The Civil War

St. James Theatre, NY – 3/31/99

Review by John Kenrick

This time around, everybody loses! The Civil War is just plain twisted. The score is rock for the whites, gospel and blues for the blacks, with rock concert-style lighting and staging. There is no plot, and the only visible character who's name sticks is Frederick Douglass. To be fair, at the preview I attended, the audience stopped the show for several of the gospel numbers and roared through the curtain calls. I guess they got whatever it was they came for. Silly me – I had been hoping for a musical.

After all, that's what The Civil War is advertised as, but as far as I could tell it's not muh of a musical at all. It is a slick pageant, the sort of thing that's usually performed by semi-amateurs in outdoor amphitheaters near historic sights on summer nights. Like most pageants it has a large cast, terribly clean period costumes, a minimal set (four war-battered columns), loud music and a plain backdrop on which they show inexpensive projections. In my experience, projections used as sets are always a sign of a cheap Broadway flop like Ain't Broadway Grand or Into The Light – but in the post-Rent age, some folks apparently think that the more high tech your production is, the better.

Rent at least has a plot and characters (albeit self-pitying bores) and a score that relates to both. The Civil War has none of those things. There are no clear characters, no plot, and songs that could have strolled off of half a dozen different pop albums.

The Civil War does have all its actors wearing headsets, which may get by in a contemporary setting but are mighty distracting amid all the Victorian costumes here. How believable can a grieving slave woman be with a microphone wrapped around her head? The irony is that with so much sound equipment most of the lyrics are still indecipherable thanks to deafening rock/pop orchestrations. Then again, considering how bad the lyrics I heard were, I was probably better off missing as many as I did.

Even if you know all about the War Between the States, you will have trouble following what happens in The Civil War. No attempt is made to explain the complicated causes for the war. A chorus simply appears singing about how anxious the men on both sides are to fight. Frederick Douglass steps forward to proclaim that the war is about slavery and nothing else (a point most historians and Southerners would still deny furiously). With that, they launch into a series of battles, with the whites from both the North and South hating the Negroes they are fighting over.

The Northern commander is dark haired with a beard and the Southern commander is a clean-shaven blonde. We hear a little about the wives up North, but nothing about civilian life in the South. Since the characters are never clearly drawn, all that flows by for more than two hours is an unconnected series of vignettes where people take center stage and sing.

You rarely know where you are or exactly who is singing – you get a generic soldier, wife or slave in some generic place. When the monotonously staged battle scenes get to be too much to bear, the black cast members are trotted out for one more gospel number about freedom (approximately two in each act).

The final scene is at Gettysburg, 1863. Once everyone is dead, Frederick Douglass walks on the body-strewn stage to announce that Lincoln was re-elected, dead and buried within a month. What!?! Two years of the war are completely disregarded? This isn't just bad theatre – it's bad history.

The only cast member with a strong stage presence was Michel Bell, who's booming bass voice was even more striking here that in the recent revival of Showboat. However, the big numbers are given to others who sing in a rock or gospel style that is only partially effective on a Broadway stage.  The entire company seemed to remember it’s lines and managed not to bump into each other too much, but most of them were as forgettable as the material.

One of the men is a Calvin Klein model – which might have helped if he had a nude scene (he did not) but did not help him with music or dialogue (which he had far too much of). The trend of models thinking they are actors was once limited to the airheads of Hollywood – now it seems, even Broadway casting directors are susceptible to this lunacy.

I could forgive this show a lot if it etched out even one memorable character. The real Civil War was America's greatest nightmare, a historical reservoir of unforgettable people and situations. Ken Burns' magnificent PBS documentary (a historic accomplishment in its own right) proved that when it brought forgotten people like Sullivan Ballou to life again. If you saw the documentary, you no doubt remember him. He's the soldier who wrote an achingly beautiful letter to his wife on the eve of battle, assuring her that if he died the next day every breeze caressing her cheek or whispering in the trees would be his spirit reaching out to her. When the narrator mentions that Ballou was shot dead hours later, it breaks your heart.

When this so-called musical has a soldier sing to his far away wife, followed by her announcement that he is dead, there is no impact at all – mostly because this soldier and wife are anonymous non-characters. Oh they have names in the program, but the show does nothing to give those characters any dimension. You might as well tell us a window display is being changed in a department store – there's just as much there to care about.

The score does not sound even minimally theatrical, unlike anything Frank Wildhorn has done before. I had hoped for more from the composer of Jekyll and Pimpernel. To me, this score stinks – but then I am from another time. The audience I sat with carried on wildly for number after number. In the end it was not the show or the cast that got to me – it was the audience. I can deal with a musical being bad, but when audiences embrace such a show, I'm horrified. You see, artists can't really kill a commercial art form – only the public can do that.

In future I will avoid shows like The Civil War, and work to encourage and preserve those shows that still believe in silly, outdated things like joy, fun, wit and style. Anyone for a revival of Crazy For You?

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