The February House, The Public Theater, 5/18/12
Some of the press on this new show, based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Sherill Tippins, spends so much time on the admittedly interesting source material that it never gets around to assessing the show. So let's dispatch that. In 1940, fiction editor George Davis rented a dilapidated brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. Somehow, he charmed Carson McCullers (23, coming off The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and in flight from her husband in Georgia) and the recently expatriated W. H. Auden (all of 33) and his young lover Chester Kallman to room there. Auden enticed Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to join the household; Gyspy Rose Lee, the thinking man's ecdysiast, also lived there while writing her only novel, The G-String Murders (which later became the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Lady of Burlesque). McCullers wrote little there, and may have had an affair with Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas and, at the time, still Auden's wife-of-convenience. Auden and Britten worked on Paul Bunyan, to be sung by Pears. (In Tippins' book, which I've only flipped through, Auden insist that he doesn't want the American-themed oratorio to come off like Earl Robinson and John Latouche's "Ballad for Americans," the WPA-era "patriotic cantata" with which I've long been fascinated.) Davis presided, though he apparently tended to spend money intended for utilities on campy decor. The micro-colony dissolved within a year or so, not long before the U.S. entered the war.
A good bit of the background is covered by George Davis (played winningly by Julian Fleisher, whose background in drag is evident) in direct address to the audience, and the necessity of covering all these comings and goings, and of making sure we have a few Wikifacts on each famous personage as they appear, makes parts of the book (the book of the show, I mean) as wooden and schematic as the five-sided frame that hangs above the set throughout, or the preceding paragraph. The "shadow of war" material, meanwhile, acts as a kind of load-bearing wall.
I'm more interested in the music and lyrics, both by Gabriel Kahane, a fast-rising Brown-educated composer who also makes singer-songwriter records (which I haven't heard, but would now like to). He also has an interesting blog; I like this recent post on pop v. classical form (because it reinforces a couple of ideas in my bridge book.) I believe this is his first widely-aired foray into relatively traditional musical theater. He's dauntingly talented and resourceful, though I'm not sure if a unified style can be extrapolated from this particular score. I doubt he's showing off as much as probably could, and really does seem to be more interested in serving the material than his own brilliance, but the adept eclecticism still distracts, even as it impresses. Most of the songs (I'll call them) fall into one of three families.
(1) Tonal but "advanced" and seemingly through-composed art-songs. Several of these are settings of Auden's poems, sometimes delivered by the ensemble as the poet writes in a notebook. "Funeral Blues" (not a blues) here used when Chester splits (temporarily, as we know), is very good, and technically smart, letting the metrical irregularities of the text do their expressive work rather than "solving" them in the melodic rhythm of the vocal line. Working with these poems is doubly ballsy, first because having Auden's lines in one's show is apt to make one's own lyrics seem inelegant by comparison; and also because "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks...") is already kind of a pop-hit as poetry goes, via its use in Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Which led, by the way, to the publication of As I Walked Out one Evening, a 1995 edition of many of Auden's most accessible poems, and still the most convenient place to locate his own attempts to write cabaret songs like the Porter-styled "I'm a Jam Tart" with Britten in the 1930s.)
(2) Show-tunes, written in a fairly recognizable mid-century Broadway harmonic language, with some more complicated Sondheimy development in the ensemble numbers. Most of these were on point musically, though not memorable after the fact on a single hearing. Kahane's lyrics in this mode tend toward the patter-y; this could be quite effective, as when Pears and Britten break into anxious, rapid-fire strings of eighth-notes: "We've been living in Long Island and pretending that we're brothers and not lovers..." The uneven technical polish is another matter; far too many off-rhymes are allowed in a stylistic context where, as far as I'm concerned, they're simply forbidden. If you can't get away from "own" or "alone" rhymes for "home," you need to find a different hook for your refrain. "A Little Brain," the one solo number for Gypsy Rose Lee, is particularly frustrating -- comic rhyming of this kind requires more precision than "tibia" and "trivia." The whole song, about Lee's attraction to tweed-and-herringbone types, is too convoluted by half -- though I'll admit that it "landed," largely because Kacie Shaw, as Lee, sings her ass off. To be fair, Kahane a near-impossible task here, as the perfect "intellectual stripper" song was already written in 1940: Rodgers & Hart's "Zip," from Pal Joey, which was intended and understood to be a satire on Lee's pretensions. (Not linking to anything here -- online versions of the lyrics have too many errors, and Rita Hayworth's rendition in the 1957 movie is bowlderized.)
Other than the Auden settings, the two strongest individual songs, one sad, one funny, are on the border between (1) and (2): "That Awkward Angel," ballad with a fairly "composed" (not conversational) vocal line than is nonetheless a "standard" AABA ballad; and "A Certain Itch," a comic duet about bedbugs for Britten and Pears, with mock-operatic touches suiting the characters (or the way the show conceives of them; see below). It's also smartly placed, as the second-act opener.
(3) Then there are less harmonically rich strophe-refrain songs, scored with prominent acoustic guitar and/or banjo. In other words, "folk," more in an AC sense (think Mary Chapin Carpenter or Shawn Colvin) than an indie- or (luckily) freak- one. I'm not certain whether the songs are in this manner was supposed to read as Southern-tinged (most but not all are given to the McCullers character), or as a kind of neutral no-style. Either way, they struck me as well-crafted (except for the somewhat inchoate "Georgia," an uncomfortable duet for McCullers and the heavily German-accented Erika Mann character), but a little static and strained in their pursuit of poignancy and wistfulness. That said, some of the melody of "Goodnight to the Boarding House" has stayed with me.
Other thoughts: Though she's an appealing, not overtly "musical theater"ish singer, Kristen Sieh's McCullers doesn't quite come off. In the dialogue, the Southern accent she uses -- while not exactly unconvincing, and pretty close to the clips I've heard of the real McCullers' speech -- is just so effortful that not much else comes through. Erik Lotchfeld's Auden is fine, though it sometimes felt as though he was playing an older/more eminent version of the poet. Stanley Bahorek and Ken Barnett, as Britten as Pears, are the standouts, both comedically and vocally. They're extremely good at what the show gives them to do, but there's a problem here as well -- Britten has a few serious exchanges with Auden (compare Alan Bennett's recent The Habit of Art, which takes up their relationship at a much later point), but when they appear together as "second leads"/comic foils, there's something untoward about portraying artists this dedicated and accomplished (even if young at the time of the action) as a pair of silly-billies who appear, near the end, in shorts and sunhats to deliver the news that they're going to "California" -- an ill-conceived attempt at an 11-o'-clock number that dilutes the otherwise somber leave-taking mood of the show's last twenty minutes. It's not that I demand reverence -- it just seems like the liberties taken are out of step with the show's overall aim of humanizing (rather than satirizing) its real-world figures. (Gyspy can be broad, of course; she was.)