February 15, 2020

Question: What Makes a Modern Musical? Replies From: "Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice," "Romeo & Bernadette" & "Darling Grenadine"

Wither the musical? Not the jukebox musical or the ones that strap themselves to popular movies like a shipwreck victim clinging to a lifeboat or even those with rock scores whose songs self-consciously comment on a show instead of embedding themselves within it. I’m talking about the traditional musical with a book, original tunes that move the plot along, tell us about the character and even have lines that rhyme, the kind of show written for people who are no longer in high school. Does that kind of musical have a future? Three shows I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks try to answer that question. Their responses—and mine to them—are mixed.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, The New Group production that is running at the Pershing Square Signature Center through March 22, is based on Paul Mazursky’s 1969 movie about two affluent white couples who flirt with the idea of open marriage and wife swapping. It's certainly adult but it's also as old-fashioned as they come. So old-fashioned in fact that it seems dug out of some early ‘60s time capsule. 

The costumes (mini-skirts, Nehru jackets) are cute and colorful and the actors are equally perky but B&C&T&A has a book by Jonathan Marc Sherman that mimics the wink-wink coyness of those old Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies that were all pillow talk and no action when it came to sex.

The musical's characters talk about their extra-marital liaisons and there’s the iconic scene where the four of them climb into bed together but Sherman doesn’t seem to have anything meaningful to say about their doings, that period or its relation to the present when love stories now routinely include second marriages, same-sex couples and transgender partners.

Meanwhile, the show’s score with music by the now ubiquitous Duncan Sheik (this is his third show in less than a year) and overworked lyrics by Amanda Green so intentionally evokes the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David that you’re almost waiting for a cameo appearance by their muse Dionne Warwick. If only. It would be sad if too many other musicals followed down this shaky path.

Romeo & Bernadette, the AMAS Musical Theatre production, looks back to the ‘60s too.  But it’s more self-aware and surefooted about it. Mark Saltzman who wrote the book and lyrics, which he set to what the program calls “Classical Italian Melodies,” moves Shakespeare’s story of young lovers from warring clans in 16th century Verona to 1960’s Brooklyn.

In this telling of the tale, the poison that Romeo drank didn’t kill him but put him to sleep for 400 years. When he awakes in midcentury Verona he spots an American tourist who is—pardon the expression—a dead ringer for his beloved Juliet and he sets out to reclaim her heart.

As it turns out the tourist, whose name is Bernadette, is the daughter or an American mobster (more Guys and Dolls’ Big Jule than Tony Soprano) and she’s engaged to marry a young hotheaded mafioso. When Romeo makes his way to America, he’s taken under the wing of the rival gang, despite being dressed in a poet’s shirt, tights and a codpiece and displaying the courtly gestures of his era.

The narrative is grown-up but it makes no sense and the humor is divided between jokes about Romeo’s anachronisms and the stereotypical behavior of the other characters (everyone, except Romeo, speaks with exaggerated Brooklyn accents, Bernadette is the kind of entitled princess who would fit right in with the Kardashians and her bridal florist is the kind of flamboyant gay guy who keeps fluttering his hands) but it’s all played with such jolly affection that it’s almost hard to take offense. 

The show’s songs are distinctive and spring from moments of genuine emotion. They aren’t afraid of metaphor either and their lyrics are delightfully clever. People familiar with opera or the Dean Martin songbook will have the extra pleasure of being able to identify the original melodies that Saltzman has recruited for his tunes. My theatergoing buddy Bill couldn’t resist humming a few as we walked to a restaurant for dinner after the show.

Romeo & Bernadette closes at A.R.T./New York Theatres this weekend but is already scheduled to reopen for an unlimited run on Theatre Row starting March 17. It’s a fun show, the kind the whole family might enjoy but it too looks to the past rather than to the future.

Darling Grenadine, currently playing a sold-out run at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Black Box Theatre, seems to be heading in the right direction. The show, which was entirely written by, Daniel Zaitchik, is an original modern-day romcom, leavened with just enough darkness to give it some of the edge that modern theatergoers seem to favor.

Its main character is a songwriter named Harry who’s made a small fortune from writing a jingle for a hamburger chain but can’t seem to write anything else. He falls for a girl named Louise who’s in the ensemble of a hit Broadway musical and the understudy for its star. 

Given a setup like that, you think you know where the show is going but it doesn’t go there.  Instead, it slowly reveals that Harry has a seriously grown-up problem that threatens his relationship with Louise, as well as the ones he has with his brother, with his beloved dog, both of whom are named Paul, and with his past.

The songs, written and sung with exquisite care, are reminiscent of Golden Age showtunes but firmly rooted in today’s sensibilities. This isn’t a perfect show.  It’s too long and some of the numbers seem as though they were pulled randomly out of a trunk. But the show has been deftly staged by Michael Berresse and it offers some hope that modern-day musicals can cater to theater lovers who don't need to depend on their parents' health insurance coverage.

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