Irving — Composer Galt MacDermot’s music for the 1967 rock-and-protest musical Hair made him famous. Less known is MacDermot’s second “tribal” look at America—this time at folks out in the heartland—for his musical adaptation of the 1943 William Saroyan novel The Human Comedy, which premiered at Joe Papp’s Public Theater in 1983.
Once languishing on the shelves, this little-known musical (there was a 1943 movie, too, but much-changed by MGM after Saroyan was fired as screenwriter) has been revived recently by several companies, including the Young Vic in London. Lyric Stage’s current production at the Irving Arts Center (it’s the second time Lyric has produced the show; first was in 1999) is a splendidly Our Town-ish staging with a wonderful cast, but the show suffers more than a little from the defects of the source material—Saroyan’s odd, glib-sounding pronouncements on life and death seem designed to push away genuine pain—and by the awkward lyric sense of librettist William Dumaresq, who tries to shoehorn Saroyan’s dialogue into songs with small regard for the rhythms of either words or music.
But cheers nonetheless to the Lyric team—in particular director Ann Nieman and music director/conductor Scott A. Eckert—for tackling an unusual piece of folk/pop opera (there’s almost no spoken dialogue). It’s a well-done attempt that makes the most of this work, and MacDermot’s score truly is a fascination: pulling from jazz, jitterbug and church hymns, folk ballads and blues, his mashup feels like a hot mess at times, but somehow comes together as a sweeping statement of faith in the goodness of America and its people. You won’t end up with melodies to hum—but you will remember the show.
The Human Comedy is set on the home front, circa 1942, in the small town of Ithaca, California. A railroad runs through it; trains stop to take boys from the town away to war—and to bring some of them back home again. A telegraph line links home and battlefield; the tapping of its keys is the music of life and death for the mothers, fathers and sweethearts who wait.
The three Macauley boys are connected to it all: Marcus (Michael Scott McNay) is a combat soldier who loves a girl back home named Mary (Brett Warner Hurt); Homer (Johnny Lee) delivers the town’s telegrams, including “regrets” from the War Department; and little brother Ulysses (Samuel Moran) reaches out to the world by waving at every train passing through—until he gets a “Hiya, Kid” from a black Trainman (Gabriel Lawson) who says he’s “going home.” Ulysses is confused: isn’t home right here? And yes, Saroyan’s classical allusions are meant to hit us over the head: he wants us to remember the wars and wanderings of the poet Homer’s Ulysses in The Odyssey (his home town was Ithaca, too) and the spiritual “journey of life” that leads to hell or heaven in Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
The boys live with their widowed mother Kate (Christia Mantzke) and sister Bess (Molly Welch). Their father Matthew (Scott Franks) died young, but remains a hovering presence hidden among the townspeople onstage, with one tender song (“Long Past Sunset”) still to sing to his lonely wife. Homer gets to know Spangler (Christopher Deaton), the kind-hearted manager of the telegraph office, and makes friends with Grogan (David Coffee), the war-weary old man who types the telegrams as they come in—and comforts himself with “Cocoanut Cream Pie.”
Town life (high school classes, paying the bills) doesn’t stop for the war. But as the “killed in action” messages keep coming, Ithaca’s pain takes root in Homer’s young heart—and he dreads the telegram that might have his brother’s name. In the song “I Said, Oh No”, composer MacDermot superimposes the joys of normal life (a pair of jitterbugging teens) with families’ anguish as telegrams come to their doors—and it’s a brutal, heart-breaking moment.
Great voices are almost a given at Lyric, but among the best are Mantzke, an anchoring presence as the boys’ warm and loving mother; Welch and Hurt as a lilting duo of swing singers; and Kristin Bond, whose black gospel singer Beautiful Music brings down the house every time. Franks’ ghostly song as the dead father is beautifully sung; Larson gives the “outside world” a big, friendly voice as the Trainman; and McNay as soldier Marcus forges a life-changing friendship with friend Tobey (David Price in a touching role) during a series of songs. Lee is great as the growing-up-fast Homer, and Coffee and Deaton help us feel the pain of the men who don’t go to war, but bear its burdens just the same. Large sections of the score are sung by the townspeople, and it’s a pleasure to hear these vibrant ensemble voices propelled by the 20-something musicians in the pit, conducted by Scott A. Eckert.
Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes are a nuanced, softer version of ‘40s style—perfect for a small town far away from the fashion world. And the single set, designed by director Nieman and Lyric founder Steven Jones, is memorable: the town gathers on tiered platforms at center stage (the grouped chairs really do evoke Our Town), backed by a pair of huge, wood-planked doors that could be from a barn or a church—they make us think of both. The doors slide wide to let in the world beyond the town, bathed in red as the characters think of war, filled with stars as the dead come to touch their lives again.
“Where’s the comedy?” a lady in the audience said plaintively at intermission. But the comedy—used in the old sense of “trust us, there’s a happy ending in here somewhere,” and the even older sense of a pageant of humanity that leads, finally, toward order and light—lies in Saroyan’s straightforward view of all life as connected, worthwhile and “Everlasting,” and of a celebratory America (think Walt Whitman’s view of us all as one national body) where Beautiful Music is as beloved a neighbor as anyone else in town…where Spangler can reform a young, gun-toting thief by giving him the money he wants (“If you give to a thief, he cannot steal from you, and he himself is then no longer a thief,” wrote Saroyan.)…and where not even war and death can entirely take away the people we love. (“All things are a part of us, and we have come here to enjoy them and to thank God for them.”)
It’s a heartfelt revival, but Saroyan probably can be classified as an acquired taste, and The Human Comedy isn’t likely to inspire late-night sing-alongs like The Sound of Music. Still, at a time when the living memory of World War II is fading fast, it’s an interesting exercise in theater to consider both Saroyan’s unique vision of “the way we were”—and MacDermot’s very different take on musical theater.