I spent the morning after seeing Flying Over Sunset the same way I assume everyone else did — surfing Wikipedia. There was so much history referenced so sloppily during James Lapine, Tom Kitt, and Michael Korie’s ill-conceived musical about psychedelics that I needed a next-day huddle with my computer. Those hours I spent with my laptop were the best ones the musical brought me. Footnotes! Cross-references! I believe that internet binge gave me the same high the creative team must once have felt — the intoxication of learning about real people and diving into the details of their lives.
In interviews, Lapine, the musical’s book writer and director, has spoken about finding the inspiration for Flying Over Sunset in a biography of Clare Boothe Luce, the mid-century playwright and politician who became a towering figure of American conservatism. Luce took LSD for therapeutic reasons, and she was linked to the consciousness pioneer Gerald Heard, himself a dear friend of the writer Aldous Huxley. This daisy-chain acquaintanceship interested Lapine. The real Cary Grant’s own interest in acid then offered him a fourth LSD-curious celeb running around California in the ’50s, and as anyone knows, once four celebrities (possibly) meet, you’ve got to make a show about it. (You do not.)
Our first voyager, Huxley, played by Harry Hadden-Paton, has his initial drug experience in a Rexall drugstore. (So far, so true: Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception contains the account of this experiment with mescaline.) As his wife (Laura Shoop) and Heard (Robert Sella) try to tug him out of the magazine aisle, Huxley sing-talks about imagining the Biblical Judith as she emerges from a Botticelli painting. He’s tripping hard: The curving white walls of Beowulf Boritt’s set invert; projected images crawl all over them; a little video fish wriggles “inside” a spherical lamp. But for all this visual hullabaloo, we’re not meant to think about Judith beheading Holofernes. The image does not set up a theme or a motif or illuminate some unseen truth. The show’s songs — lush but dull music by Kitt, lyrics by Korie — all show us acid trips, yet the grindingly inert and ineffectual Judith number makes you keen never to share one of these hallucinations again.
Huxley’s wife quickly expires — slowly tap-dancing chorus members remind you of Death’s steady tread — and she haunts him by drifting in and out of his LSD experiences. For the rest of the show, Huxley will have one directive: to dance again with her. Like Huxley, Luce (the dazzling Carmen Cusack) is also in mourning. We see her sad about any number of things: her sexually loose mother, a contentious Senate hearing over her appointment as an ambassador, and her teenage daughter’s death in a car wreck. As with Huxley, the things that make the historical person fascinating are subsumed by the show into one basic therapy revelation — Luce’s Senate stuff vanishes fast, but we spend a lot of time on the dead daughter, whose absolution she craves. At one point or another, characters raise their divisions on issues of public morality or war, but they’re hushed by Gerald. “No politics!” he cries, which effectively cuts off anything that might stimulate conflict or conversation. Just as Huxley’s wife dogs his steps, ghosts tailgate Luce. Again Lapine calls upon choreographer Michelle Dorrance to set the vibe. The gloomy dead tap-walk in a gloomy tap-circle. Step drag step drag.
Grant may never have met the other three, but Lapine distorts reality to get him there. Even within the spaced-out logic of the show, it’s never plausible that the star would meet these other seekers and decide to get high with them on a beach. (Tripping in Malibu is the entirety of the deadly second act.) Certainly Tony Yazbeck’s Grant seems ill at ease, even apologetic, throughout. Though to be fair, he has the hardest job of the four: Grant is a known quantity even in 2021, so there’s the familiar accent and the stiff-spined, gliding grace to try to copy. Yazbeck makes a hash of the voice, and he displays a different, more percussive grace, but at least he has barrels of that: The moments when the show stops to let him tap-dance with a vision of his precociously talented child self (Atticus Ware) are by far its best. It’s too bad that baby Cary has to then join the Baggage Parade (step drag step drag) and eventually, in a watery vision, get washed out to sea.
The key post-show discussion question in my small group was “How did this get made?” The Vivian Beaumont is a big house to sign over to a musical so dramaturgically inept, so lacking in connection, philosophy, or fire. I can understand if at first the Lincoln Center folks were persuaded by the team’s collective résumé: The performers are strong, Lapine wrote the book for Sunday in the Park With George, and Tom Kitt composed Next to Normal. But there were workshops! There were opportunities to see Yazbeck blush his way through a number in which Grant thinks he is a giant penis blasting off from earth like a spaceship and to see how bland and puerile such a scene winds up being in execution.
The most you can say for the show’s acid-trip stuff is that it sometimes shows a juvenile, snickering humor: After Grant’s phallic blastoff, we see Luce’s vision of the afterlife, which looks like a huge ferny mandala, a giant green yonic symbol with her dead mother sitting right at the center. Tee-hee! I can picture someone thinking. Clare’s slutty mother is in a purgatory that looks like a big vagina! I’m not saying this was a wonderful moment: I would need to be extremely high myself to think this was hilarious stuff. But I can at least imagine a version of the show in which it was funny. That’s the thing, really — our conscious imagination is more powerful than the subconscious. We learn early in the production that a trip, like a dream, is a private experience, full of the mind’s rich colors. Make something up, tell a story, and you can keep us interested for hours. But other people’s drug experiences — and if you have stoner friends, you will recognize this — die the moment you narrate them. Dream colors fade into gray in the spotlight; all the projections in the world cannot make them bright again.
Flying Over Sunset is at the Vivian Beaumont Theater through February 6.