Watching 68: A New American Musical at the New York Musical Festival, I was reminded of why I don’t like Titanic – the Musical. That show is a musical about a boat. We get very little engagement with the individual stories of the people on it, and no central character in that show carries our emotional interest through the evening.
Similarly, bookwriter and lyricist, Jamie Leo, and composer Paul Leschen, the team behind 68: A New American Musical, try very hard to capture the full range of events surrounding the democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, as well as some of the background issues.
A program note explains that the show began as a song cycle. Each song has a clear central idea, which is good. But they lyrics are generally underwritten, and wouldn’t stand alone as story songs. Instead of focusing on the experience of a few individuals to carry us through the story, the show is a collage of snippets of people and events in and around the convention, none of whom are developed enough to make us truly care. This elephant is just too big for this team to eat, no matter how small the bites.
To take us through the story, the team has created a middle aged librarian named Charlene (Mary Callanan) who never rises above being a framing device. The show opens when she decides some months after the convention, for no apparent reason, to tape interviews with people who were there. It’s not made clear that Charlene is doing this as a personal project, rather than as part of her job at the public library. What drives her personal interest is not articulated. The opening song, “The Trouble With History,” which should explain Charlene’s intentions, explains nothing….which is, in my opinion, the problem with almost all of Mr. Leo’s lyrics.
Charlene hires a young assistant, Gary (Jeremy Konopka), because she can’t handle a reel to reel tape recorder, just to run the tech. Then, almost in her next breath, she is instructing him on how to ask the very questions which she is supposed to be asking and writing herself, which makes no sense.
We don’t see each character come in for their interview, establish who they are, and then tell us their story. Instead, sometimes the characters just appear onstage in a flashback, and we don’t learn who they are or where they are until the scene is over, if at all. That leads to considerable confusion.
After the opening number, an unidentified African American man (Uton Evan OnykJekwe), who looks like he’s supposed to be Black Panther leader Huey Newton, sings a song asking “Do you feel powerless?” but we don’t know to whom.
Then, a bus full of people arriving in Chicago for the convention ask one another “Where Are You From?” in a song which was pretty but pointless, since Leo the lyricist never allows them to establish themselves as individuals in answer to the question.
There is one enjoyable yet isolated scene at the Humphrey campaign office with another worker, Sandy (the equally funny and lovely Maggie Hollinbeck), who sings a fitfully amusing song in praise of Humphrey being “”Minnesota Nice”. But like all the vignettes, this plot point also dead ends.
As preparations for the convention escalate, Police Superintendant Conlisk (Jonathan Spivey) and hard nosed Lt. Stubig (Bob Gaynor) sing a cheesy song about “The Thrill of Confrontation,” to an ensemble standing around them in white helmets, who might be intended to be police, but who look more like city construction workers taking a long lunch break.
We meet a Hispanic woman, Rebecca ( Nicole Paloma Sarro), who sings a flashback song, “Name Tag,” as her hotel maid mother, urging the wealthy guests to look right through her rather than acknowledge her. That was probably meant to be sarcastic. But a more direct statement of her feelings and her experience would have made a richer song.
A song called “The Festival of Life” takes us to the people in Grant Park. We encounter a hippie character (Joe Joseph) who looks like Abbie Hoffman, but isn’t established as anyone in particular.
The songs become more surreal as the show wears on. There’s a song called “Wake Up Call” sung by the conventioneers at the Hilton Hotel which makes them all out to be party animals, until the song becomes suddenly and inexplicably serious.
Charlene sings a song about her father’s attempts to fight for the labor movement in 1948, which is a peppy, upbeat, big band tune. We learn afterwards that she’s singing it on the day of her father’s funeral, which supposedly explains why her inexplicably sexy dress is black. This team apparently has a taste for the Brechtian, without the talent to pull it off.
Also out of nowhere, we see a Vietnamese girl (Delphi Borich) emerge in peasant garb, singing a symbolic song about the sky falling, and the failure of the chickens in the house to revolt. If you’ve been reading the program instead of watching the show, you would realize that the scene has shifted suddenly to My Lai, the scene of the worst massacre of the war by our own troops. But unless I missed it, this Vietnamese girl never was there to tell the story to Charlene. It doesn’t work in the context they’ve created.
The war itself, and its impact on the people we meet at the convention, also gets very short shrift, except for the song, “The Lucky Ones,” in which a soldier (again, Joe Joseph), who also may be singing from anywhere to anybody, describes himself ironically as being one of the lucky ones for returning from the war.
In the latter half of the show, Mr. Leo finally tries to create a relationship arc, and establishes a conflict between Charlene and Gary, which unfortunately comes out of nowhere. Then, Lt. Stubig comes in to do his interview, and there’s some trumped up conflict between the two men about the Lieutenant’s daughter, whom we never meet in the show… so we just don’t care. However, Lt. Stubig has some monologue time talking about the New Yorkers who brought the trouble, and how the police weren’t all bad guys. A round of applause to Bob Gaynor, who managed to engage me in this moment.
Also, in the very end, Jalynn Steel as Kerry the social worker gets a few moments of nicely played character development, although too late to help the show.
The choreography by Brook Wendle fails to enhance the evening. None of the design elements are worth mentioning in comparison to other work I’ve been seeing at the Festival. Even the singing of this cast, and the band under musical director Rob Baumgartner, Jr., are a cut below what I’ve heard in the other shows so far this year.
It’s hard to know whether to credit director Joey Murray for keeping all this together, or fault him for not demanding more. He does get points for convincing the team at the last minute to edit the show into a one act without intermission, although the program says it’s in two acts with an intermission. There are no cliffhangers to justify splitting the evening into two parts.
This show probably should have been presented as a reading, and more work should have been devoted to story development. Without compelling central characters, or an interesting plot, it remains a jukebox show in spirit, and an unsuccessful one.