Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Hell To Pay

Randy Newman's Faust won't reach New York in the flesh this fall, as originally projected, and maybe not next spring, the current hope. But between artistic worth and corporate commitment--the departure of Newman's childhood pal Lenny Waronker for DreamWorksland hasn't curtailed Time-Warner's plan to market an "interactive" version--it'll arrive eventually, and I won't be copping tickets out of mere professional curiosity. The waggish Newman wrote his dream musical's book as well as its songs, and not only wouldn't I consider missing an evening of his jokes, I wouldn't consider missing a taste of his Goethe hash. Reports from a tryout production at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, the venue that hatched such boons to Broadway as the How To Succeed in Show Business revival, Roger Miller's Big River, and (forgive them, Lord) The Who's `Tommy', suggest what you'd figure--literate though Newman is, his theatrical instincts are skittish in more ways than one. But since I wouldn't lose sleep awaiting a reconception of the quintessential classic of Western civ by Harold Bloom himself--since, truth be told, a spoof of said classic seems a dandy idea for a pomo divertissement with legs--the prospect of a burlesque suits me fine. Script doctors can do wonders, they say. And dramaturgy has too often proven a distraction from what musicals are for: songs you come out humming and love more when you hear them again.

In fact, my chief fear about the stage Faust has nothing to do with the book--it's that I won't love the songs more when I hear them again. As an established if somewhat specialized recording artist, Newman obviously doesn't need Broadway to get his material to the public. For him musical comedy is a challenge, a test of professional skill that might round out his phenomenal prestige in the world of Hollywood rock. "What did you discover about musical theater?" wondered one admiring reporter. "There's no money in it," replied Newman, whose day job is scoring movies just like his uncles Lionel and Alfred. "Not up front, anyway. I haven't done anything since I was 16 years old for which I've been paid less." Fortunately, the record company chipped in. Sales or no sales, Newman is so well respected and connected that when he started calling around for help on a studio version of his long-promised project, nobody turned him down. Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, James Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt, five of the very biggest names in his world, all just said yes, and it's impossible to imagine any bunch of singing thespians equalling--hell, approaching--what they've done with Randy Newman's Faust (Reprise). Like the man said, there's no money in musical theatre, and neither voice classes nor stage savoir-faire can deliver its practitioners from their own formal anonymity. By contrast, these brontosauri, all save Raitt a decade or two past their dubious primes, rip shit up.

What revitalizes them is unmistakable: again excepting Raitt (a lucky break, as we'll see), Newman's drolly awful characters generate more jam than the singers' personas, personalities, or inner selves ever have. Not that the composer has outgrown his colossal cynicism--he's just finally tackled material worthy of it. It's to be expected that the Devil, the part grabbed by Newman himself, is richly conceived. But in this Faust the Lord, who most authors find harder to work with, steals the show. Lifting a notion from Green Pastures, Newman conceives God as "master of bullshit"--part snake-oil salesman, part charismatic politician. Taylor, an inveterate sincerity-monger who never before has been permitted to con the masses so arrogantly or ebulliently, locks into the role with easeful power, tremendous good humor, and just the right undercurrent of offhand malice. The Devil has funnier lines--his first chorus goes, "We're a figment of their imagination"--and a more credible take on the problem of evil. But he's also evil himself--his mean streak is a lot uglier than the Lord's, and in addition he's a whiner, a loser, and a pathetic middle-aged letch. The Lord being no pup either, one value the old adversaries share is an irresistible generational contempt for the object of their wager and the title character of their play, a boneheaded Notre Dame freshman played with impregnable narcissism and lifelike nonchalance by eternal adolescent Henley. Where Goethe's Faust sought omniscience, this jerk is so antiintellectual he doesn't even bother to peruse his contract. But as his first song suggests if you give it a chance, he's far from the master of his own blank self-interest, which is mixed with idealistic banality in a hapless adolescent mishmash. The Devil never sympathizes with his confusion. The Lord may. Newman does.

If all this characterization reeks of concept album, well, pardon me for reading. The songs do get even better once you familiarize yourself with the CD booklet, which augments the lyrics with an entertaining plot summary. But it isn't the extra literature that renders Faust Newman's best album in 20 years--it's cast, plot, and genre pushing him past the limits of his jaundiced worldview and the wry, weary faux-blues croak that has always gone with it. Taylor exults with a faux-gospel joy the auteur couldn't get near, and Henley's dumb menace is stripped of the sly side glances that inflect Newman-the-singer's every phrase. And though Newman-the-songwriter reports that he loves the way the demands of a story boost a guy over his writer's blocks, I wonder whether he also understands how the audience-pleasing theatrical truisms he's absorbed while workshopping the show combine with the attendant vocal personalities to broaden his emotional range. If on the one hand he raises Taylor's and Henley's IQs, on the other the unaffected feminist raunch of Raitt's performing style wreaks havoc with his wise-guy games. In the play, Raitt's character is a two-faced hussy who hangs the Devil's dick out to dry, and her love song, "Feels Like Home," is the flat-out lie that makes a fool of him. On record, the same song stands as the only wholesome declaration of erotic faith Newman has ever brought to fruition. It further muddies the concept, which breaks down noticeably as the 17 tracks proceed. But it does a solid for the album's overall feel.

As Faust is readied for the former Great White Way, the concept--by then meaning the book--will no doubt get cleaned up. Elton John's odd ode to Britain has already been dumped, as has a scandalously ill-mannered gibe at our Canadian neighbors and the Devil's somewhat anticlimactic finale (entitled "Happy Ending" because Newman likes Brecht and because "I Love Las Vegas" would have been too obvious), while other songs and instrumental passages have been added. I look forward to the new songs and question how far the instrumentals can go--in addition to inspiring Newman's most consistent writing in a generation, Faust showcases his cinematic gamut as an arranger, and while I'm no devotee of full orchestras, it seems a waste to miniaturize all that work for an eight-piece combo no matter how many colors you can cram into a keyb. But there's no escaping the fact that Newman's pact with the musical theatre will eventually require him to sacrifice music, where his gifts are huge, for theatre, where he remains a novice. Economics aside, Henley and Raitt and Ronstadt lack not only the acting chops but the fresh-faced insipidity to recreate roles that will instead go to the soubrettes male and female whose award nominations will bedeck the playbill, and while Taylor and Newman could certainly wow tkts-buyers nightly, they have a better chance of winning the lottery than of putting their own economics aside. So don't expect too much. You remember where satire closes on Saturday night. And where Andrew Lloy Webber is counted a rock innovator. Broadway needs Randy Newman far more than Randy Newman needs Broadway.

Village Voice, Oct. 31, 1995