“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?”, or so the pick up line goes. In the case of Brigitta, the titular angel in I Married an Angel, it should hurt a lot more than it does. Brigitta comes down from heaven to marry a man who “hates women” (actual quote). She is stripped of her name, her wings, and, eventually, her entire personality in service of him. But she doesn’t care. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart have written her as a blank slate onto which her husband, Willy, can sketch his ideal woman. Her wants are not considered, her perspective and opinions are quashed. She’s an angel and angels should be beautiful and passive. That sounds like an outdated man’s idea of a woman to me.
Encores! is devoted to reviving forgotten pieces of musical theatre, but in the case of I Married an Angel, it’s best to let sleeping musicals lie. The show is so blatant in its sexism that many of the actors on stage looked uncomfortable when delivering their lines. When given text that diminishes all the female characters to one-dimensional pieces of arm candy or one-and-a-half-dimensional sex objects, how are you supposed to make sense of that in 2019? We’re all about female empowerment here. We’re for the eradication of the very reductions the show puts in place.
I Married an Angel is so tone-deaf to our current social climate that it’s actually shocking that Encores! would think it’s okay to produce. A cursory glance at the text of I Married an Angel should raise dozens of red flags: it is rife with inappropriate jokes at the expense of women, the main female character is physically maimed for having sex, the other principal women only know how to communicate with men through sexualized discourse. Yet, Encores! packages it as a romantic night at the theatre. Which begs one question: why?
It’s easy to answer that, even if the reasoning is hollow. The original production, eighty-one years ago (yes, the show is 81 years old, which makes sense when you see it), was choreographed by George Balanchine for his fiancé, Vera Zorina. This production is choreographed by Joshua Bergasse for his wife, Sara Mearns. Bergasse made a name for himself and won an Emmy for his brilliant, often exhilarating choreography on the TV show Smash. Mearns is a star ballerina with the New York City Ballet, a company co-founded by Balanchine. On paper, the parallels are cute, and Encores! has made no secret of them in their promotional materials. There is even a note in the program describing this doppelgänger effect in case you missed it before. But the root problem of I Married an Angel is that a choreographer and a dancer just being married is not enough reason to produce a musical.
Issues of possessing women and erasing their individuality aside, the bulk of Rodgers and Hart’s score is bland and forgettable. The central character, Willy, played with matinee idol charm by Mark Evans, sings the title refrain (“I married an angel…”) over and over and over until you think you will never un-hear it. Musicals of the period – before plot and character fueled action and score – drove home melodies to sell sheet music and Rodgers was not messing around with his title phrase. The rest of Evans’ ballads are swept out of memory almost as soon as they happen; it’s kind of amazing that he was able to learn them since they are so entirely dissipatory.
The only memorable moments in the score come back-to-back at the end of the first act. Willy’s sister, Peggy (Nikki M. James), sings “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street” and a secondary character, Anna (Hayley Podschun), sings a riff on Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Though James’ voice struggles with the vocal range of Rodgers’ melody, “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street” hints at some of the lush, romantic tunes the composer would go on to write, but it’s ultimately not on par with those later works. “How to Win Friends” is a lively tap number that jolts the score to life for a brief moment and Podschun brings the spirit of late-30s musicals to her vocals and dance.
The show has two ballets that make very little sense, but allow Mearns to showcase her strengths. The first is a “Honeymoon Ballet” in which Mearns’ Brigitta dances with literally every ensemble member and travels around the world, but does not spend any time with her husband until the final seconds. Evans is not even onstage until he rides in on a sleigh and picks her up and carries her away from all the fun she’s been having for the last ten minutes. Some honeymoon. The second ballet is titled “Othello: A Surrealist Ballet” but should more accurately be called “Magritte: A Surrealist Ballet” since the design and choreography do not have anything to do with the Moor of Venice. The highlights of René Magritte’s paintings are taken as a foundation of the ballet and it results in the production’s most visually arresting sequence. It’s also Bergasse’s best choreography and Mearns’ best dancing. Give us a wordless Magritte ballet, then, and keep I Married an Angel in the drawer.
There are so many projects Bergasse and Mearns could have done together. The Balanchine-Zorina parallelism cannot be the sole reason they chose this one, but sitting through the final product, nothing else jumps out. As Encores! celebrates its twenty-fifth year of dusting off musicals from a bygone era, maybe they are truly scraping the bottom of the barrel. Rodgers and Hart would go on to write Pal Joey and had just completed Babes in Arms when I Married an Angel premiered. Five years later, Hart would drink himself to death and Rodgers would partner with Oscar Hammerstein II to write some of the greatest musicals ever composed. There’s a benefit to looking at the neglected work of these artists, but look from a distance. If you spend time with them or dive below their frothy upper layers, they’re likely to disappoint. And how.