Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 66:10 May 18, 2000 p.14
[orig. title: A Rough WILD PARTY
Promising Songs & Cycles]
The Art of the Song in Theater and Concert Hall

866 words by Leonard Lehrman

It's not hard to see why Joseph Moncure March's 1920's poem "The Wild Party" inspired not one but two musicals this[fin de siècle] year. [To quote two memorable lines of the Clinton era: "It's the economy, stupid"; and "If someone says it's not about sex, it's about sex."]

With everyone wondering how long the current prosperity can last[-- or if the millennium will end with a crash as big as that of 1929-- and] with sexual identity [edited to "marital"] crises running rampant [edited to "making news"] from the White House to the military [edited to "in the White House and City Hall"], the biggest fear in the land seems to be [edited to "and with the overall concern"] that the young will be[come] as corrupt as the old--only earlier [edited to "sooner"]--with guns, drugs, [orgies, and statutory rape--deleted by editor] [added by editor: the parallels with the 1920's are inevitable].

[All these issues are confronted, without any satisfactory solutions in sight, in] the current manifestation of THE WILD PARTY at the Virginia Theater [is] directed by George C. Wolfe, with lively music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, and a book by the two of them together.

Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt (in a star turn) are the leading names in the 15-member cast, with Toni Collette holding center stage in her Broadway debut, and Tonya Pinkins as her creditable partner-swapping foil, whose "moocher" number is only slightly upstaged by an orgy going on behind her.

Black, Jewish, and sexual identities are explored by character types personified, respectively, by a prizefighter (Norm Lewis), a duo of theater producers changing their names from Goldoff and Goldberg to Gold and Golden (Adam Grupper and Stuart Zagnit), and... nearly everybody else.
<"The Wild Party" garnering awards

Toni Collette's reflective duet with Yancey Arias, "People Like Us," with its sensitive refrain, "Where do we belong?," is the most moving musical moment--recalling "Two Lost Souls" from Damn Yankees[, among other things]. Eartha Kitt's Cassandra-like song "When It Ends" is the most stirring. Mandy Patinkin, in and out of blackface, stirs up energy every second he is on [changed by editor to "is an excitingly energetic presence"].

[ Promising snippets that never bloom to their full potential are given to the quasi-catatonic Sally Murphy in "After Midnight Dies" and the nearly-deflowered Annie-wannabe Brooke Sunny Moriber in "The Lights of Broadway." Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy are game as the singing/dancing/playing Brothers D'Armano. Robin Wagner designed the Gothic backdrop and turntable set; Toni-Lewis James the easily-removeable costumes. Todd Ellison conducts the 15-piece orchestra, which was still fine-tuning. Tony Meola's sound design also needs work: distortion of both voices and instruments produced tones that were not, but sounded as though they were, badly synthesized.

Since Paramount Pictures co-produced the piece, perhaps there will be a film, and a video, where moments can be even better highlighted, and still rough patches ironed out.]

It is perhaps a measure of the current paucity of new American musical theater works on New York stages[--as lamented by Anthony Tommasini, Patrick Smith, and Ned Rorem in the course of a Center for Contemporary Opera panel discussion at the Harvard Club last week--]that The Wild Party has garnered more awards and nominations than any other new work this season, with composer Michael John LaChiusa being touted as one of the bright new hopes.

[Ned Rorem Presents]

Ned Rorem had occasion later the same week to present three more such hopes in the song cycle genre--all in world premieres--on a program at the 92nd Street Y[, together with his own powerful 1969 setting of Walt Whitman civil war texts, "War Scenes," performed with admirable restraint by baritone Kurt Ollmann]. All the texts were by Americans, and each of the composers accompanied his own work.

First came a relatively bland "set of songs" (so designated; not a cycle) by Daron Hagen on poems by Susan Griffin entitled "A Woman's World," [re-titled by the composer "Phantoms of Myself,"] [emotingly] sung by Ashley Putnam to piano accompaniments recalling Satie, Poulenc, and (Hagen's teacher) Rorem.

Songs expressing loss of loved ones

Ricky Ian Gordon's work also acknowledged Rorem as an influence, along with Sondheim, Shostakovich, and Joni Mitchell, as well as Weill and Blitzstein, not to mention a little Debussy and Poulenc. The six poems of his "Late Afternoon" cycle comprise three pairs by Jean Valentine, Marie Howe, and the late Jane Kenyon, all linked by shared experiences of losing loved ones, lovingly sung (and, in part, spoken) by mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore. [Most memorable was the simple but sweetly inevitable-sounding setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Souvenir," sung as an encore. The most memorable quote of the evening was Gordon's response to Rorem's question on stylistic variety and "cross-over": "I'm desperate to make money; whatever they ask me to write, I'll write!"]

The final cycle of the evening, John Musto's "Penelope," seven monologues written in collaboration with poet Denise Lanctot for (and sung by) Musto's wife of 16 years, soprano Amy Burton, was perhaps the most successful, exploring love, fidelity, and "the wanderlust of the mind" with wit, humor, and tone-painting that included clusters in syncopation and virtuosically quirky, restless blues. [Encores preceding and following the cycle left the gentlest, deepest impression: Rorem's classic setting of Robert Hillyer's "Early in the Morning" and Musto's of Langston Hughes' "Litany."]

The American musical may be moribund, but masters of the vignette and the song cycle are thriving, and growing. [Rorem is worth quoting here: "If we don't create (and, he might have added, present) our own literature, no one will do it for us."]

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