Behavior and Fate

Watching the superb revival of Parade (score by Jason Robert Brown, book by Alfred Uhry) reminded me of the problem I had with it when it was first produced in 1998. As much as I admire this production (highly), I have the same problem. The fate of the lead character is not the consequence of his behavior.

I think it is axiomatic that how characters end up in the story be the result of their choices and actions. All of the major characters in Shakespeare arrive at the ends where Shakespeare thinks their conduct necessarily has carried them. Willy Loman, Blanche Dubois, Mama Rose, Sweeney Todd, Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, Oscar and Felix, and (fill in your favorites) may not be happy (or even alive) as the curtain falls, but we in the audience can understand how those choices and actions brought them to those conclusions.

In Parade, however, Leo Frank arrives at his fate without it being the consequence of anything he has done. He simply has been in the wrong place at the wrong time and, because of the prejudices of the society around him, he gets murdered by a mob. Nothing he could have done after his arrest would have changed a thing. So, though scene by scene I admire the show greatly (the music, the staging and the performances are remarkable), for me there is something frustrating about this piece from a dramaturgical point-of-view.

But then, I have a similar problem with Evita. Eva Peron doesn’t die because she’s a manipulative, amoral fascist. She dies because she has bad genes. No aspect of her behavior has anything to do with her fate. If she had been a saint, she still would have died.

And you can see how that problem has damaged Evita’s commercial life, right?

But yes, I do believe the old saying, character is fate. At least when it comes to the stage.

I don’t think it’s accidental that two of the Tony nominees for best revival (the other being Into the Woods) began at Encores. Both productions hew to the Encores imperative to strip away what is extraneous and concentrate on featuring great casts serving the material. It is a method that has a way of exposing just how strong the material is. This was the case with the recent Encores presentation of Oliver! (directed by Lear deBessonet, the director of Into the Woods). The songs by Lionel Bart remain the major attraction, and backed by a full orchestra playing the orchestrations by William David Brohn created for the 1994 London revival, they never sounded better. Raul Esparza made the most of Fagin’s conflicting impulses toward avarice and tenderness, Lilli Cooper was a strong Nancy, and Benjamin Pajak (fresh from his run as Winthrop in the Broadway revival of The Music Man) brought his clarion voice to Oliver’s two great songs, “Where is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” (Hmm, both song titles are questions made up of single syllables.)

The book, however, felt more jerry-built than I’d remembered. At one point, a character stumbled on to reveal a coincidentally-timed piece of information and, having discharged her service to the plot, promptly keeled over to the laughter of the audience.

I was moved to check out the end of Carol Reed’s 1968 film version, and what a contrast it is! Instead of being just an up-number to open the second act, “Oom-pah-pah” is relocated to near the end of the film and played for suspense as Nancy uses the song to distract from her stealing Oliver away from Fagin and Sikes. Sikes’s pursuit of Nancy through the back alleys of London is classic Reed. I’d forgotten Sikes’s attempt to kill his dog, Bull’s-eye, because he’s afraid it will betray him, but it is a terrific addition to the plot. The dog then turns against Sikes, leading the mob to pursue him. John Box’s design emphasizes the filth, rot and fetid water of the London slums. The crowd attempting to chase Sikes up some stairs are thwarted when the staircase collapses into the muck below. The same muck swallows Fagin’s treasures. The film also improves on the stage version by adding a delicious reunion of Fagin and Dodger, who dance demonically down the street into the future. This is one of the rare cases in which the film version of a musical is substantially better than original stage material.

It’s Tony voting season, and, as a voter, I’m accepting invitations to return to some shows to have a second look at nominees. I am open to persuasion in several categories.

However, some of my votes are locked in.

Jodie Comer’s performance in Prima Facie, the solo legal drama by Suzie Miller, is one of the greatest of my experience. She begins by racing through a passage of slashing wit as a flamboyantly gifted lawyer, but by the end the action of the play takes her to the extreme of vulnerability. Beyond the skill she demonstrates, blazing through 100 punishing minutes solo, is the courage of playing this demanding material eight performances a week. (I was disappointed that the nominating committee didn’t exercise the option to nominate a fifth candidate for best actress in a play. Though, as I say, I will be voting for Jodie Comer, I think Laura Linney should have joined Jessica Hecht as a nominee for best actress for her work in David Auburn’s Summer 1976.)

I will vote to support The Life of Pi in most of the categories in which it was nominated. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from the novel by Yann Martel and directed by Max Webster, I am surprised that it wasn’t nominated for best play and that its leading player, Hiran Abeysekera, didn’t get a nod. It is a thrilling piece of story-telling. Though I am generally a fan of understated productions, the combination of jaw-dropping scenery (by Tim Hatley) and projections (by Andrzej Goulding) with the remarkable puppets (by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell) is justified spectacle on the highest level.

As impressed as I was by Parade, my vote for best musical revival will go to Into the Woods, as will my vote for best director of a musical, Lear deBessonet. For one thing, I understand why everybody in the ensemble of Woods ends up where they end up.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at
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