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Make Toys, Not War, Sings 'Johnny'

July 13, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN

It was interesting to hear Frank Sinatra sing "The House I Live In" at the Statue of Liberty last weekend. I hadn't heard it since my eighth-grade class sang it at graduation in the late 1940s. It fell from favor a few years later, when its composer, Earl Robinson, was accused of being a communist. Apparently it has been rehabilitated.

The weekend before saw the return of a work that had been in exile even longer: "Johnny Johnson." Written by Kurt Weill and Paul Green for the Group Theatre, it flopped on Broadway in 1936 and has been very seldom revived since.

Watching "Johnny Johnson" at the Odyssey Theater, it's not hard to figure out why. First, it's a message musical, and these are regarded as box-office poison, even when the public likes the message. Second, its message is that war brings out the worst in the American character. This would not have been a popular thesis in the early 1940s, and by the early 1950s it would have been considered downright subversive. Enough Group Theatre alumni were in trouble with the House Committee on Un-American Activities already.

And then it was too late. "Johnny Johnson" had become a title in the theater history books, a relic of the left-wing 1930s, like Marc Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock." The Company Theatre revived it during the Vietnam War, but the consensus was that modern audiences had outgrown musical fables in which country boys sang about their fellow man.

The Odyssey's Ron Sossi had been charmed by the Company Theatre's revival, however, and thought it would be interesting to try a 50th-anniversary production, if he could get the Paul Green estate to agree to some changes in the book. (Green died in 1980, Weill in 1950.) He didn't get the changes, which is just as well for anyone who wants to know what Weill and Green actually wrote.

They wrote a much better show than anyone has given them credit for. True, "Johnny" bogs down in the second act--but this may be a fault of a fairly uneven company. In general, the evening's a revelation. Anyone who calls this a "naive" musical will be asked to give his definition of a sophisticated one.

To be sure, it takes the form of a tall tale. To be sure, Johnny (Ralph Bruneau) sings about the brotherhood of man. But its creators don't forget that Cain and Abel were brothers too. "Johnny Johnson" has hopes for the race, but it has no illusions about what men and women actually are. Its caricatures of small-town folks and big-headed politicians are not flattering and its dark scenes are about as dark as a musical can get.

Not only dark: macabre. Particularly in the trench scenes. Johnny, the peaceable small-town sculptor, has agreed to join the Army, seeing as how President Wilson has promised that this is to be the very last war in history. Johnny rather enjoys the camaraderie, but he's not too keen on some of the surprises. For instance, one of his buddies throws a rope over the sandbags and hauls back a boot--with a foot still in it.

Green had seen action in World War I and makes vivid use of his nightmares here. Weill's music is equally unsettling, as when yesterday's dead serenade today's fresh arrivals. More than one Vietnam War veteran has spoken of the bizarre quality of combat. Sossi's actors bring out the this-can't-be-happening feeling.

But there's also something sinister about the hometown scenes. For example, a tight-mouthed housewife (Joyce E. Greene) praises draft-dodgers for being "smart" enough to cut off a finger or a toe. It's as if the folks in "The Music Man" had been possessed by devils-- mean ones. Again, this speaks to a reality: the way a small town can curdle the soul.

Johnny is no Simple Simon either. "You don't expect me to enlist without knowing what it's about , do you?" he asks his sweetheart, Minny Belle (Michelle Chilton), who begins her "Farewell" aria before he's even decided whether to go. Actor Bruneau reads the line in the stubborn, sensible fashion of a young Jimmy Stewart and we are returned to an era when Americans prided themselves on their ability to ask sensible questions and not be stampeded by slogans.

It is, of course, foolish of Johnny to imagine that he can stop the war simply by informing the German troops (typified by Sam Loewenberg) that the Kaiser is a liar. But it's quite in line with the operative rhetoric of the war, and also with Johnny's character. Unlike Candide, Johnny doesn't wait for things to happen to him. He makes things happen.

And he does come darned close to stopping the war, by introducing a new kind of gas to the front--laughing gas. The game is up when the other soldiers realize that he's not a general at all, simply a guy in a general's overcoat. Meanwhile the viewer may be taking the point that a general is also simply a guy in a general's overcoat.

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