by Harvey Perr
now playing on Broadway
at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre
When the second body is found in the old Boston theater, back in 1959, when musicals usually played out-of-town engagements before coming to Broadway, the detective in charge of the case declares “that makes two murders.” The campy director (is there any other kind of director in a Broadway musical?) slyly says, “Three! If you count what they’ve done to the integrity of the American musical.”
Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book for “Curtains,” the new musical in which this takes place, is a seasoned writer who should know better than to write a line that is almost sure to backfire on him. But, then again, all the other seasoned contributors to this decidedly dismal musical should have known better than to bring “Curtains” to the Broadway stage. But bring it to Broadway they did, thereby committing yet another murder.
There is one funny, one might even say clever, notion in “Curtains.” It is that the detective in charge of the murders is something of a theater buff and has much more interesting ideas about how to fix the musical (within the musical) than he does about solving the crime. Since it is hard to care very much about who is killed and, therefore, even harder to care about who done it and why, it is probably a good thing. Unfortunately, the musical (within the musical) - a trifle called “Robbin’ Hood” but which would be better titled “Kansas!” – is, if one is to judge by the numbers we see performed, way beyond fixing.
The show, which has come to us by way of its own out-of-town engagement in Los Angeles, has probably been tinkered with itself, but, after all the arranging and re-arranging and stitching together that it obviously has gone through, it arrives here somewhat stillborn … suggesting, of course, that there wasn’t much to “Curtains” to begin with. What it is completely lacking – and this is something the estimable creators of the show should have had some collective clue about – is a point of view. It might have helped if the murder mystery were more interesting or engaging so that the audience could have some investment in solving it. And it would have helped even more if the musical (within the musical) was either really good and in need of genuine tweaking or a wildly funny parody of a show like “Oklahoma!” (which is what it seemed to have in mind somewhere down the line), instead of the dud it is.
Despite a certain unwillingness on my part to belabor a point, what it reminded me of was the musical (within the movie) that Bing Crosby was rehearsing – and suffering through – in the film version of “The Country Girl;” we kept being told that the musical was in trouble because of Crosby’s alcoholism when it was clear that Hugh Jackman, in prime form, couldn’t have saved that particular musical. (Of course, Jackman wasn’t even born when that film was made, but, hopefully, you get my point.)
The one legitimate justification for lavishing so much time and money on “Curtains” is that it contained the last score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team responsible for “Cabaret” and “Chicago;” but on first hearing, at least, the score seemed remarkably undistinguished. The songs seem to have been scattered throughout the show helter skelter, some of them not even interested in moving the action forward, and the songs for the musical (within the musical) are, in particular, without character or humor. One song does comes through – and it is touching because it is about a composer lamenting the loss of his partner, which reminds us that, when Ebb died, Kander had lost, theatrically, his other half – and that song is “I Miss the Music,” beautifully sung by Jason Danieley, one of the few performers who walk away from the proceedings unscathed.
Debra Monk and Karen Ziemba, two wildly talented performers, are not given much to do, although Ms. Monk almost stops the show belting her way through the distasteful number “It’s A Business.” In the aforementioned part of the campy director, Edward Hibbert does a nimble variation on a stereotype. And David Hyde Pierce, in the role of the stagestruck detective, and who runs the gamut from easy assurance to goofy grace, proves a commanding stage presence. His uncertainty as a song and dance man is, of course, a character choice, and when he makes his mark in the aimless but delightful “A Tough Act to Follow,” dancing up and down a lit staircase in partnership with the attractive Jill Paice, all the uncertainty magically disappears.
Rob Ashford’s choreography will win no prizes for originality but he does give his dancers – and the audience – a spry workout from time to time. And, although his direction seems generic and uninspired, Scott Ellis – with aid from his designers – sees to it that the show looks good and, this being Broadway, after all, keeps things moving at a briskly professional pace.
“Curtains” may not entirely murder the integrity of the American musical but it certainly does nothing to advance it in any way, either.