Let me state up front that Pope Joan, Christopher Moore's new musical, is vastly superior to his previous collaboration with Bailiwick Repertory, the 1993 Son of Fire. Not because Moore has improved as a musical dramatist--he hasn't--but because the new work's source material suits the author's strengths and weaknesses. Son of Fire, a fictionalization of a 1980s Chicago art-scene scandal, ran aground on the rocks of reality: Moore's soupy soft-rock idioms and emotional cliches were ruinously wrong for the aesthetes he was trying to depict. In Pope Joan he's free to let his fancy wander: the setting is ninth-century Rome, and the story is pure legend. There's no contemporary reality to measure it against, so one can more easily enjoy Moore's flair for bombastic pop anthems and Hollywood-style kitsch.
Still, Moore's musical fails as serious theater: its aspirations to political and spiritual inquiry simply won't fly, given Moore's comic-book contrivances as a playwright. Trying to spin an inspiring, relevant account of the tensions in the Catholic Church between its mission to minister to the outcast and its corruption by power and wealth, Pope Joan comes off as so much papal bull.
Based on a tale that's been floating around for the past thousand years, inspiring writers from Petrarch and Boccaccio to Caryl Churchill and Lawrence Durrell, Pope Joan tells of one John Anglicus, a British friar whose great learning and charisma have won him fame throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Arriving in Rome in the company of King Louis II--the great-grandson of Charlemagne who seeks his ancestor's imperial title--John proves he's not only a teacher but a miracle worker who can raise the dead; when Louis' puppet pope, the librarian Anastasius, is assassinated, John is elevated to the papal throne. There he wins admiration from clerics and commoners alike--until he is exposed as a she after giving premature birth during a church procession.
Moore casts Joan--John's real name--as an icon of outsiderness: a staunch defender of the poor, a compassionate counselor to homosexuals, and of course an emblem of womanly wisdom in a church that denies equal participation to females. But since everything that Joan attempts in her abortive papacy goes wrong--she depletes the treasury by giving money to the hungry, causes a war by opposing Louis' imperial ambitions, brings about the deaths of her most loyal supporters, and ends up getting killed by the frenzied crowd she's just led in a feel-good sing-along--her story could be seen as bolstering rather than undercutting the church's antifeminist attitudes. That's not what Moore intends, of course: his Joan is a martyr to sexism, represented by the manipulative bisexual Louis--Joan's sometime lover, who discovers her gender when he hits on her thinking she's a boy. This twist is apparently Moore's main contribution to the ancient legend--I've never encountered any other version of the tale that suggests Louis was the father of Joan's child. Rather than intensifying the conflict between spiritual and worldly impulses the sex angle turns it into soap opera, as the church goes to war with the empire because of a dysfunctional love affair.
Indeed, Pope Joan is packed with images familiar from dozens of first- and second-tier Hollywood historical epics--sword fights and candlelight processions, coronations and investitures, even a penitent's self-flagellation. Most of these come off rather well in David Zak's impressive low-budget staging. A good part of the credit must go to Rick Paul's set, which recalls the homemade imaginativeness of the old Organic Theater shows; Andrew Meyers's lighting, which achieves some striking effects that transcend the cramped space; and Margaret Morettini's colorful costumes, which range from earthy peasant garb to princely raiment, coming up short only in the flat textures of the cardinals' red robes.
Driving the whole event is Moore's score, a skillful synthesis of such influences as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Elton John, the Stephen Schwartz of Pippin, the Stephen Sondheim of Sweeney Todd, ecclesiastical plainsong, and medieval folk tunes. Sometimes Moore veers into outright appropriation: the hook of Joan's climactic "A Thousand Years From Now" comes straight from the Melissa Manchester hit "Don't Cry Out Loud," and there's an echo of Fiddler on the Roof's "Tradition" theme that I hope is deliberate. Often the music has a diverting if generic "I've heard this before but I don't know where" quality--and it's quite impressively played by a backstage trio directed by Gene De Luca that comes up with a panoply of synthesized sounds, including a thundering cathedral organ, blaring brass, and chiming bells.
The cast is headed by Kate Fry, whose emotive, clarion alto makes one wish her first songs came much earlier in the overlong first act. Able support comes from Robert D. Mammana, all sexy irony as Louis; Chris McNamara as Anastasius; Matt McDonald as scheming pope-to-be Nicholas; Mary C. Beidler as Louis' exploited lady-in-waiting; deaf actor Robert Schleifer, a radiant, gold-robed Jesus figure who sign-interprets the singing of little Cecily Strong as Joan's inner child; and Ron Sherry as Lucius, the sweet little archivist who discovers his homosexuality when he's attracted to the boyish Joan. ("Holy Father, how I long to pray with you, to stay with you through the night," he sings--talk about a daddy complex!) The problem is, Moore's clunky, declamatory lyrics give these solid performers nothing more than cliches; what depth their characterizations have comes entirely from the singing (this is especially true of Fry, whose simple warmth is every bit as convincing as was the dippy carnality of her Polly Peachum in Magellan Theatre's Threepenny Opera last year). The most interesting ballad is Joan and Louis' duet "Stand With Me," a love song with liturgical tendencies; lyrical references to "communion" and "confession" give this number a stronger impact than its Anne Murray/Karen Carpenter melody would suggest.
But Moore's best songs are the choral numbers. Again, they're derivative--the sardonic cardinals in act one are obviously suggested by the blase apostles in Jesus Christ Superstar, for instance--but at least their intended comic effect suits Moore's heavy-handed rhymes. We know we're supposed to laugh when a chorus of vendors in the Roman marketplace sings of selling "Byzantine bouzoukis / Chastity belts with two keys," for example; but when Joan is described as "Ever dutiful / [and] oh, so beautiful," or Louis invites his androgynous lover to "Taste what life offers / From earth's fleshly coffers," we're not so sure.
Which raises the question: Why doesn't Moore work with a collaborator? I don't mean Zak, who as director must surely have wielded some influence, or Michael Butler, the erstwhile Hair producer who, Moore's agent tells me, made a number of suggestions at a staged reading last spring that were incorporated into the current draft. I mean a real librettist--someone to smooth out the structural flaws and write some genuinely inventive dialogue and lyrics. Even someone as notoriously turf-conscious as Andrew Lloyd Webber knows his limits and hires lyric writers; even composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim works with other playwrights. Moore's music deserves better than Moore's words.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Roger Lewin - Jennifer Girard Studio.