It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of no great fortune must be in want of a roommate, or several. The setup on the face of "February House," a new musical just opened at the Public, looks familiar to us in 2012: A group of people who barely know each other scrape together the money to rent a slightly worse-for-the-wear house in Brooklyn, with unexpected results all around.
But most group living situations can’t boast a famous composer, famous poet and two famous novelists under their eaves -- at least not famous at the time they’re living there.
Published in 2005, Sherill Tippins’ book of the same name ferreted out this serendipity of living and gave cause to imagine Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden and Carson McCullers (among others) squabbling over toothpaste and competing for space at the kitchen table, and the new musical adapted from it by Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley successfully captures that impish spirit, the sense of a precarious life and an arrangement that can’t possibly last forever.
All the residents of the "February House" -- so named, in an aside, because most of them were born in February -- come bearing their problems along with their suitcases. Uptight composer Benjamin Britten (played by Stanley Bahorek) is stalled on his magnum opus, "Paul Bunyan," although he also yearns to live openly with his lover Peter Pears (Ken Barnett) as he feels he can do in Brooklyn better than London.
Brooklyn loyalists will love the many references to the borough as being a different world over the bridge, including Pears’ plaintive wail that "The Upper East Side is terribly far away."
Britten’s collaborator on Bunyan, W.H. Auden (Erik Lochtefeld), also hopes to use the house at 7 Middagh Street to start over with his young lover Chester Kallman (A.J. Shively, who indeed looks distinctly younger than his roommates), living as husbands, while Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh, luminous but unevenly accented) is hoping to get away from her husband and finally get some work done. Another first-time novelist will come to join them later after a New Year’s Eve blow-out, Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik), as well as assorted other radicals and intellectuals.
In Tippins’ book no single luminary in the house is given primacy, but the musical hands the keys over to George Davis, a publishing man-about-town who serves as landlord, matchmaker and quasi-mother to the brood at 7 Middagh.
Davis, as portrayed by Julian Fleisher, is more comfortable in a caftan than a suit but is not always the most conscientious of friends; he wants to bring the party home but not be held responsible for the damage its guests do. Still, Fleisher’s songs knit the musical together, although they’re not the strongest; narrating his origin, he is allowed to rhyme "Michigan" (his home state) with "wish and wish again," a pairing of fair magic.
Kahane and Bockley, former classmates at Brown, employ folksy arrangements and truisms to keep the brow from going too high among these august personalities, but their libretto is also fairly recitative-heavy to deliver a wealth of information. This backfires in "It Is Time For The Destruction Of Error" and "Discontent," during which so many characters are speak-singing within the same sonic space they can’t be understood. (It could also be a mixing problem, although the upstaged musicians mostly resonate right where they should be.)
But "Coney Island," in which McCullers plaintively explores her feelings as an outsider, is a showstopper, and Kahane’s arrangements of W.H. Auden poems "Refugee Blues" and "Funeral Blues" bring chills.
Recently, lead New York Magazine theater critic Scott Brown assessed the musical scene in a piece called, "Broadway Songwriting Is in Critical Condition. Again." In it, he quotes producer Scott Rudin as saying, "The great musicals had to be musicals. Most of the musicals that get done now are not necessary."
It’s difficult to know whether "February House" would qualify under Rudin’s eye as a necessary musical on its face, but beneath all the fun it pulses with urgent questions: What is the artist’s responsibility during a time of war? How can two artists live together without compromising their integrity or their productivity? How do they get over a creative block?
These questions fall most urgently on Lochtefeld as Auden, a fine and haunting performance whose sleepless nights and knuckle bites feel earnest and important. In the end, it’s not about the house, but the souls dwelling in it.
"February House" runs through June 10 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. For tickets and more information, visit publictheater.org.