Women on the Verge of a Farce
A few years ago, my good friend and sparring partner Robbie Rozelle brought me to the theatre to see a new musical. Though the show was a mixed bag and closed very quickly, there are parts of the piece that still stick with me and refuse to let go. The musical is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and I continue to be haunted by the things that worked, wishing I could see it again.
Truthfully, the piece was a peculiar choice for musicalization. The Pedro Almodovar film was a hit in 1988, but the story is a relentless farce. I have always felt that farce is the hardest genre to turn into a musical because it relies on pace, usually of an ever-growing manic speed. Musical theatre, with its need to stop, reflect, soliloquize, does not lend itself to this type of frenzy. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is, in my mind, the only successful musical farce, and even it features farther-between musical numbers that are less important to forwarding the plot as the show advances. I cannot imagine musical versions of Lend Me a Tenor or Boeing Boeing without abandoning the "farce formula" to make it work. Farces rely on the ridiculous and the pacing is essential to keep us from stopping and thinking too hard about the logic of the situation.
Women on the Verge... did not choose to relinquish the "farce formula," maintaining a frantic pace throughout. The result was a musical in which the songs were jarring rather than carefully interwoven into the fabric of the overall production. One of David Yazbek's finest musical numbers ever is "Invisible," introduced in Women on the Verge... by Patti LuPone. Much like Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Invisible" is a mini-play that details the story of a broken woman, in this case a long-forgotten wife who feels she is a mere cypher in a world that is only vaguely aware of her painful existence. The song is haunting, deeply character motivated, exquisite, and entirely wrong for this type of musical. It comes at the height of the second act, positioned near the show's climax (similar to "The Ladies Who Lunch"), bringing all gears to grinding halt. In a farce, this is where the momentum needs no detours. It is interesting how such a divine song, positioned in the wrong place, can be such detriment. Indeed, the only musical number in the piece that actually works is "Model Behavior," delivered with such razor sharp comic precision and fueled by a daffy, deft interpretation by Laura Benanti. The song, a string of increasingly outlandish voicemail messages left by a ditzy fashion model and executed as a chaotic tour-de-force (or tour-de-farce), is the only time the musical score finds the tempo and touchstones of farce.
I wish I could see that Broadway production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown again. The show swung like a pendulum, arching its way between low-budget champagne artistry and tequila-induced insanity. In pieces, there were moments of sheer brilliance, even if those pieces didn't add up to a musical farce that worked.
Tracks from the London production of Women on the Verge...