The History of War
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
October 9, 2010
I don't think I've ever seen a piece as disturbing as The History of War, a NYMF production by Chip Zien (book), Deborah Abramson (music), and Amanda Yesnowitz (lyrics).
This dark, depraved piece tells the story of a sociopathic 12-year-old who invokes the spirit of history's biggest baddies in order to write a school paper about war. We're not talking about John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald. We're talking Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, and Idi Amin, among others.
We learn very little about this kid, named Manfred, and his family, besides the fact that he hates his mother and his stepfather and misses his father, who was killed in combat. What draws Manny to these tyrants is unclear; why he thinks they're heroes is even more unclear. Manny is a McVeigh in training; disturbed, petulant, and generally unpleasant. This is a kid who would shoot up the school and then detonate a bomb in class, yet his ineffective parents sing about boys being boys.
With the opening number "Let's Start a Little War," Zien, Abramson, and Yesnowitz seem like they're going the route of satire. But once Hitler starts singing about killing the Jews and Osama talks about blowing up the New York City subway system, any instance of satire disappears. This is a totally confused, deeply serious piece with no message, moral, or redemption. You can't even call it a cautionary tale, because it doesn't caution the audience about anything.
Musical theatre aficionados will no doubt find the idea of singing super-villains similar to a wonderful musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman called Assassins. While Abramson's menacing score and Yesnowitz's wordy lyrics are of striking similarity to Sondheim, they nowhere near approach his genius. (This is clearest in the number "On the Screen," an ode to the television, akin to Sondheim's "Gun Song.")
Weidman's book dissects how the actions of Oswald, Booth, Czolgosz, Hinckley, and others changed this country for the worse, while making them seem human; it rebukes, not praises. Zien's book doesn't praise his baddies, but it doesn't rebuke them, either. And they're far from human: they're all monsters, and there's no hiding that.
A petrifying child actor named Michael D'Addario plays Manfred. The material requires him to do little more than sing (his voice is thin) and look menacing, which he does quite well. The remaining cast members are theatrical stalwarts: Max von Essen as Alexander the Great, Jason Kravits as Napoleon, William Michals as Osama, Sophie Hayden as the mother, among others. Perhaps the most convincing is Christopher Gurr's loud, angry Hitler.
The History of War, which is directed by Nick Corley, needs to grow a heart and soul before it's ever produced again. Its creators need to realize that it's very hard to get the audience on the side of bad guys. Zien, who starred in the original production of Into the Woods, has a connection with Sondheim. Perhaps they should do lunch.