As you’ll hear from the new original cast album, FLYING OVER SUNSET takes one of musical theater’s most-often-applied rules and does it one better.
We’ve often been told that characters in musicals sing when they’re so excited that simple speech simply will no longer suffice.
In this recent James Lapine-Tom Kitt-Michael Korie musical, four characters are instead moved to sing when they’re high on LSD.
LSD, the abbreviation for lysergic acid diethylamide, is more chummily known by its middle name. Musical theater hasn’t heard of it for quite some time – possibly since HAIR referenced it in 1968.
There it became “Initials” where The Tribe also sang about LBJ, then the nation’s president, and IRT, the abbreviation for Interborough Rapid Transit (which is now simply known as subway trains 1 through 7).
Surprisingly, HOW NOW, DOW JONES, a more mainstream Broadway musical, got a twenty-week head start on HAIR in citing the substance. In establishing the vagaries of Wall Street, Cynthia (Brenda Vaccaro) quipped, “all the smart investors rely on LSD.”
Now, more than a half-century later in 2021, FLYING OVER SUNSET, put LSD center stage along with novelist-playwright Aldous Huxley (Henry Hadden-Paton), playwright-ambassador Clare Boothe Luce (Carmen Cusack) and Hollywood star Cary Grant (Tony Yazbeck) in this provocative original musical.
But, as the cliché goes, were they truly happy? And that’s where Gerald Heard (Robert Sella), their far-less-illustrious mutual friend (or shall we say “dealer”?) enters the picture.
Gerald is with Mr. and Mrs. Huxley when Aldous sees a print of a Botticelli painting and begins admiring it – REALLY admiring it, now that he’s under the influence. His reaction to its colors rivals that of Georges in a certain Sondheim musical.
More miraculously, he claims that his right eye, which has been blind for decades, can now see. All this comes in his song “Wondrous,” which may have had some theatergoers wish that during intermission the merch stand would be selling LSD.
(By the way, Judith, the subject of the painting, sings “bella donna,” which means beautiful woman. Yet we must ask if Korie slyly and purposely chose this phrase to reference belladonna? It’s another substance that can play plenty of tricks on a mind and body.
Huxley also appreciates his wife with such vigor that we believe even when he’s off the drug he still loves her that much. Her premature death will also play a part in his wanting to escape through more LSD.
From the way that Cary Grant is next revealed to us, we can easily infer that he too imbibed just before his session with his psychiatrist. “I Have It All” he sings, although he believes none of it. Most telling is stating that he’s is “bored with Betsy Drake,” his wife. That could give credence to that long-held rumor-slash-belief that Grant was gay.
That’s even more strongly implied in “Funny Money,” in which Grant’s trip has him reunite with the teenage Archie Leach, who he was before Hollywood rechristened him. The lad’s mother dressed him as a girl, which causes his father to blame him for letting that happen to him. (Um, why didn’t he stand up to his wife?)
What Archie reveals about the Leaches’ family tree suggests that it has Dutch elm disease. Give a listen, and you’ll find why the brood was not the most illustrious.
Clare Booth Luce’s experience with LSD starts out delightfully in her sumptuous Connecticut garden as she more fully appreciates “A Sapphire Dragonfly.” Then comes the profound downside of taking the drug: Luce is “visited” by her deceased her mother Austin (Michele Ragusa) and daughter Ann (Kanisha Marie Feliciano), both of whom died in separate car accidents some years apart. Such memories are severe enough to turn this trip into a bad one.
Before matters become too unbearable for Clare, Gerald becomes a de facto tour guide on her trip. He gets her to think of happier times, which she reveals in the show’s title song.
It’s unlike many found in other musicals. This is not an up-tempo toe-tapper such as “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Avenue Q” or “Mame.” Here we have an atypical title song that’s a ballad. It’s a quite beautiful one, thanks to composer Kitt.
That title may lead you to believe that Clare’s LSD experience makes her feel she’s so sky-high that the sunset is beneath her. No: Clare is recalling her salad days in Hollywood when she went speeding along Sunset Boulevard “riding with the top down, eyeing all the tan young men. I could have my choice of any,” she sings, before acknowledging a sad reality: “then.”
Worthy songs deserve reprises, and “Flying over Sunset” qualifies. We soon hear it again, where everyone we’ve met thus far (aside from the psychiatrist) joins in to make thrilling sounds and points.
Gerald has another method to help his three pals expand their horizons: meditation. He urges them to chant in “Om,” which causes Grant to moan, “What am I doing here?” However, say “Om gam ganapateye namaha” enough times and you’ll wear down your guests to join you. Much hair is let down here, as Clare stares at Cary and says, “I wish he’d take his shirt off.” Soon after, Gerald sings the same thing.
Hear what Cary DID remove …
Whatever effect LSD is having on the foursome, Aldous keeps his wits about him. When Clare and Cary say that they “smell the sun,” Aldous corrects, “You smell the oxidation of the lipids in your skin through your clothes caused by the sun.” Clare and Cary must concede in song that “Huxley Knows.” Yes, but after this, Gerald, even while high, must have somewhat regretted inviting this know-it-all to the party.
As one song states, “The Music Plays On,” and we’re glad it does. Cary and Gerald trade “My Mother and I” war stories. Care to guess what locale is discussed in “An Interesting Place”? Considering that the long-gone Austin and Ann sing it – and it’s spritely in spots – you know it ain’t hell.
Then comes the show’s most outrageous song. After you start listening to “Rocket Ship,” you may raise an objection or two. However, do understand that this provocative piece is genuinely based on something that Cary Grant actually said. See if his take on “Flying over Sunset” is one you respond to just as much as Carmen Cusack’s.