Home Musical score The Bad Trip of “Flying Over Sunset”

The Bad Trip of “Flying Over Sunset”

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As I watched James Lapine’s new musical, “Flying Over Sunset,” at the Vivian Beaumont, trying to instill some empathy with its subject matter, I began to think about my own rather limited history with hallucinogens. “Sunset” —directed by Lapine, who also wrote the book, with music by Tom Kitt, lyrics by Michael Korie, and choreography by Michelle Dorrance — is the fictional story of three celebrities giving up LSD in the 1950s, looking for God knows what: a tinted enlightenment, maybe, or a facilitated and maybe clarified relationship with the past, or maybe just plain fun. Writer Aldous Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton), actor-dancer Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck) and polymath diplomat Clare Boothe Luce (Carmen Cusack) reunite (there’s no reason to believe they’ll l ‘have done in real life) and move away their extraordinary lives (which they all have, apparently), letting audiences see, often in fervent colors and quirky movements, the troubled consciences that vibrate beneath their well-groomed characters .

A long time ago, I munched on a few handfuls of foul mushrooms and caused personal fits on my own. There weren’t many bright colors, but some previously unnoticed textural quirks – on clothes, on faces – were unleashed with deep, scrutinizing photographic detail. For many hours after those visual effects faded, I haunted the corridors of my mind, regretting the number of memories I had kept and neuroses I had cultivated. Most of the time, I wished I had eaten things. Nothing happened that I would like to stage; certainly, no one sang.

Watching “Sunset”, I wondered if her creative team had undergone any first-person experiential research in relation to LSD. (The Lincoln Center Theater in-house magazine features testimonials from writers Deborah Kass, Francine Prose, and Gregory Botts on past trips; Lapine has spoken in interviews about her own childhood experiences.) Some of the production’s other sources are clearly noted. . In an early composite scene, Aldous gives a speech against the ban on his book “Brave New World”. Cary gives a press conference announcing his retirement from show biz and defends Charlie Chaplin against charges that he is a communist. Clare, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s candidate for Ambassador to Brazil, undergoes a rough confirmation hearing.

Part of the premise of the play – or maybe that’s just what I wish it had managed to unravel – is that LSD leads its users to a gentler type of questioning. Aldous and Clare are close friends of Gerald Heard (Robert Sella), a practitioner of the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta and a forerunner of the “conscience” movement, which serves as their “guide” while on drugs, always pushing them to s sit across. legs and chanting as its effects gradually set in. Cary first hears about LSD from his wife, who uses it in her sessions with a Freudian analyst. In one scene, we see Cary negotiating his place in the analyst’s quiet office, employing flattery, charm, and, before long, screaming foolproof, to get his hands on this stuff he’s heard so much about.

These two initial settings – spiritual and clinical – open up two ways to think about not only the effects of LSD, but also why a desperate, wealthy, but lost celebrity might turn to it for answers. In “Flying Over Sunset”, however, all the roads lead back to the rote biography. Aldous’s wife is ill and soon dies. Clare’s daughter was killed in a car crash. Cary’s impending divorce leaves him brooding over his difficult childhood. As the characters travel around the stage, these episodes and their central characters – Cary’s wife, daughter, young self – reappear over and over again, with variations so slight that, oftentimes, they might as well not appear. not exist.

Gerald Heard’s presence made me think of JD Salinger’s god-obsessed glasses, whose interest in the ancient Indian Vedas and Upanishads, and Christ, made them vibrate with the kind of subconscious talk about higher things. who could’ve done things like Aldous, Clare, and Cary – a moody bunch here – a little good. But, instead of engaging in a serious conversation, the characters spend the majority of the show in their own heads.

In recent years, the Lincoln Center Theater has presented two plays about rocky terrain and the stubborn mysteries of spiritual life: “The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard on religious conscience and devotion; and “The Rolling Stone” by Chris Urch, on homophobic violence in a religious setting in Uganda. “Flying Over Sunset” may have ended some sort of trilogy, but its emphasis on individual biographical causation – that drug for that matter – dries up its superficial allusions to spirituality.

Maybe that’s why the show feels so down to earth despite its many references to theft. “Sunset” has a pretty stereotypical approach to music: each dose has its own song. The pattern is set early on, when Aldous is in a drugstore with Gerald, sweating at the onset of a high that will continue through a mountain hike with his sick wife. He is obsessed with a picture in a book: “The Return of Judith to Bethulia” by Botticelli. The stage design – by Beowulf Boritt, perhaps the most consistently excellent part of the show – changes and the painting comes to life. Here is Judith accompanied by her maid, with the head of Holofernes in tow. This ecstatic visual idea gives way to a pretty but above all conventional bel-canto number, through which we get the point that we continue to get: Aldous is excited by what he can see under the influence, but haunted by the changing circumstances of his life.

Hadden-Paton is sympathetic as the intense and loud Aldous, and Yazbeck’s tap acts with a young version of Cary (Atticus Ware) are the highlight of Dorrance’s choreography, which otherwise uses the basics of tap dancing – the steps and their associated natural rhythms, implicitly connected to the movements of the heart – to establish a theme that never really gets through the noise. Cusack sings well, but the effort is wasted on songs that sound like tropes.

One thing I found confusing was how strange the score wasn’t – here, like in few other musicals, there was a chance to touch abstraction and, even, to Tone. Instead, the songs sound pretty standard, give or take a broken chord or two. If a drug musical can’t sometimes seem weird or off-putting, which one can? The closest “Flying Over Sunset” to true surreality is when Cary, a guy with mom issues who is consumed with masculinity and its meanings, dons a lower body and a cap and fidgets, having become a facsimile of the phallus who owns so much of his thought and posture. The moment is brief, and the two hours and forty minutes of the show follow one another.

In an interview, Allen Ginsberg – about the work and the person from whom the idea of ​​drug-induced inspiration has always hovered – denied the idea that there was a special relationship, positive or negative, between the trip and excellence in art. “I think the myth put forward by the police that no creative work can be done under drugs is madness,” he said. “The myth that anyone who takes drugs will produce something interesting is even madness.” He admitted to writing the runic and nature-obsessed poem “Wales Visitation” while under the influence of LSD:

What did I notice? Details! the
the vision of the great is myriad—
smoke rises from the ashtray,
the house fire burned weakly
At night, still humid and dark black paradise
starless
upward in motion with the wet wind.

The intensity that “Flying Over Sunset” tries to illustrate with its always capable and sometimes spectacular sets is seldom found in its dialogues or its songs. The play is based on a groovy idea, but it indulges in the myth that Ginsberg warned against: Drugs alone aren’t interesting. To bridge the gap between stage and seat, the inner experience – added, enhanced, or whatever – needs more upward movement, no more the brutal ‘wet wind’ feeling. No more “individuals!” “??