If you really want to know what killed vaudeville, see "Harrigan 'n Hart." On the evidence presented by last night's musical at the Longacre, it wasn't the movies or radio, but the dizzying succession of mindless routines that, this show would have it, were part and parcel of the partners' act.
Harrigan - as actor, manager, dramatist, theater owner and songwriter - was supposedly responsible for the evolution of "variety," a term that gave way to "vaudeville," into full-blown musicals that led the way to musical comedy. Actually, though, considering their musical worth, they led no further than Harrigan's protege, George M. Cohan, whose own simple songs pointed nowhere beyond him, and one of which, "Harrigan," was a tribute to his idol.
Though Michael Stewart's book does try to indicate Harrigan's originality in depicting New York City's lower classes, the Irish and Dutch immigrants and orphan youths, in his musical plays, the evening depends so heavily on its fast-stepping musical numbers that the show-stopper is, of all things, a lengthy clog dance by the foot-slapping ensemble. There are two dozen songs in all, the majority of them foursquare creations by lyricist Harrigan and his composing father-in-law, David Braham. Though the several interpolated new songs by Max Showalter (music) and Peter Walker (lyrics) aren't exactly knockouts, they do offer some genuine relief and, in a couple of instances, help point up the story Stewart has to tell.
This story is an uneasy account of the relationship between Harrigan and his young discovery, of the brash Hart's marriage to a domineering actress who broke up the team to further her husband's career as an actor, and of their almost ghostly reunion as Hart, a failure on his own and a syphilitic who died of paresis at 36, leaves his deathbed to join Harrigan in one of their most celebrated routines, "Mulligan Guard." That's next-to-closing, for this Mulligan stew of a show actually ends with "Something New, Something Different," a Showalter-Walker paean to Harrigan's advanced theatrical ideas.
While the cast is reasonably large, there are only three principals, and Mark Hamill, as the irrepressible Hart, is by far the most interesting - in part, because Hart, whose attachment to Harrigan is glancingly intimated as being perhaps unnatural (I don't believe there's any real evidence of this), is the more interesting character, but also because Hamill is a deft and engaging performer. Harry Groener, as Harrigan, proves once again that he is a nimble hoofer but brings little personality to the role. Christine Ebersole, as Hart's termagent wife, Gerta, sings beautifully and earns hisses for her villainous behavior, applause when Hart knocks her for a loop, and more applause when she redeems herself by bringing the two men together again.
Despite all the forced gaety on stage, it's a rather grim and unedifying story, reflected by the shabby-looking back wall and backcloth paintings of the old city's dingier aspects. In this respect, David Mitchell's scenic designs carry out the general idea faithfully, lightened by the vivid look, enhanced by Ann Hould-Ward's costumes, of some of the production numbers. Richard Nelson has lighted the entire show expertly, right down to the 1884 fire which, in Stewart's book, resulted from a careless stagehand's departure from a blaze which was to engulf the partner's Theatre Comique.
Joe Layton has directed the book in a workmanlike fashion, trying to keep it fluid as possible when D.J. Giagni's dance numbers aren't flinging themselves at you relentlessly. A small but effective pit band is presided over by Peter Howard.
I'm sure Harrigan 'n Hart were vastly more entertaining than this lame musical about their careers. Even so, I trust I never have to hear one of their songs again, not even their "Maggie Murphy's Home" or "Mulligan Guard" smasheroos.
Should you wonder what ever happened to the backstage musical, wonder no more. It is comparatively alive and modestly well at the Longacre Theater, with a show that opened last night, Harrigan 'n Hart.
I don't mean to praise the show with faint damns, but this musical, starring Harry Groener and the energetically engaging Mark Hamill, is an occasion that might lend itself to understatement.
It tells the down and down story of a well-known end-of-the-century vaudeville team - one of them, it seems, is dying of syphilis at the end, and we are given a tear-jerking, yet well-staged, final benefit performance - but the show's originality is not compelling. Yet it certainly has its period charms, both in its music and atmosphere.
Apparently Edward Harrigan was an innovative playwright as well as an accomplished vaudevillian, while his partnership with Tony Hart lasted 15 years and, according to the show, made theater history.
In all fairness, exactly how Harrigan transfigured the theater and justified someone calling him "the Dickens of America" is not for one moment made clear.
What we see is a copule of cheerful song-and-dance men who strike up a friendship and a partnership. The partnership is effectively broken up by Hart's wife and Hart's various insecurities.
With Hart on the point of death, Broadway puts on a fundraiser for him, and the two men are briefly reunited. As show business stories go, so it goes.
The book by Michael Stewart, based in part on material supplied by Harrigan's daughter, Nedda Harrigan Logan, is scarcely more than a string of old-time musical numbers interpersed with a little heavy breathing time for emotion.
There is some attempt to explore the delicate balance of Hart's ego, a certain drama in the break-up of the partnership, and the first act even ends with a backstage fire. But there is nothing much to grab attention away from the virtually non-stop succession of unknown nostalgic memories of a fragrantly recalled world of vaudeville.
It reminded me of George M, that musical biography of George M. Cohan which, like this Harrigan 'n Hart, was also directed by Joe Layton. But Cohan seems to have been a more considerable personality than either of the present hall-of-famers, and his music was certainly more recognizable, more memorable.
Original songs of the period by Harrigan himself and his father-in-law, David Braham, are seamlessly mingled with new songs, exceptionally clever pastiches, with music by Max Showalter and lyrics by Peter Walker.
This uneventfully charming, antimacassar-period score is a plus of the production, as are the scenery by David Mitchell featuring a delightful New York street mural on the actual back wall of the theater, and Ann Hould-Ward's sensitively perceptive costume designs.
The entire show has a handsomely calculated feel to it, redolent of our tinted concept of that specific Broadway era.
His use of Mitchell's revolving stage perhaps revolves once or twice too often, and his hit dance number, a clog dance, is too close for comfortable praise to the very similar clog dance in Frederick Ashton's old ballet La Fille Mal Gardee.
What Layton never has to borrow is vitality, and this does infuse the present production.
As Hart, the showier and more effective of the eponymous leading roles, Hamill does extremely well; his strong dancing and perky personality are neatly varied with sulking self-pity and terrified despair. Hamill has a nervous grin that could light up Broadway.
Groener is also smilingly effective in his numbers with Hamill, and his authoritative friendliness is welcome. But neither he nor Harrigan emerges as the kind of character to whom George M could, as he historically did, write a song of homage.
Christine Ebersole proves frigidly bitchy as Hart's destructive wife, and the entire ensemble proves creditably individual. Even the smallest roles are given a glint of reality.
So there are plenty of incidental pleasures to warm you in Harrigan 'n Hart, but the pleasures never ignite into the conflagration of an unquenchable musical.
Midway through Act I of ''Harrigan 'n Hart,'' the new musical at the Longacre, the 19th century American vaudevillian Edward Harrigan imagines a brand new breed of entertainment. ''Something New, Something Different'' is the title of the song that Harrigan (Harry Groener) sings, and what it promises is a novel theatrical form in which populist storytelling, music and dance will all march hand in hand. What Harrigan is doing, of course, is launching a revolution that would lead to the modern Broadway musical as we now know it. Or as we usually know it. At ''Harrigan 'n Hart,'' no one need ever fear that something new or different might happen. One must worry instead whether anything will happen at all.
This is a dull, if dutifully professional, evening in which endless medleys of vintage vaudeville songs and sketches are periodically interrupted by newly composed numbers and scenes imparting the history of the title characters. Anyone who is dying to hear such arcane, bygone ditties as ''Mulligan Guard,'' ''I Love to Follow a Band'' and ''Ada with the Golden Hair'' might conceivably find the show a pleasant trip down memory lane. For the less nostalgically inclined, a sinking sensation sets in early. Despite many costume and dialect changes, almost all the numbers look and sound alike. The old comedy routines are frantic but mirthless: They suggest that ''Sugar Babies'' might be like on a night when Mickey Rooney called in sick.
The book is by Michael Stewart, a first rate comic librettist (''Bye Bye Birdie,'' Hello, Dolly!'') who tends to slacken when telling real life showbiz tales (''George M!,'' ''Mack and Mabel''). His wan version of the Harrigan Hart saga, drawn from E.J. Kahn's biography and material compiled by Nedda Harrigan Logan, is no exception. In primer-like fashion, Harrigan and Tony Hart (Mark Hamill) meet backstage in Galesburg, Ill., in 1871, join forces and then triumph over such adversities as legal hassles, meddling relatives, ego conflicts, and a catastrophic fire unbuffeted by the proper insurance coverage.
Although Mr. Stewart has bowdlerized the disease that led to Hart's downfall (syphilis), he's not so benevolently inclined toward the villain of the niece - Hart's wife, the English actress Greta Granville (Christine Ebersole). She's a total monster right up to the moment that a happy final curtain mandates her sudden, not to mention miraculous, redemption. It's not the least of the book's shortcomings that we never understand why Hart marries this woman - though we can certainly comprehend his desire to give her a good smack.
The show's sole burst of real feeling surfaces in a song in which the heroes express their undying loyalty to each other. Otherwise, the best to be said of the new numbers, with music by Max Showalter and lyrics by Peter Walker is that they blend in seamlessly with the bland old ones, by Harrigan and David Braham. K.J. Giagni's choreography, though abundant, is too repetitive to provide much lift: Only an Act I wooden clog chorus line contains any suprises.
We're always glad, however, when Mr. Groener is catapulted center stage. A young, long limbed song and dance man of the old school, this performer has been waiting for this break into stardom since he first appeared in Broadway as Will Parker in the 1979 revival of ''Oklahoma!.'' ''Harrigan 'n Hart'' is not Mr. Groener's main chance - he just doesn't have the material - but he does bring a fisky, all-American elegance to the routine kick, strut and tap steps at his disposal.
As the shorter, brasher Hart, the agile Mr. Hamill is as eager to please as he is to move beyond his ''Star Wars'' screen image: He relishes his drag routines and brandishes the whitest teeth this side of Donny Osmond's. But his singing voice is thin, and his characterization is too effortful to provide much more than a simulation of charm. The strong voiced Miss Ebersole, who was Mr. Groener's fiesty Ado Annie in the ''Oklahoma!'' revival, adds a crippling excess of humorlessness to Hart's mean spouse. Armelia McQueen, the big belter who co-starred in ''Ain't Misbehavin','' is usually wasted as a featured member of the ensemble.
The show traipses through modest sets, well lighted by Richard Nelson, in which the designer David Mitchell recreates the tone but not the lavishness of his Americana saturated designs for ''Annie'' and ''Barnum.'' The staging is by Joe Layton, who again demonstrates, as he last did in ''The Three Musketeers,'' that he's nothing if not the fastest director of musicals in the West. ''Harrigan 'n Hart'' is bustling with kinetic energy, however aimless, and the ferociously peppy chorus people mug as if they were being paid by the wink. But once the sadder plot developments pile up late in Act II, Mr. Layton puts on the brakes, and the pacing turns funereal. If ''Harrigan 'n Hart'' doesn't rekindle a lively revolution in 19th century musical comedy, it at least sends us home with a keen appreciation of why that period's melodramas went out of style.