It’s been pretty scary returning from the Big Apple eager to share one’s excitement over the glorious revival of the ‘American Tribal Love-Rock Musical’ “HAIR” and finding yourself confronted with a series of puzzled faces – “What’s ‘Hair’?” I guess some of my friends are younger than is comfortable. But it does seen extraordinary that such an iconic and influential show should not be a part of everyone’s experience. Like Beatles songs you would expect Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rudd’s succession of timeless rock anthems to somehow have remained “in the air”? They seem SO familiar to those of us that were weaned on them forever to love them. Is it too much to ask that at least some of Diane Paulus’ thrilling company make it across the Atlantic for old times sake?
Gavin Creel was in London not so long ago giving his Bert in “Mary Poppins” and here he is, flowing locks duly bandana-clad as Claude – the fresh-faced Mr. Nice Guy who gets all the great songs but is unable to resist the call of duty when the American army fingers him for the slaughter in Vietnam. The real irony in “Hair” seemingly having passed today’s youth by is that if ever a show resonated with what is happening now in Iraq and Afghanistan this is it. Of all the protests we have seen and applauded over the last few years none is more poignant than than the spectacle of Paulus’ Tribe invoking hope with “Let the Sun Shine In” as the snows of winter’s deepest discontent fall. As they leave the darkened theatre, it falls to us to contemplate Claude’s uniformed and lifeless body picked out in a single shaft of light.
There are two dead bodies left on stage at the first act curtain of “West Side Story” – another golden oldie enjoying a successful revival on the Great White Way. But what should have been a second big bang in Broadway terms turns out to be a bit of a whimper. At least everyone was on when I hit the show – of late there have been a slew of covers (one colleague of mine experienced NINE understudies at one performance a few weeks back). But what was wrong here that one of the greatest musicals ever written made so little impact this time around? Well, put simply it was just too SAFE. Even the band with its massed Latin percussion spilling into the side boxes never really broke sweat. The dancing was fine but never gravity defying and maybe the Palace Theatre stage was insufficiently “open” for the bodies really to fly. The recent European tour was far more impressive in this respect.
Of course, the big talking point of book writer Arthur Laurents’ direction was his decision to interpolate more Spanish into the mix. I didn’t have a problem with that – it worked just fine – but apart from the sizzling Anita of Karen Olivo the singing and acting was decidedly low-key. Can they really have not found a better and more imposing voiced Tony than Matt Cavenaugh? I know this stuff requires serious singing but his tremulous vibrato was so anti-heroic as to be a wee bit embarrassing. The lady on my left asked if I could hear the dialogue. I told her that I thought Laurents and his cast were aiming for a new-found naturalism. “But this is the theatre”, she replied. Sometimes audiences really are the best critics.
It’s good to report, though (and London take note), that alongside the run of heavyweight revivals (the magnificent “Ragtime” is currently in previews and Trevor Nunn’s recent Menier Chocolate Factory production of “A Little Night Music” is in rehearsal – I met with Angela Lansbury to talk Sondheim literally the day before) new work can still emerge triumphantly from the workshops and Off-Broadway houses around the city. “Next To Normal” – music Tom Kitt, book and lyrics Brian Yorkey – won this year’s Tony Award for “Best Musical” with Alice Ripley taking the Tony for “Best Actress in a Musical” – both well deserved. This is musical theatre dealing with “difficult” subject matter and you may well ask if a seriously bi-polar mother refusing to accept the passing of a beloved son is something to sing and dance about. But Alice Ripley, who gives her all and then some as Diana, would probably reply that when you’ve starred in a musical about Siamese twins (as she did with “Side Show”) it’s pretty much open season when it comes to what qualifies for musicalisation. “Next To Normal” is sharp, edgy, and heartfelt with a score whose slightly schizoid ensembles really drive and energise the narrative. My problem with the show was that its second act did not build sufficiently on its first (how familiar is that) and that the inevitable resolution of hope (this being a musical, perhaps it was too inevitable) was simply in the end too pat. But hey, the show has balls and heart and maybe the authors set the bar too high in act one. But it’s on Broadway and people are going to see it. That’s good for new musical theatre writing and right now it puts the West End to shame. All we have to get excited about is “Legally Blond” and Phantom 2 “Love Never Dies”. Yawn.