Playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, composer Duncan Sheik and lyricist Amanda Green – three of our most versatile and shape-shifting theater creatives – have turned Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice into the latest film-to-stage musical adaptation. Why these artists and this film? The question may well become a matter for discussion among fans of one or both, just as much as Paul Mazursky’s feature directing and co-screenwriting debut did when the film was unveiled at the 1969 New York Film Festival.
If you recall more than the title, you may remember that the movie had something to do with wife-swapping in the swinging 60s, the vision of Natalie Wood in various peekaboo getups worthy of a Roger Vadim sextravaganza, and that the firmly safe-for-viewing-at-the-office ending was either brilliant social commentary (Roger Ebert) or predictable – read safe – sitcom sendup of those wacky hipsters on the Left Coast (Vincent Canby). Canby even denounced the NYFF for showcasing such middlebrow work. He pointed out that the same year saw the release of Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Fellini Satyricon, Z and The Damned. The revolution was unfolding, the Times critic noted, but Mazursky wasn’t woke yet.
Bob (Robert Culp in the film, Jóel Pérez here) is a documentary filmmaker married to Carol (Wood in the film, Jennifer Damiano here). The story opens as Bob and Carol spend time “researching” a crunchy Big Sur retreat modeled on the Esalen Institute, where wealthy seekers sought yoga, primal screaming and bed-hopping on the daily Activities chart. Inspired, they return to their way-hipper best friends Ted (Elliot Gould in the movie, Michael Zegen, the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s ex, here) and Alice (Dyan Cannon in the film, Ana Noguera here) determined to get them into the crazy action.
Well maybe Ted and Alice aren’t in the groove as much as they lead people to think. Carol gleefully tells them that Bob has confessed to an affair, and isn’t that openness just great? Ted privately scolds Bob about confessing, while Alice is all but undone by both the affair and the news of it. The path to their enlightenment (Las Vegas, really? In the film, it’s Miami Beach) is spiked with innuendo and bouts of near-naked getting to second base, as we used to say, before the final, you know, walk on balls.
The cast, under Scott Elliott’s fluid direction, is game for the sexual shenanigans. (I was surprised that there wasn’t an intimacy coach listed in the program.) They’re a terrific ensemble, even if Pérez struck me as more Nick the Lounge Singer than Hugh Grant.
Much like the film, however, the musical has no point of view. Is it brilliant satire or tired fare for the masses? (The film’s grosses put it in the Top 10 releases that year.) Sherman’s script is a nearly exact copy of the screenplay. He’s added a Band Leader (Suzanne Vega, who’s awesome, who knew?) to guide us along this neither magical nor mystical tour, adding a few arched eyebrows along the way. Let’s have lots more of her.
But eventually, one must assess the merits of the music, and it’s a disappointment. Not the music music. Since his debut with Spring Awakening, Sheik has shown himself to deft composing across genres. The music (it’s beautiful) had me thinking of The Fifth Dimension one moment, Sonny & Cher the next. Sheik is very strong in the pastiche department, as he also demonstrated in his two most recent shows, The Secret Life of Bees and Alice by Heart.
Green’s lyrics, on the other hand, are banal at best, deflating in too many instances. You can hear every rhyme coming way around the bend, and often they’re extended ("Who made the rules? / taught in school / they're for fools / social tools / we’re not ghouls / We are born to be wild and free / forage nuts / we’re blood and guts and molecules”) as if that pumped the clever quotient. There are long stretches between songs in the hour-and-a-half, intermissionless show, and I’d have to hear it again to change my mind should I discover some hidden wit there.
The most ingenious things about the production are Derek McLane’s finger puzzle set, which has the actors, in Jeff Mahsie’s eye-popping clothes, frequently reconfiguring a cluster of hideous, era-apt modular pieces, beautifully lit by Jeff Croiter. But the show unfolding on that set is oddly joyless. And B&C&T&A hews so faithfully to the film that one can’t help but wonder: What led this talented group of artists to take it on? Whatever the answer is, it’s not evident on the stage.