Melody can really lift a musical. We tend to forget that today, as we savor shows where the heavy lifting is done by the flying winches or the maxed-out sonic levels or the puppets or the Mormons or the hooks, the beats, the rhymes.
Then along comes She Loves Me in a stellar revival by Roundabout Theatre Company to remind us about levitation by melodic invention.
The melodies in this case were composed by the dearly departed and ever under-valued Jerry Bock, to lyrics executed with transparent precision and transcendent emotional power by the, thankfully, still present Sheldon Harnick. We all know these two best for Fiddler on the Roof, currently playing just down the block from She Loves Me.
Lord, they were good together. There's a breathlessness that takes hold of She Loves Me practically from curtain rise, a light-headed, joyous, oxygenated sense of increasing euphoria as Bock and and Harnick's melodiousness tumbles over the audience like cresting waves of pleasure. Just lie back and ride 'em.
It's not an easy feat creating this effect. It does feel effortless. It isn't. The craft involved is enormous. The underlying talent is just that: underlying. Like the characters in She Love Me, the gifts of Bock and Harnick are almost circumspect, until they burst forth and blow everyone away.
It's fascinating that the subject of She Loves Me, when you get right down to it, is insecurity. I can't think of another musical that gives its heart to so many insecure, self-doubting souls. The employees of Maraczek's Parfumerie in Budapest ("The Shop Around the Corner") are a supremely under-confident collection, with the exception of the brazen lothario Kodaly. Ilona is Kodaly's tormented, ever-loving doormat of a paramour. Amalia and Georg write lovelorn letters to unseen objects of their affection whom they are afraid to even meet. Their boss, Mr. Maraczek, discovers midway through the first act that he is being cuckolded by the wife he adores.
But, oh, can they ever sing. Their yearnings are voiced so vividly by Mssrs. Bock and Harnick and sung so sensationally in this production by Jane Krakowski (Ilona), Laura Benanti (Amalia) and Zachary Levi (Georg), to say nothing of Byron Jennings (Maraczek) and Nicholas Barasch as Arpad, the headstrong messenger boy with the shop's second-highest quotient of self-esteem. Even the stinker Kodaly (Gavin Creel) gets his own show-stopping moment. Rarely has a Broadway musical score ever spotlighted so many different characters with their own perfect melody, each so singular and so satisfying.
It must be pointed out that the orchestra in this production is practically shoved into the wings, boosted into balcony positions on either side of the stage. Rather than diminishing the acoustic impact, however, this less than respectful positioning has resulted in the most crystalline instrumental balance I can ever remember encountering at a musical. Its lushness must be ascribable not just to logistics but to the incomparable conducting gifts of musical director Paul Gemignani.
She Loves Me has always received platonic affection without taking home the prize. When it opened in 1963, with a cast led by Barbara Cook in a legendary turn as Amalia, the show was petted by critics but soon abandoned by audiences. Its return to Broadway in a 1993 Roundabout revival reversed some of those slights, garnering more critical acclaim and a significantly longer run. This time around, one hopes the sky's the limit for all concerned, with melody carrying the day. It has that power you know.