It just don‘t move me the way that it should.

–from Randy Newman’s song

“Maybe I‘m Doing It Wrong”

Randy Newman is America’s one-man Bertolt Brecht–Kurt Weill show. Among recording artists, he‘s our wryest social commentator of the past 30 years, and a consummate musician as well. Despite his feel-good movie scores (Ragtime, Toy Story and Pleasantville), and despite coming from a renowned family of Hollywood film scorers, Newman remains a theater person’s composer for one very simple reason: His songs speak through characters.

This may not sound like much until one realizes that, since the youthful heydays of Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, whose ballads were often similarly expressed through a character‘s point of view, pop music has swiveled in the direction of what Greil Marcus once called a confessional, “putative honesty” between singer and listener — from Tori Amos to the Violent Femmes to Ice T, people who give you unflinching ruminations on their fathers or life on urban streets.

Newman, on the other hand, is a kind of playwright, a composer of soliloquies rather than lyrics, spoken by some of the tawdriest, greediest and most forlorn specimens found between here and Louisiana. Newman gives these people their day, gives them their say. This is the playwright’s craft and explains why Newman doesn‘t condemn his characters with pious admonitions — he doesn’t need to. They‘re already masters of their own doom, utterly self-aware yet willfully blind, like an amalgam of people created by Chekhov and Tennessee Williams. Example: “A Wedding in Cherokee County” — a love song:

Today we will be married

And all the freaks that she knows will be there

And all the people from the village will be there

To congratulate us.

I will carry her across the threshold

I will make dim the light

I will attempt to spend my love within her

But though I try with all my might

She will laugh at my Mighty Sword.

Why must everybody laugh at my Mighty Sword?

A playwright’s point of view comes from the arrangement of scenes and the way the various characters form the play‘s architecture. Newman’s point of view comes from the tone of his music, and the way it rolls over and through his soliloquies. When he‘s joking, you can hear it in the music’s bounce, or the syncopation, or the irony in the flat, nasal drone of his voice, or its belligerence or whimsy. “Columbus sailed for India,” he sings in the mockingly upbeat “Great Nations of Europe,” “Found Salvador insteadHe shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were deadThey got TB and typhoid and athlete‘s footDiphtheria and the flu.” The punch line is a throaty yell: “’Scuse me, great nations of Europe comin‘ through!”

But Newman’s genius most often surfaces in works that focus on narrators from the antebellum South, and their disturbing confessions. Their words are accompanied by tender, lush orchestrations that build upon ragtime, blues or gospel chord progressions. His true brilliance lies in how he leaves his victims of wounded pride, his bigots and lechers, squirming inside the audience‘s arteries. They hang around for a moment or two after their song is finished, forcing us to recognize them there, and injecting into our blood simultaneous doses of horror and beauty, revelation and wit.

Very little of which is on display at South Coast Repertory, in its loving, expensive and largely ineffectual anthology of some 40 Newman songs, The Education of Randy Newman. Conceived by musical arranger Michael Roth (who worked on two prior Newman musicals at La Jolla Playhouse, Faust [1995] and Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong [1982]), dramaturge Jerry Patch and Newman himself, the work is loosely tied to historian Henry Adams‘ tartly observed 1907 autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. It attempts through Newman’s songs to chronicle a fictitious composer‘s life and draw a portrait of America itself. Act 1 is set mostly in Louisiana, where Newman spent some time growing up, while Act 2 is stationed in Los Angeles. A game ensemble (Jordan Bennet, Gregg Henry, Sherry Hursey, John Lathan, Allison Smith, Scott Waara and Jennifer Leigh Warren) certainly have the power and timbre to interpret the songs, while Roth’s musical arrangements and plucky house band provide keenly sensitive renditions.

Although these songs unfold in the listener‘s mind, a theater is obliged to offer stage pictures as well. This is a Pandora’s box when the ditties are as delicate and carefully crafted as Newman‘s, for so many of the pictures are in the words themselves. Add to that projected slides on screens that float, like uninvited party guests, in and out of Ralph Funicello’s set, and you have a fair amount of clash and clutter.

Visually, director Myron Johnson is something of a clod in this outing. Apparently, it‘s not enough for us to hear the words “Sixth Street” in “I Love L.A.” — Johnson has to simultaneously flash a photo of the street sign. Ditto “Imperial Highway,” and every other referenced landmark. Before the funereal songs “Old Man” and “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father,” the troupe gathers, garbed in black, moodily setting bouquets on the ground. So, instead of the songs’ images flowering open, they‘ve been rammed down our throats before the first verse.

But the worst offenses come in Act 1’s ode to the South. “Louisiana, they‘re trying to wash us away,” is how Newman’s character laconically describes a deluge and flood in “Louisiana, 1927.” Even though nobody seeded the clouds on orders from Washington, the composer‘s music massages the narrator’s twisted logic and pathological insecurity right into the listener‘s heart. At SCR, however, the metaphorical flood is treated as a school lesson, with the narrator-teacher (Warren) twanging her suspenders and chirping to her brightly costumed wards as though pouring jelly beans all over the song’s plaintive lament. When Smith portrays a kid hypnotized by the grandeur of a police parade, in “Jolly Coppers on Parade” (yes, we‘re given a photo of the uniformed motorcyclists), the child gets patted on the head by Mom, and you’d think the song had been sponsored by some police union — hardly the original intent. Ditto “Follow the Flag,” with its patriotic, sequenced visuals of Old Glory. There are endless examples of these kinds of perky intrusions, and the way they subvert Newman‘s original textures of menace and irony.

When he isn’t singing (which he does beautifully), the bespectacled Waara, portraying a composer very much like Randy Newman, looks around with a perpetually crinkled brow and an expression of bewilderment, perhaps to help transmit some imagined, sardonic point of view. Alas, almost everything on the stage is working against that aim. Some have argued that Waara‘s character needs to “learn” something on his “journey,” but I doubt that he needs to do anything of the sort. This is, after all, a cabaret (even with its $750,000 budget), not Show Boat.

Newman’s work has frequently been misunderstood for the same reason that many plays are misunderstood: because audiences are unable to distinguish between a character and its author, between an argument and the unspoken, underlying reasons that a character would raise that argument. “Short People,” a seemingly obvious parody of racial prejudice (“Short people got no reason to liveThey got grubby little fingers and dirty little mindsThey‘re going to get you every time”), resulted in midgets picketing Newman’s concerts. After “Rednecks” was released (with its defensive Dixie narrator referring to black ghettos in many Yankee cities and sarcastically explaining, “Now, your Northern nigger‘s a NegroYou see he’s got his dignityDown here we‘re too ignorant to realizeThat the North has set the nigger free”), Newman received death threats.

And, of course, there is “I Love L.A.,” which contains what has to be among the most deliberately innocuous lyrics penned in a quarter-century, as some oaf croons the praises of our fair town (“Sixth Street! We love itOlympic Boulevard! We love it!,” etc.). Smitten with this inane chorus and the song’s vapid jubilance, one councilman petitioned to make “I Love L.A.” the city‘s official anthem — which may be even more alarming than the death threats.

Though perhaps doomed to be misinterpreted by audiences, Newman’s songs still deserve to be staged in a style that doesn‘t trivialize them. They await a director with the visual acuity to cradle rather than strangle them — someone with the discipline to refrain from extraneous visual commentary upon music and words that already say everything that needs to be said.

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