The more fame you achieve as a singer, Melissa Etheridge says, the farther the audience gets. In concert halls and stadiums, there’s a vast distance between performer and spectator — certainly, in the nosebleed seats on the upper deck, but even the front row could feel like a mile away. So, the opportunity to see Etheridge up close, personal, and shredding her guitar strings right in your face at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre is a rare one, and one that should be taken.
Etheridge premiered My Window, her musical biography, last year at New World Stages. It felt like a great party then, and it feels like an even more intimate one now. Part of it is the venue change: though comparable in size and subterranean nature, New World might as well be MetLife Stadium compared to Circle in the Square, where the only thing separating the singer-songwriter from the adoring throngs is air. And you can feel Etheridge’s joy radiating through every single moment.
Written by Etheridge and her wife, Linda Wallem (creator of Nurse Jackie), My Window follows a standard “person leaves small town hoping for fame” narrative. She tells us about her childhood in Kansas, her discovery of music, her eventual success as a generation-defining queer singer/songwriter, her relationships, her breast cancer diagnosis, and how plant-based therapies (read: pot and magic mushrooms) helped her discover the secret to happiness.
To Etheridge and Wallem’s credit, they’ve done an admirable job of clarifying the structure and editing the show down to a length that feels manageable, if still too long. It’s not Angels in America-sized anymore, but clocking in at around two hour and 45-minutes (including a 15-minute break and 10-minute delayed start), it’s only five minutes shorter than Wicked next door.
Which would be fine if Etheridge provided us with the gory details, instead of speaking in generalities. If you’re jonesing for a kiss and tell, you’re out of luck — when an audience member unexpectedly screamed out “Who!?” as Etheridge alluded to her first partner’s “movie star ex-husband,” Etheridge ad-libbed with a mildly perturbed “Look it up” (to save you the trouble, Julie Cypher and Lou Diamond Phillips). Of course, this information is all public record; Etheridge even named names in her 2001 memoir. We know who her “lesbian talk show host friend” is, and which “former Vice President” made An Inconvenient Truth, the global warming documentary that earned Etheridge an Oscar for her song “I Need to Wake Up.” Realistically, does she even need to provide the particulars at this point? Probably not. But the intentional obfuscation amid the banalities doesn’t justify the running time.
Etheridge is not afraid to go there, as she proves in the final section of the show, where she discusses her 21-year-old son’s fatal fentanyl overdose three years ago. Lighting designer Abigail Rosen Holmes plunges the theater into total darkness (a stark shift from the trippy concert lighting that came before), and Etheridge dispenses with the platitudes to speak directly from the heart about her loss. This is the kind of emotional rawness that would elevate My Window into Springsteen on Broadway territory, but alas, she only gives us a taste. It’s also the only spoken section that she delivers without faltering, the rest of her dialogue plagued by “ums” and other filler words, as if she doesn’t quite remember the script (it was the same off-Broadway, so it must be an artistic choice, albeit a weird one).
Director Amy Tinkham largely stays out of her way, though the quality of the production itself is impressively beefed up for Broadway. Andrea Lauer’s costumes are more sparkly, Olivia Sebesky’s projections have more specificity, and set designer Bruce Rodgers tricks out the space with a secondary stage in the middle of the room that allows for Etheridge to move around. Best of all is Shannon Slaton’s crystal-clear sound design. Not only do we get every single lyric, but it often sounds like Etheridge is being backed by a thousand other players, when it’s just her own virtuosity.
And that’s what we’re really coming for. Etheridge’s fans don’t care about anything that I’m taking issue with; they want to hear “I Want to Come Over” and “Come to My Window,” and they’d listen to her play all night long. Count me in: Etheridge is a performer who radiates joy and masterful technique. The only thing more impressive than her musicianship (and she plays at least six different guitars over the course of the night) is how strong her voice sounds at 62 years old. Melissa Etheridge has been a rock star for pretty much her whole adult life, and she still has all the grit and rawness of her earliest records. It is a genuine treat to see her on Broadway and spend all that time in her presence.