The creative talent pool behind “Happiness” is not at all shabby. Director-choreographer Susan Stroman and book writer John Weidman last teamed on the exhilarating 1999 dance-musical triptych “Contact,” while composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie turned heads with their beguilingly eccentric exhumation of “Grey Gardens.” It’s easy to understand Stroman craving the freeing experience of crafting a small-scale, relatively off-the-radar show again after shepherding Mel Brooks’ behemoths “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein.” But despite the best intentions of everyone involved, and the resources of Lincoln Center Theater, this underwhelming meditation on mortality doesn’t resonate at all.
These clearly are introspective times. New York stages have lately been awash in shows — “Our Town,” “Exit the King,” “Road Show” (also by Weidman), “Dividing the Estate,” “33 Variations,” the short-lived “Story of My Life” — that, like “Happiness,” use death and dying as a vantage point to gain perspective on life. There’s also overlap with the more syrupy “Impressionism” in its message to wake up and savor the experience of life’s special moments, instead of letting them pass you by.
Jumping off from a variation on the ship of fools allegory, Weidman’s book assembles eight New Yorkers who gradually learn they died randomly on the same day, sticking them in a blocked subway where inscrutable transit staffer Stanley (Hunter Foster) coaxes them to recall the perfect moment they will carry to eternity.
This is a more redemptive version of the way station of musical atonement en route to death presided over by Ben Vereen in Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz.” But the story is actually an almost direct steal from the quietly affecting 1998 Japanese movie, “After Life,” substituting a subway car for the film’s more institutional transit station. In the movie, the recently deceased spend a week with counselors to choose the one memory they will retain post-mortem, which is recreated on film to be taken with them into the next world. In “Happiness” the memory becomes a song. In both movie and musical, the mentor figures are people who were unable to select a memory of their own. In life, Stanley was a soulless investment banker, now destined to “ride and guide” forever.
Regardless of any suspicions about uncredited inspiration, the big problem with “Happiness” is that once its premise is revealed, which happens a short way in, the show is pretty much over. It then wades through the individual stories of its stereotypical characters in vignettes that are sometimes touching or mildly amusing, but often precious and trite. Described as “blips on the cosmic radar,” they have about that much impact.
The most poignant of them are the first two, in which dotty old Helen (Phyllis Somerville) time-travels back to a 1944 U.S.O. dance hall in Buffalo, where she was romanced by a doomed young soldier; and a kindly doorman with cancer (Fred Applegate) relives a thrilling day at the ballpark with his son.
There’s also a swishy celebrity decorator (Ken Page) who would choose any moment with the lover he lost to AIDS; a brittle right-wing radio host (Joanna Gleason) who abandoned her radical ideals of the ’60s; a perfume-counter girl (Jenny Powers) who hopes to conjure the world of glamour and luxury that eluded her in life; and a pushy lawyer (Sebastian Arcelus) who doesn’t appear to be dead but has boarded the train by mistake and is looking for an escape clause. Guess who emerges from this humanizing process with a second chance?
The cutesiest of the numbers are the embarrassing “The Tooth Fairy Song,” in which a smart-mouthed bike messenger (Miguel Cervantes) shares a goofy bonding moment with the daughter he neglected; and “Family Flashcards,” a crash course in which a doting Chinese-Jewish couple (Pearl Sun, Robert Petkoff) brush up on their families’ respective cultures.
Unlike “Grey Gardens,” which interwove witty pastiche numbers with heartbreakers like “Around the World,” “Will You?” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” there’s a blandness and a generic ’70s sound to Frankel’s score here, despite some clever rhymes from Korie. Not one of the meandering melodies lingers in the head.
Donald Holder’s descriptive lighting creates some intriguing textures and Thomas Lynch’s subway car set proves adaptable to the stories that spill out of it — even spinning around like an amusement park ride during the lovely Powers’ Coney Island reverie. But there’s no real life onstage, either in the cardboard characters or the surprisingly tentative dance interludes. From the sprawling opening number, “Just Not Right Now,” in which the soon-to-be-dead mingle obliviously with their fellow citizens on a hectic Monday morning, it’s clear that cohesion is lacking. And try as Stroman might to get some emotional momentum going, it never really gels.
Perhaps the show’s fragility wouldn’t have been quite so glaring in a more modest, bare-bones production. But nice as it would be to greet a new musical that has charm and originality, this one barely scrapes by on either count.