Flaherty and Ahrens have done a lot of good work over the course of their career, but three of their shows stand above all the others…Once On This Island, Ragtime, and this one. It wasn’t exactly a hit when it came out, but of all the Lincoln Center musicals of that period, this one ranks right behind The Light in the Piazza in terms of sensitivity and beauty.
The show opens with a bittersweet title-song, with a title that might be ironic, and then again it might be a sadly accurate description, as we’re introduced to a closeted gay bus conductor in Sixties Ireland, a man who vents his repressed emotions by reading poetry to his bus passengers and heading up a local theater company.
The succeeding score is a departure for Flaherty and Ahrens…not because of the Irish sound (their shows were known for using various ethnic idioms), but because their usual anthemic grandeur is replaced by an exquisite delicacy. There is only one big anthem in the entire score, and it is all the more thrilling in its impact for it…“The Streets of Dublin”, a magnificent showstopper about finding the beauty in everyday life.
The rest of the score is gossamer-delicate, with numbers like the show’s gentle message song, “Love Who You Love”, or the exquisite character piece “Princess”, or the very Irish sentiment of “The Cuddles Mary Gave”, a widower’s reminiscence on his beloved wife.
If there is anything wrong with this score, it is that the four comedy numbers are not up to the level of the rest of the score…even the best of them, the genuinely amusing “Art”, sounds like it belongs in another show. But this doesn’t do much damage to the show because, unlike My Favorite Year or The Glorious Ones, this show isn’t dependent on its comedy numbers for its impact.
Faith Prince as Alfie’s sister is saddled with two of those numbers, but she also gets one of the most moving moments in the show, “Tell Me Why”. For context, her brother never dared to tell her he was gay, and she has pretty much put her own life on hold until he gets married. She rips into him for letting her make this senseless sacrifice, but the last line of the song is “You must have known I’d love you all the same”. This is typical of Ahrens’ lyrics, which are beautifully written and heart-rending throughout, and rank as perhaps the finest work she has ever done.
As the show progresses, Alfie is forcibly outed and loses his beloved theater group due to censorship, but his friends stand by him and he realizes that he is finally free to live, and the show ends with the bittersweetly life-affirming “Welcome To The World” and a moving final scene where his friends gather round to hear him read and the title-song is reprised, finally showing us the title line really is meant ironically…that Alfie is a man of some importance after all.
This is one of the best, most beautiful shows of the decade, and while it may not have the sweeping intensity or popular appeal of Once On This Island or Ragtime, in its own quietly eloquent way, it is every bit their equal.