregation of assassins egging on poor suicidal Oswald. Ahh. So they know what they're about, after all, Weidman and Sondheim: -- who cares who really killed Kennedy, who cares if the audience learns anything beyond the superficial about these other assassins, as long as we can mix it all up and concoct a coup-de-théatre -- prostitute Oswald and use him to generalize and explain them all? I sincerely hope that last image in this scene wasn't what I think it was; it was impossible to make it out from the balcony, but it looked as if it might be the Zapruder film being projected onto the Balladeer/Oswald's shirt, a final, appalling exploitation rendering all that preceded even more unsavory.

Sara Jane Moore says to Oswald: "Through you and your act, we are revived and given meaning." I have no doubt this was the authors' overall intent (although I question the value of the exercise). But none of these assassins are in fact revived or given meaning through this ragtag collection of quaint songs, go-fish acting styles, cheap laughs and grotesqueries; the assassins -- and their victims (largely uncharacterized and none honored, beyond the bland "Something Just Broke" number) -- are mere cannon fodder for Broadway pretentiousness, complete with flashy lighting effects, and the inevitable final fuck-you tableau of the assassins pulling their guns, approaching the audience and firing. Dissonant wrong note. Blackout. Cheers. Awards. Shoot me.

© May 2004 by Fred Barton, vastly looking forward to a revival of "A Little Night Music."