The Broadway musical Wonderful Town is what is often called a “light-hearted frolic” or, in a dazzling burst of expressiveness, a “joyous romp”. Set in 1930s New York, Wonderful Town tells the tale of a no-nonsense aspiring journalist called Ruth, masterfully played by Donna Murphy, who leaves small-town Ohio with her pretty sister Eileen to strike it big. Their first tepid steps from regretful nostalgia to triumphant success are captured by the first-act duet whose lyrics memorably run, “Why, oh why, oh why oh, why did we ever leave Ohio”.
This is the sort of thing that spoils you for the New York of stark reality, where policemen are curiously reluctant to break into song-and-dance odes to pretty girls and sailors are disappointingly prone to stroll with a decidedly unrhythmic gait. I had lamentably few occasions on which to incur the attentions of New York’s finest during my stay, but in retrospect this was perhaps felicitous, having been as dangerously likely to greet the arresting officer with a hearty slap on the back and a hale, “C’mon, show me what you got, officer! Ya know you can!” This was definitely the New York of starlit romances and failures to meet lovers atop the Empire State Building due to crippling accidents that temporarily throw a wrench into the works but, thankfully, ultimately fail to impede the course of true love. (For those not romantically or cinematically inclined, or for that matter any permutation of the two, I refer of course to the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr heart-melting masterpiece An Affair to Remember.)
On diligently reading the playbill, one may discover that both the leading lady and her heartthrob male counterpart play bit parts in the then-upcoming movie Spiderman 2. With hindsight, the gathering storm seems perhaps inexorable. As I light-heartedly frolicked, not to mention joyously romped, to the tunes of Wonderful Town, the darkening clouds were, well, gathering. I returned from my trip to discover that a nest of spiders had matured to fruition in my bedroom. By way of illustrating to the interested reader my utter lack of affinity for all things arachnid, I note only that I was perhaps the only child since Charles Manson to not shed so much as a single tear when reading Charlotte’s Web. And if my eyes watered, it was no doubt due to an allergic reaction or wandering speck of dust. (Disturbing rumors have circulated that I may even have cackled maniacally, but these are spurious allegations that I categorically deny.)
This spider motif, as it were, showed no signs of relenting. The next stop on this whirlwind Broadway tour was Fiddler on the Roof starring Alfred Molina as Tevye. Alfred M., as you may already know, also had a somewhat less sympathetic role as Dr. Ock in the ubiquitous Spiderman 2 (inevitably leading one to anticipate Spiderman 3: The Musical).
The same David Leveaux who rather bloodlessly directed Fiddler also directed Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers. This play had breathless reviews from critics, who seemed to lavish it with superlatives not seen since Saddam Hussein’s official biographer fled the regime. I mean, this play looked like dynamite. It would practically watch itself, we were assured, and applaud itself feverishly at curtains. Well, we were certainly no Philistines. Who were we to gaze at each other dully while the entirety of New York’s glitterati was being mesmerized by the biting wit of Tom Stoppard?
Well, the first thing wrong with the play was the seating, plumb in the middle of the second row – perfect for casting languishing glances at the distant exit, but not inconspicuous enough to risk making a run for it without being mistaken for one of the cast.
For those who like lavish helpings of Hegel served with their comedic entertainment, with maybe some Heidegger on the side – and I suppose likewise for those who can’t get enough of Kant and feel there is no wit without Wittgenstein – this must have been one post-Humian neologism away from sheer bliss. I, however, am rather of the school that feels that philosophy and entertainment are antithetically analogous to gin and tonic – best served separately.
Don’t get me wrong. No doubt Tom Stoppard’s existential musings are most fascinating, and I would have been delighted to read all about it in a thick tract distributed after the show. But, although I am not sure what message anarchist gymnast philosophers who are disturbingly prone to being murdered are the best vehicles to convey, I feel certain that this was not it. The character of the female lead – a well-developed, wildly un-self-controlled blonde aptly named Dotty, whose primary wardrobe changes were effected onstage and mainly featured bathrobes – was a most grating substitute for skillful characterization, just as philosophical polemic poorly masked a lack of clever penmanship.
On some level far removed from the bustling activity of my conscious brain, however, my mind remained sufficiently inspired by these Broadway theatrics. The anguished wails that hurtled into the still night air on that fateful moment of encounter with the spiders teeming in my bedroom made Tom Stoppard’s Dotty seem most shabbily understated.