The Girl in the Yellow Dress Gotta Sing, Gotta Sing, Too

Enough already of The Girl in the Yellow Dress! I feel as if I’m living with her! No disrespect, of course, to the lovely Deborah Yates of Contact , who is The Girl in the Yellow Dress. Why, anyone would love to live with her, particularly if she knows how to make veal piccata. It’s just that scarcely a day seems to go by without our friends at The New York Times writing yet another puff piece about all conceivable things connected with … The Girl in the Yellow Dress . Do they ever write about anything else?

Not really.

I live close to Lincoln Center and can vouch for the fact that thousands of brainwashed Times readers can be seen sleepwalking their way to see Contact even when it isn’t playing. They’re like multitudes of Chauncy Gardners repeating to themselves: “Gotta see The Girl in the Yellow Dress, gotta see The Girl in the Yellow Dress, gotta see The Girl in the Yellow Dress.” One evening I called out to them: “Go that way!”-and recommended they all march to the Walter Kerr Theatre and see A Moon for the Misbegotten . But they weren’t falling for it. “Thank … you … very … much,” they replied. “But … we … gotta … see … The You Know Who.”

The millionth Times piece about The You Know Who was written by cultural critic Margo Jefferson on June 12. ( Contact opened October 1999.) Ms. Jefferson, whose views can get a little dense-in her fairness, she sees many sides to all arguments-decided to weigh in with a think piece entitled “Let Artistic Gray Areas Be, as Long as Truth Is Out.” That looked like a winner right there, celebrating as it did the artistically gray. However, before going on to discuss other important gray questions, such as whether it really matters that Susan Sontag ripped off other authors in her historical novel, In America (her answer: yes and no; sort of; it depends on how you look at it), Ms. Jefferson examined whether it really matters that Contact , which won this season’s Tony for Best New Musical, is or isn’t a musical. Her answer: We may consider gray areas such as Contact to be good-provided they work in the “post,” “trans,” “global” and “multi” terms of the constantly shifting, amorphously artistic political and economic moods and movements within the newly changing boundaries of a world in which Elton John and Frank Wildhorn-and this was her strictly personal point of view-commit cultural crimes in the name of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Well, we can all certainly agree with that. But where I part company with the good Ms. Jefferson is over the unwritten rules of the musical game. Now, before all the folks at Lincoln Center Theater start biting the carpets and letting out a geschrei , let me speak to them directly and say: This isn’t about you. This is about the future of that great, lost creation, the American Musical. Let’s see what Ms. Jefferson has to say. “The musical has been in such bad shape for so long that I’m game for all experiments,” she wrote. “Call ‘Contact’ a dance play or a musical performance piece; invent a new category for shows that put music, movement and language together in unpredictable ways.

“However it’s done, let a show like ‘Contact’ stir people to keep inventing musicals instead of copying them. Its form was unusual, but its impulse was primal. It showed us that musicals don’t exist except to convince us that the people onstage always feel a song coming on, and therefore, in the succinct words of Gene Kelly, ‘Gotta dance, gotta dance, gotta dance.’ “

The cheerleading issue of whether Contact “stirs people to keep inventing musicals instead of copying them” is neither here nor there. Ms. Jefferson begs the central questions, and some of us believe they’re of crucial importance for the future. Contact has no original score; it has a musical compilation from Bizet to Benny Goodman that’s played on tape. Would it be pedantic of me to insist that a musical that does not have new music cannot be a new musical? Then again, no one sings in Contact . We do not call this a musical, unless it be a songless musical. We call Contact exactly what the Lincoln Center producers and Susan Stroman, its director-choreographer, defined it to be in the first place: “A dance-play.” In other words, by their own definition, the best new musical of the year isn’t a musical. Or, as The Times itself described the show both before and after its opening, it’s a “dance-theater piece,” “playlet” or “theater ballet in three parts.”

It’s a dance piece, for heaven’s sake. It isn’t even experimental. Modern dance troupes have used bits of dialogue for years.

How Contact morphed into a new musical is another story. The executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, Bernard (“I Am the Force of Light”) Gersten, told The Times that he was “outraged” by the objections. Why is he always outraged by a point of view that differs from his? “They are the forces of darkness, those who have argued that it is not a musical,” he fumed in The Times . Call me Lucifer, but is it so bad to think the least a musical should have is a score? Do only the forces of darkness think the least it should do is sing?

It needn’t dance, actually (though we always want it to). When Ms. Jefferson celebrates the irresistible words of Gene Kelly-”Gotta dance”-she surely has a point. But she’s forgetting the key lyric within the same song: “Broadway rhythm / Everybody sing and dance!” Gotta dance. Gotta sing, too.

Incidentally, the song itself, “Broadway Rhythm” (music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed), is, of course, from Singin’ in the Rain . The original lyric was “I’m singin’, just singin’ in the rain,” but Gene Kelly, a dancer first and foremost, got it changed to “I’m singin’ and dancin’ in the rain.” Which suits us all just fine.

I’d say my ideal musical sings, dances and talks, and I shall be seeing Kiss Me, Kate again any day now. The extravagant claims made for Contact just don’t hold up, including Ms. Jefferson’s that its form is “unusual.” An expert troupe swing-dancing in Contact to “Runaround Sue” isn’t so unusual. That sort of thing is going on six nights a week in Swing! at the St. James Theatre. Drama critics, myself included, tend not to know as much about dance as dance critics. That’s why we’re drama critics, and Ms. Jefferson used to be one before she decided to enjoy life. But the dance critics I’ve read haven’t seen anything new, let alone revolutionary, in Contact at all.

“What Stroman doesn’t have is any new ideas,” wrote the harshest of them, Joan Acocella of The New Yorker . “From ‘Crazy For You’ to ‘Showboat’ to ‘Steel Pier’ to ‘Contact’ to ‘Music Man’-and also her recent dances for the Martha Graham Company, New York City Ballet, and Nicolas Hytner’s ‘Center Stage’-her themes are ordinary, clichéd and shopworn …. As the jazz-dance teacher in ‘Center Stage’ says to her class, ‘Fuhggedabout the steps, just dance the shit out of it.’ ” Ms. Stroman is either “smart and talented” and creating something new, as Ms. Jefferson believes, or a cornball choreographer recycling pastiche, as her critics claim. Even The Times ‘ own dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff, was tepid in her praise of the big dance piece that tops the bill in Contact , which is about a suicidal depressive who’s saved from hanging himself by meeting The Girl in the Yellow Dress. “George Balanchine’s ‘Slaughter on 10th Avenue’ comes to mind, right down to the use of a billiard table as a runway for the seductress,” Ms. Kisselgoff wrote. “Or is it Roland Petit’s Jeune Homme et la Mort , in which a girl in a yellow dress visits a man who hangs himself?”

Mon dieu! The Girl in the Yellow Dress turns out to be French! I knew she had that certain je ne sais quoi . Be that as it may, I agree with Ms. Jefferson that all definitions of art are boundaries to be broken. But does it follow that because Contact is embroiled in controversy, it is therefore innovative or even any good? I believe less in definitions of art than in great traditions to be continued and changed. But minor art, like haute mediocrity, has no memory. And saying Contact is a smart new musical don’t necessarily make it so.

“The days when someone could just step in front of the curtain and sing ‘Oh, my man, I love him so’ and it had nothing to do with the rest of the plot are over,” Ms. Stroman claims, responding to her critics. “Audiences want dance and music to propel the plot forward.” But, my goodness, those days were over half a century ago, when Agnes de Mille first integrated song and dance, and music and story, to propel the plot forward in Oklahoma!

That’s my last word on The Girl in the Yellow Dress. Is it theirs?