The Philadelphia Inquirer
David Patrick Stearns
Audiences at Broadway musicals aren’t used to being addressed as adults. When it happens, it’s shocking to realize what you’ve been missing: a popular form of art that doesn’t pretend the world is something other than it is, that doesn’t leave you wondering, "Why can’t I wash that man right out of my hair?"
You can get reality, straight talk or whatever you want to call it in Spike Lee movies. You sometimes find it in opera (after all, everybody dies at the end) if you sift through the language of another culture in another time. You can wait for the next Stephen Sondheim musical, which has been something like six years in the making.
Or you can go to Plays & Players Theatre for the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of The Last Five Years, which runs through April 13. It’s written by Jason Robert Brown, one of several young theater composers whose work matters more to me than a lion’s share of their classical-music counterparts.
Like the mid-20th-century school of French composers named Les Six, who were equipped to write symphonies but kept one foot in the cabaret, these post-Sondheim composers have long believed there’s more to musical theater than Phantom of the Opera. Let’s call them Les Cinq, since there are five: Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jeanine Tesori and, of course, Brown. Discouragement in the commercial arena doesn’t keep their talent from flourishing – or popping up in many guises.
Contrast, for example, Broadway’s closed-then-resurrected Urban Cowboy (for which Brown wrote several good songs) with The Last Five Years, which dramatizes, through song, the rise and fall of a marriage between a successful novelist and an aspiring actress. In Cowboy, what genuine emotion there is to be found is skillfully clothed by Brown in new twists on cultural buzzwords, such as "Mr. Hop-a-long Heartbreak." In Five Years, though, Brown more directly musicalizes the inner dialogue of a woman auditioning for a show: "Why did I pick these shoes? Why did I pick this song? Why did I pick this career? Why does this pianist hate me?"
Brown’s sarcastic, witty, endearingly abrasive compositional voice is louder and clearer in The Last Five Years. Also, he gleefully jumps among musical genres to suit the mood he’s trying to create – it’s a Les Cinq trademark – and spectacularly updates the Gilbert & Sullivan patter song with punchy, bluesy riffs, yowling electric guitar, and high-strung lyrics (street language and all) spilling out in every possible emotional direction.
Just closed at New York’s Second Stage Theater is Little Fish by LaChiusa, author of Hello, Again (based on Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde) and Marie Christine (a Medea update). Long the most dazzling of the five – Hello, Again featured a hilarious drunken seduction on the sinking Titanic – LaChiusa has now turned his attention to the story of a mousy, tormented girl who lives like a lost minnow in New York City. In purely musical terms, it’s ingenious.
In scene after scene, LaChiusa dissects standard song forms, carefully prying apart tunes and rhythms to make room for dramatizing the moment at hand. Skillfully, he hides his innovations: An illusion of melodic symmetry is maintained, telling the ear, "Don’t worry, you know where we’re going," even if you don’t.
More high-toned is Gordon’s My Life With Albertine, which was just at Playwrights Horizons. Inspired by Marcel Proust, it begins with perhaps the most ecstatic, shamelessly beautiful love song written since Gabriel Faure’s great song cycle, Les bonne chanson. What follows is a score with Gordon’s typically Mozartean exterior polish and complicated undercurrents that accommodate the story of obsessive jealousy, the cruelty of class distinction, and 19th-century secret societies of lesbians. Luckily, the score is being recorded.
You’d think these works would be embraced by those weary of theme-park musicals, but no. Most of Les Cinq are having trouble making a living. In a world where audiences listen with their eyes, subjects favored by Les Cinq not only lack marquee value but opportunities for scenic spectacle. What can you do with Guettel’s musically brilliant Floyd Collins, which is about a man who gets stuck in a cave and dies? Or Tesori’s Violet, about a facially disfigured girl searching for redemption?
In addition, many of these pieces are unduly penalized for dramaturgical flaws. Little Fish, for example, hasn’t a plot so much as it presents a wild panorama of New York. Albertine asks you to accept what seems to be a mere coming-of-age story of romance until the final moments reveal how cataclysmically Proust’s life was changed.
Among any developing school of composers, you’ll often find one element is emphasized at the expense of others. As much as some critics had problems with Little Fish, it’s miles ahead of First Lady Suite (produced in 2000 by Cheltenham’s Hoopskirt Theatre Company), an early LaChiusa work that’s so musically severe that the newly released disc is likely to be incomprehensible if you’ve never seen the show.
Nonetheless, some Les Cinqs complain about hostile claques that automatic downgrade anything that’s not Guys and Dolls. I’d chalk that up to artistic paranoia had I not seen it in action at Albertine. Eavesdropping on what appeared to be a circle of seasoned theatergoers, I heard them natter endlessly about the one bad song, "Balbec-by-the-Sea," a misbegotten attempt at a broad-strokes showstopper. Geez.
Opera audiences at least listen. But most of these composers won’t go near the shot-out-of-a-cannon world of contemporary opera, in which pieces like Nicholas Maw’s Sophie’s Choice are expected to be born great, as opposed to being massaged into existence by development workshops. Outside of sympathetic pockets of nonprofit theater, Les Cinq really have no place to go. One can only hope their expectations of acceptance are as nuanced and realistic as the inner and outer worlds they so skillfully offer their audiences.