Oh, Brooklyn. In Bloomberg-era New York, where the Upper West Side is for strollers, the West Village for Marc Jacobs, and the Lower East Side for pub crawls, Brooklyn is the place, we’re told time and again, for unconventional, creative young people to be unconventional and creative. It’s the borough where you’d find, for example, a sprawling, dilapidated, commune-like home shared by a novelist, a few poets, a composer, an opera singer, a European-refugee activist and a burlesque artist, all pulled together by a fiction editor and self-styled aesthete who lounges in caftans, planning parties.
February House, a splendid new musical at the Public Theater, is set in that commune-like home, and among its many achievements is to remind us that, despite what we’ve been told by innumerable New York magazine covers, Styles section features, and Lena Dunham, Brooklyn-as-bohemia is not a recent invention. This creative home was a real one—a house, granted, not an illegal loft, in Brooklyn Heights rather than Bushwick—and in 1940 and ’41 it was occupied by W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and others. They wrote, sang, drank, danced, slept with each other, avoided paying rent and sniffed cocaine in back bedrooms at parties. They worked on their art, and themselves; they talked about art, and themselves; and amid all the chaos, they didn’t seem to get very much done. As the Brooklyn-frequenting if not actually Brooklynite David Byrne might note: Same as it ever was.
Their stories unfold—loves and heartbreak, artistic failures and triumphs, arguments about the artist’s political obligations in a world on the brink of war—in a haunting, minor-key production propelled by the character of George Davis (Julian Fleisher, a bald, nebbishy leading man charismatically campy and wonderfully wistful), the flamboyantly gay editor and erstwhile novelist who has assembled the house’s residents and dedicated himself to their care and feeding. February House, as 7 Middagh Street was dubbed because so many who lived there were born in that short month, is his work of art, his masterpiece.
The musical February House is its own lovely work of art. Directed by Davis McCallum, with scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez and lighting by Mark Barton, it is an impressionistic, sometimes ghostly staging, befitting a special moment that came and went. There is a battered parquet floor, a suggestion of crown molding overhead and a black, brick upstage wall on which a spectral Brooklyn Bridge occasionally appears, outlined in LEDs. The six-piece band sits onstage. There is a handful of pieces of bulky Victorian furniture, shrouded under drop cloths as the show opens.
George welcomes us to the house and introduces us to his menagerie. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), who has “married” his acolytic young lover, Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively), is studiously avoiding any comment on the war in Europe while collaborating on a dreadful opera about Paul Bunyan with his housemate Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek), the composer who lives at 7 Middagh with his own, equally alliterative lover, the singer Peter Pears (Ken Barnett). McCullers (Kristen Sieh) is drinking her way through attempts at her second novel and being seduced by Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), an Austrian refugee and Auden’s wife of convenience, who is agitating to get the United States into the war. Reeves McCullers (Ken Clark), Carson’s husband and a lesser writer, shows up from time to time to try to get his wife back, and Gypsy (Kacie Sheik) has moved in to write her best-selling novel, The G-String Murders, under George’s guidance. (She also pays the bills.)
These odd, compelling characters, and this mesmerizing musical, grapple with the big questions: art, love, politics. They try nonconformity; they lean back toward conformity. They find they cannot escape politics.
The book, by Seth Bockley, is efficient, effective and often witty, if sometimes overly explicated. The music and lyrics, by the (of course) young Brooklyn composer Gabriel Kahane, are sensational. His melodies are both pretty and earthbound, combining orchestral sounds with plenty of folksy banjo. There is throughout, even in the happier moments, a tinge of sadness. But it’s his lyrics that have most stayed with me.
The very first words of the musical in “Light Upon the Hill,” a love song to the house, are a poetic evocation of being young and literary in New York:
“Here’s to the driver who took me Downtown/ When I got to New York I was glad for the ride/ How the buildings we passed were all gleaming/ I was dreaming a life I’d look out from the inside/ Here’s to the parties, the galas, the benders/ The gentle bartenders who drowned us in drink/ Here’s to the sailors, the tailors, the rent boys/ I meant, boys, to tell you your tip’s on the sink.”
Next up is “A Room Comes Together,” George’s tribute to the pleasures of assembling décor—or, for that matter, a group—with its interior-rhyming wordplay: “I grow weak over antique teak/ what I seek is a teacup of bone/ I get a thrill from an iron-wrought grill/ and I finger it when I’m alone.” And, in the same song is my favorite couplet: “Growing up gay in Clinton, Michigan/ Every day I’d wish and wish again/ For a place where I would belong.”
Elsewhere, some of the lyrics come from Auden poems. There’s a mini-aria about bedbugs. (There’s also, perhaps unavoidably, an intellectually pretentious strip tease for Gypsy, “A Little Brain,” that can’t help reading like outtakes from Rodgers and Hart’s Gypsy Rose Lee spoof, “Zip.”)
But, through all that fun, there’s always the sadness. Inevitably, this happy artists’ utopia, like all utopias, will come apart. These creators must move on, must create. McCullers went back home, and her husband eventually went to war. A lovestruck Auden followed Kallman to Ann Arbor. Britten and Pear went to California. Gypsy went back to the burlesque halls. You could also say February House succumbed to Hitler: The horror in Europe made this decadent life untenable.
George was left behind in the house in Brooklyn Heights. It, too, is gone now; it fell to Robert Moses and his Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But creative Brooklyn lives on, of course, and that’s a good thing: It has brought us February House.