"The Human Comedy," which came to Broadway last night at the Royale following a winter engagement at the Public Theater, remains a staged pop cantata rather than a full-blown musical, but enhanced now by rear projections filling the entire back wall and establishing locales, and by taking place in a genuine theater instead of the awkward (for it) playing area it occupied downtown.
The cast of Galt MacDermot's musicalization of William Saroyan's 1943 original screenplay (subsequently converted into a novel) is almost entirely the same as before, with a few added voices, and the fine small orchestra, sparked by Mac Gollehan's trumpet bursts, is also up there on the stage, its two halves flanking the action. Unfortunately, William Dumaresq's affectedly and sometimes incomprehensibly arch libretto is there, too, a doggerel construction in which "never sounded better" finds itself rhymed with "Your voice is in fine fetter" and an American soldier is handed the Cockney expression "barmy" to rhyme with "army." Fun's fun, but Dumaresq exceeds all bounds in trying to lend a light touch to this World War II home-front tale centered around a telegraph messenger who keeps delivering "killed in action" wires while the young and old folk of Saroyan's small California town go about their homey business with courage, humor and an occasional flareup.
On the fortunate side are the pleasant players who step down from the ranks at the rear to engage in brief scenes and songs set to MacDermot's agreeable score.
The large photo projections (homes, school, main street, telephone wires, etc.) and the theater itself are enormously beneficial to the work, as is the fine choral singing, but what we're seeing is still a concert piece, a bit of nostalgia now, 40 years later, with an ambling story line.
This is going to be - I presume - a minority report. All opinions are subjective, but virtually universal praise, or universal blame, does carry with it a certain credibility.
Most of my esteemed colleagues warmly welcomed the new Galt MacDermot musical The Human Comedy when it was first staged at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theater.
Last night Papp brought the production to Broadway, at the Royale Theater, and I am still markedly underwhelmed. However many of my colleagues will be thinking differently this morning, so, in fairness, the reader deserves to be warned.
The musical has been based on William Saroyan's novel of the same name, which was itself based on his own very popular film-script, also of the same name, directed by Clarence Brown, with an intensely lovable cast lovably and intensely led by Mickey Rooney.
The story is simple - a family surviving World War II in a little town in California. It is warm and sentimental - and some people, including myself, will find it too warm and too sentimental, like mushed-over goo.
Basically, I suppose, it very much depends on how you feel about Saroyan, his view of the human condition, his sense of Norman Rockwell-like Americana, and his feel for whimsical fantasy.
For me by far the best part of the show remains MacDermot's music - his most considerable score since those far off days when he gave us Hair.
What MacDermot has done is to compose a folk opera, and, with justice, his collaborator, William Dumaresq, is described as having produced a libretto rather than the customary Broadway terms, book and lyrics.
It is entirely operatic, and if Dumaresq's words lack the magic and felicity of the music - and they do - they at every point support MacDermot's quite unusual musical concept.
In close togetherness with the director, Wilford Leach, the composer and writer have delivered a fast-moving panoramic view of the world of the story's young hero, Ulysses Macauley.
The difficulty is that it now does look a little squashed - and the staging is perforce somewhere between the minimal theatrics of Thornton Wilder (surely some day someone will make a musical of Our Town) and a village hall oratorio.
It is folksy picture, full of vignettes of decency, sacrifice and patriotism. It is the sort of thing that 40 years ago might have made you want to go out and buy War Bonds.
This period style is superbly maintained, and, curiously enough, Leach seems to have made comparatively few changes in transferring the show from its original in-the-round format it had at the Public Theater, to the present proscenium arch staging.
All this works quite well for the material. Some comparatively minor additions have been made, including a few photographic back projections, and a radio.
Nevertheless, this is pretty much the show as before, including the excellent cast, led by a charming Josh Blake as the little boy, Ulysses, Bonnie Kolac in fine voice as his widowed mother, Rex Smith making an excellently forceful Spangler, the heroic boss of the telegraph office, and, among others, Gordon Connell as the tippling Mr. Grogan, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Don Kehr and Joseph Kolinski.
Many people will find this show lovable, homespun, whimsical and altogether adorable. Even moving. I myself find it - apart from MacDermot's vibrantly alive score - mawkish and, like all of Saroyan for me, fundamentally insincere and therefore phony.
"The Human Comedy" opened originally at the Off-Broadway Public/Anspacher December 28, 1983, and moved to the Royale on April 5, 1984.
In ''Hair,'' his first musical at the Public Theater, Galt MacDermot wrote about a hemorrhaging America, torn apart by its most unpopular war. It's a jolt to return to the Public 16 years later and discover that the same composer has now fashioned a musical from ''The Human Comedy,'' William Saroyan's idyllic fable of a united America fighting World War II. But once the shock wears off, we find a lovely show that is far closer to ''Hair'' than one might expect.
Both Saroyan and Mr. MacDermot share a rhapsodic, Whitmanesque vision of this country; both men set that vision to warming idiomatic music. In the end, the small-town Californians of ''The Human Comedy'' and the earnest ''peace-and-love tribe'' of ''Hair'' all subscribe to the same fairy-tale dream of democracy: wars come and go, but justice is their only ideological creed.
Saroyan first wrote ''The Human Comedy'' as a screenplay for M-G-M, then retooled it into a novel, published in 1943. In any form, it's as simple as apple pie - and often just as sweet. Set in Ithaca, Calif., the work is a string of anecdotes centering on the poor and loving Macauley family - a widowed mother, three sons (one enlisted) and a daughter. More important than any character, however, is the good will that binds the Macauleys and their neighbors together. To Saroyan, Ithaca is a place where even the poor give to charity, where thieves are disarmed by kindness, and where ethnic and racial differences are a cause for celebration. Yet this storybook land is haunted by a disturbing subliminal beat: the persistant tap of the telegraph key, carrying War Department messages to those Ithaca families whose sons are killed in action.
In adapting ''The Human Comedy'' to the stage, Mr. MacDermot and his director, Wilford Leach, have created what might be called a pop-folk opera. Virtually the entire show is sung, and the large cast is usually assembled en masse on the stage of the Public's arena-shaped auditorium, the Anspacher. Everyone is dressed in crisp period costumes that the designer, Rita Ryack, might have culled from the pages of old Life magazines; otherwise the black stage is decorated only with a few chairs and props. The result is a ''Human Comedy'' with the feel of ''Our Town'' - and that sentiment is upheld by the ensemble fabric of the company and the all-American heterogeneity of the music. The cast encircles the audience until finally Ithaca is indeed our town, embracing us in what might be a communal campfire singalong.
But Mr. MacDermot's music is far more sophisticated than the ambience suggests. What usually prevents Saroyan's novel from becoming saccharine is its style: the riffs of language and the edgy, eccentric narrative events. The composer preserves that tone in his score, which is written in the true operatic manner, recitatives included. As befits Saroyan's pantheistic sense of community, the music is also highly eclectic: it encompasses gospel, jazz, swing, hymns, barbershop harmonies, blues and plaintive lullabies that almost might have been written by Woody Guthrie.
The composer's orchestrations are as invigorating as the music. Because the vibrant band conducted by Tania Leon is dispersed around the playing area, the score seems to whip through the space like the oldtime train so essential to Saroyan's iconography: the feverish blare of hot horns reaches a crescendo on one side of the house, then crashes aurally against a wall of pure strings across the way. And the musical counterpoint reinforces the drama. When young Homer Macauley (Stephen Geoffreys), the fastest telegraph messenger in town, delivers a tragic cable to a war mother, the recipient's aria of grief is set against the honky-tonk giddiness of two jitterbugging bobby-soxers comparing notes on their first innocent amorous adventures.
Not all of the score is at the same level. Sometimes Mr. MacDermot's high aspirations outstrip the music - much as Saroyan's classical character names add excess grandiloquence to his novel. Nor is William Dumaresq's sometimes confusing libretto always up to the score. Mr. Dumaresq can strain for rhymes, and, on occasion, slip into the bald greeting-card homilies that Saroyan managed to avoid. At the same time, the libretto eliminates some of the novel's darker notes - including the deathly image of a store-window robot and the one bigoted character. One misses such somber counterweights in a work so sunny that even its dead characters can at least figuratively return to life.
Under Mr. Leach's sensitive and lyrical direction, the cast usually joins with the music to take up any slack: the Saroyan spirit seems to flow directly out of the performers. Though there's really no lead role, the show's bedrock is Bonnie Koloc, the Chicago-based folk-pop singer who makes her theatrical debut as the Macauley family matriarch. With her pure soprano and a round earthy face out of a Dorothea Lange photograph, Miss Koloc removes the curse of corniness from an archetypal mother. When she comforts her children as they confront the specters of death and loneliness, her humble, tranquil radiance seems to draw the entire audience into her lap for a good cry.
No less affecting - and strong-voiced - are Mr. Geoffreys as Homer, whose growth to maturity is the evening's principal focus; Don Kehr, doubling as the family's late father and soldier son, Marcus; Caroline Peyton as the girl who waits for Marcus to come home; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Bess Macauley, the sister whose own romantic longings are answered by a G.I. Joe tenderly set forth by Joe Kolinski; Delores Hall as a gospel singer aptly named Beautiful Music; Rex Smith as Spangler, the charitable telegraph-office manager, and Gordon Connell, as his old assistant.
The dominant motif of the evening involves two other excellent performers - the very young Josh Blake, who plays the littlest Macauley, Ulysses, and David Johnson, as the phantom black trainman who waves to the boy every time his train passes through town. It's from the trainman that Ulysses learns that the only place worth going to is home - and it's the sweetest idea of ''home,'' not flag-waving jingoism, that always fuels the wartime sacrifices of ''The Human Comedy.'' Perhaps that ideal American community never really existed as Saroyan and Mr. MacDermot have imagined it did - whether in a small town of World War II or in the Vietnam-era communes of ''Hair'' or anywhere else in our history. But in ''The Human Comedy,'' you can go home again - at least for a while - and rediscover what a happy place it was meant to be.