Kevyn Morrow, Jordan Leeds, Lisa Brescia, and Bill English
in The Times
Kevyn Morrow, Jordan Leeds, Lisa Brescia, and Bill English
in The Times
In his autobiography, Groucho and Me, the performer formerly known as Julius Henry Marx relates that his father wanted to buy a state-of-the-art machine that would press pants at a high rate of speed. Finally, he had enough money to purchase it, and did so. The machine turned out to do everything that was advertised and more. Happy ending? No. As Marx wrote, "Only one thing had been overlooked: Customers." Seems there weren't enough in the neighborhood to make the machine pay for itself.

I thought of this story while seeing The Times, the musical that bookwriter-lyricist Joe Keenan and composer Brad Ross wrote a dozen years ago and that resurfaced last week for a five-day run at the Blue Heron Theatre. Whenever I'm at a show and see that its author has made what I consider to be a right decision, I find myself nodding in approval. "Yes," I think, "that's what that character would do." Or, "Yes, this is where this show ought to be going." Well, I can't remember a show where I nodded more often than I did at The Times. Keenan, who would later gain fame and fortune as the executive producer of Frasier, got so much right and so very little wrong in this show that it emerges as one of the finest musicals I've seen in years.

But even though it also contains some wonderful, sprightly music by Ross, I still worry about its future; they've got a great machine here, but I'm not sure that there are enough "customers" for it. The Times is going to depress some people and be of no interest to many others. It deals with success and failure in the arts or arts-related fields, but even here in New York -- or especially here in New York! -- it'll make plenty of folks uncomfortable and/or unhappy.

The Times tells of Ted and Liz, who fall in love and begin what they expect to be an exciting and successful life together. Ted plans to be a world-class novelist while Liz sets her sights on becoming a Tony-winning actress. But as we all know, that's easier said than done. There's a marvelous song early on when Ted meets a fellow writer in a bar and tells him his most recent tale of woe, fully expecting to hear his buddy come out with a similar one. But the pal only has good news about his work, and every time he comes out with another positive item, all Ted can do is say, "Great." He doesn't mean it. Oh, he would if things were going well for him, too -- but they're not, so he can't be as happy for his friend as he'd like to be.

Eventually, Ted takes a job teaching high school. He figures that he'll be able to write after each school day ends, as well as on weekends and during vacation the summer. The problem with that plan is that it cuts into his time with Liz, who isn't happy that he's become all work and no play. She might feel better if she were doing better in her career, but she isn't any closer to success than Ted is. She does land a meaty part in a showcase of a musical, but when the show moves to Broadway, she isn't taken along. This so-near-yet-so-far experience convinces her to abandon acting. She gets an entry-level job in advertising and turns out to be a natural at it, doing better than she ever expected.

Her success allows her to forget her acting ambitions and enjoy life, but Ted is still struggling as Liz moves upwards. He isn't doing well with his book and isn't happy when she insists that they move to a new, much better apartment. Ted feels bad because "our" money is really her money. He finally finishes the novel in which he so greatly believes -- only to find that, over a two-year period, there are no takers.

That's when he sings the 11 o'clock number "Watching the Show," which some of you may know from the Broadway Bound album on the Fynsworth Alley label. In the song, Ted remembers coming to the city full of idealism in his 20s, still believing in himself in his 30s, and then realizing in his 40s that nothing good is going to happen to him. It's a devastating number and, like all of The Times up to this point, it tells the unvarnished, 100-percent, bald truth. Lord knows that New Yorkers are even more obsessed with success than with dressing in black.

Conversely, those outside the city who have never had dreams of being a successful writer (and all the perks that go with it) may not understand Ted's plight or care much about him. Yes, A Chorus Line was about success and failure in the arts -- but, in that show, four boys and four girls "win." There's something about the The Times that also makes it reminiscent of Company; that show wasn't an automatic audience-pleaser but it did have a healthy life in New York and has been produced in many venues outside the city over the ensuing three decades.

On the other hand, one can imagine Bobby eventually succeeding in his goal to find "the right girl" much easier than you can envision Ted achieving his goal of becoming rich and famous and happy, too. No matter what age you are, there's a chance that you can eventually find someone to love for the rest of your life -- especially if you're a single straight man in New York. But if you're in your 40s and have been teaching high school, you'll find it murderously hard to be allowed to begin a new career. Keenan found two ways to soften the show's blows but, nevertheless, the fact that Ted won't be succeeding at his first love and must learn how to settle for what he gets is sure to trouble a great number of people.

Fortunately, the story is not Keenan's own; he's won more Emmys than Audra McDonald has won Tonys, and one of the episodes of Frasier that he wrote was cited by TV Guide as one of the 100 best of all time. Think how many episodes of sitcoms there have been in the 50-plus years that TV has been with us and you'll recognize the magnitude of this achievement.

If you see The Times in a future incarnation -- and the producing artistic director of a certain New York theater company told me the other night that he's seriously considering doing it -- I can't imagine you not admiring its truth and skill. Please do attend; I think they're going to need all the customers they can get.

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