In a season in which no new musical has thrived and most are biting the dust, the secret to success seems to be to place a big star in an old Off-Broadway musical with a cast of one or two, a simple set, if any, and a small band. Tickets are going for $300 or more to see Neil Patrick Harris in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, a show from the 1990s. Harris leaves this month -- will the show survive with the very talented, but not a big star, Andrew Rannells? Business is brisk for Audra McDonald in the 1986 show, LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL. McDonald is astounding, but I have some reservations about the show.
LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL is a representative of a genre of show that troubles me -- I might call it the "Watch a Diva Crash and Burn" genre. A couple of seasons ago we had END OF THE RAINBOW in which we watched Tracie Bennett play Judy Garland at the end of her life, career and tether trying to get it together enough to perform in London. Terrence McNally's MASTER CLASS, recently revived, gave us Maria Callas without a voice and trapped by her memories of her former career and relationships and by her self-absorption. LADY DAY gives us one of the last public performances of Billie Holiday, now addled by heroin and copious amounts of booze. She begins the ninety-minute show more or less in control, but becomes increasingly inebriated and incoherent as her performance progresses. In between songs (fourteen of them), she talks about her past. Those reminiscences also get less coherent as the performance progresses.
What we discover from Billy Holiday's memories is the sad history of a gifted Black woman who rose out of poverty, but couldn't rise from a poor self-image reinforced by America's racism. A 200 pound girl from a Baltimore ghetto, Holiday worked as a teenager as a maid in a brothel. When her mother moved her to New York, she became a prostitute in a Harlem "sportin' house." Too fat to become a dancer, she started singing. Her gifts were immediately recognized by great bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, but being a Black female band singer brought her up against various forms of racism. The man she loved made her prove her love by taking heroin with him. By the time we see her, arrests for drugs have led to a ban from singing in New York City and she is back in a small club in Philadelphia, the city where she was arrested. She's still gifted when she can pull herself together, but this is the end of the line. It's 1959 and in a few months Holiday will be dead.
The Circle in the Square has been transformed into a nightclub with patrons at tables as well as in the seats in this 3/4 round auditorium. Holiday performs on a small platform at the far end, backed up by a superb jazz trio (get there early -- they play for fifteen minutes or so before the show). She also wanders around the tables as she reminisces, sometimes interacting with the patrons.
Audra McDonald is absolutely brilliant as Billy Holiday. It's easy to parody Holiday's idiosyncratic singing style -- even humorist David Sedaris can do it. This isn't a parody -- it's a loving recreation of Holiday's singing. As one friend of mine put it, McDonald channels Holiday in the fourteen numbers she sings. It's an impressive feat. She also brilliantly captures Holiday's drug and alcohol-fueled meltdown. It's difficult to play drunk convincingly on stage, particularly over a period of ninety minutes. McDonald's transition from being slightly hazy to totally inebriated is gradual and subtle. The problem is, however well done the performance is, it's not pleasant to watch. The extent of one's sympathy with what one sees will be in proportion to one's attitude about addiction. This debate was played out recently after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. What we watch here is the waste of an extraordinary talent. As Phyllis Diller used to say, "There are reasons but no excuse." Our culture seems to lionize and romanticize self-destructive performers: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, Billy Holiday. I'm not sure that's a healthy sign.
Still, McDonald's performance, her greatest in a career of superb performances, deserves to be seen. I was a bit angry that she got the Tony for best actress in a play in place of Cherry Jones. Is a show with fourteen musical numbers a play or a musical?
LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR AND GRILL by Lanie Robertson. Circle in the Square. August 14, 2014.