Trading Places

In a drama of mistaken identities, superproducer Cameron Mackintosh brings a musical to a nonprofit stage, while the Guthrie claims a cut of the residuals

In many ways, however, it was Mackintosh himself who set the gears of the Broadway machine in motion. With Cats and Les Misérables, Mackintosh perfected the franchising of music theater--operating touring productions while simultaneously producing the same show in London and New York. While the arrangement certainly brought theater to the masses, Mackintosh's success also demonstrated that musical theater could be an enormously lucrative venture when adapted to economies of scale.

The scale of Martin Guerre is undeniable. And yet, on the whole, the musical is at once moodier and shallower than either Les Misérables or Miss Saigon. The tragedy here is not that of war or star-crossed love, but of mere circumstance; outrageous fortune is the villain buffeting these poor players. In this case, the title character, played by Hugh Panaro, falls from grace with his fellow villagers when he refuses to impregnate his young wife, a provincial beauty named Bertrande (Erin Dilly). In another time, his reticence and ponytail might have been interpreted as something altogether different. But since this is 16th-century France, Martin's solution is to rush off and kill Protestants in the War of the Reformation.

In the play's opening scene, we find Martin lounging with his comrade in arms Arnaud (Stephen Buntrock) and singing an ode to friendship. Except for a surfeit of blue smoke, the stage is empty and cast in shadow. All at once, and with a crash that fairly shakes the walls of the venerable Guthrie, a party of ragged soldiers comes rushing in, a cannon dragging behind them. There is a short, confused melee, and Martin is run through by a sword while trying to shield Arnaud. With what appears to be his last breath, he engages Arnaud to find his beloved Bertrande and beg her forgiveness by proxy. Presuming his friend dead, Arnaud goes him one better, and returns to Artigat to claim both long-suffering Bertrande and Martin's name for himself.

Unholy matrimony? Martin Guerre (Hugh Panaro) and Bertrande (Erin Dilly) join fortunes in the Guthrie's collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh
Unholy matrimony? Martin Guerre (Hugh Panaro) and Bertrande (Erin Dilly) join fortunes in the Guthrie's collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh

The village, as evoked by set designer John Napier and director Morrison, is not the disease-plagued backwater that history would have it. The villagers dance frenetically around a Maypole woven from flowers, leap about in animal masks, and spin giddily through their daily labor, waving scythes and rakes like the batons of a well-rehearsed marching band (David Bolger's vibrant choreography suggests that the average Renaissance slob could have found work as an Arthur Murray instructor in our age). When the peasants are not dancing, they are looking for a reason to burn someone--anyone--at the stake. First they scapegoat poor Bertrande for a drought. Then, when Arnaud's arrival in the guise of Martin Guerre brings rain, they fall into Dionysian revelry. When the real Martin returns, wounded but not quite dead, they scapegoat the village Protestants, a local idiot (Michael Arnold in an endearing comic turn), Arnaud, and anyone else they can get their hands on. The masses have never been so plebeian or so fickle.

The message, it would appear, is that the rule of the mob creates a society steeped in distrust. The production goes to great lengths to suggest, also, that prejudice and stupidity are closely related. By the mob's fourth or fifth volte-face, however, the villagers have come to seem downright silly. And indeed, beneath the veneer of humorless tragedy, this Martin Guerre seems a tragic comedy waiting to emerge.


But then who couldn't use a tragic comedy with a catchy tune? Those who would accuse the Guthrie of compromising its artistic mission by staging Martin Guerre will find themselves in the awkward position of advocating for elitism in this most prickly of populist cities. But if not for elitism, what is to distinguish the Guthrie from venues that stage nude ice shows of Toni Morrison's Beloved?

The modern musical as exemplified by Mackintosh's oeuvre may be endlessly concerned with class anxieties, but as a form, it is populism made manifest. Perhaps the most apt analogy for the musical's current role in culture is that of opera--now considered the exclusive realm of the leisure class, but once popularly derided as the height of gauche spectacle.

While a big-budget musical with an imported cast would seem a subversion of Sir Tyrone's original dream of a classical repertory theater, Sir Tyrone is long dead, and the world in which he founded the Guthrie has passed. The Guthrie now competes with the touring shows that Jujamcyn regularly stages as part of the Twin Cities Broadway Season, and although the founder and the current head of Jujamcyn are both members of the Guthrie's board of directors, the struggle for audiences means that the Guthrie can hardly afford not to change--or, as Sir Tyrone put it, "condescend to 'popular' taste."

"We're all competing for audiences," Dowling says. "Everyone's looking for as large a slice as they can get. But we're also competing with the orchestra and all other sorts of entertainment. We want to be successful, like everyone. It would be insane to say we didn't want to be successful."

Still, success is not significance, and spectacle is not substance. By the dramatic denouement of Martin Guerre, the musical's defining visual tableau, the wall of fire, has come to seem particularly apt. This is a production that, while hell-bent on burning down the house, mainly produces smoke and heat.

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