To outsiders, a rock musical that presents a long-dead public official as a tragic villain, and a disagreement over public policy as high drama, might sound ludicrous from the get-go. But the central character in “Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses,” portrayed by Constantine Maroulis, was one of the most powerful figures in New York history, and Robert Moses continues to fascinate a certain breed of New Yorker. I am one of those New Yorkers, and so obviously are the show’s creators, Peter Galperin and Daniel Scot Kadin. We are, in other words, people who have read “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s mammoth 1974 biography of Robert Moses, one of the best-written and most celebrated books about New York City.
“Bulldozer,” which is decently directed and professionally performed by a hardworking five-member cast, does turn out to be ludicrous in several of its choices, but not because of its choice of subject.
For some 50 years, Robert Moses “got things done” in New York – creating the state park system, building beautiful beaches (like Jones Beach) and bridges (the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge), helping to bring about Lincoln Center and the UN headquarters. He was seen as a uniquely capable public servant, able to defeat anything in his way to serve the public interest. But when he turned his attention to housing and highways, his failure to keep up with enlightened thinking in these two areas, coupled with his autocratic methods, began to turn the public against him, sparking a series of protest movements against his proposals.
Moses has been a character on stage several times before – in The Radiant City by Theodora Skipitares in 1991, Boozy by Alex Timbers in 2005, and in this season’s Illyria, where he’s mentioned as Joseph Papp’s nemesis in the fight to create Free Shakespeare in Central Park. He has always been presented as a villain.
“Bulldozer” attempts something of a more balanced portrait, at least initially, although it does so awkwardly. The show begins with a folksinger (Ryan Knowles) delivering a supposedly well-known ballad:
He had a vision for New York City,
a shining future, no one else could see. Great bridges, tunnels, and parks connected by highways.
This is the story
of the city that came to be.
He was the Master Builder,
He was the Powerbroker…
We flash back to Moses in 1919 as a 30-year-old idealist and a mama’s boy, and follow him over the years as he becomes not just powerful, but an adulterer, a bully, and a blackmailer – and he is revealed as an all-purpose bigot.
The second half of the show’s 100 minutes and 24 songs focuses largely on the fight between Moses and activist Jane Jacobs (The folksinger: “She was a thinker, a seeker, a sage beyond her youth”) over the Moses plan to build an expressway through a large part of Greenwich Village, including Washington Square Park.
Jane Jacobs (Molly Pope) sings:
These theories of urban renewal don’t reflect the way we live.
They’re treating this city
like it’s lines on a grid.
But we’re talking about people.
I know that something’s gotta give.
Peter Galperin, who conceived the musical, wrote the songs and co-wrote the book, deserves kudos for attempting something so ambitious as a musical biography of such a complex man. But “Bulldozer” needs work. Anybody who’s read Caro’s book might be tempted to try to re-create the sweep of history evident in its 1200 + pages, but on stage at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, the pile-up of so many incidents seems rushed. Only Caro readers will be able to understand all the historical references crammed into these scenes, and some throwaway lines; it’s as if Galperin is an over-eager student loathe to leave anything he learned out of his paper.
Yet, with just 100 minutes to work with, the authors nevertheless dwell on a surely fictional character, Vera Martin (Kacie Sheik), who is at best a composite of Robert Moses’ string of mistresses, and also becomes his assistant. Vera, who meets Moses as a waitress in a nightclub, gets many songs and many scenes, including one between her and Jane Jacobs that convinces her to become a Jacobs ally and turn against her boss and lover. Vera feels like a stilted narrative device (and maybe a marketing one too), as well as an excuse to include some songs of love and loss, which are varying degrees of lovely, but feel imported from another show.
Nelson Rockefeller was certainly a central character in Moses life, but historians would find it at best controversial – and perhaps, yes, ludicrous – that he is largely cast in “Bulldozer” as a hero, albeit a self-interested one. He partners with Jane Jacobs to bring Moses down.
Maroulis does a fine job as Moses – the man can act as well as sing – although the production’s obviously low budget takes its toll; there’s no discernible effort to distinguish between Moses at 30 and Moses at 85.
Rock n roll seems exactly the wrong genre for a musical about Robert Moses – I have no doubt he hated it vociferously. But it makes sense for several of Molly Pope’s hard-charging songs of defiance. And it accommodates a certain poignancy at the end, when Maroulis as Moses, finally shorn of his power and contemplating his past, sings
I couldn’t see a thing,
because the light was in my eyes.
I was heading straight towards the sun.
Theatre at St. Clements
Directed by Karen Carpenter
Choreographed by Gary Ray Bugarcic, set design by Ken Larson, lighting design by Zach Blane, lighting design by Bobby Frederick Tilley, lighting design by Howard Fredrics
Cast: Constantine Maroulis as Robert Moses, Wayne Wilcox as Nelson Rockefeller, Molly Pope as Jane Jacobs, Ryan Knowles, and Kacie Sheik
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $40 to $80
Bulldozer is scheduled to run through January 7, 2017