Hot Summer Nights has found gold in this terrain before: a chamber musical whose plot begins with a breakup and then explores the complicated aftermath for its central character. But almost a year after Jeremy Schonfeld wowed critics and audiences with his haunting theatrical song cycle, Drift, we learn that composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Don Black have yet to match his achievement—much less top him—in Tell Me on a Sunday.
We use the conditional verb tense here because it still could happen—at least theoretically. Following the show's troubled genesis as a concert piece in 1979, Webber and colleagues have repeatedly revised what is basically a one-act, one-woman production, for reasons that are ultimately not that mysterious. After the show underwent changes for British television and was paired with an unrelated dance suite to make a full evening for the London stage, Richard Maltby Jr. was brought in to Americanize Tell Me for Broadway. The resulting work, Song and Dance, ran for a respectable 14 months in 1985. But in retrospect it's significant that the only professional honor the production received was Bernadette Peters' first Tony Award win, for best actress in a musical. Webber's score won no prizes among any of the major theatrical competitions. Even more striking, Black and Maltby's book received no nominations.
Further changes and the addition of yet another writer preceded a 2003 "revisal" in London, the latest recorded version, which I first consulted before seeing the show. Having done so, I believe I now know firsthand why this Hot Summer Nights production—and a 2008 off-off-Broadway revival in New York—both opted to avoid it. Nor am I astonished to learn that Tell Me has been "remodeled" even further, according to Lloyd Webber's production company, for a 2010 tour of the United Kingdom that begins, coincidentally, this next week. So stay tuned: Maybe that will be the production that finally corrects the show's long-standing defects. Forgive me if I don't hold my breath.
For where Schonfeld's Drift dove deeply into its characters' psyches, Tell Me too often remains content to skate along on surfaces as it relates the too-familiar story of a small-town girl—with spunk and gumption, no less—who's determined to trade her innocence for the bright lights of Broadway. Sure, she gets some hard knocks, but she's optimistic—boy, is she ever—that, despite a string of self-inflicted loser boyfriends, she'll find her way.
A plot this pedestrian is only further hampered by a score that is too often just as workmanlike. Leaving performances aside, the remarkably featureless melody and orchestration of "You Made Me Think You Were in Love" suggests the Muzak version of a big-stage production number. Here it follows "Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad," a low-grade hoedown tribute to Los Angeles whose repeated cultural references are only a quarter-century or so out of date, and the grade-school bossa nova of "Take That Look Off Your Face," a number that forces the unfortunate singer to sell as some sort of crowning triumph the fact that she already knows her lover has been unfaithful. Elsewhere, telling plot points and character details are told more than shown in "Let Me Finish" and "Come Back With That Same Look in Your Eyes," among others.
Unsurprisingly, Lauren Kennedy does yeoman's work, with director Matthew-Jason Willis, in attempting to flesh out Tell Me's threadbare central character. Her haunting voice conveys the true wistfulness of "Unexpected Song" and the poignant bravery and pain of the title tune. The degree to which those two exquisite numbers stand apart from the rest of the songs here provides a frustrating sense of what Tell Me On a Sunday might have been. (By the way, my program didn't credit Julie Florin for music direction or identify her quartet of musicians— Drew Lyle, John Simonetti, Joan Beck and Les Webster—who serenaded us from the Kennedy Theater balcony.)
But there's only so much Kennedy and Willis can do with a script that never seems all that interested in learning why its only onstage character consistently chooses Mr. Really Wrong.
In a psychologically and emotionally bogus final number, Emma realizes—in a microsecond of insight—that she's made a big mistake but will now make a complete about-face. If we don't know that, she says, we don't know her.
In a nutshell, that's the persistent problem with Tell Me On A Sunday: We don't really know her, and we conclude that her writers don't either.