Friday, May 21, 2021

566. VIA GALACTICA. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Via Galactica. (Photos: Morty Lefkoe.)

VIA GALACTICA [Musical/Fantasy/Political/Science-Fiction] B: Christopher Gore and Judith Ross; M: Galt McDermott; LY: Christopher Gore; D: Peter Hall; CH: George Faison; S/C: John Bury; L: Lloyd Burlingame; P George W. George and Barnard S. Straus i/a/w Nat Shapiro; T: Uris Theatre; 11/28/72-12/2/72 (7)

Via Galactica.

The year is 2972, a 1,000 years in the future, and Earth no longer has racial problems: everyone is blue. Thoughts are controlled and suicide at age 55 is compulsory. A garbage man named Gabriel Finn (Raul Julia), who deposits his refuse in orbit by means of an outer-space garbage ship, is dissatisfied with life under these conditions and travels to Ithaca, a distant asteroid, where Dr. Isaacs (Keene Curtis), the leader, is nothing but a living head. Ithaca supports a group of dissidents who disagree with Earth’s way of running people’s lives.

Virginia Vestoff, Keene Curtis.

The doctor wants the garbage man to mate with Omaha (Virginia Vestoff), the doctor’s beautiful wife, and thereby provide him with an heir. Eventually, after the mating, the inhabitants of the asteroid leave by space ark to colonize a far-off star and thereby escape the threat of invasion by Earth.

Most critics thought this plot befuddled in the telling; a closely detailed program synopsis tended to confuse matters even further. The futuristic story was the excuse for a pop opera in which all the dialogue was sung, but for which the words and music were inescapably inadequate.

Song titles included "Via Galactica," "We Are One," "Helen of Troy," "The Other Side of the Sky," "Children of the Sun," "Ilmar's Tomb," "Gospel of Gabriel Finn," "The Great Forever Wagon," "Dance the Dark Away," and "New Jerusalem," among others. 

Conceived and directed by leading British director Peter Hall, knighted five years later, Via Galactica was a sci-fi fantasy that turned into a very expensive nightmare for its backers. It was spectacularly produced with elaborate lighting and scenic effects, and with trampolines employed to create the effect of weightless movement. No one was impressed by the trick, which seemed more silly than innovative. In less than a week Via Galactica was orbiting the space junk atmosphere.

Typical of the responses was Walter Kerr’s accusation that Via Galactica “was doggerel opera,” “utterly without humor,” and, for all its movement, “quite staggeringly static." Clive Barnes liked  Galt McDermott’s score, which he though as good as the one for Dude, another McDermott flop that season. It has “the bounce and radiance that are McDermott trademarks,” he declared. The show’s fundamental problem, Barnes opined, “is the banality of the book, which has no interest and no point of contact with the audience. It is a difficult show to care for.”

The performances were critically acceptable, but, as Barnes claimed, “it is Raul Julia’s show, and his charm and presence are always evident.” Among the many others involved were Irene Cara, Bill Starr, and Mark Baker.

Hall was fully aware he was trapped in a debacle. In Peter Hall's Diaries, his entry for "Friday 24 November" went: 

New York: I have now been for one solid month and more in the grip of a rehearsal nightmare which is the same each and every day. Via Galactica, though getting better technically, is getting thinner and less worthwhile in its heart. It is dying, as shows can. And there is nothing much I can do about it. There is life there, but it is life of the wrong kind. A director knows by this stage of rehearsal whether something is good or bad. This is bad--but I have to go on pretending to the cast.

Then, on "Wednesday 29 November":

New York: The notices of Via Galactica are universally terrible. The show loses on Saturday. Galt McDermott . . . doesn't seem too disturbed. He liked what we ended up with.

I didn't. I am not ashamed of the production as it now stands. But it is far away from the dream I dreamed. The script was never right and still isn't. It was and is a fine score. However, i you can't have a monumental sucess, I suppose you may as well have a monumental failure. This is it. 

The show was the first one produced at the spacious new Uris Theatre, now the Gershwin Theatre, a modernistic, 1,850-seat venue designed by Ralph Alswang. Many agreed that, apart from Raul Julia, the theatre was better than the show.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on by clicking here. 

Next up: The Visit.