Dude might have been waved away as just another failed musical if it hadn't been for two things: its pedigree and its challenge. We were entirely aware of both as we sat - in the foothills, in the mountains, in the valleys, among the trees - watching it on opening night. The pedigree? Dude was by the authors of hair, that watershed rock festival that changed the minds of the country about what it wanted to look at and listen to. The challenge? The producers and authors of Dude made it plane by word and woodwind, by hammer and chisel, that they were out to restructure the contemporary theater in every conceivable way.
Let's take the restructuring first, since that is where the occasion's failure is most obvious and most immediate. The show had begun with the notion that the physical theater itself must be reshaped if the experiences we're going to have inside it are to take on a new and different life. To bring this about, the Broadway theater was torn apart and rebuilt: the old orchestra floor was completely covered over with a green whirlpool of a stage, what had formerly been the stage became a steep bank of seats facing the old bank of seats that had constituted the balcony, small pockets of spectators were tucked into the spaces between so that the acting area should seem to be entirely surrounded by attentive eyes, a rock group was suspended from one theater box and a collection of country fiddles caged at some distance across the house, the ceiling became a tangle of baroque cupids, circus rigging, and the vine leaves of Tanzania.
The first impression that all of this created however, was one of undue familiarity. What did it remind us of? A seedy carnival somewhere, anywhere. It looked exactly like the kind of one-ring circus that might be hustled out of baggage cars and hastily thrown together in any arena across the land. Since we already have an ample supply of just such arenas, one couldn't help wondering why so much money should have been spent to transform another kind of house into yet one more mini-Madison Square garden.
The second thing one noticed was that the stage was inconveniently small. In all of that great space, the actors had the least room to roam in, and although they occasionally - but decreasingly, as though winded - took off on the run up the aisles or onto ramps that rose toward the ceiling, they were inevitably forced to congregate, in their buttoned union-suits or the winged gauzes of road-show angels, on the cramped central circle whenever anything important was to be done.
There, little children found themselves awkwardly trying to step over the prone bodies that writhed on the floor, facing more or less the same kind of traffic problem most of us had had coming cross town on the way to the playhouse. Rae Allen, saucy and accomplished as she is, found herself gasping into her microphone as she bent backward over the stooped forms of four companions, desperately trying to satisfy the director Tom O'Horgan's passion for varied postures in an amphitheater without elbow room. The clutter was not only visual. Because the acting area provided no outlets for microphone wires, the wires had to be trailed through the audience, leaving them tangled and exposed on the stairs at intermission time and creating a problem that might have disturbed an alert Fire Commissioner. The stage was not truly functional: it could not take care of the production's needs.
The third fat question mark that cropped up had to do with the enforced creation of a four-sided audience in order to promote closer relationships between performers and spectators - and, for that matter, between spectators and spectators. Why this struggle for intimacy, for eyeball-to-eyeball contact, when crucial material was going to be confined to microphones anyway? In the far distance loomed all those audience faces (I have no objection to this premise, and in fact would like the faces closer). In the acting area between, singers directed their messages not to the open house but to microphones in their hands, closeted in a performing privacy. The material could have been phoned in.
Wherever one turned, the restructuring denied itself. Perhaps that is not so surprising. restructuring implies more than tearing apart an old formula, a tired architecture. It suggests that a new one is going to be put in its place. But the one specter that has haunted the rock musical from its beginning is its structural flimsiness, its cavalier primitivism as architecture, its intertwined innocence and gaucherie. At the outset the gaucherie didn't matter so much: indeed one of the principal charms of Hair as it was first done at the Public Theater was its disclosure that the flower children were in fact children and that they were, as children, thoroughly likable. When Hair was redone for broadway, the innocence was somewhat scuttled, the gaucherie covered over by a manic drive. But the drive and the decibels were at that point quite enough; it was fun making acquaintance with a counterculture so exuberant.
The best subsequent ventures have either supplied themselves with spines by borrowing from Shakespeare - "Your Own Thing", "Two Gentlemen of Verona" - or from St. Matthew. On a few occasions - "The Last Sweet Days of Isaac" most notably - they have been able to find themselves texts that would have played virtually as well as straight short plays. But in the main they have been no more than fierce ragbags of assembled song, living when they did live on melodic and rhythmic excitement, feeble the moment narrative or humor was attempted. Transplanted concerts, they possessed musical sophistication but no other. On or off Broadway, that is an inherent weakness.
It may have become the inadvertent function of Dude to expose that weakness so blatantly that all future rock musicals will have to face up to it before they dare take guitar or saw in hand. Dude's challenge was so explicit, occasionally so arrogant (it managed a lofty sneer at Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine), simply so vast that we were no longer able to close our ears to what is childish in our enthusiasm for what is current (and once in a while exhilarating).
We forced ourselves to listen for the new humor and we heard: "The house that Shakespeare built must have been some erection.", "Get down there off your asteroid", "Did you ever see a whole bunch of human organisms playing the organ with their organs?" At the same time that a spokesman was exclaiming "I'll show you theater!" one of his colleagues - that good actor William Redfield, alas - was muttering about the smell of goosegrease and "the excitement of opening tights". Nothing of this, obviously would have been considered good enough, or even bad enough, to have done duty at Minsky's in the twilight of burlesque.
Because the evening was subtitles "The Highway Life" and the auditorium was indeed sectioned off into Foothills and valleys, we strained for some half-coherent account of a contemporary journey, symbolic or actual, echoing Kerouac or Kesey or "Easy Rider" or perhaps introducing us to a new one. But the mountains and trees that had been so elaborately carved out of space were never investigated at all, and the "newness" we were searching for seemed confined to the information that a boy-Dude was born, turned into a man-Dude who tried sex and drugs, and wound up urging us all to realize, along with D.W. Griffith, that Love is everything. Even these crumbs of content were quite hard to come by: they seemed carelessly scrawled telephone messages that "librettist" Gerome Ragni had left about for us to pick up, when and if we could, between Galt MacDermot's songs.
The songs - some crawling for cover behind gospel or stock country rhythms - were simply asked, and that incessantly, to mask the absence of anything strong enough to offer frame or excuse for the evening. As the Titanic goes down, the orchestra plays. Mr. O'Horgan, called upon to restage the venture during its last days of preparation, seemed to have exhausted his catalogue of gropes. Sex was indicated by surprisingly mechanical grappling on the limited grappling spaces, Love by garlands of paper flowers wafted about by the available girls. It all felt as though it ought to have been photographed in 1918 by Van Damm.
Before drawing what conclusions we can, mention should
be made of one remarkable young performer: Ralph Carter, as the boy-Dude,
firmly occupied every inch of space he was allotted, back straight, head
up, squared mouth quivering, with breathtaking glissandos. Conclusions?
Rock musicals, if they are to sustain themselves as genuine theater pieces
rather than arena concerts, are going to have to meet the obligations earlier
musicals have accepted, always with difficulty, often with pain.
Music is the ultimate making of any musical. But the music must have
something to stand on, something other than its own beat to move it, something
to demand one particular song rather than another at a particular moment,
hopefully something in the way of wit to keep it company. Unless
the score does rest on a structure, you might as well listen to it at home.
Dude forced the issue, and we may yet be grateful to it for that.
Copyright The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.