If playwright John Patrick Shanley is now better known for such serious later works as the Pulitzer Prize-winning morality play Doubt
(now a major motion picture, too), Romantic Poetry
, his whimsical new musical with Dreamgirls
' Henry Krieger, now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, serves as a welcome reminder that Shanley is still also the Bronx brawler who once brought us such crazy-in-love comedy/romances as Savage in Limbo
Still, Shanley had never written a musical before.
"John was definitely trying to create a new musical, and since he'd never done a musical before he was kind of making it up as he went along," says Ivan Hernandez, who stars as Romantic Poetry
's sort-of leading man, alongside a stellar cast that includes Emily Swallow, Mark-Linn Baker and Patina Renea Miller.
But for Hernandez, who has been with the show through several workshops, mixing songs into Shanley's already-stylized world made an intuitive kind of sense.
"There's a certain style to it—a heightened reality," says Hernandez, rerferring both to the musical numbers and to the knockabout world of Shanley's impetuous lovers and fighters. "That's something I don't really think about consciously. It's like doing Shakespeare. If you have to sing a song, it's just another world that you tap into. It's not a lot of work for me; I just take it from the script and hear it a certain way. It's mostly instinct."
Still, when it comes to the emotional temperature of the hotheads in the play—who are not above threatening each other's lives, not to mention multiple divorces—Hernandez admits that there is a little bit of acting involved.
"That's part of John being a New Yorker—that's how he is, and how he sees relationships," Hernandez says. "I'm originally from San Francisco, so I'm very sort of laidback. You always see movies and plays about New Yorkers, and it's hard to believe that characters like that actually exist. So it's been interesting living in New York and seeing that firsthand."
The playwright himself is a resource on this count.
"John still talks like that, too, with his thick Bronx accent. That actually makes it pretty easy to play; you just read his lines with that voice in mind, and you don't have to add on some kind of interpretation."
In one of the show's funnier early exchanges, Fred's new bride finds out he's Portuguese and flips out—her grandmother, she says, had warned her to steer clear of this dreaded race. It turns out that this seeming non-sequitur comes from a real-life character from Shanley's days in the military.
"When he was in the Marine Corps, John had a friend who was a really nice guy, except when anyone mentioned the Portuguese," Hernandez says. "Then he suddenly became the most racist guy in the world."
The show treats the ups and downs of a pair of couples and a couple of third wheels, as relationships form and break, then form and break again. Possibly since the show grew out of some cabaret numbers Shanley and Krieger wrote together, it doesn't have a perfectly linear storyline, functioning more in a vignette style.
Hernandez's lovelorn Fred, though, does have one consistent throughline: He's a poet who keeps pursuing his muse, even after it helps to destroy his marriage and leaves him working as a dishwasher. He continues to freely express his view that everyone should keep a journal, and that all of us could use more poetry in our lives. Since these views are expressed in florid, often funny Shanley-ese dialogue, and sometimes in song, it's temping to wonder if the playwright is in part affectionately mocking the "romantic poetry" of the title.
"No, I think that's his real vision," Hernandez offers. "I don't think he's saying that it's an over-romanticized view. He feels like it's his job to make people aware that there's more room in our society for an appreciation of beauty and poetry. That's definitely his purpose with this show, to point out to people that romance is missing in most people's lives."
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