Stop the World...I Want to Get Off
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 13, 2010
The reason why Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight!—which is concluding its 12th season with a revival of Stop the World...I Want to Get Off— is so invaluable to musical theatre buffs is that, even more so than Encores at City Center, and at a far more affordable ticket price, Mel puts up obscure long-lost treasures that we will never see anywhere else, allowing us to experience them as they were originally written and performed, without book revisions, warts and all. It's living history, is what it is, and we are always the better for it; the entertainment value is generally pretty high as well.
All of this certainly applies to Stop the World, the 1961 musical by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley that took Broadway by storm—kind of—and then, except for a brief revival with Sammy Davis, Jr., in the lead role in the '70s, disappeared. Newley was a powerhouse entertainer (I was lucky enough to see him in his last stage role, in London in Bricusse's musical Scrooge) and he and Bricusse wrote this piece as a showcase for his prodigious talents. Littlechap, the protagonist of Stop the World, is on stage for practically all of the two hours and 45 minutes of the show, and is required to juggle, ride a unicycle, deliver broad Music Hall-style jokes and soliloquies, and sing 10 of the show's songs, including three of its biggest hits in the space of a half hour at the END of the evening. And we have to believe that every woman who sees him would fall for him; and that he could charm his way from being a tea boy in a factory cafeteria to a titled member of Parliament, for that is indeed the arc of Littlechap's story as he conforms and plays the game to achieve his dream of being "dirty rotten filthy stinking rich."
Let me say right now that while Matt Wilson, star of this production, is not Anthony Newley, he does a fine, fine job in this mammoth role. Wilson is a star of the long-running PBS children's series Cyberchase, and his talents as a physical comedian and his charm and charisma are abundant and serve him beautifully here. His voice is thinner than Newley's lush baritone, though, and so his renditions of the show's famous songs are more rooted in the drama and less emotive than we're used to from the original cast recording.
Wilson is married in real life to Stephanie Sine, the delightful actress who plays Littlechap's wife Evie and his international melange of mistresses (a conceit of the show is that you always fall for the same woman, whether you realize it or not). Sine mines the broad parody of her roles beautifully, delivering the four variations on a theme that Bricusse and Newley have assigned her, the choice, wry comic numbers "Typically English" (Evie's character song), "Glorious Russian" (for Anya, an earthy Communist), "Typische Deutsche" (for Ilse, Littlechap and Evie's German au pair), and "All American" (for Ginnie, a ditzy New York chorus girl).
Littlechap cheats on his wife and ignores her and their children as he shoots meteorically toward fortune and fame. Two extended sequences—one per act, each built around one of the show's more famous songs—show us how Littlechap climbs. In "Gonna Build a Mountain," he starts to understand that he can control his own destiny by controlling and manipulating others; the soaring poetry of the lyrics belies the pettiness of his own aspirations:
Gonna build a heaven
From a little hell
Gonna build a heaven
And I know darn well
If I build my mountain
With a lot of care
And take my daydream up the mountain
Heaven will be waiting there
After Littlechap achieves success beyond his own imaginings (in his father-in-law's firm), he aims still higher, and goes into politics ("For once in my lifetime / I feel like a giant / I soar like an eagle / As though I had wings"); again, the crassness of his own actions stands in contrast to the nobility of the dream he thinks he's pursuing. Stop the World is finally too light-hearted to be the tragedy it could be, but the place where Littlechap finds himself at the end of his life is no surprise, as expressed in the show's most famous song, "What Kind of Fool Am I?"
This is a Cold War show and the American, Russian, and German parodies are very much of that period (though still funny). But the show's general attitudes about class, upward mobility, illusory ideals, snobbery, and, alas, sex, don't feel particularly dated to me. And the structure of the show feels downright contemporary: this is probably the very first concept musical, ahead of both Cabaret and Company, placing its hero within a circus ring that serves as metaphor for life's antic foolishness and its circularity. Bricusse and Newley's score bridges Music Hall and pre-Beatles British pop, but the book and lyrics are surprisingly timeless, anticipating, variously, Monty Python, Mel Brooks, and plenty of other comedic icons.
I don't think Stop the World needs a full-scale revival—it's built to order for Newley, and wouldn't fit easily on another star. Which takes me back to why Musicals Tonight! is so indispensable, because this production is a delight and a revelation. Musical theatre fans don't want to miss it. And anyone who grew up, as I did, not really sure where a once-ubiquitous hit like "What Kind of Fool Am I?" came from, will probably be pleasantly surprised by Stop the World...I Want to Get Off as well.