Thursday, May 12, 2016

Broadway Bluegrass

I saw Bright Star on Broadway last week. My review in two words? Really good. That's not to say it was flawless, and the elements I wasn't too pleased with I will proceed to explain, but you can safely assume that for any given element of the show, if I do not mention it and say otherwise, I thought it was terrific.

On the one hand, there are spoilers for Bright Star ahead. On the other hand, the plot of Bright Star was pretty predictable. Note that this is not necessarily a bad thing. I've talked about this before, citing Il Trovatore as an example of a show that tells you in the first scenes pretty much exactly how its going to end, and still manages to be a terrific dramatic roller coaster. Sondheim had trouble with a plot twist in Sweeney Todd, in that sometimes the audience figured out the twist way ahead of time, and some of them didn't even quite get it when Sweeney did, and there was no consistency from performance to performance. To solve this, Sondheim added in a song a couple scenes earlier that revealed the twist before it becomes important, and that way, the audience can focus on Sweeney's reaction, which is the interesting part. Same with Bright Star. Sure, the audience basically knows what's going to happen well before the characters do, but the main selling point of Bright Star isn't its shocking plot twists.

The first thing Bright Star did wrong was the opening song. This was not immediately apparent, and didn't become apparent until a good fifteen to twenty minutes into Act I. The opening number, "If You Knew My Story" was sung by the character of Alice Murphy, played by Tony nominee Carmen Cusack. In the song, she assures us that "if you knew my story, you'd have a good story to tell." She promises an exciting and interesting story featuring her as the main character. She then proceeds to disappear from the next twenty minutes, allowing us to get fully immersed in the story of Billy Cane, a young soldier and aspiring writer. His story isn't particularly novel, but it's told in an entertaining enough way to forget about the lady whom this musical is supposed to be about -- at least according to the opening number.

Bright Star tells two stories simultaneously. One of them is in the 1940s, about Billy Cane. The other is twenty-two years earlier, and is about  Alice Murphy. It's not immediately apparent how the stories intersect, and since Billy is so much more prominent in the opening scenes of the musical, it seems like the show can't decide who the protagonist is supposed to be. Indeed, even though Alice tells the audience in opening number that this is her story, and while her story is much more dramatic than Billy's, her story is pretty much contained to Act I, and due to the two stories being told simultaneously, it's as though her story is only interesting enough to fill half of one act. The way it seems the story wants to be is about Alice, with Billy's story existing for the sake of closure and a happy ending. The way it ends up being is the protagonist is Billy, with Alice's story being extending backstory. Given that Billy's story isn't very dramatic, this gives way to a bit of weirdness throughout.

The second issue was with the second song in the show. The song, titled "She's Gone", features Billy's father telling him that his mother died while he was off fighting in the war. This song lends a sense of false importance to the figure of Billy's mother, who hardly features at all. The first thing we find out about her is that she's dead. The second thing is that she thought statues of angels over graves were silly. And that's it. All mentions of her might as well be stricken from the script.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. She is mentioned once more. In the penultimate scene of Act II, when Billy finds out (plot twist that we all figured out at intermission) that he was adopted and Alice is actually his mother, he freaks out and mentions his adoptive mother, who, as we learned at the beginning of Act I, is dead. Billy runs off stage, and Alice sings a little. I did not think the music of the song "So Familiar" was particularly suited to the situation, although it did suit Edie Brickell's quirky off-rhymes -- I don't care what Lin-Manuel Miranda says, I am still firmly against false rhymes -- and I think it might have worked better to cut the song entirely, and go straight into "At Long Last". Of course, Billy freaking out at the revelation is misleading to, as in the very next scene, he is completely alright and everything wraps up into a nice happy ending for all.

The other problem with "She's Gone" is in the structure. The song is written like a folk ballad. Well, that's the sort of song you expect from a bluegrass musical. Billy's father sings that while Billy was off in the war, a visitor came by, and his mother left with the visitor. Also, that's a metaphor for death. But we don't need the metaphor, we don't need the story, we don't even need the song. By the time the third song -- the title song -- rolled around, I was a little worried about how the songs were going to integrate into the musical. In a musical, it's not enough for a song to be a good song, it also has to fit into the musical, agree with the pacing of the show, and, unless this is a pre-Hammerstein show, advance it in some way, either through developing character or progressing the plot or something else.

Something bluegrass music is very good for is exposition. There doesn't tend to be a whole lot of subtlety in folk lyrics, and a lot of folk songs are things like ballads, which tell stories in their own right. But when a song is in a musical, subtlety becomes important. I could have done without the repeated chorus of "You're the black sheep/little lost lamb" in the introduction of Alice Murphy's backstory. It felt awfully in-your-face. On the other hand, the song which preceded it was misleading. It showcased Alice and her love interest being snarky toward each other. Now, it's obvious that they end up an item, but the implication from their first duet is that they're going to have some back-and-forth before they finally get together, a la Curly and Laurie in Oklahoma! But in the very next 1920s scene, Alice and Jimmy Ray are together without a bit of conflict. (Well, without a conflict between themselves.)

Fortunately, the next song, which introduced the villain of the piece, was fully integrated, and from then on, most of the songs were acceptably theatrical. Particularly in the first half of Act II, which alternated quite elegantly between the heavy pathos of Alice Murphy's story and the light relief of Billy Cane's story -- although I would have liked to see more development of the Margo-Billy-Lucy love triangle, which was introduced, but never properly followed up on.

That was really the most egregious point of the musical. That certain plot threads were never properly developed, mostly with respect to Billy. The musical could have improved from giving equal focus to both Billy and Alice, but everything seemed to be trying to force Alice on us as the main character. But on the whole, I'd say Bright Star is a very strong contender for many of the Tony categories in which it's up against Hamilton.

Originally, this had spiraled off into another talk about the purposes of songs in musicals, which included a lot of analysis of Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which is why this review is coming out a week after I saw Bright Star, but I finally decided that that should be its own post, which you can expect... at some point in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I was really impressed with the staging and choreography when transitioning scenes.