Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses
New York City's master builder gets a new rock musical off-Broadway.
Robert Moses looms like a Batman villain in New York City's collective imagination. His bridges, parkways, and housing projects still dot the city 36 years after his demise. Theater people best remember him as the tightfisted parks commissioner who tried to shut down Joe Papp and Shakespeare in the Park. While that story was at the center of Richard Nelson's Illyria, it doesn't appear in Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses, Peter Galperin and Daniel Scot Kadin's new musical at Theatre at St. Clement's. Unfortunately, the disjointed stories that do make the cut in this dismal rock musical do little to shed light on a figure of lingering and misunderstood power.
Power was the key to Moses's success in reshaping the city: In addition to exerting total control over New York City's public parks, he held a variety of titles, most crucially chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA). Galperin and Kadin (who collaborated on the book) never really explain how Moses came to head that semiautonomous public works venture or how he leveraged toll revenue to issue bonds and raise money for his projects, but they do at least attempt a hasty bildungsroman.
Within the first four scenes, we watch an ambitious young Moses (Constantine Maroulis) progress from the Bureau of Municipal Research to the commanding heights of New York government. One night while attending Al Smith's court at the Central Park Casino, he meets cigarette salesgirl Vera Martin (Kacie Sheik, trying her hardest to bring singular humanity to a character that is a mashup of two wives and a secretary). She becomes his live-in assistant and the closest thing he has to a soulmate, but even she begins to question his methods when she meets Jane Jacobs (Molly Pope), an activist determined to thwart Moses's plan to build an expressway through the West Village.
Much of the drama hinges on Moses's ever-shifting relationship with Nelson Rockefeller (Wayne Wilcox), the last of the seven governors under which he served. At first, they seem like kindred spirits: Their duet, "You and I," which takes place in an airplane above the Palisades Parkway, is this musical's unhappy answer to "A Whole New World." Eventually, however, Rockefeller sours on Moses's misanthropic tunnel vision.
The source of the civil engineer's religious adoration of the automobile and disdain for those poorer and browner than him is never illuminated, with Maroulis delivering a warmed-over version of his mad scientist routine from Jekyll & Hyde. A tremor pervades his voice as he speaks through clenched jaw about his master plan. That tremor is replaced by a deafening rock scream in the songs, a predictable trick that only partially invigorates a lifeless score.
Galperin (who wrote the music and lyrics) has composed 26 numbers for the show, all of which hit a theme and hit it hard without really developing. There's "Voice of the People," in which Jane Jacobs tries (and fails) to get the audience to join her movement. There's also "We're Impressed," a grating duet between Rockefeller and a reporter that mostly consists of the repetition of the song title. Even with an amiable narrator (the funny and engaging Ryan Knowles in Woody Guthrie drag), these individual songs never congeal into a solid narrative.
Despite its lavish excess, director Karen Carpenter's production also fails to bring Moses into focus. Ken Larson seems to be aiming for a visceral reaction with a set that is modeled after the kind of scaffolding New Yorkers cross the street to avoid. True to form, Carpenter mostly works around this obtrusive platform, pushing the majority of her blocking to the empty space downstage. With the exception of a couple of horrendous wigs, Bobby Frederick Tilley's period costumes are serviceable. Zach Blane's lighting is perhaps the most expensive currently off-Broadway: Moving lights and color-shifting LEDs flash around the room and in our eyes in a vain attempt to distract us from this musical's lack of substance.
You might walk away from Bulldozer thinking that Robert Moses, as a subject, just doesn't belong onstage. In 2005, a young Alex Timbers and Les Freres Corbusier tackled the power broker in Boozy, a musical play that garnered frosty reviews (this was sadly before Timbers met Michael Friedman, who could have written a killer Moses musical). Yet Moses has all the makings of a tragic hero, whose mythic strength contains the seed of his eventual downfall. Certainly Governor Rockefeller, a patrician masquerading as the people's tribune, makes a compelling villain. Though his falsetto may not be as eardrum-splitting, Robert Moses will sing one day, and we will finally understand.