This show has one of the best and funniest librettos of the decade, a hilarious and surprisingly truthful look at the trials and concerns of real children, perfectly integrating improv elements and audience participation with its otherwise largely scripted material. As the next of our bizarre off-Broadway transfers, it’s harder to sum up the show’s weirdness in a one-sentence description than it is for Urinetown or Avenue Q, but in actual performance, it is arguably the strangest of the three.
Those who have actually seen it know it as one of the greatest shows of the last decade, but among those who have not, the disappointing cast album has rather sabotaged its reputation. As brilliant as it is, the show is not the kind of musical that is loved for its actual music, and it honestly comes across as a brilliant straight play that was transformed into a musical simply to make it easier to market.
It’s particularly disappointing given who composed it: of the first post-Sondheim generation of composers, the ones that appeared in the Eighties while Sondheim himself was still doing his peak work, William Finn is perhaps the most talented of all, with such distinguished works as the Falsettos Trilogy, A New Brain and the Elegies song cycle under his belt. But of all his scores to reach the public, this is easily the least interesting.
There are three excellent numbers—the showstopping “Magic Foot”, the dazzling “I Speak Six Languages,” and the moving “The ‘I Love You’ Song”—but the rest of the score is rather inconsequential. Part of the problem is that Finn, who generally takes years to write a musical score, wrote this one in a mere six months, and it kind of shows. Another problem is that Finn’s greatest strength as a lyricist is his sharp sophistication, and having to write realistic lyrics for these child characters kind of straightjackets him.
In any case, the show’s mediocre score does less overall damage to the material than some of the other examples I’ve reviewed—underwhelming as it is, it’s still fairly appropriate for the material, and the show still ranks as one of the finest musicals I’ve covered on this site—but it would have ranked even higher with a score that did justice to its book.