Broadway’s new renegade musicals: Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Runaways (1978)

Broadway’s new, renegade musicals

The Broadway musicals Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Runaways have nothing much in common. One is a sparkling revue of Fats Waller’s whimsical jazz tunes, the other a street-urchin opera by the ever-eclectic Elizabeth Swados. They are alike, however, in one significant way: both began life humbly – as limited-run productions in small, off-Broadway houses – and came to the Great White Way with commercial and artistic credibility established. This gradual ascent has become common for straight plays (Tony winner Da and The Gin Game, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize, are examples), but the musical theater has stuck stubbornly to the high-risk, big-budget, out-of-town-tryout system – straight from Boston to Broadway. A Chorus Line is the obvious exception, and the success stories of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Runaways would seem to reiterate the moral of A Chorus Line’s Cinderella tale: that a good Broadway musical can be done without gambling millions (for all their good intentions, the producers of recent flops, Angel and Working, might as well have burned greenbacks in Shubert Alley), and without moving to the mindless measure of such pretty, vacant spectacles as Dancin’ and On the Twentieth Century.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is as near-perfect a musical as I’ve ever seen. Developed at the Manhattan Theater Club, currently installed at the Longacre, and awarded three Tonys, two Obies and universal accolades, the show runs on talent and taste – no lavish gimmicks. Credit goes to director Richard Maltby, Jr., who, with associate Murray Horwitz, came up with the idea of a Fats Waller musical. And what a brilliant idea it is! The spry, spicy swing music of Thomas “Fats” Waller (who died in 1943 at age 39) celebrates, all at once, the innocent romanticism of Tin Pan Alley, the earthy excitement of ‘30s jazz clubs, and the plain joy of making music – not to mention Waller’s own eccentric personality and witty piano style. Without the use of narrative or much overt direction, Maltby has shaped the show’s 29 tunes to evoke all the aforementioned properties. Waller’s songs have never really gone out of fashion – not the ones he wrote (“Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’”), not the ones he made famous (“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”). But hearing them all together is a real treat. And just as The Sting resurrected the works of Scott Joplin, Ain’t Misbehavin’ will undoubtedly rekindle interest in Fats’s recordings, as well as trademark Wallerisms like “Oh my good goodness” and “One never knows, do one?”

Maltby showed the same impeccable taste in picking performers as in picking material. Collectively and singly, the cast is like Waller’s music – innocent and sexy, cartoon-funny and real-life funky. There’s Armelia McQueen, the big, fat, coffee-colored baby doll who mashes herself against the back of the piano to coo “Squeeze Me” (“Oh, Daddy, I just get so…you know…when you squeeze me”), and Charlaine Woodard, the tall, skinny filly who makes her whole body giggle during a boopy-doo number. There’s Andre De Shields (formerly The Wiz’s main man), the snake-hipped show dancer who dreams about a reefer five feet long, and Ken Page, whose bowler hat and barrel-belly conjure up visions of Fats as he fumes through “Your Feet’s Too Big” (“Your pedal extremities are colossal!”). Finally, there’s the sensational Nell Carter, who combines Diana Ross’s feline allure, a little of Eartha Kitt’s stuttery phrasing, a drag queen’s store of facial expressions, and a vocal and physical presence to equal anyone’s. The ensemble doesm’t so much act the material as epitomize it, and even the big production numbers remain rooted in the music.

“How Ya Baby” begins with De Shields simply strolling alongside Woodard, who casually swings a pink beaded handbag, both actions get bigger as the song builds – the stroll becomes flashier, the purse swings faster – until the two seem to take off in a show-stopping blur of waving arms and flying legs. Throughout, the singers are ably accompanied by onstage pianist Hank Jones and a six-piece jazz band; the orchestrations and arrangements are by Luther Henderson. Arthur Faria is responsible for the super dance numbers, and the work of vocal arrangers William Elliott and Jeffrey Cutcheon is excellent, especially on ensemble numbers “Looking Good but Feelin’ Bad” and “Off Time.”

Curiously, the euphoria one experiences watching Ain’t Misbehavin’ dissipates not long after it’s over, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because the second act is weighted by slower, solo numbers, the snazzy tunes you’d expect as the grand finale having been used up before intermission. More likely it’s because – except for the brooding, resigned “Black and Blue” – there’s not much here that goes for the gut emotions. It’s my only complaint about the show, and it’s one that has been made about Waller’s work in general – so it’s not out of line with the legacy.

Emotional punch is what Runaways has, right up front. Elizabeth Swados spent ten months befriending street kids, researching runaways, gathering a cast, and eventually writing the words and music for the 41 songs and monologues that make up Runaways. (First produced at the Public Theater, it has since moved to the Plymouth and earned Swados an Obie and five Tony nominations.) The stories return again and again to the same raw nerves – the fear, the anger, the impotence, the loneliness. One youngster, bitterly reporting “current events,” spits out, “I’m becoming a statistic: just another fucked-up kid”; another dreams he is the undiscovered son of Judy Garland, John Kennedy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A friendly young black girl invents her own code words and talks to pigeons, but she’s a little crazy and she trusts too easily; a deaf youth complains, his urgent signs slashing the air, that people pass him on the street as if he weren’t there. And a very young prostitute recalls her instructions – “Just pretend you feel good” – and nestles timidly in the arms of her pimp who, she says, bought her a wristwatch and a pair of Corkies.

This material begs to be sensationalized or sentimentalized, but Swados manages to keep it matter-of-fact. There are carefully orchestrated outbursts – of joy and humor as well as anger – but most of the show idles at a nervous monotone, which seems appropriate. Because Swados works so hard for a street-real sensibility, the lapses into bathos, show-biz, or pretentiousness are painfully obtrusive. Two long, whiny eulogies toward the end of the show state in obvious terms what has already been more eloquently shown; a song about a graffiti artist, for which an enormous setpiece is rolled in, seems out of place; and in a remarkable show of disingenuousness, “Where Are Those People Who Did Hair?” lumps together that “tribal love-rock musical” and punk rock, slamming both as destructive rip-offs. (Swados’s distaste for punk may be understandable, but she’d be a fool to deny Hair’s influence on Runaways.)

Runaways has received mixed reviews, some of which noted that the show doesn’t say anything new, and this is true. Though she flirts with the notion of running away as a metaphor for any kind of life-change (“Where Do People Go,” “Lullaby from Baby to Baby”), Swados seems most intent on reflecting reality. What many of the reviews failed to mention, however, is the relative sophistication of Swados’s staging and parts of the score. While some of the jittery, percussive pieces begin to sound repetitious, Swados has integrated a number of urban ethnic musics into the show (salsa, Afro-Latin chanting, reggae). And, as with her cabaret piece Nightclub Cantata, the music never sacrifices dramatic moment for Broadway melody, although they meet more often here than in Cantata. “Where Do the People Go,” “Let Me Be a Kid,” and the gospel-like finale “Lonesome of the Road” are the show’s rousing highlights. And Swados has used the bleachers-and-playground set most resourcefully. While the major action takes place at center stage, various scenes are staged in the background to echo or oppose it. Probably the most effective segment is one in which the entire 27-member cast gathers around a makeshift campfire (a burned-out trashcan), drinking, smoking various substances, and singing a slow calypso song called “We Are Not Strangers” – an eerie scene.

The cast ranges in age from 11 to 25 – strangely enough, the younger are better. Oldies-but-goodies David Schechter and Karen Evans, both so good in Nightclub Cantata, are obnoxious in Runaways, while squirts Carlo Imperato and Evan Miranda steal the show. The best of all – though she has only two solo spots – is Trini Alvarado, whose huge gravelly voice leapt out from the Runaways medley on the Tony Awards TV show. Alvarado is 11, a child prodigy – not unlike Elizabeth Swados, author/composer/director/choreographer who has now achieved the ripe old age of 27.

Boston Phoenix, 1978