Sunday, September 26, 2010

Josh, Marcia, Jim, and Thoughts on "Greasepaint."

Josh Grisetti, Marcia Milgrim Dodge, Jim Brochu
meet to discuss the upcoming York Theatre Musicals in Mufti production
of "Roar of the Greasepaint."
I didn't know anything about "The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd" when Jim and Josh (Brochu and Grisetti), together with Jim Morgan, artistic director, at the York, decided to schedule it. All I heard (by rumor from most everyone who had seen it) was that it had a "fabulous score" and that the book made no sense, whatsoever. Or something.

But, for the "Musicals in Mufti" series, it was a perfect fit, because they "revive" classic or lost musicals -- five performances spread out over three days -- in "mufti," meaning "in street clothes."

So, it doesn't matter if the particular show is "good" or "bad." It's history. You want to see it because it exists and to know if it can stand the test of time.

A couple of weeks ago, they did "Coco," which was a Katharine Hepburn vehicle -- her first musical. (These performances really show you the bare bones of the script and score. Deprived of sets, costumes and involved choreography, it's up to the performers to make it come alive, which is exactly what happened with the York's "Coco." The cast, led by Andrea Marcovicci, was sensational. The musical itself, not so much.)

Since Jim grew up backstage -- or, rather, front of house, selling orange drink for the Goleb brothers, who had the concession -- on Broadway during this period, he knew "Greasepaint" very well, having seen many of the performances.

In fact, I think it was actually Jim and Josh who hatched the idea for doing "Greasepaint" while they were sitting together backstage at last year's York Theater Oscar Hammerstein Awards, where Jim sang "Rich Man" in his Zero get-up. It was our first time to see and meet Josh, after hearing about his triumphant performance in "Enter Laughing."

"Greasepaint" consists, essentially, of two British characters, of two different classes, engaging in verbal banter over a game they're supposedly playing, and who occasionally break out into song. Jim was excited that Josh even knew the show since it closed in the late 60s and has never had a Broadway revival.

I kept asking Jim why it didn't hit, especially given the fact that it has a ton of hit songs in the score. He just kept saying, "Well, it's the book. It's really strange. To tell you the truth, I didn't really understand it."

American audiences, apparently didn't, either. The format was experimental. It didn't tell a traditional story. It was also very British. Two men on a stage playing a game.  It didn't last very long when it came to Broadway, even with the great Cyril Richard as Sir, paired with its composer, Anthony Newley, who is largely forgotten by pop culture, today. I knew him only from TV variety shows in the 60s, singing his own Broadway songs with this bizarre accent, where his "a's" were held with an awwwayyyawww that looped in and out of intelligibility.

And, to make matters ever worse, it has a character listed in the script, "The Negro" who pops out of nowhere, sings this fabulous song -- essentially, stealing the show -- and then disappears again.

Really? The Negro?

I couldn't wait to read this thing. What has Jim gotten into?

Finally, the script arrives. Jim has long forgotten what it was about except in the most broad terms. So, he asks me to read it. I go in, expecting the worst.

But, actually, I found it quite involving. It's a mind-twister. Does it "make sense?" Well, kinda. But it doesn't announce itself or what it's trying to do. It just throws you in the middle and lets you sink or swim.

As the play starts, "Cocky," is on one side of the stage. Cold, hungry, almost naked. "Sir" is on the other side in a lush light. He has food and drink and minions that serve his every desire.

We realize that they are there to play "the game." And in the game, Sir makes up all the rules and Cocky dutifully tries to follow Sir's pretzel logic, designed so that Sir always wins. Sir praises Cocky's fortitude through his starvation and changes the rules over and over again -- which is why the song "Who Can I Turn To?," which I always thought was a love song -- is so co-dependently perverse in the world of this play.

When The Negro makes his appearance, Cocky starts trying to teach him how to play the game, but, in doing so, he starts to sound and act like Sir. The previously pathetic and sympathetic creature realizes, in crushing this new lower class character, that all of Sir's power is in his bluster. So, he begins taking control of Sir.

You are happy that he's found his own power, but at what expense? Who's expense? And what will he turn into? Sir?

I loved it. The script by Leslie Bricusse is snappy and witty, and biting and mean. There's even a suggestion of a rape of a girl character among the minions, I think. It's hard to say.

But their banter almost began sounding to me like the kind of warring that takes place in chatrooms or discussion boards. There's so much posturing and deception, and power is this thing that passes quickly through the hands of one party, or one banker, or one billionaire, or one TV personality, or one musician, and then the next, over and over again. An illusion, yet still a reality.

I think "Greasepaint," for all its 60s-ness, is a jolting little piece of uncomfortable history that both disturbs and entertains, all at the same time.

I cannot wait to see it in person.
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