When I was younger, I thought the inclusion of a dog act in a Broadway show was a sign of desperation. How cynical I was! Now I know that dog acts signal a desire to entertain. "The Will Rogers Follies" does so handsomely.
The new musical - directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune - tells the story of the life of Will Rogers as if he were the subject of a Florenz Ziegfeld extravaganza.
Instead of giving a conventional presentation of the life of the beloved humorist, the show is done with tongue heavily in cheek, as many numbers are presented in consultation with Mr. Ziegfeld up in the balcony (whose voice is provided by Gregory Peck).
The courtship of Will and his girlfriend, for example, is interrupted by a showgirl who is understudying for the role of the future Mrs. Rogers. She also happens to be Ziegfeld's mistress and constantly casts knowing looks up to the balcony.
This undercuts the direct emotions that were always at the heart of American musicals. By the end of the show, however, this fear has been overcome. "Will Rogers" closes with the melting "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," accompanied by a visual magic calculated to bring tears to your eyes.
If "Will Rogers" often undercuts its emotional potential, it more than compensates in spectacle, which is what Ziegfeld (if not Rogers) was about. In the first few minutes, you see girls dancing in cowboy chaps, girls parading about in brilliantly colored Indian headdresses, girls as cows marking rhythms with the swish of their tails. Glitzmeister Tune has never been more imaginative, and he has been sumptuously assisted by Tony Walton (sets) and Willa Kim (costumes).
The dancing is, for Tune, admirably restrained. In one number, the girls kick in precisely graded increments. When they're finally doing full kicks, it's unusually thrilling. The bubbliest number is one where they just sit and dazzle with tambourine hats.
The dogs, of course, are great. And there's a lariat twirler - Vince Bruce - who is nothing short of fabulous.
Cy Coleman's score is more relaxed and engaging than his frenetic "City of Angels." Betty Comden and Adolph Green's lyrics are simple and attractive. Peter Stone's book draws interesting historical parallels, though the gag-oriented dialogue grows tiresome.
There are also some miscalculations. The handling of Wiley Post, the pilot who took Rogers to an early death, is awkward. There is an "ecology" song that adds a sanctimonious note to an otherwise deliberately mindless evening.
Ultimately, none of this matters. "Will Rogers" sets out to show you a good time, and that it does. Much of its success is due to Keith Carradine as Rogers. It's hard to think of any recent Broadway performer with so much natural charm. He sings beautifully and handles the sometimes misfiring humor with utterly disarming grace.
Dee Hoty sings warmly as his bride. Cady Huffman is funny and sexy as Ziegfeld's friend. Dick Latessa is endearing as Rogers' father.
Gorgeous to look at, winningly performed, "Will Rogers" is the homegrown musical Broadway has been awaiting a long, long time.
Let me freely admit that I've never met a Carradine I didn't like, but I'm not sure that Keith Carradine, who last night at the glitzily refurbished Palace Theater took a lasso rope to Will Rogers, isn't the most likable of his whole tribe.
Indeed the lop-sided grin and off-the-face charm of Carradine is one of the most potent aspects of an old-fashioned show - "The Will Rogers Follies - A Life in Revue" - that has a whole lot of old-fashioned zingers going for it.
Will Rogers was an American institution - a mixture of Norman Rockwell and Eleanor Roosevelt who told jokes about people and politics and did rope tricks. He represented horse sense, conformist nonconformity, rural virtues, wry humor and uncommon decency. He was to the horses that grazed what Damon Runyon was to the horces that raced.
And, alongside the other great vaudeville acts of his day, he starred for Ziegfeld - putting his homespun stamp on the essentially urban show-biz sophistication of the Follies, which he was connected with virtually from his first appearance with Ziegfeld in 1917 until his death at the age of 55 in a 1935 flying accident.
Book-writer Peter Stone and the composer Cy Coleman have avoided the standard biographical approach, and, following the lead Coleman himself took in his earlier "Barnum," have tried to make the form and shape of the musical fit the subject.
For Barnum it was a circus - so, for Rogers it is a revue, in structure a revamp of those famed Follies that Rogers helped Ziegfeld make legendary. It's a dangerous concept, for what is being presented is a pastiche of an early '30s show, updated by a few jokes, some modern technology, and the concept of giving the revue this story thread, starting with Rogers birth and ending with that fatal air trip to Alaska.
Yet it works. Partly because Tommy Tune has done such a sizzling job of melding period stylization with sheer energized style, and partly because Peter Stone's book, although possessing moments of mawkish awkwardness, generally keeps moving, makes its jokes and social commentary (most taken direct from Rogers' own words and all inspired by his credo) with dispatch and clarity, and even contrives a heavenly ending that defies augury.
Equally, there are deft and winning lyrics by the old firm of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which has Coleman coming up with his best Broadway music in years. This is top-drawer Coleman with no apologies.
As a result, Tune can whistle a new/old Broadway melody. Willa Kim's witty and glamorous costumes run the gamut from Varga to Erte, never dropping a stitch or bauble on the way. And Tony Walton, despite working on a basic set of steps, does a stunning job of recreating a past properly slanted into the present - the sort of settings such vintage Ziegfeld designers as Joseph Urban might design today, were they to be backed by the lighting wizardry, as here, of Jules Fisher.
The chorus kids - long-legged and bright-eyed - do a '30s shtick that Tune cleverly keeps just this side of parody, and the rest of the cast is small but choice.
Cady Huffman has a raucous charm as a sort of continuity joke, Dick Latessa makes a decent most of precious little as Will's father, and there are a couple of fine speciality turns - a dog act that even a cat could love, and Vince Bruce, a roper who dazzles as much as any roper can.
But the real burden of these "Follies" is taken by its two stars, the adorable Dee Hoty, who goes from strength to strength, and the lanky and diffident Carradine.
The man does wonders, whether he is storing bits of gum on vantage points of the set, strumming a guitar, idly spinning a rope, telling jokes like an ice-age Johnny Carson, or talking populist politics with the quiet demagogic fervor of a potential Budd Schulberg-like face in the crowd.
And the show lives. So who's counting if a little of its living is in the past?
Will Rogers never met a man he didn't like. Tommy Tune never met a costume he didn't like. Just how these two great but antithetical American archetypes -- the humble cowboy philosopher, the top-hatted impresario of glitz -- came to be roped together in a multi-million-dollar Broadway extravaganza is the real drama of "The Will Rogers Follies," the most disjointed musical of this or any other season.
When Will Rogers -- in the utterly beguiling form of Keith Carradine -- is at center stage in the huge mock-Ziegfeld pageant at the Palace, "The Will Rogers Follies" is a drippingly pious testimonial to a somewhat remote American legend, written in a style known to anyone who does not doze during the presentation of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award on Oscar night. But when Mr. Tune gets his chance to grab the production's reins, school is out! Suddenly Will is shunted aside so the high-flying director and choreographer, who has a theatrical eye second to none, can bring on the girls, the boys, the dog tricks and a Technicolor parade of Willa Kim costumes and Tony Walton sets that not only exceed these designers' remarkable past achievements but in all likelihood top the living tableaux that Joseph Urban once concocted for Florenz Ziegfeld himself.
What the inspirational Rogers story and the blissfully campy Tune numbers are doing on the same stage is hard to explain and harder to justify, for they fight each other all evening, until finally the book wins and "The Will Rogers Follies" crash-lands with a whopping thud a good half act or so before Rogers has his fatal airplane crash in Alaska. Apparently, the show's authors -- the playwright Peter Stone, the composer Cy Coleman and the lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green -- were overimpressed by the fact that Rogers was a headline performer in the "Ziegfeld Follies" of the 1920's, twirling his rope and taking humorous potshots at Congress while sharing the stage with chorines, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Ed Wynn. This slender happenstance has led them to shoehorn the Rogers biography into their synthetic "Follies" show -- a revue written in the style that dazzled audiences in the days before the modern musical and "The Ed Sullivan Show" were invented.
The concept, which is repeatedly explained in fussy, almost deconstructivist interruptions by an invisible Ziegfeld (a taped Gregory Peck), must have sounded better at a story conference than it plays in the theater. Rogers had many talents -- joke-making, newspaper writing, political punditry, public speaking, rope twirling -- but he was not a musical comedy song-and-dance man. It is impossible to build a show-biz musical around a character who isn't a singer (Mr. Carradine can sing, but not in the "Follies" style) or dancer -- which is presumably why the real Rogers usually shared top billing with equally celebrated singers, dancers and clowns in the Ziegfeld shows. It is also difficult to build a musical around a famous character whose private life was a bore, or seems so in Mr. Stone's retelling. For no discernible reason other than to follow the "Follies" format -- which required an Act I wedding finale and torch songs -- this show endlessly chronicles the courtship, marriage and mild spats between Will and his wife, Betty (Dee Hoty), whose only character trait is a whiny insistence that her husband spend less time at work and more time back at the ranch.
When dealing with the substance of Rogers's career, Mr. Stone's book is longer on exposition than humor. Hardly has Mr. Carradine arrived than he is gratuitously explaining that Will Rogers was more than a name given to the hospital that perennially passes the hat at the nation's movie theaters. Yet the ensuing attempts to rekindle Rogers's topical wisecracks are toothless, and despite a promise that Will will draw gags from today's newspaper, the evening's most persistent comic target is the fateful pilot Wiley Post. More confusingly, "The Will Rogers Follies" never decides for sure what period it wants to make jokes about. Though the Playbill says the musical is set in "the present" and though there is much tedious explanation that Rogers has risen from the dead for our amusement, the evening's only dramatic event occurs when, abruptly in mid-Act II, the legend "1931" is emblazoned on the stage, the scenery lifts away and a platoon of stagehands marches on to repossess the colorful costumes of the showgirls.
Is this the Twilight Zone, or what? Though the stagehands wear contemporary jeans and T-shirts, a grim-faced Mr. Carradine enters to deliver a long radio sermon championing the poor and homeless of the Great Depression. Yet as he does so, the theater's house lights come on, as if to embarrass the present-day audience into examining its own conscience in preparation for confronting the panhandlers lying in wait on Broadway after the final curtain.
Whatever decade we're in, the holier-than-thou tone of this lavishly expensive production's pitch for the downtrodden seems every bit as hypocritical as the similarly shameless Act II plea for Amerasian orphans in "Miss Saigon," and it goes on even longer. One fully expects ushers to pass through the aisles soliciting for the Will Rogers Hospital. And those collection bottles are not all that is conspicuously missing: This show, which so strenuously wraps itself in Will Rogers's democratic values, does not have a single black performer. The W.P.A.-style "We the People" finale that follows -- in which a heavenly choir recites Rogers's famous achievements from behind slide projections of the great unwashed American masses -- seems more than a little hollow in context.
It is a tribute to Mr. Carradine -- his air of unpretentious conviction, humility, warmth and good humor -- that he keeps "The Will Rogers Follies" from riding off the rails into ridiculousness in its pompous waning scenes. He doesn't really resemble Rogers, and he's at best a passable lariat twirler, but he surely captures the man's engaging spirit even when the show is making every effort to embalm it.
The evening's second bananas -- Ms. Hoty, Dick Latessa (as Rogers's dad), Cady Huffman (a leggy Ziegfeld emcee) -- are all able, but their material is routine. Mr. Coleman's music, orchestrated to a brassy fare-thee-well by Billy Byers, recalls but never equals the period show-biz songs the composer wrote for "City of Angels," "Little Me" and "Barnum" (the Coleman show this one most resembles). The Comden-Green lyrics, faithful to the musical's misguided conception, are professional regurgitations of Ziegfeld-era specialties. The exceptions include a Woody Guthrie-style ecological lament sung by a guitar-strumming Mr. Carradine in Act II, and the inevitable "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," in which Will seems to be going through the Yellow Pages to list every single such man, from politician to mortician, from Napa Valley to Shubert Alley.
There would have been more fun if the songwriters had come up with the hilarious or sardonic numbers of such other Ziegfeld-inspired latter-day musicals as "Funny Girl" and "Follies." Mr. Tune must lean for wit instead on the production's visual riches, immaculately lighted by Jules Fisher. The scenic design is extraordinary because of its cleverness, not its budget: Mr. Walton daringly builds his set around a material as humble if pertinent as rope. The props alone -- rope phones, suitcases, doors -- are more worthy of museum exhibition than the actual Rogers artifacts exhibited in the Palace's lobby, but even more spectacular is the vast proscenium arch that extends the Western motif into the upper reaches of the vast old two-a-day house. The bygone whimsy of a vaudeville past missing elsewhere in these "Follies" can always be found in Mr. Walton's fantasies, among them backdrops that render the totems of Rogers's career (sagebrush, Hollywood greenbacks) in iconography true to both Ziegfeld overkill and the abstract tenets of modern theatrical art.
Ms. Kim's costumes, which are more cognizant of Busby Berkeley and Vargas than the higher sexual consciousness of "the present," are just as breathtaking, with such minor details as the lining of a 10-gallon hat and the intricately stitched pattern of a pair of suspenders capturing the designer's full imaginative attention. In the show's first and best number ("Will-a-Mania"), the musical's chorus just keeps coming and coming at the audience over the horizon of the movable Follies staircase that dominates the set, each time with new chaps, new colors, new headdresses. Even though the heavily amplified lyrics are indecipherable, the text is anything but the point.
Not all of Mr. Tune's numbers are so thrilling, and some of them recycle his own routines from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "A Day in Hollywood," not to mention bits of Gower Champion (a ramp procession from "Hello, Dolly!") and Bob Fosse (an ultraviolet gimmick from "Dancin' "). But this director is always a master of his particular art, which makes it all the more frustrating that, after exercising total control over every inch of "Nine" and "Grand Hotel," he seems to be hogtied for so much of this show. If "The Will Rogers Follies" could only be whittled down to the Tommy Tune Follies, grateful audiences would find a musical twice as buoyant and less than half as long.