City Center’s new summer “Encores! Off-Center” series was inaugurated this month with Jeanine Tesori as Artistic Director. The program is an off-shoot of the wildly popular Encores! series, which presents historic Broadway musicals in “staged readings,” although over the years, the productions have become more and more star-studded and elaborate. The new summer series features musicals that originally played Off Broadway. I was sorry to miss the first two productions—Violet and The Cradle Will Rock—and delighted to see last night’s opening of I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road.
This chamber-ish/rock-ish/folk-ish musical, first produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theatre in 1978, is a delightful proto-feminist tract with a book and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer (who played the lead in the original production) and music by Nancy Ford. Both women joined the curtain call at last night’s opening. Cryer and Ford were also present at a lobby conversation with Ted Chapin, head of the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization, who spoke about his book on Follies and loosely connected that Sondheim show to Cryer and Ford’s, which also opened in New York in the 1970s to mixed reviews.
At the end of Chapin’s informal reading and talk with Tesori—who proved a lovely host for the casual conversation—I saw a number of the women present approach Cryer to tell her how much her show had meant to them nearly forty years ago.
It’s easy to see why. In a year when Broadway boasted openings like a revival of Hello, Dolly!, Deathtrap, Da, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and when Off-Broadway offered Sam Shepard’s Buried Child and Curse of the Starving Class, I’m Getting My Act Together must have seemed like a much-needed tonic for women who were trying out the precepts of second wave American feminism.
The musical wasn’t alone in plying gendered insights Off-Broadway in ’78. Maria Irene Fornes’s foundational Fefu and Her Friends opened that year, along with Marsha Norman’s Getting Out and Tina Howe’s Museum, both important plays in the history of American women’s theatre. Genet’s The Maids and Arthur Kopit’s Wings also offered interesting perspectives on women and gender roles Off-Broadway that year.
Eve Merriam’s The Club, which was produced at Circle in the Square in New York in 1976, might have been one of the first explicitly feminist small musicals. That piece, for which Merriam wrote the book, lyrics, and music, cast a group of women as officious men at an all-male club, and used the gender drag to poke righteous fun at constraining gender roles.
But I’m Getting My Act Together feels more urgent and pointed in its feminist insights and demands. The book is driven by 39-year-old Heather’s desire to take control of her own artistic and personal destiny, which she demonstrates through songs she writes and sings, along with two supportive women back-up singers and a five-piece male band. The show’s narrative conceit is that Heather (with the sublime Renée Elise Goldsberry playing the role Cryer originated) has renovated her act as a singer-songwriter, moving away from the “stand by your man” folk ballad that established her reputation toward rock-inflected anthems about women’s empowerment that assert her own agency and her refusal to play the good girl role any longer.
Heather has to convince her long-time manager (and former flame), Joe, that the new act will sell. He watches Heather and the band rehearse for that night’s opening, distressed by the feminist rhetoric in her new songs and her patter, and determined to turn the clock back on Heather’s style and message. In the face of his Neanderthal attitudes (gamely enacted by Frederick Weller in his clueless Shane Mungitt mode from Take Me Out), Joe loses to Heather’s feminist determination. On the occasion of her opening and, as it happens, her birthday (literally and, of course, metaphorically), she soldiers ahead with her artistic innovations and her political critique.
Thirty-five years after its first production, I’m Getting My Act Together shows the creakiness of time passing in some of its dialogue and lyrics. Heather finds her feminist idealism as we watch, and declaims it in monologues meant to persuade the recalcitrant Joe of her now firm beliefs. Her speeches sound at once naïve, because their rhetoric is now so familiar, but also really thrilling, because her critique of unequal gender roles and lowered expectations for women still, remarkably, pertains.
We can laugh at Joe’s sideburns and his aviator frames and his patriarchal language and attitudes, all of which are overblown here for comic effect. But it’s hard to deny that most women popular artists—singers and actors and otherwise—are still expected to be non-threatening and compliant, to not rock the gender and sexuality boat and to play to the crowd to enrich the box office. Heather finally just refuses, and that makes her a hero not just for the ‘70s, but for now.
Directed and choreographed for speed and efficiency by Kathleen Marshall, the cast is wholly wonderful. As the energetic and empathetic back-up singers, Alice and Cheryl, Christina Sajous and Jennifer Sanchez are lovely presences, singing and dancing their implicit support for Heather’s position. One of the show’s running jokes is that Joe asks Cheryl to go get him drinks and things he could easily get himself. She’s the “girl” who’s accustomed to serving the more powerful man and goes without question, although a dubious, poignant look clouds her face before she leaves the stage. These are women unaccustomed to standing up for themselves, though Alice breaks out in a solo that demonstrates her nascent physical and vocal power.
Jason Rabinowitz is Jake, the acoustic guitar player with a crush on Heather, even though she’s 15 years his senior. Rabinowitz manages to be utterly sweet without sinking into sentiment, as he plays a folk version of Heather’s former hit song, “In a Simple Way I Love You,” that almost but doesn’t quite melt her heart. (It certainly warmed the opening night audience’s.) He’s tousle-haired and adorable as he offers himself for her companionship.
The other band members, several of whom have a line here or there, wear long-haired wigs and the accessories of late ‘70s fashion, and accompany Goldsberry, Sajous, and Sanchez with a folksy proto-rock rhythm that lets the women’s voices and charisma shine.
Goldsberry is the real find here. She played the remote suburban wife opposite Tate Donovan and Frances McDormand on Broadway in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; she also performed in The Color Purple (as Nettie), Rent (as the final Mimi), and The Lion King. In last season’s The Following, on Fox TV, she was cast as the unfortunate, doomed lawyer of the vicious escaped con, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). But this role lets her cut loose with her enormous talents and demonstrate her real star power.
Cryer, the original Heather, is a white woman; Goldsberry is African American. The new casting isn’t underlined and the script doesn’t appear to have been adapted, but the choice does bring nuances to the role and the production that might not have been present in 1978.
And Goldsberry is terrific as Heather. She’s a bundle of energy and focus, vivid with her newly embraced agency and determination. Goldsberry also manages to deliver Heather’s more earnest lines and monologues in all their radical feminist glory, without apology or hesitation. Her performance is full of its own fervid belief, which persuades the audience to admire and appreciate her intervention into the misogyny of the music business, which was the tip of the sexist iceberg floating through American culture at the time.
Too bad I’m Getting My Act Together only plays for four performances; maybe they can take it on the road.
The Feminist Spectator
I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road, Encores! Off-Center, through July 27, 2013.