Friday, 26 February 2010

Dude! (I Got Tu Go Disco)

Yes, please do note the intentional [title of show] pun.
So, where were we? Oh yes, the works of Galt Macdermot and his fellow Hair alumni Gerome Ragni and James Rado. So that'll be Dude, the Highway Life- the second work by these collaborators and the last to appear on Broadway.

Dude again took its inspiration from those great texts of the past; in this case Shakespeare and the Bible. According to wikipedia (the font of all knowledge) the plot goes a little like this:

"Reba and Harold, actors who believe they have been cast in Richard III, instead find themselves portraying Adam and Eve in a Garden of Eden-like setting, where they are tempted by Zero (the devil) and give birth to son Dude. The forces of Good (#33, Bread, Susie Moon, Mother Earth, and the Shubert Angels) and Evil (Zero, Nero, Esso, Extra, and Sissy) try to gain control of Dude's soul. Dude grows up and succumbs to the temptations of bizarre sexual practices and illicit drugs, leaving his parents guilt-ridden, until Guide #33 (God) assures them that life is merely show business and everything has a happy ending."

This story doesn't sound to implausible; Jerry Springer addressed the fight between good and evil in a much more controversial manner, Tommy and Taboo both address a young man growing up and dabbling in bizarre sexual practices and illicit drugs. Plus every good old Broadway show ends with a happy everything. To me the plot sounds like a message to Broadway about the development of contemporary theatre and that in the end it is only theatre.

But you don't expect Rado and Ragni to approach the plot in a conventional manner do you? Of course not. With Eugene Lee on board as designer, the entire Broadway Theatre was gutted and replaced with a theatre in the round, placing the various parts of the orchestra at different sides of the theatre. Did no one ever think about acoustics in those days? This probably explains why I can't think of any success musicals that have been performed in the round- even the Donmar Warehouse has a vague front to it. In addition to this reconfigured stage, attempts were made to transform it into a primeval forest using real dirt. Way to go Eugene, dry dirt caused dusty faced audiences and attempts to control it with water led to mucky faced audiences. Eventually a fake dirt compromise was reached after also cutting the real chickens that were intended to wander the stage. Lee basically threw everything at this show- walkways, ramps, seated areas, trapdoors, even trapezes.

The actors weren't the only people to find themselves going through a strange, radical experience; the audience were also left slightly bemused. Instead of orchestra, mezzanine and balcony we had valleys and foothills, mountains and mountain tops and tree tops and trees respectively. I quite like this as the hoity toity would enjoy the novelty- "Oh look darling tonight we sitting in the foothills, guffaw" and those who could not afford the good seats had no way of showing it- instead of last row in the balcony, you'll be sitting in the tree tops. Much more romantic.

And here is where the problems start. By splitting up the orchestra, acoustics were a real problem especially if you happened to find yourself right by brass section! Another issue with in the round theatre is that a large portion of the action, especially in dialogue scenes will only visible and audible to certain areas of the audience.

It wasn't just the sound designer who was having a nightmare of a time, during previews the director and choreographer both resigned, being replaced by Rado and Ragnis' old friend Tom O'Horgan (director of Hair) at short notice. After complaints from both the cast and creative team Ragni finally addressed the mammoth task of rewriting much of the show including replacing a 23 year old Dude with an 11 year old Dude. Just a few minor tweaks then.
So one would think that despite these chaotic scenes backstage surely Rado, Ragni and Macdermot can pull it out of the bag again? Nope, the critics hated and audiences just didn't want all the fuss of getting confused about where they'd be sitting or the risk of getting a bit grubby.

So now we address why? I get the feeling that Ragni and Rado were on a bit of an ego trip following Hair. Dude sounds like the sort of show that would fit in with off-Broadway today not the stuffy Broadway of the early seventies but because of their stature within the community, they could straight to the Great White Way. The creative pair had carte blanche because producers were desperate to make the next Hair. I'm all for creativity on the stage but Ragni took this a step too far by not thinking about the practicalities. Real dirt, whilst a romantic idea, is a logistics nightmare as are livestock- what if someones allergic?

I get the feeling that Ragni insisted that he was running the show despite having no experience as a director, choreographer, musical director, etc. I can imagine this would really rub some people up the wrong way.
Yet I don't feel like I want to lay all the blame on Gerome Ragni; musicals are a collaborative effort with many different factors that must be woven into each other to get it right. Whereas my examination of Via Galactica took the post modernist approach of finding the piece that was missing from the jigsaw, the fate of Dude! is less clear cut. Even though I love his work, I think Eugene Lee went a bit too far in creating an all round environment in a theatre that was never made for anything but traditional proscenium arch based shows. The producers were pretty much out of their depth- should you really go trusting lots of your money on some guys that spend most of their days stoned?

And so finally I address a huge contributing factor that has nothing to do with anyone involved in the show. Timing. Although I know no one is ever going to want to revise Dude! I feel it may have had a more successful life if it had arrived thirty years later. In the early seventies, Broadway was nearing the end of a prosperous time that had seen so much progress in the world of the musical. Soon the great British super musical would arrive and metaphorically piss over creativity. If scaled back slightly and set in a more suitable theatre, it could have made a nice little earning off-Broadway and would have a been a good stepping-stone for young actors. Although we still see a lot of the same old film based musicals on Broadway, off Broadway has become much more creative (strangely) in the years since 9/11. Instead Dude! went up to that great show graveyard in the sky (or possibly in that church that used to be a theatre on Broadway)

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