Pillars of New York is something I never thought I’d see: an old-fashioned piece of musical theater centering on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s a strange beast in a few ways, and there’s something oddly comforting in seeing how a talented writer can not only compose in but adapt to modern concerns the traditional midcentury style of musical theater – that is, musical theater as if Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber had never existed.
The show boasts tuneful songs, a big roster of efficiently sketched characters, strong performances from top to bottom, and smooth direction and crisp pacing by director Jim Blanchette, with, not incidentally, impressively quick scene changes. It gives us a cross-section of mostly young New Yorkers circa 2001. Harley and Victor, a married couple from Oklahoma, have four children and money troubles (“Hard Place”). A young gay man from an Orthodox Jewish family, disowned by his father, enjoys the unconditional love of his mother, who has stuck by him to the point of moving in with him – but she’s plagued by guilt because she thinks she must have been responsible for his sexual orientation (“When You Come Down To It”).
A young couple, Bianca and Davis, find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, just as her career is taking off and he was expecting to be able to take time off to write his novel. Their cleverly written and staged duet, “Miracle Baby,” presents the happy faces the pair show each other as well as the lonely angst each feels inside.
The plot thickens as we discover unexpected links among the characters. The show is good at depicting adultery and betrayal. But the best part, during the first half, is the growing nervousness these rather standard stories elicit in us, knowing as we do that these people work in and around the World Trade Center – and it’s September 10, 2001.
There are some clichéd lyrics of the “got to face my demons” sort, and a couple of anachronisms (MetroCards had replaced subway tokens in NYC well before 2001; no one has said “out of sight,” other than literally, since the early ’70s). But the show’s important weakness is in the frame that ties the stories together.
A psychotherapist named Jake (Charles Baran, in strong voice) has been counseling several of these people while “stealing” their stories for a book he’s writing to promote a fuzzily described therapeutic method of his own devising. An ongoing subplot about the ethics of not getting their consent, which pits him against his research assistant Wendy (an appealing performance by Georgia Sackler), and his agonized switch to writing a book about how survivors of 9-11 are coping, doesn’t convince or hold interest.
Partly as a result of that, the story thins out in its second, post-9-11 half. Ultimately it lacks start-to-finish propulsion. It doesn’t help that its depiction of the losses experienced by the survivors – some affecting, even macabre (“Lost in a Flash”) – conclude with the syrupy, pseudo-inspirational end to Harley’s thread of the story (“We Have More to Say”).
Fortunately, the well-tempered performances, quick pace, and consistently good music keep things from bogging down. One number exemplifies Antin’s compositional skill: Carrie (April Leonhard) debates leaving her philandering husband in “Stay Behind the Plow,” which has a delicately melancholy main theme artfully mingled with a major-key B section.
As the parts of the songs fit neatly together, so do the songs themselves flow naturally out of the well-written dialogue. And let’s not forget that even the titans of musical theater have gotten mixed results creating a show with an assortment of characters and no focused plot.
Too soon for a 9-11 musical? It might feel that way to those of us who lived through the horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center, which can still seem like yesterday. But Pillars of New York makes it clear that the real answer is no. After all, it’s been 15 years. The show runs Tuesdays and Wednesdays through Sept. 7 at the Off-Broadway St. Luke’s Theatre.