Monday, June 19, 2017

First Broadway Show Enjoyed, Loved Even!

I've always preferred the film musical over the stage musical for good old fashioned communist reasons - it's buckets cheaper and you can share it with more people. Vagaries of context can undoubtedly inform film reception. But in general, the 1962 film version of Gypsy you saw is the same one I saw and we can discuss it accordingly. When you tell us you had the privilege of seeing Ethel Merman in the original Broadway production of Gypsy, all we can do is hang on to your memories and maybe utter a bitter "jerk" under our breaths.

So I wasn't excited when a friend offered me in a block of tickets to see (it better be) Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre. The few touring shows I'd managed to take in around 2000 in Milwaukee (Cabaret, Sunset Boulevard with Petula Clark, and, was it?, The King and I) left me underwhelmed at best. And I despised the grotesquely distended 1969 film version of Hello, Dolly! featuring a ridiculously miscast/shoehorned-in Barbra Streisand. But I'd never been to a Broadway show. And I adored Midler's early 1970s pomo rewiring of popular music history even though she quickly abandoned this project for the schlocky half-measures and compromises of El Lay. So I went in expecting to get all haughty about a moribund art form and two and a half hours later left with tears in my eyes.

First, the bad. $152 for one ticket. Go around the corner to the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St. and you can pay about $18 to see a first-run movie. Still a despicable price but you can see eight movies for one Dolly. Or better yet, trek down to my favorite movie theatre in New York City, Anthology Film Archives, and purchase a general admission ticket for $11 and see some of the greatest films ever made. As much as I loved my time at Dolly, it cannot match the out-of-body experience I had watching Mosaik Im Vertrauen (Peter Kubelka, 1955) at Anthology in September last year.

Also, the seats. We were in the last row of the mezzanine (my seat was K 23) and had a remarkably unobstructed view for such a thin field of vision. But we missed some action on the upper floor of Vandergelder's Hay and Feed Store and, worse, Dolly's entrance at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant. And the standing ovation completely obstructed the curtain call. But I followed the Broadway veteran (of several shows just that week!) in K 25 down the aisle to at least Row F to get a better view.

Overall, though, I remain stunned by how moved I was. It had little to do with Midler. I teared up when she asked her dead husband Ephraim to give her a sign that it was okay to marry Vandergelder. But the moments that really choked me up were, well,  good old fashioned communist ones -  ensemble numbers like "Before the Parade Passes By," "Hello, Dolly!," the finale, all amplified by Warren Carlyle's choreography, built on Gower Champion's original work, no less astonishing in the serpentine movements throughout the Hay and Feed Store during "It Takes A Woman" than in "The Waiters' Gallop." If we cry at melodramas because of the impossibility of communication, we do so at musicals for the opposite reason - that disparate people can come together like rama lama lama. And Midler's star wattage is crucial for this effect. Donna Murphy, whom I never even heard of until this weekend (chill, theatre queens), will no doubt sing the role better on Tuesdays as Midler herself would probably concede. But the ensemble effect of the musical subsumes even a supernova like Midler and for an overwhelming moment, we are all one.

It's a fleeting moment for sure, especially with $59 for the cheapest ticket. I certainly don't want to make common cause with the audience if they agree with Ben Brantley's contention in a depressing New York Times review that there was "a more innocent age of American history" or that camp doesn't exude "bone-deep affection and respect." And I definitely want to avoid the two psycho fans I encountered afterward whom I tried to convince that Midler had left the building and was whisked away in a car the nanosecond she left the stage. But the show taught me what it might feel like to make common cause with them and I am privileged to have witnessed it.

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