Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Plays with Music: Brokeback Mountain and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – and a Brief Farewell

Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges in Brokeback Mountain. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Receiving its world premiere at London’s compact, comfortable new Sohoplace in London, Brokeback Mountain, Ashley Robinson’s ninety-minute dramatization of the Annie Proulx story most people know through the 2005 film, is a trim, skillful production. Jonathan Butterell has staged it effectively in the round on Tom Pye’s pared-down set and Mike Faist and Lucas Hedges, the two actors succeeding Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger in the roles of the young Wyoming cowboys embarking on a forbidden, tragic gay romance, are both excellent, especially Hedges as Ennis Del Mar, the more inexperienced of the two lovers. The problem is that damn material, which is meager and phony and keeps striking the same mournful note over and over. The show includes a small band playing country-western ballads (mostly) that merely replicate the mood. You walk out of the theatre starved for a little variety – and, God knows, an ounce of humor.

In 2005 critics and audiences responded with enthusiasm and tears to the struggle of the two protagonists because they were maltreated underdogs whose relationship fell under the heading of The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. You could hardly come out against Brokeback Mountain without seeming like an insensitive boob, but I never saw what there was in the movie to get excited about. The way it was praised for breaking through barriers, you’d have thought no one had ever made a sympathetic movie about gay lovers before, but twenty-two years earlier Robert Towne had released Personal Best, whose two main characters (played by Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly), pentathletes training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, have a full-fledged love affair that was portrayed in far more intimate detail than Ennis and Jack Twist’s. Personal Best didn’t make a big deal about the gender of the characters; it didn’t present same-sex love as a social problem, so it didn’t hit the radar in the same way. Brokeback Mountain – on film and now again on stage – preaches that men in love with each other should be able to pursue their desires, an argument that no one likely to see either is going to object to, so its main effect is to flatter the audience for being compassionate and liberal-minded. It certainly doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know.

The characters are too repressed by their society – the story is set between 1963 and 1983, with the extraneous addition of an aging Ennis (played by Paul Hickey) wandering about the stage like a character out of Sam Shepard, remembering it – to have much to say that isn’t banal, so they talk in self-conscious, pancake-flat Steinbeckian conversational prose. They’re updated versions of Hemingway studs, and the supposed accomplishment of the work is that it eroticizes Hemingway’s men’s-men’s dramatic situations. But the only critique of his macho world that the shift implies is that it doesn’t allow for free homoerotic expression, i.e., any sexual expression between the men has to be subversive. But couldn’t it be a little more exuberant or at least playful? The play itself is repressed.

And the women are removed from the center of it, just as they usually are in Hemingway; they’re not permitted to be helpmates or sympathizers. Like Proulx and the screenwriters, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Robinson has no interest in them. Jack’s wife Lureen has been reduced to a single brief telephone conversation and his second wife has been eliminated entirely. He has some feeling for Alma, Ennis’s wife, but she’s basically a suffering moo-cow who discovers her husband is having an affair with another man when she sees them kissing the day Jack shows up, four years after they spent the summer together in a tent while tending sheep up on the titular mountain. So there’s little arc to her character from that point on – and the poor actress, Emily Fairn, is stuck. Alma just puts up with Ennis’s extramarital activities until she finally gets fed up and leaves, winding up married to an inoffensive schlub (Martin Marquez). After the divorce she finally tells Ennis that she figured out what was going on years earlier, when she bought him new fishing tackle before one of his camping trips with Jack, left a note for him, and then found it untouched when he returned. I found this detail baffling in the movie, and here it is again in the play. I get that fishing is merely an excuse for those trips, but is there some rule that I don’t know about governing homosexual love affairs between cowboys that forbids them from fishing when they’re not fucking? The material goes out of its way to make sure we appreciate that the men’s sexual interest in each other doesn’t make them less masculine, yet Ennis isn’t allowed to so much as open his fishing gear.

Molly Osborne and Jamie Parker in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Photo: Juan Coolio)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, at the Southwark Playhouse, is also a play with music, though the Cornish country-style songs by Darren Clark and director and book writer Jethro Compton are more plentiful and more integrated than the numbers are in Brokeback Mountain. Occasionally they articulate the emotions of the characters but mostly they narrate the story, and the musicians make up the ensemble, playing ancillary parts. (As musicians they’re extremely talented; as actors they’re rank amateurs, and since the show runs for nearly three hours we get way too much of them, and of Chi-San Howard’s choreography, all of which looks pretty much the same.) The only source credited in the program is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, but there’s an unofficial one: the 2008 David Fincher movie, with its screenplay by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord. Compton has set his version in a fishing village in Cornwall and except for Fitzgerald’s premise – that Benjamin (played with considerable charm by Jamie Parker) is born as an old man and gets younger while everyone around him is growing older – the plot is different from the movie. But like the filmmakers, Compton expands the very short, bare-bones story to explore a perspective on how we live our lives. The movie, which I think is a masterpiece, uses the backwards chronology of Benjamin’s existence as an upside-down mirror reflecting how every life unfolds. Benjamin may look like he’s dying when he emerges from his mother’s womb, but as he attains strength he moves into phases of his life that are appropriate for his real, not his apparent, age, seeking adventure and sexual experience and love at the times when most young men do so. The fact that he grows young rather than old provides a second set of reflected images of how our lives proceed. But the play doesn’t develop Benjamin’s character or that of Elowen (Molly Osborne), the barmaid he falls in love with, and it doesn’t show us how he responds emotionally to the things that happen to him – like his wartime experience or the loss of his young daughter – except in trite, generalized ways. It amounts to a platitude about how little time we have and how important it is to use it wisely. If you asked Compton to summarize Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, he’d tell you it’s about stopping and smelling the roses.

Daniel Massey and Barbara Cook in She Loves Me (1963).

One of the many profound pleasures in last year’s documentary Fiddler’s Journey to the Big Screen, about the filming of Fiddler on the Roof, is the section that interviews the lyricist Sheldon Harnick, astonishingly articulate and mentally spry in his late nineties. When Harnick died on June 23 at the age of 99, I thought immediately of his scenes in Fiddler’s Journey. Then, of course, I started thinking about the songs he wrote with Jerry Bock (who died in 2010), his professional partner since 1958, when they got together to produce the score of The Body Beautiful. It had a book by Joseph Stein (who would later pen the libretto for Fiddler) and Will Glickman and was set in the boxing world. Stein and Glickman had already collaborated with Bock on a Broadway musical built around Sammy Davis, Jr. called Mr. Wonderful, which Harnick had no part in. The Body Beautiful ran for only two months, but it initiated one of the last great golden-age composer-lyricist marriages. Bock and Harnick wrote Fiorello! In 1959, Tenderloin in 1960, She Loves Me in 1963, Fiddler in 1964, The Apple Tree in 1966 and The Rothschilds in 1970. The out-of-town replacement of the original director of The Rothschilds, Derek Goldby, with Michael Kidd spurred an argument that split them up, though the show ran for more than a year.

Bock and Harnick wrote rich, robust, literate scores for musicals that handled unusual subject matter with both emotional and intellectual depth. Three of them are among the finest musicals in Broadway’s history. Fiorello!, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was a biography of New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (played by Tom Bosley) and his fight against Tammany Hall and is one of only a handful of significant political musicals. It’s notably witty, especially in the lyrics Harnick wrote for a trio of songs for Ben Marino (Howard Da Silva), the district political leader, and his crew of poker-playing hacks: “Politics and Poker,” “The Bum Won” and “Little Tin Box.” Ben and his cronies convince LaGuardia to run against the shoe-in Democrat as a lame-duck candidate and are stunned when he wins:

We got a winner at last
We got a star which is in the ascendant
If he feels that we sloughed him off
He could become, God forbid, independent.
Who’d ever guess that the people would go
To the polls and elect a fanatic?
People can do what they want to
But I got a feeling it ain’t democratic.

She Loves Me is based on a play by the Hungarian Miklós Lásló called Parfumerie that screenwriter Samson Raphaelson and director Ernst Lubitsch turned into the 1939 movie The Shop Around the Corner. I believe that The Shop Around the Corner is Hollywood’s highest peak in the realm of romantic comedy, and She Loves Me does it full justice. It’s about a pair of co-workers in a Budapest department store during the Depression who are convinced they hate each other; they don’t realize that they’ve been writing love letters to each other addressed simply to “Dear Friend.” Georg (Daniel Massey) learns the truth the day he hands in his resignation after a quarrel with his boss, when he arrives late at the restaurant he and Amalia (Barbara Cook) have chosen for their first date and sees her waiting for him. Georg is forced to re-examine his biases and see Amalia in a new light:

My teeth ache from the urge to touch her
I’m speechless for I mustn’t tell her
It’s wrong now but it won’t be long now
Before my love discovers
That she and I are lovers
Imagine how surprised she’s bound to be.

The score for She Loves Me mines the European operetta origins of early American musicals; it’s reminiscent of the work Jerome Kern did with Otto Harbach on The Cat and the Fiddle and Roberta in the early 1930s. Realizing he can’t just out himself to Amalia as Dear Friend and still unsettled at discovering who she is, Georg approaches her table and manages to say all the wrong things, leaving her heartbroken when he leaves and the man she thought she was waiting for fails to show up. Here’s the lyric Harnick wrote Amalia to sing in the first-act finale:

Charming, romantic, the perfect café
Then as if it isn’t bad enough a violin starts to play
Candles and wine, tables for two
But where are you, Dear Friend?
Couples go past me; I see how they look
So discreetly sympathetic when they see the rose and the book
I make believe nothing is wrong
How long can I pretend?
Please make it right, don’t break my heart
Don’t let it end, Dear Friend.

Having written enthusiastic reviews of three productions of Fiddler on the Roof as well as of the documentary, I will content myself here with an excerpt from my favorite song from the show, Hodel’s farewell to her father Tevye before she leaves him and their village, Anatevka, to join her revolutionary lover, Perchik, in Siberia after he’s exiled there for protesting against the Czar’s policies. In “Far from the Home I Love,” Harnick juxtaposes Hodel’s love for the only home she has ever known with the unknown future she has chosen with the man she adores. But then it ends with one of the great emotional bait-and-switch reversals:

Oh, what a melancholy choice this is
Wanting home, wanting him
Closing my heart to every hope but his
Leaving the home I love
There where my heart has settled long ago
I must go, I must go
Who could imagine I’d be wand’ring so
Far from the home I love?
Yet, there with my love, I’m home.

Harnick was a master lyricist who found his perfect match in Jerry Bock. Their best work was transcendent.

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 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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