Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Once and Next to Normal: Words and Music

Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti star in the stage production of Once

The Broadway musical Once is an adaptation of the enchanting Irish not-quite-romantic musical film from 2007 written and directed by John Carney, with songs by the two stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. Carney used to be the bassist for the Irish band The Frames, and Hansard was its lead singer. (He also played the guitarist, Outspan, in the congenial 1991 movie The Commitments.) Hansard has a long, woebegone face pebbled with a rust-colored beard; his eyes are immense, with the peeled look of billiard balls. In Once he plays The Guy, a Dublin busker who holds down a day job at his dad’s vacuum cleaner repair shop and plays guitar and sings when the work day is done and there are still crowds on the streets he can entertain with popular standards. At night, when there’s hardly anyone around so he’s usually entertaining himself, he performs his own compositions, poignant ballads of romantic masochism delivered in a startlingly impassioned style that quavers into an expressive falsetto in the most intimate sections. During one of these twilight interludes he meets The Girl (Irglová), who hears one of his tunes, “Say It to Me Now,” and intuits that it was written for an ex-lover he hasn’t gotten over. The Girl is a Czech émigré who lives with her mother and her young daughter, sells magazines and roses on the street, and occasionally lands a job cleaning houses. But more importantly she’s a musician herself: she can’t afford a piano of her own but a congenial music-store owner lets her come by and play one of his models. When she and The Guy become friends she takes him by the store and plays a little Mendelssohn for him. He can see she’s the real thing – just as she could when she heard him on the street. So they play a duet, a song of his called “Falling Slowly,” harmonizing on the vocals. They sound so heavenly together that you’re sure they belong together, not just as musicians but as a couple, like Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon’s June Carter in Walk the Line.

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in a scene from the film
Once is a small-scale lyrical movie that seems to take its rhythms from Hansard’s songs. And the poetic rightness of Hansard and Irglová as a couple is as much linked to the sweet (and unconventional) sounds they make together as Astaire and Rogers' was to their inspirited compatibility as dance partners. Irglová has the face of a thoughtful pixie, and you grow to love the way the phrasing of her Czech-accented English can suddenly acquire an Irish tonality. The Guy and The Girl comprehend music in the same way. In one scene, he persuades her to let him hear one of her tunes, and after some protest she performs a love song, “The Hill,” with so much feeling boiling up inside it that she can’t complete it; she breaks down in tears. When he asks her if she wrote it for the husband she left behind in Czechoslovakia she says yes and adds, “He didn’t like it. He’s an idiot.” She doesn’t have to explain, to The Guy or to us, that any man who can’t appreciate the beauty of that song is an idiot, and unworthy of her. And we can see by the way The Guy gazes at her when she sings it that he can see and hear what her husband wasn’t able to. He looks dazed, as if he’d been sprinkled with fairy dust.

But the film’s title, besides implying the beginning of an unlikely romance (as in “once upon a time”), alludes to a past for each of the characters that neither has resolved and neither can toss aside. The Girl doesn’t want her daughter to grow up fatherless; she’s thinking of persuading her husband to join her in Dublin, so they can try to work things out. The Guy can’t get his old girl friend out of his head; she’s the ghost who haunts the lovely songs he keeps writing, which cling to you when the movie ends like the images in old photographs. So the romantic impulse on which the movie is predicated is the un-acted-on attraction between The Guy and The Girl, and the movie isn’t so much about the reality of a love relationship as about the potential for one. (In that way it’s reminiscent of the great American romantic comedy from 1995, Before Sunrise.)

It’s not an easy task to translate this delicately poignant film to the stage. The play, which was directed by John Tiffany, soars every time the cast begins to sing. (Refreshingly – almost unbelievably in a Broadway house – they aren’t miked.) When you walk into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, you see musicians performing on the stage in a Dublin pub setting – including David Patrick Kelly, the leprechaun-ish veteran character actor who plays The Guy’s widowed Da. (Kelly has been around since the 1970s; he was the psycho in The Warriors who screeched creepily, “Warriors! Come out and play!” Since then he’s had a distinguished career as a character actor, mostly on stage.) Kelly has a light baritone with a core of authentic feeling who keeps moving in and out of talk-singing. When he’s finished, Steve Kazee as The Guy picks up the cue and goes into a fine rendition of the nakedly emotional “Leave,” which fans of the movie will recognize. Kazee sounds so good that it’s easy to forgive the fact that his Irish accent seems to dissipate when he sings. He and Cristin Milioti as The Girl sound ideal together when they harmonize on “Falling Slowly” or “If You Want Me.” The scenes (in the street, at The Guy’s home, at The Girl’s apartment, in the recording studio where they cut The Guy’s songs with a pick-up band) are all played against the backdrop of the pub, an evocative design by Bob Crowley that’s sensuously lit by Natasha Katz. Accordingly, the musicians we saw in the pre-show always remain on the stage, sitting in a semi-circle behind the action, effecting the scene transitions, or playing and providing back-up vocals during the numbers. They’re also featured in Steven Hoggett’s subtle choreography (listed as “movement” in the program), which has a casual, modern-dance feel: during “If You Want Me,” two other young women, wearing earphones like hers, double her movements, but they’re not exact replicas of her or of each other. Visually Tiffany and Crowley keep reminding us of both the pairing of the two main characters and the echoes of other lovers that prevent it from going any farther: a mirror upstage of the bar keeps doubling them (and the members of the ensemble).

Elizabeth A. Davis, Milioti and Erikka Walsh (Photo:Sara Krulwich)
All of this is marvelous. What botches the project is the adaptation by the Irish playwright, Enda Walsh. All of his additions are cutesy or trite and melodramatic. Under the first heading is a collection of characters – some expanded from the film, some invented – so fake-Irish you’d think they’d stepped out of John Ford’s The Quiet Man: the balding music-shop owner, Billy (Paul Whitty), with his Methuselah beard; the hyperactive heavy-metal drummer Švec (Lucas Papaelias); the bass player Andrej (Will Connolly) who boasts about his job as assistant manager at a fast-food joint; the Bank Manager (Andy Taylor) who gives The Guy a loan for his recording session after he hears some of his music; and The Girl’s improbably flirtatious mother (Anne L. Nathan), who kisses The Guy on the lips when she’s introduced to him. You don’t buy any of these characters for thirty seconds; by the second act, you’re desperate for them to shut the hell up and sing. Under the second heading, the relationship between the two protagonists has been inflated. The Girl has been turned into a sort of angel who saves The Guy’s life by persuading him not to give up on his muse and gets him to go to New York after his ex-girl friend (Erikka Walsh). Her knowing counselor quality makes her a bit of a pain in the ass. In the movie, Markéta Irglová is a marvelous un-self-conscious actress, and her singing has a poignant musing quality, as if she were wandering through fields of brand-new feeling, fingering them and holding them up to the light. You can’t quarrel with Milioti’s singing – except toward the end, when she makes a fetish of weeping through the lyrics – but she overplays her gamine charm, and she milks her overwritten, sentimentalized last scenes with The Guy for all they’re worth. (Kazee is excellent throughout.)

The songs from the movie are all in place, and there are two sweet new ballads, “North Strand” and “Sleeping.” (It’s a pity that no place was found for the title song, which is on the soundtrack CD but doesn’t actually appear in the film.) These pieces take up residence in your head: the more you hear them, the more the emotional field of the lyrics open up. They’re like lyric poems that cast wider and wider arcs of meaning as you move from stanza to stanza. They seem to encompass the past, which the characters can’t let go of, as well as the new feelings of the present, which they want to grab hold of but can’t quite reconcile with the lives they find themselves in the midst of. At the end of the film, The Girl sits at her new piano, which The Guy has bought for her before leaving town, playing, with her family around her in images of domestic happiness. But she pauses at the keys to look out the window, and the camera pans out and across the city, and you know that The Guy is still with her. The movie leaves you feeling sublimely unmoored. The play, by contrast, turns the material into a feel-good musical. It’s a betrayal.

Christopher Chew, Kerry A. Dowling, and Michael Tacconi in Next to Normal

Since I love musicals and try to keep up with the new ones, I checked out SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Next to Normal, in which the main character, Diana (Kerry A. Dowling), is bipolar and holds conversations with the son (Michael Tacconi) who actually died when he was eight months old of an intestinal obstruction. (The son in her mind has aged with the intervening years, so he’s now eighteen.) SpeakEasy stages Boston premieres of new plays, and though Next to Normal was a hit I didn’t see it on Broadway – admittedly because the number I saw on the Tony Awards show was pretty fearful, and because the last time I saw a musical built around a character with a severe psychological problem it was the adaptation of the Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens, which was so knowing and wink-nod ironic that it made me want to hide under my seat. Also I seem to have an allergy to the kind of drama where characters turn out to be figments of the protagonist’s imagination (A Beautiful Mind, Shutter Island); I end up pitying the poor bastards who have to play them.

It’s important to say straight off that whatever problems I had with Next to Normal had nothing to do with the SpeakEasy production, which was directed by Paul Daigneault, with musical direction by Nicholas James Connell. Dowling was perhaps a little too boisterous but she has a terrific voice, and so do the actors who played her family – her unduly optimistic (read: in denial) husband Dan (Christopher Chew), her cynical, overachiever teenage daughter Natalie (Sarah Drake, who seemed at times to be channeling Winona Ryder), and the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t Gabe – and Natalie’s stoner boy friend Henry (Michael Levesque). (Chris Caron doubled effectively as her two doctors.) The cast sang and acted with conviction, and Levesque, who had the least overwrought of the major roles, suggested a real human being, and quite a sweet one. If the others didn’t seem human, the play was at fault. It’s a not-quite-through-sung musical – it has more than three dozen numbers – without a single memorable song in it, and much of the time Tom Kitt’s music is screechy and relentless. (At least the Scott Frankel music in Grey Gardens included some pretty ballads, especially Christine Ebersole’s eleven-o’clock number, “When It’s Winter in a Summer Town.”) Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are worse. They’re almost embarrassingly insistent, like a stray cat that rubs up against you in the hopes of securing a bowl of milk, and they seem to be derived from some combination of Lifetime movies and episodes of The Maury Povich Show. The book hasn’t been worked out in terms of narrative logic. When Natalie, a talented pianist who wants to go to Yale to get away from her family, has a meltdown in the middle of a concert and Henry has to help her off the stage, there’s no follow-through: no one suggests she see the school psychologist and her father apparently never finds out about it. When she becomes a pill junkie, apparently overnight, and starts hitting the clubs -- with loyal Henry in tow, struggling to reason with her (his only vice is weed) -- no one seems to notice that either, though presumably her wee-hours partying has some effect on her grades and her behavior in class.

Chris Caron and Kerry A. Dowling (centre) and cast

The lyrics come in several flavors of dreadful. There are the self-consciously clever ironic ones with a dash of masochism in them: “You’re living on a latte and a prayer,” “It was the year of too much lithium -- / I hid out in the car,” “My psychopharmacologist and I . . . / It’s like an odd romance. / Intense and very intimate, / We do our dance” and, perhaps inevitably:

       Zoloft and Paxil and Buspar and Xanax . . .
       Depakote, Klonopin, Ambien, Prozac . . .
       Ativan calms me when I see the bills –
       These are a few of my favorite pills.

There are the precious ones that sound like terrible pop ballads from the seventies: “There was a time when I flew higher, / Was a time when the wild girl running free / Would be me” and “Are you bleeding? / Are you bruised, are you broken? / And does it help you to know / That so am I?” and “What happens if the cut, the burn, the break/ Was never in my brain or in my blood / But in my soul?” and “When I thought you might be dying / I cried for all we’d never be. / But there’ll be no more crying . . . / Not for me.” And there are the really clunky ones that sound like they came from the pen of an overeager high-school lyricist; these are most in evidence toward the end of act one, when Dan and the latest doctor persuade Diana she should go put her faith in electroconvulsive therapy:

       Didn’t I see this movie,
       With McMurphy and the nurse?
       That hospital was heavy
       But this cuckoo’s nest is worse.
       I’m not a sociopath.
       I’m not Sylvia Plath.
       I ain’t no Frances Farmer kind of find for you . . .
       So stay out of brain –
       I’m no princess of pain.

And finally there are the ones you’ve heard before: Gabe’s solo, “There’s a World,” is stolen from Stephen Sondheim’s “Somewhere,” and the “Wish I Were Here” mother-daughter duet is located at the intersection of Diana’s ECT fantasy and Natalie’s drug hallucination – an idea that was dopey enough when Tony Kushner thought it up for Angels in America. (Another song of Gabe’s, “I’m Alive,” includes a few lines – “I’m your wish, your dream come true, / And I am your darkest nightmare, too” – that reminded me of Beef’s big number from the 1974 Brian De Palma rock musical parody The Phantom of the Paradise. That’s the musical I wished I’d been watching.)

It’s worth noting that if you’re good enough you can even make a song about mental illness work. Here’s a verse from “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” from Next to Normal, soaked in banality:

       Take a look at the invisible girl . . .
       Here she is, clear as the day.
       Please look closely and find her before
       She fades away.

And here’s a verse from a song with a similar theme, “Invisible” from David Yazbek’s score for last season’s musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The singer (Patti LuPone) is a woman, a supporting character, who is describing her return to her life after spending ten years in a psychiatric hospital:

       Then you wake up and wonder
       Where is it hiding?
       Where did it go?
       I don’t understand.
       The life I had wanted,
       The life I was promised,
       The life I had planned?

       Then I realized it –
       It was invisible
       That entire life was invisible
       Because somebody misplaced it
       So it had to be somewhere.

       Just out of reach,
       Just out of sight
       There’s a couple dancing in candlelight.
       No gravity, we’re spinning in the air.

Women on the Verge received dismissive reviews and closed early. Next to Normal won the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, played on Broadway for several years and toured around the country. The message seems to be that it doesn’t pay to be intelligent and sophisticated. Pop-psych platitudes win the day.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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