The American musical does not lend itself well to big ideas, particularly if they possess any degree of complexity. Keep the ideas as simple and melodramatic as the plots that drive them.
In Signature Theatre’s Elmer Gantry: the Musical, based on Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel Elmer Gantry and adapted from the 1960 film version, the big ideas are on full display: the marriage of religion and money, the power of performance to seduce and deceive, corporate capitalism and its exploitation of the under-affluent, ambition and its corrosive affect on love. The music soars and the action super heats even as you imagine yourself running on stage to accept the Lord as your personal savior.
Circa 2014, it is the perfect musical for theatre in Northern Virginia.
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize for literature. At his Nobel lecture he spoke of an American scholar who denounced the Nobel Committee because its members had given the prize to Lewis, a man who had “scoffed at American Institutions.” The Nobel winner went on to say: “in America most of us—not readers alone, but even writers—are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.”
For the most part, little has changed 84 years later, except perhaps our view of virtue and glory.
In the 1920s Elmer–the cynical drinker, the good-looking womanizer, the smooth-talking salesman, and the man capable of making money off God’s salvation–was viewed by many Americans as an unholy creature and thus UnAmerican. Some suggested that Lewis should have been lynched for even creating a representation of such a man.
The 1960’s film starring Oscar winner Burt Lancaster as Elmer and Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon faced its own battles, namely with the Production Code Administration or the notorious PCA. It seems that in America people are not only serious about religion but that religion is serious business, and the novel and the film’s first seven drafts attacked the credibility of that institution with too sharp a proverbial pitchfork.
The updated Elmer Gantry the Musical resembles the movie far more than the novel. This Elmer has his rough edges, to be sure, but for the most part he’s progressive, caring, good-looking, and conscientious, and one hell of a showman. He should have been a Broadway producer, for he knows how to jazz up an otherwise too dry event and appeal to the masses.
As such, in today’s America we acknowledge that men such as Elmer are American; in fact, we view them as supremely American; in fact, we view them as “exceptionally” American: they are the job-creators, the innovators, the big cheese, the star.
Thus, this Elmer is on the road to fame and fortune: indeed, with the right PR firm he could even become President of the United States.
Yet, in many ways Elmer Gantry the Musical is old school, as in representing a time when cynicism meant that a person actually had ideals but unfortunately also had eyesight and, thus, could see how greed and corruption ruled the world.
From the opening curtain, this Elmer (played marvelously by Charlie Pollock) is not a man undermined by his womanizing. Rather, he is a man going nowhere, whose negative views of the thriving 1% make him an enemy of the people not their guardian; a traveler even accuses him of being a Bolshevik.
When he sees the beautiful and talented and possessed Sister Sharon Falconer (played with fierce self-assuredness by Mary Kate Morrissey), he begins a journey of personal transformation. Driven by his love for the evangelical Sister Sharon, his theatrical talents emerge, combining with his already vibrant verbal gifts. He seemingly loses the taste for alcohol and develops a real concern for his fellow man.
Sister Sharon goes through her own transformation, from a woman inspired by her love of the Lord to a woman driven by her desire to achieve personal greatness and fame.
As both journey through their own personal landscapes, the audience bears witness to the transformation of the thematic landscape: the realization of the three way union of religion (spirituality), theatre (performance), and institution (money). That holy trinity might make a devout atheist proclaim his allegiance to a Broadway Christ.
Without doubt, Elmer Gantry the Musical has a fiercely dynamic plot and a thrilling score, with songs covering the emotional gambit, touching on each of the broad themes outlined herein. There may still be few weak links in the plot here and there that leave the audience wondering, but for a contemporary musical that strikes a chord and just might disturb a few feathers, Elmer Gantry can’t be beat.
Read Paul Bessel and Barbara Braswell’s review of Elmer Gantry on DCMetroTheaterArts: Elmer Gantry at Signature Theatre.