I had been hearing really great things about the revised version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which has been kicking around for a few years now in various workshops and readings. In fact, the advance word was so strong, and the sources so reliable, that On a Clear Day was easily one of the Broadway productions this season that I was most eagerly anticipating.
And then I saw the show.
I'm going to give my sources the benefit of the doubt and assume that something has been lost in the translation, but in all honesty, there are certain fundamental flaws with this new version of On a Clear Day that I can only assume must have been part of the show since the revision was conceived.
Some history: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever has never been much of a hit, despite the popularity of the title song. The original production ran less than a year, and the 1970 movie version is a curiosity at best, notable mostly for the presence of Barbra Streisand in the central role of Daisy Gamble. The main liability of both the stage and movie versions is the wackjob story line by Alan Jay Lerner, which focuses on such offbeat topics as psychoanalysis, telepathy, and reincarnation. According to John Cullum, the star of the original stage version, there's a fairly understandable reason why the show seems like it was written by someone on drugs. Lerner was taking LSD while he was writing it.
But Burton Lane's marvelous score to On a Clear Day, full of jaunty, upbeat numbers (my favorite is "Hurry, It's Lovely Up Here") and soaring ballads (particularly the haunting "Melinda"), has always had its adherents, and rightly so. Apparently the prospect of taking the marvelous Lerner and Lane songs and fashioning a more workable book around them was too much for director Michael Mayer and playwright by Peter Parnell to resist. Their efforts might have amounted to nothing more than an academic exercise had it not been for one man: Harry Connick Jr., who apparently saw enough in Mayer and Parnell's version of the show (or at least the Lerner/Lane score) to sign on for what he no doubt hoped would be a triumphant return to Broadway after the sold-out success of The Pajama Game in 2006.
Connick certainly gets props for returning in such a risky project. As you may have heard, Parnell and Mayer have given Daisy Gamble a gender reassignment: it's now Davey Gamble (an adorable David Turner) who enters the office of Dr. Mark Bruckner (Connick) in the hope of quitting smoking. Davey is a gay man who is having trouble committing to moving in with his boyfriend. Under hypnosis, Davey reverts back to a previous life in which he was Melinda Wells, an up-and-coming World War II big band singer, played here by sensationally talented newcomer Jesse Mueller. Dr. Bruckner finds himself drawn to Melinda, and, well, the plot thickens from there, bringing Dr. Bruckner into a rather dicey love triangle.
Which is all well and good. I have no problem with outlandish plots or daring subject matter. I do, however, have problems with both Parnell's new book and Mayer's direction of same. Parnell's dialog is often painfully plodding and expository, particularly when it comes to explaining the Freudian underpinnings of the good doctor's obsession. But the most egregious elements for me were the tortured song setups. Most of the songs (which were cherry-picked from the stage version as well as the songs that were added for the movie) seemed to fit nominally within the new scenario, but none of them really embraces it fully. And there were a few songs that seemed wedged in with a crowbar.
For instance, "Wait 'Til We're Sixty Five" in the original story is sung by Warren, a stuffy young man who is old way before his time. The satirical lyric describes how Warren has his finances all planned, and the couple will have it free and easy in their retirement. But when Warren sings the song in the new version, it doesn't make any sense, because the new Warren isn't stuffy. What's more, the song is meant to convey how Warren and Daisy don't belong together, but that's inconsistent with how things develop in the new version. And as for the line "If the children never mature, what the hell the bonds will so we're secure," the show takes place in the 1970s, and the idea of a '70s gay couple assuming that they'll have children is anachronistic.
And then there's "When I'm Being Born Again," which in the original is sung by a rich Greek businessman who wants to find a way to be reincarnated so he can leave his fortune to himself. In the new version, the song becomes part of some mystical be-in kind of happening that the good doctor is holding with his psychiatry students. The new context renders meaningless the fractured English syntax (for instance, the deliberately awkward phrasing in the title), and makes the references to the character's avarice and materialism ("Don't cross the line! Those toys are mine!") jarringly inappropriate for the scene.
What's more, Parnell fails to follow his own rules. Early in the show, Dr. Bruckner tells Davey he won't remember anything that happens while he is under hypnosis. But Parnell seems to conveniently forget this dictum in the number "On the S.S. Bernard Cohn," during which Davey regales his friends with the seemingly romantic night that he has just spent with Dr. Bruckner. I suppose it's possible that, just that once, Dr. Bruckner was remiss in his post-hypnotic instructions, but I think it's more likely that this is just lazy writing.
Beyond the plot holes, the main liability for this On a Clear Day is that the pace starts off rather sluggish and never really recovers from that listlessness. The show perks up considerably whenever Turner and Mueller are on stage, which is thankfully a large portion of the show. But whenever the stage belongs to Connick, the pace grinds to a halt. Connick is quite the singer, but he seemed uncomfortable in the role, and I don't recall seeing him smile even once. Act 2 got particularly bogged down in making sure Connick got his full complement of power-ballad moments.
Despite Connick's presence, On a Clear Day has been playing to rather anemic houses, with heavily discounted tickets. According to Michael Riedel of the New York Post, Connick's contract is for 34 weeks, which is about 240 performances. If the show can make it through the notoriously chilly months of January and February, it might have a shot of making it to the end of Connick's contract. But I don't see him extending, nor do I envision anyone stepping in to take his place.