This show was in gestation in regional theaters for years, and was keenly awaited by every Flaherty-Ahrens fan, but when it finally arrived off-Broadway, it bombed, barely lasting long enough to leave behind a cast album. Why is this possibly their least successful show ever? Well, first, even though its entire subject is the history of comedy, the show isn’t a comedy itself: it’s an extremely serious and actually rather humorless show whose subjects are famous historical comedians in the commedia dell’arte tradition.
This is already an awkward setup for a show, but it could have worked—after all, Leoncavallo’s Il Pagliacci is famously a tragedy about clowns/comedians, and it remains a top-tier operatic classic loved by millions all over the world. But in The Glorious Ones, the awkwardness of the premise is compounded by a perennial problem with this team’s shows: lack of effective comedy. Even so, this is something of an extreme case—Lynn Ahrens has always had trouble with comedy lyrics, but her work here is a career worst, with the disgusting “Armanda’s Tarantella” being arguably the single worst Flaherty and Ahrens song to make it onto a recording.
This is a problem for more than the obvious reasons. Since the terrible comedy songs are mostly onstage numbers, the performances by the group are all quite clearly ghastly, which makes all the inspirational talk the show hinges on (about them being ‘the Glorious Ones’ and breaking all kinds of important ground in comedy) seem kind of hollow. Between the comedy numbers and the bland musicalization of the secondary love story (featuring, of all things, a recycled melody from Ragtime), this is one of Flaherty and Ahrens’ most uneven scores.
But the good numbers are very, very good. Flaherty contributes several of his finest melodies to the more dramatic numbers, and when they’re not trying to be funny, Ahren’s lyrics are often heartrending. The title-song makes for a suitably stirring opening, and “Absalom”, “Improvisation”, “My Body Wasn’t Why”, “Armanda’s Sack” and especially the thrilling “I Was Here” all rank with the finest songs Flaherty and Ahrens have ever written. So the show has its redeeming qualities, and isn’t a complete bust. Still, this definitely represents an off-day for the team.