Harold and Maude: The Musical

The last time "Harold and Maude" played an American stage was the ill-fated 1980 Broadway production, which lasted just four performances. Veteran librettist Tom Jones and scoring partner Joseph Thalken take another crack at it with this musical version, which captures the sentimental heart of the much-loved 1971 cult movie.

While it was a legit hit in Paris, the last time “Harold and Maude” played an American stage was the ill-fated 1980 Broadway production starring Janet Gaynor, which lasted just four performances. Veteran librettist Tom Jones (“The Fantasticks”) and scoring partner Joseph Thalken take another crack at it with this musical version, which captures the sentimental heart of the much-loved 1971 cult movie even if it muffles the anti-establishment spirit that made it an enduring countercultural favorite. Premiering at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the new incarnation has several points in its favor, chief among them two engaging leads, but still seems a long way from finding a robust commercial form.

Part of the Paper Mill’s admirable mission is to nurture new musicals, but this one seems oddly out of place in the barnlike theater with its expansive stage; it possibly would have sat more comfortably as a chamber musical in a more intimate Off Broadway space. The fledgling tuner is done no favors by Paper Mill associate artistic director Mark S. Hoebee, who takes on directing and choreographing chores here with a static uncertainty exacerbated by the awkward stylistic mishmash of Rob Odorisio’s design.

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One of the advantages of musicalizing a minor movie like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” or even “Hairspray” is that you can more or less take whatever liberties you want. But in the 30-plus years since it was released to an initial critical hammering, “Harold and Maude” has become a fanatically cherished black comedy and odd-couple romance. It epitomizes the liberal humanism of the post-hippie era both for the generation that lived it and the subsequent ones who have since discovered the film on video or DVD.

Jones and Thalken provide an endearing cocoon of warmth for the title characters that lends plausibility to their unconventional relationship, but the subtlety and socially conscious whimsy of director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Colin Higgins’ delicate flower of a movie is largely lost in the necessarily broader strokes of a staged musical. Fleshing out the filigree plot by providing peripheral figures with cartloads of shtick, belaboring what were almost throwaway sight gags or articulating characters’ inner voices here yields uneven dividends.

The story remains unchanged: Harold Chasen (Eric Millegan) is a bored, rich boy around 20, with a fixation on death manifested through his fondness for attending funerals and staging mock suicides that appall his superficial snob of a mother (Donna English). Maude (Estelle Parsons) is just shy of her 80th birthday, but unlike Harold, the rascally old woman’s every remaining day is a celebration of life; her attitude toward death is simply a calm embrace of the right moment “to rearrange” and “look over the horizon.”

While Parsons’ singing voice is a little croaky to carry as much of the score as she does here, she brings plenty of natural verve and grace to the role and invests her songs with daffy conviction. Maude’s zesty, carpe diem approach to life is aptly illustrated in “The Cosmic Dance.”

But while the character’s past as a Holocaust survivor was revealed in the movie in one brief shot of a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm and a passing reference to her late husband, Maude’s difficult life is detailed here in book scenes and in the touching song “Maude’s Waltz.”

Harold, in the movie, was a blank canvas gradually colored by Maude’s joie de vivre and her refusal to be cramped by authority. Millegan has a winning stage presence and a sweet, melodious tenor, but his character is ill-served by the overexplication of one of the show’s prettiest songs, “Where Do You Go?,” in which Harold’s consciousness of his yearning for something deeper in life seems profoundly at odds with the floundering emptiness that fosters his connection to Maude. Another song, “The Real Thing,” in which Harold reveals the serious intent beneath his fake suicides, works better.

Those suicides, of course, were a high point of the movie, elevated by the sublimely deadpan turn of British actress Vivian Pickles as Harold’s unflappable, self-absorbed mother. Here, Harold’s faux hanging or his severing of a hand during the first of a series of computer-dating encounters arranged by his mom are no less hilarious. But Jones and Hoebee don’t know the benefit of a crisp punch line. The hanging is followed by some lackluster fuss with a horrified Latina maid — as well as Mrs. Chasen’s “Self, Self, Self” number — while the dismemberment segues to “Quartet,” one of the more unfortunate songs, in which Harold’s prospective date sings through her urge to vomit.

Despite English’s best efforts to create a Wasp eccentric, the character’s best scenes fall foul of poorly timed direction and limp writing. Her Valium-addled “Calm” seems glaringly out of character for a woman all but oblivious to her son’s problems.

It was inevitable that the Vietnam-era movie’s antimilitary satire would be the first casualty in a transposition to the current climate. But the writers too often resort to pointless bits of comic business with no bearing on the central relationship in order to fill the gap left by Harold’s interviews with his lunatic Army uncle and his scheme to avoid being drafted.

Harold’s session with heavily caricatured Teutonic shrink Dr. Sigmoid (Danny Burstein) hits an undergraduate nadir with the scatological therapy number “Flush It Out!” Burstein also plays a similarly stereotypical Chinese gardener character that begs to be pruned.

Best of these additions is the expansion of Harold’s date with affected avant-garde actress Sunshine (Donna Lynn Champlin), who’s inspired by his hara-kiri display to relive her theatrical triumph in the amusingly over-the-top musical pastiche “Montezuma.”

Thalken’s melodies for the most part are agreeable if not especially memorable; the score overall lacks shape. The musical has a sunny hymn to the central romance in Millegan’s bouncy title song, but while the writers try via “Song in My Pocket” to find an equivalent for Cat Stevens’ “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” the identically deployed number fails to conjure the same anthemic spirit.

While a shot of directorial vigor could easily be imposed, the show’s design flaws often are near disastrous. Maude’s cluttered apartment and the stylized forest where she and Harold replant a parched tree rescued from in front of City Hall are exceptions. But the clumsy use of magnified rear projections with more naturalistic elements to describe the various rooms of the Chasen home creates visual chaos. While similar use of stage masking worked to charming effect for designer Allen Moyer in the Broadway revival of “Reckless,” here the actors seem merely dwarfed.

Harold and Maude: The Musical

Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.; 1,200 seats; $69.25 top

  • Production: A Paper Mill Playhouse presentation in association with James Cass Rogers, Edward & Mildred Lewis of a musical in two acts with music by Joseph Thalken, book and lyrics by Tom Jones, based on the film by Colin Higgins. Directed and choreographed by Mark S. Hoebee. Musical direction, David Loud.
  • Crew: Sets, Rob Odorisio; costumes, Miguel Angel Huidor; lighting, John-Paul Szczepanski; sound, Randy Hausen; associate director-choreographer, D.J. Salisbury; hair and wigs, Bettie O. Rogers; projection design, Ruppert Bohle; production stage manager, Gail P. Luna. Opened, reviewed Jan. 9, 2005. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.
  • Cast: Harold - Eric Millegan Mrs. Chasen - Donna English Maria, mourner, Nancy Mersch, Motorist #2, Sunshine, Moving Man #2 - Donna Lynn Champlin Priest, Dr. Sigmoid, Gardener, Motorist #1, Motorcycle Cop, Moving Man #1 - Danny Burstein Maude - Estelle Parsons
  • Music By: