In an ideal world, one would be able to ponder the score, script, and staging of the new original Off-Broadway musical “The Connector” a bit longer before rendering any kind of judgment, especially given the initial critical responses to his best shows.
For fans of adventurous contemporary musical theater such as myself, “The Connector” is (or at least should be) a big deal because it represents the first original musical by composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown since 2008. Since then, Brown has written musicals based on films (“The Bridges of Madison County,” “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Mr. Saturday Night”) that are pleasant enough but nothing close to the musical and dramatic ingenuity found in his original musicals, including “Songs for a New World,” “Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” and “13.”
Not only that, “The Connector” brings together director Daisy Prince (who staged the original productions of “Songs for a New World” and “The Last Five Years”) and, in an interesting addition, playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman (who is best-known for writing the short play “Women and Wallace” as a youth).
The website of MCC Theater notes that “The Connector” is “about two talented young journalists” who work at a prestigious news magazine “in the late 1990s amid a rapidly changing media landscape.” What it does not state (and perhaps can’t for legal reasons) is that the musical is a loose dramatization of the rise and fall of Stephen Glass, who worked as a journalist at The New Republic in the late 1990s until he was exposed for fabricating stories. (His story was previously dramatized in the 2003 bio film “Shattered Glass.”)
In “The Connector,” Glass takes the form of the young, egotistical, and reckless literary journalist Ethan Dobson (Ben Levi Ross). He is joined by the magazine’s veteran, much-respected editor-in-chief (Scott Bakula), a fellow journalist who serves as a sort of narrator/commentator, potential love interest, and contrast to the protagonist (Hannah Cruz), and an uncompromising fact-checker (Jessica Molaskey).
A work about professional journalism and the line between truth and fiction is clearly timely given the growing concerns about the evolving and increasingly uncertain business model of news media and the threat that a diminished investigative press poses to democracy at large – though I question whether the Stephen Glass saga (or rather a story inspired by it) is the best vehicle for exploring these issues.
For the most part, I found “The Connector” (which runs just under two hours without intermission) to be engrossing (particularly during explosive production numbers in which the protagonist narrates his stories, conjuring colorful and offbeat characters played by Max Crumm and Fergie Philippe) and sharp (with ominous warnings about how the internet and corporate overlords would remake journalism). The performances and the production values (with Brown himself on piano and conducting the band) are all first-rate.
That being said, the ending is rushed and downbeat, and the storytelling often gets bogged down in overemphasizing social criticisms as to gender, racial, and economic inequality in the workplace. One particularly bitter lyric at the very end, which invokes truth denial at its absolute worst, is very questionable and self-conscious. For fans of Brown’s musicals, it is not hard to imagine “The Connector” as a deviant retelling of “The Last Five Years” in which Jamie, the successful writer, is also a pathological liar and Cathy, the struggling spouse, becomes more outspoken and proactive.
Hopefully “The Connector” (which contains some of Brown’s finest songs to date) will be recorded and receive some further development. But more importantly, one hopes that Brown will continue working on and debuting new original musicals.
The Robert Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 W. 52nd St., mcctheater.org. Through March 3.