(l to r) Wayne Wilcox and Constantine Maroulis in ‘Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses.’
By Ryan Leeds
Who knew that songs about construction and urban development could be so engaging? Apparently Peter Galperin. The musician, lyricist, and book writer is behind the new Off-Broadway musical, Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses. Galperin, a self-described “grunge rock refugee,” has recorded four CDs but this appears to be his first venture into the theater. For such a neophyte, he’s made an impressive debut, much of which rests on his dynamic score. He’s joined by Daniel Scott Kadin, a more experienced co-book writer. Together, the pair has created an imperfect, but generally enjoyable and informative view into the turbulent career of Robert Moses (Constantine Maroulis).
Moses, who passed away in 1981, was one of the most controversial figures in 20th-century urban planning. His influence not only affected New York City and the surrounding metropolitan areas but city planners across America. On the surface, he appeared to be a do-good visionary who added parks, pools, and beaches to the suburban landscape. He also persuaded the United Nations to move to its current location, renovated Central Park, and led the development of Lincoln Center.
On his darker side, Moses possessed a fanatical obsession with the automobile industry, believing that it was the wave of the future and a tangible accomplishment of the American dream. Consequently, public transit was often ignored and undermined—the results of which haunt frustrated, MTA-delayed New Yorkers to the present day.
The well-heeled “master builder” also thumbed his nose at “slum” areas. Through eminent domain, he displaced hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and destroyed entire neighborhoods for the sake of improvement (including the Cross Bronx Expressway and his Lincoln Center project).
Moses is an incredibly dense subject whose contributions continue to be a source of debate. Galperin and Kadin whiz through his story and one wishes that there was even more substance here. Perhaps they wanted to avoid turning their tale into a dull history lesson—or they are mindful of the fact that audiences have grown accustomed to 90-minute theater pieces. Still, they’ve packed quite a bit of good stuff into their project which is sure to enlighten those who are unfamiliar with Moses.
A musical about this larger than life figure would be entirely incomplete and inaccurate without the portrayal Jane Jacobs (Molly Pope). Jacobs, a freelance writer, held no college degree nor any background in city planning. Yet the Greenwich resident turned to activism, stopping Moses in his tracks after he planned to build an expressway through Washington Square Park. (The incident is also depicted in a recent episode of Amazon’s highly acclaimed The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)
Pope, a mainstay in the downtown cabaret scene, is terrific as the steely and heroic thought leader who put people ahead of projects. Through Bobby Frederick Tilley’s costume, she bears a similar resemblance to the librarian-like Jacobs. Through her own magnificent talent, Pope sings like Janis Joplin and gives Galerprin’s already exciting score even more edge.
Kacie Sheik is equally superb as Moses’ love interest and assistant although historically, her character is questionable. Moses was married twice, both to women named Mary (his first wife died in 1966 and he remarried the same year).
Wayne Wilcox portrays the politically savvy Nelson Rockefeller who initially is impressed by Moses’ ability to get things done but later learns that it comes at the cost of human sacrifice. Wilcox carries himself with retro-cool finesse and is a temperate contrast to the hyperbolic Moses.
American Idol winner Maroulis is no stranger to musical theater, having starred in Rock of Ages and The Wedding Singer. Maroulis’ phenomenal rock voice is electrifying, but he’s not simply a showman here. He also manages to find the humanity and complexity in Moses.
Ken Larson’s smart set design effectively allows for numerous scene changes and Zach Blane’s lighting adds rock concert flair to this urban tale.
Don’t expect Bulldozer to be a definitive account of Moses’ historical significance, but do expect to walk away with a thirst for more knowledge about the man who made a big impact on what New York City is today. In the process, you’ll have this remarkable cast, directed by Karen Carpenter to thank for your piqued curiosity.
Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses
Theatre at St. Clements
423 West 46th Street (between 9th and 10th), NYC
Through January 7