Theater Review: Doctor Zhivago Needs Intensive Care

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Can we please get this straight, Broadway? Sprawling European novels do not make great musicals. Sorry, Les Miz partisans and Phantomaniacs, but whatever the virtues of those shows — and they are probably the best of the genre — they are mere patches on the originals. How could they not be? When you’re adapting a doorstop saga for the stage, you’re obviously going to be making huge cuts. Usually this will mean excising the poetry, philosophy, and psychology in order to preserve a series of action highlights that will then stick out like angry pimples. The result is usually more of a medley than a narrative — Don Quixote’s greatest hits! — and thus unsuited to the musical’s work of grounding song in character and situation. Indeed, when New York convened a panel to come up with a list of the greatest musicals ever, not one of the top ten was based on a thick slab of fiction by Hugo or Stevenson or Cervantes or Tolstoy or Dumas or Dickens or Du Maurier. (Only two were based on novels at all, and both were American.) Original tales, or small-scale works like plays and short stories, generally produce more successful results and give the librettist something better to do than rip out pages and jimmy the segues.

Unfortunately, this lesson (despite being taught in many musical-theater programs) has fallen on deaf ears at the Broadway Theatre — and I don’t just mean those forced to endure the overamplified mess that is Doctor Zhivago. I also mean its authors and director, who together have turned Boris Pasternak’s 700-page novel into a musical so aggressively awful it is almost sadistic. Begin with the fact that the source is about as bad a great novel as you could choose for inspiration. Not only does it wander over the entire expanse of Russia during a 30-year period marked by war and revolution, but it depends for its most powerful effects on the kinds of ordeals and coincidences that look even sillier when detached from their context. Then add a book, by Michael Weller, that in its desperation to tie its snippets of plot together adds more coincidences into the mix. Even where he’s left the plot alone — it is still basically the story of the doomed love affair between Zhivago, a high-minded young doctor, and Lara, a haunted beauty — the frenzied squeezing has turned the novel’s ripe melodrama into tragic, if unintentional, farce. With the recurring characters recurring every five minutes instead of every hundred pages, the story begins to seem like an elaborate game of Whac-a-Prole.

Most of this was inevitable. What we might have been spared, if such a musical was going to be written, is its coarseness. Alas, coarseness is apparently what the director Des McAnuff, still represented on Broadway by the oily Jersey Boys, was going for. It’s not just the constant noise and gore he hurls about — though you should definitely avoid Doctor Zhivago if you don’t want to experience gunshots, bombardments, blood, fire, smoke, thunder, explosions, hangings, immolations, suicides, and vomit. (And those are just in the audience.) It’s also that he has called forth the same concussive aesthetic from Weller and even the songwriters. Lucy Simon, whose previous Broadway credit is the lovely Secret Garden, once again provides well-crafted Romantic Lite tunes, but they are too often whipped into bombast by relentless overproduction. (The only song that avoids this fate is the one lifted from the rhapsodic 1965 David Lean movie: “Somewhere My Love.”) And though the lyrics by Michael Korie and Amy Powers are at least competent, they come in just two varieties, both trite. The uptempo ones for the soldiers and revolutionaries have a faux-gritty bravado about them. The romantic ones are big and purple, like bruises.

How anyone can sing this stuff eight times a week I’ll never understand. The English actor Tam Mutu — a West End Jean Valjean, an alternate Phantom, and Maxim de Winter until Manderley collapsed — is clearly expert at the romantic bellow; he makes what can only be called an impressive Broadway debut as Zhivago. He pretty much blows everyone else away, including that old snake charmer Tom Hewitt as Zhivago’s lifelong nemesis Komarovsky, though it’s not because of his voice; everyone sings quite well. It’s his forcefulness as an actor: He makes you buy the hogwash, if only resentfully.

The rest of the cast seem like afterthoughts, bits of fluff and color mainly useful for moving around the stage. I will not make the argument that they are thus apt corollaries for the novel’s peasants and soldiers, doing the pointless bidding of whoever is in power. The musical is too silly for that — and yet to say it is silly is to let it off the hook. Whatever the novel’s failings, it has the coherence of its moral vision: a bleak one, to be sure. For Pasternak, who was forced by Soviet threats to decline the 1958 Nobel Prize, there can be no happy ending to the pursuit of good in an evil society. For the authors of the musical, there apparently has to be. It’s no spoiler to reveal that their final scene features a beaming Lara attending Zhivago’s funeral with their pretty little daughter, ready to march into a bright future; in the novel, Lara eventually dies in a gulag, and the girl, abandoned years earlier, is last seen as an impoverished laundress. The only explanation for such a deliberate and fundamental distortion is commercial. What everyone involved seems to have wanted was another Les Miz: a musical likewise set in a time of revolution, but one that ends with a golden glimmer of hope. McAnuff has dutifully provided it, as well as a spinning, rampartlike machine to close Act One and a show curtain made of tangled bentwood chairs that directly references one of Les Miz’s best-loved numbers.

Stories are not interchangeable; if they were, every Broadway producer would be Cameron Mackintosh. Instead, some are worthier and more inspiring than others, as even this misbegotten production seems to know. At one point Zhivago says to Lara, referring to her attempt, years earlier, to shoot Komarovsky, “I’ve always wanted to be that way, the way you were that night, in the grip of a passion so overwhelming that the rest of life feels unimportant.” It’s an absurd line for the character but, watching McAnuff’s Doctor Zhivago instead of Lean’s (or instead of reading Pasternak, for that matter), I totally knew what he meant.

Doctor Zhivago is at the Broadway Theatre.

*A version of this article appears in the May 4, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.