Journalists love stories about journalism. We even love the stories that cast us in a bad light. And I'll admit that’s part of the reason that The Connector, which was inspired by the stories of the notoriously disgraced journalists Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, ended up on the list of the four shows I was most excited to see during this spring season.
But that wasn’t the only reason. I also wanted to see The Connector because the show is a new musical by Jason Robert Brown, whose earlier shows Parade and The Bridges of Madison County rank among my all-time favorites. And on top of that, The Connector brings the always-likable Scott Bakula back to the New York stage for the first time in 35 years (click here to read more about him). But alas as it turned out, I ended up not liking The Connector much at all.
Jonathan Marc Sherman' book for the show, which opened at MCC Theater this week, purports to tell the story of the rise and fall of a young journalist named Ethan Dobson who gets his dream job at a New Yorker-style magazine called The Connector and then immediately starts fabricating stories. Ben Levi Ross, one of the replacements in Dear Evan Hansen, brings a nebbishy Ben Platt-like intensity to both acting and singing the role of Ethan.
As Sherman imagines it, Ethan’s boss Conrad, who’s amiably played by Bakula, is totally taken in by the younger man because they both went to Princeton, like the same drinks, share a reverence for the magazine where they work—and are both guys.
More suspicious of Ethan are three women: Robin, a co-worker (and undeveloped love interest) who is also talented but overlooked and is played by Hannah Cruz; Muriel, the magazine’s no-nonsense fact checker played by Jessica Molaskey; and Mona, a busybody reader who keeps writing in to point out mistakes in The Connector who’s played by Mylinda Hull.
That’s a lot of story and I haven’t even mentioned the stuff about the venture capitalists buying the magazine or Robin feeling as though she isn’t getting ahead because she’s a Latina. Sherman has a hard time keeping up with all of it too and his pacing is off.
The show runs nearly two hours without intermission but we’re almost halfway through it before the deception narrative really clicks in. And it’s never made clear what’s driving Ethan to lie when it seems that he’s perfectly talented enough to report and write decent stories on his own.
But what disappointed me even more was Brown’s score. The story is set in the ‘90s, a particularly fertile period for the pop music that usually informs his scores. But no grunge, neo-soul, techno or even boy-band sounds pop up in the music for The Connector. Instead what we get is a remix of stuff that Brown’s done before.
The rousing number in which a dubious witness adapts a black style of music to tell his false tale (here it’s rap, and not particularly good rap) was just like the rousing number when a dubious witness adapts a black style of music (there it was gospel) to tell his false tale in Parade. Similarly Robin’s lament about her stalled career reminded me a lot of Cathy's lament about hers in Brown’s The Last Five Years.
Several critics claim to have been moved by the ballad “Proof,” Muriel’s climactic 11 o’clock number, but by the time I got home from the theater, I couldn’t remember its words or melody, or, for that matter, those of any of the tunes in the show.
And I couldn’t figure out why the biggest production numbers centered around minor characters in the show. It’s fun to see Ethan’s fabrications brought to life and Max Crumm and Fergie Phillippe do terrific jobs animating them but some of that time might have been better spent delving deeper into the main story.
In fact my biggest problem with The Connector is that I’m not sure what that main story is or what the show wants to say. The idea for The Connector originated with its director Daisy Prince, who has said she first started thinking about it when the Glass and Blair scandals happened back in the ‘90s (click here to read more about the show’s genesis). But times have changed.
Our current concerns about journalism are now rightly focused on media companies that knowingly peddle fake news and on disinformation campaigns conducted on social media. And that by comparison can't help making the foibles of an overly ambitious kid—and an overly ambitious show—seem a little trite.