Review: Fake News Makes Musical Headlines in ‘The Connector’

This musical about a fabulist at a magazine draws on the Stephen Glass scandal of the ‘90s, but it’s more than a bit of stretch itself.

Ben Levi Ross in The Connector. Joan Marcus

The Connector | 1hr 45mins. No intermission. | MCC Theater| 511 W 52nd Street | 646506-9393

Musicals love a con artist. Harold Hill, Max Bialystock, the fraudsters and flimflammers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can—flamboyant prevaricators really inspire show tunes. In 2016, an arguably more nuanced fibber arrived with Dear Evan Hansen, in which the awkward titular teen became social-media famous through deceit. DEH casts a twitchy shadow over The Connector, the wan, predictable tale of a cub reporter who fabricates his way to success at a prestigious magazine. Indeed, the lead role of Ethan Dobson belongs to Ben Levi Ross, who played Evan on Broadway two years ago. (Even the character names echo.) But whereas the Pasek & Paul hit evoked sympathy for their troubled antihero, The Connector is a tedious shuffle to Ethan’s inevitable unmasking. With songs. 

No spoiler alert needed. Since we already know that director Daisy Prince got the initial concept from the Stephen Glass publishing scandal, Ethan’s career is fated to flop. Glass was a clever thing fresh out of college who won the admiration of editors at The New Republic, until they realized that his too-good-to-be-true political and cultural exposés were…yeah, made up. This all went down in the mid to late ’90s, roughly two centuries ago in publishing years. (In 2003, the whole saga was recounted in a novel by Glass and as well as a movie.) Today, the tale of authorial hubris in a world with editorial standards seems downright quaint, as media smolders on a bonfire of algorithms while AI weaponizes disinformation for the illiterate.  

Scott Bakula and Ben Levi Ross in The Connector. Joan Marcus

Book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown have been busy with their tracing paper. Like Glass, Ethan is Jewish and an Ivy League grad with a supposedly brilliant prose style (which Sherman quotes sparingly from). An article that ran in Ethan’s Princeton paper made a splash and, faster than you can say, “narcissistic personality disorder,” the weaselly scribe has flattered his way into the heart of Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula), the crusty boozehound who edits The Connector, a vaguely political, vaguely literary rag. In Beowulf Boritt’s spare but inventive scenic design, the back wall of the stage is hung with galley pages which Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lights and projections play upon evocatively. (Another thing marks this piece as a creature of the 1990s: at a climactic moment, the set dramatically “collapses.” Once upon a time, every director did that.)

On the sidelines watching Ethan’s methodical ascent is Robin Martinez (Hannah Cruz, sharp and appealing), who works the copy-edit desk when not pitching Conrad articles he never greenlights. Robin correctly identifies the secret sauce of Ethan’s success as being male. In no time, Ethan begins turning in a series of colorful essays that are suspiciously light on verifiable sources. There’s a Greenwich Village Scrabble master (Max Crumm, hamming it up) who hustles competitors with wildly obscure words. When Ethan interviews a street-smart youth (Fergie Philippe) who claims to have witnessed the mayor of Jersey City smoking crack with teenagers, the Connector’s staunch fact-checker, Muriel (Jessica Molaskey) begins to suspect embellishment. Given how Ethan whipsaws from swagger to squirming in Ross’s mannered performance, you wonder why no one else see red flags. Because writers are weirdos? Since the main dramatic tension is guessing when Ethan will be caught, one wishes Sherman had crafted a wittier, more charismatic cad, or allowed us to admire the mechanics of his deception (as Patricia Highsmith does so zestfully in her Ripley books).

Ben Levi Ross and Hannah Cruz in The Connector. Joan Marcus

This brings up an overall weakness: whom are we supposed to root for? Sherman’s often leaden and stilted book won’t convince anyone who has worked in media, and he half-heartedly builds up Robin as the real hero of the story, too little too late. (She leads the charge to reveal his ethical lapses.) As a complacent, cliché-spouting Boomer, TV veteran Bakula does his gruff best, and he’s surrounded by usually effective actors (such as Daniel Jenkins and Mylinda Hull) forced to breathe life into broad caricatures: The Connector’s overly stuffy lawyer and an OCD fan of the magazine who sends persnickety, fact-checking letters. “I wonder if [Ethan’s] from New England,” goes one of her notes. He sure writes like it.Flattering Robin, Ethan tells her, “You write like a modern combination of Eudora Welty and Janet Malcolm.” Such stuff doesn’t even look good on paper.

Following a book that lurches from satire to workplace drama, Brown’s score surfs various idioms, none of which really stick. There are stretches of ’90s power pop (reminiscent of Jonathan Larson), bossa nova, Hamiltonstyle hip hop, and an overblown sequence set in Israel (or which Ethan claims happens in Israel) where klezmer rock gives way to a Bo Diddley beat. Brown is too strong a composer not to produce intriguing melodies and colorful orchestration and arrangements, but few songs emerge from dimensional people with conflicts we can care about; it’s mostly abstract notions of language, truth, or sexist power structures. Having contributed major works such as Parade and The Bridges of Madison County, plus the beloved two-hander The Last Five Years, Brown deserves a better foundation for his talents.

Perhaps you know the five reporting essentials: the Who, What, When, Where, and Why. I’ll stick with Why. Why make this a musical? Lying equals heightened reality equals breaking into song? Journalism scandals have been explored more satisfyingly in plays such as The Lifespan of a Fact and CQ/CX. Another Why: Why should we care? Toward the end as Ethan spirals in flames, he sings an angry, nihilistic rant that expands into something bigger and darker:

There never was a notebook.

There never was a phone call.

There never was a magazine.

There never was, there never was.

There never was an airplane,

There never was a prophecy,

There never was a motorcade,

There never was a Holocaust.

It’s unclear why this disgraced, unreliable person is bitterly alluding to Holocaust denial or conspiracies around 9/11 and JFK’s assassination in light of his own falsehoods. Is he awed by the power of writing to shape perceptions of reality, or consumed by shame? Either way, it feels like pure posturing by the creative team: manipulative shorthand to make us believe this dated cultural footnote is Extremely Relevant. Cynical distrust of modern media is as old as Citizen Kane. I don’t buy the suggestion that a fantasist at The New Republic paved the way for FOX News or Russian bots on social media. Do a rewrite; they don’t connect.

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Review: Fake News Makes Musical Headlines in ‘The Connector’