The road to getting a musical on Broadway has become long and circuitous, even for stage veterans, and this is borne out by Curtains, which finally opened at the Al Hirschfield Theatre on March 22, 2007, several years after the deaths of its original librettist, Peter Stone, and lyricist Fred Ebb. When Stone succumbed in 2003, Ebb and his composer partner John Kander turned to Rupert Holmes, a playwright, songwriter, and former recording artist ("Escape [The Piña Colada Song]") with a taste for mystery stories whose sole prior musical theater credit came with Mystery of Edwin Drood, for which he wrote both the songs and the libretto. When Ebb died suddenly in 2004, Holmes became a co-lyricist as well. The result, not surprisingly, is a work that mixes the sensibilities of Kander and Ebb with Holmes. Curtains is set in Boston in 1959 at a theater where a Broadway-bound musical is in tryouts that are not going well. The show-within-a-show, Robbin' Hood!, is set in the Old West, and bears a distinct resemblance to Oklahoma! After a performance, the leading lady, an untalented fading film star, collapses and is rushed to the hospital, where she dies of poisoning. That brings onto the scene Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (David Hyde Pierce), a stage-struck detective who, over the course of two acts, catches the murderer and saves the show.
Kander, who turned 80 only days before opening night and whose theatrical composing career dates back to 1962, has always felt most comfortable writing pastiches of the kind of songs he might have heard in his childhood; his musical sensibility is rooted in the jazz and popular styles of the 1920s and early '30s, and it is notable that his most successful shows, Cabaret and Chicago, are set during that period. Faced with the requirement of writing music that sounds like the Broadway of the late '50s, he makes a brave attempt, at least at first, and manages to move his usual style up to the mid-'40s. "Wide Open Spaces," the big finale for Robbin' Hood! that opens Curtains, draws directly on the song "Oklahoma!" (1943), and "Show People," in which Pierce and producer Carmen Bernstein (Debra Monk) attempt to buck up the doubtful cast, sounds a lot like "There's No Business Like Show Business" from Annie Get Your Gun (1947). But no Kander musical can stay away from '20s jazz styles for long, and by the time of "Thataway!," another Robbin' Hood! number, there's a banjo strumming away and the wailing horns are making like New Orleans. Ebb, for his part, spent his career veering between sharp, cynical lyrics (that often threw in mildly crude language as a kicker) and deeply sentimental ones, and he seems to have maintained that dichotomy to his dying day. "What Kind of Man?" excoriates critics (and even uses the word "excoriated" to do it); "The Woman's Dead" takes jibes at the first murder victim; and "It's a Business" has some caustic things to say about the theater (including the not-for-profit theater, which can't have been much of a force, if it even existed, in 1959). But "Thinking of Him," "Coffee Shop Nights," and particularly "I Miss the Music" (which inevitably must be heard as Kander's lament over Ebb's death) are wistful ballads full of sincere emotion. Holmes' influence seems more apparent in the somewhat generic production songs like "Thataway!" and "Kansasland," although his lyrical contributions are not spelled out precisely. (It seems unlikely that Ebb would have committed the mistake of anachronistically referring to the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass in "Kansasland," but who knows?)
Sporting a Boston accent, Pierce, previously seen in Spamalot and best known for his role in the TV series Frasier, is a light, pleasant presence on a cast recording more dominated by stage veterans Monk and Karen Ziemba. The ensemble cast is strong and gives a good account of a score that ends up being sturdy and representative of the songwriters, if not among their best work.