Even by the standards of the late-career works of composer Charles Strouse (which produced, among other things, the Bye Bye Birdie and Annie sequels and the notorious Dance a Little Closer), this was a terrible idea for a show. Yes, the original novel was one of the all-time classics of the higher-brow, more literary forms of science fiction, a devastating and heartrending work of dazzling originality and artistic brilliance. But it isn’t really suited to being adapted into any visual medium, since so much of its communication of its main character’s state of mind hinges on his writing, spelling and punctuation in the diary entries through which the story is told…and indeed, even the successful movie version, called Charly, lost a lot of the novel’s impact.
On top of that, this is an extremely tricky story to express in song, given that you would have to find convincing music for both a severely retarded man and a superhuman genius. And given how spectacularly depressing the novel is, it would probably be too gloomy and tragic to go over on the musical stage. And indeed, this wound up one of the dreariest shows ever, with a generally uninspired adaptation compounding the problems of the source material.
There is some good music in the second act (the last six cuts on the London cast album all feature quality songwriting), including the lovely ballads “Now”, “Whatever Time There Is”, and “I Really Loved You”, the Vaudeville-style showstopper “Charlie and Algernon”, and the disturbingly brilliant “The Maze”, which is the closest the authors ever came to really musicalizing the themes of the novel.
But the material before that is some of the most lifeless work of Strouse’s career, such as the soporific ballad “Dream Safe With Me”, or the noisy, obnoxious rocker “Midnight Riding”, or the tedious musical scene “Reading”. They had particular trouble coming up with songs for Charlie early in the show, while he’s still severely retarded. The great Michael Crawford gave one of his finest performances as Charlie, but the only number for him in the first act that isn’t skin-crawlingly awful is the larking “Hey, Look At Me”, and even it is noticeably awkward. The numbers for the female lead, like the opening “His Name is Charlie Gordon”, or the anthemic “Some Bright Morning”, or the soul-searching “No Surprises”, are slightly better, although a lot of that can be chalked up to leading lady Cheryl Kennedy’s touchingly sincere performance.
The authors also vastly overemphasized the love story between Charlie and his former teacher, which was almost a footnote in the novel: this may have seemed helpful for a musical, but it makes the story seem much more conventional and less interesting, negating what little reason there might have been for adapting it to begin with. If they wanted a conventional musical, or even anything remotely close to it, why did they choose this material in the first place? The only conceivable reason for choosing it would be an attempt to completely demolish the normal conventions of musical theater, and the fact that they weren’t willing to do this makes the idea seem even more pointless.
Still, for all its faults, I can’t judge the musical too harshly, because it was after seeing Michael Crawford’s strikingly dramatic performance in this show (Crawford had previously been primarily a comic actor) that Andrew Lloyd-Webber had the idea to cast him in Phantom of the Opera. So I’m certainly glad the show existed, and while I’m not sure I can recommend the severely uneven cast album, if you do decide to get it, you’ll probably find a few songs on it to like. Just remember to listen all the way through…as I said, the last six cuts are vastly superior to anything else on the album.