It was inevitable that the 1971 cult film comedy "Harold and Maude" would eventually find its way to the stage. "Harold and Maude: The Musical," plays through Sunday, February 6, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. If the film starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon and directed by Hal Ashby was generally underappreciated (to put it mildly) by the critical press, it quietly became a symbol of individuality and freedom among the young audiences who flocked to it at art houses and midnight showings. Like another cult film classic, "It’s a Wonderful Life," "Harold and Maude" appears on the surface to advocate the living of life. But it also makes it clear how difficult this is in a society that smothers individuality and advocates traditional values.
This musical adaptation, the work of Tom Jones (book and lyrics) and Joseph Thalken (music and orchestrations), strays in significant ways from original screenwriter Colin Higgins’ perspective. The collaborators have conspicuously and conscientiously eliminated the bite of social satire that so audaciously marked the film. What is especially puzzling is why they have avoided the film’s main theme: the condemnation of the Vietnam War and the lengths to which America’s rebellious disillusioned youth would go to be noticed and heard. This seems especially misguided considering our current and similar state of affairs.
The film makes it quite clear how and why Harold chose to make a stand against the hypocrisy of the people around him and give validity and purpose to his rebellion. Neither of these significant issues is considered by the musical. Like the film, the musical focuses on the plight of Harold Chasen, a rich yet seriously morbid 19-year-old who enjoys staging his own death and attending the funerals of strangers. At a funeral, he finds himself pressed into a relationship with Maude, an impoverished yet joyous 79-year-old woman preparing for her own death.
Estelle Parsons and Eric Millegan appear perfectly in synch as the by-death-propelled title characters. I suspect that the liberties that Jones has taken removing any reference to war and the draft as well as changing the ending will distress admirers of the film. At the outset, in which Harold hangs himself from a noose in the family home, we see Mrs. Chasen (Donna English) merely annoyed by yet another of her son Harold’s apparently numerous, ingeniously engineered mock suicides.
In her opening song "Self, Self, Self," the self-absorbed Mrs. Chasen berates Harold for his unacceptable actions ("all you ever think about is self, self, self."). English sustains the ever dominating Mrs. Chasen with a humorously nervous desperation. Her attempts to instill in Harold a sense of responsibility and conformity include having him pay regular visits to a Freudian psychiatrist and insisting that he find a wife though an Internet dating service.
One of the musical’s cleverest, if also practical, conceits is having the two supporting players – Danny Burstein and Donna Lynne Champlin – play multiple roles. Burstein gets the required laughs as the dirty-minded and daffy Dr. Sigmoid, as well as a priest, a gardener, a motorcycle cop, and a moving man. Champlin connects strongly with the musical’s slightly demented brand of humor as a non-English speaking maid, a professional mourner, and two of Harold’s dates, one of whom is an eccentric actress. A highlight is watching Champlin, inspired by a knife in Harold’s collection, offer, for Harold’s amusement, a mini-but-manic musical version of Lady Macbeth called "Play On." If that isn’t enough to send him over the edge, she continues her charade with a super-condensed many octave-spanning distillation of an Aztec opera called "Montezuma."
Millegan, whose theater credits include "Jesus Christ Superstar" on Broadway and who was last seen at the Paper Mill Playhouse as the Young Fool in "Big River," cannot be faulted as Harold, a complex role that calls for him to be both personable and impenetrable. In this adaptation, it isn’t particularly clear why Harold’s response to his mother’s domination would be to keep staging his own death rather than to simply leave home. Unless you are familiar with the film, it is also a puzzle why Mrs. Chasen would think that marriage "to a WASP" would solve her 19-year-old Harold’s anti-social behavior.
Harold and Maude meet as a result of their mutual fascination with funerals. Although old, Maude attends funerals with a healthy attitude and sees death as merely a change. For Harold, funerals help fulfill his death wish. Upon meeting the cute young man, Maude sets about instilling in Harold the joy of life. In the process, he falls in love with her. It is in this process that this intimately conceived musical finds its mostly sentimental heart. "You can’t go through life without making music," Maude says as she assumes the role of Harold’s mentor and encourages him to "enjoy the ride" and to take "The Road Less Travelled." Although Thalken’s melodic tract is not particularly exciting or innovative, it travels a path that complements the basic needs of Jones’s functional lyrics.
As Harold’s peculiar brand of creativity generally serves to unnerve those who would like to see him fit into society, mainly his mother, and his analyst, the musical remains focused on Harold’s growing affection for Maude and in his ability to be completely honest with her. Harold’s defining song, "The Real Thing," in which he shares with Maude his very real contemplations about killing himself, prompts Maude to give him an instant pep cheer: "Give me an "L" – give me an "I" – give me a "V" – give me an "E" – give me an "L" – "I" – "V"- "E."
Parsons, a veteran of the Broadway stage yet probably best known for her Academy Award-winning role in "Bonnie and Clyde," is warm and winning as Maude, the philosophical old woman who helps Harold to reach out and think of the more positive aspects of life. It’s a role that requires a lot of singing from Parsons (who has appeared in numerous musicals throughout her career). Except for a few wobbles here and there, Parsons appears to be up to the musical’s demands. She also flits gracefully through the paces of several schmaltzy dance numbers – "Cosmic Dance," and "Maude’s Waltz."
Maude’s colorful apparel, designed by costumer Miguel Angel Huidor, certainly validates the gypsy in her soul. A sense of intimacy and a cinematic texture is created by set designer Rob Odorisio, who uses expanding and contracting black panels, slides, and film to denote movement and various locations. The Paper Mill stage is framed much smaller than usual for this production.
However, and despite the fluidly devised direction of Mark S. Hoebee (who also choreographed), "Harold and Maude" doesn’t really plumb the depths of Harold’s deep-seated alienation to society, the real cause for his generally contemptuous attitude toward his mother, or of his hard-to-fathom intimacy with Maude.
Best known for his long-time collaboration with composer Harvey Schmidt ("The Fantasticks," "110 in the Shade," "I Do, I Do") Jones embroiders Thalkin’s conventional melodic tract with an occasional dash of poetic whimsy, best realized in "I’ve Got a Song in My Pocket," as sung and danced sprightly by Harold and Maude, with the latter doing some impressive strumming on the ukulele. In general, the score simply provides (as this song title suggests) "The Chance to Sing." The contributions of musical director David Loud and the 10 musicians in the pit are noteworthy. All technical credits, including the afterglow provided John Paul Szczepanski’s lighting designs, are first rate. As expected, the minor characters are seen as one-dimensional pretentious phonies. Despite diluting the story of its satiric bite, the collaborators do provide Parsons and Millegan with the opportunity to reflect the sad reality of their idiosyncratic characters. Who knows but that "Harold and Maude: The Musical" will also find its way to success on small stages and at midnight performances.
Harold & Maude: The Musical, through February 6 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn. $30 to $67. 973-376-4343.