Whatever this show is — a sung-through biodrama? a chamber rock opera? a meeting of the museum establishment with the music underground? — it is thrilling, charming and altogether a knockout. In this concert version with three singers and a band ranging from electric guitar to cello and flute, the stage is filled by projections of colored drawings. Its unlikely subject is obsessive rare-book collecting and the creation of what is now the Rosenbach Museum & Library, an elegant, arcane institution in Philadelphia.
The focus is Abie Rosenbach, known in the great auction rooms of the world as “ASW,” the man whose invincible chutzpah bought the books that helped create the great libraries of the U.S.: the Folger, the Morgan, the Huntington, the Beinecke. Not to mention the treasures he saved for his own collection: the manuscripts of “Ulysses” and “Alice in Wonderland” and George Washington’s letters.
His brother, Philip, a dandy with commercial acumen who went to his tailor every day, collected monogrammed toothpicks as well as Fragonards and trunks owned by Charles II.
Ben Katchor brings the postmodern Yiddishkeit he is famous for (“The Jew of New York”) to this artist-in-residence project; he found the brothers’ lives more intriguing than their stuff.
Katchor’s pictures have such witty power that the slideshow alone probably would satisfy. His libretto takes us through their childhood in North Philadelphia into their hard-drinking, womanizing, yachting bachelor lives to Abie’s death in 1953; the lyrics linger in the mind with their curious repetitions and immense vocabulary.
Mark Mulcahy’s haunting music (he sings the lead as well) is sometimes quiet and aching in unresolved melodies; other times, the driving beat is grinning and vivid. Each of the brilliant singers has a voice so particular that the tonal quality becomes a personality in itself.
Act one ends with a cliffhanger: ASW has just bought a trunkfull of Shakespeareana — the rarest of the rare — and a porter drops the trunk on the tracks. We see the train approaching in pictures (WOO! WOO! It goes) as Abie sings, “Won’t someone help me?” The books are, of course, rescued, but the song is reprised at the end as Abie’s dying thoughts, and this time images of the books fly through the air.
The show ends with a lovely and funny ballad that announces the museum’s hours and the rules of the rare-book room (“pencils only”).