“The Connector” is pitch perfect regarding a magazine’s office politics, and it’s way off key on the much bigger picture of fake news. Jonathan Marc Sherman and Jason Robert Brown’s conflicted new musical had its world premiere Tuesday at the MCC Theater.
First, the good news — of which I know something about, having spent over 40 years as an editor and reporter at various magazines and newspapers. Most of them are defunct now, but that’s another story. Few, if any, of those periodicals I worked for were quite as illustrious as The Connector — which, by the way, is a terrible name for a magazine, not to mention a musical. There are revered and dusty shades of the New Yorker’s William Shawn in the editor-in-chief played by Scott Bakula, who is given no less prestigious a moniker than Conrad.
Conrad is an editor worshipped by his readers and his staff, which include a young copy editor, Robin (Hannah Cruz) and a new staff writer, Ethan (Ben Levi Ross), fresh from the Ivy League. She is a struggling writer, and he has already been blessed as an exceptional writer by the all-mighty Conrad, thanks to an article Ethan wrote for his college newspaper.
A more revealing title for this 100-minute musical would be “How to Cope With Office Angst Under the Age of 30,” because that’s what Robin suffers as her articles keep being rejected for publication and Ethan’s keep finding their way into the magazine’s well, where they miraculously boost circulation. Adding to her fury is that Conrad, eager to play mentor, sees himself in the young male wunderkind.
Bakula plays the éminence grise with restraint and without ever turning pompous, which these kinds of top editors often are. But “The Connector” is really Ross’ show, and it’s his performance and his phenomenal vocals that drive it. His scrappy Ethan is the Sammy Glick of publishing, and “The Connector” remains on track when it focuses on the tantalizing subject of what happens when young ambition wedded to real talent run completely off the tracks.
Where the musical begins to muddy up the office politics is when Robin states what may or may not be true: Her failure is all about sexism, even though this role could easily be played by a male actor, with only the switch of a few pronouns. I had to roll my eyes when Robin finally gets an article published at another magazine and its title is “How to Get Out of Texas: Backwards, in High Heels.” This is precisely the kind of human interest story that editors have always assigned to women, especially if you put the words “high heels” in the headline. Robin delivers the good news of her first published article without a smidgeon of irony.
Playing the put-upon and under-appreciated copy editor with one byline to her name, Cruz is given nothing but discordant music to sing and quickly emerges as something of a pill, despite being the musical’s major whistleblower.
She complains about all the corrupt and privileged “white men” around her. A quick fact-check, however, shows that two of the most recent high-profile cases of real fabrication and/or plagiarism involved writers who were not white men: Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Sabrina Rubin Erdely of Rolling Stone.
“The Connector” is clearly based on Stephen Glass’ series of made-up articles at the New Republic in the 1990s — the musical is set in that decade — but that scandal was preceded by The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke, who returned the Pulitzer Prize after it came to light that her profile of an eight-year-old heroin addict was bogus.
In a recent New York Times interview with the creators of “The Connector,” director Daisy Prince points out, “It’s a bunch of women who bring [Ethan] down.”
It has become a cliché of contemporary American musicals to blame every ill of Western civilization on straight white men. While the Glass case is mentioned in the Times interview, conveniently not brought up are the names Erdely and Cooke.
Since it is “a bunch of women” that exposes Ethan’s fabricated articles, it’s odd that in this musical, the Robin character comes off more jealous and resentful than inventive and talented. The second female whistleblower in “The Connector” is a reader (Mylinda Hull) who writes a series of letters to the editor complaining about factual errors in the magazine. She is a recurring leitmotif named Mona Bland, which sums up her effect on the musical.
There’s also a dedicated copy editor, Muriel (Jessica Molaskey), who wields a red pencil and sings that, besides being a stickler for the facts, she marched with Martin Luther King Jr.. How are we supposed to interpret this late-in-the-musical character revelation? Does Muriel’s support of civil rights mean that truth-tellers possess a social conscience and professional fabulists like Ethan vote Republican?
Which leads to a far greater misconception being promoted here. I’ve written the following words so often in my theater reviews, most recently with regard to Lynn Nottage’s book for “MJ” and Rebekah Greer Melocik’s book for “How to Dance in Ohio,” but here I go again: The cultural left hates the press every bit as much as the political right in this country. “The Connector” blames the public’s mistrust in journalism on lousy reporters, even though fabrication on the level of Ethan’s (or Blair’s or Erdely’s or Glass’) is extremely rare.
What is behind the current fixation on fake news goes back to the ethos and tactics of a Roy Cohn whose mantra was “deny, deny, deny” and “never apologize” and “if you repeat it often enough, people believe it.” In other words, it stems from people like Cohn’s best pupil, Donald Trump, and wackos who don’t even bother to use the spell check on their computers to disseminate whatever they fantasize about on the internet. In the Times interview, Brown mentions Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternate facts” remark. Hello! Conway is not a reporter.
A few of Brown’s songs bring to life the articles that Ethan fabricates, and while the jagged, jazzy music grabs the ear — one quasi rap number, sung by Fergie Philippe, really perks up the show — the always clever and intricate lyrics don’t illuminate how these stories were concocted.
It could be said that this is one of those terrific Brown scores, like “Honeymoon in Vegas” or “Mr. Saturday Night,” that is subverted by an inferior or problematic book. Unfortunately, it is his lyrics, more than Sherman’s book, that link today’s “fake news” mantra to the rare occurrence of dishonest journalists writing for established periodicals. In the end, “The Connector” is as reactionary as a right-wing politician who finds a typo in a Times or WaPo article and cries, “You can’t believe anything they print!”
Prince’s direction is breathtakingly fluid on Beowulf Boritt’s starkly modern set; the action moves across a variety of locales with great economy and almost no furniture. Ultimately that alacrity hits speed bumps as the material turns portentous, and Karla Puno Garcia’s choreography, with its dreary Martha Graham contractions, never fails to add pounds of pretentiousness to the increasingly heavy load.