This one seemed strangely familiar. It felt as if I had seen and heard it all before—which is not to say that the déjà vu was an unpleasant sensation. I am referring to Curtains, the final Kander and Ebb collaboration now playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (pictured). Time Out New York called it ”your grandmother’s musical,” which bit of sexist ageism suggests dentures rather than bite. It so happens, I’m with grandma when it comes to a grand night out. At the theatre, that is. I take in musicals to be charmed rather than provoked, to be tickled or wowed rather than indoctrinated. Give me showtunes I can recall and perhaps even attempt to hum (at Marie’s Crisis, say, the Village piano bar where we spent a few hours of merry sing-along on Tony’s night). Besides, I’ve got a mirror for warts ‘n all.
So, Curtains is really my kind of show, if only it weren’t so obviously and deliberately steeped in Broadway musical history as to evoke other and unquestionably superior ones. A backstage murder mystery, Curtains is set in the late 1950s, which is a fine excuse for pastiche, as is its show within a show construction. Most of its songs are echoes of the period (“Show People” is something you’d expect to be belted out by Ethel Merman), even though the show being rehearsed seems to date back to the 1930s and the sentimental “I Miss the Music” recalls the to me well-nigh intolerable Andrew Lloyd Webber, especially in the earnest interpretation by the to my ears miscast-for-comedy Jason Danieley. That the show is being tinkered with as its cast is being knocked off seems an excuse for the repetition of an inferior number like “In the Same Boat.”
Curtains, of course, offers its own response to captious reviewers “What Kind of Man?”:
What kind of putz
Would squeeze your nuts like that?
Musicals aside, what the show brought to my mind was The Lady of Burlesque (1943) starring Barbara Stanwyck, which I saw earlier this year (for an itemized list of my movie diet, turn right). In that comedy-thriller, a show must go on while a killer is on the loose and an investigation underway. In the case of Curtains, though, it is not the leading lady but the detective who takes center stage and—despite the obvious handicaps of lacking a leading man’s looks or voice, not to mention a convincing Boston accent—takes it in strides at that.
I happen to have been at the Hirschfeld on the day that the show’s male lead, Tony-winning David Hyde Pierce, lifted the curtain on his private life and came out of the closet at last; on stage, he was busy turning a double life into a single one (negotiating his love for musicals with the business of solving crime), and being single into a happy double (by teaming up romantically with one of the suspects). It might be “your grandmother’s musical”; but its leading man is finally breaking with conventions that seemed out-of-date two decades ago.