Jonathan Marc Sherman and Jason Robert Brown’s The Connector is clearly inspired by real events: This new musical, about a hotshot young writer who falsifies sources and plot points in his features and brings shame upon a respected magazine, bears many resemblances to the story of Stephen Glass and The New Republic in the late 1990s. Unlike Glass, however, Sherman, Brown and director Daisy Prince (who also conceived the show) do not pretend to be telling the truth, which frees them to shape their story any way they please.
One of the show’s smartest choices is to shift the spotlight from the overconfident, fresh-outta-Princeton fabulist, Ethan; played by Ben Levi Ross—an erstwhile Evan Hansen, appropriately enough—he never explains himself or reveals his motivations. But even if he did, could we even trust him? As his editor-in-chief, Conrad (Scott Bakula, perfectly cast as an old-school, scotch-at-noon guy’s guy), sings in the very first scene: “The facts can always be manipulated.” Narration duties fall to the far more likable copy editor and would-be writer Robin (a fantastic Hannah Cruz), who chronicles Ethan’s rise and fall at a New Yorker–esque magazine called The Connector.
Sherman and Brown set the show in the peak magazine years of the last century, when college grads were fighting for internships at places like Time and Newsweek. Beowulf Boritt’s spectacular set—with its piles of manuscripts and box archives and its back wall lined with pages of proofs—will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s worked at a print publication. By returning to this time period, The Connector can tacitly engage with questions of “fake news” and “alternative facts” without getting caught in the storms of today’s overheated political climate.
Brown’s score, one of his best, has a decidedly ’90s groove, from the plaintive “Now What”—in which Conrad muses on the state of the news industry—to the twangy “So I Came to New York,” a duet that allows Robin to slam her home state (“Everyone’s an asshole in Texas…”) and Ethan to trash his (“Everyone’s a scumbag in Jersey…”). Musical numbers led by Fergie Philippe and Max Crumm, as Ethan’s dubious sources, give the musical space to breathe away from the office. And Jessica Molaskey and Mylinda Hull, as fact-checkers on Ethan’s trail, are so good that you wish they had even more to do, perhaps in a two-act version of this intermission-less show. But then again, in deference to their characters, this particular story might best be served by just-the-facts-ma’am brevity.