Think of John Wayne and Jean-Paul Belmondo
Have you ever been embarrassed to tell someone what show you were seeing next?
Some hours later, on my next visit there, I see our sports editor. Oh, please, don't let him ask me The Question I'm Dreading. He's been known to do so -- but to ensure that he won't, I make a pre-emptive strike and ask if he feels that the media will always be against new Yankee Randy Johnson because of the idiotic way that he handled a cameraman a few weeks ago. We chat about that, and it works: He doesn't ask me The Question I'm Dreading.
Back to my desk, where I finish the day. Now, If I can only get down to the lobby in the elevator without anyone inside... Wow! The elevator arrives and no one's in it! I savor the empty space, rush out the moment it lands, almost sprint to the parking lot, get in my car, and sigh loudly. I made it without hearing The Question I'm Dreading even once! Actually, it's not The Question that would be the problem on this particular day, but The Answer. When you're a drama critic at a newspaper, your co-workers inevitably ask out of the blue, just to fill dead air, "So what are you seeing tonight?" And if they had asked me on this particular day, I would have felt like such a jerk saying, "Little Women."
Sometimes it's hard for a guy to be a Broadway musical enthusiast. I mean, there isn't a book, movie, TV show, or video game called The Queen's Lace Handkerchief but there is a musical by that name. Okay, it's actually an operetta from 1882 -- but if someone recorded it, I'd at least want to hear it, which is more than I can say for any other guy I grew up with.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I remembered the day when I was driving in and our guard, who greatly resembles Kenny Rogers but has a persona much rougher and gruffer, gave me a baleful look. I was listening to the newest RCA Victor compilation of Broadway musicals and it just so happened that, at that moment, there was Rebecca Luker leading a chorus of Von Trapps in "Doe, a-Deer, a female deer." You would think I'd be used to this, considering that I first had this feeling almost 40 years ago. Back in March 1965, I was hooked on a piece of Richard Rodgers music that was on the soundtrack of one of his '50s triumphs. In those days before we could program songs on a CD player, if we wanted to hear a song again, we'd have to pick up the tone arm and place the stylus (the fancy term for "needle") in the space between tracks. But the song that I wanted to hear again and again and again was the first cut on the second side, so I could more easily place it at the beginning of the record. And what was this tune that had become one of my favorite melodies? "The Gavotte" from Cinderella. About the 35th time that I picked up the record player's tone-arm, I thought to myself, "Every other teenager in the country right now is listening to the Stones singing 'Heart of Stone' and I'm listening to a gavotte from a musical fairy tale. While everyone else my age is buying 'My Girl' by The Temptations, MY girl is Cinderella." Maybe the situation wouldn't have seemed so dire had this not happened only a few weeks after I'd bought Goldilocks -- which is NOT another musical version of a fairy tale but, rather, a spoof of early Hollywood -- and become hooked on a song called "The Pussyfoot." I had to wonder if there was any hope for me at all.
A few years later, in 1973, I was a high school English teacher. I taught seniors, and that meant I had to write a slew of college recommendations -- including one for Bill Rubino, a likeable, bright, and deserving student. After he was accepted by the college of his choice, he was so grateful that he wanted to buy me a record in thanks. The fact that he worked in a record store and was therefore eligible for employee discounts entered into this, but I was happy to hear him say, "Any record you want!" By then, I'd detemined to get my hands on each and every original cast album ever issued. To make sure that I did so, I made an alphabetical list of what I didn't have and needed to get I knew what was next on the alphabetical list and told Bill the name of the record I wanted. I immediately realized how silly it sounded. Bill scrunched up his face after I said the title, and he slowly repeated it with an are-you-out-of-your-mind tinge to his voice: "The Girl in Pink TIGHTS?" "Yes," I said, clearing my throat and managing to nod my head. "It's on Columbia Records, catalogue number OL-something."
The very next day, he handed me a brand-new copy of the record, but he didn't look too happy. "You know, we have to go to our manager to get employee discounts," he said bitterly. "And the records we buy are only supposed to be for us. So there I am in front of him with this thing and he's saying, 'The Girl in Pink Tights? The GIRL in PINK TIGHTS? What do you want this for?' And I'm shrugging and saying, 'I don't know ... I, uh, I hear it's good.'" Bill later told me he lived in fear that he'd be called "Pink Tights" by every co-worker for the duration of his employment there, but that he was only razzed about it for a few months.
Anyway, I drove my car into the city recently and saw Little Women. Unlike "The Gavotte" or "The Pussyfoot," it wasn't for me. When the overture started, it sounded amazingly like the one on that 1986 Secret Garden album that Barbara Cook recorded -- the one that Heidi Landesman heard when considering a stage version of The Secret Garden and the one that made her say, "We need a new score." There's an important scene in the first act where Marmee leaves Concord to take care of her ailing husband in another state, but we don't hear how that worked out and we never see him. This seems like a let's-save-a-salary move, as Ruth Gordon said in the 1970 movie "Where's Poppa?" The sets are stylish but economical, and one of them looks so much like the set of The Crucible -- on the same stage in 2002 -- that you'd swear it had never been loaded out. To start the show by having actors bring to life the rotten story that Jo has written is one thing, but to begin the second act with an even longer story is most unwise. The show is almost as long as Les Miz and could certainly stand some cutting; this is a very good place to start.
Sutton Foster will probably win her second Tony in as many tries, but she isn't for me. She overplays Jo, especially when the character is put into her first ball gown. (The scene begins with Marmee's exposition-heavy line, "To think my two oldest girls are going to their first ball!") Foster comes down the stairs and raises her skirts high, acting much like Ray Bolger in Where's Charley? in order to drive home the joke. She often contorts her mouth as if she's a Claymation character, making her lips move in slow-motion when she's speaking, feeling that this will earn her a laugh -- and, truth to tell, it often does. But I like humor to come more naturally and honestly from a character. Foster also uses that phony device where she speaks normally and then, to get another cheap laugh, suddenly drops her voice low in delivering the next line -- something that real people never do. I wish she had taken the advice that Marmee gives Jo: "You must think before you act on every whim." Director Susan H. Schulman should have kept Foster honest -- or should have simply told her to watch what Maureen McGovern was doing, for she's giving a wonderfully warm, controlled, and truthful performance.
There's an audience for this Little Women, and I hope that the production finds it. But I don't think it's as good a musical as one I saw in Chicago in 2001: The American Girls Revue. Yup, there I was, one of three men in the audience and the only one who didn't have a daughter with him. Hey, it was a Nancy Ford-Gretchen Cryer musical and I wasn't going to miss that, no matter how disgraced I felt sitting there.