A Tender Thing

Written by Emily Neuberger
Review by Fiona Alison

In small-town Wisconsin, Eleanor O’Hanlon eats, sleeps and breathes musicals, so when she sees an advertisement for an open call in New York, she takes her only chance at fame. Not your typical ingénue, she comes to the attention of a famous composer who casts her as lead in his new musical. A Tender Thing is an interracial love story featuring a black man, Luke (played by Charles) falling in love with a white girl Molly (Eleanor) and eloping. The show debuts in Boston to an outraged audience. Running the demonstrator gauntlet into the theatre becomes more hazardous each day as the actors struggle to keep up with the many rewrites, composer and director both hoping to appease a disgusted audience.

Neuberger’s debut evokes the feel of 1950s New York and touches on several aspects of forbidden and unrequited love and sacrifice. The novel is filled with Neuberger’s own experiences on stage, but I found the first half overlong with too much detail about rehearsals and rewrites, which, although realistic, does little to advance the story. Neuberger’s characters want to do their part to make the world a better place, and she brings her tale to a satisfactory, if imperfect conclusion. The tender portrayal of the relationship between Charles and Eleanor, as it morphs from awkward stiffness to a kind of love and trust, which Eleanor must portray as Molly, was one of my favourite things about the book. 1950/60s musicals were often about searching for a higher truth, expressed differently on stage as actions, words, and songs pluck at our emotions, allowing us to see the world from a different perspective. Without them we wouldn’t have the heart-pounding, goose bump-raising rock operas of the ’60s & ’70s. This will appeal to anyone with a soul-deep love of music.