Michael Winther in Songs From an Unmade Bed
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Michael Winther in
Songs From an Unmade Bed
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Is it possible for the best musical of the season to have arrived when the season is just a couple of weeks old? Songs From an Unmade Bed, now at the New York Theatre Workshop -- the same theater where Rent had its initial attention-getting presentation -- is the kind of show that erases memories of far less accomplished works that we reviewers had to sit through. It also joins the gratifying list of Off-Broadway musicals that have popped up this year like spring crocuses, including Altar Boyz, The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee, and The Audience. What gives? On the other hand, why question a development that's heartening for anyone who is worried that the musical has devolved into an overblown and cynical commercial come-on?

Mark Campbell is the person to whom the first of a handful of effusive thank-you notes must be addressed. His lyrics -- and presumably his life -- are the impetus for the hour-long sequence of songs that tell more or less loosely the loose romantic and sexual history of a gay man whose salad days were tossed some time ago. These 18 numbers, each written with a different gifted composer, are delivered in and around a titan-sized (movable) bed covered by a rumpled off-white sheet. The unnamed protagonist sings about looking for love in too many of the wrong places and finding it all too briefly in some of the potentially right places; he can't seem to negotiate his way through a contemporary world wherein the absolutes of previous times have yielded to moral relativity. The question that's posed and tentatively answered here is: When baring your soul and your private parts, how do you get your bearings?

It should immediately be mentioned that love found, love lost, lust satisfied and regretted are hardly new subjects, yet Campbell has searched his battered psyche and come up with fresh ways to express gnawing uncertainties. The opening lines of his outcries are evidence enough of an ability to get to the confounding core of the matter. His curtain-raiser begins, "I could die here tonight." A grabber, no? The next starts, "I recall my disappointment / On first seeing you nude." Later comes this beauty: "Oh, to be stupid again / Fall in love in that stupid way / And embody each silly cliché." Then there's this hilarity: "Sex with an actor / What was I thinking?"

Campbell's rhymes are effortless and almost always unexpected. For example, "I want to find myself / In some underground scene that is far from posh / An anonymous affair / Staged by Hieronymous Bosch." Or, in the song about wishing to regain youthful stupidity, "Screw being older and quote unquote wiser / Love was once a rushing, gushing geyser / That's now about as warm as Die Winterreise." The music for that aching, brilliant ditty is by Duncan Sheik, who is not alone in setting Campbell's words with unfailing lilt. The other composers -- all but a few of whom maintain the highest level of accomplishment, in most cases arranging their own pieces with delicacy -- are Debra Barsha, Mark Bennett, Peter Foley, Jenny Giering, Peter Golub, Jake Heggie, Stephen Hoffman (with whom Campbell wrote the score for the underrated Splendora), Lance Horne, Gihieh Lee, Steven Lutvak, Steve Marzullo, Brendan Milburn, Chris Miller, Greg Plishka, Kim D. Sherman, Jeffrey Stock, and Joseph Thalken.

Evidently, most of these tunesmiths knew that they were writing for the show's soloist, Michael Winther. Indeed, some of them have already claimed Winther as their chosen muse: He's built a reputation as a singer with an exceptional baritone who likes to show off lyrics and melodies but not himself. An appealing, bantam-sized fellow -- dressed here in pajama bottoms and a jersey by costume designer David Zinn -- Winther performs Campbell's testaments of addled longing with a sometimes gleeful, sometimes haunted affect. He runs (barefoot) a gamut of emotions that will not only be painfully identifiable to homosexual men of a certain age but will also punch many other wounded, would-be lovers in the solar plexus.

Director David Schweizer has refined Winther's work, helping him do just enough to keep the songs simple yet cumulatively effective. Set designer Neil Patel, who uses muslin-colored fabric for the tall curtains and for that oft-visited sheet, puts 23 lighting fixtures above the stage -- and lighting designer Brian H. Scott uses them with finesse. The overall mood that the creative team achieves is one of a beautiful, isolated arena for dangerous liaisons.

Songs From an Unmade Bed announces its innovative quality at the very first instant, when a stagehand peeks in from the wings and pianist/musical director Kim Grigsby, cellist David Gotay, and percussionist Shane Shanahan tiptoe through an upstage door so as not to disturb the supposedly sleeping Winther. If something even better comes along in the way of musicals as the new season progresses, a thank you note will have to go out to our lucky stars; if that doesn't happen, Mark Campbell and his collaborators have still given us plenty to be grateful for.