Most of the critical praise enjoyed by lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty since their collaboration began with Lucky Stiff in 1988 has centered on the wildly successful Ragtime. Seussical the Musical, although a critical failure, remains tremendously popular, profiting from myriad community, school, and regional theatre productions. The team’s songs from Once on This Island, A Man of No Importance, and even the animated film Anastasia have entered the repertoire of the aspiring musical theatre performer. One wonders, then, why one of their most recent endeavors, Dessa Rose, which premiered at Lincoln Center in 2005, remains comparatively unknown. Although Dessa Rose raises provocative questions about historiography, the New Repertory Theatre’s production (May 2008) suggests that the musical suffers from intrinsic problems of structure, narrative, and embodiment that are perhaps insurmountable.
As with Ragtime, Ahrens adapted Dessa Rose from a novel containing several narrative lines. The product, however, was less successful. In the absence of Terrence McNally’s skillful book-writing and with less time for workshop development, Ahrens and Flaherty may have lacked opportunities to resolve the inevitable problems of stage adaptation. (Ragtime benefited from a three-year development process that included workshops, a concept album, and two pre-Broadway engagements in Toronto and Los Angeles.) Devotion to the structure of the source material may have contributed to the musical’s uneven narrative framework. Sherley Anne Williams’s episodic novel is divided into sections providing three separate points of view: that of Adam Nehemia, a journalist out to capture the story of a murderous slave for his eager publisher; Rufel (Ruth in the musical), a white woman abandoned by her philandering husband on his plantation; and the title character, a pregnant slave-coffle rebellion leader. While the clever contrast of narrative voices functions effectively in Williams’s novel, it causes complications in the musical. Lacking the clear transitions and structural consistency of Ragtime, Dessa Rose is an uneven experience for the spectator: the narrative voices guiding the audience through the musical shift among Ruth, Dessa, and occasionally Nehemia, their perspectives sporadically jumping from temporal points of view. [End Page 135]
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From the beginning of the New Repertory Theatre’s production, it was clear that Dessa Rose is a story of women above all; “We are descended from a long, strong line of women,” the musical began, the full company lending their voices for the first time on nearly deafening chords on the final lyric. The manner in which their story is told, however, raises competing questions of historiography concerning written versus oral history. “We are handing you down a story, listen child, as the music of our memory flows,” the full company sings, commencing—and privileging—the unfolding oral history and lending appropriate credence to the spoken slave narrative that drives the action. The musical then calls into question the assumed value of the written text. In order to impress his publisher (and intended fatherin- law), Nehemia (played by New Rep veteran Todd Alan Johnson) must record Dessa’s story for a salacious book about slave rebellions. “Bloody tales are good for sales,” he insists, insinuating that his motivation hardly lies in historical accuracy. When Dessa repeatedly corrects Nehemia’s mistaken assumption that her name is Odessa, the journalist notes: “I will write that down, correctly, in ink,” only to be corrected again later. His significance, then, lies in his embodiment of fallacious slave histories written by contemporaneous white male historians. Such ideological embodiment, however, contributes little to, and even detracts from, the narrative structure of the piece. Nehemia’s role in the action dwindles until he reappears for a final moment of conflict and desperation, culminating in an exasperated display of his notebook to prove his version of Dessa’s story. In a moment of melodramatic crisis, the town...