When ‘A Little Touch of Star Quality’ Is a Little Too Much

Why do the worst characters in musicals get the best tunes?

I don’t mean mere antiheroes like Billy Bigelow, the “Carousel” carnival barker who sings gloriously about love yet hits his wife. Or Joey Evans, that lowlife “pal,” whose bed-hopping grift is set to a sparkling Rodgers and Hart score. Or even Evan Hansen, lying his way to love as he catches your heart with the catch in his throat.

They’re all pikers, their damage largely domestic.

Sweeney Todd, the liberally neck-slashing barber, is more like it. Though most of Fleet Street has been minced by the time the curtain falls on the musical named for him, he gets some of Stephen Sondheim’s most gorgeous arias, including the sinuous “My Friends” (crooned to his razors) and the erotic “Pretty Women” (whispered in the ear of the judge he’s about to dispatch). That a penny dreadful character originally meant just to shock and sicken becomes instead a pitiable victim is a testament to the power of music to make bad guys, if not good, compelling.

Still, in “Sweeney Todd,” which opens next month in a Broadway revival starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, the terror remains local because the barber has no leverage. In three other upcoming musical revivals — “Evita,” “Camelot” and “Here Lies Love” — the damage is done by people with real power. Their harm is political, epochal, even as the songs they sing, encouraging empathy that may not otherwise be earned, invite us to give them a pass.

Michael Cerveris, center, as the demon barber of Fleet Street, and Patti LuPone as Mrs. Lovett, second from left, in a 2005 production of “Sweeney Todd” at the Eugene O’Neill Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Exploring the humanity in flawed characters was the premise of many Golden Age musicals, which leaves them open to challenge today. “Evita” is an extreme case. Tim Rice’s book and lyrics try to keep the sins of Eva Perón, the second wife of the Argentine strongman Juan, at an ironic remove, lest the show seem to endorse her fascist tendencies and demagogic élan. The words make plain, just shy of celebrating, her manipulative genius.

But Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music works at cross purposes to that distancing effort. Though famously difficult to sing, the difficulty is exciting; it’s impossible not to be thrilled when a performer nails the treacherous downward arpeggios of “Buenos Aires” or the stratospheric belt of “A New Argentina.” And to the extent new productions mimic the chic of the 1979 Broadway premiere, “Evita” always seems to bank on the same “little touch of star quality” that the real Perón did.

Whether that contradiction can be addressed within the confines of the musical as written remains to be seen. Sammi Cannold, whose staging for New York City Center’s 2019 gala provided more context for Perón’s ambition, seems poised to go even further in a production scheduled to run from May 14 through July 16 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. It’s promising that in a TED Talk about “Evita,” Cannold reflects on “the responsibility of the storyteller.”

More honored in the breach, that notion is part of what renders many Golden Age musicals so tricky today. Some of their unexamined assumptions — about race and gender and even the primacy of pleasurable song over political impact — have been revised or shot down in the intervening decades.

One musical compromised in the process is “Camelot,” a romantic retelling of Arthurian legend that opened on Broadway in 1960. Its book, by Alan Jay Lerner, has always been considered clumsy and overlong; for Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center Theater revival, which begins performances on March 9, Aaron Sorkin has rewritten it.

Though dialogue in “Camelot” explains why Arthur (Richard Burton in the original 1960 production) orders the execution of Guenevere (Julie Andrews), song makes him sympathetic, our critic writes.Credit…Pictorial Press Ltd./Alamy

But the score, with Lerner’s lyrics and Frederick Loewe’s music, was always able to compensate for the book’s shortcomings. Arthur’s utopian dreams were so perfectly captured in the title song that it became an emblem of the Kennedy era. The hauteur of his wife, Guenevere, and the egotism of her lover, Lancelot, were exposed and then exploded in torrents of rapturous balladry that swept away their faults.

More recent concerns about the story may be more difficult to dismiss with mere melody. Indeed, melody can aggravate the problem. Though dialogue explains why Arthur behaves as he does — ordering his wife’s execution and destroying his country’s peace — song makes him sympathetic. Especially with a beloved score, the identification between audience and the characters is difficult to sever: We sing the songs in our heads as they sing them aloud.

If it took six decades to see why that might be problematic for “Camelot,” just one has sufficed to raise similar questions about “Here Lies Love,” which sets the story of Imelda Marcos to a disco score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. A success at the Public Theater in 2013, it is only now transferring to Broadway, where performances are scheduled to begin on June 17.

The intervening years have altered the way we look at historical characters onstage, from Alexander Hamilton to Princess Diana. Marcos presents a particular problem, because she’s not yet historical: The country’s first lady from 1965 to 1986, she’s now, at 93, its first mother. (Her son, Ferdinand Jr., known as Bongbong, became president last June.) Whether merely supporting her husband’s dictatorship or more directly influencing and maintaining it, she was part of a regime accused of looting billions from the country’s treasury and eliminating its opponents.

In telling the story of Imelda Marcos, a former first lady of the Philippines whose husband’s regime was accused of corruption, “Here Lies Love” takes lyrics from her own speeches and interviews.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

No wonder some Filipinos and Filipino Americans have objected to the way “Here Lies Love,” at least in the version seen at the Public, seems to sympathize with its main character. Sara Porkalob, who recently appeared on Broadway in “1776,” described the musical as painting “a glossy veneer over the Philippines’ national trauma and America’s role in it.”

The show’s producers countered that “Here Lies Love” is “an Anti-Marcos show” that aims to fight disinformation with “a creative way of re-information.”

But creative to what end? Though most of the show’s lyrics are taken from Marcos’s own speeches and interviews, phrases like “Why don’t you love me?” and “Is it a sin to care?” have a very different effect when merely spoken than when set to singalong melodies and danceable beats. Staging the production in what amounts to a discothèque further complicates the point of view. When song and dance bring so much pleasure, you may miss the atrocities as you’re doing the hustle.

Perhaps that’s the point. As the musical has matured, artists have naturally sought to write about people who are more complicated than randy teenagers and frivolous socialites. Yet by applying the powerful tools of the form to darker and more dangerous figures, those figures are literally given greater voice, forcing us to consider the ways in which they are humans even if they may also be monsters.

Does that mean whitewashing them? Obviously not; to describe domestic violence, as “Carousel” does, is not to endorse it. And yet seducing us into a kind of emotional complicity with powerful figures, especially real ones like Perón and Marcos, does have its dangers — dangers enhanced by the fundamental amorality of song, no matter what the words say.

So when Evita, thrilling her public with diamonds and Dior, sings, “They must have excitement, and so must I,” it’s not that we risk forgiving her. It’s that we risk enjoying too much what we can’t forgive.

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