It's usually a risk to see a Broadway show late into its run. For one thing, it's tired; the performers have been doing 8 shows a week, over and over, and there's bound to be a certain... lack of freshness. The buzz around even the most amazing show is bound to have slipped as well. And frequently, the show's original stars - the real "marquee names" who probably justified the multimillion enterprise - have long gone.
I saw Grand Hotel well into its run, when Karen Akers had been replaced by someone who looked and sounded like an uncanny carbon copy, and it had this kind of sluggishness. Everything moved... but just a little slowly. Then again, as Forbidden Broadway nicknamed it, the "Grim Hotel" was never really tat much of an "up" show.
By rights, Curtains should suffer just so; it's not exactly up - though it's certainly not a down show, by any means. It's been close to a year, the awards it won in 2007 are largely fodder for poster text, and it is probably soon to close. Yet it was a delight; all of its main stars are still there, still tearing into it with zest, taking it out with a bang, not a whimper. Fred Ebb should be proud.
Ebb, of course, was the lyrics writing half of the legendary team of Kander and Ebb. Along with John Kander, they've created some of post Golden Age Broadway's greatest hits, and helped to define the modern musical. Curtains, the show that was coming together at the time Ebb died, was carried into its final stages with the assistance of Rupert Holmes; but it stands as a final testament to Kander and Ebb's lifetime of collaboration - a celebration of the theater they loved, and a wicked parody done by truly knowing minds. It's not perfect, but for what it is, it's terrific.
One can think of a dozen reasons why Curtains shouldn't work - it's a mystery musical, and rarely have two forms been less overtly compatible (musical... death... it's not easy to see the connections); it's a satire, which is hard to do well; and it's a "show within a show" musical, which often creates confusion. Still if anyone could master this, it's Kander and Ebb, who've been writing backstage, or theatrical infused pieces for almost their whole career. Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of The Spider Woman... all benefit from an ability to celebrate not just the story being told, but the nature of telling it through musical theater. In that sense, Kander and Ebb are the creators who brought the postmodern, the sense of text beside subtext into modern Broadway - in ways, of course, that harked back to some of the oldest notions of telling stories through drama.
Michael Feingold (the brilliant reviewer for The Village Voice) once said "every generation gets the theater it deserves" (in the context of a savage pan), and I think that was very true for Chicago. In 1975, many people didn't see the idea of accused murderers getting off through seamy lawyering as theater... by the time of OJ... well, we did. Time, I think, has given credence to the dark, grown-up thinking that animates so much of Kander and Ebb's work.
In Curtains, we get a show in tryouts in Boston, a bad (bad!) musical Western called "Robbin' Hood" whose closing number opens the show, and whose talentless leading lady promptly expires on her final bow. Turns out she's been murdered. Also turns out nobody much liked her (well, she was talentless).
David Hyde Pierce plays the detective sent to investigate things, a Brahmin with a taste for the life onstage, and he sequesters the show's personnel both to ferret out the killer... and help retool the show (he also starts a charming romance with the show's sweet blonde ingenue). Meanwhile the shows music writers, Georgia (words) and Aaron (music), are battling each other and the show's score, while the show's producer (Deborah Monk) keps a jaundiced, non-romantic eye on the proceedings.
Curtains, I think, is something Kander and Ebb may have noodled with for years - there's a lot of stuff here, a lot of stuff that seems sort of thrown together and shouldn't, necessarily work. What does make it work is the verve of the performers... and the tings of reality breaking through. The show's heartbreaking number "I Miss The Music" sung by Aaron, the songwriter, takes lost collaboration as a metaphor for love... it's not hard to see Kander, telling Ebb, that he misses him.
So what if there are too many characters (there's at least one male senior speaking role too many, it was confusing) and too many are left with not enough to do - the joys of Curtains come in those parody numbers that cross Annie Get Your Gun with Oklahoma! making fun of every American impulse to overuse our frontier history. Even the choreography takes sly, knowing jabs at Michael Kidd, Agnes deMille and Bob Fosse in sharp, knowing ways.
And that's before crediting the performers, in a show where there's room for Karen Ziemba to play Georgia as saucy as Gwen Verdon, yet leave room for Deborah Monk to steal the proceedings as the tough, sarcastic producer. Monk, always brilliant, really shines here. But perhaps most remarkable is David Hyde Pierce, who takes each number as if he just sort of happened upon it, making for a charming, understated commentary on the crazy doings around him. Unlike Hugh Jackman, who was so essential to carrying The Boy From Oz, the necessity of Hyde Pierce to Curtains isn't necessarily obvious, but it's still a big explanation to why the show succeeds. It's hard to imagine who could take the role over successfully.
It's the affection for the "business of show" that really gives Curtains its zip (not to mention the way it zings, er, critics). They don't, really make them like this anymore (something I realized listening to Kander's smart, jazzy overture... who does overtures, these days?), and we probably won't see the likes of this again. Curtains closes June 29th. Try and see it, if you can.
Crossposted at Newcritics.