This poignant musical fable, an early effort by Broadway composing superstar Jeanine Tesori, took seventeen years to make the leap to Broadway and even then didn’t find the success it deserved.
Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a young woman disfigured by an accident who makes a journey to a faith healer she believes can fix her face. On the way, she falls in with two soldiers, one black and one white, both of whom wind up falling in love with her in different ways. When she meets the faith healer, he turns out to be a pathetic fraud, but she finds comfort in the arms of the more sensitive of the two soldiers, named Flick, and the curtains falls on a bittersweet but intensely happy and hopeful ending.
Because the show was based on a short story, the plot is rather thin in terms of actual event, but the show is full of very intense feelings: the heroine’s symbolic confrontation with the spirit of her dead father and the heartrending final scene are among the most moving moments in modern musical theater, and the show’s journey from blind hope through despair to tentative happiness is one of the most moving stories to be found in any musical.
These powerful emotions are conveyed largely through the show’s melodious and intensely moving score. The score is still arguably Tesori’s best, with its only logical competitor being Fun Home, and ranks as one of the most underrated theater scores of the Nineties. Employing the Country and Classic Rock idioms that grew naturally out of the setting, it features two of the decade’s most rhapsodic ballads, “Lay Down Your Head” and “Bring Me To Light”, and two of its most inspiring anthems, “Let It Sing” and “On My Way”.
There are two intense musical confrontation scenes, “Hard To Say Goodbye” for Violet and Flick and a sequence consisting of the anguished “Look At Me” and the tender “That’s What I Could Do” for Violet and her late father. “You’re Different” is one of the deepest and most insightful character songs you’ll ever hear, as Monty, the callow womanizer of the two soldiers, privately admits just how much Violet has managed to get under his skin (one of the few flaws in the Broadway revival was the decision to replace this song with the far less interesting “Last Time I Came to Memphis”).
To lighten the heavy emotions of the piece, there are the clever “Luck of the Draw” for Violet’s father in a flashback and the sparkling “All To Pieces”, where Violet imagines all the features of famous movie stars she’d like to ask the faith healer for. And this is a rare show that manages to save its best song for its final curtain…the aforementioned “Bring Me To Light”, which is quite seriously one of the greatest final curtain numbers of all time, and does a perfect job of capturing the tentative love and joy that ends the show’s story.
You may ask, if the show has all these good qualities, why every one of its production in a major venue has failed. I can’t say for certain, but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it had something to do with the thinness of the plot. Remember, the show is based on a short story, and for all the sheer emotional punch it packs, there simply isn’t enough happening in this plot to fill two hours of theater. Don’t underestimate how fatal this problem can be…a number of otherwise wonderful musicals (most famously The Baker’s Wife) have been consigned to perennial failure by a lack of sheer plot.
This show seems like it would be a natural for local productions, given its modest set demands and overall simplicity, but it has one difficulty: the title role is extremely challenging, because nearly all productions of the show choose not to use a cosmetic scar for the character. The actress has to convey the impression of being scarred, through her bearing and her reactions to the world, which means the show essentially cannot be done without a superb actress in the lead.
But with its incredibly moving story and largely glorious score, the show deserves far more success than it has received, and I can only hope its short-lived Broadway mounting will at least draw enough attention to it to lead to more productions. After all, the phenomenon of the Broadway flop that becomes a sensation in local theaters is a reality now (9 to 5, 13), and this seems like exactly the kind of show that would do well in that market, even if it is a bit hard to cast.
In any case, this is one of those cult flops scores that should be mandatory listening for serious theater fans. The original Off-Broadway cast album with Lauren Ward is probably the best overall recording, though I know most modern Broadway fans will probably gravitate to the Broadway cast album with Sutton Foster because of name recognition. Either way, this is a score well worth hearing, all the more now that Fun Home has made Tesori one of the biggest names on Broadway. The last two Broadway seasons have given us more than our share of genuine Heartbreaker Flops (Big Fish, The Bridges of Madison County, Rocky the Musical, If/Then, Honeymoon in Vegas, Bright Star, Shuffle Along, Tuck Everlasting), but this is something special even by those standards, and if you’re serious about Broadway, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.