Register Tuesday | January 21 | 2020

Cheese Grows in Brooklyn

New Yorkers hate tourists, though we usually keep quiet about it—without those pudgy Red Staters, we’d have to invent another enemy. Generally, we just avoid places where these visitors coagulate, like the Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue in Midtown and Times Square, especially the TKTS booth.

The TKTS booth is where the Theatre Development Fund (the Trilateral Commission of New York theatre producers) offers people 25, 35 or 50 percent off tickets to shows that haven’t sold out. Even in the Internet age, the only place you can get these cheap seats is at the booth. Plus, the tickets are only available the day of the show, and TKTS only takes cash. The booth lies at the wide end of the triangle at the top of Times Square, and on Fridays and Saturdays the line can snake around the rest of the cement traffic island. This line is the only place in New York that truly resembles Disneyland: here you can be stuck for two hours listening to strangers talk loudly about their golf games, their trips to Myrtle Beach and the Prada bags they bought on the street for $20.

Fuck this other show, I thought. I traded my ticket in and went to Brooklyn. Oh, how I wish I’d seen The Producers. Or gone home and watched Lost. Or eaten a dirt sandwich. With bits of glass in it.

I went to the line a week ago Wednesday because, well, I hadn’t seen anything and I had a column due. On Wednesdays, the list of discounted shows is longer than on the weekends—and the line is shorter, too. In fact, the line was not so much short as it was gone. There was just a mass of people around the ticket windows. It was like France. Even The Producers was on the list, and though I wouldn’t get to see Nathan Lane or Matthew Broderick, I could finally see a highly touted show that I’d somehow missed. Just after I handed over $52.75, though, the light board blinked. Suddenly Brooklyn: The Musical was on the list.

I hadn’t heard anything good about Brooklyn, but as the only new musical to open on Broadway this fall, it certainly qualified as newsworthy. And it hadn’t even opened yet. In fact, the musical was opening the next day, which meant that night was the last of the previews. It was 6:45 PM. Promoters must have released a block of tickets at the last minute, hoping to fill the house, since final previews are usually when the important critics come. You want a full house for them. Fuck this other show, I thought. I traded my ticket in and went to Brooklyn. Oh, how I wish I’d seen The Producers. Or gone home and watched Lost. Or eaten a dirt sandwich. With bits of glass in it.

I exaggerate, but only a little. Brooklyn is not the worst thing I’ve ever seen; there’s still A Class Act, which is seared into my memory like that rottweiler-fucks-masked-man video I accidentally downloaded from LimeWire.

For months, the producers of Brooklyn have been waging an aggressive marketing campaign. They’ve blanketed the city with posters for BKLYN: The Musical with the high-cheese tagline “Discover Who You Are … Remember Where You’re From.” The style of the art—stencilled letters inside a rough red heart—is obviously trying to invoke the now decade-old ads for Rent. When the cast is shown on the posters, they look young, hip and multicultural. (It turns out that only the female cast members are young. The men have been around forever; fifty-one-year-old Cleavant Derricks was in the original production of Dreamgirls over twenty years ago.) I imagined a musical about loft-living in Williamsburg with maybe a song or two about trucker hats and PBR.

In fact, the set looked a lot like what I see out the window of my own Brooklyn apartment: garbage under the Williamsburg Bridge. Brooklyn used the Brooklyn Bridge for symbolic reasons, but the trash was more or less the same: tin cans, chicken wire, garbage cans and FedEx boxes. The sounds were the same, too. As the audience waited for the show to begin, we stared at the trash and listened to subway rumblings, sirens and car horns. But they left out the window-rattling Tejano music.

Then the cast leapt onto the stage, and I realized I had been the victim of a bait and switch. They were a group of five sidewalk singers performing for cash donations (which you could occasionally hear clunk into a box during the show). Why they thought they would find a large and wealthy audience under the Brooklyn Bridge is beyond me. And they looked less like Brooklyn hipsters than like run-of-the-mill homeless people. Great, I thought. A musical about the homeless. Granted, these were very talented homeless folks. Using a truckload or two of garbage as props, they put on a show-within-the-show about a girl named Brooklyn.

Their fairy tale goes thus: Paris, 1969. Taylor Collins (Kevin Anderson) falls in love with Faith (Karen Olivo, who was in Rent). He has to go to Vietnam, but he promises to come back. He doesn’t. She pops out Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa), named after Taylor’s hometown. Heartbroken, Faith kills herself when Brooklyn is five. Raised by nuns, Brooklyn becomes a pop star. At Carnegie Hall, at the end of her apparently world-shaking show, she sings the lullaby Taylor wrote for Faith, but she can’t finish it because, apparently, only her father knows how it ends. Now the biggest thing since, oh, Hilary Duff, Brooklyn sets out to find her father. An aging pop diva, Paradice (Ramona Keller), is jealous of Brooklyn’s fame. She challenges Brooklyn to a musical cage match at Madison Square Garden. In a remarkable stroke of luck, Brooklyn’s fairy godfather (Cleavant Derricks) leads her to her father, who is homeless, addicted to heroin and wrecked by his responsibility for a massacre of women and children in Vietnam. Will Taylor and Brooklyn perform together? Will Paradice win the challenge? Oh, Lord, how will this all end?

As far as I could tell, the musical was not about Brooklyn, the city. It was just the name of the girl and the setting for the action. I was expecting the Zeitgeist, and I got a marketing trick.

As far as I could tell, the musical was not about Brooklyn, the city. It was just the name of the girl and the setting for the action. I was expecting the Zeitgeist, and I got a marketing trick. The visual style wanted me to think “current” and “urban,” but Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, were channelling Hair and Godspell. But while the creators of those seminal shows were able to tap into their era’s emotions and rhythms, Mark and Barri, as they like to be called, failed to find a coherent theme. They mixed war crimes with depression, fatherless children with the perils of fame, Brooklyn with Paris, camp with pathos. It was a giant mess.

I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel except that it was something deep. It didn’t help that Mark and Barri’s lyrics were so silly that I found it hard not to laugh when I was supposed to be welling up with tears. When Faith and Taylor sang to each other, “I used to laugh at Christmas, but now Christmas makes me cry,” I heard a half-dozen snickers in the audience. Then Brooklyn screeches “I Never Knew His Name,” about, you guessed it, not knowing her father’s name. The rest of the songs were just as terrible: treacly pop songs belted so loudly it was hard to notice that the lyrics were about as meaningful as anything written by Diane Warren.

Most guilty of this vocal American Idolatry was Espinosa. Her voice was pretty, but a little thin, and her acting consisted of frowning when she was sad and looking haughty when she was singing for her (fictional) audience. And she held her notes for such a long time that I began to wonder whether she had been dared to faint onstage. Then Keller finished “Raven” by pulling a Mariah Carey, melisma-ing the end of the song for what seemed like three days. The audience, taught by Whitney and her ilk to appreciate melodic gymnastics over acting, exploded in cheers.

They also cheered for the costumes. For the costumes. During the aforementioned cage match, Keller put on a gown made of “Police Line Do Not Cross” tape and Espinosa wore a dress made of “I ♥ New York” bags. They were great dresses, but their brilliance contradicted the cheesy material, highlighting just how weak the show actually was. There’s a lesson to be learned here: don’t give your designer too much power, especially when he is young and you are old, he is hip and you enjoyed Glitter without irony. It’s just a bad idea.

When Ted Gideonse was seven, he saw Richard Harris in Camelot. He doesn't remember any of it. Alan Cumming in Cabaret, however, is embedded in Ted's hippocampus. Ted has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. (I Am) The Fourth Wall appears monthly.