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Editorial Notes on The Connector

The temptation, when you see a work of art about a world with which you’re intimately familiar, is to get out a red pen as you watch and mark down all the places where the facts are off. It’s not necessarily a healthy or charitable way to respond, and if the rest of the piece is coherent and engaging on its own terms, it shouldn’t matter, but it can be hard to resist the knee-**** urge to go, “well, that’s not how that works.” That all becomes that much harder when a show courts that kind of response, as with The Connector, a new Jason Robert Brown musical about working—and indeed, fact-checking—at a famous New York magazine.

To be fair, The Connector is set in the late 1990s, an era for that media that was a lot healthier than the one I’ve worked in. There are no solos about SEO optimization or production numbers about mergers and layoffs, for better or worse. A young Princeton grad named Ethan Dobson (Ben Levi Ross) has lucked into a plum gig at a magazine, itself named The Connector, with a leonine editor-in-chief named Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula) who came up in the days of new journalism with the likes of Tom Wolfe. The place has a legacy to uphold and a famous fact-checking department—the vibe is somewhere between that of The New Yorker, The New Republic, and the magazine that pays my own bills—but it’s just been bought out by new owners who are looking for a good return, giving us the requisite storm clouds of dangerous capitalist incentives on the horizon. Plus, stranded on the magazine’s copy desk, there’s Robin Martinez (Hannah Cruz), who dreams of getting her own work published, but can’t break into the old white boys’ club in the same way that Ethan can and does.

Brown and director Daisy Prince, who collaborated with the composer on Songs for a New World and The Last Five Years and conceived this project, are good at establishing the musty awe that draws a certain type of person to a hallowed institution. Both Ethan and Robin are in thrall to The Connector’s history, and early on, they participate in a sort of communal hymn to the magazine’s legacy, in which Brown’s keyboard-forward score reminds you of the sound of people typing. Brown dramatizes their early-career fantasies well: When the two grab drinks at a dive bar after Ethan’s first article is published (accurate choice), they share a duet about leaving their home states for the thrill of being in New York. “Everyone’s an ******* in Texas,” she goes, “Especially Dallas”—a true New Yorker of the soul. Squint, and you’re looking at another version of The Last Five Years’s Jamie and Cathy, down to his not-not-autobiographical wunderkind writing ability and her simmering resentment. She gets a kiss-off song, too, down the line, though Brown’s version of fury on behalf of wronged women is as blistering as it is nonspecific.

That’s about the point where the facts, in The Connector, start to get blurry. That’s partially intentional: Ethan’s stories, as he becomes increasingly successful, seem too good to be true, and they probably are. Though the book, by Jonathan Marc Sherman, takes far too long to get around to that revelation, that’s not exactly a spoiler. Prince, Brown, and book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman have talked about being inspired by the cases of Stephen Glass, who fabricated a series of stories for The New Republic, and Jayson Blair, who did so at the Times. (The Connector could just be called Shattered Glass: The Musical, down to the fact that Ben Levi Ross, with a rumbly voice and delicate glasses, is sure to remind you of a young Hayden Christensen.) Dobson starts out with human-interest features, but then moves onto political scoops, claiming to have found a man with a videotape of a mayor smoking ***** with a teenager, a plot point that also evokes Gawker and the Rob Ford recording. The piece is catnip for his boss, who steamrolls past the fact-checkers to get it published.

Right there, my alarm bells went off. The real Stephen Glass did something like that, smearing Clinton ally Vernon Jordan by way of invented sources, but those were fictions embedded within an appealing narrative, which made it juicy, not a story all built around a single unverifiable character and artifact. It’s hard to imagine that a serious magazine would go full-speed ahead with that, doubly so with Ethan’s excuse that it’s a character study meant to ask, “what is truth?” Sure, you need something obvious to make even the less attentive members of the audience sense that something’s amiss, but The Connector, as a whole, continually skimps on the nitty-gritty details. What does an editing process look like, and how exactly could you game it? (Shattered Glass did this exceptionally well, showing precisely how he faked out his own fact-checker.) I love a good song about procedure—in recent memory, Kimberly Akimbo taught me so much about washing checks—and there’s plenty in the machinery of journalism to dramatize: the interviews, the first edit, the second edit, the fact calls, even fighting about what sentences to lose when you cut to fit to a print layout.

Brown, a capital-R romantic, however, writes toward sweeps of emotion, not minutiae. We see Ethan’s writing by way of musical set pieces that focus on the stories themselves, not the work that might’ve gone into them. They play out over Beowulf Borritt’s Tron grid of a set (MCC can reuse it if it’s ever staging a Chess revival) with busy gestural choreography by Karla Puno Garcia. Early on, there’s a verbally dexterous number about a Scrabble star, then a solo for that unverifiable informant, and later a puzzling group number for a story set at the Wailing Wall. The framing leaves us in the dark about the specifics of how all this material was reported, or alternatively, forged. Glass himself was a high-school drama star who went to absurd lengths to make his work seem real—in his maybe-confessional novel, a character playacts a phone transcript with himself!—and any journalist will tell you those are the sorts of details that make a story sing. There’s a good musical in those schemes, but this one misses the trees for a vaguer forest.

As the tension builds in The Connector, I wondered, too, if Brown, Prince, and Sherman were slipping onto Ethan’s side. The structure serves up comeuppance, but there’s a side portion of melancholy musing in his defense, along the lines of that old nugget, “what is truth?” “We believe what we believe / And all we want is someone to confirm it,” Ethan sings. “We believe what we believe / Surround ourselves with people who / Believe the way we do.” The claim sounds current—and the song accelerates to include, somehow, holocaust deniers—but it amounts to waving a white flag thematically. Why do we believe some lies more than others? What is it about their construction? There’s material in arguments about the truth— The Lifespan of a Fact situated itself in the gray area between proof and a good story—but if you want to make them, you need to engage on a serious, meticulous level.

The Connector is too glib for that, though it does, as it happens, have a song named “Proof.” That’s given to the head of the magazine’s fact department, an old hand named Muriel, played with steely certainty by Jessica Molaskey. It’s the kind of late-in-the-show solo you know has to be coming—finally, I thought, someone on the side of the facts will have their day—but the writing fizzles. Muriel doesn’t give much of a defense of proof, and sings that “the danger, I suppose, is / Your mind completely closes / And you don’t believe a single ******* thing.” There, I had to get out my red pen. Fact-checking, to me, has always felt like an exacting but hopeful exercise, predicated on the idea that it’s always possible to get closer to something real, if only you can make one more phone call and really pin the details down. Throwing your hands up and saying “well, it’s all relative!”—that’s something closer to closing your mind.

The Connector is at MCC Theater.

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