REVIEW: THE MUSICAL OF MUSICALS- THE MUSICAL
I'm convinced that, like the gathering of poets and writers that lead to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein, many musical theatre composers and lyricists gather at rustic hunting lodges (or bars, whichever is closer), come up with a topic, and each writes a musical about this topic. It's the secret of the musical theatre world, kept far too long under wraps. Now, thanks to The Musical of Musicals- The Musical!, we can finally see what one of these gatherings might bring us.
Yes, there is one musical in New York that doesn't pander to the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, one musical just for us, the true musical theatre devotees! Written by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart (Rockwell did the music, Bogart the lyrics, and they collaborated on the book), The Musical of Musicals- The Musical! tells the same story as it might have been written by five different composers and lyricists: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander and Ebb. The plot, such as it is, is basic by necessity: Poor June can't pay her rent, and may have to do unspeakable things with her landlord unless her handsome boyfriend can save her.
The opening sketch, appropriately titled "Corn," tells the story as though it were a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, earnest and good-natured, with sweet heroines, dashing heroes, and nefarious villains. Tragically, it is the weakest of the five variations. Rather than parody the style of the beloved collaborators, Rockwell and Bogart fill the scene with puns ("What's the use of wanderin'?" June wonders) and groan-worthy jokes that are, quite frankly, quickly forgotten. The humor doesn't come from the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but from these puns and other easy jokes, and while I certainly laughed and groaned when I heard them, I'd forgotten most of them by the time I exited the theatre. With the plethora of material available to spoof in the Rodgers and Hammerstein cannon, I'd hoped for more.
No matter. Rockwell and Bogart redeem themselves in the second sketch with their twist on Sondheim- "A Little Complex." Everything that is wrong with the Rodgers and Hammerstein homage/spoof is right with this segment. The dense music, the tongue-twisting lyrics- it all sounds just like Sondheim at his most... well, complex, and the humor is no longer easy gags, but intelligent (and loving) jabs at the composer's work. (And even the few puns are much funnier- "Qué será Seurat!" should be on T-shirts everywhere.) The fact that the audience's laughter seemed even more appreciative during this second piece should tell Bogart and Rockwell to trust in the intelligence of their listeners. Puns are fine, but the funniest moments in their show make fun of the style of the composer and lyricist, not the titles of his songs. It is easily the strongest segment of the evening, and worth many return visits.
The Jerry Herman and Andrew Lloyd Webber segments are better than the Rodgers and Hammerstein parody, but not as brilliant as the Sondheim spoof. (There are some delicious jabs at Webber's stealing- whoops, I mean sampling- from every other classical composer, and loving winks at Jerry Herman's extravagant star vehicles. Literally. My new mantra is "Life is a star vehicle, and most poor suckers are in the bus-and-truck tour!".) For the most part, however, they are one-joke sketches, and not as clever as they could be. The final segment, spoofing Kander and Ebb, brings us back to the brilliance of the Sondheim segment. While poking fun at the cynicism and darkness of many Kander and Ebb shows, director Pamela Hunt also winks at Bob Fosse's stagings and choreography, draping the actors over chairs and having them repeat the same dance step over and over. It's delicious icing on the cake, and brilliant satire of many minds.
Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart also co-star in their show, alongside Craig Fols and Lovette George. All perform very well as individuals and as a group, but Rockwell deserves extra credit for playing most of his characters from behind the piano- he also serves as the musical director. For the rare moments when his character must step away from the instrument, the other actors seamlessly step in for him and pick up the tunes without missing a beat. It's a most impressive sight, and the fluidity of the action speaks volumes about the talents of the actors and the director. The set, by James Morgan, is simple black, with only a few props. John Carver Sullivan's costumes are also elegant black, becoming whatever is necessary depending on the scene. The simplicity works beautifully, letting our imaginations fill in whatever is necessary.
There are plenty of laughs at The Musical of Musicals- The Musical!, and if three of the five scenes are merely good, the other two are brilliant, and make the evening more than worthwhile. Hurry uptown to the York, bring your copy of Encyclopedia Musicalia, and get ready to hold your sides.