Walter Kerr

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

"Dude" might have been waved away as just another failed musical if it hadn't been for two things: its pedigree and its challenge. We were entirely aware of both as we sat—in the foothills, in the mountains, in the valleys, among the trees—watching it on opening night. The pedigree? "Dude" was by the authors of "Hair," that watershed rock festival that changed the minds of the country about what it wanted to look at and listen to. The challenge? The producers and authors of "Dude" made it plain by word and woodwind, by hammer and chisel, that they were out to restructure the contemporary theater in every conceivable way.

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Let's take the restructuring first, since that is where the occasion's failure is most obvious and most immediate. The show had begun with the notion that the physical theater itself must be reshaped if the experiences we're going to have inside it are to take on a new and different life. To bring this about the [theatre] was torn apart and rebuilt…. (pp. 312-13)

What did it remind us of? A seedy carnival somewhere, anywhere. It looked exactly like the kind of one-ring circus that might be hustled out of baggage cars and hastily thrown together in any arena across the land. Since we already have an ample supply of just such arenas, one couldn't help wondering why so much money should have been spent to transform another kind of house into yet one more mini-Madison Square Garden.

The second thing one noticed was that the stage was inconveniently small….

The third fat question-mark that cropped up had to do with the enforced creation of a four-sided audience in order to promote closer relationships between performers and spectators—and, for that matter, between spectators and spectators….

[The] one specter that has haunted the rock musical from the beginning is its structural flimsiness, its cavalier primitivism as architecture, its intertwined innocence and gaucherie. At the outset the gaucherie didn't matter so much: indeed one of the principal charms of "Hair" as it was first done … was its disclosure that the flower children were in fact children and that they were, as children, thoroughly likable….

[In the main, subsequent ventures] have been no more than fierce ragbags of assembled song, living when they did live on melodic and rhythmic excitement, feeble the moment narrative or humor was attempted. Transplanted concerts, they possessed musical sophistication but no other. On or off Broadway, that is an inherent weakness.

It may have become the inadvertent function of "Dude" to expose that weakness so blatantly that all future rock musicals will have to face up to it before they dare take guitar or saw in hand. "Dude's" challenge was so explicit, occasionally so arrogant …, simply so vast that we were no longer able to close our ears to what is childish in our enthusiasm for what is current (and once in a while exhilarating).

We forced ourselves to listen for the new humor and we heard: "The house that Shakespeare built must have been some erection," "Get down there off your asteroid," "Did you ever see a whole bunch of human organisms playing the organ with their organs?" At the same time that a spokesman was exclaiming "I'll show you theater!" one of his colleagues … was muttering about the smell of goose-grease and "the excitement of opening tights." Nothing of this, obviously, would have been considered good enough, or even had enough, to have done duty at Minsky's in the twilight of burlesque.

Because the evening was subtitled "The Highway Life" and the auditorium was indeed sectioned off into foothills and valleys, we strained for some half-coherent account of a contemporary journey, symbolic or actual, echoing [Jack] Kerouac or [Ken] Kesey or "Easy Rider" or perhaps introducing us to a new one. But the mountains and trees that had been so elaborately carved out of space were never investigated at all, and the "newness" we were searching for seemed confined to the information that a boy-Dude was born, turned into a man-Dude who tried sex and drugs, and wound up urging us all to realize, along with D. W. Griffith, that Love is everything. Even these crumbs of content were quite hard to come by: they seemed carelessly scrawled telephone messages that "librettist" Gerome Ragni had left about for us to pick up, when and if we could, between Galt MacDermot's songs….

Rock musicals, if they are to sustain themselves as genuine theater pieces rather than arena concerts, are going to have to meet the obligations earlier musicals have accepted, always with difficulty, often with pain. Music is the ultimate making of any musical. But the music must have something to stand on, something other than its own beat to move it, something to demand one particular song rather than another at a particular moment, hopefully something in the way of wit to keep it company. Unless the score does rest on a structure, you might as well listen to it at home. "Dude" forced the issue, and we may yet be grateful to it for that. (p. 313)

Walter Kerr, "'Dude'," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1972 (and reprinted in The New York Times Theatre Reviews, The New York Times Company, 1973, pp. 312-13).

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