Like Evita Peron's, Norton's extraordinary story simply begs to be turned into a musical. Born in England around 1815, Norton came to San Francisco by way of South Africa, having amassed a significant fortune in real estate. When an ill-favored attempt to corner the rice market led to bankruptcy, Norton left the city for a while, only to return in 1859 and declare himself "Emperor of these United States," and, on occasion, "Protector of Mexico."
"His Imperial Majesty" then spent the next couple of decades issuing decrees on a variety of affairs of national and local relevance, using the local press (which humored the self-appointed premier and entertained readers by detailing his fits of whimsy) as a soapbox. These ranged from attempting to dissolve Congress, to imposing a $25 fine on anyone caught calling his beloved city "Frisco."
Unsurprisingly, Norton's wishes were widely ignored. Yet as financially destitute and self-deluded as he was, San Francisco loved its liege: Theaters always kept seats available just in case Norton would turn up to see a show; fancy restaurants proudly displayed plaques engraved with the words "By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States"; local businesses even went as far as to accept Norton's self-issued currency as legal tender. The death of one of his mongrel dogs was enough to inspire a period of public mourning, and when the great man himself passed away early in 1880, 30,000 people reportedly attended the funeral.
Biographies don't get much more theatrical nor typically San Franciscan than this. Which is why lyricist Kim Ohanneson, composer Marty Axelrod, and director David Stein's collective impulse to create a musical out of Norton's made-for-the-stage narrative (and transfer it from the Mission District's Dark Room Theater, where the work received its premiere early last year to the more tourist-friendly Shelton Theater, just off Union Square) is supremely sane. If only the execution of the production were less so.
Picking up Norton's story from the moment of his financial downfall in the 1840s, Ohanneson's book rambunctiously captures the frontier, anything-goes spirit of post-Gold Rush San Francisco. Over the course of two acts recounting some of the more peculiar episodes in Norton's life, we're introduced to a variety of locals, from Mark Twain and Victorian-era starlets Lotta Crabtree and Lola Montez to the local police chief and a pair of buxom Barbary Coast hoofers. Ohanneson even imbues Norton's pooches, Lazarus and Bummer, with full-on singing parts.
Axelrod's evocative score, which combines a honky-tonk, piano-bar feel and snippets of traditional tunes such as "Turkey in the Straw" with arias alternately indebted to Gilbert & Sullivan and Lloyd-Webber & Rice, offsets Ohanneson's witty lyrics. One fun example of the collaboration between music and lyrics can be heard in Lazarus and Bummer's opening duet about living a dog's life, "All the Friends You Can Get," in which the sound of drooping, scratchy glissando strings accompanies the mutts' descriptions of fleas, rotten food, and bad smells.
Yet despite Ohanneson and Axelrod's fine sense of the surreal and some bracingly bonkers performances (especially from the shaggy-looking Peter Doty and Steffanos X as Bummer and Lazarus, respectively), Emperor Norton remains a curiously staid affair. Norton's story is nothing if not an excuse for exuberance, yet the production seems intent on downplaying the madness. The performers mostly move about the stage and sing their lines as if carrying out instructions rather than being fully present in their roles. Although the nail-brush-bearded Stephen Pawley cuts a dapper, instantly likeable Norton in full military regalia complete with sash and epaulettes, he just seems too normal. The pedantic rhythm that accompanies the delivery of many of the character's lines ("We would be HONored to attEND such an ausPICious occASion") further diminishes what should be the musical's most imposing figure.
Stein's staging ultimately makes Norton more of an Everyman than an Emperor. While this humanizing of the character does help to emphasize one of the musical's main themes as encapsulated by the lyric "If Norton can be emperor/ So the hell can you" it does so at the expense of theatricality. Too much sanity can be a bad thing, especially if you don't want your protagonist upstaged by the likes of Pink Man and the Brown Twins.