Dear friends and readers,
I did not realize I was going to see a mainstream Broadway musical circa 1950s when I bought my ticket to go to The Little Dancer this past Sunday. A man I had talked to a couple of times at the Film Club at Cinemart had recommended it, saying it was having its “world premiere” here in DC rather than NYC. I thought only of the famous statue, and did not foresee there’d be Ethel Merman like numbers sung by Marie’s mother, Martine (Karen Ziema), played as your robust but downtrodden and heavy-drinking laundress who does a little prostituting on the side.
But as the musical began and I heard some of the corny language – at its climax Degas (Boyd Gaines) actually cries more than once: “My God! what have I done?” and runs about — and saw what was supposed to be desperate poverty and maginalized aspiration sung about in this super-cheerful way, with choral numbers of men dressed as abonnés (exploitative upper class men who hung around these theaters, sometimes supporting them for a time) and girls alternatively dressed as ballerinas and laundresses gyrating rhythmically or in parallel formation, I knew what I was in for. (The director and choreographer is Susan Strohman.) Still I was a little surprised at the standing ovation and strong cheering the full auditorium gave the people on stage since at no point were there shouts of bravo or high sudden applause of the type showing spontaneous deep accord or pleasure or emotion. I had heard a couple of people during intermission saying this was an “old-fashioned musical” in a way that showed approval, but in fact it lacked the stand-still kind of singing and full crew dancing numbers that characterized Oscar and Hammerstein or My Fair Lady. And the story was implicitly much darker than these mid-century vehicles (Carousel let us recall makes up for misery by asserting one never walks alone and then showing us heaven watching out for Julie).
I’ve been spoilt. What Jim did was buy half-price tickets to see unusual plays, original musicals (and or operas) in local repertory theaters around the area, so the conventionalism of the 3 hours blared out at me. I don’t watch the Net, pay attention to what’s on everywhere, and haven’t the intuition to recognize what will be worth the time as he did — though once I get there I recognize what’s in front of me. I’m not the only one. Charles Isherwood was less than overwhelmed. The Washington Post article by Philip Kennicott is more about the genuinely relevant material to us today that makes up the circumstances of the story than the musical itself.
I don’t mean to be too hard on this musical. It was as much a ballet as a musical.
There was effective expressive dancing by Peck continually and with Harris and the chorus, and male and female ballet and ballroom dancing ensembles. The books and lyrics were clearly by a woman, Lynn Ahrens; the structure was cyclical and empathetic to central female figures — Mary Cassatt (Janet Dickinson) was represented as Degas’s great friend. Central female figures, the issue of abonnés show the women-authored nature of the piece. There was a woman voiceover-narrator, the adult Marie who has come to visit Cassatt after the death of Degas. I didn’t realize that the actress-singer, Rebecca Luker, was a known favorite of this audience until I read in the playbook Luker is famous for her performance on Broadway of Mary Poppins: I fear a benignly strong saccharine version of Julie Andrews’ role, and then heard the applause for her at the musical’s end and recognized she was dressed to recall her previous role.
Nonetheless, the music (by Stephen Flaherty) was disappointing — maybe the apparently necessary continual rhythmic background for the dancing numbers precluded individuation, the way one could not ask Peck and the other ballerinas also to be a nuanced actress (they were not, it was soft caricature all the way). It was a kind of cross between a weak version of lyricism of The Secret Garden (book, lyrics, screenplay, all by women) where what is being remembered criss-crosses with what is happening now, an interlace; and a weak version of Sondheim’s self-reflexive wittiness. You could feel Sondheim in the talk rhythms and staging, as well obviously in the bringing forth from actors on the stage simulacrums of works of art. But to remind one of Sondheim had the unfortunate effect of comparison and the lines were so utterly banal, and to remind one of The Secret Garden is to invoke music more like The Pearl Fishermen: The Secret Garden has dual tenor duets, a strong mezzo-soprano singing with bell-like barritone, quirky rhythms as well as melancholy lingering. None of that here.
I was very moved at moments, and tears came to my eyes (not hard to do with me nowadays) at some of the trials and disappointments of Marie. The refrains of a couple of songs were about how one’s future is sometimes determined on the chance of a single event. I got caught up intensely when in the second act it seemed as if Marie was going to be raped by the abonné, who kept Antoinette (Jenny Powers) her sister, though this being a musical which ultimately doesn’t question or disturb, she is saved by poor but honest loving musician, appropriately named Christian (Kyle Harris), just in the nick of time.
Since nothing disquieting here, our Marie does not experience much conflict over not eloping with the poor violinist when he is fired for saving her: she is ever prudent, looking out for her career, supporting her feckless mother (made violent towards Marie doubtless to match the men of course). The real ballerina Degas sculpted did not go on to a successful career and that is here explained by showing that Degas offended the contemporary audience, something that one must not do (according to the thrust of this piece) or one will be punished. Marie becomes a pariah and the theater manager fears being made a laughing stock by a statue not made of bronze but of material and wax, and real or simulated hair: he told her (manager scolds) “to stay away from Degas.” Musical as warning lesson to any Bohemians out there. While the book and vignettes include the types of the commercial world of art (patrons, “rats” — cattle call, workmen, cataloguers, patrons), it is very naively invoked. (The Kennedy Center audience included mother-daughter pairs with the daughters in dancing or ballet outfits!) The dialogue did at least show an awareness of what Jim used to say about Degas: that his paintings of downtrodden hard-worked women were cold and distanced, somehow voyeuristic and that was reflected in the treatment of the abonnés.
But hey you didn’t have to go all the way to NYC, pay extravagant hotel fees and the price was less than it would have been in NYC. It had its moments, real talented people on the stage giving it their all, seemingly engaged by this simple material about art.