There’s a reason why some shows have never succeeded. As much as fans might love them in spite of – or because of – their flaws, their creators simply cannot make them work. And, despite devoted efforts, the much beloved, much derided and still extremely problematic musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever seems destined to fall into that category.
Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s musical, which first opened on Broadway in 1965, tells a convoluted story that coalesces romance, hypnosis, past lives, reincarnation and questionable medical ethics and abuses of power alongside some truly lovely songs that, more than 50 years later, continue to deserve a better book.
Running for just a few months on Broadway, the 1965 production was praised for its score and the formidable talents of its leading lady, Barbara Harris. But the lack of clarity and focus in Lerner’s book did not go unnoticed, and the show quickly closed. A film adaption, starring Barbra Streisand, followed five years later and was also poorly received.
Given the musical’s plot, it’s hardly a surprise it didn’t find an audience. The story centers around Daisy Gamble, a young woman living in New York. Struggling to quit smoking, she sees Dr. Mark Bruckner, a hypnotist who is quickly fascinated by Daisy’s psychic gifts – she knows when a phone is about to ring, she can always tell you where your keys are and she can make plants grow simply by talking to them. When under hypnosis, however, Daisy reveals much more: in a past life, she was a rebellious English noblewoman named Melinda Welles. Mark, immediately infatuated with the romantic and tragic Melinda, who shares memories of forbidden love and heartbreaking death, begins regressing Daisy nightly to converse with her previous self. All the while, while Daisy, happily oblivious of Melinda’s presence in her life, thinks the handsome doctor is falling in love with her.
The convoluted musical seemed destined to reside in antiquity, only heard in concert productions, until 2011, when it was significantly re-tooled for Broadway, starring Harry Connick Jr. and Jessie Mueller in her Broadway debut. The new book included a gender swap for its leading characters, turning the present-day protagonist a gay man named Davey, while Melinda was a 1940’s chanteuse. Panned by critics and audiences for its improbable plot and lack of characterization, the show closed after just 29 previews and 57 performances. On a Clear Day was clearly back on the shelf.
Seven years later, another re-tooled revival is playing at Off-Broadway’s Irish Repertory Theater, where Artistic Director Charlotte Moore has revised the script again, presumably to streamline the plot and perhaps remove some of the problematic elements of the story. But the result, also directed by Moore, is an equally befuddling production that should worry any audience member even slightly concerned with a woman’s autonomy and a man’s abuse of power.
In the first of Moore’s changes, this Daisy, brought to dizzingly energetic life by Melissa Errico, wants to quit smoking not because her fiancé wants her to – the reason she seeks hypnosis in the original production – but so she can get a job. An attempt to incorporate feminism that’s worth appreciating, yes, but we never find out what this job is, or much else about Daisy. She talks very quickly, she apparently likes pizza and she has a group of loyal friends ready to burst into song and dance on their apartment building’s rooftop at a moment’s notice. But that’s about it. Daisy’s interests, her goals or even her past romantic relationships are never mentioned. As for her attraction to Mark, it seems to only be based on the fact that he is paying attention to her, and their relationship still fits the mold of a patriarchal figure of authority taking advantage of a passive woman. When sitting down to be hypnotized, Daisy compliantly asks Mark,“If I do as you ask, afterwards will you take me somewhere for a drink?” Errico is an incredibly endearing performer who invites as much sympathy as she can, but it’s difficult to become that invested in such a thinly written character. There just isn’t much there.
Errico’s simultaneous performances of both Daisy and Melinda demonstrates the versatility of her talents. Melinda possesses a very different voice, body language and even posture, and she sounds thrilling in her rapturous love duets with her 18th-century paramour Edward, played by the appropriately dashing John Cudia. The orchestrations, by Josh Clayton, have been slimmed down for a five-piece band and sound appropriately romantic or spritely, depending on which character Errico is inhabiting. A rebellious thinker, Melinda fought against slavery and refused to marry for money, instead choosing a penniless painter for her husband. These morsels of information establish a fuller character than Daisy’s, so, while Mark’s infatuation with her is no doubt unusual, one can attempt to understand his interest.
Equally frustrating is the little we know of Mark, played by Stephen Bogardus, and why he falls so quickly for Melinda or never recognizes his unethical treatment of Daisy. Bogardus is an attractive and authoritative figure, and he sings of his love for “Melinda” beautifully, but the character’s disregard to his own abuses of power diminish the appeal of the performer. Even when he urges Daisy to think of herself as special and gifted, the audience’s knowledge of his true intentions distracts from the performance of the musical’s title song. No one could make the line, “She’s not a case for medicine. She’s a subject for research” anything but cringeworthy, and the obvious classism of his calling Daisy “an impossible sideshow of a girl” is equally disturbing.
One can’t escape from these distressing moments because it is sincerity that is driving this show. Sarcastic moments occasionally pepper the script, especially in a lengthy melody about the financial arrangements of marriage in Melinda’s time, complete with a chorus trilling sweetly about true love and prenuptial agreements. (It’s better not to dwell on the jarringly out-of-place attempts at humor, including a woman asking, “Do I look fat or what?… I want to look like death’s door” and another of Daisy’s friends lamenting that she frequently falls for gay men, saying, “Who knows? Maybe I can change this one.”) On a Clear Day is asking its audience to genuinely care about what happens to Daisy and Mark, and seemingly to hope they end up together – but that is asking for too much.
But we do want a happy ending for Daisy, who, oblivious to Mark’s treatment of her, is an obviously earnest young woman. When she arrives home from an evening with Mark and bursts into song on her rooftop, proudly boasting to her friends that the doctor couldn’t take his eyes off of her, her girlish delight is momentarily contagious – but also too large for the small stage of the Irish Repertory Theatre. Barry McNabb’s exuberant choreography, performed by an ensemble clad in Whitney Locher’s brightly youthful costumes feels uncomfortably cramped in “On the S.S. Bernard Cohen” and “Wait Until We’re 65,” despite James Morgan’s projections of the city hovering in the background.
Even the most talented cast – and this one is indeed talented – cannot detract from this seemingly casual invasion of Daisy’s mind that this show portrays. She is so attuned with ESP that Mark can hypnotize her without saying a word, an ability he puts to use without her permission after she learns the truth about their sessions. Granted, Daisy does confront Mark, declaring, “You are not going on using my head as a motel… I’m through being a go-between for you and your dream girl!” But these lines are uncharacteristic from the woman we’ve gotten to know that they sound like a perfunctory add-on, rather than dialogue written to further advance the character. Mark’s response doesn’t help, either: the unjustified, “I insist you stop this neurotic behavior at once!” and patronizing, “Any other girl would be proud to be a part of this!” do not endear him or excuse his actions.
After Daisy abandons him, Mark pleads for her return by crooning the song, “Come Back to Me,” but this is not a last-minute plea for forgiveness. Instead, Daisy bursts through is door, furiously accusing him of “extra-sensory torture,” a line that invites laughter from the audience rather than reflection on how flagrantly Mark is invading her freedom.
Such an entitled, patriarchal perspective is not surprising to this critic, onstage or off. But such a lighthearted, nonchalant approach to the violations of power and authority this musical portrays, amidst upheaval of gender roles and power dynamics, is. Perhaps instead of trying yet again to successfully stage a musical repeatedly proven to be problematic, directors should seek out new original works by writers looking forward, instead of into the past.