Ford's The Civil War

Is it possible to take the subject of the Civil War – a complicated war, with many causes and many effects, a war that forever changed the makeup of our country – and successfully condense it into a 90-minute musical. Well, not, apparently, if you are Frank Wildhorn, composer and lyricist (along with Gregory Boyd and Jack Murphy). But to be fair, The Civil War isn’t so much a musical. There is no plot to speak of, and very little dialogue. It is a series of musical vignettes. So, a song cycle. Except this classification does nothing the save the piece. In a song cycle, each song serves almost like a miniature play, revealing in a few minutes, plot, character, and situation. Frank Wildhorn’s songs reveal nothing. The lyrics are trite and unspecific, telling us nothing unique about the character’s singing them. ("Tell him how I wore the blue / Proud and true through the fire / Tell my father so he’ll know / I loved him so"). Not only are the songs repetitive in themselves, they are repetitive to each other. This particular production has 19 musical number, which go like this:

1. Rousing Yee-haw number song by southern characters;
2. Black characters sing about freedom;
3. Female characters mourn.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Besides just being bad, this piece is actually offensive in the way it reduces the Civil War to a bunch of numbers with obvious beats, designed to elicit toe-tapping, several of which actual glorify the Confederacy. A prime example is the song ‘For the Glory.’ “For the dixie that I know / For the way of life we cherish / Let us die or let us go / For the Glory / For the home we hold so dear / let us give the last full measure gathered here / For the glory!” For the way of life you cherish? Which way of life is that? The way of life where other human beings are placed in abject subjection and forced to do all your work? What is offensive about such numbers is not specifically the sentiment they express, but the fact that we are not asked by Wildhorn to examine such a sentiment. We, instead, are asked to clap along and cheer wildly after the key change.

Let me make clear that I place the blame for the faults of this piece solely on Wildhorn’s shoulders. Ford’s has assembled a very talented cast, every one of whom sing powerfully and energetically. Director Jeff Calhoun has staged the piece as best as it can be done, except for an over-reliance on hand-shaking and back-patting. Calhoun wisely creates a sort of pop concert atmosphere, and chooses not to take the piece literally. The cast is dressed in a myriad of modern outfits, and the piece is supplemented by projections excellently designed by Aaron Rhyne. The cast and production staff does as well as can be expected. Unfortunately for the fine singers, Wildhorn’s writing leads to a tendency for every number to be sung emphatically, and thus the piece feels very flat.

Amazingly, Frank Wildhorn has taken the events, people, and emotions of the Civil War and created a piece that asks absolutely nothing of the audience. Due to his hackneyed lyrics, we are challenged neither emotionally nor intellectually.

2 stars
Through May 24th


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