Before posting my recent review of A Minister's Wife, I thought long and hard about my reaction to the show. I went in genuinely wanting to like the show, but somehow it left me rather cold. (Read my review.) But, for a number of reasons, the prospect of posting my review made me uncomfortable.
First, I must confess I had moments of self-doubt as to my qualifications for judging the piece. Yes, I teach at a prestigious performing-arts college (The Boston Conservatory), and I'm certainly no slouch when it comes to musical-theater history and performance. But it seemed as though A Minister's Wife had ambitions of operating on a "higher" plane, that of chamber opera and genuinely serious, high-toned, literary theater.
I dismissed such insecurities much in the same way I placate my criticism students when they think they're in over their heads. "Your own personal response is just as valid as anyone else's," I tell them. "The most important thing is that you provide sufficient support for your views." Despite my uncertainty, I forged ahead, trusting my gut reaction, and doing my best to explicate my views fully.
Also, after A Minister's Wife opened, I noticed that, although the critical response was mixed, and that many prominent critics seemed to share my reserved response to the show, there were a handful of rapturous reviews from people whose opinions I greatly respect, including Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, Andy Propst of TheaterMania, and Charles Isherwood of the New York Times. I'm fine with standing my own ground, but this particular combination of critics, and Terry Teachout in particular, made me wonder whether I went into the show with too much of a traditional musical-theater mindset. I was reminded of the first time I saw The Light in the Piazza. I left the theater nonplussed, but I have since grown to admire, appreciate, even love many particular aspects of that show.
And lastly, another reason I had for hesitation was that, full disclosure, I kind of know the composer, Joshua Schmidt. We've never actually met, but after I had posted a number of glowing reports about his brilliant musical Adding Machine, Schmidt contacted me, and we struck up a bit of a correspondence. When I posted my original review for A Minister's Wife, I was sort of hoping that Schmidt had forgotten about me, but a few days later, I saw his name in my in-box, and my heart sank. Based on my past experience with certain Pulitzer-Prize-winning librettists, I was expecting an angry or defensive missive from Schmidt, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Josh was congenial, engaging, thoughtful, and thoroughly professional. He had contacted me merely to clarify some points about what he was trying to accomplish with the piece. This guy is one class act, let me tell you.
So, based on my respect for Schmidt, as well as for my esteemed critical colleagues, I decided to take in another performance of A Minister's Wife. I'm glad that I did. I saw much more in the show to admire this time around, although I remain more in admiration of the show than in rapture. But, whereas the first time that I experienced the score, I heard seemingly unrelated fragments and recitative, this time I heard purposeful leitmotifs and interrelated themes. Schmidt's music, while intentionally fragmented, is nonetheless subtly melodic, with frequent and meaningful repetition for dramatic emphasis. The payoff of all this deliberate setup comes during the show's final quintet, in which the various themes merge, coalesce and collectively climax. It's really a thrilling moment.
What's more, I've also been rereading Shaw's Candida, upon which A Minister's Wife is based, and I think Schmidt and his collaborators, librettist Austin Pendleton and lyricist Jan Levy Tranen, have given the story an invigorating dose of focus and passion. Shaw's characters are fascinatingly complex, and Schmidt and his team find compelling ways to illuminate the interconnections musically. The creators are aided immeasurably in this regard by an outstanding ensemble, including New York stalwarts Mark Kudisch and Bobby Steggert, as well as talented newcomer Kate Fry.
A Minister's Wife runs through June 12th at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. If you're interested in seeing some genuinely serious musical theater, with provocative ideas, a challenging score, and one of the best performing ensembles you're ever likely to encounter, I recommend giving the show a try. You don't have to see it twice, like I did. But it certainly couldn't hurt.