I've been wanting to write something about Dance a Little Closer, possibly the biggest musical flop of the '80s (even more than Carrie) and Alan Jay Lerner's last completed musical.
Like every show Lerner did without Fritz Loewe, it was unsuccessful (though Coco, probably his worst, actually made some money due to the presence of Katharine Hepburn) and like almost all of those shows, it has some wonderful things in it side-by-side with embarrassing things. In this case, the embarrassing things were apparently the staging -- Lerner directed it himself, creating a show that every critic condemned as ugly -- and the book, Lerner's over-ambitious attempt to update Robert Sherwood's anti-war comedy Idiot's Delight to the nuclear era. Critics also said that one of the embarrassing things was Lerner's subplot, about two gay men who ask a clergyman to marry them before nuclear Armageddon hits. But this subplot, which was attacked as Lerner's hopeless attempt to seem with-it, now seems ahead of its time.
Also, Lerner cast his umpteenth and last wife, British actress Liz Robertson, in the difficult lead role; Charles Strouse, the composer, wrote in his autobiography that a show should never have one man on songs, script and direction, and especially not if he's in love with the lead actor.
The good thing about the show, at least relatively, was the score. That's true of most of Lerner's shows; no matter how frustrating he was to work with, composers understood that he got good work from them. Burton Lane hated working with Lerner, in the middle of his Dr. Feelgood period, on On a Clear Day, but the score they produced was so good that Lane came back to him for Carmelina (and turned out another fine score for a flop show). Leonard Bernstein's score for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has some of the best music he'd done since the '50s, even for some songs where Lerner provided awful lyrics. John Barry's music for Lolita My Love was the best he ever produced for a stage show.
Charles Strouse's music for Dance a Little Closer doesn't stand out as much if only because he'd done better scores recently (Annie) and would do a better score right after (Rags). In my opinion Strouse is the most talented musical theatre composer of his generation -- roughly including Cy Coleman, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, John Kander, and so on -- a wonderful melodist with an eclectic style that somehow never sounds like anyone other than Strouse. Some of the songs in Dance a Little Closer are cheesy or sleazy, particularly the faster songs. But the ballads are frequently gorgeous.
"There's Always One You Can't Forget," the last song in Act 1, would have become a big hit if it had been in a show that ran more than one performance, even though Len Cariou, the star, has some trouble with it. (It's been speculated that Cariou over-extended himself by playing Sweeney Todd; this score, which was more within his normal range, had his voice sounding ragged a lot of the time.) The orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are excellent here, as they are throughout the show -- a reminder of how much of the Stephen Sondheim sound is Tunick's as well, since portions of the score sound a lot like A Little Night Music without being melodically similar.
The Sherwood play, about an entertainer in a hotel in the middle of a war zone, appealed to Lerner for two reasons. By updating the story to the 1980s (though in turning the villain into a parody of Henry Kissinger, he betrayed the fact that he started writing it in the '70s), he was able to write a show that combined topical social commentary with nightclub numbers that commented on the action, like his ambitious 1948 failure Love Life.
One of the better numbers in this vein is "Mad," a number where Harry (Cariou) complains about all the things that bother him, while his backup singers comment on what's really bothering him. (The way Strouse and Tunick manage to combine two completely different moods in one song is a tribute to their skill as theatrical musicians.) The song is so clearly Lerner's own complaints about stuff that bugged him circa 1983 -- "Whoever made Atari should be hung by his thumbs" -- that it's a strangely enjoyable time capsule; I like finding out what was pissing off cranky 60-something writers in the '80s.
The other thing Lerner clearly liked was the romantic plot of the play: the hero meets a woman he recognizes as the one who left him years ago because he couldn't give her the life she wanted; she's now pretending to be a high-class Englishwoman, and is the mistress of the wealthy bad guy who's behind the upcoming war. After My Fair Lady, every show Lerner wrote -- except Camelot and maybe 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- is about the same thing: a woman who either is made over or makes herself over into someone else. In On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the hero falls in love with the person the heroine was in a past life. In Coco, Gabrielle Chanel has transformed herself into "Coco." The guy even made a musical out of Lolita for heaven's sake (it closed on the road).
The heroine's decision to transform herself gives rise to a song that's had a certain amount of life outside the show -- Robertson has sometimes performed it and it gets done in auditions and musical-theatre recitals. "Another Life" is a weird song because it's a classic, by-the-numbers "I Want" power ballad, complete with big orchestral climax, yet the lyrics are completely materialistic and bitter. It's a big romantic song about preferring money and security to romance. The fact that Strouse's melody sounds a bit like "I Remember It Well" creates an additional level of weirdness here.
No one will ever revive Dance a Little Closer (nicknamed Close a Little Faster at the time). But we can be glad that it was given a cast recording after it closed; there's more worthwhile material in it than in most '80s musicals, and as with many of Lerner's shows, I can't help thinking that it could have been good if only someone else had had more control over it. (Lerner was all right when working with a strong director who could force him to cut and change, as Moss Hart did on My Fair Lady and Camelot.)
To close this off, here's the song where the issue of gay marriage was discussed for the first time in a musical. It's actually not a very good song; the lyrics are goofy doggerel (a lot of Lerner's shows have these types of lyrics in them) and the tune and ostinato accompaniment are the sorts of things Strouse could turn out in his sleep. However it does segue into another nice ballad, "Anyone Who Loves," which, again, would be an anthem by now if the show had been a hit.
Update: In comments, Griff, who saw the show in previews, gives some more details on why it was such a disaster.
Regarding DANCE A LITTLE CLOSER's "embarrassing" subplot with the gay couple who wished to be married, well, this was just handled so poorly (and cluelessly) by Lerner as director, one wanted to just look elsewhere in the theatre, think of other, better shows, hope for a sudden power failure. It could probably have be reworked and handled well by another director (who might have, of course, also suggested certain key revisions to the scenes) but it came across as altogether flatfooted -- indeed, painfully so.
I had no issues with the idea of the Kissinger-like villain, which didn't so much betray the '70s origin of the libretto as the fact that it was penned by a New Yorker with a long memory; I daresay that this is one aspect of Lerner's book that has not really dated, at least not for many residents of Manhattan.
Some of the songs are lovely. But the overall effect of the show, which I saw in previews, was stultifying; it made one want to flee the theatre. It wasn't just bad (my date regretted that we had attended the damn thing) -- I was actually surprised that the show did indeed open.