Molière (real name: Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) was the mid-seventeenth century French fellow who liked to poke fun at virtually everyone who lived in his time. He ridiculed hypochondriacs, misers, braggarts and blowhards, and took particular relish at having a go at the medical profession in Le Médecin Malgré Lui, his hit play of the l665-66 season at Le Theatre Royale in Paris.One day more than 300 years later, one of our own bright lights, Mr. Sheldon Harnick, was brushing up his French by reading Molière in its original language, and in the middle of Le Médecin Magré Lui, he thought, “By gum, this is a musical!” He could hear music pouring out of its every page. So he translated the play by himself, wrote a new book in English, dashed off lyrics and music on his own, and called the new work Malpractice Makes Perfect.
He retained Molière’s central characters, particularly Sganarelle , a role the French genius had played himself in the play’s early outings. Harnick’s score lies within the mainstream of musical theatre fare, but often pays homage to the Baroque. A first exposure of his material was in a Reading Series in December 2011, and it’s had further readings in Independence, Kansas and at Classic Stage Company in East Village. He came close to a full production in New York by CSC only to have them lose a bundle on their first musical, thus causing them to panic at the financing of a second, and Malpractice never even made it into rehearsal.
Now, in 2014, as part of its celebration of Mr. Harnick, the Musicals in Mufti series at the York is giving us a look at the piece in its latest form. This offering is tentative; not exactly a full production, for it’s being played with just a piano for accompaniment. No one is in costume (though there is an occasional wig, helmet or hat,) rehearsal consists of about a week, and scripts are carried on, along with props (a hatchet here, a knife there) – anything to clarify the action to follow. But Mr. Harnick feels it is now ready to be born, fully formed and ready to risk exposure to the amateur, stock, regional markets as well, and hopefully, to Broadway.
To give the material its best shot, the York Theatre has assembled a first rate cast of musical theatre artists, several of whom have appeared in all four versions. As Sganarelle, this time out we have Brad Oscar, a most useful musical performer who was one of the leading players on Broadway in The Producers, credibly filling Nathan Lane’s very large shoes for a good part of the post-Lane run of that smash.
As Geronte, Conrad John Schuck, 50 years an actor, returns to the stage. He had done Daddy Warbucks opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in Annie in 1979 on Broadway, and went on to a lengthy career in theatre, TV and film. Cady Huffman, who made a vast impression in the original The Producers, and most recently again with Nathan Lane in this season’s The Nance, is one of the actors who’ve returned to this piece for each of its four outings. Nick Wyman, a Broadway veteran and incidentally the popular President of Actors’ Equity these past six years, continues his active performing career as Valere. Clearly this company, under the simple but clean direction of David Glenn Armstrong, dove in with great enthusiasm because they realized they were reviving more than a work in progress, they were working with the 89 year old legend for whom they have the utmost respect, and to whom they wanted to show his final draft in the best possible light.
Alas and alack, the musical is easy to like, but hard to love. Mr. Harnick has training and some talent as a composer, but his tunes are simple, pleasant and undistinguished. His lyrics in this instance are funny on occasion, but simplistic on others. His ballads are lyrical, but predictable. “Lucinda” is a lovely example (and is very sweetly sung by David Ayers as Leander) but doesn’t come close to the best of his contemporaries, including the ballads of his usual composer Jerry Bock. His musical comedy numbers, “Malpractice Makes Perfect”, “Just What the Doctor Ordered”, “Everybody Loves Their Doctor”, (shouldn’t that be “His Doctor”?) are peppy but sound more like they come from the pen of a promising newcomer writing a college romp. “Revenge” is a one joke comic number, but his own “Boston Beguine” puts it to shame, melodically and lyrically.
The audience (mostly elderly, but very lively and responsive) seemed to have a fine time, and it is possible there would be a life for the show in the amateur market. But for me it falls between the ideal for kids (who have been attracted to Annie, Spelling Bee, Bye Bye, Birdie, Charlie Brown,) and the older musical theatre audience, for whom it’s just not wise or witty or tuneful enough. It’s truly more of a summer camp show — creating smiles where belly laughs are indicated, not offering sufficiently complex characters to make up for the lack of the wild and woolly humor of farce. And even with some contemporary references it doesn’t cut deeply enough into the attack on the medical profession that was Molière’s (and I assume Harnick’s) intent.
However. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to see it. Anything from the pen of a Master (in this case one from Broadway’s aptly named Golden Age) is of interest. People don’t go to museums only to see the Mona Lisa or Night Watch. There are a couple of other DaVincis and Rembrandts worth visiting, don’t you agree? And remember, this particular musical was begun only a few years ago, when the composer/lyricist/librettist was 86, and perhaps not at the peak of his form. He may have been past his prime, but he still stands head and shoulders above many, perhaps most, of the young crowd that is following. It would do them a great service to themselves, to study this late work to see where they might be going wrong.
In addition to bringing attention to the best of the new writers, I think Musicals In Mufti is doing its job by giving an Old Master a chance to nurture one of his offspring, one of which was not as robustly born as some of its siblings.
Malpractice Makes Perfect was presented February 14 – 16, 2014 at the York Theatre as part of their Musicals in Mufti tribute to Sheldon Harnick. Next is Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead, Feb 21 – 23. Details and Tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.