It’s a set-up that itself sounds like the scenario for a musical: big-time London theater-makers transplant a flop from the West End to a regional summer stage in an off-the-beaten-track American town in order to transform the show into a hit, along the way discovering truths about themselves and the people they meet. Thus bolstered, they take Broadway by storm.
And so it is that the musical From Here to Eternity, which closed in London in March of 2014 after the very limited success of a half-year run there, landed last week on the shores of Lake Owasco, just south of the town of Auburn in the middle of New York State for its American premiere. On a cloudless summer evening I spotted one of the most successful musical lyricists of all-time, Sir Tim Rice—he of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Lion King and other smash successes—making his way into an early-twentieth-century carousel house now converted into a theater called the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. This handsome venue stands near the magnificently renovated pavilion of the same hue and vintage, its spacious ballroom giving onto flower-lined paths across vast lawns spreading down to the lakefront where a few bathers cooled themselves in the ninety-degree heat.
A wag might want to suggest that with his residency in Upstate New York, Sir Tim, a UKIP donor, is seeking not just to resuscitate From Here to Eternity, but also hopes to enjoy some colonial calm as the Brexit he supported convulses a rapidly fragmenting Britain. “It would be good to spend one’s final years as part of a truly independent nation once more,” he told the Spectator in elegiac tones before the vote. That his stay in American got rather more expensive with the free-fall of the British pound precipitated by the referendum outcome won’t register much with a man worth an estimated $250 million. And on the plus side, the receipts in surging U. S. dollars should the show indeed make it to Broadway will be that much more robust with the old country’s economy in ruins, its bankers fleeing the City of London just hit by the Brexit bomb.
Along the banks not of the Thames but of Owasco Lake, where General John Sullivan led his revolutionary army of freedom-fighters in 1779, laying waste to the Iroquois settlement that was once here but of which the historic marker to Sullivan and his men makes no mention, Sir Tim strolled towards the playhouse with his son Donald, who did the book for the show for the North American reboot. How fitting that just after the 4th of July weekend marking the Americans own exit from the British empire, the Brexited Brit was nurturing Anglo-American ties by doing what he does best—coming up with clever lyrics like those delivered from the Hawaiian stockade by the scheming Maggio (the part played by Frank Sinatra in the movie, and rendering with cynical, sprightly panache by Michael Tacconi) in his shop-stopping number of military disaffection, “I love the army”:
If this is all they can muster
They can give it back to Custer.
The musical platform for Rice’s couplets, enjambments, and quatrains comes from the capable pen of Stuart Brayson, an unproven entity in comparison to most of Rice’s collaborators, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Alan Menken, and Elton John among them. Brayson’s is serviceable stuff in a wide variety of genres: there’s some slack-key sonorities and slithering female harmonies for the requisite Hawaiian sound; there’s some anachronistic rock-and-roll to impart a period touch (even if slightly the wrong one); a smattering of swing for the same purposes; the necessary pop ballads of lust and love, fate and folly; macho, metrically varied choruses; and a rousing, up-tempo blues duet, “I Ain’t Where I Wanna Be” between the two male leads—the tormented, stubborn bugler Pruitt (who in the musical doesn’t get to bugle or buzz into his mouthpiece as Montgomery Clift does in the movie) played with stubborn charm by Corey Mach and the career soldier and man of principle, Sergeant Warden, done with resigned gusto by Kevin Aichele. Warden is sleeping with his commanding officers’ wife (or more provocatively rolling in the surf as Burt Lancaster did with Deborah Kerr on the silver screen—a scene that strangely doesn’t rate its own surging song in the musical). Mach and Aichele sang fiercely in-tune, with grit and gusto, Aichele even taking a chorus with a harmonica drawn from his trouser pocket (or so it seemed). The pair’s compelling, complementary musicality projected their kindred moral intransigence, one that threatened to doom one or both of them. Their performance of the song slammed the pedal to the metal towards an absurd fate.
The setting of the show puts one in mind of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific: in both entertainments the air is humid and soon thick with Japanese planes. One important is that you’re unlikely to hum Brayson’s tunes as you leave the theater, as might do “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” or “Some Enchanted Evening” after South Pacific. Still, Brayson’s engaging and serviceable tunes allow, even encourage, some fine performances like that of the adulterous, damaged captain’s wife Karen, played with fierce poise by Aleka Emerson. In her crystalline ballad “Another Language,” the song’s caged melody suggested her own entrapment and yearning. “There must be more before I die,” Rice’s lyric has her sing—a touching echo of his own Brexit views.
It was Brayson who came to Rice with a few songs and the idea to make From Here to Eternity into a musical. The lyricist originally planning only to produce the show, but then couldn’t resist the urge to contribute creatively. Rice bought the rights not to the film, but to the 1951 novel by James Jones on which the movie is also based. Jones’ book includes frank, realistic treatment of the Army’s gay sub-culture, a theme absent from the movie version even if some would like to detect it in Montgomery Clift’s glances in the direction of buff Burt.
Be all that as it may, these themes figure prominently in the plot and pathos of the musical, although Rice, father and son, do not bless gay love with a song of its own, but merely use it as a driver of the heterosexual melodrama.
In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the military sadism of the show doesn’t provide a shock or even much texture. Instead, it works almost as a cliché in the jaded world of the American War on Terror. The projected moving images of FDR announcing the Pearl Harbor attacks, the silhouettes of Japanese planes, the scrolling shots of the names of dead soldiers engraved on memorials work less as commentary on the devastations of war as on its necessity. The chorus “Boys of ’41” framing the show starts as a dirge but builds towards transcendent hymn that provides the icing on the stars-and-stripes 4th of July cake, one dangerously high in patriotic calories. The beasts and misbegotten heroes within the army that have troubled the boards for the show’s two hours are quickly forgotten as ranks quickly close to fight the good fight.
One suspects that such flag-waving may partly explain the show’s failure in London, which, in contrast to the rest of Britain, never wanted to flee Europe into open American arms. But this ideological positioning could well fuel the success of From Here to Eternity Now, if it makes it to Broadway in the months to come. Perhaps Sir Tim’s dreams will come true, ones that, in spite of nostrums about British sovereignty, will see the island kingdom from which he hails become even more firmly anchored as the geographical pendant in the Atlantic to Hawaii out in the Pacific. Just as the lights never dim on the Great White Way, so too the sun never sets on this empire.