The Legend of Julie Taymor

Standing outside 45 Bleecker Street, I could sort of feel my annoyance mounting. There was some concern that The Legend of Julie Taymor was going to sell out, and some of the slightly more vocal members of the waiting audience were flexing their various credentials with one another about how “inside” they were and how easy it would be to get in. There are just some shows at The Fringe that have the stink of an out-of-town tryout, here in town, and for a lot of us who feel there is a great brick wall that separates independent theater from the folks with 100+ seats, it can be a little off-putting.

This felt like one of those shows. See, they’re gonna be making fun of a whole bunch of things here, but ALL of it is gonna concern Broadway. And it’s going up at 45 Bleecker, one of the terrifyingly large percentage of small houses that have fallen apart because there’s so little commercial or institutional support for us. So I wasn’t really in any kind of a mood to listen to jokes about how 65 million dollars was wasted… for us that sting isn’t something to scoff at, it’s to cry over.

So, how did I end up, an hour and a half later, grinning like an idiot, laughing out loud – in some cases leading the laughter from the back seats, and feeling completely enriched when I left? Because these guys were as full of heart, as fully committed, and as wildly talented as the downtown freaks, and they won me over, despite my prejudice and mood.

The reason we’re so fascinated by the Spiderman debacle is because it asks a series of really important questions and offers no answers. If you say you hate Broadway, then why are you loathe to support something different? Is a piece of art better served by being the sole voice of one genius, or does absolute power automatically corrupt? What happens if you discover that what your audience wants is no better, morally or aesthetically, than what the Romans wanted with the lions? Do you give it to them?

Now, don’t get me wrong, this thing is dripping wet with nudge-nudgery, the entire thing is full of puns and allusions, all of which *work*, but only some are inspired. The main character is now “Julie Paymore”, which is great, but the music is by the lead singer of “U-Squared”, which is… fine. And it’s like that all the way through, but really, all of that is just the glaze on the cake. The show is really about a megalomaniacal theater practitioner, and her followers and detractors. In the end, the show within the show is a disaster, and the producers place the blame on Paymore’s shoulders… but all the way through, when the characters are half-heartedly trying to avert disaster, they aren’t offering any *alternative* to what Paymore is creating. There are jokes that she would rather have wood than foam core, that she wants the expensive paint regardless of color, that she doesn’t care about the safety of the actors…

But in all of those cases, everyone follows, and nobody takes any action. It was incredibly interesting to me – the Paymore character has a song, where she sings “I’m The Only Artist”, and although it’s meant to be a scene-chewing bad-guy song, the fact is… she’s right. The music that is written for the show within the show is crap. The actors are crap, the producers don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Her vision might be insane, and the show argues that it *is*, but ultimately you hire a director for the vision and the producers are responsible for sitting on her or reigning her in, or simply finding the money she needs.

In terms of the actual musical, the music is wonderful – smart, catchy and allusive, full of good Broadway in-jokes and even swinging into some recitative-driven sections of snippets moving back and forth. It has a touch of the young-show problems, namely 1) a lot of songs that are sung by one person *at* another person, 2) the scene will explain something and then the song will explain it more and 3) maybe a few too many forced rhymes, but honestly I didn’t get hung up on any of that, it has ten times more charm than it does limitations.

The show is fictionalized… sorta. Most of it is true, except where it isn’t, and it gets to be a little messy. When Paymore *murders* a theater owner, you can feel the unrest in the audience because… I mean, are we saying she sucks, or that she’s a sociopath? But the really brilliant turn at the end justifies it, they bring back the geek chorus (one of the most popularly mocked aspects of  Taymor’s Spiderman) to say, essentially, that the legend is what we’re talking about here, that the lessons are more important than the facts. And I totally agreed.

AND, I really liked that it got so dark, so effortlessly. The injured actor becomes Paymore’s puppet, literally, with a hint of “Heaven On Their Minds” from Superstar in the score, the puppet-actor defends Paymore’s vision and artistry, and the only point where the supporting players drop Paymore is when she insists that the play is finished, that her vision has been realized, and nobody understands it. The theater owner actually says, “It sucks”, and we all laugh, but GOD, what a dark moment, to find out you’ve just paid for and produced a play you can’t like. (And believe me, I’ve done it, it’s a horrible, horrible feeling).

Before I get to the one unfortunate mistake, I have to point out that the most searing, powerful and maybe funniest moment is the song performed at the actual opening of the show within the show. Mirroring actual events, the audience are delighted in their own misery, the revel in their own hatred. They tweet, constantly, with iPhones out, and the actual song is not a song of despair – it’s of celebration. The audience can not wait to read a review, they can NOT wait to get home… they have to trash it. Themselves. NOW. It really is one of the most perfect expressions of what is wrong with Broadway today. It could have been Joe Brooks “In My Life” that they were watching, if only they had had Twitter then…

There is one glaring mistake that I have to point out, mostly for my friends who are making their own musicals. One of the characters is the slimy columnist for a hack newspaper, played BRILLIANTLY by Christopher Davis Carlisle, and he has a song that explains his backstory and anger at the Paymore character. It is a fantastic song, the accompaniment was rich, and the staging was absolutely inspired. It became a puppet nightmare, a perfect stab at the woman who made The Lion King, and it couldn’t have been performed better.

But. It was absolutely useless in the show, it undermined all of the feelings of possible righteous indignation we might have towards a megalomaniac like Paymore, and it lowered the IQ of the entire production.

Look, I’ve done it. I’ve done it countless times, I’ve held on to something because it was just too good to throw away, and it’s almost worth knocking the rest of the show out of the way for this performance. It certainly was for the actor, it was a marvelous five minutes for him. But this is why we call it “killing the babies”, if it was killing cockroaches, it would be easy. It is so hard to trust yourself that you will write something just as good some other time. But every musical theater team has a trunk, and in that trunk are a thousand pieces of gold that the producers and the director and maybe even the writers themselves realized weren’t right for that moment.

This weasel, who nitpicks and niggles at Paymore for the entire show, we celebrate him for doing it because there are no checks on her ambition or ego, she needs to be stopped. She wasted 65 million dollars and an entire year of hundreds of people’s lives, the journalist who brings this story to light is, in a way, a hero – a spokesman for what is best in Broadway, maybe, or maybe he’s another All That Chat obnoxious know-it-all… why do we need a backstory about a failed romance between her and the columnist? We don’t, and it shouldn’t be there.

It could be that it was difficult for them to edit in this way because they weren’t exactly clear on who’s story it is. I said before that it’s the story of a director and her fans/detractors, but is there really an antagonist? Who is fighting against what here? There is a young broadway actor who gets hurt, there is the megalomaniac director, there’s the rockstar musician, there’s the columnist, and any one of them has a powerful point of view and an interesting answer to the questions that the show was asking, but in the end… I guess in the end, I’m not convinced, fully, that the show was as interested in these questions as it was in putting on a really funny show. And they did that, they succeeded wildly in doing that. I hung out and talked to a bunch of people after the show, and the place was all smiles. Even the Fringe crowd that I normally hang out with, which are mostly guys well into their 60s, all loved it and were smiling ear to ear.

I’m going to say the very thing that I simply hated hearing when I was younger, but… I’d be really interested in whatever the *next* thing is that these guys are doing. I hope they all keep working together, there’s enormous promise here.