The songbook revue is both the easiest and the hardest type of theatrical show to pull off. "Easiest" because you seemingly just throw together a bunch of songs and let the audience revel in waves of nostalgia. "Hardest" because, if you don't want the audience tuning out after the first few numbers, you need to come up with some kind of through line or production concept to hold people's attention.
The best revues often find a sense of structure from within the material (Side By Side By Sondheim). Others recreate a joyous sense of time and place (Ain't Misbehavin'). Still others take preexisting songs and find a way to bring them together to tell a completely new story.
Actually, I can't think of another example from this sub-genre, other than the wistfully entertaining Ten Cents a Dance, a newly devised revue that director John Doyle has coaxed forth from the glorious songbook of Rodgers and Hart. The show recently finished up its initial run at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and is headed next for the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey. But based on the glowing review Ben Brantley gave the production in The New York Times, as well additional strong notices from The Boston Globe and other outlets, don't be surprised if the show eventually makes its way to New York City.
From where I sat, Ten Cents a Dance more than deserves its high praise. Part of the enjoyment for me was in figuring out what the relationships were among the various individuals onstage, so I'm going to bury my take on all that later in this post, in case you want to figure it out for yourself. (And, hey, who says my interpretation is right, anyway?) So, if you want to preserve the sense of discovery, stop reading here. Suffice it to say that I think the show is well worth the trip to Princeton, or worth the wait for the seemingly inevitable Manhattan production.
So, for those of you who are still with me, Ten Cents a Dance begins with a slow, pensive opening. Doyle establishes from the outset that this show is not in any particular hurry, preferring instead to luxuriate in the sounds of the music, and gradually reveal the underlying themes. The show features one male (Malcolm Gets) and five female performers (including Broadway legend Donna McKechnie and rising star Lauren Molina). Doyle also makes clear from the start that, among the emotional overtones that will emerge, the predominant feeling will be a palpable sense of loss and regret. (Not everyone will appreciate the languorous pacing. My sources tell me that, at one performance, a woman in the audience impatiently and repeatedly enjoined Malcolm Gets to "Say something!" as the opening sequence lingered on.)
Of course, when you hear "John Doyle show," you might automatically think "actors playing musical instruments," and in this instance you'd be correct. There are those who consider the whole actor/musician device a gimmick whose time has long since passed. I am not one of those people. I approach it like any other production device: Does it work for the show at hand?
And here, it works. Gets plays "Johnny," who would appear to be a bandleader of some sort, or at least a metaphorical bandleader, looking back on one especially momentous collaboration, with the women in the show become the members of Johnny's band. (Yes, this has been done before in Nine, but, hey, everything's been done before.)
The program lists the five women in the show as "Miss Jones 1," "Miss Jones 2," etc. Each female performer wears a slight variation on the same costume design. Clearly, they're all meant to be the same woman, each at a different stage of the relationship. Or perhaps the grieving process, as this is clearly a romance that ended on a sorrowful note. There's the idealistic young woman (Molina) flush with the glow of new love. The three middle females each represent some intermediate stage of regret, disappointment, and rage. And finally we have the resigned and forgiving older woman (McKechnie), who visibly intercedes when the others become too harsh.
And the wonder of all this is that the backstory comes out through the staging and the performances. The actors speak few if any words. Doyle has ordered the songs to follow the arching sine curve of the relationship. For instance, at one point the ladies join together in a rousing rendition of "To Keep My Love Alive" (from A Connecticut Yankee), which builds in bitterness until Johnny interrupts with a palliative "This Can't Be Love" (from The Boys from Syracuse). The juxtaposition succinctly reveals Johnny as a manipulative charmer, and the cohort of ladies as a bit of a survivors' group. The show as a whole features many such apt pairings and groupings, making it almost seem as though the songs had been written specifically for this show.
Of course, we know better. These are the glorious cream of the voluminous output of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The melodies remain haunting despite years of familiarity, and the lyrics reveal nuance upon nuance, from a lyricist who could sometimes be more clever than evocative. The irony, of course, is that these songs all come from an era when theater songs weren't always written for context, but rather as potential hits. That these songs genuinely seem embedded within Doyle's devised story gives testament to some latent power on the part of Rodgers & Hart to craft songs that not only resonate but also transcend.
A few minor quibbles: The musicality was a bit wanting at times, possibly because most of the cast members were forced to play multiple instruments to accommodate the arrangements. (Ms. McKechnie in particular seemed incapable of maintaining the beat when she was on percussion.) And the vocal cutoffs were wildly inconsistent throughout the show. But, for the most part, this is a haunting show, a testament to the power of classic songs and smart conception.