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The Civil War (04/22/1999 - 06/13/1999)


 

New York Daily News: "'Civil' Musical Is At War With Itself"

Near the start of this new musical, three white girls with white dresses and white parasols amble across the stage, watched by a group of black slaves on the auction block. The rage and hatred on the slaves' faces is quite chilling.

But the biggest problem with "The Civil War" is that there are too few moments like this. Although it relies very heavily on silent images, it seldom creates memorable ones.

The authors of "The Civil War" are clear about what it isn't. It is not, they tell us, a traditional musical play. It does not rely on traditional storytelling.

But if you throw out drama and storytelling, what's left? Bold, eloquent staging, perhaps. Or searing visual impact.

“The Civil War" has neither of these things. The staging of the battles is repetitive. The set, although handsome, is minimal and unchanging. The direction by Jerry Zaks is competent, but uninspired.

We're left with an almost complete reliance on Frank Wildhorn's music.

And as Samuel Johnson said about something completely different, Wildhorn's music is both good and original.

Yet the good bits aren't original and the original bits aren't good.

As we already know from "Jekyll and Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," Wildhorn's original tunes often sound like the stuff that Andrew Lloyd Webber threw away. Much of "The Civil War" lives down to this standard.

Still, Wildhorn is a brilliant borrower from American popular music. When he sticks to familiar country and gospel styles, the result can be extraordinary.

There is a haunting country ballad, "I'll Never Pass This Way Again," in which a young Confederate soldier expresses his love for the landscape of home. Sung with a marvelous, bittersweet voice by David Lutken, it is at once simple and sensational.

And this is even more true of the gospel numbers like "Freedom's Child" and "Someday." The power and passion that Keith Byron Kirk, Michael Bell and Cheryl Freeman bring to these cries of yearning and revolt lifts us into moments of real emotional truth.

The strength of these songs, though, has an odd effect on the show as a whole. It makes slavery and the struggle of black people seem so much more important than everything else about the Civil War.

This would be fine if the authors followed it through. But the show leaves the story of slavery and freedom hanging in the air, and keeps returning to its tiresome battle scenes.

It's as though the authors can't quite face the implications of the story that emerges. We know that the black struggle for equality did not end with the Civil War.

But Wildhorn and his co-authors Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy seem to want a neat ending. So they abandon the one thing that, at times, makes "The Civil War" more than a pageant.

What this means is that the second act is largely a repetition of the first.

We get the same jokes, the same devices, the same mix of sub-operatic bombast and stirring folk tunes.

You can call this avoiding traditional storytelling.

Or you can call it a patchwork of ideas that never gets sewn together into a coherent shape.


New York Daily News
04/23/1999

New York Post: "More pangs than bangs in 'Civil War'"

"The Civil War" is a virtually bookless musical pageant that attempts to evoke not so much this nation's actual war between the states as the emotions swirling about that era.

This reduction of a complex event like the Civil War to a few large, reiterated and sentimentalized feelings - "I want freedom," "I miss you," "I love you" - can be called the Clintonization of history; the show's creators want to feel the pain of the 1860s.

Those authors are three: The music is by Frank Wildhorn, the prolific composer of "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Scarlet Pimpernel," both now running on Broadway; the lyrics are by Jack Murphy; the structure is by Gregory Boyd, director of Houston's Alley Theater, where this project originated.

"The Civil War" essentially reduces the epic conflict to two themes: the yearning of the slaves for freedom, and the pain of separation for soldiers and wives.

The closest figure to a narrator for the show is Frederick Douglass (Keith Byron Kirk), who lectures (an unseen) Lincoln a lot, insisting that the war be fought not for the union but for emancipation.

Douglass criticizes the high casualty rate in early battles, but falls silent about later and much heavier casualties.

The invisible Lincoln is treated oddly; scolded by Douglass, he's adored by a White House servant (Capathia Jenkins) in "Candle in the Window" and then quoted in the final hymn.

I suspect the writers would've liked to get rid of Abe entirely (as they did Grant and Lee) and leave Douglass the nation's moral leader, the Martin Luther King of the 1860s, but they didn't quite dare.

The songs of the enslaved men and women - "Freedom's Child," the strangely Latin-accented "Peculiar Institution," "If Prayin' Were Horses," and gospel numbers like "Someday" and "River Jordan" - are musically predictable and (with one exception) anonymously choral paeans to freedom and light and escape and liberation.

The writers' hearts are in the right place, but they've produced pastiche; they haven't really mastered or got inside black musical idiom.

The great influence on the show's other principal topic is Ken Burns' PBS Civil War documentary, with its heartbreaking family letters read to a plucked banjo.

But the white husband-wife songs here like "Missing You (My Bill)," "Sarah" and "The Honor of Your Name" are as generic and uninvolving as the black material.

Attempts at humor involving a pimp and his whores are feeble.

The show's grandiose and ambitious pomposity is emphasized by Douglas W. Schmidt's absurd set and by Jerry Zaks' corny, rib-nudging direction.

The set consists of four chipped and collapsing pillars beneath a chipped pediment (the South is falling, I guess); a slide of a frieze of the warrior goddess Athena from a Greek temple is flashed from time to time (Greek Revival was big back then, but the metaphors don't work here).

Every now and then, though, simplicity breaks through and our hearts are touched. When David M. Lutken, playing a Reb looking at his childhood home, sings, while strumming an acoustic guitar, "I'll Never Pass This Way Again," it's lovely. Reb Gene Miller's stirring memory of "Virginia" and Yank Michael Lanning's "Northbound Train," recalling its "lonely whistle," make beautifully complementary moments.

The dirge called "Last Waltz for Dixie" and the final anthem, "Glory," sung by Rebs and Yanks, white and black soldiers and demanding that we "make the country that they died for worth the price they had to pay," capture, at last, some of that war's terrible power.

Wildhorn's got heart and talent; if he'd stop cranking out guaranteed blockbusters and actually think, he might be both popular and good.


New York Post
04/23/1999

New York Times: "History Soldiering On"

In the wake of any war come questions, dazed, wondering questions. What, finally, did we gain from fighting? What did we learn? Why did this conflict have to happen in the first place?

Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the new musical called ''The Civil War,'' whose subject is nothing less than what its grand, stark title promises, should provoke a similar litany of questions. Why are we here at the St. James Theater? What is the point in remaining for more than two hours? Why would anyone stage a show that improbably drains the drama from what is still the most fraught and painful chapter in American history?

''The Civil War,'' which opened last night, has a score by Frank Wildhorn, who these days bestrides Broadway with the colossus-like status once belonging to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Mr. Wildhorn is also the composer of two other current shows, the tenacious cult hit ''Jekyll and Hyde'' and ''The Scarlet Pimpernel.''

Clearly, Mr. Wildhorn, whose work has sliced right through thorny thickets of hostile reviews, knows his public. It is his avowed intention to blur the lines between what is heard in new American musicals, which have become increasingly cerebral, and what is heard on popular radio. In extending his thematic breadth, he has made the not illogical leap from ghouls and swashbucklers to a war that, as the success of Ken Burns's documentary series on the same subject testified, remains enduringly close to the American heart.

In theory, this all makes sense in an age in which most new Broadway scores are about as easy to whistle as Schoenberg. (Try to imagine something from ''Passion'' or ''Parade'' in the Top 40.) Nonetheless, you are unlikely to leave ''The Civil War'' with its tunes clinging doggedly to your memory in the sticky manner of Mr. Lloyd Webber's. Indeed, even more than in ''Jekyll'' and ''Pimpernel,'' Mr. Wildhorn's songs for ''The Civil War'' blend into one bland current of generic pop. The overall effect is of being imprisoned not in some theme-appropriate cell in Andersonville but in a jukebox stocked entirely with B-side selections.

Generic is the operative word for ''The Civil War,'' which has been directed by no less a Broadway veteran than Jerry Zaks and features lyrics by Mr. Wildhorn, Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy. Originally commissioned for the Alley Theater in Houston, where Mr. Boyd is the artistic director, the show is without plot and essentially without character.

Instead, it is a string of musical numbers meant to frame the war through the varying perspectives of Yankees, Confederates and Southern slaves. Frederick Douglass (played by Keith Byron Kirk), the fabled black journalist and statesman, occasionally wanders in to offer some rather baffling spoken narrative snippets, and the voice of Abraham Lincoln (David M. Lutken) is heard saying what Lincoln always says, but everything else is presented in self-contained songs. It's a bit as if ''Ragtime'' had been crossed with a revue like ''Smokey Joe's Cafe'' and then run through a homogenizing synthesizer.

The problem isn't the form. It's that there's not one moment of insight or originality in the show's consideration of matters that have already been exhaustively written about and portrayed. The method of ''The Civil War,'' in its lyrics and historical allusions as well as in its music, is to strike chords with which even an elementary school student would be familiar.

The show arranges its archetypal elements into confoundingly static patterns, laying out all its cards in its opening minutes and then failing to combine them in ways that would build to revelation or strong emotional response. Though the musical covers the full span of the war, with the names, dates and casualty counts of major battles projected in supertitles, you eventually come to feel that you have been watching the same rotating diorama.

By the first battle scene, for example, a boy in blue has shot a boy in gray and, examining the corpse, exclaimed, ''No! He's my brother.'' Neither killer nor victim has been established as a character, so both are sterile abstractions.

Members from troops of both sides sing interchangeably about the idea of honor. A young Union corporal and his wife (Gilles Chiasson and Irene Molloy) sing wistful love letters to each other that give no sense whatever of individual identity. The chorus of slaves shifts, again and again, between mournful and angry denunciations of the institution that has dehumanized them and uplifting gospel numbers guaranteed to set the audience clapping.

The lyrics throughout use, and consistently flatten, imagery of dark nights and hoped-for mornings, of rushing, metaphoric streams and rivers, one of which is actually made up of ''blood, sweat and tears.'' Occasionally there are slow-motion fights amid clouds of smoke and flashing light. (The ''musical staging'' is by Luis Perez.) By the end, the adversarial soldiers realize, ''When all is said and done, I guess we're all the same,'' that the only thing distinguishing them from one another is ''a different name.''

Presumably, the absence of character-defining specificity was deliberate, an attempt to extend the show's universal resonance. The feeling is underscored by Douglas W. Schmidt's allegorical set, which features the outsize images of a war-rent American flag and a Hellenic frieze showing battling gods. But without humanizing detail, none of the people onstage grab our hearts.

And if you're going to quote once again Lincoln's famous letter to Mrs. Bixby on the loss of her five sons, which was conspicuously used in the movie ''Saving Private Ryan,'' surely it could be followed up with something more enlightening than the bereaved mother (Beth Leavel) singing vaguely about her boys playing with angels in a field.

When period photographs of soldiers and slaves are shown (the projections are by the ubiquitous Wendall K. Harrington), it creates a hunger to know the stories behind those images. That the same cannot be said of any of the live presences onstage isn't because the eager, attractive cast members don't do their jobs. They all sing rousingly or prettily, as the occasion demands, through those snakelike appendages over their faces; when America goes to war on Broadway in 1999, it wears a head mike.

The orchestrations (by Kim Scharnberg) make use of banjos, fiddles, guitars and harmonicas in a score that invokes period gospels, waltzes and marches. But it all tends to merge into one contemporary melodic blur that brings to mind an easy-listening radio station.

You find your attention straying from the songs themselves to what they vaguely remind you of, from folksy numbers associated with Harry Chapin and James Taylor to the heartbreak ballads of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion. Such are the ghosts that float through ''The Civil War,'' a show haunted less by the victims of war than by these pale variations on pop standards.


New York Times
04/23/1999

Variety: "The Civil War"

The air strikes have not proved sufficiently effective, and ground troops aren't a palatable solution, so has NATO given any thought to sending over Frank Wildhorn musicals? A bus-and-tank company of "The Civil War," Wildhorn's most stupefying creation to date, well might send the Serbs into instant retreat -- unless, of course, a steady diet of propaganda has given them a taste for this show's easy pieties and bombastic tone, historical subject notwithstanding. Certainly "The Civil War" is an achievement of some kind: In just over two hours, Wildhorn and his collaborators manage to thoroughly trivialize a sizable chunk of American history, turning a complex conflict that claimed some 620,000 lives into a live-action version of an easy-listening concept album.

"The Civil War" joins two other Wildhorn musicals on Broadway, an undeniably impressive fact that duly has been ballyhooed. But it may not prove as audience-friendly as the first pair, the grand guignol rock opera "Jekyll & Hyde" and the bizarre hybrid of Harlequin romance and low camp that is "The Scarlet Pimpernel." For whatever the deficiencies of these two tuners (and they are many), they both possess a simple narrative thrust that has kept audiences engaged -- and in the case of "Jekyll," coming back. They surround Wildhorn's facile power pop with slick, superficially beguiling stories.

In "The Civil War," all you get is the facile power pop. Faced with a saga that's manifestly impossible to relate in a single evening, the creators of the musical haven't chosen to concentrate or distill the material into a workable narrative format. They've simply decided to tell no story at all. The show is essentially a song cycle in full battle dress: a series of numbers performed for the audience (or rather at it) by a cast of generic soldiers and slaves that never for a moment engage us as dramatic characters.

So Wildhorn's songs, with lyrics by the composer as well as Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy, must carry the full freight of the musical. And blandly pleasant though his melodies are, they aren't up to the essential task of evoking a rich period in history that has inspired innumerable artists and historians over the past century and more. (The show seems to want to make up in aural amplification what it lacks in textual depth: The Battle of Bull Run couldn't have been louder than experiencing this musical from row G in the orchestra.)

Because they're all written in specifically contemporary styles -- pop rock, country rock, contemporary gospel -- Wildhorn's songs never convey a palpable sense of this turbulent time. It's hard to be moved by a soldier's lament for the waste of the war when what he's singing reminds you of a Chicago or Eagles album of the '70s, or a Garth Brooks disc from the '90s. This inherent inauthenticity is a constant problem, as is the sheer number of the derivative melodies, which begin to blur together in the mind almost as soon as you've heard them.

Yet another is the consistent and eventually overwhelming banality of the lyrical content. There is nary a surprising, elegant or inventive phrase in two hours of song. The heroic battle anthems are just what you'd expect; so are the laments for dying soldiers or absent husbands; so are the earnest ballads in which slaves yearn for freedom.

Indeed, if the musical's superficial treatment of the war itself is merely an artistic failure, its depiction of the central issue of slavery is something more distasteful. While there's no question that Wildhorn and company are sincere in their attempt to highlight and humanize the plight of the slaves, their reduction of these characters to the most hackneyed cliches is painful to watch.

The slaves of "Civil War" are noble, loving folk with a deep religious faith and great rhythm. A song called "River Jordan" is the show's nadir in this regard: It's a generic gospel anthem packed with all the usual Bible allusions, sung by a rousing chorus of hand-clapping slaves hollering "Hallelujah!" on cue. Naturally, it gets rapturous applause -- the performers send it over with dismaying gusto -- but does anyone notice that what they're applauding is essentially a minstrel show? It's deeply saddening to watch gifted black performers enact with such obvious commitment what are essentially historical cartoons.

And the cast clearly is committed to "Civil War." The singing throughout is impressive, with Michel Bell, Cheryl Freeman, Irene Molloy, Gilles Chiasson, Capathia Jenkins and others given plenty of opportunity to display rich vocal resources.

The considerable resources of director Jerry Zaks, on the other hand, are missing in action. He joined the production after its debut at Houston's Alley Theater in September, but with no real characters to speak of and minimal narrative to shape, it's hard to see what he was expected to do, other than get the singers on and off the stage gracefully. The use of frequent appearances by Frederick Douglass (Keith Byron Kirk) to give us a sense of the war's turning points is minimally effective.

Even without an engaging dramatic frame, "Civil War" may push the buttons of audiences used to Wildhorn's pumped-up emotionality, but it's a numbing musical that always substitutes self-importance and superficiality for an original or authentically felt examination of a traumatic period in American history. It's history shrink-wrapped as homily and sentiment, not flesh and blood and feeling.

The only truly affecting moment in "Civil War" comes courtesy of Abraham Lincoln, when a narrator reads a letter from the president to the grieving mother of five boys killed in the war. The simplicity and sincerity of Lincoln's words blaze into your heart with unnerving power -- there's more lyrical beauty to be found in this brief, heartfelt letter of condolence than in the two hyperventilating hours of music and lyrics that surround it.


Variety
04/23/1999

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