Here is the latest movie-based Broadway musical and the latest failure, though by virtue of its pedigree, stars and strong advance sale in a dry season, one that will probably take longer than its most recent predecessors to disappear. “The Goodbye Girl” will linger and cause more customers to lament the death of musical comedy or wonder how things could have gone so wrong.
The first thing that sets “The Goodbye Girl” apart from “My Favorite Year” and “Nick & Nora” is that the new show is the brainchild of the movie’s author, Neil Simon. It’s based on his 1977 comedy about a single mother disillusioned in love who is nevertheless wooed by the determined actor who moves in with her.
Simon’s affectionate rendering of the New York actors’ life had a certain warmth, and the edge that Richard Dreyfuss brought to a mushy role complemented the mush Marsha Mason brought to an edgy role.
Nearly all of that is lost in the musical, for which Simon has written an unfocused, unfunny book, David Zippel bland lyrics and Marvin Hamlisch a forgettable score.
The opening number, “This is as Good as it Gets” sets an essentially hostile tone, as Paula (Bernadette Peters) and daughter Lucy (Tammy Minoff) sing about the anticipated joys of moving to L.A., only to discover that the latest boyfriend has dumped them.
Instead of evoking sympathy for the pair, the song and Michael Kidd’s staging of it present two calculating females who’ve bagged their prey; their fate seems more comeuppance than abandonment.
This is followed by an 11 o’clock number that comes, unwisely, at 8:20, an anthem in which Paula swears she won’t be used by men ever again. Again, unimaginative staging fails Peters, but so do Billy Byers’ and Torrie Zitos’ grating orchestrations, which fight the singers at every point and obliterate whatever musicality Hamlisch’s tunes may harbor.
Enter Elliot (Martin Short), the Chicago actor to whom the departed boyfriend has sublet the apartment.
Elliot is naive enough to characterize his landing the title role in an Off Off Broadway production of “Richard III” as his big break, though it’s hard to imagine that even in 1977 Off Off was casting in Chicago (harder, still, to believe that every New York TV station and CNN would cover the event).
If charm prevailed, such lapses might be forgivable, but what “Girl” lacks above all is charm.
Peters throws herself into a role she has essayed before (in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s equally unattractive “Song & Dance”), but either she lacks the heart for it or she’s just wrong; either way, she never comes across as sympathetic.
The show comes to life briefly with Short’s entrance, but he, too, seems ultimately defeated by the flatness of this musical terrain, resorting to familiar shtick.
In the film, Elliot is forced by a ponderous middle-European director to play Richard as a preening homosexual, and the musical originally followed suit. Deferring to ’90s sensitivities, Simon changed the director’s (John Christopher Jones) conception, and now Elliot plays him as half man, half woman — though for some reason references to Richard as Tinkerbell and the like remain, so it comes off as idiotic.
That’s another miscalculation, because the scene is the play’s fulcrum, after which the tone must shift from acerbic comedy to comic romance.
With one choreographer, Michael Kidd, brought in as director and another — the talented Graciela Daniele — credited with musical staging, it’s hard to tell who did what, though Kidd’s trademark muscularity is much in evidence in the chorus numbers. But it’s energy without elegance, sex or imagination.
Santo Loquasto’s kitsch settings are so ugly that the simple Central Park lake scene in which Elliot wins Lucy’s heart seems positively lovely by comparison.
“The Goodbye Girl” seemed a natural candidate for transition from movie to musical. But despite the efforts of a first-string team, neither freewheeling comedy nor giddy romance emanates from the stage. The musical never sings.