July 13, 2024

Why "Empire" Failed to Win My Allegiance

Those of us who love musicals root hard for each new one that comes along. And we root extra hard when we know that a new creative team is getting its first big break or that the show is based on an original idea instead of on a movie, a videogame or an internet meme. We really want them to work, for their sake and ours. So it brings me no pleasure to have to report that the new musical Empire, which opened this week at New World Stages, doesn't work at all.  

Newcomers Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull appear to have taken on more than they could handle by doing the book, lyrics and music for this tale about the making of the Empire State Building because they don’t seem to know exactly what story they want to tell or how to tell it. 

The show opens in 1976 with a woman named Sylvie sorting through some family heirlooms that stir up her negative feelings about the Empire State Building because a family tragedy occurred there. But before any empathy can be worked up for Sylvie, another character enters and takes over the narrative. She is Frances Belle Wolodsky, who is known as Wally and is a big fan of the building. 

In fact, it turns out that the time-traveling Wally, who moves between the past and present without explanation, is the prime mover in getting the skyscraper—at 102-stories then the world’s tallest man-made structure—built and opened in 1931. 

But while we’re still trying to sort out our feelings about Wally, the show throws a bunch of other characters at us including Wally’s boss former New York governor Al Smith, an architect named Charles Kinney who also becomes Wally’s love interest and a motley crew of construction workers from Poland, Italy, Ireland and the American Dust Bowl, along with the Mohawk ironworkers, who in real-life were known as “sky walkers” because they were so skilled in working on high-rise structures.

There are so many characters in Empire that it’s hard to keep track of them and their storylines of missing home, falling in love or falling out with one another. The actors, sometimes doubling in these roles, don’t seem to know what to make of them either and so they simply resort to stereotypical accents or gestures (the young Okie is constantly wide-eyed; the immigrant Italian is easily irritated, the Mohawk leader is predictably noble). 

They get little help from their director Cady Huffman, the Tony-winning actress who seems totally out of her depth now that she’s moved to the other side of the proscenium. Her direction is a patchwork of elements from other shows: a solemn parade like the one in the play The Inheritance; a prop-heavy dance number like the inventive ones Susan Stroman so easily pulls off in her shows, although it’s not clear why the construction workers in Empire are dancing with baseball bats.

But even a more experienced director might have had a tough time with this show. Its book wrestles unsuccessfully with how to reveal the mystery of Sylvie’s family’s involvement with the Empire State Building, with what to do with the flirtation between Wally and Charles and with how to resolve the public’s initial unhappiness over the building’s high cost in the midst of the Great Depression. 

On top of all that, Sherman and Hull mix in some revisionist history about the role women played in the project. Wally seems based on Belle Moskowitz, a real-life top aide to Al Smith and the person who orchestrated the campaign to win public support for the Empire State Building. But it’s a stretch to say that Moskowitz was the main player in getting the building up and it’s an insult to suggest that Smith, a wily politician who was the Democrat’s presidential candidate in 1928, was the bumbler he’s portrayed here.  

And there was no romance between the architect who designed the building William Lamb (not the show’s fictional Charles Kinney) and Moskowitz, who at the time had long been happily married to Henry Moskowitz, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP.  

Similarly, while Mohawk ironworkers were key players in the construction of the building—as they had been for the construction of the George Washington Bridge and would be for the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center—it’s unlikely that any female members of the tribe were included in the construction crew for the Empire State Building. 

I know it’s only a show but Empire also purports to be calling attention to some forgotten part of our history and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.

A musical can sometimes be saved by its score but this one isn’t tethered to any time, place or style—a big mama torch song pops up for no reason that I could discern—and so comes off as generic. The show's lyrics are weak too and fail to move the plot along. So when you add it all up, there’s just not enough here to root for.  

July 4, 2024

Happy Fourth of July

 Wishing you a thoroughly festive holiday