I was so delighted to find so much old-fashioned good straight drama to choose from for this trip, that I was tempted to ignore musicals altogether. I’ve often told myself that I prefer the heavy stuff, usually because it’s been hard to come by. But the real truth is I’ve always loved musicals. Especially the oldies. Some of the newbies. I’ve seen dozens! I love the cleverness of the rhymes, the catchiness of the rhythms, the broadness of the characterizations, and the simplicity of the messages. I love hearing and watching them. I listen frequently to scores. I love singing in them (minor roles in amateur productions). And during this trip, there were at least two off-beat musicals in town that people have been raving about for some time. I’d been stalling. But I really did want to see them.
Avenue Q was developed back in 2002 at the O’Neill conference Center in Connecticut. It opened off-Broadway in 2003, and when it moved uptown the following year, it won the top three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book. I had been told over and over that it was terrific, one of the best laughs ever, and not to be missed. It was “raunchy,” “obscene,” “poignant,” “deserving of all the awards it got.” But really. … Come on! A pornographic puppet show? … Why? I kept putting it off and putting it off, until it finally closed its Broadway run a few years ago and reopened at New World Stages, a small multi-stage off-Broadway house up on 50th Street. My uninformed guess was that it might be significantly more attractive in a smaller house. So it took me a while, but finally, I figured it was my time. Result? Audiences, prize distributors, and my friends were all correct: Part Sesame Street rated R, part Fantastics-like parable, part Vaudeville, and all hilarious! In my book, it may not have quite topped “Book of Mormon” for laughs, but it was damned close. It’s satirical targets are not as broad and inclusive as Mormon, but it’s right up there with the best of clever lyrics, catchy rhythms, broad characters, and simple messages.
Essentially it’s a very simple coming-of-age story about a college kid who thinks he’s special and deserving — as we all do. But moving to the neighborhood of Avenue Q, he discovers — as we all do — that he wasn’t so special after all, that reality is pretty limiting after all, and the real world after college is a completely different story. Of course it’s practically a prerequisite these days that he also discovers he is gay, which everybody else both onstage and off knew from the get-go. But that’s a small quibble. The laughs are broad, loud and plentiful. The songs are sharp and witty, and occasionally, touching. The voices and acting are top level, and the puppet sex was hilarious. It’s all just plain fun.
“… Who could ask for anything more?”
Some twenty plus years ago, Joan and I took our first trip to Ireland, and among its many joys, I brought home wild enthusiasm about pub music and spirit. I subsequently learned to play (in a manner of speaking) the tin whistle, and for many years went to local sessions and developed a repertoire of Irish songs. The original film of Once came out in 2006. As to be expected, I loved it. It was a lovely story about a pair of Dublin street singers. But it’s a small intimate story, and the boy doesn’t even get the girl in the end (or vice versa). I certainly never expected it to be turned into a Broadway musical extravaganza, much less one which would impress New York audiences and critics enough to name it the Best Musical of 2012.
I half-expected it not to work. Nonetheless, it had been up there on my must-see list for a year, so off I went. And despite a “partial-view” seat at the very corner of the stage, I was not in the least disappointed. The music is built around an expansion of the film’s “Falling Slowly,” which won the Academy Award for best original song. It all has a universal pop feel to it — just Irish enough to make a terrific score, which includes both gentle love songs and just enough jigs and reels to satisfy the purists without offending the non-enthusiasts. Surprisingly, there are none of the big dance numbers that customarily win Tonys, nor anything excessively “celtic” in what dancing there is. The only folk dancing on view is Czech-flavored, in fact. The stage is set up as the interior of a pub, and if you get there in time, you’d find an informal old-fashioned Irish session, which eventually kind of melds into the production itself. But before that happens, you can make requests, and go right up on stage and order a pint of Guinness or Killians, and even sing along if you’ve a mind to. Once the play starts, most of the songs are sung by the boy and the girl, in what is essentially a concert format although there is a talented cast of 17 more convivial musicians to back them up and provide some playful subplot lines. … Earlier I mentioned that New York is currently a hotbed of influenza. Sure enough, for this Thursday night performance, there were five very talented understudies playing major roles, including the male lead. (That’s over a quarter of the cast.) I can’t imagine any of them were any less talented than the missing headliners. “Once” is surely not your typical Broadway musical. But that is just as surely part of what makes it such fun and such a unique theatre experience. The house was packed, and the enthusiasm infectious.
Okay. I’m almost caught up. But I’ve saved one of the best for last, since it was the last play I saw, Saturday night before my Sunday morning departure. I’d been eager to see it, and was glad I squeaked it in. It too closed its off-Broadway run on Sunday, but it will no doubt be making the rounds. Tribes is just too good a play to lapse into obscurity. More on it next time.