When she was in her element, Elizabeth Swados was one of the greatest musical-theater writers of her generation, but when she ventured outside of her comfort zone the result generally ranged from disappointing to disastrous. Probably the best-known examples of this are her collaborations with cartoonist Gary Trudeau, the Doonesbury musical and Rap Master Ronnie, but the most disastrous of them was probably her attempt to musicalize Lewis Carroll, originally called Alice in Concert. This production starred future legend Meryl Streep as Alice, and was later filmed for television in an abridged version with the same star, under the title Alice At the Palace.
Unlike, say, Frank Wildhorn’s Wonderland, Swados’ intentions in this work were sincere: she really wanted to create a psychological deconstruction of Lewis Carroll’s work. This isn’t a bad idea on its face…the psychological implications are very much there in the original text, and Tom Waits would achieve great success with essentially the same idea in his musical Alice. But Swados’ grimly realistic style was not a good match for Carroll’s absurd surrealism, and the finished composition is close to a disaster.
That’s not to say there aren’t redeeming moments; Swados was, after all, a brilliant talent, and given that she was responsible for the book, score and staging of the piece, she contributed quite a bit of interesting material to all of them. There are about a half-dozen gorgeous melodies in the version of the show presented here (“Beautiful Soup”, “Learning To Draw”, “Eating Mushrooms”, “The Aged, Aged Man”, “What There Is”, and “Queen Alice”); “What There Is”, in particular, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful theater songs of the Eighties.
The staging features several memorable and haunting images, and there is even one devastating moment, when Alice defeats the Jabberwocky in what she seems to think is a play-battle and then realizes in horror than she has actually killed him. The moment when she tries to make him get up and then gradually realizes what she has done is a masterful touch that captures exactly the kind of childhood psychological fears and heartbreaks that Swados intended to evoke in the piece.
Unfortunately, Swados never found a way to unify the piece as a whole. Any internal logic that Carroll’s original possessed in gone here, and all that is left is an unsatisfying series of random set pieces that never connect in any meaningful way. To compound this problem, Swados wrote one of her most uneven scores here: while there are a few lovely and haunting melodies in Swados’ unique style, the majority of the score is merely annoying. Uninspired musical settings of Carroll’s dialogue alternate with intensely irritating novelty ditties like “Pretty Piggy” and “Never Play Croquet”. Particularly weak are the inexplicable calypso number that accompanied Alice’s growth after the “Drink Me” sequence, “Goodbye Feet”, and a clattering cacophony beaten out on kitchen pots and pans, “Wa Wa Wa”.
On top of this, there is the fact that Streep, despite singing well and getting better reviews than the show itself, is absurdly miscast as Alice…even at the time, she was far too old to look anything but ridiculous trying to play a child. It’s possible to make that kind of thing work, true, but this piece was far too awkward and uncertain in tone to pull off that device. The supporting cast is full of talented people like Debbie Allen, Michael Jeter, and Mark Linn-Baker, but none of them can really do much with this material either.
I still maintain that Swados was an underrated genius, and this is still, if nothing else, a far more interesting failure that Frank Wildhorn’s attempt at the same thing, but I can’t really argue that it constitutes even a partial success. In fact, unless you are a devoted Swados fan or simply a very dedicated student of musical theater, I can’t really recommend watching it, as despite the occasional flash of fascinating material, the overall experience is a severe trial on the nerves. But if you do decide to watch it, whether you actually enjoy it or not, I imagine you’ll come away with the impression that Swados was a daring and ambitious composer with a lot of interesting ideas, and so she certainly was, even if her execution of them stumbled now and then.