Jul 7, 2014

Tough Deal

My heart sank early and often last week at the City Center concert rendition of Randy Newman’s Faust, but never so low as when Newman muffed one of his own best lines. That he was onstage at all, half-playing the piano, half-playing the role of the Devil, and generally serving as the evening’s impish emcee, was the evening’s signature mistake. While his droll presence is usually entirely welcome--his solo live shows are some of my favorites in memory--having him at the piano to guide us through the alternately brilliant and flimsy score, and even more flimsy book, of his 1995 musical Faust, while some over-qualified actor/singers did their thing around and opposite him, leached the show of any drama.

Or rather, musical comedy, which is what the show was when I saw it in La Jolla. There, having David Garrison’s Devil slither about in a sharkskin suit opposite Ken Page’s cuddly God made all the difference; and Michael Greif’s staging for some of the slighter, stuntier songs (“Damn Fine Day,” “Bless the Children,” “March of the Protestants”) at least gave them a theatrical point. At City Center, there was very little book to speak of, and almost zero staging; the result was that too many of the show’s songs, unable to stand alone, just sat there, well performed but unmoored from any frame of reference.

A few songs in the score really do have dramaturgical heft, though; one is the achingly beautiful “Gainesville,” whose old-time harmonies and sweetly insistent, clear-eyed innocence found an ideal match in Laura Osnes. But perhaps the most striking sequence in the original show--one that sharply summarizes the critique of pure faith that was clearly Newman’s main interest in writing the show in the first place, certainly moreso than the central Faustian bargain--comes when the Devil, down in the dumps, stops by Heaven to kvetch about the thankless challenges of his job. God takes a break from leading a swarm of child angels on a nature hike to offer the Devil a saccharine entreaty to “Relax, Enjoy Yourself”:

Then a little angel breaks from the crowd and approaches the Devil; she wonders aloud if he’s gone bad because of a lack of love in his childhood. At City Center, this part was sung by Brooklyn Shuck of Annie fame; her exchange with a quizzical Newman was one of the evening’s high points.

It must be very trying to be bad all the time
Vicious and cruel and mean
When there's so much beauty
All around us to be seen
And so very little time in which to see it all
And feel it all
So little time
Perhaps when you were little
No one held you in their arms
And told you that they loved you very much
Perhaps you were embittered
By your fall from grace

How long have you been dead?

Two months.

Do you miss your friends?

Yes, I miss them,
I've tried to make friends here, but it's hard

You were a good girl
Cut down in your prime


Newman, trading the mike with Shuck, pulled off that exchange just fine. But then comes maybe the most scalding moment in the show, and I have to wonder if the concert’s director, Thomas Kail, lost his nerve here--he didn’t want the Devil to sing these harsh words directly to a sweet little girl, and let Shuck run to join the angel choir. When Newman turned back to the piano, he got a little lost and didn’t punch his pickup to the next section. And while last week’s concertgoers more-or-less heard much of the following, I’d be surprised if anyone who didn’t already know the original score actually took in the first three lines, and hence the entire import, of this clarifying bit of theodicy in song:

The man who shot you in the head
In that Burger King in Tucson
Well, he never will be punished, you know
He will move to Big Pine, California
Become the richest man in Inyo County
While that may not be much, it's enough
When he dies
Sixty-five years from today
With his loved ones all around him
He'll be whisked right up to heaven
He won't pass go or have to wait
He'll just march right through the Goddamned gate
And why, you may ask yourself why
For thousands and thousands of years
I have asked myself why

Faith. Contrition. Sincere contrition.
Confession. Sincere confession.

Yes, Lord! Yes, Lord!

Redemption. Absolution.
Those who seek Me shall find Me
In the case of this man,

My ways are mysterious
Sometimes even to myself
My ways are mysterious

Relax, old chum, relax
It's only a glorious game that we're playing
And in a few more years
When I move up here
Things will never be the same

Even at its best, Faust has too few truly theatrical turns like that. But in its weird hybrid of Randy Newman concert and fully acted reading, last week’s Faust didn’t even present the best of Faust all that well. If, as I wrote for Slate, the failure of Faust and Newman to be Broadway contenders 20 years ago represents a great missed opportunity, last week’s concert only served to seal that fate.

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