Next June will mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and so we can expect a lot of historical remembrances and thoughts on how far the LGBT community has come and the ways it has to go.
Midnight at the Never Get, whose book, music and lyrics are by Mark Sonnenblick, is a snapshot of times past featuring a collection of songs in the spirit of the waspish, linguistically playful constructions of Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim.
The music is punctuated by frustratingly abbreviated dramatic scenes featuring a man called Trevor Copeland (Sam Bolen, the musical’s co-creator), a dapper and suavely smooth cabaret performer recalling his ill-fated love affair with the more restrained Arthur (Jeremy Cohen), a pianist and lyricist who exists in and out of shadows as summoned up in Trevor’s memory.
This musical play, which feels like the kind of cabaret show that is its focus, is directed by Max Friedman.
The stage of the York Theatre is designed with just the lightbulbs spelling out the name of the club we find ourselves in, The Never Get. It’s the mid- to late-1960s, a downtown New York, predominantly gay bar. The lighting (pinks, blues, a spotlight) is wreathed in stage smoke. We feel atmospherically lost in time.
The sense of romance between the men, the love they shared, is animated by the 13 songs Trevor sings mostly solo, although the most affecting are sung in duet with Trevor. A small, wonderful band of musicians, under the direction of Adam Podd (who has also done the orchestrations), sit in near-twilight at the rear of the stage.
Occasionally this smoky, vintage stage is punctuated by a surround of harsher white light, a clinical one that speaks of heaven, and specifically Sam missing Arthur, whom we assume to have died horribly. That isn’t the true story.
The setting takes us to a time of gay bars owned by the Mob and busted by the police. We hear of young gay men scarred physically and mentally, having been chucked out of their family homes. There is mention of Julius, now New York City's oldest surviving gay bar. And eventually, we find ourselves briefly at the Stonewall Riots themselves.
Memory, rather than cultural history and gay politics, is central to Midnight At The Never Get. Trevor makes it clear that what he recalls of his relationship with Arthur may not be the truth. He rounds out the harsher things said between them, so they do not hurt him in the present. Trevor, it becomes clear, has romanticized a relationship that to Arthur may have been something quite different.
Arthur doesn’t say or sing as much, and for Midnight to really work as a dark love story, as opposed to a romance-infused history lesson, he needs to. At one moment he is emphatic that his gay love songs include male pronouns, and not be edited to take on a he/she dynamic; the next he is raging against the angry protesters of Stonewall for their militancy.
Sure, Arthur could believe both these things. But the play doesn't interrogate this most basic of character contradictions; nor do we learn, from him, why he undertook a series of more drastic life decisions later.
The most interesting stories at the heart of this play—in Arthur, a gay man renouncing his homosexuality; Trevor’s possible delusion about their entire relationship—go completely unexplored, as do a flurry of plot and psychological developments that rain down in the closing moments of the play, including around HIV and AIDS. Is Arthur becoming a closet case because of work, social pressures? Is he really straight, bi?
The characters suddenly become a strange, late-in-the-day puzzle. One of the men even unnecessarily acquires an older double. There are a lot of ghosts in Midnight at The Never Get, but they need more life and dramatic room to breathe to make us care about them.
Left unsaid is the most tantalizing question: in a different, more accepting time, would Trevor and Arthur have made it as a couple? Next time you're at the Stonewall or Julius, raise a glass to them.
Midnight at the Never Get is at the York Theatre, New York City, until Nov. 4.