Sometimes you go looking for one story and you find another. I went to Boston for the weekend to see Doonesbury and to write about the making of the musical, but I found myself thinking and learning more about why theater works at all.

I had high hopes for Doonesbury because it was written by Garry Trudeau, who created the sharp, funny, political comic strip, and Elizabeth Swados, a composer I admire. But I was disappointed in the show, which seemed amusing but tame. meanwhile, I saw two exciting and ambitious productions in Boston -- Pericles directed by Peter Sellars at the Boston Shakespeare Company, and Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter, by a group called TheaterWorks -- that answered all my questions about what was wrong with Doonesbury. To put it simply, they had a reason to exist as works of art, and Doonesbury did not.

I liked Doonesbury when I first saw it, but I first saw it in a run-through without sets and costumes in one of Michael Bennett’s studios, and it’s easy to like something under those circumstances. It’s practically a command performance. The one row of folding chairs was taken up by the director Jacques Levy, Trudeau, and Swados on either side of choreographer Margo Sappington, the producer Jim Walsh, two press agents, and me. Crewpeople scurried around with clipboards, scripts, and stopwatches, the understudies lounged in a  group near the small rehearsal orchestra, and the cast performed full out just inches from my nose.

  The play takes place on graduation weekend for the members of the Walden Commune. Joanie Caucus, runaway-housewife-turned- feminist-lawyer, shows up with her new baby. Joanie’s abandoned and now college-age daughter J.J. comes to visit Mike (Doonesbury himself, for the non-initiates), who plans to ask her to marry him. Zonker’s uncle Duke, the cocaine-cowboy based on Hunter Thompson, beats a possession rap by promising to establish a drug rehabilitation program, so he buys Walden Commune and tries to turn it into condos. It’s all quite sit-commy but captures a moment in the lives of characters who are both comic types and recognizable from life.

I was most taken with the cast, a rue ensemble of little-known but wonderful New York actors. Some were perfect embodiments of the cartoon characters, including Keith Szarabajka as the ever-football- helmeted B.D., Barbara Andres as Joanie, Albert Macklin (briefly terrific in the movie Streamers) as die-hard hippie Zonker, and that comic dynamo Mark Linn-Baker as radio talk-show host Mark, who, it appeared, would have the distinction of performing the first break-dancing on a Broadway stage. Ralph Bruneau looked not much like the cartoon Doonesbury but very much like Garry Trudeau, tall with dark curly hair and a broad behind. And a couple of performers seemed starbound – Lauren Tom was hilariously deadpan as Honey, Duke’s bespectacled Chinese sidekick-worshiper, and Laura Dean had what seemed a sure-fire show-stopper as B.D.’s cheerleader girlfriend Boopsy in the blatantly Fame-meets-Flashdance anthem “I Can Have It All.”

During the break someone pointed out approvingly, “The music is very different for Liz,” meaning there were tunes. But this seemed to me a misunderstanding of two things – Swados’s talent and the purpose of theater music. People have often complained that Swados doesn’t write melodies, and the same thing has been said of Stephen Sondheim through the years (despite the fact that hundreds of insanely devoted musical buffs can sing you every note he ever wrote). The point is that if you can hum a song after one hearing it’s probably because the song reminds you of another tune you already know, whereas a lot of very good and original music requires more than one listening to sink in. The highest test of theater music should not be whether it sends you out the door with an inane melody drilled into your head but whether it serves the dramatic moment. And I’ve always admired most the Swados songs that have the beauty and evanescence of powerful theatrical moments – “Are You with Me?” from Nightclub Cantata, “Sometimes” from Runaways, “Pretty and Green” from Dispatches, “What There Is” from Alice in Concert.

Doonesbury has a strong and tuneful score, but it’s not terribly original. It’s a pastiche, which is not new for Swados, either – she has written pseudo-doowop, pseudo-country, pseudo-reggae, and pseudo-punk songs for the shows I just mentioned. The songs in Doonesbury are better but still derivative, lacking in style. Swados does have a definite neoprimitive style based on ethnic musics, but it’s been mercilessly made fun of in the press as so much bird-calling, and I can understand her attraction to Doonesbury as an opportunity to prove that she can write contemporary Broadway show tunes. But in these matters, I always keep in mind the advice of Quentin Crisp: “Start with your identity, which is a combination of your assets and what your friends mean when they discuss ‘the trouble with you,’ polish that, and you have style.”

Trudeau himself did the lyrics for Swados’s songs, and they’re serviceable but not great. The book, however, has real scenes and is genuinely funny. One of the strengths of the comic strip was always its pungent commentary on topical issues, however fleeting – Skylab, Billie Jean King, President Ford. So I was impressed at the run-through when Trudeau handed the actors a brand-new scene for one of the cartoon-strip sequences designed to cover set changes. Ronald Reagan wonders aloud what James Watt has against the environmentalists, and an aide reports that as a child Watt had been attacked by a flock of starlings in a national park: “Ever since then, he’s felt insecure about his place in the food chain.”

When I finally saw the show on its feet at the Wilbur in Boston , that joke was gone (Watt had resigned), but so was much else that was fresh about the show, including Mark Linn-Baker’s break-dancing. I started to get the sense that something was wrong when I tried setting up interviews. Trudeau, who presumably had the most to say, wasn’t talking, and Swados – an old friend of Trudeau’s and originally supposed to write, score, and direct Doonesbury – kept ducking me; she was reportedly in New York but when I bumped into her backstage she said to call her, and she never returned my calls to her hotel and her apartment in New York. That left Jacques Levy, whom the producer had hired to direct the workshop because Levy had been used to the workshop method from his days with the Open Theater, but the poor man had nothing but clichés to share about the show, the strip, his colleagues, and his profession.

Then I saw the show and realized why everyone was so depressed. Much as I wanted to like it, it seemed dumb and lackluster. Part of the problem was unmistakably Levy’s direction – even the certified big numbers, such as “I Can Have It All,” Mike’s solo “Just One Night,” and a sort of country-and-western duet between Honey and Boopsy called “A Complicated Man,” barely made it across the footlights. But the deeper problem was the show’s lack of real substance. Despite a couple of jabs at Reagan, the show had no political bite. Did Trudeau tame it down because a Broadway musical can’t accommodate political comment, or was the real truth that Doonesbury was never really radical but only seemed so compared to other daily newspaper comics? Anyway, the show came off like Annie for adults or, as one Boston critic called it, “the thinking man’s Grease.” I’d still prefer it any day over the witless Little Shop of Horrors, and maybe it will be, as someone suggested, this year’s Hair to La Cage aux Folles1776. But I happened to see The Big Chill in Boston , and unintentionally it seemed a better cartoon about the same generation (you know, discuss how ex-revolutionaries feel guilty about making money in four panels or less).

I felt sorry for serious artists driven to spending a year of their time and $2 million of someone else’s money sweating and straining, clipping and compromising their artistry to produce a commodity for Broadway that has very little to say. After enduring an indifferent out-of-town trout, they have to drag their baby into the hostile, faithless marketplace, which just as soon smother it in the crib.

Village Voice, November 22, 1983
This is excerpted from a longer essay about Boston theater -- click here for the full piece.