Dec 17, 2018

I Love Him But It Embarrasses Me

Galt MacDermot.
It doesn't actually embarrass me to love Galt MacDermot, the composer of Hair and Two Gentlemen of Verona, whose death was just announced--I'm just using this opportunity to express my love for his work by using a lyric from one of my favorite showtunes ever. I had the opportunity to speak to him for my old Back Stage West column, also called the Wicked Stage. Here's the item from June 14, 2001. Wish it were 10 times longer:

I've always had a soft spot for Hair, the "tribal love rock musical" that's younger than I am but not by much. For many it evokes a world they remember firsthand; for folks my age it's a period piece that evokes a world we largely missed--which, through the disarmingly sexy and silly prism of Hair, seems to embody that great line from Sondheim's Follies about a time when "everything was possible/and nothing made sense." I spoke recently with Galt MacDermot, the composer who appears famously on the Hair cast album in a tie and crew-cut next to the show's longhaired writers, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. He recently helped lead a concert reading for New York's Encores and may do the same for the upcoming Reprise! rendition here in L.A. (opens this weekend at the Wadsworth) featuring Sam Harris, Billy Porter, Steven Weber, and Jennifer Leigh Warren. MacDermot had been toiling in Manhattan as a church organist and jazz pianist when Joe Papp hooked him up with Ragni and Rado, two young actor/writers from the East Village, to do the music for a new musical by, about, and starring members of the free-loving, drug-taking, draft-card-burning counterculture. "They said they wanted to make it a rock 'n' roll show. I was more interested in R&B," said MacDermot, who attributes great influence to a youthful residence in Africa with his diplomat father. What's more, he said, Rado and Ragni's lyrics weren't "typical rock lyrics. They were funny, witty. Most rock songs aren't funny." So is Hair a rock score? Yes and no. It is exuberant, funky, eclectic, occasionally cheesy, but above all it manages to sound both accomplished and innocent. I had to ask MacDermot about Rent, Jonathan Larson's recent through-sung youth-rock hit. He was mixed: "I liked certain moments of it; it didn't kill me." But then, he's not too sanguine on Broadway, anyway: "After a while I realized that theatre isn't where it's at in terms of music. In the New York theatre, their minds are mostly back in the '50s, or back further." He's worked on more modest projects since Hair, but that's fine with McDermot: "I don't want another Hair. One is enough."
My only other published writing about his fine work came a few years back with Time Out NY asked me to contribute to their list of "50 Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I didn't have a part in voting for the list but I was able to choose which songs I got to write about, and I happily snapped up "Aquarius":

Nov 20, 2018

From the Review Files: Tarzan, or the Review That Got Me Fired

Long story short: I was the last regular critic employed by the ticket-concierge site, for whom I reviewed the 2005-06 season (highlights included Sweeney Todd, Bridge & Tunnel, The History Boys). I was let go, apparently, because in reviewing the Broadway season's final show I ran afoul of the site's business model. They'd never said a word about my reviews, positive or negative, before. But the following review of Disney's misbegotten Tarzan, which hardly differed from the critical consensus, was apparently a pan too far for a site devoted to hawking tickets. I reprint it now mainly because's editor-in-chief, Paul Wontorek, recently tweeted--probably in response to an overblown recent controversy over a negative Times review of another ape-centered spectacle, King Kong--that folks fed up with allegedly nasty critics should just "stop reading reviews!" Paul has deleted the tweet, but it was captured for posterity in a FB post:

Herewith, the review that cost me the gig. Nasty or fair? You be the judge.

The title is Tarzan, and the wild child with the rat-tail dreadlocks and leather briefs is ostensibly the subject of Disney’s lavish but ragged new stage musical, based on the lithe animated film of 1999. But the chest-beating jungle man himself seems strangely absent from this clumsy spectacle, and never moreso than when he’s onstage.

As played by the endearingly scrawny and utterly innocuous Josh Strickland, this show’s Tarzan comes off less like a strapping nature boy raised by apes than as a sweetly mellow beach bum on an endless vacation. Yes, he does the famous rebel yell and swoops over the audience in dandy aerial sequences designed by De La Guarda’s Pichón Baldinu. But I’m with Jane (Jenn Gambatese), who punctuates her first glimpse of the airborne apeman with a loud “ah-choo!” This Tarzan is something to sneeze at.

So is the show, which labors mightily in the shadow of The Lion King’s stunning stagecraft, and which handily demonstrates the wide gulf between a talented designer, which Bob Crowley is, and a visionary director, which he is not. The spellbinding opening uses Baldinu’s ropes (and Natasha Katz’s deliciously rich lighting) to depict a shipwreck from vantage points we’re not used to seeing onstage: underwater, for one, and looking down on a beachfront. But once we’re in jungle-land, the scenic invention effectively halts, as we stare at four walls of green fringe and a gaping trap-hole.

We may fleetingly hope that the lengthy scene change that glosses the years between young Tarzan (a feral, ginger-haired Daniel Manche, who alternates with Alex Rutherford) and Strickland’s young-man Tarzan is going to reveal a mind-blowing new design. Alas, no; it’s the rain-forest cell block again, into which Strickland hurls himself, dabbles briefly with a fire stick, then promptly disappears so his adoptive gorilla parents can have a heart-to-heart. Shuler Hensley and Merle Dandridge bring as much dignity as they can to these risible parts, though they’re saddled with moss-like gorilla suits that reveal midriffs scarred with smudgy body paint.

As the show’s meager comic relief, the purported wiseacre Terk, Chester Gregory II adds to his similarly silly monkey suit a spiky purple do that wouldn’t have been out of place in Prince’s back-up band circa 1987. He does get to deliver the show’s most rousing lyrics: a scat solo for the lively second act opener “Trashin’ the Camp” (or is that “Campin’ the Trash”?), in which he and his fellow apes throw an impromptu set-strike party. Another fine musical number is similarly wordless: A drum-and-didgeridoo romp early in the first act showcases the invigorating mix of Meryl Tankard’s athletic choreography with Baldinu’s rope tricks. But when the characters open their mouths to sing, forget about it; composer/lyricist Phil Collins lathers on the clichés and pumps up the volume, making fellow popster Elton John’s cheesy theater music sound richly nuanced by comparison.

A show like this may be critic-proof—its advance sales are upwards of $20 million, roughly equivalent to its budget—but on the evidence of the matinee I attended, it seems to be pretty kid-resistant, as well. The restless youngster behind me offered a helpful running commentary, peppered with some practical staging questions, such as, “How did the lion thingy climb up there?” (He was referring to an eerie leopard figure who menaces the hero and his family, though to my eyes it looked more like a cross between a jackal and a frog.) My junior colleague, it must be said, couldn’t stay on topic during the second act’s merciless parade of mid-tempo ballads, or the tedious dialogue scenes between lovestruck Jane and her kindly explorer father (Tim Jerome). For the record, the book is by David Henry Hwang; we hope he doesn’t spend the money all in one place.

Disney Theatricals certainly has, and so must all parents of small children with even the slightest sense of family duty (unless they can persuade the tykes to wait till Mary Poppins alights in the fall). The rest of us do well to swing wide of this jumble in the jungle.

Music and lyrics by Phil Collins
Book by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Bob Crowley
At the Richard Rodgers Theatre