It’s a good thing Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel‘s melodious and meticulous musical “The Days of Wine and Roses,” which opened Sunday night at Broadway’s Studio 54 under the skilled direction of Michael Greif, has only one act. There would not be a lot of profit in hiring a bartender for intermission.
That’s because the antagonist in the piece, the destructive third party in the on-the-rocks marriage of Joe Clay (Brian D’Arcy James) and Kirsten Arnesen (Kelli O’Hara) is a guy called Jack Daniel, who sometimes goes by the sobriquets Johnny Walker or Jim Beam but who always makes his mark.
Most dramas about alcoholics follow a personal trajectory, typically following a struggling protagonist down the spiral of booze, ending with tentative sobriety and tenuous recovery. But JP Miller, one of the great teleplay writers of television’s so-called Golden Age, created a 1959 teleplay about the impact of booze on a twosome or, more accurately a threesome, since Joe and Kirsten have a kid, Lila (Tabitha Lawing), robbed of her childhood by the need to take deva of everything herself when someone should have been bringing her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
As a result, “Days of Wine and Roses,” explores a more complex dynamic: It’s advertising executive Joe, bereft of his parents and still traumatized by service in Korea, who introduces booze at an office party to Kirsten, the daughter of a dour Norwegian father (Byron Jennings, dour indeed), still mourning his wife. All he has to do to counter her Scandinavian sobriety is tempt her with a sweet Brandy Alexander. But while it’s Joe who falls first and quickest, it’s he who finds the means to recovery, even as the woman he seduced with booze continues her freefall.
And thus the story, which became a 1962 Warner Bros. movie and spawned an Academy Award-winning song recorded by Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams, takes on a broader context: it explores complicity in marriage, as well as how an enabling couple can speed up and justify each other’s self-destruction. And, in Lucas’ book, how a slew of common mid-century American traumas can compound and metastasize, crushing the next generation and maybe explaining some of the many crises in which America now seems to find itself.
My admiration for Guettel’s talent is so great, and my listening to recordings of such prior Guettel shows as “Floyd Collins” and “Light in the Piazza” so frequent, it almost feels like I should recuse myself. Suffice to say, his compositional gifts in the current Broadway realm are incomparable.
That said, having now seen this musical (which began at the Atlantic Theatre) twice, and wondering at my own slight resistance both times, I think the show needed more songs that offer the kinds of existential inquiry that the subject matter suggests. After all, the Irish poem that gave Miller his title has the stanza: “They are not long, the days of wine and roses; Out of a misty dream our path emerges for a while then closes, within a dream.”
In “Piazza,” that is what he achieved with the title number and songs like “Dividing Day.” In this one Guettel overly submits to the real-time thrall of plot. To put that another way, Guettel is at his best when expanding a short story like the New Yorker piece that sourced “Piazza.” Musicals based on films invariably confront too much plot, especially with a one-act musical, and especially in the last few minutes when movies quicken to resolution but here you are listening to actor-singers of the caliber of these two masters of the arka and all you actually want is emotional revelation. Transferable to yourself.
It’s not like none is offered: the show is sufficiently potent to induce a feeling of dread that’s hard to shake afterwards. And there are some Guettel chords here that just viscerally work on the ear and the body, combining as they do with the insidiousness of alcoholism, a disease that often hides in plain sight, especially on and around Broadway, frankly.
The twin lead performances are musically exquisite and courageous to boot; the target audience for this melancholy musical will be Guettel’s many fans as well as admirers of stars willing to head to a tough place with only each other for company. Watching O’Hara in particular is to be drawn as ever to her voice but also to watch her explore self-destruction in a way few of her fans ever will have experienced.
“Days of Wine and Rose” should perhaps have ended up bigger, offering a richer vista of “Mad Men”-like self-obliteration and more opportunity for the choreographers Sergio Trujillo and Karla Puno Garcia. Or, maybe better yet, smaller, just focusing on a marriage and booze, and a marriage and booze alone.
The show is caught in the middle, but it’s still a beautifully directed, acted, written and composed piece about, yes, alcohol but also about our responsibility to the very few people in our lives who depend on us absolutely for their own happiness and survival. We all have them. This show might help with that.