I suppose in its infantile fashion "The News" - a rock musical that sloshed about the stage of the Helen Hayes Theater last night - means to offer a comment on sensational journalism. But its 99 minutes (without an intermission - therefore allowing no chance to escape) consists almost entirely of a shapeless rock score (most of it unbearably moisy), dumb lyrics and a story not even fit for an episode of the least worthy TV crime series.
What's more, it's ugly to look at thanks to its ill-conceived and cluttered set and its cheesy costumes. I can only blame the lighting designer for illuminating this shabby creation.
Conceived more along the lines of those weekly tabloids picked up at checkout counters, than a daily newspaper, The Mirror is given to large front-page headlines such as "HEAD RED DEAD" and is presided over by whirling dervish of an executive editor (Jeff Conaway), a man who has little time to spend with his romantic 15-year-old daughter (Lisa Michaelis).
Right now, he and his shabbily-dressed staff are dedicated to finding a psychotic killer (Anthony Crivello) who, through the "personals" ads, accidentally gets in touch with the editor's daughter, and ... well, we could go on but we won't.
The undistinguished rock combo is stationed behind the editor's desk, while the daughter's room and that of the clue-crazy killer are on upper levels in either side of the stage.
Conaway, an energetic fellow whose chief attribute is a nice smile, does a major part of the solo singing, or howling. Still, Michaelis - given the softer, dreamier, though no more original stuff - is more pleasant to listen to. Crivello sings a bit, but spends most of his time looking either distracted or moody. A three-reporter trio wastes time at intervals, and a band solost occasionally steps forth to demonstrate his proficiency or lack of same.
There's said to be just nine minutes of dialogue scattered among the couple of dozen songs. That's nine minutes too much, but then, the evening is 99 minutes too much.
Early on in the quite awful little rock musical The News, which noisily entered the freshly named Helen Hayes Theater last night, we are informed that this is about: "either a great newspaper in a weird city, or a weird newspaper in a great city."
Personally I would think The News was a weird musical in a great deal of trouble.
It is set in the City Room that has the disadvantage of having a built-in rock group. It would doubtless have functioned better with a water fountain like any other office.
Still it doesn't matter because the benighted denizens of this City Room do nothing but shout down telephones and write front-page headlines of questionable dexerity and little ingenuity.
If the authors of this story, Paul Schierhorn, David Rotenberg and R.Vincent Park, would care to have lessons in how to write headlines, I am sure that this could be arranged.
Where Schierhorn, who assumes sole responsibility for the music and lyrics, could get assistance, I am less certain. For his lyrics are purile and his music has the inventiveness of an old-fashioned steam hammer out of breath.
There is some originality in the musical's approach. It is the story of a psychotic mass killer - a sort of Godson of Sam - and his effect alike on a newspaper's editor, and that newspaper editor's precocious teenage daughter.
The killer starts by knocking off a repulsive TV personality, and then the blood thickens. He leaves clues with the newspaper, and murders the paper's astrologer.
The paper responds with a contest offering a cool half-million bucks to the person who comes up with the best nickname for the killer.
The murder hunt - which is complicated when the editor's daughter unwittingly makes contact with the killer through the paper's lonely hearts ads - seems to be undertaken solely by the editor with little or no assistance from the Police (ain't that life!) and no participating intervention from TV (I guess it just wasn't sweeps time.)
The ending is as messy as it is unconvincing. But then, so is the musical.
It has been staged by David Rotenberg, who assisted by some extraordinarily dull scenery by Jane Musky, has come up with the idea of placing the musical, in effect, within the band. It at least makes for a visual eyesore.
The use of closed circuit TV and monitors is Rotenberg's most innovative concept. This gimmicky distraction has never worked in the past, nor does it here.
The performers are severely restricted by what they must perform, and in such circumstance really do work wonders.
As the Editor, Jeff Conaway (once in the TV series Taxi) is a bundle of grinning, manic energy, who can do high kicks like no editor I have ever worked with, and puts over a rock number with absolutely authentic conviction.
He also smiles dangerously, like every editor I have ever worked with. A top-notch performance in a bottom-notch show - and the producers will oblige by not quoting one comment in their advertising without its qualification.
Nor is Conaway the only performing plus. Anthony Crivello, baldspotted and bespectacled, makes a nicely cringing nutkiller, and Lisa Michaels as the kewpie-doll daughter mingles innocence with sophistication even as she sprinkles her breakfast cereal with cola.
But the whole cast is pretty good - look out for the driving cutting edge of Patrick Jude as one of the reporters.
You cannot replace energy with dynamism, talent with trendiness, or music with noise. That, I suppose, is the lesson.
There have been many shows based on newspapers, but The News is no Pravda, it is no Front Page, it is not even Windy City, the British musical based on The Front Page, which surfaced at the Paper Mill Playhouse recently.
The News is ... well, they say yesterday's paper wraps today's fish. For The News it was always yesterday.
When the house lights go down at ''The News,'' the new musical at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theater, an announcer informs us that the show will run 99 minutes, with no intermission. As it's impossible to predict the running time of any live performance so precisely - there might be unexpected ovations, after all -we are immediately suspicious. And why are we being told the running time in any case?
Well, the answer arrives soon enough.
Every minute of ''The News,'' as it happens, is agony - and, even without ovations, there are more minutes than the number claimed. But by planting that two-digit figure of 99 in the audience's mind, the management clearly hopes to keep it patiently captive until the end, secure in the knowledge that relief is only the merest moments away. This is easily the cleverest stroke of the evening, and it worked at the critics' preview. Everyone stayed seated through the amplification system's final burp, though whether they were absorbed in the show or counting the seconds in 99 minutes (5,940), I couldn't say.
A would-be Brechtian rock opera with music and lyrics by Paul Schierhorn, ''The News'' is about a large metropolitan tabloid, The Mirror, which inflates its circulation with screamer headlines (''Pope and Party Girls Undressed'') and a promotional game called ''Super Singo.'' While The Mirror's logo resembles that of The New York Post, any similarities are surely coincidental. Indeed, it's not clear whether ''The News'' is set in New York. The paper's editor (Jeff Conaway) lives in an apartment overlooking snowcapped mountains reminiscent of suburban Zurich. The Mirror's newsroom - a littered, gloomy jumble containing more microphones and punk-styled band members than desks and reporters - has been inexplicably designed to resemble a sushi bar.
The show's often nonsensical plot concerns a psychopathic killer who, for some reason, is never pursued by the police. The editor is so busy exploiting the story on his front page that he doesn't notice that his own, neglected, teen-age daughter is soliciting a date with the murderer through the paper's personals columns. I won't tell you what happens, except to say that it's one of Mr. Schierhorn's themes that beauty can still disarm a beast.
''The News'' also wishes to lecture us about the role played by sensationalist journalism and salacious pop culture in promoting violence. Unfortunately, this musical is part of the problem, not the solution. Mr. Schierhorn's aggressively screechy songs could teach yellow journalism a thing or two about bad taste. A typically sardonic lyric describes an ordinary urban day as one in which there's ''Just a mugging in the subway/Just a shooting in the street/Just a paper bag on Broadway/With seven hands and seven feet.'' For comic relief, Mr. Schierhorn sets various newspaper features, including the stock quotations, to numbing rock chords.
The cast members model a wide array of loud sunglasses and hideous costumes. Mr. Conaway, a pleasant performer in other circumstances, plays the first newspaper editor in history who bumps and grinds (choreography by Wesley Fata) while shouting ''Get me rewrite!'' Lisa Michaelis, who might be more persuasive as his older sister than his daughter, acts like a soft-core porno movie's idea of a ponytail-bobbing schoolgirl. As the killer, the overwrought Anthony Crivello doesn't so much recall Robert DeNiro's taxi driver as Jerry Lewis in mid-telethon.
David Rotenberg, the director, tries to whip up excitement by having the killer incessantly raise and lower his window's Venetian blinds. Lest we miss a murder, ''The News'' is broadcast in video close-up on four television monitors flanking the stage. Walk forward to change the channel, and you may find yourself with a theater full of new-found friends.