Stephen Sondheim was so proud to have a musical on Broadway — West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics — he went back the night after it opened and stood in the aisle. Curtain came up: six members of a street-gang snapping their fingers — “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.” Sondheim snapped along. Guy rose from his seat, slung his coat over his arm, and wended his way out, excusing himself to each pair of shoes he passed. As he brushed by Sondheim, the man mumbled, “Don’t ask.”
“I had the whole picture,” Sondheim recalled years later. “He’s a tired businessman on his way home to Westchester, and he thinks, ‘I’m going to stop and see a musical.’ ” Instead, he gets “six ballet-dancing juvenile delinquents in color-coordinated sneakers.” And all he wanted was just “an evening’s entertainment.”
The Old Globe’s world premiere, Dancing in the Dark, has miles to go before it reaches Broadway but already offers considerable entertainment. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane, who’s reworking the 1953 MGM movie The Band Wagon and its 1931 stage forerunner, writes three-dimensional one-liners: they are funny; always, often painfully, true; and perfect for the character at the moment they’re uttered. The production also boasts the original’s great songs, “Dancing in the Dark,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” and the iconic “That’s Entertainment,” backed by what sounds like a 30-piece orchestra — actually 12, including a tuba! What the show needs most of all, however, is to get out of its own way.
Boris Aronson said, “The theater is an organized calamity.” And musicals, with so many demands — integrating the songs, book, lyrics, and dance numbers — can be the most calamitous of genres. Dancing’s an extended commentary in Aronson’s observation: a musical comedy about the near-impossibility of making a musical comedy.
It’s like Rashomon in reverse: not about what people saw, but what each person on the creative team wants to see the project become. Jeffrey Cordova, august thespian, envisions a fire-breather based on Goethe’s Faust (“but,” someone asks, “what about group sales?”); the writers want an evening’s diversion about a humble shoe-shiner; sensing his chance for stardom, the choreographer envisions a death-drenched ballet sequence (“like Martha Graham,” someone opines, “without the laughs”); the leading man, a fading Hollywood asteroid, has ideas as well.
Not on the same page? These folks aren’t in the same bookstore. The cutting-room floor becomes strewn with discards and bruised egos, as rehearsals feel like Humpty Dumpty after the fall — or dancers groping in darkness. Then a melding occurs: the whole grows greater than its parts. And the musical pays sincere tribute to the key to the enterprise: collaboration.
The musical-within-the-musical is “running 19 minutes long.” So is Dancing in the Dark, and yet it often feels cramped, with little room to breathe. Some numbers get truncated (the title-song/dance number suddenly leaps forward in time; “Triplets,” a trio of adult-babies in white bassinets, unfolds like an idea half-realized; the Faust scene and death-ballet sprint by as well). Two big tap routines, “Louisiana Hayride” and “A Shine on Your Shoes,” explode with pizzazz. But often the “entertainment” gets shoved aside for plot and character development.
It feels strange to say this — because plays and musicals that lack these qualities get clobbered deservedly — but the revised book is trying for depths and motivations that weigh the show down. Many of the new scenes fill in back-story. As they explain, they dull the pace and the whimsical “anything can go” tone. The production pulses forward.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote both Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon. Beane’s book plays tribute to their collaboration with an unforgettable sequence. Adam Heller and (the hilarious) Beth Leavel play the writers Lester and Lily Martin. At one point they pitch their musical to potential cast and backers, blitzing through bits of songs and characterizations with manic urgency. When Heller and Leavel finish their tour de force, they lean against the piano, spent. The opening-night audience’s equally manic applause gave them a lengthy, well-deserved respite.
Comparisons may be odious, but they’re also inevitable. In the movie, Fred Astaire plays Toni Hunter, fading Hollywood star (Astaire fading? Guhh!!!). Scott Bakula plays him at the Old Globe. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Bakula’s quite good, an engaging presence and a capable hoofer; for those who’ve seen the movie, Bakula’s feet won’t fill his predecessor’s shoes.
The cast performs on John Lee Beatty’s minimalist backstage/onstage set. Patrick Page, who plays the Grinch on Broadway, revels in his role as Jeffrey Cordova, a narcissist who never met a mirror he didn’t adore. Mara Davi’s lyrical voice enhances every song Gabrielle sings. Benjamin Howes makes a minor character, Hal Meadows, memorable. As Paul Byrd, the angst-loving choreographer who clings to his vision of the show, Sebastian La Cause becomes the weak second act’s villain. In keeping with the emphasis on rounded beings, however, La Cause makes Byrd dimensional when the context calls for archness.
Sondheim’s tired Westchester commuter has come to symbolize shallow Broadway fare. Beane’s book, with its honest grounding of characters, plays like a reaction against the type. But The Band Wagon and Singin’ in the Rain are, first and foremost, about performance, not character, about sheer entertainment, not story. Revisions of Dancing should keep the wants of a Philistine commuter in mind.
Dancing in the Dark, book by Douglas Carter Beane, from the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Howard Dietz
Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Gary Griffin; cast: Patrick Page, Benjamin Howes, Beth Leavel, Adam Heller, Scott Bakula, Sebastian La Cause, Mara Davi; scenic design, John Lee Beatty; costumes, David Woolard; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Brian Ronan; orchestrations, Larry Hochman; musical director, Don York; musical supervisor, Eric Stern; choreographer, Warren Carlyle
Playing through April 13; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-234-5623.