In the past week I happened to see two musicals built in similar ways -- HADESTOWN at NYTW and THE TOTAL BENT at The Public. One really grabbed me, whipped me around, shook me up and spit me out the door of the theatre a limp wet rag. The other one left me cold.
Both have wonderful songs, clever and razor-sharp lyrics and musical risk-taking that I always find both appealing and moving.
So why did Stew's musical fail to grab me? One reason and one reason alone. Once again, he phones it in in the book dept. Despite having won a Best Book Tony Award for Passing Strange, I felt that both his books have been thin. He doesn't seem to care much about character through-line and as a result, it's hard to care about the people on stage.
HADESTOWN author Anais Mitchell has the benefit of a time-tested story, the myth of Orpheus and Euridyce as her skeleton. I mean if it was good enough for Monteverdi... There's a reason this story gets told again and again and again and Mitchell manages to add something fresh and unexpected through the very last moment of the show.
I wish Stew would find a gifted playwright to collaborate with and provide his arresting songs with a more compelling skeleton on which to live. Too bad Doug Wright's not available. He wrote eloquently on the subject very recently in the NYTimes.