Harold & Maude: The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Matt Freeman
January 9, 2005
Musical theatre’s most powerful defense is that it allows emotional heights that the spoken word simply can’t achieve. When the emotional levels of joy and despair get too full and bristling, suddenly we are whisked into a surreal world of dance and song that expresses an inner life. In its best form, it’s a world of almost constant soliloquizing, of personal expression, of amazing freedom.
I imagine that this is why Harold Pinter doesn’t write musicals. And it's also why Harold & Maude: The Musical is such a faltering, uninspiring, and tiresome bore. The film, which ironically is known for its use of the Cat Stevens soundtrack to beautiful effect, is a cult classic of quiet understanding and freedom from the status quo. This musical takes the very things that made the film work, and throws them out in favor of pat moralizing and icky affirmations about how we should “embrace living, not dying.”
Harold & Maude, in both forms, tells the story of a 19-year-old man named Harold Chasen who is obsessed with suicide and death. He entertains himself, and the audience, with a series of creative mock suicides and ghastly acts. He meets Maude, a woman approaching her 80th birthday, at a funeral for someone neither of them knows. She is full of energy, of vitality, but both revolve around death like satellites. Their understanding becomes romance despite the generational chasm.
The musical version keeps the essential threads of the plot, but makes at every turn an artless, bloodless choice. The film takes place in the 1970s, and so the idea that Harold could be drafted into the Vietnam War weighs heavily. When we discover in the film that Maude may well be a Holocaust survivor, the way she lives takes on new resonance. The combination of these generations’ wars and fears deepens their connection in a subtle, subversive way. The Musical throws this all out, leaving Harold's death obsession without a context beyond what appears to be a squirrelly sense of self-imposed isolation. Maude is shown to have a history, but it’s entirely abstracted. The story takes place, we’re told in the program, at the “end of the last millennium.” But if this is supposed to be 1999 or thereabouts, the values of the characters, their technology, and their language, all seem still locked in the Vietnam era. The only thing that’s missing is that messy old war, and in this streamlined version, there’s just no room for it.
Harold is a very quiet young man in the beloved film. In The Musical, Harold sings what’s on his mind, and it’s never very profound. He stands up while his mother is babbling and sings “There must be something out there / Something more than this!” Underwhelming, to say the least. With words that uninteresting, he becomes so much less than a young man who feels and acts silenced. He becomes a cliche, the discontented youth. His suicides, in the film, constitute Harold's rare moments of self-expression. In The Musical, they’re sight gags used to show how unhappy he is. They are reduced to elaborate tantrums.
The book and lyrics are in the hands of Tom Jones, the 77-year old writer of The Fantasticks. His partner, the younger composer Joe Thalken, is a relative newcomer with a thin resume. While it would be fun to say that the difference in their ages brings them some needed perspective to this oddball project, their lack of depth seems to cross the generational divide rather effortlessly. Dull songs like “Round and Round (The Cosmic Dance),” “The Road Less Traveled,” and “A Song in my Pocket” could be entirely lifted from this piece and placed into any generic love story. The direction is squalid and unimaginative as well… little of the stage is used in most scenes, using tight black curtains to frame the scenes tightly on the large Paper Mill Stage.
The only pleasure comes from the performers. Estelle Parsons (known to many as the mother of TV’s Rosanne, leader of the Actor’s Studio, Oscar winner) graces the stage with effortless singing and performance as Maude. She’s right for the role: it just isn’t written to match her. Eric Millegan as Harold shows just why he is considered such a rising star. His voice and poise are second to none. His Harold might not be the ghostly and reserved Harold that many know and love, but that’s just not the Harold that’s written for him.
The other performers acquit themselves well, playing a series of smaller roles. The problem is not their talent, it's that much of what they have to work with is ethnic humor, sketch comedy humor, and defecation humor. They rise above the material as written; and that is no small feat.
Harold and Maude: The Musical is yet another in a long line of musicals inspired by movies, with similar results: pulling the life out of a story not naturally made for this medium. This is apparently the first “new” musical that Paper Mill has commissioned in years. It begs several questions: is this new at all? And, instead of returning to tried and true material to squeeze a few dollars from the curious, why not actually look for the wholly original? The results are more dependable at least: no unkind comparisons to something beloved, no struggling to re-create a magic that was probably a happy accident to begin with. Perhaps with a different creative team, a musical of this material would not be unsalvageable. I’d venture to guess that’s unlikely, though. The musical theatre genre just isn’t well suited to express the uniquely quiet angst of Harold & Maude.