Can you picture King Arthur in Camelot wearing a tuxedo?
How about The Phantom of the Opera playing a video game?
You wouldn’t buy those situations any more than you’d accept Tevye’s eating a Pop-Tart or Valjean spending the night at a Holiday Inn. You’d emit a little laugh and say “No-no-no-no-no — they didn’t have those back then.”
Perhaps anachronisms shouldn’t be limited to items but should include music as well. The early 15th century is more than half a millennium too early for rock music, but here it is in JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE, the latest glorified concert that is occupying a legitimate theater (The Newman in The Public).
The sad thing is that David Byrne has written very good music, even excellent music; it’s just that it’s out-of-period. With the unarguable success of the previous musical on this Newman stage – HAMILTON – we’ll now-and-forever get anachronistic music in most musicals set in the long ago and far away. (That includes Byrne’s gospel number worthy of a Baptist minister.)
Okay, it’s a style, even down to Joan’s grabbing a mike and wailing into it for her eleven o’clock number. And there is an audience that wants to hear nothing but rock. But why must Byrne waste all these terrific melodies on Joan of Arc, especially when he has absolutely nothing to add to what George Bernard Shaw, Maxwell Anderson, Jean Anouilh, Lillian Hellman and the three writers of GOODTIME CHARLEY brought to her in their various theater pieces? Under these circumstances, Byrne would have done better to pick a subject for which his fine rock music sounded right.
He also should have chosen a bookwriter and lyricist instead of assuming those occupations for himself. One of the greatest examples of hubris is an individual’s believing that he or she can master all three jobs in the creation of a musical. Box-office and critical hits that have been the work of a single writer are not numerous.
At the very least, Byrne needed a co-librettist who had a new take on the story so that the result wouldn’t just be business-as-usual. In the aim of historical accuracy, Byrne does give us “actual trial transcript,” as the projection on the back wall states. Thus, the Playbill title page credits should really read “Book, music and lyrics by David Byrne. Additional dialogue by Joan of Arc.”
A projection is also occasionally used when a character makes his first entrance by simply stating who he is. A better dramatist could create characters so memorable that we’d remember their names without the supertitles.
Would that Byrne had joined forces with a lyricist who believed in rhyming correctly. Here, no sooner is the curtain up when we get “Arc” (non-)”rhymed” with “heart.” Those of us who enjoy having our ears tickled with perfect rhymes immediately know that this is going to be a l-o-n-g night (even with the 90-minute intermissionless running time).
Lyrical laziness could be pardoned if Byrne had come up with great ideas at the expense of rhymes. Case in point: BY THE BEAUTIFUL SEA has a spinster sing that she’s glad she didn’t marry men whom she knew wouldn’t measure up. “Joe made big dough; his business, he said, was printin’. What Joe was printin’ got him San Quintin.”
While “San QUENTIN” is the real name of the prison, we’ll excuse Dorothy Fields for not finding a perfect rhyme because she had a great laugh-inducing joke that we’re glad to have. All Byrne offers is prosaic work that merely moves the story we all know from point to point.
Just in case we don’t all know it: French schoolgirl Joan is all of sixteen going on seventeen when she decides that she could stop the war that’s been raging for 92 years – yes, 92 years – between England and France. She says that three saints have talked to her and have urged her to take command of the troops. Damn if she doesn’t convince the powers-that-be to let her lead the army.
Of all the JOAN properties cited above, Byrne does the least with having men balk at having to serve under a teenager – and a girl yet. There is very little discussion, let alone argument, for everyone is quickly convinced that Joan’s the person for the post.
As history teaches us, Joan reclaimed four French towns in a couple of months and three others in the two months that followed. Paris, however, was one she couldn’t recapture; instead, she was soon captured and a bishop who’d got his sinecure by being loyal to the British worked hard to burn her at the stake.
Alex Timbers, one of our most innovative directors, makes everything wonderfully fluid and provides excellent stage pictures. Aside from Joan, the extraordinary cast is asked to play at least three roles and join in the ensemble from time to time. Everyone well delivers the rock and is brilliantly illuminated by Justin Townsend’s vivid and exciting lighting on Christopher Barreca’s ho-hum unit set.
As for Joan, to say that Jo Lampert can sing up a storm isn’t nearly enough; she’s her own tsunami. The actress, who looks as if she could be Alan Cumming’s fraternal twin, is dressed much like a dominatrix, which is strangely fitting given how she dominates the show in this otherwise almost-all male cast.
Almost. Don’t read your program in advance; that way, just before the final curtain you’ll get a delightful surprise when an Oscar nominee makes a cameo appearance.
Listening to Byrne’s melodic skill made me long for the days when musicals not only got original cast albums but instrumental ones as well. An all-music, all-the-time recording is the one I want of JOAN OF ARC: INTO THE FIRE so I can savor the music that David Byrne expertly delivered while avoiding his trite take on the story and his craft-free lyrics.