An hour before the opening curtain, I found myself in possession of a free ticket to God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, a musical that I had absolutely never heard of and knew precisely nothing about, at the generic-sounding New York City Center theater. I looked at the cast and recognized exactly one name: James Earl Jones. That was good enough for me.
City Center turns out to be a gigantic, gorgeous theater in Moorish style, complete with Spanish tiled dome. It was packed all the way to the back of the uppermost balcony, with something like the audience you’d find on Broadway minus tourists.
The play is adapted from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, and so early on the main character, scion of a Republican dynasty and president of a MacArthur-like family foundation, leans on a stack of Kilgore Trout novels, handing them out to anyone who will listen. Those books, it turns out, are really copies of the script; the program describes the production as “a concert performance in which the actors may be performing with their scripts in hand”. Tonight was opening night, and some actors clearly had their lines memorized better than others.
There were also some technical issues; either my ears are failing or the chorus voices were a little low in the sound mix. Despite missing a few lines, I could hear that the play was clearly channeling Kurt Vonnegut: unabashedly adult, crude, dadaist, liberal, still trembling with guilt and sorrow from World War II, but also playing games with science fiction tropes.
The play is a bit disjointed, a lurching comedy of the deranged. I can see why the original production closed after 7 weeks in 1979, and has hardly been heard of since. In the final scene, it was suddenly clear why City Center had decided to revive it now. Specifically, it was when James Earl Jones made his dramatic entrance and (after at least a full minute of nonstop applause) proceeded to deliver a monologue that sums up the show’s thesis in terms that seem more meaningful today than perhaps they did in 1979.
I won’t attempt to transcribe it, but the monologue sums up the play’s thesis: that we need to figure out how to give real respect to poor people in rust belt towns where the good jobs have all disappeared due to automation. Of course, the speech can’t use the term “rust belt”, because in 1979 that term hadn’t been coined yet (although it was about to be!). The play also shouldn’t be able to talk about AI displacing human labor in modern terms, and yet it manages to come shockingly close, with poetic consideration of “smarter tools” that are “worth more than the humans”.
In the end, the play finds that the only way for a New York trust fund baby to save his own soul is to go to Middle America and make the people there feel truly respected. That’s a story that sounds almost familiar this year … and our tragedy is that the play’s insane flawed millionaire, Mr. Rosewater, is still so much saner and better than the one we got in real life.