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More on Ever After

Filichia's unhappy now, unhappy hence, and unhappy ever after about Barry Singer's Ever After.

By New York City
Michael John LaChiusa wrote in to give me hell and, on reflection, I have to say that I was guilty as charged. For in my column "Peter's Digest" a couple of weeks ago, I referred to Barry Singer's Ever After as "the worst book about musical theater in the last 25 years."

"How could you dismiss it in one sentence without telling us why?" Michael John asked. And while the point of my article was about something else entirely -- theater references that I've happened to find in non-theatrical books -- he is, of course, right. I e-mailed to tell him so: "Not giving my reasons was indeed irresponsible. So now I'll re-read the book and do a column on it. And who knows? Maybe I'll even change my opinion this time around!"

But no. On page two, I rankled one more time at Singer's assertion that "dead composers dominate Broadway in revivals ad nauseam." In fact, from the fall of 1978 to the summer of 2003 -- where Singer's book concludes -- there were 82 Broadway musical revivals, 40 of which had been written by composers who'd died and 40 by ones still alive. Two others, Damn Yankees and Grease, each had one co-composer still alive and one dead. That's an even split, so I wouldn't say that "dead composers dominate," let alone "ad nauseam."

Singer reports that Working had "an assembly line of musical collaborators" -- a term that sounds disparaging. But, 20 pages later, he says that Diamonds in 1984 "did seek out a surprising number of songwriters as contributors for its score," there making the practice sound like a good thing. Why did he praise Diamonds while criticizing Working when the powers behind each show did exactly the same thing? (And while we're on the subject, Working is the superior score.) Singer writes that "Even Michael Bennett, directing and choreographing a musical called Ballroom, appeared stymied that year [1978], disoriented by his own recent success with A Chorus Line." In fact, Bennett was hardly "disoriented" and showed a very sure hand on Ballroom. The show had a terribly tough act to follow in A Chorus Line but plenty of it was wonderful; certainly, Ballroom achieved a level of quality that doesn't happen when a director is "disoriented."

Moving on, Singer claims that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas "trumpeted a half-baked crudity that seemed the antithesis of (Tommy) Tune's sly wit." Take it from one who attended the very first workshop of the show at the Actors' Studio on October 30, 1977, months before Tune came in: The heart-rending "Girl, You're a Woman" was already in place. So was the all-important phone call that Miss Mona overhears when one of her employees breaks the news to her little boy that she won't be home for Christmas. How moved we were when Mona felt for the woman and gave her permission to get off work in order to be with her child! Both moments were important reasons why we rooted for this atypical character, and they were by no means examples of "half-baked crudity." To be sure, Tune helped Whorehouse a great deal, but Singer's black-and-white statement is too simplistic.

On the same page, Singer tackles Evita and refers to "Lloyd Webber's definitively dysfunctional style." Lord Lloyd Webber has been criticized hundreds of thousands of times but, this time, I'd say the Lord's name has been taken in vain. What does "definitively dysfunctional" mean, anyway? Of Cats, Singer writes that "its calculating frolicsome facade grew more irritating by the instant." By the INSTANT? Really? Every instant was worse than the one that preceded it? I don't agree. To give one example among dozens, Gus the Theatre Cat's song in the second act is quite lovely and I doubt that theatergoers grew more irritated by the instant during that sequence or many others.

Singer on Dreamgirls: "The moment that it captured was already a good 20 years in the past." So what? Can't musical theater examine the past, be it recent or remote? The score of Dreamgirls sounds right for its era, and that's what's important. Singer notes that Little Shop of Horrors "copped most of the 1982-83 musical theater season's significant awards, everything except Broadway's Best Musical Tony Award, of course (which went to Cats)." The way he phrases that might lead some readers to think that Little Shop lost to Cats, which of course it did not for it was a Tony-ineligible Off-Broadway show.

"Merrily We Roll Along closed after 16 performers, leaving Sondheim confused about his own future in musical theater." Well, "confused" is not an adjective I'd ever use to describe Sondheim; his next show, which made it to Broadway a mere 28 months later, won a Pulitzer Prize. Then Singer writes, "Merrily had been developed without backers' auditions or an out-of-town tryout -- the two staples of nearly every Broadway musical's creative journey up until that time." Let's take that backers' audition business first: If a show didn't have them, that means it didn't need them. Producers hold backers auditions when they require money to bankroll a show and stop doing them when financing has been achieved. Sondheim was coming off his masterwork Sweeney Todd, so maybe the money for Merrily was a little easier to raise than usual. Does Singer think that backers auditions should have been held just for the sake of having them?

As for the absence of an out-of-town tryout for Merrily: Of the previous 80 musicals produced on Broadway, 34 of them had played previews in New York instead of taking to the road, including such worthies as A Chorus Line and Sweeney Todd. (Singer admits this fact about the latter two paragraphs on.) The 1969-70 season was the one during which producers began in earnest to forego out-of-town tryouts -- eight of the 14 musicals eschewed them -- so Singer shouldn't have contended that, a dozen seasons later, they were still a "staple" of "nearly every Broadway musical's creative journey."

According to Singer, "Big River was actually something of a concept musical -- the concept being the introduction of country music into the Broadway musical mix." This shows a patent ignorance of what a concept musical actually is. What's worse, only one paragraph later, Singer mentions that Pump Boys and Dinettes, with "original country music," had opened some years earlier. And what about Whorehouse, which opened before that? And as my buddy David Wolf pointed out, Sing Out, Sweet Land had country music, too -- and it opened in 1944!

Then Singer writes, "As patrons in Paris and London had before them, Broadway audiences meekly bowed beneath Les Misérables' heavily booted heel." I never saw audiences "meekly bow" for this show; on the contrary, I saw them stand and cheer time and time again. If they felt so assaulted by the "heavily booted heel," why did so many thousands upon thousands return to see the show again and again? I daresay that I know even more people who returned to Les Miz than all of the Jekkies, Pimpies, and Civvies combined.

Singer's assessment of Phantom: "The monolithic staging by [Hal] Prince again was colossal in the same sense that maulings in the Roman Colosseum must have been." Come on! What kind of comparison is that! Singer's assessment of the score for Into the Woods: "Sondheim-lite." Oh? Then why, on the following page, does he write that the score "offered three of [Sondheim's] most poignantly heartfelt expressions: 'No More,' 'No One Is Alone,' and 'Children Will Listen?'" That page, by the way, is 47. Mr. LaChiusa, I think you may now understand why I am not going to write about other outrages on pages 48-281 but, instead, am closing Ever After for ever after.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]


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