The Talk of the Town: What Fresh Musical Is This?
There's a game that musical theatre lovers like to play sometimes. Let's call it "Name the Worst Idea Ever for a Musical". The joke is that some of Broadway's greatest musicals, or at least enormous hits, came from ideas that, on the surface, seem awful.
A musical about a factory strike? The Pajama Game was a smash and gave the American Songbook two standards: "Hey, There" and "Steam Heat". A musical about the rise of the Nazi party in Berlin? Cabaret is considered one of musical theatre's finest two and a half hours. A musical about a barber who slashes people's throats and then has his partner bake them into meant pies? You get point.
But for their first musical theatre collaboration, Ginny Redington and Tom Dawes (book, music and lyrics) have chosen perhaps the most unlikely subject of all; the rise and fall of the Algonquin Round Table. How do you write dialogue and lyrics clever enough to be worthy of being uttered by the likes of Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and George S. Kaufman? How do you make Robert Benchley, Edna Ferber and Robert Sherwood sing and dance without looking ridiculous? How do you match the music of lunchtime banter among member of The Vicious Circle?
Fortunately, all the answers can be found in one viewing of The Talk of the Town, a new musical comedy which is sure to become a favorite among connoisseurs of scathing Manhattan wit. Now playing a limited run in the tiny Off-Off Broadway Bank Street Theatre, it's hard to imagine another musical within a thousand mile radius of the Algonquin's Rose Room which can match The Talk of the Town for cleverness, sophistication and period tunefulness. We need stuff like this on Broadway.
The Round Table was founded in 1920 when Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott, all staff writers at Vanity Fair, began indulging in long lunches at the nearby Algonquin Hotel. They were soon joined by buddies like Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly and Robert Sherwood. It was a daily gathering of the nimblest minds in American journalism and literature... just ask any of them.
"What can be more rare than a Woollcott first edition?"
"A Woollcott second edition."
"Married men make very poor husbands."
"Use the word 'horticulture' in a sentence."
"You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think."
"I understand you had an abortion."
"Yes, I shouldn't have put all my eggs in one bastard."
The sharpest quips filled the front pages of The New Yorker, the literary magazine created by table member Harold Ross which turned his co-horts into national celebrities who set the standard for sophisticated American humor. Everyone from Noel Coward to Paul Robeson to Tallulah Bankhead wanted to have lunch at the Algonquin Round Table and before long a red velvet rope had to be set to keep those hoping to hear an earful of banter at a distance.
But gradually the group fell out of favor; scorned by many for writing gleefully scathing reviews of other writers' plays and books while their own creative work failed to meet their own high standards. Add to that the constant pressure to "say something clever" and by 1930 the daily lunch date was over.
Rather than present a linear plot, the authors concentrate on nine of the group's most illustrious members and give snapshots of the internal relationships that developed. The most famous, of course, and most central in the musical is the unrequited love of Dorothy Parker to the married Robert Benchley. This is played beautifully by the outwardly playful, yet wistful Caroline McMahon and a desperately dapper Chris Weikel who slowly crumbles while trying to keep a jolly appearance.
A secondary unrequited romance has Alexander Woollcott (accurately portrayed by Rob Seitelman as bombastically prissy) pining for magazine illustrator Neysa McMein (a sunny and charming Kellie Drinkhahn). One of the lesser known members of the group, McMein comes off as a fascinating character who, despite her intelligence, admits to not being the least bit clever. Her contributions to the mid-day festivities are quotes of other people's bright remarks.
Donna Coney Island plays Edna Ferber as one of those great, funny tough broads. She helps Matthew Tweardy (who has a snazzy song and dance feature) as Robert Sherwood get over his writer's block when trying to express the horrors he experienced in World War I. George S. Kaufman (Jeffrey Biering) and Marc Connelly (Aaron Kaburick) both went on to greater things once their playwriting partnership dissolved. Here they're fun to watch as bickering team who can crank out a rousing vaudeville routine when called upon.
The loner in the group is Harold Ross, who became New York's elite taste-maker utilizing the talents of his colleagues. Nicholas Benton plays him as a chipper young go-getter who seems to be having a ball.
Perhaps the wisest decision Redington and Dawes made in writing the book, and the trickiest to accomplish, was to have dozens of the characters' most famous quotes incorporated into the dialogue. In the opening scene Benchley and Parker return from a cocktail party. He remarks, "One more drink and I would have been under the table." She counters with, "One more drink and I would have been under the host.", quoting one of her most famous poems which, at the time of the scene, had yet to be written.
"Edna, you look like a man in that suit." says Woollcott at one of their gatherings. "Why Alec," Ferber answers, "So do you."
But the duo's most impressive accomplishment is to provide lyrics that match their subjects' cleverness. Parker sings of an evening with F. Scott Fitzgerald, "When Zelda caught us on a bender / Believe me, the night wasn't tender." A ditty called "Work is a Four-Letter Word" includes unexpected rhymes like "Missing deadlines, shirking duty, / Just a lazy s-l-u-t."
But there are also strong, sincere ballads with mature emotions. "The Man I Might Have Been" has Benchley wondering if he could have become a greater writer if he didn't spend so much time being flippant. Parker has "What Am I Doin' Wrong", a terrific blusey turn about her relationship with Benchley.
Dan Wackerman's direction and Mercedes Ellington's choreography are both lively without being too show-biz for these characters. The early scenes have the overwhelming excitement of young people becoming famous for just being themselves. And although that excitement tapers off by the musical's end, it's replaced by a warm remembrance of youth and the realization that they must grow up.
Chris Jones' simple, but imaginative set is drawn out in pen and ink, suggestive of The New Yorker's black and white cartoons. Amy C. Bradshaw designed a smart and stylish assortment of costumes.
If The Talk of the Town finds its way to a commercial New York run after this brief engagement is over, lovers of musicals that feature intelligence and wit over loudly sung spectacle will certainly have something to cheer about. Perhaps it could even usher in a new era in musical theatre, where audiences demand that even the lightest of entertainments be done with style and taste. And I am Marie of Romania.
Photo by Dick Larson. Standing, l to r: Chris Weikel and Caroline McMahon. Seated: Rob Seitelman
The Talk of the Town, presented by The Peccadillo Theater Company in association with William Repicci, plays at the Bank Street Theatre through December 5th. Call 212-868-4444 for information.