Flying Over Sunset, Pulitzer Prize-winning bookwriter/director James Lapine’s new original show, is a “What If?” musical: using historical facts that are known about writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley, politician and diplomat Clare Boothe Luce, and actor and film star Cary Grant, he has created a fictitious story about their experimenting with LSD together in the late 1950’s.
The problem seems to be that he doesn’t appear to know much about them so that the results are extremely thin though the musical still manages to run 15 minutes under three hours. The songs by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Michael Korie don’t add a great deal and the production design which ought to be psychedelic is subdued and unadventurous. Stars Harry Hadden-Paton as Huxley, Carmen Cusack as Luce and Tony Yazbeck as Grant try valiantly but they can’t breathe life into generic cardboard cutouts.
Lapine counts on the names Huxley, Luce and Grant being so well-known that he gives almost no facts about their lives or careers but unfortunately they are no longer the household names that they once were. All we learn of Huxley is that he wrote Brave New World, The Doors of Perception, and The Devils of Loudon; Luce, wife of Time magazine publisher Henry Luce, had been U.S. Ambassador to Italy and wrote the play The Women, and Hollywood star Grant was born in England and was yet to star in Houseboat with Sophia Loren. Their Wikipedia entries reveal a great deal more.
All three end up pale imitations of what they might have been, the most damaging being Grant whose movies are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to see and hear him in Yazbeck’s subtle, bland impersonation. The fourth main character writer/philosopher Gerald Heard (played by Robert Sella), their guide on their joint LSD trip, is even less developed. The way his homosexuality is handled is to make coy jokes about his friendship with film director George Cukor but without establishing that Cukor was gay.
The first act concerns all three main characters trying LSD separately: Huxley is shown at Hollywood’s Rexall Drug Store (at that time “the largest drug store in the world”) tripping on a drug (which famously enough as he wrote about in his notorious The Door of Perception was mescaline and not LSD); Grant going to see his then wife Betsy Drake’s psychiatrist to try LSD as she had already tried it in the doctor’s office and thought it might help him with his demons; and Luce, suffering from the emotional trauma of losing both her mother and daughter in a short period of time, trying it at her Connecticut estate under the direction of Gerald Heard.
The second act brings the four of them together at Luce’s rented estate in Malibu where they try LSD as a group. Their visions already explored in the first act are repetitious and rather banal, no deeper than Psych 101: Huxley is guilty about the death of his wife Maria from the breast cancer she had kept from him; Grant is suffering over his treatment by his abusive father, the disappearance of his mother when he was ten, and his changing his identity from his birth name of Archie Leach; and finally Luce is still having trouble dealing with the loss of first her mother Austin and later her 19-year-old daughter Ann both in car accidents and the feeling that she never gave them enough time from her busy political schedule.
Not only are we way ahead of these characters, but the visions created by projection designer 59 Productions on Beowulf Boritt’s elegant sets are very tame and uninteresting. The use of purple, green and blue lights alternately by designer Bradley King does not go far enough to make the stage pictures suggest an LSD trip of any kind. Hadden-Paton’s Huxley is most interesting as an intellectual, a nerd who knows everything, but he becomes tiresome as he is always right. Cusack is fashionable and graceful as Luce but her performance suggests a great many other famous doyens, not specific to this character.
Yazbeck’s Archie Leach (aka Cary Grant) who was historically a vaudevillian in his early days of show business has the best number, a tap dance routine to “I Have It All,” created by choreographer Michelle Dorrance, artistic director of Dorrance Dance, but one does not associate Grant’s career with tap dance in 2021 so that this sticks out as an anachronism. Each act opens with the cast stomping round the stage in circles which may be accounted as tapping but seems foreign to the story ahead. The only other memorable song in the score is the waltz by Huxley and his wife Maria (Hadden-Paton and Laura Shoop) to the luxurious “The Music Plays On” but as this sounds operetta-ish it seems completely out of place in the 1950’s context. While Kitt’s score to orchestrations by Michael Starobin (who has worked on almost all of Lapine’s musicals) is lush and melodic, it seems wrong for the material and is not helped by Korie’s pedestrian lyrics.
Lapine’s direction is smooth and polished but Flying Over Sunset plays like a drawing room comedy drama rather than a psychedelic trip. Toni-Leslie James’ beautiful, chic costumes only add to this feeling. The excellent cast does what it can with the skimpy and emaciated story but cannot save it from seeming like a missed opportunity and a big disappointment considering the talent involved. New musicals are few and far between but this does not seem to have anything much to tell us about three famous people whose reputations are not based on this story.
Flying Over Sunset (through January 16, 2022)
Lincoln Center Theater
Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call CenterCharge at 212-721-6500 or visit http://www.flyingoversunset.com
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission