A Self-Serious, Heavy-Handed Take on the Business of News, ‘The Connector’ Misses Its Mark

Puzzlingly, while the importance of ‘truth’ is repeatedly invoked, no real connection (pun intended) is made to ongoing debates over ‘disinformation’ and ‘fake news’ that have popped up on both sides of the political divide.

Joan Marcus
Ben Levi Ross and Hannah Cruz in 'The Connector.' Joan Marcus

Over the past year, on and off-Broadway, I’ve seen shows documenting all manner of depravity and destruction, from lynching to mass genocide, but I can’t recall a production as darkly self-serious as “The Connector,” a new musical conceived and directed by Daisy Prince — daughter of the late, great director and producer Hal Prince — in which the crime against humanity in question is … dishonest journalism.

Don’t get me wrong: The flat-out fraud in focus here — starker than the kind of media bias we hear politicians complain about regularly these days — can be an egregious and even dangerous form of betrayal, not only to readers but, on occasion, to editors. This was proved back in the late 1990s and early aughts, when the reporters Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair were shown to have fabricated key details and in some cases stories in scores of articles published in, respectively, the New Republic and the New York Times.

“Connector” is set just before this period, in 1996 and 1997, as the profession was in the early stages of what would be a major shift — away from an emphasis on subscription sales and toward the 24/7 news cycle that cable television had already introduced — that would make it grow exponentially more chaotic and threatening as digital media expanded. If journalists had not yet become slaves to analytics and click bait, the pressure was already on to produce the kind of attention-grabbing pieces that delight corporate backers.

As “Connector” opens, the fictional magazine referred to in the title — a prestigious publication suggestive of the New Yorker, though Vanity Fair is also mentioned as a rival — has in fact just acquired a new corporate partner. While the longtime editor-in-chief, Conrad O’Brien, a former wunderkind educated at Harvard and in Vietnam, gathers his staff to celebrate, a young upstart named Ethan Dobson, fresh out of Princeton, is chafing to follow in his path.

Ben Levi Ross and the company of ‘The Connector.’ Joan Marcus

Conrad, played with slightly raffish charm and an easy gravitas by the redoubtable Scott Bakula, hires Ethan as a writer on the spot, prompting a meteoric rise that sees the younger man cranking out high-profile articles while joining the boss for drinks after work. None of this escapes the attention of a female copy editor, Robin Martinez — whom we know is supposed to be at least as talented as Ethan, because she’s always professing her passion for the work of esteemed authors.

When she’s not dropping names, Robin is prone to whine about how her gender keeps holding her back. “You were born on third base. All you Ivy League boys were born on third base,” she tells Ethan, adding an expletive. “But in your case, I think you truly believe you hit a triple.”

Readers, it is indeed true that a fancy diploma can be a helpful asset in our field, as it can in many. Yet I must add a personal note of protest: I got started as a reporter and critic in the ’90s, contributing to national magazines and newspapers, and I can tell you my editors were tripping over themselves to recruit female talent. Women were certainly star writers at Vanity Fair and the New Yorker by then; one, Tina Brown, had been editor-in-chief for eight years at the former before assuming the same position at the latter back in 1992.

One problem with “Connector,” actually, is that its self-righteous anger too often seems either misdirected or inadequately fleshed out. Puzzlingly, while the importance of “truth” is repeatedly invoked, no real connection (pun intended) is made to ongoing debates over “disinformation” and “fake news” that have popped up on both sides of the political divide. Also, the potentially insidious impact of private corporate interests is merely symbolized by introducing a prim, shallow exec named Veronica (an amusing Ann Sanders), who’s obsessed with the color of the office walls — and later with Ethan’s articles, which help fuel a rise in newsstand sales and “audience engagement.” 

The trouble with those articles, and with Ethan himself, becomes obvious long before it’s spelled out. At times, the young leading man, Ben Levi Ross, seems to channel Ben Platt’s sweetly neurotic performance in the title role of “Dear Evan Hansen”; even Mr. Levi Ross’s potent, tremulous tenor is similar to Mr. Platt’s. 

If Ethan is a less sympathetic character than the bullied Evan, give credit to librettist Jonathan Marc Sherman and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown for emphasizing the pressures on the fledgling writer, so that characters like Veronica and even Conrad are not relieved of accountability. Mr. Sherman’s book also includes clever touches bound to tickle journos and their followers, like a segment in which a C-SPAN honcho, Brian Lamb — played by a droll Michael Winther — refers to Conrad as “author of the modern classic ‘From Harvard to Hanoi.’” 

Mr. Brown — whose many noted works include “Parade,” one of those more genuinely harrowing shows I saw last year, in a splendid Broadway revival — incorporates jazz, folk, and hip-hop textures in ways that are often theatrically compelling. Ethan’s stories are played out as production numbers that become more dizzying and frantic as we increasingly question their authenticity.

Yet the unabashed bombast that proved more suitable in “Parade” also informs “Connector,” from its opening number, in which Robin, played by Hannah Cruz, sets up the magazine’s story in a shrill, melodramatic belt — as if to assure us that what we’re about to see is of great, great importance. Ms. Cruz’s singing and acting remain especially overzealous, but I suspect Ms. Prince is at least as much to blame as any performer — or any of her creative collaborators, for that matter — for the general heavy-handedness of the piece.

Perhaps, given this tone, the creators might have considered setting “The Connector” closer to the present — when it’s become the norm for corporations and individual moguls to buy out publications, and bias stemming from the left and right increasingly distorts news coverage. If a sequel is indeed considered, I’d suggest getting a dramaturg on board; like editors, they can help rein in grandiose tendencies.

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