Just about 29 years ago (Lordy!), after pulling every theatrical string I could yank to secure tickets in London for the then-spanking new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, I found myself at evening's end heaving myself up the aisle of Her Majesty's Theatre and right out the bloody door. Behind me, an obviously delighted standing room crowd continued its ovation. 'What the hey?' I thought then (and now). 'This floozy of a musical is so obviously, empirically, bad. Get me out of here.'
One year later (more or less) at the Broadway Theatre in NYC (at least I had the good sense this time not to spring for a flight to London), I found myself once again heaving up the aisle -- but earlier this time, before intermission, in fact -- retreating from another empirically bad new musical; yes, Les Misérables, with its mirthless marching, marching, MARCHING, and its self-righteous, operatic whining, and all those farkakta power ballads. But mostly, the marching.
At the back of the house, I passed an usherette, who looked at me with what I perceived to be genuine sympathy. I returned her pained gaze. "How do you stand it?" I moaned. She looked heavenward (I swear) and replied: "They pay me."
Last week, I took my daughters, Lea and Sara, to see Finding Neverland on Broadway. They both had caught the show's noisy Tony turn on TV back in April and were gripped by it. So there we were.
And I discovered something. You might say I had a revelation at Finding Neverland, or an epiphany, or maybe just an attack of some kind. I watched the doings onstage, which I found resoundingly lousy. I watched my daughters' delight in those very same doings. I watched the audience all around me lapping it up. And I thought to myself: You know, there really is no such thing as an empirically bad musical. Any musical that really affects an audience is a good enough musical. Full stop.
My own subjective ideas about what makes a musical good, and why, remain fundamentally unchanged. My acceptance of the fact that others are affected differently has, however, been evolving with time (and fatherhood, candidly).
What did I like about Finding Neverland? Well, the story. I did see the movie and was fascinated by the true saga of J.M. Barrie and the fatherless Llewelyn Davies family he discovers one afternoon in Kensington Park; the four young brothers he turned into Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, and their noble, consumptive, widowed mother, Sylvia, with whom he chastely fell in love. Peter Pan, the boy himself, has never actually been an easy character for me to take, except with music (especially by Leonard Bernstein or Jule Styne and "Moose" Charlap, respectively).
The score of Finding Neverland is at times catchy, as only the most deeply derivative pop music can be. The lyrics are fecklessly mis-stressed and mis-rhymed, which sets my hair on fire, but clearly bothered no one else that I could see (and my girls do know the difference). The acting is a Disney-esque mashup of period and centemporary hyper-style. The child actors mug as naturally as if messing around at the mall, while the adult cast chews the scenery with starchy cartoon license -- all except the two leads. Laura Michelle Kelly so underplays the doomed Sylvia's patience, kindness and goodness that she misses her own exit. Her long-awaited death - which ultimately occurs offstage literally but onstage figuratively in a nifty stage illusion of a swirling white shawl symbolically ascending to heaven in a spotlight of twinkling glitter - left my confused younger daughter Sara to wonder why the lady had stepped away just as she was dying and forgotten her jacket. Matthew Morrison, as J.M. Barrie, submerges his performance deep inside an impenetrable Scottish accent and an impenetrably thick, dark beard, as if praying not to be recognized. The third ostensible star of Finding Neverland, Kelsey Grammer, is on summer hiatus, so we missed him. His character, Captain Hook, has, in any event, but one big scene (as captured live on the Tony Awards), in which Hook pretty much terrorizes the blocked Mr. Barrie, his playwright creator, into walking the plank of his imagination to thereby carry on writing Peter Pan with all the gusto his inner child can muster. The scene creeped me out. My kids kind of liked it. (Sara was less sure.)
Finding Neverland does have one sublime moment, to my mind: the lovely, highly stylized second act performance of Barrie's Peter Pan play as conjured by the play-within-a play's original cast on its historic opening night for the dying Sylvia in her bedroom. I would have really liked to see the entirety of Finding Neverland performed with similarly humble theatrical eloquence and joy, instead of the hyper-inflated Les Miz/Phantom-scale circus that has been imposed on the proceedings by the show's producer, Harvey Weinstein (can't leave him out) and his director, Diane Paulus. But that's me. My girls and most of the audience at the Lunt Fontanne Theatre certainly would disagree.
At curtain, there were standing ovations all around. I remained at my seat applauding to the very end, as Lea wept and Sara beamed. The show worked for them. Anyone else curious enough should certainly see it and decide for themselves. I did.