The Musical of Musicals - The Musicals!: The Comedy's High as an Elephant's Eye
Even though the original York Theatre run of Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart's The Musical of Musicals - The Musical! earned the kind of reviews that make producers salivate, and the show was nominated last year for both Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel Best Musical Awards (winning the latter), I still had doubts in my mind when hearing the production would be packing up and moving to Dodger Stages for a commercial open run. Sure, I had a great time when I first saw this musical send-up of some of Broadway's most popular shows and many of my theatre-lovin' buddies echoed my guffaws. But to be successful in an open run it would also have to appeal to people who don't set their cell phones to ring the title song from Company, who don't ask for time off from work on Chita Rivera's birthday and who would never consider naming their cats Mack and Mabel. How well would it play to people who don't understand the last sentence I wrote?
So I conducted a bit of an experiment and invited my brother Paul to join me for an evening with a homicidal artist, borrowed Puccini themes and a dream ballet. Now, Paul is not a complete stranger to musical theatre but his knowledge of the art form pretty much all comes from the shows I take him to and movie versions of the classics he sees on cable. So I knew coming in he wouldn't be totally lost, but I also knew there'd be jokes he couldn't possibly understand.
For those needing a quick review, The Musical of Musicals - The Musical! contains 5 one-act tuners, each with the same simple plot of a girl who can't pay her rent until the handsome hero falls in love with her and offers to help. The trick is that each repetition of the story is done in the style of different musical theatre writers, with Bogart's lyrics cleverly sampling from the masters while Rockwell's music tweaks the famous tunes just enough to keep from being sued. Familiar arrangements and words are mixed and matched with hilarious results as each show's book (co-authored by Bogart and Rockwell) draws from the authors' biggest hits to create a melting pot of a plot.
The curtain-raiser spoofs the uplifting homespun musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Set in "Kansas in August", it begins with an offstage baritone singing "Oh! What Beautiful Corn", a song whose lyric contains such sentiments as "The earth spins around like a carousel / On bright clouds of music we fly. / The cattle plie' in a dreamy ballet. / It's normal as blueberry pie." It seems the fella is in love with June (Why? Because she's June! June! June! June!) and she feels the same way, but in typical R&H fashion they sing "I Don't Love You (Though People Will Say That I Do)". The evil landlord, Jitter, lives by himself in a lonely room, but the Kansas housing commission allows him to have a lease saying if June can't pay her rent, she'll have to marry him. The spunky ingenue seeks advice from her mother, Abby (her mother... Abby!) who sings a stirring anthem reminding her that, "There's a rainbow o'er the mountain / And that rainbow is your dream. / You'll find it when you've faced the storm / And fjorded every stream."
Everything works out for the best, of course, since it's a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but soon the cast is playing out the same story as if it were told by Stephen Sondheim. This time the landlord is a Sweeney-George type in a contemporary New York apartment complex aptly named "The Woods". His doorbell sounds remarkably like an Industrial Age London factory whistle. In this segment Bogart does an amazing job of matching Sondheim's rapid-fire rhymes and alliteration set to Rockwell's hard-driving patter. ("What would be the matter with the murder of a model / If the model were a moron in the middle of a muddle / And the murderer was manic and admittedly demented / And though later he repented when they tried to circumvent it / Even after he assented that he meant it?")
The first act closer gives us the ginger and fizz of a Jerry Herman star vehicle, with stage directions like, "Abby appears at the top of a staircase. The audience applauds wildly although she hasn't done anything yet." The second act opens with heavy fog and a Phantom-like landlord trying to impress an Evita-ish rock star with his composing skills. ("You wrote it yourself?" "Do you know opera?" "No." "Yes, I wrote it myself.") She seeks career advice from a Norma Desmondy has-been who tells her it's alright to be over the hill, "So long as you're over the top."
The final piece honors the work of Kander and Ebb, set in a cabaret in Chicago, narrated by a creepy emcee and featuring a heroine named "Junie with a J" trying to acquire the rent from her boyfriend imprisoned in a lockup full of singing and dancing inmates.
Director/Choreographer Pamela Hunt's production is small and crisp; more of an intimate nightclub revue than an Off-Broadway musical. While the authors mimic musical theatre's great composers and lyricists, Hunt keeps the antics in the style of director/choreographers such as Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Agnes de Mille. Costume designer John Carver Sullivan dresses the cast in basic black, with minimal additions for character changes.
The sparkling cast of four is almost continually in motion, with composer Rockwell at piano while playing all the villainous landlords, lyricist Bogart as all the character women (including an outstanding Lotte Lenya in the Kander and Ebb sequence), Craig Fols as the comically virile leading men and Lovette George as his overly perky mates. They all sing well and keep the jokes coming at a fast and furious pace while doubling and tripling as chorus members.
Musical theatre lovers will certainly have a rollicking good time at this one, but what of Paul, my experimental non-obsessive playgoer? Well, during the performance I heard him continually chuckling at material I knew he really didn't get. "It's infectious", he explained. "The audience was having a great time and their enjoyment spread to me. The cast was great and I got a lot of the jokes, but I even laughed at a lot of them when I know I didn't fully understand the reference."
So there you have it. Not very scientific, but proof that you can have a great time at The Musical of Musicals - The Musical! even if you don't know your Aunt Eller from your Auntie Mame.