What's New on the Rialto
The Complete Book of 1990s Broadway Musicals
By Dan Dietz
Book Review by Bob Verini
By the way, when Dietz says "Complete," he means it: The book gives full and equal coverage to revues, commercial revivals, pre-Broadway closings, and attractions like Michael Feinstein in Concert and An Evening with Harry Connick Jr. and His Orchestra. Not to mention four incarnations of Riverdance, six of A Christmas Carol, and three years of stabs at The Scarlet Pimpernel, God help us. If you can recall the Russian rock opera Junon and AvosThe Hope you're better than me, but there it is to kick off the half-chapter on 1990, premiering at City Center on January 7 and closing February 4.
Here's the thing, though: What with IBDB.com and hundreds of internet sources available, there are surely faster, easier ways of discovering the Tony nominations that went to Juan Darien, or the music used for the finale of the 1997 Lord of the Dance at Radio City ("Planet Ireland"). Anyone who shells out $125 for this cavalcade of 1990s tunersand presumably, the six or so other decade volumes Dietz has pennedwill probably be interested less in its encyclopedic data than in the accompanying articles, which are certainly exhaustive: He expends some 2,000 words on Nick and Nora, and even Junon and Avos receives about half that. In these pieces, I expected dull synopses but Dietz handles the storylines deftly and lightly, and he's quite thorough at reflecting major critics' reviews with apt quotes.
What will cause some readers to balk, however, is the nature and tone of Dietz's commentary, which shoves his book way beyond the boundaries of an encyclopedia to become dogmatically opinionated.
Did you know that Ragtime was "a well-meaning if pretentious and politically correct cartoon," which "collapsed under the weight of its narrow political and sociological boundaries"? Me neither, but there it is on pp. 302-303 presented as hard fact, along with assertions that it "insulted the audience" with a book that was "a hopeless hodgepodge" that "made it impossible to care about" the characters. Sure, the man is entitled to his opinion, but Dietz's lofty, I-know-best tone goes beyond opinion, especially since many critics disagreed with every one of those value judgments. (He cites a few of the approvers, but much later in the piece, which never reads as an attempt to fairly compare contrary views. His selections of critical commentary seem to have been culled to favor the negatives.)
On page 286 we learn that the "major flaw" of 1776 was "the extraneous inclusions of Martha Jefferson and Abigail Adams into the action; their characters added little to the evening, and their songs were vapid (and Martha's 'He Plays the Violin' was obvious and cheap)." These two examplesout of, believe me, dozensdemonstrate a dismaying tendency on Dietz's part to pontificate without adequate support, and to toss around adjectives in a way one might reasonably object to as obvious and cheap. Here's his sage report on The Life: "The performances were earnest enough, if perhaps overly broad, but Sam Harris brought a jagged, nervous energy to his sleazy character." Well, I guess that settles that.
Dietz is not much more persuasive on the work he loves, such as Nicholas Hytner's Carousel, which without specifics he flatly deems "the most satisfying revival of the era," despite its "somewhat uninspired choreography"in particular, Kenneth MacMillan's second-act ballet, which "seemed to go on forever (one wag noted it was a good excuse to go out and take a cigarette break)." Who that wag was, and why such an anti-witticism was worth reporting, we are not to learn, but then Dietz never makes it clear which if any of these shows he actually attended. Still, his enthusiasms are clear: The Lion King "has its faults, but they're beside the point," inasmuch as it's "a phenomenon that transcends its pesky, nitpicking detractors" and "has undoubtedly delighted every toddler who ever attended a performance." I suppose I'm being a nitpicking detractor to point out that children cease being toddlers by the time they hit age four, and that actual toddlers (if any were in attendance at the New Amsterdam) would probably be as delighted by a ball of aluminum foil dangled from a string as by Julie Taymor's handiwork. In any case, throughout the book his objective data and highly subjective conclusions are mixed together into a questionable stew.
Where Dietz really lost me is with Rent. Since the beginning of its run at New York Theatre Workshop, plenty of people have had issues with Jonathan Larson's posthumous, and some have argued severely underpolished, work. Many have cooled on the show after examining it more closely, or have just gotten tired of it. But even detractors would have to concede that it's a famous, multiple award-winning, and influential landmark, one which spawned a host of important careers and subsequent productions and attracted thousands of hardcore groupies during its 5,124 Nederlander performances. If anything in the too-often-dismal 1990s deserves fullest consideration, wouldn't it be Rent?
Not the way Dietz covers it, a classic example of burying the lede. In paragraph one, he calls Rent a "hit," then hits us with seven disparaging quotes from "Best Plays" editor Jeffrey Sweet. Why Sweet? Beats me, except probably Sweet is the scribe with the worst things to say that Dietz could find.
Paragraph two kicks off with the helpful intelligence that "The smug, self-serving characters and their inward-looking self-centeredness have dated the musical," and a paragraph later "its message was vague and undefined and seemed to glorify lack of responsibility." Then comes the critical wrapup, and from Dietz's pull quotes you'd think the only rave the show garnered was from Jeremy Gerard in Variety, because every other comment is mixed or a pan. There follows no discussion of the show's influence, alumni, or delirious fan base, just a bunch of facts about dropped songs, the cast album, and published scripts. Dietz evidently resents Rent so much that he simply refuses to acknowledge its impact, allotting more space to The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public.
Which he's entitled to do. But his glib, dashed-off, and unsupported pronouncements don't persuade, and they sit uneasily alongside the encyclopedic detail. The chapter on Jekyll & Hyde, it must be said, is excellent: In about 1,000 words there's only a single sentence of (reasonable) authorial comment, and the rest of it reports the facts, reflecting with fairness the diversity of critical opinion. But that text is an exception when, by any standard of a legitimate reference work, its objectivity ought to be the norm.
Surveys of musicals, if they do nothing else, inevitably incite arguments between the author and the reader. There's plenty of grist for the argument mill in Dietz's tome.