(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/2.)
European expressionism had a big impact on American theatre in the 1920s. It animated Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1922) and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928), but its most famous example was Elmer Rice’s 1923 satire on the enslavement of human beings. In being turned into a musical, premiered in Illinois in 2007, the show has lost its definite article but gained a new bite and momentum.
Rice’s hero, Mr Zero, remains a browbeaten number-cruncher in a department store. Told that, after 25 years’ loyal service, he is to be replaced by a machine, he rebels by murdering his boss and, after execution, is moodily transported to the Elysian Fields. Far from softening the play, the score by Joshua Schmidt and the libretto, co-written by Jason Loewith and Schmidt, give Rice’s fable a zestful comic savagery. A steady percussive beat evokes the rhythmic monotony of office life. A death-cell reconciliation between Zero and his contentious wife turns to musical dissonance. His encounter, on the eve of execution, with a repentant sinner prompts a richly ironic gospel number.