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1969 The Second Man Review: Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, A Life in Song

Buzz Aldrin was the second man to walk on the moon (nine minutes after the first, Neil Armstrong), 50 years ago next summer.

“No one will think of them as ‘the first men on the moon.’ Neil will be remembered. Buzz will be forgotten,” say members of the cast of “1969 The Second Man.” On stage through September 8 at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, the show recounts some of the high and low points of the astronaut’s life – before, after and during the Apollo 11 mission.

Jacob Brandt conceived the show and wrote some dozen original songs for it, a score of pleasing folk-rock melodies that invoke some of the sweeter sounds from the 60’s – the Mama and the Papas, say; The Association; a hint of James Taylor.  Brandt is also one of the six charming musicians who play it, on guitar, bass guitar, violins, mandolin, drums, and  kaossilator (a hand-held music synthesizer)

But “1969: The Second Man” is not really a musical. It’s far closer to a concert. The musicians and the cast are one and the same; the half dozen performers largely function as a band. They stand in place with their instruments, sticking to their spot, while ironically they talk and sing about a man who traveled farther than (almost) any other human being in history.

Brandt’s lyrics seldom advance the story; they more often establish the general atmosphere, either emotional or historical, or both:

 The Russians are a-rushin’
to lay claim to that white sphere
Everyone is happy and everyone will cheer
But us Yankee Doodle Dandies
    gonna kick em in the rear

The show takes an approach similar to that by The Bengsons in such “musicals” as “Hundred Days,” and the Bengsons have many devoted fans (though I don’t count myself among them.)  But the Bengsons are writing about themselves, not a historical figure (one who is, by the way, still alive, at 88.).

For most of “1969: The Second Man,” the life of Buzz Aldrin unfolds not in scenes with characters, but through folksy storytelling by cast members, taking turn reciting the lines written by the show’s book writer Dan Giles. Sometimes Giles sounds impatient to get through it all.  At one point, cast member Maya Sharpe says: “Hard decade for Buzz. Two divorces. Dad dies. 1978: Broke. Alone. Watch news. Drink. Room spins. Repeat.”

But if “1969: The Second Man” won’t take its place alongside “Hamilton” or “Fiorello” or even “Evita” in the pantheon of biographical musicals, its subject is more intriguing than one might have expected. We learn how ambitious he had been from the get-go, and how smart. He had a PhD from MIT; “Buzz makes complex orbital calculations instantaneously and in his head,” Lizze Hagstedt tells us. “By 1962 standards, he is literally smarter than a computer.” Aldrin also seemed almost destined for lunar exploration: His mother’s maiden name was Marion Moon.

Before the moon landing, Aldrin’s mother committed suicide, as had her father before her. This helps explain Aldrin’s own struggles with depression. After the lunar landing, he also had trouble landing a job, and keeping sober. His near-fame didn’t help matters; he was forced to engage with the public wherever he went, encounters that the show cleverly sums up with a trio of half-finished lines:

“When you were on the moon, I was….” (As Angel Lin observes wryly: “Story that’s almost about him but not quite.”)

“Are you still in touch with…”

“What did it feel like to….”

 

It’s not until the end of “1969: The Second Man,” that we get to the moon landing itself. The storytellers skipped that part in the chronology, surely for dramatic effect – and these last 15 minutes or so come closest to being dramatically effective. Though the blocking scarcely improves, the performers turn from storytellers into characters, portraying Neil, Buzz, Mike Collins (the third astronaut on the mission) and Mission Control in Houston. There is a sense of suspense as they act out the transcript, including the first words that both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin say on putting their boots on the lunar surface.

Armstrong: “That one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Aldrin: “Magnificent desolation.”

(Those two comments give us almost all we need to know about the difference between the two men.)

As they speak, the famous footage of their moon walks unspool — projected onto Tony Aidan Vo’s drum.

1969: The Second Man
Next Door at NYTW
Concept, Music & Lyrics by Jacob Brandt
Book by Dan Giles
Directed by Jaki Bradley
Production design by Oona Curley, co-scenic design and video design by Daniel Prosky, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, aouns swaifn vy Jim Pwrry.
Cast/musicians: Jacob Brandt (guitar), Paris Ellsworth (violin), Lizzie Hagstedt (bass guitar), Angel Lin (guitar, mandolin, & percussion ) Maya Sharpe (violin and guitar)
, Tony Aidan Vo (drums, guitar and kaossilator
“1969 The Second Man.” Is on stage through September 8, 2018

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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