Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Musical Tragedy: Clear Blue Tuesday

September 11, 2001 was an unseasonably warm, clear day. It was also a Tuesday—New York City’s primary election day, in fact. Obviously, it was a day of profound tragedy that deeply affected nearly every American. Eleven loosely linked New Yorkers respond to 9-11 in song over the course of seven mid-September Tuesdays in Elizabeth Lucas’s Clear Blue Tuesday (trailer here), a collaborative movie musical opening this Friday in New York.

Lucas started with her cast, largely recruited from the New York theater scene, letting them develop their own characters and signature songs organically. She then crafted them together into a mosaic that fits together surprisingly well. Unfortunately, many of the resulting characters are rather uninvolving. Frankly, most of Tuesday’s eleven principals are only tangentially connected to the tragedy of the World Trade Center. As a result, we get way too much navel-gazing (musical or otherwise) from yuppies and hipsters, who are certainly entitled to their complex emotional reactions, but obscure the bigger picture.

Tuesday seems reflective of larger sentiments that determinedly resist addressing 9-11 directly, lest we be accused of “waving the bloody shirt.” Instead, we are asked to concentrate on how the deaths of 3,000 innocent human beings have affected our ability to clear airport security in a timely fashion or changed the tenor of public discourse. Again, this obscures the more profound and pressing issues.

Fortunately, Jan O’Dell saves this film’s soul. An actress living in lower Manhattan, O’Dell was seriously injured on September 11th, just like her character, Caroline King the business executive. Her characters’ experiences are clearly grounded in her own. O’Dell’s presence also supplies the emotional heft for the film’s showstopper number, set during a remembrance ritual.

Tuesday’s ensemble cast works earnestly to connect with the audience, but the results are rather mixed. Julie Danao-Salkin (Yoko Ono in the ill-fated Broadway show Lennon) is indeed quite good as Reena Santiago Issacs, a responsible wife and mother dealing with an immature wannabe writer husband. She also has the second most memorable musical number, “We Move the World.” However, the cast of theater veterans often seems to be pitching their performances for the stage rather than the camera.

By book musical standards, Tuesday is a bit unbalanced too. Since most numbers express the characters’ inner insecurities, it does not have a really good romantic ballad or a rousing flag waver. As a result, there is a level of sameness throughout the score, broken up only by some annoyingly gimmicky hair metal. Still, Erin Hill’s distinctive opening harp music is appropriately sensitive and respectful for the devastating events soon to come.

Tuesday is undeniably well-intentioned, but it is hard to understand why we should care about characters like Samantha Putnam, an aspiring actress who was not even living in New York at the time of the terrorist attack, regardless of how attractive she is. Yet, as the eleven New Yorkers steadily rebuild their damaged spirits, Tuesday provides a visual reminder that three successive dithering scandal-plagued governors have done practically nothing to rebuild the World Trade Center site. Of course, we knew that already. Aside from the remarkable honesty of O’Dell’s performance, the balance of the film comes across somewhat self-absorbed, missing the forest for the trees. It opens this Friday (9/3) at the Quad Cinema.