As I endured "Welcome to the Club," I kept thinking how foolish the Tony Nominating Committee is, finagling to get candidates into the Best Musical category to make the voting seem meaningful. Why not instead focus on The Worst, where the competition has been made even keener by the arrival of this Cy Coleman-A.E. Hotchner show? Here no finagling is necessary.
To appreciate "Welcome," you must be able to make subtle gradations in awfulness. Does it have the grandiosity, the relentlessness of "Carrie"? No. Does it have the sustained inanity of "Legs Diamond"? No. Does it surpass both in cheapness and tackiness? You betcha.
This show was a miscalculation from the very second it was conceived. Setting a musical in alimony prison, where recalcitrant husbands badmouth their wives, might have made an amusing four-minute sketch on "Saturday Night Live." A full evening of spitefulness and recriminations is unimaginably gross.
A.E. Hotchner's dialogue is so lame ("I was outta there faster than a matzo from the Vatican") that it sounds as if he culled it from "Truly Tasteless Jokes." The lyrics, on which he collaborated with Coleman, establish new heights of feebleness, particularly in a song called "Mother-in-Law," in which the F Word is repeated endlessly in the refrain.
Occasionally Coleman's music suggests it might blossom into the jazz style that is his own, but most of the time it imitates all sorts of other styles, none with any conviction. There is a mildly fetching ballad, "At My Side," but the way it is introduced - with stars twinkling through the bars at the back of the set and an extra pair of bars descending in the foreground - makes it seem like a number from "The Producers."
The script is so mindless you can't fault the performers, though, when it comes to the category of Most Vulgar Performance in a Musical, Avery Schreiber and Bill Buell run a close race. (I give the edge to Buell, who outdoes himself in the second act.)
Marilyn Sokol has been exploring how to grate with commendable thoroughness over the years, and here she puts her knowledge to effective use. (Had she written the material, it might have been funny.) Sometime I'd like to hear Marcia Mitzman in a musical without mega-amplification. (The idea of magnifying voices in as intimate a theater as the Music Box shows you how grotesque this whole thing is.)
The sets and costumes amply fulfill the overall concept of a men's club skit. I assume the Broadway run is just an out-of-town tryout for an extended engagement at an as-yet-undisclosed resort in the Poconos. I don't think any more work is necessary. The show is ready to go.
At first glance you might think it would be impossible to conceive a genuinely entertaining Broadway musical out of the day-to-day happenings of a New York alimony jail, where errant husbands are incarcerated for contempt of court and/or failure to give their wives or ex-wives their due.
And to judge from "Welcome to the Club," the new Cy Coleman and A. E. Hotchner musical that opened at the Music Box Theater last night, that first glance would be right on the money. Apparently it is impossible.
There are just so many jokes or joke-variants available about wives, mother-in-laws, divorce and assorted marital unhappenings that Hotchner can make, and he probably makes most of them. But this remains a one-joke revue in search of a story.
Four guys, two divorced, two separated, are hanging in and hanging out - refusing to pay off their wives as directed by the court, and making the most out of a prison without too many bars. In fact the most prominent bar in view is the liquor bar, and the inmates seem more in danger of cirrhosis of the liver than anything else.
There are scraps of story. One guy, a pharmacist (Avery Schreiber) tired of battling with his wife (Marilyn Sokol) decides to end it all, breaking jail (and deserting its tolerant jail-keeper, Bill Buell) with a freedom flight to Rio.
Two of the husbands are none too sure that they want to break with their wives. One (Samuel E. Wright) is appalled by his wife's (Terri White) spending habits, but misses her cooking and other delights.
Another (Scott Waara) moons over his absent bride (Jodi Benson), who has been only alienated by his wicked mother-in-law. A writer (Scott Wentworth) who provides tell-all stories about his wife (Marcia Mitzman) for Redbook magazine, does at least seem ready for divorce, while the ex-wife has taken the positive step of finding another mate.
A little second-act variety is introduced when a woman (a country singer superstar - Sally Mayes) is jailed for failure to pay alimony to her husband, but even so there is nothing so vulgar taking place here as a proper story.
Hotchner's book is a line of pegs on which to hang Coleman's songs. These songs which vary from operetta pastiche to Broadway ballad, from barbershop quartet to country, are by far the best part of the evening, always excepting the hard-working performers.
Few, if any, of the songs can cut the mustard as absolutely top-class Coleman, but even Coleman just a tad below par, is still a pretty persuasive Broadway songsmith.
Yet songs alone do not a Broadway musical make, even songs a lot more memorable than these craftsmanlike examples of a noble craft. They need a setting. This bunch resemble a mingled bag of uncut semi-precious stones and hopeful pebbles.
In its modesty the production might well recall Coleman's earlier chamber musical, "I Love My Wife," but the special charms of that charmer - with its coherent story and credibly developed characters - are conspicuously absent from these jailhouse blues.
Peter Mark Schifter's staging is not particularly noticeable, and I rather wish the same could be said of David Jenkins' setting, but it is doubtless difficult to make this kind of jail look anything more interesting than a lion's cage without lions. The costumes by William Ivey Long are conventional but better, which does not mean overmuch in the circumstances.
I really liked a lot of the performers and my heart went out to all of them; they worked so hard, up to and even past the curtain calls, to punch home every joke, to give every song an even break.
Sally Mayes proved funny and spirited as the country singer doling out all manner of Southern comfort, and I also liked the wry on the rocks manner of Mitzman, and indeed enjoyed, in a detached fashion, the relaxed easy manner of the entire cast, including the genial Schreiber and the shrill Sokol.
But oh dear, oh dear! And please don't embarass me by quoting it, but do you realize that this poor little thing is, so far, in actual fact the best completely new musical of the season.
There have been bad seasons for the Broadway musical in the past, particularly the recent past. But this is ridiculous. What on earth haven't we done to deserve this!
Handed a free night and 90 bucks of mad money, would any couple choose to see a Broadway musical comedy set in a prison for alimony deadbeats? Apparently the creators of ''Welcome to the Club,'' the new attraction at the Music Box, think so, for they have actually put on a show with songs like ''Pay the Lawyer'' and ''Love Behind Bars'' and a production number about a jail break. I didn't laugh, but maybe that's my problem. Until Mel Brooks proved otherwise, who would have believed in the song-and-dance possibilities of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun?
Even so, A. E. Hotchner, the evening's author, and Cy Coleman, the composer and lyricist, are not Mel Brooks, and they are working on a budget that allows for few Busby Berkeley extravagances. ''Welcome to the Club'' looks as if it cost less than a typical bout of divorce litigation. Its wit is largely restricted to ethnic jokes (''I was out of there faster than a matzoh from the Vatican!''), a reference to Vanna White and the usual variations on ''Take my wife; please.'' The most raucous response at a critics' preview was reserved for a lyric that placed the term mother-in-law in repeated, one might say obsessive, proximity to a sexual epithet.
If mother-in-law jokes sound antediluvian in 1989, they are all too typical of a musical that, though ''set in the present,'' according to the Playbill, is embarrassingly out of touch with the present-day realities of men, women, sex, marriage and divorce. Comedy must have some basis in truth to be funny, yet every detail in Mr. Hotchner's book seems to have wafted down from a mysogynist time warp where women are all castrating kvetches and the ideal marriage resembles the one embalmed on top of a wedding cake.
The male inmates of ''Welcome to the Club'' are a demographic cross section of cliches: a henpecked middle-aged Jewish pharmacist (Avery Schreiber), a sensitive young writer (Scott Wentworth), a black insurance salesman (Samuel E. Wright) and a yuppie in suspenders (Scott Waara). We are asked to believe that these middle-class careerists would all rather stay in jail than pay up, even though three of the four long to return to their wives in time for the happy ending promised by the opening song. In Mr. Hotchner's view, divorce not only leads to marital reconciliation but it also has no impact on children (who are invisible here) and no deeper causes than a wife's overuse of a Bloomingdale's charge card. Even the slammer is a lark - a spacious health club where one can order out for pizza and be coddled by a lovesick, soon-to-be-wed corrections officer named Gus.
Granted, it might be preposterous for a musical comedy to emulate ''Scenes From a Marriage,'' but ''Welcome to the Club'' offers less in the way of gritty domestic reality than most television commercials for leading headache remedies. Reflecting the absence of credible characters or drama or emotions, Mr. Hotchner's book dispenses with scenes and story for idle song cues.
Let someone say the word incommunicado and there will be a song about communicating; let someone take a swig of Southern Comfort, and a fantasy sequence will re-enact the Civil War. For no convincing reason, there are two campy fantasy numbers (one per act) about resort towns: ''Rio'' and ''Miami Beach.'' Country-western numbers are dragged in with the belated arrival of a female inmate, a cowgirl recording star who also serves as the convenient love interest for the sole male prisoner who can't go home again.
Sally Mayes, a firm-voiced performer new to New York, underplays the role of the Dolly Parton clone, and she is easily the most charming surprise in Peter Mark Schifter's production. With the exception of Marcia Mitzman, who delivers a gratuitous pull-out-the-stops ballad with warmth and poise, the rest of the company is either wasted (Terri White and Jodi Benson), bland or, in the case of the repellently stereotyped Jewish couple (Mr. Schreiber and Marilyn Sokol), unwatchable. Nearly as hideous is David Jenkins's set, the most conspicuous feature of which, prison bars aside, is a well-marked entrance to a rest room.
Patricia Birch's modest musical staging, Tharon Musser's lighting and William Ivey Long's costumes brighten up the scene when they can, and so, on occasion, does Mr. Coleman's first score for the stage since ''Barnum'' in 1980. Mr. Coleman writes music with a Tin Pan Alley bounce that makes one feel good to be in a Broadway theater. In common with ''Wildcat,'' ''Seesaw'' and ''I Love My Wife,'' this Coleman project has a better score than the material merits, but the quality is too inconsistent to galvanize the show. Several numbers sound like retreads -among them, an opera parody reminiscent of ''On the Twentieth Century'' - and, given the night's subject, every song would benefit from lyrics by either of Mr. Coleman's brilliant women collaborators of the past, Carolyn Leigh (''Little Me'') and Dorothy Fields (''Sweet Charity'').
But Leigh and Fields are dead now, and Mr. Coleman must make do with prosaic words of his own. As a season almost bereft of new musicals nears its end, ''Welcome to the Club'' leaves one feeling far more disturbed about the extinction of the songwriting teams that once electrified Broadway than about the humdrum breakups of husbands and wives.