A Musical for—and About—Grammar Sticklers

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“I can’t believe the people are pouring in!” Ann Goldstein, the former head of the copy department for this publication, said as she and her sister Martha Slaughter, who lives in Philadelphia, and I took our seats at Theatre Exile, in South Philly, for a Sunday matinée of “The Angry Grammarian,” a musical comedy by Jeffrey Barg, who wrote a column of the same name for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the playwright David Lee White. James Brown’s “I Feel Good” was on the sound system—no doubt a provocation for the sticklers in the audience (shouldn’t it be “I Feel Fine”?)—followed by the Beatles’ “Love Me Do.” “What’s wrong with ‘Love Me Do’?” Martha asked. “Nothing, unless it’s redundant,” Ann said. We glanced at the acknowledgments in the program, and I pointed out Lynne Truss, the author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” “My eye just fell on that,” Ann said.

The show was sold out, all hundred and ten seats occupied by what I hesitate to call copy-editor types. Let’s just say that, with apologies to the bow-tie contingent, no one was overdressed. Onstage were a few chairs and some versatile rolling cases stencilled with punctuation marks. The action starts as the hero, Greg (Benjamin Behrend), complains bitterly, in song, about something he’s editing (“How have you been so dumb?”), and his boss offers him his own column—a position that has opened up because a Miss Manners-style columnist was fired for bad behavior. (She got drunk and crashed a children’s birthday party.) For the irascible Greg, a column about grammar is a no-brainer. His friend Web, the aptly named tech editor (Nina Vitek, who has an incredible voice), comes up with a title for it, and the Angry Grammarian is born.

Barg had plenty of material to draw on for “The Angry Grammarian.” He started writing a grammar column in 2007, when he was a copy editor for Philadelphia Weekly, an alternative newspaper, and the Angry Grammarian appeared biweekly in the Inquirer beginning in 2018 and is now on Substack. There’s a song about double spacers who are stuck in a time warp circa the typewriter era (“The Right Space”) and an ode to dictionaries (“Bring in Da Funk, Bring in Da Wagnalls”), sung by the ingénue, Lisa (Chelsea Cylinder), a self-described sapiosexual who is new in town and wants to get out and meet brainy people, and her sister, Miriam (Erin Coffman), a self-effacing lawyer who prefers to stay home and play Scrabble. Inevitably, boy meets girl. They perform an agreeable duet (“Like Subject and Verb”) and bond over an ambiguous apostrophe on a restaurant sign. Is it Bojangle’s or Bojangles’? The big love song, “Lie with Me and Lay Me,” invokes Bob Dylan to educational effect (not affect—there’s a song about that, too). There’s a production number with zombies (“Grammar-Pocalypse!”) and one with a chorus line (“They’re There”). The staging involves clever, restrained use of a screen to spell things out, as if for a PowerPoint presentation.

The first-act curtain (O.K., there is no literal curtain) falls, ingeniously, shortly after “The Comma with Too Many Names,” as in Oxford and serial. Boy risks losing girl as Greg comes down on the wrong side. He is against the serial comma and makes a big, obnoxious deal about it, alienating Lisa. This sent the audience into the lobby at intermission grumbling. One woman said the show was good, paused, and added, “But he’s just wrong.” Under her cardigan was a T-shirt that read “The Oxford Comma Society—In Defense and Preservation of Tradition, Form, and Clarity.” Another woman brought up the case of the dairy-truck drivers in Maine who won millions of dollars in overtime because their contract lacked a serial comma.

As Chekhov (or was it Ibsen?) never said, if a bad apostrophe appears in Act I, it has to explode in Act II. But before we get to that there is a hilarious number called “Whom Cares?,” in which the two exasperated supporting characters, Miriam and Web (get it? Merriam-Webster?), express their disbelief that the grammar lovebirds are letting a little thing like a comma come between them, and simultaneously offer up a catalogue of egregious errors—“most importantly,” “intensive purposes,” “irregardless,” “mute” point, “honed in,” “expresso,” “most uniquer”—which are corrected on the screen by that great red pen in the sky. Letters from fans of the Angry Grammarian, read by members of the ensemble (Madeline Snyder, Abrham Bogale, Niamh Sherlock, and Joshua Gold), give Greg material for his column. Incidentally, an inveterate letter writer is a crucial character in this year’s other candidate for Best Musical Featuring a Copy Editor in a Major Role, “The Connector,” which is just ending its run Off Broadway.

Whoever mentioned the Maine court case at intermission proved to be clairvoyant. The bad apostrophe reappears when the Angry Grammarian, in an act of Lynne Truss-like guerrilla copy editing, defaces the Bojangles sign and ends up in a courtroom presided over by one Judge Sapphire (no relation to William Safire, the late Times language columnist—or is she?). The restaurant owner makes a great flourish of announcing that he is Québécois and his name is pronounced Bojanglé. Lisa and Miriam come to Greg’s defense, arguing that the statute in question contains a dangling modifier. Judge Sapphire releases Greg, sentencing him to copy-edit restaurant menus. Boy gets girl back, and prescriptivist and descriptivist live happily ever after, mostly.

The cast received a standing ovation and acknowledged the band, the Wingdings, concealed behind a blackout curtain on a balcony. (Sorry, but why are there quotation marks around their name in the program?) The show, directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro, was the inaugural musical of the Pier Players Theatre Company, founded by Chelsea Cylinder, who played Lisa; Barg later said that the response to it has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

After the show, we grammar bitches (the play blessedly uses this term instead of a more derogatory one) headed out into the neighborhood, a thriving section of South Philly known as Passyunk Square. (That’s “Passion” with a “K.” We learned to pronounce it at Stateside, a restaurant on East Passyunk Avenue that serves Wagyu hot dogs.) Its narrow streets are crowded with small, irregular houses that have tiny gardens or mosaic walls out front made of stained glass and mirror shards. “Those are all over Philadelphia,” Martha said. We loved the play but agreed that it could be tightened up. As copy departments at even the finest publications suffer layoffs and attrition, it is heartening to know that there are still plum roles for copy editors on the stage. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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