"Amsterdam," "Marathon," "Carousel" -- all tuneful, all terrific, all moving. The best one of all isn't on the original cast recording but is included on the film soundtrack album. (If you don't have that, you'll be able to hear and see it when the Jacques Brel movie gets a wide video release in November.) The song is "The Statue," wherein a sculpture in the park tells us who he was before he was immortalized in bronze: A man who didn't die for his country as much run away from the fight and got caught in the crossfire, who never wanted to be in the war in the first place but joined the army just because there was nothing better for him to do with his life.
New York theater had never seen anything quite like Jacques Brel and was charmed, fascinated, and moved by the powerful material. The show lasted 1,847 performances, enough then to rank it then in third place among Off-Broadway shows, just behind The Threepenny Opera and (need I say it?) The Fantasticks. Not too much time elapsed before producers suddenly realized that to present a small "composer anthology" was a quick and easy way to make money: Such a revue had few cast members and very low overhead so, no matter how good or bad it was, it could probably run and run and run. Thus Jacques Brel begat Noël Coward's Sweet Potato, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, Oh, Coward!, Sammy Cahn's Words and Music, and Rodgers & Hart -- all money-losers.
We might have been well-rid of the genre had not Side by Side by Sondheim and Ain't Misbehavin' arrived. The former was terrific because it was a nice summary of the last 15 years of a master musical dramatist's oeuvre, while the latter was an overrated affair that outrageously beat a real musical -- On the Twentieth Century -- for the Best Musical Tony in 1978. Ain't Misbehavin' begat Eubie, Sophisticated Ladies, Cotton Patch Gospel, Tomfoolery, Leader of the Pack, Jerry's Girls, Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, and tons of others, almost all of which failed -- until Smokey Joe's Café succeeded, prompting a new rush of songwriter tributes that has now culminated with The Look of Love: The Songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
Please, let this be the last one. Please! There's nothing wrong with what the performers at the Atkinson are currently doing, but no matter how much emotion they pour into each of their songs -- and they do -- they aren't characters in an ongoing story, and one of the best and most important aspects of musical theater is its ability to immerse the audience in the characters and the story. Will Eliza Doolittle be able to pull herself up from guttersnipe to fair lady? Which of those hard-working kids is going to be chosen for the chorus line? (And what a shame that everyone can't make it -- but we know how they feel, for which one of us hasn't come thisclose to getting a job without getting it?) We feel for Tevye, Jean Valjean, Bill Snibson, Tony and Maria, and hundreds of others. But how can we feel for an actor who comes on, sings a song, does a dance, and walks off? We're just not emotionally involved. Being impressed by someone's singing and/or dancing just isn't enough. Can he or she create a character and touch our hearts and souls? That's what we want to see -- and that's what any revue, including The Look of Love, cannot possibly deliver.
So there's Eugene Fleming singing "Always Something There to Remind Me," intoning, "Oh, how can I forget you?" Whom can he not forget? Nobody we know, so why should we care? What motivates Fleming and Desmond Richardson to dance along to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head?" We know why Charity dances to "I'm a Brass Band" -- because somebody loves her at last. We know why the King of Siam and Mrs. Anna decide that, yes indeed, they shall dance -- because it's the closest either one of them can come to consummating a forbidden relationship, and we're charmed, delighted, and excited that they've come this far. Hey, we've seen Gene Kelly dance a number during which raindrops kept fallin' on his head; considering that something wonderful happened to the guy before he started dancing, we know why he's in no hurry to get out of that downpour. But why are Fleming and Richardson dancing to "Raindrops?" Because revues have to have dances in certain places, and both director Scott Ellis and choreographer Ann Reinking decided that here was as good a spot as any for two guys to jump around.
I doubt there are many people in the world who cherish "She Likes Basketball" more than I, but it means nothing in The Look of Love. Who likes basketball? Damned if I or Fleming, who sings it, can tell you. But I can tell you who does in Promises, Promises, the musical from which the song sprung: Fran Kubelik, the young woman in whom Chuck Baxter is so interested. Chuck has just discovered that Fran is a fan of the game and is overjoyed that she's agreed to go to a game with him. He sings and dances because he can't contain his glee, and we're happy for him because he's so adorable and we've been rooting for him to find love. Then our hopes are dashed when we see Fran stand up Chuck because she has met with her former lover and wasn't able to resist him. Look at all the emotion that precedes the song, fills the song, and follows the song! Where is anything like that to be found in The Look of Love?
We know that shoe-horning existing songs into a book isn't the answer, either. Mamma Mia! may be a hit, but few people think it's any good. When you admire a real musical, you also admire the way it was put together: The composer-lyricist(s) knew what they needed for each moment and wrote the right song for it. Now, that's entertainment! If "One Less Bell to Answer" had originally been written for a musical, it would have maximum impact if the book set it up well. In The Look of Love, it's just another pretty song.
After my book Let's Put on a Musical was published, I got a letter from a West Virginia woman who asked why I hadn't covered composer-lyricist revues such as By Strouse or And the World Goes 'Round in the text. I wrote back, "Because I don't think the public wants to see them." And I don't. 42nd Street is not my favorite musical, not by a long shot, but at least it resembles a genuine musical and it offers a song that starts, "Who writes the words and music for all the girlie shows? No one cares and no one knows." Indeed. You can't expect John Q. Theatergoer to come out of any revue and say, "Wow, that guy was a really good songwriter!" with the same enthusiasm he has when he's come to care about Dolly, the Phantom, or Kim. So I'm wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin' that we've seen the last of these cheap, unengaging musical revues.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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