theater review

Theater Review: Can Cabaret Be a Tool of Liberation?

From Midnight at the Never Get, at St. Peter’s. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The Boys in the Band have left the building, and Arnold Beckoff’s Broadway transfer is still in previews, but if you’re looking for torch songs in the meantime, Midnight at the Never Get has got you covered. An intimate new musical — co-conceived by its star, Sam Bolen, and Mark Sonnenblick, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics — Midnight has the slightly over-slick feeling of a show that’s been through the workshopping process, and through it and through it. But the high gloss suits the subject matter. As one of its characters, an ambitious songwriter with a low tolerance for chaos, argues: “Raw honesty? That isn’t beautiful. What’s beautiful is the tension between the intensity of the feeling and the polish of the writing. That gap. Having to structure how you feel and make it shiny, presentable to the world … ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand.’ Are you kidding me? That’s not a lyric, that’s a note you pass in kindergarten.”

To the men of Midnight, the Beatles will never replace the Gershwins and Judy Garland. The musical is built around the glamorous nightclub act of a singer named Trevor Copeland (Bolen). Trevor is dapper, witty, gay, and head over heels in love with Arthur Brightman, the aforementioned songwriter, who’s fashioned himself as a new Cole Porter. Arthur writes dapper, witty, gay love songs for Trevor to sing, which would be, to quote one of those ditties, all “sunshine [and] smiles [and] movie reels with Ferris wheels and Paris styles” — but the name of the bar where Trevor sings should clue us in to the looming roadblocks in the course of true love. First, Trevor and Arthur are living in New York City in the mid-1960s: Their relationship isn’t even legal, and their underground nightclub act doesn’t officially exist. The Never Get certainly isn’t a gay bar — it’s a “members only club. Members being anyone except the vice squad.”

Second, and trickier still, Trevor isn’t actually living anymore. We meet “all that’s left of [him]” in a limbo of his own creation, where, ever since his mortal end, he’s been passing the time in purgatory by honing his act (“Songs, jokes, elegance — Judy at Carnegie! But gay. Well, more gay”). When you die, he tells us, “you get to pick a memory. Make a little house out of it. Hang the walls and rough the floors with all the detail you have left. And then you stay, as long as you like, in your infinite moment, where you can be just like you were…” Trevor has chosen to spend eternity in a fantasy version of the little jewel box of a club where he and Arthur used to perform. Death, it would seem, is a cabaret, too.

Trevor’s posthumous memory palace is almost perfect — “[the] stage is polished. None of the bulbs are out in the sign. The piano’s even in tune!” And there’s a full band. Music director Adam Podd did the swinging orchestrations, and lighting designer Jamie Roderick keeps the five-piece ensemble cloaked in shadow at the back of the stage, like the mind-made apparitions they are. Almost perfect — but not quite. “I mean, that’s not Arthur,” Trevor admits, motioning to the pianist (the wry, very musically gifted Jeremy Cohen). “He’s just me. But I use him to remember.”

As the singer awaits the ghostly arrival of his true love — the man who gave words to their passion, even if those words did sometimes have to change from “he” to “she” when Trevor sang Arthur’s songs in public — we hear the story of their romance, from starry-eyed rise to troubled decline. We also hear a catalog of clever tunes by Sonnenblick, who’s got an impressive feel for the playful lilt and smoky sentimentality of the Great American Songbook. Sonnenblick knows he’s in familiar territory — “I’m just copying songs that were written 30 years ago,” confesses the Arthur avatar at one point—but he treads it lightly and intelligently. His songs bounce and sparkle, or swell and moan, fittingly. And the boyishly charming Bolen sounds lovely singing them, especially when he releases into his tender falsetto, or gets sly and brassy with us in the more exuberant numbers. “My Boy in Blue” is an upbeat, raunchy love song with an edge to it: “He owns a gun / His outfit’s fun / I won’t forget his number, cuz it’s 9-1-1!” sings Trevor, making light of the very real danger he and Arthur and the whole Never Get community face at the hands of the NYPD. (The song’s kickline-y climax is a sharp little smack: “I’m not on the lam / But who gives a damn? / He swears he’ll always bust me / Just for who I am!”) Then there’s the brisk, self-deprecating “Why’d’ya Hafta Call It Love?” and the defiantly peppy “I Prefer Sunshine,” both songs in which the lovers admit their predilection for romance over reality. “Love’s whatever they show you / At the multiplex / It’s not a psychosexual disease,” trills Trevor as not-Arthur plays along.

And here’s the underlying tension of Midnight at the Never Get: While Arthur tries to locate that scintillating gap between deep feeling and fine expression, the show itself is interested in the pull of its characters’ aestheticism against the tide of progressive protest politics. Those politics have shaped our contemporary liberal mores: It would be blasphemous these days to speak of Stonewall with anything less than serious reverence, but for Trevor and Arthur, Stonewall is “the bar for street kids, hustlers, go-go boys on the dance floor — you’d be embarrassed to be seen there if you were over 25.” While Trevor, the more passionate of the pair, is drawn to the revolutionary fervor that starts to fill Greenwich Village over the years that he spends at the Never Get, Arthur is openly disgusted by what he sees as the “loud and aggressive and sanctimonious” tactics in the streets. “Has it occurred to [any of them] to try and actually contribute to society? To put on a suit and look presentable?” he growls. “First you have to make people want to listen to you. And then, maybe, you can change their minds.”

Today, if a modern Arthur were posting analogous attitudes on Twitter, it would take about .00005 seconds for him to be drowned in a fiery tidal wave of privilege-checking. And perhaps he would deserve some of it. The “show the powers that be that we’re just like them and then they’ll accept us” tactic is even less fashionable now than it was 50 years ago — we don’t have a lot of patience for people who openly refuse to identify as activists, who prioritize “presentability” and argue for the slow and steady path forward. Especially when those people are — gay or not — white men. What’s interesting about Midnight at the Never Get isn’t that the show itself propagates Arthur’s views: It’s that, through the lens of Trevor’s memory, it examines them. Because Trevor — who’s singing his heart out for us — genuinely loves Arthur, we too must try to find some feeling for the songwriter. We can’t dump him in the wastebasket of history and be done with it. We have to consider his humanity, too: that of the private person, the person who loves beauty, the person who “[doesn’t] want to hide who [he is]” but is struggling with the hard fact that who he actually is, apart from his sexuality, doesn’t jibe with the person his community wants him to be.

That’s a tough position to be in, a different kind of closet, and though there may not be much sympathy for it in 2018, it gives Midnight a meatier central question than “Will Arthur show up so that Trevor can spend eternity with him?” Instead, the show wants to know if we can ever get both — romantic, sunshiney, Cole Porter-esque love, and real justice, real freedom — or if the kind of love that goes hand in hand with liberation must, of force, be messier, wilder, more defiant, less polite, less shaped by our visions of a Hollywood past and more by our visions of a just future.

You can tell how Sonnenblick, Bolen, and director Max Friedman, who keeps the show clean and tight throughout, want to answer that question. Trevor, despite his love for the protest-averse Arthur, eventually confesses that he did go out to march, waving a sign that said “Don’t let the world shape your love. Let your love shape the world.” It’s a phrase of Arthur’s that the writer was never quite brave enough to actually live. The rub is that it’s hard for Midnight’s purposefully nostalgic format to accommodate a transformative political leap forward. The show is solidly constructed and well performed by both Bolen and Cohen — and its last number comes with a particularly touching twist — but it’s difficult for Friedman to find his way in the finale. The show both wants to break itself and doesn’t. It wants to have it all, the romance and the revolution, and in the end, it errs on the side of sweetness. That’s all right, though it lessens some of the existential sting of the story’s title. What would it have been like, I wonder, to see the jewel box shatter?

Midnight at the Never Get is at the York Theatre at Saint Peter’s through November 4.

Theater Review: Can Cabaret Songs Be a Tool of Liberation?