Books of satirical musicals rarely have their raison d’être undermined on opening night, but that’s the way of the 24-hour news cycle and timely parodies. And so it was that the satirical musical Fox News The Musical: A Story of Hope premiered in Los Angeles just as the Fox News Channel itself was seeking equilibrium after its most scandal-blasted week, leading to the ousting of kingpin anchor Bill O’Reilly, the $13 million sexual harassment settlement man.
The musical is very funny, thanks to some genuinely pointed lyrics, a stand-out supporting cast, and an appreciation for the meta-nature of media consumption. It helps if you hate-watch Fox News to catch the slyest references, but anyone with a digital footprint won’t miss the point.
Eric Phillips, the musical’s producer, director, writer and lyricist, conceived of his Kickstarter-funded musical two years ago while O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Roger Ailes still owned conservative hearts and minds at Fox News. Since then they’ve all had awkward HR exit interviews.
By the time the opening night audience took their seats, the production’s main antagonists, Glen O’Rannity, Regyn Shelly and The Man, were in danger of playing like one of those Vegas nostalgia lounge acts coasting on foggy memories of the Rat Pack. The producers, however, claim there was no need for frantic revisions since the show is less a take-down of Fox News than of manufactured political bias.
Fortunately, Phillips, composer/orchestrator/musical director Bradley Brough, and composer/lyricist Joanna Castle Miller are all Red State refugees with a forgiving take on Fox-ophiles back home. Instead, they have aimed beyond the easy targets of bloviating on-air personalities (although they hit those, too), to finger corporate media and, in the words of PBS, viewers like you.
The broad parody of Act I unfolds as a sharp satire in disguise, excoriating performance art media that encourages an us v. them culture and America’s own love of ideological blood sport.
This is most effective when the show’s casually offbeat humor and quirky cast turn background business and throwaway bits into telling truths, as when an employee deflecting questions about her loyalty to the Fox creed shouts, “Her emails!” or an on-air anchor dismisses liberals as wanting us all to “pee next to rapists dressed like Cher.”
At heart, the show is an old-fashioned love story between the liberal Hope Roosevelt and the principled conservative Will (played by the too-timid Jenae Thompson and scene-stealer Jordan Stidham), interns brought together by their attraction to truth across ideological lines.
When they compare themselves to one of the great political odd couples—“like Ginsburg and Scalia, they were weird and so are we!”—they are, as Phillips puts it, “digging deeper to see how we not only just live together but work together across boundaries.”
Unfortunately, a few numbers like “On the Top Floor” that would have received show-stopping treatment with a bigger stage and more generous Kickstarter contributors, turn stretches of Act II into a freshman dorm treatise.
Despite the actors’ best efforts, they can’t sell the all-hands-on-stage production number with The Man (sporting Roger Ailes-style baldness) as the villainous puppet master and his performing minions, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and now-deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (the top floor is a kind of hell, after all), as embodiments of systemic perfidy.
The lyrics here fall flat as both economic dissertation or sketch show buffoonery, making Hope’s descent/ascent into the corporate heart of darkness feel like an ideological cartoon (which would more happily belong in Occupy The Musical: A Rant to Cope.).
In fact, Hope, the musical’s ostensible hero, is perhaps its most problematic character. She justifies compromising her journalistic and intellectual integrity for on-air glory with some vague excuses about gaining access and the greater good, but soon is spouting Fox-approved vitriol that belies her supposed core beliefs.
Her love interest, Will, is actually the more nuanced and winning character as his heart and world are very nearly broken when he discovers both his crush and his beloved Fox News have been lying.
Hope ultimately allows herself to be “Foxified” in a vampishly camp Act II opener that’s her strongest number. Behind the anchor desk and her new look, however, the sole non-white anchor and closet Democrat simmers with both resentment and shame. She may shimmy and smile but when she sings that “Rage is a great way to cope” we get the feeling she isn’t pretending anymore.
However, the show’s rage, given voice in O‘Ranity’s alt-right rants and Hope’s liberal self-righteousness, is the least convincing and interesting part of an otherwise fair and balanced production.
An angry tirade against fake news is delivered by a mysterious Deep Throat character who suddenly appears to guide Hope back to her ideals. When he’s revealed to be Landerson Hooper from CNN it doesn’t make his interminable and barely intelligible monologue any better.
Rather, it is best described by one of the show’s wittier cast numbers, “Blah Blah Blah” which makes essentially the same point but with far greater brio and without the sermonizing. The show’s indictment of corporate media culture and the complicity of those of us who tune in, even to hate watch, is better served without the tonal shift from satire to agitprop.
Of course, the real future of Fox News is now in play both on and off screen, and with it the entire cable news landscape. Preppy Tucker Carlson slides into O’Reilly’s time slot starting May 1, and the second generation of the Murdoch family, owners of Fox News’ parent company, are increasingly flexing executive muscle to change the Ailes-era culture to one that “foster[s] a work environment built on values of trust and respect.”
Some critics may be hopeful that this signals a legitimate opportunity to change the polarized media landscape where alternative facts and spin have flourished. If O’Reilly can be marginalized, goes the thinking, no raging talking head is safe.
Others may dismiss the hope of any real challenge to the profitable model of political bloodsport on our public airwaves.
This comic satire is too smart to fall for the notion that Fox News has been changed or chastened by the scandals that have befallen it.
Tucker Carlson isn’t exactly a major philosophical shift. Glenn Beck is still out there. Rush Limbaugh is out there. Even Bill O’Reilly may find another perch to preach from. And the people who watch them and who voted for Trump are out there, too. But this little Kickstarter show seems to suggest and dare to hope that we ourselves can change, and perhaps, maybe, collectively change the channel.
Fox News The Musical: A Story of Hope is at Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Boulevard, North Hollywood, CA 91601, until Sunday. Book tickets here.