REVIEW: “Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses”
The life and work of controversial urban planner Robert Moses (1888-1981) might seem like an unlikely subject for a musical, but then again, you might have thought the same thing about Alexander Hamilton five years ago. Unfortunately, like the many roads, tunnels, and bridges that Moses built, “Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses”, is congested, confused in both tone and vision, exhaustively repetitive, woefully uninformative, and awkwardly staged.
Final product notwithstanding, the source material for this new musical is quite rich. The story of Moses is the story of how the topography of New York City’s transportation infrastructure came to be, how modern New York was literally shaped by a single unelected and polarizing planner obsessed with cars and highways, disinterested in neighborhood and historic preservation, and openly hostile toward mass transportation and people of color. “Cities were created by and for traffic”, Moses remarks in the show (though he himself never had a driver’s license). Anyone who has ever encountered midtown’s gridlock would disagree.
Celebrated biographer Robert Caro won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1974 biography, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and for better or for worse, the residents of New York—and the Metropolitan area—still live in the world Moses built. He gave us endless traffic jams, stunning transportation gaps, and the seeds of crumbling mass transit infrastructure, but also the benefits of Jones Beach, the Triborough Bridge, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Westside Highway, the Lincoln Center complex, over 600 city parks, all city swimming pools, and all parkways and highways connecting New York with Long Island and Westchester. Moses was famously responsible for losing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, rampantly abused eminent domain, and engaged in insidious housing discrimination. Outlasting mayors, governors, and presidents through a toxic mix of bullying and blackmail, he was unaccountable to nearly everyone except history, which has not been so kind.
It is this big and fascinating story about a big and fascinating figure that piqued my interest in “Bulldozer”. But even worse than being ill-conceived and executed, this new musical by Peter Galperin and Daniel Scot Kadin, directed by Karen Carpenter, turns out to be highly uninformative. In 100 minutes, I learned next to nothing about Robert Moses that I didn’t already know from growing up in the New York area.
Bizarrely opting for a ballad opera format—at least in theory—“Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses” adopts a confused musical idiom, employing a late 1960s and early 1970s pop rock sound punctuated by folk songs from an unnecessary, Woody Guthrie-like narrator (Ryan Knowles)—replete with guitar and newsboy cap—to tell the story of a man whose influence and prime work found its major thrust in the 1930s and 1940s, and had come to a sputtering and disgraced end by the late 1960s.
Constantine Maroulis (“Rock of Ages”, “American Idol”) gives a one-dimensional performance in the one-dimensionally written role of Moses. Nelson Rockefeller, longtime Governor of New York, later Vice President, and friend-turned-foe of Moses is portrayed by Wayne Alan Wilcox as a clueless, bumbling idiot, with blank stares and a 5 o’clock shadow—a far cry from the accomplished, elegant patrician Rockefeller was in real life. Perennial downtown cabaret favorite Molly Pope is compelling as Jane Jacobs, a journalist and activist who stood up to Moses and saved Greenwich Village from being leveled in the 1950s and 1960s. And Kacie Sheik rounds out the cast as Vera Martin, a fictional composite character meant to represent all other women in Moses’ life, from girlfriend, to wife, to secretary (I suppose all three were interchangeable to the authors).
Played on a vastly underutilized construction scaffolding set by Ken Larson illuminated like a rock concert by Zach Blane, the story—primarily covering the 1920s to the 1960s—plods from song to song with amateurish musical staging by Gary Ray Bugarcic mostly consisting of actors dancing around by themselves (think “happy dance” or awkward dad at a party—I literally winced in my seat). A strange lack of exposition often leads the audience to wonder “where are we?”, “when are we?”, and “who is this on stage?” The confusing costume plot with characters doubling up without clear introduction or visual cue doesn’t help, nor does the rampant violation of Aristotelian unities throughout. The synopses of scenes in the program, outlining the many settings, could have fooled me.
The music, even though inapt, is blandly serviceable, but the superficial and painful lyrics feature endless repetition, blunt exclamations, and simple rhymes—a favorite couplet being: “free flowing traffic, traffic free flowing”. Every song title is repeated countless times, so as to ensure you don’t miss it. One notable exception is the song “You’ll Do It My Way”—the most developed and dramatically effective number in the show—performed by Moses and Rockefeller through grins smiling for the cameras at ribbon cuttings as they struggle for power over each other under their breath. The female vocals were impressive throughout, but in the end the performers cannot save the poor material, direction, and design they are given to work with.
Robert Moses is a character of epic proportions, worthy of contemporary examination and dramatization. “Bulldozer” does not provide either. The fight between Moses and activist Jane Jacobs in the latter part of the show is the best part, though, which leads me to believe there might be a good play or movie hiding amidst the misguided mess of this musical. Writers looking for material, take note.
Bottom Line: “Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses”, a new rock musical about controversial urban planner Robert Moses, is confused in both tone and vision, exhaustively repetitive, woefully uninformative, and awkwardly staged. Skip this one, and attempt to read Robert Caro’s gigantic, Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Moses instead.
“Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses”
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 100 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: December 12, 2017
Final Performance: January 7, 2018