Yeah, I know. I've been greatly remiss in my blogging duties. Mea culpa. I'm wearing a hair shirt even as I type. But the semester is in full swing here at The Boston Conservatory, and this is my first real chance since classes resumed to sit down and craft a blog post.
Thankfully, my blogging and my teaching often have a chance to intersect, as they did recently when I took in a performance of Lost in the Stars, which was part of the current season of offerings from Encores at New York City Center.
I've been teaching about Lost in the Stars for years, but until the present production had never had a chance to see the show live. I've had to make do with the 1974 screen adaptation, which makes a significant number of changes to the show, some of them ill-advised, if not downright unforgivable. Otherwise, opportunities to see Lost in the Stars are pretty scarce. The original Broadway run of the show in 1949 was 281 performances, and a 1972 revival ran only 39 performances. Since then, the show has pretty much disappeared from view. As we'll see, there are reasons for that.
For the uninitiated, Lost in the Stars was composer Kurt Weill's final Broadway musical. He died at the age of 50 shortly after the show premiered. The book and lyrics are by playwright Maxwell Anderson, whose only other Broadway musical was the turgid and preachy Knickerbocker Holiday. I mention this because, although Lost in the Stars holds an important place in musical-theater history, that distinction comes more from the show's early sympathetic treatment of blacks, and from its distinction of being the first significant musical tragedy. Lost in the Stars, based on the novel Cry, the Beloved Country by South African author Alan Paton, is ambitious and important. Unfortunately, it isn't very good.
Lost in the Stars tells the heartbreaking story of Steven Kumalo, a rural South African preacher, who sets off to Johannesburg to find his wayward son Absalom, only to discover that Absalom is in serious trouble with the law. Far from a simplistic anti-Apartheid screed, the story is rather a complex exploration of the effects of racial segregation and institutionalized distrust.
It's really too bad that Anderson and Weill weren't able to craft a more cohesive show, one worthy of its admirable ambitions. For, apart from a few heart-rending moments, the show as a whole is strangely unaffecting. Lost in the Stars, at least as presented here in a concert adaptation by David Ives, plays more like a straight play with interpolated folk songs and the occasional oratorio.
The score comprises two distinct sets of songs: plant-and-belt solos and Greek-chorus-style choral numbers, with jarringly disparate styles. The music for the book songs often has a blithe, jaunty air that seems out of sync with the tragic nature of the story. The choral numbers have more of a somber tone, but both sets of songs feature lyrics that are too often oblique and allegorical, which impedes any emotional connection the audience might feel with the characters. What's more, the solo numbers typically have a stop-and-sing quality that thwarts rather than propels the forward motion of the drama.
Given Kurt Weill's working history with Bertolt Brecht, perhaps it's not surprising that many of his songs here feel like Brecht's famed alienation devices. But whereas Brecht, through his "epic theater," sought to create a consciously critical observer, such an impetus would seem counterproductive for the story to Lost in the Stars, at least from where I sat. I wanted to feel more for these characters, not sit back and intellectualize their situation. As such, I found my attention wandering during the songs, but considerably more engaged during the book scenes.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the ending of the show in the text below.]
There were, of course, exceptions, and one in particular was simply stunning. I've always been a huge fan of the show's title number, given a stirring rendition here by Chuck Cooper as Steven Kumalo. The preacher, a man of deep, abiding faith, starts to question whether God has abandoned his people, based on the tragic events that are unfolding in Steven's life. Cooper makes the preacher's heartbreak profoundly palpable, but the moment made me all the more cognizant of what was missing from the rest of the score.
By and large, the most effective scenes in the show seem to have been taken directly from the book, presented here without benefit of music. Steven's son Absalom has been condemned to death for a murder that took place during a robbery. Absalom shoots a young white man, ironically a man who is a staunch advocate of the rights of blacks and an Apartheid abolitionist. And here's the thing: Absalom is genuinely guilty, although he shoots the gun in a frenzied panic. That's something I've always admired about Paton's story: it isn't cut and dried. There are no cardboard villains or two-dimensional heroes. These are real people, with real flaws, which adds complex drama and realism to the story. Paton's novel may be about the tragedy of Apartheid, but it respects its audience enough to flesh the story out in all its moral ambiguity.
Despite my lack of engagement during most of the show, when the final scene arrived, I was a wet sloppy mess. The father of the slain white man visits Steven at the precise hour when Absalom is to be hanged. The white man's father, a man who had been a firm believer in Apartheid, has come to realize that both men share in the tragedy of their respective losses. The man offers Steven his hand in friendship just as the church bell tolls to indicate that the hanging has taken place. Cooper let out a wail of anguish that shook me to the core and had me unsuccessfully choking back tears at the sheer force of the man's grief. It was a thrilling moment, and one that nearly redeemed the spotty construction reflected throughout the rest of show.
Intent versus execution. That's something that I'm always harping on with my students. Just because a show has good intentions, or a meaningful message, that doesn't mean that the show gets a pass in terms of the quality of its execution. And yet, I still found myself thankful that Weill and Anderson had made the attempt. At one point during the show, some anti-Apartheid activists discuss their strategy. Change will only come slowly, they say. They can't push too hard, or they would risk losing whatever progress they'd already made. I found my self thinking, as these people were discussing the pain of their situation and the coming of a better day, that these poor souls would have another 40 years to wait for that day to come.
I also found myself wondering whether, in its admittedly flawed way, Lost in the Stars had helped make that change a reality.