COVID-19 continues to decimate the performing arts. Since the theaters closed in New York on March 12, show business throughout the city has been AWOL. The new productions of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Hangmen” have announced that they will not open after a handful of previews. All advances for other shows through at least April 13 have been refunded, bringing economic hardship to any show that was operating on a slim margin.
Even if theaters are able to open in mid-April, it’s anyone’s guess if audiences will be willing to spend several hours in close quarters with strangers, and tourism, a major driver of Broadway ticket sales, is likely to be way off for the foreseeable future.
Actors, however, are always a resourceful lot, working around any adversity. From the illegal underground theaters of London from between 1648 and 1660 — after the Puritans shut down the mainstream houses — to the legions of performers flocking to YouTube while the coronavirus rages, the arts will out, and even in isolation the human imperative of expression and the demand for narrative is unabated.
With a quick online search, one can find many streaming performances from the Metropolitan Opera to Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Then there’s the subscription streaming service, BroadwayHD, which offers a free seven-day trial. I’ve sampled a bunch of these, and while some are quite enjoyable there’s a fundamental disconnect between the experience of live performance and watching a filmed live performance.
Still, any port in a storm, right?
Thanks to the podcast phenomenon, audio entertainment has undergone a resurgence in recent years, so much so that companies like Audible are investing significantly in performance for audio. All this activity, of course, recalls the heyday of audio entertainment — radio’s golden age, when a broadcast like Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” in 1938 could throw the nation into a panic.
Now, we’ve got the first modern full-length musical made exclusively for audio. “Monotony: The Musical” features a book and lyrics by Sarah Luery and music by Jared Chance Taylor. Divided into seven parts, it tells the story of a young accountant, Herbert Handler III, who is miserable in his job, but always careful. When a romance begins to blossom between Herbert and his boss’ son Theo, a would-be comic book writer, complications, as they say, ensue. The plotting is classic musical comedy. Boy meets boy, things threaten to pull them apart, but they find each other in the end. The cast includes a company of secondary characters, especially the feisty girl Marnee who puts Theo and Herbert together, and Herbert’s boss who is also Theo’s father. There’s also the ghost of Herbert’s father and, for some reason, a talking bear.
This is conventional, cockamamie musical comedy, and it’s delightfully entertaining. Taylor’s music is tunefully funny — and when it’s called for, moving. Luery’s book may at times seem a bit simplistic, but that’s necessary for this medium; the story is always clear, as is the sense of place; and one quickly becomes emotionally invested. Luery’s lyrics are classically inspired but feel contemporary and fit with the characters.
Alden Bettencourt as Herbert and Jon Gibson as Theo are both excellent, and they’re well cast. Not only do they fill the roles, but the timbres of their voices are distinct so that one always knows which one is speaking or singing. Kelsey Ann Sutton as Marnee is a perfect sidekick. The rest of the cast — Tod Macofsky, Alixandree Antoine, Ahamed Weinberg, David Castillo, Pat Regan, Evan Allgood, and Karen Trachtenberg — play all the other supporting roles. Acting with voice alone is no mean feat, and this company does it well. Credit goes to the production team, as well, for making the sound clear and rich, particularly with some of the sophisticated orchestrations.
Perhaps the highest compliment one can give this show in the current environment is that it doesn’t need to be seen to be fully appreciated and enjoyed. The age-old story of finding oneself, finding acceptance, and following your dreams never gets old in this telling, and this is a show that young audiences especially will embrace.
Add this to your playlist as soon as it comes out, and even when the theaters do re-open, let’s hope that these creators, and others, will continue to make musicals for your ears only.
MONOTONY THE MUSICAL | Available Apr. 15 on all major podcast platforms | Free | monotonythemusical.com