Show Biz History Jammed into a 1940 Boarding House: Operas, Novels, Poems, and a Stripper, Too
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at email@example.com.
New York Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, New York
George Davis was an eccentric New York writer/editor who had a dream: entice a number of art world stars to live in the same boarding house and mentor them to see what the cultural congestion could produce.
He did it, too, in 1940, when he lured a half dozen writers and composers to a run-down boarding house he ran at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn. He had the spunky 23-year-old Southern writer Carson McCullers, who had just written the best seller The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and was looking for ideas for her second book. She was joined by the lanky, confused W.H. Auden, 33, already one of the world’s most famous poets; flashy opera composer Benjamin Britten; and sexy German singer Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas Mann). The cluster of artistic superstars rummaged around the boarding house, smoking cigarettes, drinking endlessly, writing poems, arguing with each other, penning operas and looking for their muse for nearly a year. It was, as Davis sings at one point, an “empire of art.” He was not only hopeful that his little fraternity of writers would remain, but that he would add more and make the Brooklyn boarding house an arts beacon for the world.
The story of the boarding house and its talented and eccentric tenants is told in a new musical, February House, so named because many of the residents were born in that month. It opened last week at the New York Public Theater. The book of the show was written by Seth Bockley and the music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane. They tried to create a Stephen Sondheim-ish musical in which the songs and dialogue are in perfect mesh, as they are in all good musicals, but also have a haunting feel to them. In a recent interview, Bockley said that he wanted to write an engaging, entertaining story about history, and not just a play about historical figures. He said there was a difference.
He's right. All good musicals about history are entertaining and not just dull history lessons about cardboard figures from the past in a one-dimensional story.
Bockley and Kahane, with the assistance of director Davis McCallum, do that for much of the play. The main characters, their lovers, and friends are stitched together in a reasonably well-told story about the boarding house and the tempestuous world raging outside. The play revolves around the perennially worried Davis, who races from room to room and tenant to tenant, playing nursemaid and mother hen to his crew of authors. He's worn out by the middle of act two.
The storyline is pretty simple. The tenants all work on their projects and clash with each other until the boarding house becomes an insufferable hot house for them. At the same time, their own careers start to carry them off in different directions. Within that overall plot there are sub-plots of romance and intrigue. One of the best is the arrival of Erika Mann, the German cabaret singer and magazine editor. She is the former wife of Auden, who is living with a 20-year-old man at the boarding house. Mann arrives like a bombshell but does not pursue Auden again. She is a lesbian herself and beds down with McCullers. Mann, a visionary, wants to go on a lecture tour of America, her beloved McCullers at her side, to beg Americans to get into World War II to defeat the Nazis. A major part of the story is the loud criticism of ex-Brits, such as Auden and Britten, who fled England in its time of troubles. He explains -- they all explain -- that they are artists and separate from the world of war. They are not, of course, and this creates a lot of tension.
All of this angst gets a jolt of pizzazz and humor when Davis throws a rent part to meet his bills and invites friend Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper, who is the highlight of the party when she takes her clothes off (just about all of them, too). Lee, a publicity-mad, money-hungry fanatic, moves into the boarding house and gets Davis to help her write her first novel, appropriately titled The G-string Murders.
February House is a nice historical look at New York and America on the eve of World War II. There are newspapers that chronicle the war, radio broadcasts of the bombing of London and letters from war-torn Europe. The artists from Europe reminisce about what life was like there before the conflict. Kahane and Bockley created solid characters and a fine story. Director McCallum did yeoman work in making an entertaining vignette out of what could have been a long series of separate and uninteresting tales.
The problem with February House, though, is that the writers and composer did not do enough. The play is over two-and-a-half hours long and could have been trimmed by a good half-hour. The audience learns a little about the lives of the artists, but nowhere near enough. What has W.H. Auden done that made him so famous by 1940? We are not told. We have no idea why Gypsy Rose Lee moved in (she was a longtime friend of Davis’s). The tumultuous relationship between Benjamin Britten and his lover and co-writer Peter Pears goes unexplained. We learn nothing about Britten, then 27, in the story. (By the age of 21, the mercurial Britten had written 800 musical pieces in England.) He and Auden did not just meet at the boarding house; they had worked together on projects back in England before sailing to America. Why is McCullers so famous after just one bestseller? That needs to be explained. The audience needs to know, too, that she wrote two more famous novels, Reflections in a Golden Eye and Member of the Wedding (Reflections, Member, and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter all became movies). McCullers, half-paralyzed by strokes by the age of 30, led a sad life. She fell into the arms of the lovely Erika Mann a bit too easily, too. Mann’s story, too, needs to be fleshed out. She was not Auden’s conjugal wife, but just a friend. He married her so that she could get out of Germany. She was the daughter of fabled German novelist Thomas Mann. A bit more could be revealed about Davis, too. He was the very successful literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, not a down-and-out writer, at the start of the play. There were other artists living at 7 Middagh Street, too, but they are not mentioned in the work. We don’t want Bockley to give us a history lesson, which he dreads, but we do need him to give us more history and a better understanding of the story.
Plays like this should have some way to tell the audience what happened later to the characters in the story, as movies and television do.
The music by Kahane starts off nicely with a haunting little song about why Davis established the boarding house, but afterwards nearly all the music sounds the same. There are several songs that repeat the same theme, over and over again. While the songs help to tell the story, none of them are memorable by themselves. They go on, endlessly.
One solid part of the play is the acting corps. They are all superb and help to pull the audience into the story. McCallum gets excellent work from Stanley Bahorek as Britten, Ken Barnett as Peter Pears, Ken Clark as Reeves McCullers, Julian Fleisher as Davis, Stephanie Hayes as Mann, Erik Lochtefeld as Auden, A.J. Shively as Chester Kallman, Kristen Sieh as Carson McCullers, who has mastered a marvelous southern drawl. The lovely Kacie Sheik plays the lovely Gypsy Rose Lee.
February House is a decent play that needs a little more work from its landlords.
PRODUCTION: The musical is produced by the New York Public Theater in conjunction with the Long Wharf Theater. Sets: Riccardo Hernandez; Costumes: Jess Goldstein; Lighting: Mark Barton; Sound: Leon Rothenberg; Choreographer: Danny Mefford. The play is directed by Davis McCallum.
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