Chronologically, this was the first of the beautiful flops of the 2013-2014 season to close down, and it might well be the best of all of them. The critics pretty much lifted their leg on this show, but audience word of mouth was almost unanimously glowing…every non-critic that went to the show seemed to love it.
Now, being embraced by audiences in spite of critical scorn can be a good thing (as in Phantom of the Opera or pretty much every other Webber, Schonberg, or Wildhorn show of the Eighties and Nineties), or a bad one (as in such then-recent embarrassments as the Young Frankenstein, The Addams Family, or Spider-Man musicals). Still, I generally trust the general Broadway audiences much more than I trust our current crop of newspaper critics, so I was expecting something pretty good going in. Still, I was not really prepared for the actual experience in store. This is seriously one of the most beautiful pieces of theater I’ve ever seen in my life.
For those who haven’t seen the show, it’s about a young man whose father (played in a titanic performance by Broadway giant Norbert Leo Butz) has, ever since childhood, been telling him these elaborate, wildly imaginative tall tales. The son, as an adult, has kind of distanced himself from those stories and wonders if he really knows his dad at all underneath the layers of what he perceives as artifice. As the story begins, the son, recently married, finds out he’s going have a son, just as his father discovers he’s dying of cancer. The two awkwardly try to reconcile while they still have the chance.
If that sounds dreary, it isn’t. Most of the first act consists of the Father’s tall tales being acted out. First, he meets a witch, who tells him his future, including how he’s supposedly going to die. Then he is taught about the nature of love (and how to swim) by a mermaid whom he frees from a curse with a kiss. Then he meets a giant named Karl who becomes his best friend, and they leave his small hometown and his high school sweetheart to travel the open road. He meets the love of his life (who is, or course, the son’s mother) at an audition for a travelling circus, and works three years for no pay to find out her name so he can find her again. He finally finds her (having traveled to Auburn University human-cannonball style), and wins her over in a number called “Daffodils”, where, at the climax, the projection screen showing the field of daffodils gives way, revealing an actual huge arrangement of hundreds of daffodils.
That scene was the show’s visual highpoint, but the staging and visuals are gorgeous throughout, and the music is just heartrendingly beautiful. It may be slightly less accessible than Lippa’s previous efforts, but it still features a wealth of melody, and the lyrics are a huge improvement on his earlier efforts as a lyricist. There are admittedly a few lesser numbers here and there…the out-of-place Pop number for the Witch, the wince-inducing comedy number “Closer To Her”, the cheesy Western-themed production number “Showdown”. But the score is full of wonderful things like the thrilling opening “Be the Hero”; the gorgeous romantic ballads “Time Stops” and “Daffodils”; the moving “Fight the Dragons”; the heartbreakingly beautiful “I Don’t Need a Roof”; and the mega-showstopper “Red, White and True”.
During the second act, the son tries to delve into his father’s ‘real’ past, even suspecting him of having an affair, but ultimately finds out about the truly heroic deeds his father had done and that some of the tall tales weren’t as far from reality as they seemed. The show’s ending is one of the most devastating in Broadway history, moving from the magnificent final song “How It Ends” to the funeral, at which the son meets ‘Carl’, the ‘giant’ who was his father’s best friend and whom he had previously believed to be fictional, to a final tableau of the son telling similar stories to his own son. In short, this is one of those endings that keeps one-upping itself, keeps making you think you’ve reached the emotional climax, and then keeps getting more moving and more beautiful and more devastating.
The most heartbreaking thing of all is that the show closed in a matter of months because, as much as audiences love it, the critics hated it, and without a pre-sold title like Lippa’s last show, the vastly inferior The Addams Family, it just didn’t seem to be able to overcome that. It may have just been to beautiful and special for its own good…it was a very earnest, serious show, and its one minor flaw, the lack of effective humor in the book, only reinforced that quality. For all its glories, it really is the kind of show that generally becomes a beloved flop rather than a commercial success, so it probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that that’s what happened.
Thankfully, the music was preserved on a superb cast recording, but the show’s undeserved failure still stands as one of modern Broadway’s biggest disappointments. I seriously have yet to hear of anyone who wasn’t a New York newspaper critic not liking this show, so if the cast album is all that’s left of it, that’s still well worth acquiring. The Wild Party is still probably Lippa’s best score, but this is a very, very close second.