Can big, foreign, 19th-century novels be profitably turned into big, domestic, American musicals? The question asked itself this season, as a virtual wedge of Great Books musicals simultaneously materialized, one more unlikely than the next. Captains Courageous, an all-male, all-seafaring adventure, hoisted sails at Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre; Wuthering Heights was set to song at the Olney Theatre of Maryland, raising the prospect of Heathcliffe and Cathy fankicking on the Yorkshire moors; Anna Karenina danced toward its indelible heroine’s fate at New York’s Circle in the Square, not far enough away from Penn Station to prevent the pundits from making rude remarks. Any one of the three, I figured, might work: after all, Drood, Les Miserables and Big River all won Tony awards in the ’80s–Kipling, Bronte and Tolstoy should be at least as tractable as Dickens, Hugo and Twain. But why does the musical, that frayed, derelict, bald, hopelessly withering yet incurably jejune form, continue to exert such fascination and inspire such improbable undertakings? Why these musicals? Why now?
My investigation into such questions began, appropriately, in the neighborhood where musicals became musicals. I spent an hour before the curtain of Anna Karenina wandering the theatre district, lighting on more redolent locales than the Circle in the Square box office. Any excursion into Broadway is a flirt with necrophilia. Time was when all the theatres were filled and you could catch Ann Miller sipping an accessorized elixir at the Hawaii Kai before she repaired to perform at the Mark Hellinger, now in the hands of the Times Square Church. I hung out at the Martin Beck, where the Saturday-night ticketholders to Guys and Dolls displayed their excitement. Here was a constituency of pocket squares and rhinestone-studded sweater dresses and children. All of the hairdos were high-maintenance, and, on one lucky young woman, I even spotted a wrist corsage, a confection I thought had disappeared with turkey tetrazzini. There was a pitch of desperation in the people hoping for no-shows and last-minute cancellations: A couple of crazed, sweaty Loesserphiles worked the crowd, offering $400 cash-in-hand for a pair of seats. No one bit.
Stuck as I was with the inevitability of Tolstoy’s train wreck six blocks uptown, I tried to understand my position better. The time is overdue, I told myself, for a rigorous, supremely disinterested theorist to explain why the musical continues to take up so much room in the culture so late in the game. (Among other qualifications, this theorist cannot have played Bloody Mary or Conrad Birdie in high school.) I love musicals, yet I’ll concede that they’re the most bourgeois enterprise in a bourgeois enterprise. The odds of finding aesthetic merit and socko entertainment in a new American musical grow more fantastical every year, so why should a full-page ad in the Times announcing Bernadette Peters and Martin Short in a musical version of The Goodby Girl set me tapping out a two-on-the-aisle tattoo? What are we lining up for? Shouldn’t we have gotten past the notion that the musical is our permanent contribution to world culture? “We know we belong to the land/And the land we belong to is grand,” sings the chorus at the end of Oklahoma! A glorious, full-throated finale, but what an absurd lie for a grade-school music class. Should a lineup of Hot Box Dolls or stubborn Iowans come to represent us as a chorus of Argive elders or Trojan women represented the Athenian polis? If that is the case, then at least for posterity’s sake we’d better commission a new Nietzsche or Walter Benjamin to cover our butts with theory.
I USUALLY BLAME Gertrude Stein and D.W. Griffith for everything that’s wrong with American theatre today, but Oscar Hammerstein is responsible for Anna and Vronsky and their crazy locomotive love. Hammerstein assiduously transformed the musical, first with Kern, then with Rodgers, from a jerry-built entertainment confab into a populist, principled art form that made America sing and, not incidentally, threw off millions of dollars. Once Hammerstein killed Jud, Billy Bigelow and Lt. Cable, then anything could happen in a musical libretto. Thirty years after his death, the musical occupies a shifty nexus of art, enterprise, nationalism, nostalgia and bromide. When they work–or are deemed to work–musicals are magic. When they don’t, they make the biggest stinks and die the loudest deaths.
Scouring the 19th century and Ted Turner’s video library for source material, the creators of the Tolstoy, Bronte and Kipling productions bravely eschewed the cannibalistic showbiz contexts that govern the majority of successful new American musicals (Dreamgirls, 42nd Street, La Cage aux Folles, Jelly’s Last Jam, Crazy for You, The Will Rogers Follies) in favor of adult storylines and mature themes, a high road for librettists ever since Hammerstein set Gaylord Ravenal and Magnolia Hawkes to music in 1927. They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, but adapting Tolstoy’s 800-page novel into a conventional two-act tuner is an eminently resistible idea.
Great works of fiction, one might well conclude, do not make great musicals. Characters sing better than ideas. Rodgers and Hammerstein improved second-rate material, usually plays, and while their scores are an imperishable contribution to the culture, their model for dramatic success became formulaic in their last shows and is now outdated. Regretfully, no new model for musicalizing outsize emotions in real people has replaced their (Sondheim is his own thing), a situation which leaves lesser talents, for want of a better idea, to traduce Tolstoy and turn Kitty and Levin into Carrie and Mister Snow.
I found little evidence of the great novel itself in the musical version of Wuthering Heights, an even more hapless achievement. In a misogynistic libretto, having as it did little to do with Bronte and all to do with pre-sold, iconic responses to Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, a story that rightfully belongs to Cathy is usurped by the male characters. Wuthering Heights expended more time and music on Edgar and Hindley than on Cathy and Isabella, who are presented as demonized mantraps. Too many films, one might further conclude, are being turned into musicals.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO Captains Courageous, inspired by Kipling’s novel, but adapted more from the 1937 MGM film starring Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholemew. After five years of development, Captains Courageous opened to negative press, and curtailed its run in Washington. The story: Privileged, snotty Harvey Ellesworth Cheyne falls off his father’s oceanliner and is picked up by Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman who works on a schooner trawling the Grand Banks. Living with the crew, Harvey learns some rude lessons about ethics and friendship and gains a soul under Manuel’s rustic care. In a climactic tempest, the sea takes away his friend, and he is reclaimed by his father. As a family-values narrative, this is no more or less corny than the successful Secret Garden, but it’s a lot more coherent.
A worthy musical should have, if not a new story, then a novel means of presenting it. Captains Courageous calls for an all-male cast, an original proposition. No women means no mermaids in dream ballets, no Ma Kettle-style cook, no Ado Annies who cain’t say no to sailors in port. By extension, there would be no spangles, no soprano sounds, no love ballads, no torch songs, no couples dancing and no conventional romance–in other words, precious little to fall back on from the musical warehouse. A butch show about dads, lads and fishing? Heresy.
I myself wasn’t thrilled at the thought of watching 20 men chop bait, hornpipe, and sing ersatz chanteys on a boat, but Captains Courageous turned out to be one of the most accomplished, satisfying new musicals I’ve seen in the past 10 years. It has an abundance of what so few others (also-rans and monster hits alike) have: stylistic integrity and genuine emotion. In addition to a beautiful score by Frederick Freyer and a terrific cast, Captains Courageous also possesses something that Oscar Hammerstein bequeathed to the musical, the thing that most new librettos lack, the thing that makes a decent revival of Gypsy or Guys and Dolls (and they’re not perfect, despite the New York Times’s opinion to the contrary) so welcome–a sense of community. Director Graciela Daniele brilliantly turned the ostensible restrictions of an all-male cast and a story that never left the schooner into virtues, dramatizing a community of men going about their work, wrestling with an elemental force larger than they and, after much tribulation, drawing young Harvey into their chorus. Singing was as natural to these men as drawing their nets. An unforced, substantive realism suffused the proceedings.
HAMMERSTEIN OFTEN chose communities in transition for his settings, e.g., farmers versus cowmen in Oklahoma!, the “barbaric” East versus the enlightened West in The King and I. Surrounding the central relationship of Manuel and Harvey (played by John Dossett and 13-year-old Kel O’Neill) in Captains Courageous is a race between the schooner and the steamship. Industrialization will soon render obsolete the labor-intensive ways of the dory fishermen. The curtain rings down on a way of life, a piece of history, and I was sorry to see it go. The great musicals make the susceptible homesick for places they’ve never been, whether it’s Runyonland, Bali H’ai or Anatevka. They make us want to join their chorus.
The sole lapse of judgment in Captains Courageous illustrates how artfully conceived the rest of the show is and also throws into relief the chronic no-growth predicament of the American musical. Halfway through Act 2, in a duet called “Regular Fellas,” Harvey shows Manuel how to behave like a swell when they reach port in Gloucester. A demented 12-year-old and a Portuguese bear selling a full-front cakewalk, comic business with buckets and canes…well, it is quite a display of retrograde minstrelsy. So taste-free is this bid for affection, I thought the show was channeling Legs Diamond. Every cheesy button is pushed: a kid gone shrill, key changes, flop-sweat, hitchkicks, guts and enterprise. In an evening endowed with originality, the audience went predictably nuts for “Regular Fellas,” its most hackneyed routine.
For Captains Courageous to move to Broadway, conventional producing minds would require that more of these buttons be pushed. Christopher Barreca’s evocative set, a fully rigged mast as virile and unadorned as the men who worked it, would probably have to have a turntable or two. Sooner or later there’s be a hornpipe, a love interest for Manuel and then more dames at sea. I’d like to think that Broadway could still support a show as richly gifted as Captains Courageous. Instead, yet another season is due to grind down on techno-blimps, showbiz scavenges and relentlessly manic tempos.