Elements from such unwed-mother movie classics as “A Summer Place,” “To Each His Own,” and “Way Down East” are set to bluegrass score
Delmer Daves and Mitchell Leisen, not to mention D. W. Griffith, would know exactly what to do with the new musical “Bright Star,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Cort Theatre.
Those three Hollywood legends don’t have much in common except that they all directed films about unwed mothers. Daves tops the illegitimate-babies list with his great knocked-up trilogy of “Susan Slade,” “Parrish,” and “A Summer Place,” his masterpiece from 1959. In those films, Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens took turns being impregnated by either Grant Williams or Troy Donahue. Adding fuel to the fire of those young passions, Daves’ parents were either really rich or really poor and, for the most part, not very understanding of teenage hormones.
“Bright Star” is about all these things: an illegitimate baby, bad parents, money, and greed. Steve Martin and Edie Brickell wrote the book, music and lyrics, and much has been made of the fact that this is an original musical, which really stretches the definition of the word “original.”
“Bright Star” not only serves up Daves’ clichés but recycles much of the plot from Leisen’s 1946 weeper, “To Each His Own,” in which an unwed mother loses her baby only to turn herself into a successful and rather bitter career woman.
Before the heroine of “Bright Star” gives birth, actress Carmen Cusack is perkier than a June bug in a pasture of alfalfa. Much of the musical is set in 1920s North Carolina. Other scenes take place 20 years later, and that’s when Cusack’s Alice Murphy channels Olivia de Havilland from “To Each His Own.”
Alice is a successful and rather bitter magazine editor. Even discovering a young Tennessee Williams hasn’t made her happy. (Martin and Brickell have 20/20 hindsight when it comes to spotting talent.) Another young-writer discovery is a young WWII vet named Billy Cane (A. J. Shively). One day Billy wanders into Alice’s office, and it turns out he was born the same year as the editor’s long-lost baby.
Anyone who watches TCM will know Act 2 just from reading the above paragraph. What I also won’t spell out for you is the stunning Gothic touch that ends act one. It’s even older than Daves or de Havilland, and for sheer audacity it’s right up there with Lillian Gish’s character (another unwed mother) floating on a sheet of ice in D. W. Griffith’s silent classic “Way Down East.”
The “Bright Star” bluegrass score features more twangs per dipthong than a whole evening of “Tobacco Road.” After “The Robber Bridegroom” and “Southern Comfort,” this is the third bluegrass musical to open in New York City in the last two weeks. More of these and Broadway will run out of fiddles and banjos, I’m praying.
Walter Bobbie directs and Josh Rhodes choreographs “Bright Star” in a way that brings to mind Agnes de Mille as rendered by Grant Wood.
Time will tell if this musical makes the walls of Joe Allen restaurant’s gallery of flops. On the walls of my mind, “Bright Star” has already taken its place between last season’s “Doctor Zhivago” and 1979’s “Got Tu Go Disco.”