The first preview of Subways Are For Sleeping, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s musical about homeless people finding a kind of salvation in the underground, took place at the St. James Theatre on Christmas day exactly 55 years ago. It wasn’t a terrible musical — how could it be with that team? — but the critics didn’t like it and the city refused to allow posters for the show to run on buses and trains, fearing, possibly, that homelessness on the subways would become a trend.
And so in one of those gleefully malicious inspirations that becomes the stuff of Broadway legend, producer David Merrick had his press agent find seven New Yorkers with the same names as the major theater critics, treated them to dinner and tickets to the show and prepared an advertisement featuring their solemnly extracted exclamation-point gilded raves. (Most of the papers were hip to the trick and turned down the ad, but one ran it, and that was enough. The show ran six months and won a Tony Award for the towel-clad dynamo Phyllis Newman, Green’s wife.)
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This may not be the most obvious way to begin a review of In Transit, the new musical about some New Yorkers who ride the subways that opened on Broadway Sunday at Circle In The Square. It, too, touts some estimable credentials: The a cappella score is written by a team that includes Kristen Anderson-Lopez, whose credits as co-composer and lyricist with her husband Robert Lopez include Frozen (the rest of the team here comprises James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth). The director/choreographer is Kathleen Marshall, who owns three Tony awards. In Transit also is not terrible, and the New York City Transit Authority has had no problem promoting it, including allowing the show to use a version of the Metro Card as its logo.
For better or worse, you would be hard-pressed, these 55 years later, to find seven drama critics employed, let alone deemed essential to the survival of a Broadway show, but that’s another matter. The matter at hand is In Transit, a mediocre show that is selling itself as Broadway’s first a cappella musical. That means no band in the pit; no pit, for that matter. If you happen to be both a critic and the parent of a child whose college life revolved around participation in an a cappella group, with its punning names, seasonal concerts and annual CDs, the idea of an a cappella musical will prompt nostalgia or night sweats, possibly both. You won’t necessarily be struck dumb by the phenomenon of one human being with a microphone turning his body into an impressive percussion device that could equal any costly digital instrument.
The character in In Transit who provides the wide-ranging drum beats and other atmospherics is named Boxman (as in “think outside the…”), and two actors alternate in the role. The night I saw the show, Boxman was performed by Chesney Snow, and he makes a joyful noise, punctuating the lives of nine subway denizens of familiar stripe: the actress working as a temp while waiting for her big break; the gay couple planning their wedding despite mother issues; the downsized former master of the universe struggling to keep up appearances, the gal who can’t get over the guy who dumped her, etc.
The songs are as generic as those descriptions suggest, and — notwithstanding the efforts of the talented ensemble — nothing in Marshall’s uninspired staging on Donyale Werle’s highly romanticized and sanitized subway station set makes them of even passing interest while, say, waiting for the train. It’s hard to imagine how this show made it to Broadway, but I suspect it will be on the express train to the next station.
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