Retro music dominates scores in top contenders


May 31, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

New York -- As anyone listening to the musical numbers in tonight's Tony Awards telecast (9 p.m., Channel 11) will probably realize, this season two intrinsic American forms linked up to become a major force on Broadway.

The forms are jazz and musical comedy, and they came together in three of the year's top musical nominees:

* "Jelly's Last Jam," based on the life and music of Jelly Roll Morton, the man who bragged he "invented jazz";

* "Five Guys Named Moe," a salute to one of Morton's successors, band leader Louis Jordan; and

* "Crazy for You," a reworking of George and Ira Gershwin's 1930 musical, "Girl Crazy."

This also means there's a decided retro trend to this year's musicals -- a trend whose strength is perhaps best reflected in the runaway hit status of the glitzy revival of "Guys and Dolls," which looks like a shoo-in for best revival.

This doesn't mean, however, that there was nothing new in the musical theater firmament. The fourth contender for best musical, William Finn and James Lapine's "Falsettos," is the first Broadway musical to tackle the subject of AIDS.

Nor is it the only nominee displaying atypical subject matter. "Jelly's Last Jam" may have a retro score, but it breaks ground by refusing to sugarcoat its protagonist. To the contrary, the harsh pen of playwright George C. Wolfe depicts Jelly as arguably the most unsympathetic black character ever honored with his own Broadway musical.

If any future direction can be ascertained from all of this -- a risky practice, at best -- it would appear to be twofold. First, after a spate of European productions, the use of inherently American music suggests that musical theater is being reclaimed on its native shores. And, second, there appears to be a minor trend of musicals moving in new textual directions.

Though it doesn't forge new territory, "Crazy for You" is a good old-fashioned American standard, and in an attempt to keep it that way, playwright Ken Ludwig deliberately mimicked the style of the period. But at the same time, he set out to improve on that style. And he succeeded.

Jazz and romance, to start

In the early days of American musicals, the plot served primarily as an excuse to string together the songs, and the songs, in turn, served primarily as vehicles for stars. (In the case of "Girl Crazy," those stars included such diverse talents as Ethel Merman, comic Willie Howard, and Ginger Rogers.)

But nowadays audiences crave a little more story and character development, and that's what Ludwig provides. His crackerjack farce starts off with the original show's idea of a wealthy young man shipped West by his family. After that, Ludwig jacks up the theatrical element and tosses in a mistaken-identity subplot -- all the while, of course, maintaining the essential romantic angle.

The jazz component is evident not only in a Gershwin number such as "I Got Rhythm," but also in the rousing Broadway debut of the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, whose on-stage repertory includes several non-"Girl Crazy" Gershwin tunes interpolated into the show, the jazziest being "Slap That Bass." All this is choreographed by Susan Stroman, whose sense of comedy and innovation will make her contribution tough competition for the season's most dance-heavy musical, "Jelly's Last Jam."

Jointly choreographed by Hope Clarke, Ted L. Levy and the show's star, Gregory Hines, "Jelly's Last Jam" takes the liberty of transforming jazz pioneer Morton into a tap dancer. However,the most startling aspect of the script is that it dares to depict its protagonist in a realistic but unfavorable light.

This willingness to topple icons is hardly surprising, considering that "Jelly's" book and direction are by the author of "The Colored Museum," a sendup of black stereotypes, which local audiences may remember from its production at Center Stage four seasons ago.

The plot is based on the notion that it is the eve of Morton's death, and he has been summoned to defend his soul in "a lowdown club somewhere's 'tween Heaven 'n' Hell," as the setting is described in the program. And, Morton's got plenty of explaining to do. Hines' dancing may be heaven, but he portrays Morton as a bragging devil who mistreated anyone who tried to get close to him and was a racist who spurned his black roots.

Breaking from the pack

"Jelly's Last Jam" breaks with the tradition of good-time revues celebrating black musicians, such as "Sophisticated Ladies" (Duke Ellington), "Ain't Misbehavin' " (Fats Waller) and "Eubie!" (Eubie Blake). However, "Five Guys Named Moe" exalts in it. A celebration of the originator of "jump blues," as Louis Jordan dubbed his style, "Five Guys" has a plot line even thinner than those in the days of "Girl Crazy."

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