We’ve had a surprisingly large number of what Ken Mandelbaum used to call “Heartbreaker Flops” in the past few Broadway seasons…shows that fail, but for one reason or another still qualify as glorious in their ambition and achievements. After Big Fish, If/Then, Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas, Bright Star, and Shuffle Along, came the last of the current crop to debut, Tuck Everlasting. Based on Natalie Babbitt’s beautifully-written young adults’ novel, this gentle, strikingly different show tells the story of a family that accidentally gains eternal life by drinking from a magic spring, and a young girl’s life-changing encounter with them.
You know how I observed, when I reviewed Lestat, that it apparently saw itself as some high meditation on the torment of immortal existence? Well, here’s a show that actually pulls off that idea a billion times better than Lestat ever dreamed of doing (even if both shows wound up as flops). Every plausible reaction to the idea of living forever is represented by one of the members of the family…the father, Angus, who is tormented by the heavy weight of time; the mother, Mae, who tries to make the best of her situation as much as she can; and older son Miles, who is anguished by the loss of his long-dead wife and son. The only one of them who seems to enjoy his situation is youngest son Jesse, and even he seems desperately lonely under his callow facade.
Winnie Foster, the sheltered eleven-year-old girl who comes into contact with the family, has a kind of suggested love plot with Jesse, but it’s all kept well within the bounds of the kind of relationship a seventeen-year-old can have with an eleven-year-old in a wholesome family show like this (especially if said seventeen-year-old is technically 104). Jesse does consider the possibility of marrying Winnie when she grows up, though, and this leads to the show’s central dilemma…namely, is life really worth anything without death? It’s an idea that’s been brought up many times, and even musicalized before, as any good Queen fan knows. But the novel this show is based on was always one of the most eloquent of the theme’s many reiterations, and the musical preserves that eloquence in adaptation.
The intensely lyrical score is responsible for much of that eloquence, and it is for the most part exquisite. The music is drawn largely from Country and Soft Rock influences, but it not only never feels anachronistic (the show takes place in the late 1800s), but does a breathtakingly beautiful job of expressing the show’s gentle and tender feelings. And if the lyrics do occasionally descend into cliche, they are still extremely effective is communicating the show’s themes, and their poetic language compliments the music perfectly. The adorable “Good Girl Winnie Foster”, the tempting “Seventeen”, the heartbreaking “Time”, the show’s key philosophical number “The Wheel”, Winnie’s contemplation of her loaded choice “Everlasting”, and the music for the final ballet are particularly wonderful.
Given all this, why did the show fail? Well, it does have one large artistic problem: as exquisite as it is when it focuses on Winnie and the Tuck family, it falters whenever it turns its attention to the villain (known only as “The Man in the Yellow Suit”), or the pair of buffoonish lawmen who serve as the show’s excuse for comedy relief. True, Terrence Mann is certainly the biggest name in the cast, and he does give an entertainingly hammy performance as The Man in the Yellow Suit. But these parts of the story don’t seem to have inspired the authors…the portions of the book and score that deal with them, including the cheesy villain song “Everything’s Golden” and the groan-inducing comedy duet “You Can’t Trust a Man”, are far less accomplished than the parts of the show that focus on Winnie and the Tucks. And the hyperactive overproduction of Mann’s carnival-themed production numbers does not remotely match the delicate tone of the rest of the show.
That said, I really thinks Broadway was just not ready for a show this different from what it was used to. This show is really more unusual than the above description may make it sound. The score is very oddly structured: there are really only twelve full vocal songs in the entire score. The rest consists of reprises and little musical fragments clocking at less than a minute each, and the actual climax of the story is told entirely through ballet. The same sheer refreshing sense of difference that won the show its small but devoted fanbase was just too much for mainstream Broadway, at least in a small, starless, low-key show with no overwhelming box-office draw like this one. But even with only thirteen tracks out of twenty-four being of real interest, and two of those being comparative duds, this show’s cast album is still well worth picking up. The good songs more than make up for the abundant filler, and the performers, particularly Sarah Charles Lewis as Winnie and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as Jesse, do a wonderful job with them. I hope we haven’t seen the last of this fascinating little show, because it just seems too interesting and unique to simply disappear into the mists of time.