The musical Happiness received some pretty disappointing reviews when it opened last month at the Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Expectations were high for composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie after they came seemingly out of nowhere with their stunning Grey Gardens.
So, when I saw Happiness a few weeks back, I entered the theater with a measured dose of caution. Well, the good news is that Frankel and Korie remain in excellent form with their complex and evocative score for Happiness. Unfortunately, that score is surrounded by John Weidman's muddled book and Susan Stroman's uneven direction.
[SPOILER ALERT: The text below reveals a major plot device. If you plan to see the show, and want to preserve the surprise, you may want to read this review subsequently.]
Happiness -- which bares no relationship whatsoever to Todd Solondz's disturbing 1998 movie of the same name -- concerns a group of strangers who meet on a New York subway car. Unfortunately, I was tipped off to the show's major plot twist while reading the review of one of my fellow bloggers. In her defense, she did provide a spoiler alert, but then she revealed the spoiler immediately after the alert, and before I knew it, I knew it, as it were. So, I'm doing my best to bury the surprise deep within this paragraph. OK, now that I've put a considerable amount of text between the alert and the surprise, here it is: the subway car turns out to be a modern version of the boat across the River Styx. Essentially, everyone on the car is dead, and the task before them is to choose one perfect moment from their lives. They will then spend the rest of eternity living in that moment. This conceit provides a framing device for the rest of the show: the musical numbers arise out of each character's attempt to select their own perfect moments.
The opening of the show reminded me of the work of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, masters of the extended opening sequence. Happiness begins with a sequence of similar ambition and complexity, although the point of this sequence seemed muddled by Weidman's attempts to establish a series of urban stereotypes: the yuppie-scum lawyer, the gay interior designer, the Hispanic bike messenger, the deaf old lady, etc. I was surprised Weidman didn't throw in a chef, an astronaut, and an Indian chief. It seems probable that Weidman intends these characters to appear initially to be stereotypes, but later reveal themselves as something far more rich and interesting. But the show, as currently written, doesn't successfully portray those character transformations, making the transitions seem abrupt and forced.
After the aforementioned revelation, the show settles into a series of flashbacks, and suddenly it comes alive, albeit intermittently. The first two flashback numbers are sweet and moving, if a bit pat. The deaf old lady (Phyllis Somerville) transforms into a young girl who falls in love at a dance with a soldier headed off to World War II. Stroman stages this very effectively, with the younger and older counterparts taking turns dancing with the young suitor. To Stroman's credit, this is the first significant use of dance in the show, coming some 30 minutes in. It reminded me of Jerome Robbins using dance so sparingly, and thus far more effectively, in putting together Gypsy.
The second flashback involves an older gentleman (Fred Applegate) who recalls the day his doorman father took off from work to take him to a Giants game. The scene and song could easily have descended into sentimental claptrap, but instead are executed here with heart and honesty. As the characters and their stories become more complicated, the show falters. The fault here lies mostly with Weidman, whose shows (e.g. Assassins, Pacific Overtures) tend to be more clever than effective, although occasionally the two merge, as they did in Contact.
Humor and heart have never been Weidman's forte. He also tends to fall short in character development, as he demonstrated in the recent Road Show. In Happiness, Weidman clearly wants us to see behind the stereotypes. There's the right-wing radio show host (Joanna Gleason) who turns out to be a disenchanted hippie from the '60s. Then there's the heartless lawyer (Sebastian Arcelus) who sees the error of his master-of-the-universe ways and is supposed to become the show's conduit for redemption. But the denouement comes in the form of a deus ex machina shift, not unlike that at the end of Brigadoon, and just as unbelievable.
Happiness runs through June 7th at LCT. The show has such a promising premise, and so many sublime moments, that it really seems salvageable. But it's going to need some major work if it's going to have any kind of...er...afterlife. It's not often these days that we see an entirely original musical, let alone one this ambitious in conception. I'm hoping that there are plans to further develop the show, perhaps regionally, as happened with Next to Normal. If not, well, at least we have Frankel and Korie's upcoming musical, Finding Neverland, to look forward to.