Sunday, August 10, 2008

Revisiting 'The Fix'

Leslie Carbone brings our attention to this quotation-cum-apologia from failed Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, who explains how he fell from the hair-perfect heights to the hair-shirt depths:

"I went from being a senator, a young senator to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate and becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that you can do whatever you want. You're invincible. And there will be no consequences."
The first thought that came to my mind as I watched the Edwards saga unfold was: Isn't it a shame that Saturday Night Live is on summer hiatus?

My second thought was: John Edwards makes Newt Gingrich look like Husband of the Year.

My third thought was: This reminds me of a play I once saw; which one?

"The one" turned out to be The Fix, which premiered in London in 1997 and had its American premiere a year later at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

Written by the same team (John Dempsey and Dana Rowe) that later gave us The Witches of Eastwick, The Fix is musical play about politics. Those are rare. (What else falls into this niche category? Of Thee I Sing, which was a Pulitzer Prize-winning success. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a miserable flop. Mr. President, Irving Berlin's last original musical, unmemorable. One could include Call Me Madam in this category, simply to add another hit, but that would be a stretch. However you count, the numbers are few.)

It's unfortunate that The Fix has not had another life beyond its London and stateside premieres. It deserves another look, and an election year may be just the best time to do it.

With John Edwards adultery still in the headlines and the political conventions just around the corner, what better time to revisit my review of Dempsey and Rowe's The Fix?

This review appeared in The Metro Herald in April 1998.
Signature Scores with 'The Fix'
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Arlington's Signature Theatre has another hit on its hands, a welcome antidote to the disappointment of its last production, the flaccid Shooting in Madrid.

With The Fix, however, Signature has produced a rich, raunchy, cynical musical comedy that combines the best of Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber without being derivative from either. This American premiere of The Fix has been made possible by a grant from megahit producer Cameron Mackintosh, who also underwrote the show's London premiere last year at the Donmar Warehouse, a non-profit theatre that shares many characteristics with Signature.

Director Eric D. Schaeffer, working with librettist John Dempsey and composer Dana P. Rowe, has made some changes -- invariably improvements -- from the London version of The Fix. What remains is a tight, nearly operatic, look at the tragedy that ensues from political ambition, personal weakness, and corruption. Not a moment is wasted.

The plot centers on a prominent political family -- it could be the Kennedys, it could be the Caesars -- whose leading light, Senator Reed Chandler (Jim Walton) collapses and dies in the embrace of his mistress on the eve of his near-certain election to the presidency. Not missing a beat, the Senator's widow, Violet (Linda Balgord), decides to push her young son, Cal (Stephen Bienskie) in the direction her husband was heading, saying "If I can't be the wife of the President, you can bet your ass I'll be his mother!" Cal is none too sure about this course of action, correctly doubting his own abilities, but he cannot withstand the pressure from his mother and his uncle, political strategist Grahame Chandler (Sal Mistretta). After a stint in combat with the Army, Cal is elected to the city council, then the governorship. Along the way he gets married, becomes a father, gets addicted to cocaine and heroin, and takes a mistress of his own, an ex-stripper named Tina McCoy (Natalie Toro). Entangled with the mob, Cal takes hits from the media and law enforcement officials, finally coming clean at a press conference intended to announce his entry into a campaign for the U.S. Senate. True to The Fix's roots in Greek tragedy, Cal comes to an untimely end -- but not before we see his seven-year-old son, Cal Jr. (Joel Carron), emerge as a true heir to his father and grandfather.

In some ways, this play seems torn directly from today's headlines. A philandering politician -- where have we heard that one before? At one point, when Cal announces to the public that he has ties to a prominent mobster, a TV reporter notes that polls show his favorability rating has gone up and continues to rise. Yet the themes outlined here are far more universal than current events would allow. The story could be set today or in the 1830s or in the Roman Empire.

In fact, creators Dempsey and Rowe first conceived The Fix as a play about Caligula and Claudius, the third and fourth Roman emperors and members of the clan founded by Caesar Augustus. Their story -- as anyone familiar with the TV series "I, Claudius" remembers -- involved multiple court intrigues, ambitious mothers and grandmothers whose weapon of choice was poison, sexual and psychological excesses, extramarital affairs, and common murder. Translate that rough story into modern dress, and you get The Fix.

Musically, this show is nothing but a success. The score is a mixture of rock, gospel, blues, Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, country and western, sweet ballads, inspiring anthems. Each character is defined by the music that he or she sings. One result is that most of the characters get a solo number that allows them to comment on the action and, indeed, on the state of their own souls. An exception is Reed Chandler, who despite a rousing opening number in which he takes a lead, is denied the second-act hit tunes that his wife, brother, son, and son's mistress all get. Sadly, this means that the talents of Jim Walton, who originated the role of Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along, are underutilized. If the creators plan any future changes in the play, this is one that should be rectified.

The Fix owes much to Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's 1980 morality tale that follows the financial rise and spiritual fall of a talented composer. There is one musical phrase, in fact, repeated several times by the chorus in The Fix that is lifted directly from Merrily's score, where it served the same purpose. One speculates as to whether this is due to the influence of director Eric Schaeffer and his longtime collaborator, musical director Jon Kalbfleish, both Sondheim aficionados for many years, since the phrase is not heard on the London cast recording. In any event, this probably represents a tribute to Sondheim rather than anything more sordid.

There are so many brilliant moments in The Fix that it is hard to list them. One song, "I See the Future," is Cal's victory speech on election day. It is completely platitudinous and insubstantial. The brilliance in the number is this: The audience can read the speech on the "teleprompter" used by Cal, complete with stage directions for "spontaneous" gestures. The fa├žade of politics is split wide open.

The Fix is an adult musical, with mature themes and strong language. It is satire in the tradition of Of Thee I Sing, but it is much deeper than that. The Fix deserves wide attention.

Could The Fix be Broadway bound? An earlier Signature production this season, Never the Sinner, arrived in New York to great acclaim. Signature Theatre is already swimming in Helen Hayes awards and nominations -- with The Fix, there could be a Tony within its grasp.

The Fix runs through April 26 at the Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington. Tickets are available by calling ProTix at 1-800-955-5566 or 703-218-6500. Multiple sellouts are likely, so call quickly to make reservations.
As we now know, The Fix never made it to Broadway. (If the Wikipedia article on Dempsey and Rowe is correct, there have been no other productions of the show since it played Signature.) Too bad.

Maybe there are some producers out there, reading this article today, who might be inspired to get The Fix back on the boards before Election Day. Timing is everything -- in politics as in comedy.

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