April 20, 2024

Their Wobbly Books Cause "Lempicka" and "Suffs" to Stumble More Than They Should

What’s the hardest job in show business?  There are obviously lots of contenders but right now as one musical after another is opening on Broadway, I’ve been thinking that the answer to that question might be writing the book of a musical. In some ways it’s a thankless job. When a show works, the composer usually gets the credit (after all, it is called a musical) and when a show doesn’t work, the book writer often gets the blame. 

I thought a lot about that as I watched two ambitious musicals—Lempicka and Suffs—that opened this week to middling reviews. Although both shows are inspired by the lives of real people, neither is based on pre-existing material like a book, movie or superhero comic. So it was up to their book writers to determine exactly what story they wanted to tell and how to tell it. 

Alas, neither Carson Kreitzer and Matt Gould who collaborated on the book for Lempicka; nor Shaina Taub, who not only wrote the book for Suffs but also composed its score, wrote its lyrics and performs as the show’s main character, manage to do this as successfully as I’d hoped.

Lempicka tells the story of the Polish-Jewish artist Tamara Lempicka who rose to fame between the World Wars for the bold art deco nudes she painted. She also had a colorful personal life that included escapes from both the Russian Revolution and the Nazi invasion of Paris as well as a string of affairs with both men and women. 

So Kreitzer and Gould had a lot to work with. The problem is that they worked so hard to cram all of it into two-and-a-half hours that they forgot to include a reason to make us care about any of it. Maybe things got lost in rewrites during the show’s 16-year gestation period.  For example, a too-expensive-not-to-use car that resembles the Batmobile sits on the stage but no longer serves any real purpose in the storytelling.

The current book just slides from one scene in Lempicka’s life to the next, without taking time to develop her character or those of the people around her. And while Eden Espinosa who has been with the show through most of its long development process (click here to read an interview with her) brings the rattle-the-rafters intensity to Lempicka's songs that she honed as an Elphaba in Wicked, she isn’t able to flesh out this character.

And her castmates are similarly hobbled. One minute Lempicka’s husband (played by Andrew Samonsky) is incensed that she’s spending so much time in her studio and the next he’s boasting about her accomplishments. Similarly a female lover quickly switches from being a woman who doesn’t want to be tied down to one who is clingy and can’t bear to be apart from Lempicka. 

That lover, called Rafaela in the play, is supposed to have inspired the painter’s most iconic works but that presents another problem for this production, which clearly wants to use reproductions of those images but is constrained because they all feature white women and Rafaela is played by the black actress Amber Iman. The script calls for viewers to make the instant connection between the paintings and their subject but whenever someone did that it took me right out of Lempicka’s already too-thinly-realized world. 

By comparison Suffs has clear stakes and a fairly straight-forward storyline: the campaign in the early part of the 20th century to get American women the right to vote. Its main character is Alice Paul, the real-life feminist who was one of the main strategist in the suffrage movement, from which the show takes its title. 

But sensitive to the politics of our day, Taub tries to be inclusive, telling the stories of a range of women, including the African-American activists Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell and the working-class labor organizer Ruza Wenclawska. However as good as it is to celebrate these women, we don’t truly to get to know any of them well. And we get to know Paul, who lived to be 92 and a fierce advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, least of all.

Still, the production has improved considerably since its run at the Public Theater two years ago (click here to read my review of that). Taub and director Leigh Silverman have replaced half of the songs, hired a new choreographer, brought in new costume, set and lighting designers and enlisted two high-profile producers: almost-President Hillary Clinton and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

They’ve also shuffled around the cast, moving some actors into different roles and getting rid of the well-meaning but confusing colorblind casting that made it difficult to tell if actors of color were playing African-American feminists or white characters.

But what they didn’t do was deepen their characters, give them motivations that made us understand why they were the ones willing to risk so much to empower all women.  Instead the characters justify their actions by occasionally breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience “this really happened.” 

That may be so but what we want—OK, what I want—from shows like this one is an emotional truth, an understanding of why people do things instead of just an accounting of what they did. 

Suffs may now be an entertaining history lesson (it's chocked full of memorable anthems and the row of women seated behind me cheered them all) but I'm not so sure that the show will make it into the musical theater history books.

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