May 21, 2013

Breaking Silence!

Jenn Harris and Paul Kandel in Silence! (photo by Dixie Sheridan)

Last week I got a news release that Silence! The Musical just clocked its 500th performance, and I couldn't be happier for the show, albeit for weird reasons. Let's call it reverse (or perverse) vindication.

When I was sent to review the original production of this unauthorized parody of The Silence of the Lambs at the New York Fringe Festival in 2005, I had just arrived in Brooklyn from L.A., and had begun freelancing for the New York Times. I didn't much care for the show, and I think my review lays out my case fairly well (basically, I thought the show's one joke—they're singing! and dancing!—wore thin quickly).

There was one glaring and painful exception, though. While I've been mostly happy with how the Times editors have handled my prose in the years since, the way one of my early points was edited made me sound like a bluestocking, and I still wince when I read it:

"Silence! The Musical" winks so hard it's nearly blind. Taking large swatches of Ted Tally's film script for the Oscar-winning 1991 thriller "The Silence of the Lambs" and weaving in intentionally cheesy songs and dishy asides, the librettist Hunter Bell and songwriters Jon and Al Kaplan miss as many opportunities for laughs as they hit.
The targets that they do aim for are dubious. The diabolical psychiatrist/killer Hannibal Lecter (Paul Kandel) delivers a terrible (and vulgar) power ballad about the scent of a woman. 

Yes, it's the infamous "If I could smell her cunt" song, and I think I understand why the Times trimmed my description of it—I made it too clear what the offending word was, right up to supplying a rhyming adjective. I wrote:

The diabolical psychiatrist/killer Hannibal Lecter (Paul Kandel) delivers a terrible power ballad about the scent of a woman, employing a blunt four-letter word for the female anatomy that loses it meager punch with each repetition.
Maybe the difference seems petty—the editor cut my all-but-spelling-out-the-word description, then tried to tuck it all into that parenthetical "and vulgar." But that's the phrase that sticks in my craw. It's not a word I typically use, at least not to describe profanity, and that turn of phrase is among the few things that have appeared under my byline I don't recognize as my own writing. My not liking the show was one thing, but coming off like a clueless fuddy-duddy stung. As did this comment:
“Silence!” is a brilliant pop culture spoof that appeals to everyone’s lewd, crude and prurient interests. Too bad Mr. Kendt couldn’t have embraced his inner sociopath to come out and play with the rest of us. Someone should buy him a “South Park” box set for Christmas.

I'm not sure how I stumbled onto the website of Silence! songwriters Jon and Al Kaplan, but some time later I noticed, on the show's press page, that they included a tiny squib of my Times review and followed it with a telling comment:

"Terrible (and vulgar)." —Rob Kendt, The New York Times"A negative review in The New York Times is the kiss of death." —Buddy Thomas, ICM, in his final correspondence with us

Critics are not (all) bitter parasites who wish ill on their art form, and it pained me a little to see my own dubiously edited words thrown back at me as what seemed at the time like the show's sure death knell. So I was strangely heartened to see that my review didn't kill Silence! after all, and that it in fact returned for an Off-Broadway run in 2011, got great reviews (an A- on StageGrade), and is still packing 'em in.

There have been shows I've hated enough to heartily wish they would die, but Silence! was never one of those, and I'm glad it's found its audiencethough I also had to smile in noting that my colleague Jason Zinoman greeted the show's return with yet another lukewarm Times review. What the hey, if that can further the show's meta-narrativeit's the musical that's a hit despite the Times!more power to them.

And while I'm sharing original drafts that the Times editors redacted, I can't resist recalling another one from the same Fringe Festival that they were probably wise to change. At the end of my review of the Neo-Futurists' delightful The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, I reached for a terrible pun:
Would Ibsen approve? I think the Norwegian would.
John Lennon's ironic tale of infidelity and mod apartment design had nothing to do with this show, of course, so the pun was cut to simply, "Would Ibsen approve? I think he would." Now that I look back on that unambiguous affirmation of a show I sincerely liked, I do, too.

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