Billie is a published poet and a professor, who has been married to her husband Marvin for 25 years. She can’t sleep. She has trouble finding her things, and blames Marvin for rearranging them behind her back. She thinks it’s night when it’s early in the morning. She loads and unloads the laundry, without turning on the washing machine. She looks at her face in the mirror and feels that her nose and her lips don’t belong to her.
Billie has Alzheimer’s. “If Sand Were Stone,” an entry at the 2018 New York Musical Festival, presents Billie’s deterioration over a span of two years, and its effect on her husband Marvin and daughter Margaux. The title of the musical comes from a quote by Jorge Luis Borges, reprinted in the program: “Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand. But we must build as if the sand were stone.”
I can’t recommend this musical. There’s too much that doesn’t work. The production doesn’t serve the musical well. It is poorly cast: The voices are fine; the acting is uneven. The director’s choices often make more sense theoretically than in their execution: At one point, Margaux has turned on the TV to calm her mother; scenes from The Three Stooges are projected onto the backdrop, while the cast sings a moving song; I can’t be the only audience member distracted by the antics on the screen.
There are other, larger distractions from what should be the central focus on Billie’s Alzheimer’s, especially in a musical that is only ninety minutes long. Much time is spent on the affair Marvin is having with Tracy, who is Billie’s assistant; Tracy even gets a solo from her point of view. Four performers are cast as “spirits,” dressed in different colored jumpsuits, who speak as if representing Billie’s inner thoughts and also provide exposition (“Early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease is always hereditary.”…”In the final stages of Alzheimer’s, the subject can no longer respond to their environment.”) Though the inner thoughts sometimes work, and the spirits add some pleasing harmonies to several of the songs, it’s a device that occasionally tips towards the ludicrous.
Yet it’s hard to dismiss “If Sand Were Stone,” a clearly heartfelt collaboration between librettist/lyricist Carly Brooke Feinman and composer Cassie Willson, who have created a dozen competently-crafted songs. Several of them offer an unusual glimpse into the disease, such as “Time Moves on” and “Feels Like”
An image never named
a photo left unframed
a naked light, no shade in sight
You take a bite
burned mouth, burned throat
“If Sand Were Stone” is worth working on.
If Sand Were Stone is on stage at Theatre Row through July 22, as part of the New York Musical Festival