A musical by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn, directed by Joe Calarco.
Christina Acosta Robinson, Alix Korey, Aaron Serotsky and the company; photos: Kevin Sprague
So, you're hungry and you don't know where to go / And you look around and there's no food, no drink and no / one to get you want you need so what do you / do - just what all the talented folk do: Get William Finn. Go to the bank and take out the William Finn loan: it's large and it lasts for years and is never really exhausted. At least that's what the promisory note tells you.
His musical "Romance in Hard Times" is just like that. It was started in 1982 at Playwrights Horizons as "America Kicks Up It's Heels" where it was given two staged readings and a fully mounted showcase production over a two year period. Andre Bishop, the artistic director of that company was quoted in a New York Times article by Marilyn Stasio saying, "...the piece was so richly layered, so much bigger in scope and density than anything we had done -- and I was so much younger and stupider -- that, even though we were all obsessed with it, it was just beyond our capabilities at the time."
Joe Papp, the legendary producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater., took the project into his workshop where it underwent radical changes. The concept was altered, the casting was changed from all-white to principaly black and Lillias White and Cleavant Derricks came on board for two of the leading roles. "Once Joe found me these wonderful singing voices to write for, "Finn told Stasio in 1989, "the music completely changed. The songs used to have a much more traditional theater sound. But when I found myself writing specifically for these absolutely celestial voices, I began writing music that was more like gospel and jazz and ragtime. After I started creating new music for these gorgeous, soaring voices, the lyrics changed, too."
Alix Korey, who was in the original workshop playing a snooty society woman who dishes out soup in a New York City soup kitchen, commenting in the 1989 Times article said at the time, "There's more reality, more truth to [the character] now. In the same way the whole show is still an absurdist comedy, but it has much more humanity." Korey has lasted into the new production, with a new book and a new concept at Barrington Stage Company's Blatt Center workshop. She and her principal song, "All Fall Down" have lasted through the two years at Playwright's Horizon from 1982-1984, three years with Joe Papp from 1986-1989 a recording of her song in 1999 on her first CD and now this 2014 workshop in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
"I just love this show," Finn told me in the lobby. "I really love the score of this show and I really want it to work." With Rachel Sheinkin, his collaborator on "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" reworking the book of the musical the show seems to have a better chance now than it ever has had before. Finn (officially "The Writer") is a character in his own show, commenting on the original version and why it flopped and trying desperately to rewrite it against all odd (even his characters won't do what he wants them to do). He is played by Aaron Serotsky who manages to sound like Bill Finn - a lot. The Lillias White role is beautifully handled by Christina Acosta Robinson and the Cleavant Derrick role has been reconceived for Demond Green. Alan H. Green plays Harvey, the husband of Robinson's Hennie. Anne Kanangeiser plays a dynamic, dancing and singing Eleanor Roosevelt and Alix Korey is still playing Zoe who understands the message of the show, that we "all fall down."
But there is much more than that. There is the joy of camaraderie linked ineffably with the sorrow of strong convictions. There is the fantasy of strength in hard times matching the difficulty of maintaining relationships in any time of our lives. There is the honesty of political savvy. There is the fiction of emotional restoration. There is romance.
Of course there is the music, the songs of William Finn. "What Does It Mean to Be a Man?" "A Song of Happiness" "Exit, Out of Here" "Laugh It Off" and so many others in this book show that uses leitmotiv the way Wagner does to bring the main themes back when needed. Finn shows us what mastery of the form really is and he constantly surprises us with this tuneful score.
What I saw, by the way, was another workshop and not something open to reviewers. Well, that privilege deserves a returned favor and this article is just that, but not one word is due on a loan; no, it is a sincere expression of how much I loved what was presented.
It has taken much longer to get this show to the point at which we now can see it than it has for most other difficult shows. Kander and Ebb's musical version of "The Visit" seen up county earlier this summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival only took fourteen years to get through its three production versions (all with Chita Rivera, the Alix Korey of that show). "Romance in Hard Times" has taken thirty-two years for the same journey. While both are on the right track, Bill Finn's show tackles some even tougher issues, professional and personal. Both shows deal with hope at the time of great financial depression but this show is not about poverty - of the soul and spirit or the pocketbook - it is, as Finn has stated, about people who are trying to get control of their own lives as individuals. And it has Eleanor Roosevelt dancing the charleston, a dance move already out of date by the time of the show. That takes talent and it takes courage.
Anne Kanengeiser, Alan H. Green, Christina Acosta Robinson; photo: Kevin Sprague
This is a feature article and NOT A REVIEW. So - you'll have to find out for yourself how to buy a ticket and what the schedule is for this show. (www.barringtonstageco.org)