Civil War : Easy on the Ear? Gershwins Bust ; R.I.P. Marlene

If, by chance, you wished to compose a musical about the Civil War, your talent would have to be kissed by God. Here we have the most horrifying war in American history, with 620,000 dead. Turned into a Broadway musical? You’d have to be a genius-or a fool-even to contemplate it.

I don’t say Frank Wildhorn is foolish-far from it. He isn’t a genius. He is said to be criticproof. (But then, so is Danielle Steel, and so was Andrew Lloyd Webber, before time began to catch up with him.) My esteemed colleague John Simon, musing on popular taste and the anointing of Mr. Wildhorn as “Messiah to the Unwashed,” pointed out in New York magazine that the only real test of artistic value “is the slow but true test of time.”

Agreed! History will not treat Mr. Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde , The Scarlet Pimpernel and now The Civil War too kindly.

But meanwhile, the American musical is hitting rock bottom. Mr. Wildhorn seems to write an awful lot of skating music. His surging romantic ballads are actually very popular with professional skaters. They inspire triple toe-loops in sequins. His talent is for easy listening pop. He says so himself. His work, he told The New York Times , is “comfortable on the ear.”

If a bland blur is comfortable (on the ear), then Mr. Wildhorn is a master. But is the traumatic history of America from slavery to Gettysburg comforting ? It’s beyond argument, I think, that the Civil War amounts to something more significant than an easy-listening radio station. But let it pass. Mr. Wildhorn is an unapologetically proud populist. Let him explain the secret to his success:

“I always say I never do shows for the people,” he told Playbill . “I do them with the people.” Of the people, for the people and by the people rings a bell. But with ? What does that mean, exactly? Are “the people” his co-composers? “I’ve been able to make my passion their passion,” he went on. “They hear it and love it.”

Do they? The low camp Scarlet Pimpernel has yet to prove a popular success; on the other hand, the high camp Jekyll and Hyde is a hit. Moral: Always aim high. But whether the pious Civil War truly will prove popular is far from a sure thing. Piety doesn’t sound like a fun night out on Broadway to me.

But what kind of a musical is Civil War ? It has no plot; it’s essentially without any characters. “It’s not a traditional show, but it’s got what I would call a visual book,” the show’s co-author, Gregory Boyd, has explained. “Visual books” save on words. They’re the equivalent to “comfortable on the ear.” “We’re trying to tell a story in a visual sort of way,” he added, sounding a little tentative.

He means that Civil War is at center a bookless pseudo-docudrama with music and period photographs of soldiers and slaves. There are also the usual stock battle scenes performed in slow motion with lots of noise and smoke. In fact, the “visual book”-and the direction by Jerry Zaks, who did Smokey Joe’s Cafe -is somewhat threadbare and dull. But let that pass. Where’s the story? “There is no huge back story here,” said the show’s lyricist, Jack Murphy. Isn’t the back story here the history of America? “We don’t need one,” Mr. Murphy continued. “People bring their own back stories to this thing.”

All clear? The people are the co-composers; the book is to be seen; and everyone brings their own back stories to the show. Mr. Murphy explained: “You see a husband singing to his wife about loss. We all know what that is.”

We’re meant to project our own problems onto the Civil War. The creators of the show can therefore refer to loss-and honor, valor, death, whatever-as if they were creating quick, simplistic musical vignettes for MTV.

We’re watching MTV on stage. It’s why Civil War has barely a recognizable character-for none are needed. There are only easily identifiable generic types and the unearned emotion of mini-dramas. In an early battle scene, one young soldier kills another. “No!” he cries over the corpse. “He’s my brother!” Obviously, we are meant to feel for a tragedy of war (but don’t). A song follows: “Tell my father when you can/ I died a man.” Fathers, brothers, issues of patriotic manhood, accidental fratricide-mighty themes; trivial outcome.

There are no memorable songs, no emotional connection, only a form of numbness. How could it be otherwise with clumsy, anodyne lyrics such as this from the inevitable love letter moment: “How I long for your touch like a lover will/ ‘Cause I’m missing you/ God, I’m missing you, my Bill.” Or this, sung by a slave couple who are separated when sold: “If prayin’ were horses all of us would ride/ And ever I’d be by your side.”

No authentic sense of time or period exists in Civil War . Mr. Wildhorn’s folk, country and pop-rock for easy listening belong to the 90’s of Michael Bolton, where everything sounds “heartbreakingly” the same. Or to the faux-diva, overwrought emotion of a Mariah Carey, where everything begins and ends in hysteria. Like the man says, bring your own back stories to the show.

With Broadway musicals, there’s low and there’s low. The new Broadway revue, The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm , is seriously, unsavably, unbelievably low . Directed by Mark Lamos and costumed by Paul Tazewell, whose names deserve to go down in infamy, the 90-minute show has been produced like some Las Vegas lounge act from the 1970’s. They seem to have set out maniacally to sabotage and vulgarize the very elegance and wit they’re supposed to be paying tribute to. They’ve tried to modernize the Gershwins. Why update the eternal? The Gershwins need no help from this coarse lot. They haven’t even the respect to trust the material. Almost every single one of the 27 songs, many of them Gershwin standards-“Embraceable You,” “Love Is Here to Stay,” “Nice Work if You Can Get It”-has been ruined. Which clown on the production thought it would be a great idea to turn “Isn’t It a Pity?” into a dyke duet? Why ask?

Just when things were going so well , we learn with regret that Marlene , the “musical play” about Dietrich starring Sian Phillips, has closed. It only goes to prove that not every British import is made of pure gold. This ghoulish exercise in kitsch and biopic name-dropping was written by Pam Gems, the second-rate British playwright who boldly sets out time and again to prove that sticking with movies is the best way.

Sample Dietrich dialogue: “Oh my God, how this mirror has aged!” “If the camera loves you, you are a star!” And, spoken wistfully to a photograph of Ernest Hemingway: “We had some good times, eh? Strolling down the Champs-Élysées.”

I expect they did. The show actually opened with the startling sight of a severely depressed old woman mopping the stage with a bucket of water by her side. (Inspired direction by Sean Mathias.) At first, I thought she must be Marlene Dietrich in disguise for some weird reason, but the mop lady turns out to be a mute named Mutti, who likes to clean. So, we learned, does the meticulous Marlene. The immutably mute Mutti is Marlene’s gofer and existential conscience. She hangs around the stage, very quietly. There’s also Vivian, Marlene’s devoted assistant who also happened to be a lesbian, rather like the girls in the Gershwin show. By gosh and golly, Vivian and Marlene get to kiss. Isn’t that daring?

A lot of Act 2 was a Dietrich concert with Ms. Phillips impersonating Marlene in full bodystocking, with the usual off-key songs-e.g. “Honeysuckle Wose,” “Falling in Love Again.” I haven’t a clue what the most distinguished Sian Phillips was doing in this miserable piece of icon exhumation. But someone must know, I guess.

Rest in peace.