In Mark Sonnenblick’s cabaret-like gay musical, Arthur, a pianist and songwriter, decides in 1965 that he will write songs to his lover, singer Trevor, without changing the pronouns in the lyrics from male to female. This act of defiance gets them a gig at a run-down backroom cabaret in a gay bar called the Never Get, where they put together a midnight act they call Midnight at the Never Get.
That’s the story at the center of the musical opening at the York Theater, at least on the surface. But the tone of the show, for better and for worse, is summarized in a remark that a record company scout says to them after they send out their songs in hopes of getting a recording contract. As Trevor recounts it: “He said Cole Porter had written these songs thirty years ago and better. What was the use in holding to something that was already dead?”
When Trevor (Sam Bolen) recounts this for the audience, he’s already made clear to us that he is himself long since dead, and elated by word that Arthur (Jeremy Cohen) has just died. When a person dies, according to the cosmology that Sonnenblick has created for his musical, the dead person gets to create a world in the afterlife based on the memories of his choosing.
While Trevor awaits Arthur in the celestial reproduction of the Never Get nightclub, he is telling us his memories of their bittersweet relationship, complete with a dozen songs that Arthur wrote for Trevor — which Cohen (and a barely lit backup band) plays, while Bolen sings. These are original songs by Sonnenblick, who is book writer, lyricist and composer for the show.
The story of Arthur and Trevor harkens back 50 years to the
era of gay oppression and self-hatred with just the first flickers of gay liberation. Arthur initially seems dedicated to advancing the cause, but believes it can be best done through his music, and holds no truck with the tactics of the “loud and aggressive and sanctimonious” activists. “First you have to make people want to listen to you. And then, maybe, you can change their minds.” But as Trevor continues to tell the story, we learn that Arthur’s issues aren’t really with strategy; he doesn’t accept his sexual orientation. Since it was his idea to keep the male pronouns in the lyrics in the first place, “Midnight at the Never Get” starts feeling less and less like a realistic look at a relationship, or the era, and more like a gay version of a 1940s melodrama.
The songs go back in time as well, feeling like pastiches of, yes, Cole Porter – tuneful and sophisticated – if, yes, not quite as good (though sometimes close!)
Some of Sonnenblick’s songs have intensely clever lyrics. In “Wallace Falls” Trevor sings about his hometown:
I would do quite well
In a Gulag cell
I would gladly pay my dues
Or at Alcatraz
Well I hear it has
These to-die-for ocean views….
For I’ve been the harshest place
A man can go!
I served twenty years inside uh Idaho
In the pointed “My Boy in Blue,” Trevor sings of pretending to fall in love with an undercover cop of the kind used at the time to entrap homosexuals:
I feel a kind of joy
I haven’t felt in ages.
I met a pretty boy
who’s getting city wages.
He owns a gun.
His outfit’s fun.
I won’t forget his number cuz it’s 9-1-1!
(A quibble: 911 wasn’t used in New York City until 1968)
“Midnight at the Never Get” shows off a promising talent in Mark Sonnenblick (Don’t you wish his next musical will be directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler?)
If the show would have been better off presented in an actual cabaret rather than a proscenium theater, and if one must have a high threshold for bathos to embrace (or even tolerate?) the ending, there are moments that are downright inspiring: “We can’t let the world shape our love,” the songwriter says. “We’ve got to share our love and let it shape the world.”
Midnight at the Never Get
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick
Co-conceived by Sam Bolen
Choreography by Andrew Palermo
Directed by Max Friedman
Cast:Sam Bolen, Jeremy Cohen, Jon J. Peterson
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Midnight at the Never Get runs through November 4, 2018