This offering from the team that gave us Les Miserables and Miss Saigon offers a parallel to the work from Webber’s late-career slump period, in that it was a catastrophic failure and pretty much deserved it, and in that it seems unworthy not only of their successes, but of their previous flop. Martin Guerre, even in its inferior second draft, had significant dramatic and musical merits, but this show, apparently intended as a Wicked rip-off recast in the historical settings this team favors, gave us only simplistic characterization, a disappointing score with appalling lyrics, and feminism so dogmatic and cartoonish it borders on misandry (surprising given the all-male creative team).
The show is set in Tudor-era England and Ireland and deals with the wars between the two nations, although it makes absolutely no concessions to historical accuracy. Its heroine, Grace, is portrayed as a mix of feminist superwoman and secular saint, with no realistic flaws or failings whatsoever. She’s so built-up that her accomplishments sound more like ‘Chuck Norris facts’ than serious story elements…at one point she actually fends off multiple male opponents minutes after giving birth.
The male characters are either satellites who exist only to support Grace even when she blatantly mistreats them (like her father or her ridiculously long-suffering love interest) or else moustache-twirling slimeballs who exist only to embody every negative male stereotype ever conceived (such as Grace’s first husband or Queen Elizabeth’s sexist chief minister). The only character with any depth or complexity whatsoever is Elizabeth herself, and the authors of the show can hardly take credit for creating her. Besides, the only composer I’ve ever really trusted to portray Queen Elizabeth I on the musical stage is Donizetti, whose operas Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux are the only musical stage works to really do justice to this legendary historical character.
Of course, in a sung-through show like this, a good score could do a lot to compensate, but sadly, this one isn’t up to the job. Some of the tunes are attractive, and there are a few good numbers, particularly as the big ballad “I’ll Be There”, the first-act finale “Sail to the Stars”, the explosive quarrel duet “I Dismiss You”, and two duets for Grace and Elizabeth, “She Who Has All” and “Woman To Woman”.
Unfortunately, the lyrics are trite and heavy-handed throughout and even the best of the music seems lightweight compared to the grandeur of their previous scores. Grace’s overwrought Wanting Song “Woman”, the cartoonishly sexist villain song “Boys’ll Be Boys”, and the faux-Gilbert and Sullivan “Rah-Rah, Tip-Top” for the English courtiers are flat-out embarrassing, and the cliche-ridden romantic duet “Here On This Night” is one of Broadway’s most insipid love songs.
The orchestrations, which featured transparently synthetic attempts to replicate the sound of Irish pipes, only added to these problems. The cast of the Broadway production sang well and were clearly doing their best, especially the talented Stephanie J. Block as Grace, but since all the characters were one-dimensional cartoons, there was only so much the performers could do with them. In fact, I imagine the fact that her first starring role in a Broadway show was such a disaster explains why Block went back to playing supporting and ensemble roles and serving as a replacement for bigger stars in the coming years. Still, if the show really is responsible for sabotaging Block’s career, that’s the only thing unjust about its failure.
The show was a quick flop and was shut out of the 2007 Tony awards, and it’s not very hard to see why…it’s everything critics accuse this kind of musical of being. Phantom didn’t really have subliterate lyrics, but this show does. Les Mis wasn’t really emotionally manipulative, but this show is. Wicked wasn’t really pandering to the teen girl demographic, but this show most certainly was. This almost seems like the embodiment of every false stereotype about Broadway at the time, but the fact that audiences saw right through it and it lasted less than three months demonstrates what I’ve always said…that Broadway audiences are smarter than people give them credit for, and are perfectly capable of recognizing quality (and the lack thereof) when they see it.