In a theater season replete with commercial-minded, but artistically spare, musicalizations of Hollywood properties (Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), it's rather refreshing to contemplate a musical based on passion and ideas, particularly those of the great George Bernard Shaw. But just as The People in the Picture didn't quite live up to the promise of its noble subject matter, so too A Minister's Wife falls considerably short of its literary pedigree.
After his breathtaking New York debut with Adding Machine, easily one of the most uncompromising and satisfying musicals in decades, composer Joshua Schmidt turned his attentions to a musical adaptation of Shaw's Candida, a staple among dramatic actors seeking showy, talky, passionate parts to add to their theatrical CVs.
Schmidt teamed up with lyricist Jan Levy Tranen and librettist Austin Pendleton (Yes, that Austin Pendleton: "Don't you dare strike that brave, unbalanced woman!"), and the result was A Minister's Wife, which had a well-received run in Chicago a few years back. Now A Minister's Wife has settled into the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center for a limited run, and as much as I was astounded by Schmidt's work on Adding Machine, I must confess that I found his work here admirable but ultimately unfulfilling.
The story to A Minister's Wife concerns itself, as does Shaw's original play, with Reverend James Morell (Mark Kudisch), his wife Candida (Kate Fry), and young poet Eugene Marchbanks (Bobby Steggert) who enters their lives, upsets their sense of stability, and makes them question the very foundations of their marriage. Eugene attempts to free Candida from the minister's sterile world of rhetoric and metaphors. It's a compelling concept for a musical: ideas versus passion, but in execution the show exhibits too much of the former and not enough of the latter.
I haven't seen Candida in many years, but something seems to have been lost in the translation here, specifically the reasons why Eugene would be able to cause such a stir in this seemingly happy marriage. Eugene first pierces Morell's armor with a Biblical reference to King David, drawing an analogy between the Morell's relationship with Candida and David's marriage to Michal. Eugene refers to a Bible passage in which Michal "looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart."
I didn't quite get the relevance of this reference, other than that it seemed to be an attempt on Eugene's part to place doubt in the mind of the minister as to Candida's true feelings for him. A seemingly minor point, but indicative of a larger problem with Pendelton's book and Tranen's lyrics: Shaw's story is pretty much intact, but the character motivations were often unclear.
Schmidt's music could have filled the void here, illuminating emotional undercurrents and unspoken alliances, but instead Schmidt seems to have veered off on an ambitious but unrewarding quest to create a hybrid musical-cum-chamber opera. The score to A Minster's Wife contains few identifiable songs or set pieces, and the result, to my ears, sounded mostly like a progression of undifferentiated recitative. To Schmidt's credit, his musical style for this show bears little resemblance to the harsh staccato rhythms of Adding Machine. Schmidt's work here is equally uncompromising, but whereas Adding Machine was vibrant and arresting, A Minster's Wife left me cold.
I can definitely see what Schmidt was going for: musical phrases that would emerge almost imperceptibly from spoken dialog. And he certainly gets points for his idiomatic efforts, with passages of irregular meter to emphasize Shaw's patterns of speech, or block chords to underscore a particular character's ecclesiastic ambitions. The show's finale, a quintet involving the entire cast, included a soaring motif for Candida about her feelings for her husband, a thrilling moment that nonetheless emphasized what the rest of the score could have been.
I remain an ardent fan of Adding Machine, and of Joshua Schmidt in particular, and I look forward to his future projects. We need more composers who are willing to take big risks, even if those risks don't always yield the most satisfying results.