If the universe were fair, composer Eric Lane Barnes would have been born 60 years ago. Then his eminently singable, dazzlingly clever Tin Pan Alley confections, with their clear, unencumbered melodies, witty patter, and honest-to-goodness verses before the refrains, would have made him the toast of Chicago, New York, Paris, and London. His style of musicianship may have fallen out of fashion, but true talent never does. Barnes may receive those toasts yet.
But first he must learn to separate the gold from the dross. A third of the 22 songs in his current review, Fairy Tales, a bouncy assemblage of scenes from gay life, simply fall by the wayside. Most of these are syrupy ballads with mushy melodies and pedestrian lyrics. The evening opens with the five-person ensemble announcing, "Telling stories is the art / Of painting pictures with your heart." In the next song the cast turns into the Fred Waring singers, telling us to "Let your childhood dreams be your guide, ahhh-ahhhhhh..."
It doesn't help matters that in these numbers R. John Roberts directs his cast as if they were auditioning for the next Marriott's Lincolnshire musical--all expansive chests, studied hand gestures, and poignant stares into space. One notable exception is the lovely "When You Meet an Angel," a tender eulogy to a lost lover sung with unadorned honesty by Cara Newman. But for the most part the cast tries to relive these ballads rather than simply sing them, turning them into two-minute vocal soap operas.
When Barnes aims for the head instead of the heart, however, he is nothing short of brilliant, penning gems that few--outside of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, or Johnny Mercer--would have the imagination or sophistication to attempt. In "The Letter Song" a man uses the atrocious grammar of his lover's
Dear John letter to point out why he welcomes the breakup: "I'm going to find myself a future perfect husband / And he'll be the direct object of my affection." In "God Hates Fags" a rabid church lady sweetly unleashes her intolerance on anyone she can think of ("God hates you / Unless you think exactly like I do"). "Heaven to Me" posits paradise as an endless episode of The Partridge Family: "David Cassidy / Will make a pass at me."
Barnes also knows the value of making fun of himself: some of his funniest lyrics are intentionally awful. In "Heaven to Me" he rhapsodizes over Mrs. Partridge with, "She sings, she drives the bus, she is their mother." In "The Gay Guys," a song about a woman who always seems to fall for gay men, the absurdly prosaic refrain is "Every guy I date turns out to be gay." Barnes's self-deprecation is not only refreshing but prevents his songs from becoming too precious.
At its best, Barnes's writing is smart, funny, and audacious. "The One I Love," a gay man's love song to Rush Limbaugh ("I'll kiss him about his devout little snout") has real teeth: "We'll play strip poker and strip Yahtzee / And spank the neo-Nazi." Most daring of all, he takes on one of the greatest pop songs of all time, Cole Porter's "You're the Top," and goes all fifteen rounds: his "You're the Bottom" is a show-stopper, in which a contemptible lover is compared to a Wal-Mart negligee, hair in a drain trap, and, yes, a Reader review.
If the opening-night performance is any indication, Barnes's genius has not gone to his head. He spent the evening tucked behind an old upright piano in an unlit corner of the theater, pounding out tasty accompaniment, not once laughing or even smiling at his own witticisms. He seemed genuinely stunned by the tumultuous ovation that erupted when he took what he clearly thought would be a perfunctory bow.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jennifer Girard Studio--Roger Lewin.