We've all heard it, or at least intuited it: Only a great actor can convincingly play a terrible one. Similarly, one could extrapolate that only a great writer can convincingly create the character of a bad writer. To be blunt, John Doble, the author of The Mayor Who Would Be Sondheim, is not a great writer.
Despite a title that conjures images of a comedy (musical or not) combining low-level politics and high-level theatrical writing into escapist (if perhaps enlightening) entertainment, Goble has different goals in mind. The New Jersey Mayor of the title is a talentless hack who wastes his time, and that of his coworkers, by devising lame, politically themed parodies of songs like "Tomorrow," "America," "My Favorite Things," and, in perhaps the show's most horrifying moment, "Oklahoma!" The most notable lyric Doble attaches to that one? "Ain't Camden Yet, Northeast Orange." Go ahead - just try to imagine it. Just try.
Or better yet, save yourself a year of therapy and don't bother. The lyrics, which often barely scan and are never remotely clever, are at their best unbearable and at their worst enough to make you finally kick your lifelong musical theatre habit. It's difficult to know if Doble intentionally meant to defame the work of the theatre's greatest writers, or if he really thinks his lyrics are wittily bad. If it's the latter, I have news for him: They're not. They're just plain bad.
To make matters worse, they're so woven throughout the script that an inability to cope with them is an inability to cope with The Mayor Who Would Be Sondheim. And those without a particular taste for the composer-lyricist behind musicals like Follies, Company, and Anyone Can Whistle may also want to stay away, as the show is constructed around the concept that, besides being a theatrical religious figure (the Mayor calls him "Saint Steve"), Sondheim is now a political visionary, too. Or something.
The idea, as stated in the script, is that politics is just like songwriting: "When writing lyrics, you work within a melody"; when playing the political game, you work with the hand you're dealt. Doble, who either doesn't know or doesn't care that the lyrics sometimes (even often) come first, has built the entire play around this view, incorporating into the script any number of problems the mayor must solve with the limited means at his disposal. These include a catastrophic sanitation strike, union negotiations, race relations, and trying to do the "right thing," here defined as "what will get him re-elected."
There's technically a story (or more accurately a scenario) buried in all this. But it's developed mostly in fits and starts, and most significantly progresses only in the last scene of the second act; this is essentially a character-driven play. Unfortunately, the characters are conceived with as much originality as the lyrics: Aside from the Mayor (Stu Richel), there's a youthful idealist (Scott Giguere), the Mayor's bigoted yet brilliant right-hand man (Larry Greenbush), the Mayor's feisty but haunted assistant (Nina Daniels), and even two political opponents, a racist (Mitch Poulos) and an angry activist (Craig Anthony Grant).
Only Daniels and Grant succeed at fashioning vaguely real people from the creaky archetypes they're given, but their impact is minimal. Richel dominates the show with a befuddled characterization that defines the mayor as neither a self-proclaimed genius nor a legitimate one; Richel seems limited to reciting lines, now tossing in a noncommittal hand gesture to accompany an oblique political musing, now butchering John Kander or Richard Rodgers with a barely in-key rendition of another of Doble's lyrics.
Tom Rowan deserves credit for his pointed, matter-of-fact direction. So does Adam Gwon for his original music, which cheerily combines musical theatre standards with compositions redolent of Sunday morning political talk shows. It's almost as if he gets Doble's joke better than Doble does. Given what Doble thinks makes for so-bad-they're-good song lyrics, and what he thinks will make a political play bearable for two hours, I can't say it would surprise me in the slightest.
Would The Mayor Who Would Be Sondheim play better without these ulcer-inducing lyrical intrusions? Absolutely. Would that make the play good? Probably not. At least not in New York - maybe certain low-budget New Jersey theatre companies starving for current, topical works would chortle at or ponder the specific references and problems that seem obscure outside the Garden State.
But the fine folks of New Jersey deserve better. So does everyone else. As the Mayor says when one of his staffers attempts a parody lyric of his own, "You may be a brainy kid, but you're no Fred Ebb." Neither is Doble. He's not even Don Black.
The Mayor Who Would Be Sondheim