The Musical of Musicals--The Musical!
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 8, 2005
Years ago, when show music and pop music were more or less the same thing, the whimsical "what-if" musical theatre parody was everywhere: On Broadway in musical revues like Show Girl (what if a 20s musical comedy collided with The Threepenny Opera?); on the Sonny & Cher Variety Hour and the Carol Burnett Show; even in Mad Magazine (what if My Fair Lady were about a beatnik molded into an ad executive?) Heck, I wrote a few myself when I was in college (what if A Streetcar Named Desire were an MGM movie musical?).
Mostly, these parodies were staples of sophisticated nightclub cabaret. The Musical of Musicals—The Musical! is an example—five examples, actually—of the form: a quintet of ten-minute satires, any one of which would nicely cap a bubbly evening of wine and song in a smoky, dusky piano bar, here grafted onto one another to make the most modest of off-Broadway shows. The concept is simple: what if the same simple plot were the basis of musicals by five iconic composer/lyricists?
The story: Girl and Boy are in love but don't realize it. Girl is behind on her rent. Her Landlord threatens to marry her himself if the rent isn't paid. Girl seeks advice from an Older Woman. Boy comes through at the eleventh hour with the money. Happy ending. Curtain.
The composer/lyricists: Rodgers and Hammerstein ("Corn"), Stephen Sondheim ("A Little Complex"), Jerry Herman ("Dear Abby"), Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Aspects of Junita"), and Kander & Ebb ("Speakeasy").
You don't need to know a huge amount about musicals to guess how it all plays out. The R&H piece is all trite sunshine and saccharine, with the occasional dark cloud (a la Jud Fry in Oklahoma!) for contrast. The Sondheim segment riffs on dissonant music and complicated rhyme schemes. The Herman tribute is a witless, hopelessly out-of-date star vehicle for a witless, hopelessly out-of-date star. The Webber rip-off features cheap loud music, bad lyrics, dull recitative, and special effects (played in this no-frills environment by a fog machine). The Kander-Ebb bit combines Cabaret and Chicago into a murky, nasty, decadent, Fosse-esque mishmosh.
Some of the material (music by Eric Rockwell, lyrics by Joanne Bogart) is dead-on hilarious, such as this deathless lyric from "Aspects of Junita," which feels entirely stitched together from actual Tim Rice non-sequiturs and is put to one of those pretending-to-be-seriously-contemporary boring melodies that pop up all over Song and Dance and Sunset Boulevard:
Behind the 8-Ball,
In seventh heaven
Dressed to the nines,
With 5 o'clock shadow
I don't understand a thing you say
We never talk anymore.
First come, first served
Playin' second fiddle
Gettin' the third degree
What's it all for?
The opening of "Speakeasy," a devastating parody of "Wilkommen" called "Hola, Aloha, Hello," is similarly brilliant. But a great deal of the material is less inspired; once the main jokes of "Corn" and "A Little Complex" have been delivered—i.e., Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals are dippy and corny, Sondheim is depressing and unsingable—the parodies really have nowhere to go. It should be noted, too, that in searching for the lowest common denominator of these varied bodies of work, Rockwell and Bogart often do the masters an injustice: it's one thing to make fun of Tim Rice and quite another to reduce Oscar Hammerstein to a faux-hymn whose refrain is "Follow your dream / Don't ask me why / Follow your dream / Until you die."
What makes The Musical of Musicals as palatable as it is are the infectious high spirits of its creators, who both perform in the show and seem very much to love doing so. Rockwell, at the piano and also singing the five versions of the Landlord, is devilishly delightful, especially in the Webber and Kander & Ebb segments, when he pays wicked homage to, respectively, Michael Crawford's overmiked Phantom of the Opera and Joel Grey's overbearing Emcee. Bogart, in a succession of Older Woman parts, is never less than a hoot and usually much better than that: she does the aforementioned R&H-inspired "Follow Your Dream" in a deadpan Peggy Wood contralto that is quite funny; a devastating Elaine Stritch imitation in the Sondheim bit; and some grand (though seemingly out-of-place) Marlene Dietrich shtick in "Speakeasy."
Fellow cast members Craig Fols (Boy) and Lovette George (Girl) are less assured, in part because their roles—the backbones of each parody, I should add—are less specific than the ones Rockwell and Bogart have given themselves. Fols has to be Curly and Billy Bigelow—two very different characters—at the same time in "Corn"'; in "A Little Complex," which gets its inspiration mostly from Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George and Company, it's never clear who he's supposed to be at all. George, meanwhile, disappoints as she fails to rise to the occasion twice, never coming close to channeling either Patti LuPone or Liza Minnelli in the final two entries of the evening. (It occurred to me that perhaps Fols and George are getting bored; they've been involved with this show since its original incarnation, off-off-Broadway, nearly a year-and-a-half ago.)
The Musical of Musicals—The Musical! is undeniably an entertaining evening, especially if you know enough about the authors being parodied to appreciate Rockwell and Bogart's frequent allusions and musical jokes. But it does feel awfully trifling: it comes in at just 75 minutes or so plus an intermission. And even though it's been moved to an off-Broadway house (and is charging off-Broadway ticket prices), it remains bereft of sets, costumes, effects (save that lone fog machine), or an orchestra to back up Rockwell's piano. Certainly the material would provide terrific opportunities for a witty designer to have a blast (cf. Alvin Colt's immortal costumes for Forbidden Broadway). A production value or two would go a long way toward making the show feel less, shall we say, thrifty.