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Jun
16

Top 10 Musical Theater Dads

Father’s Day is upon us and so we turn to the font of all knowledge, the musical theater. Here’s a highly subjective list of the top ten musical theater dads. It’s not easy but we winnowed down a list that included the dad in Next to Normal, Captain Andy in Show Boat, Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Mr. MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Jasmine’s dad in Aladdin, “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story, Jerry Cohan in George M!, Baron Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Meyer Rothschild in The Rothschilds, Mr. Darling in Peter Pan… well, we could go on and on.

So, after all that here’s the Top Ten Musical Theater dads.

The number one dad in all musicals is Tevye, the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. Although he’s browbeaten by his wife Golde he mostly calls the shots or at least he thinks he does. Tevye’s a great father because he’s aware enough to know that one has to keep up with progress, and there’s a balance of the new and the old traditions. But uppermost in his mind is the happiness of his daughters.

Here’s another favorite musical comedy character who stands up to his wife when enough is enough. Once his patience is at the breaking point he intones the immortal line, “I has spoken!” Of course, that’s Pappy Yokum proud father of Abner Yokum of Dogpatch, U.S.A. Li’l Abner is one of most farcical of all musical comedies, and it also  actually makes a warning against the military industrial complex. Yes, it does! And Johnny Mercer and Gene dePaul’s score is one of the brightest of the 1950s.

Like Tevye, Carousel’s Billy Bigelow also wants the best for his daughter, but he doesn’t quite know how to go about it. He’s not the brightest guy, but his love for his daughter is the real thing. And though he’s lost his life through an incredibly bad decision, he’s allowed to return to Earth for one day to see his daughter all grown-up and graduating from high school. But when his emotions get the best of him he can’t handle it and he invisibly slaps his daughter. Though Billy is actually a spirit she feels the slap, but it doesn’t hurt as much as surprise her for she interprets the slap as a kiss. She somehow understands the truthfulness of emotion behind the slap.

Gregory Jbara played “Dad” in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot. He’s a great dad and an interesting character because he recognizes his son’s talents and steadfastly stands with him no matter how the society at large sees a boy who only wants to dance. Dad’s the one who takes Billy to dance class and allows him to begin to make the future that means the most to him.

Our next father of the year is someone who is not actually the father of the child but a father who vows to forgive and forget past infidelities and take the high road. We’re talking about Tony Esposito, the title character of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. Tony’s marriage doesn’t start out well. He runs into a waitress and falls in love with her. They haven’t even known each other long enough for her to recognize him when next they meet. Because Tony, decades older than the waitress Rosabella, proposes by mail and, thinking that she’ll reject him if she sees his real photo encloses the photo of his young, handsome foreman, Joey. When Roseabella shows up and discovers the deception she takes solace in Joey’s arms. Joey is the wandering type and decides to follow his dreams. That would be fine except now Rosabella is pregnant with Joey’s baby. But Tony steps up and announces to all that he’s the father and saves Rosabella from shame. That selfless decision makes Rosabella fall in love with Tony.

Here’s a famous musical with not one but two fathers, The Fantasticks. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt give the characters two terrific songs, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish” and never in any other musical has a philosophy of raising children been so expertly and humorously explained. Huckabee and Bellomy control the shots while their kids are happily unaware.

Another pair of fathers who stubbornly stand their ground proud of their son and who they are. We’re talking about Georges and Albin, the gay proprietors of the nightclub, La Cage Aux Folles. Though Georges is the biological father Albin has taken an equal role in raising their son Jean-Michel. The drama (and comedy) begins when Jean-Michel announces he’s engaged to the daughter of the head of the anti-gay, ultra-conservative "Tradition, Family and Morality Party." The whole thing’s a farce but in the best Jerry Herman tradition it’s the depth of feelings that give the show its soul. Here’s a show that should be compulsory viewing by every rightwing conservative.

And speaking of a gay parent there’s Marvin and his son Jason in William Finn’s March of the Falsettos.  Marvin is having his own problems with his younger partner, Whizzer as well as trying to be a good father to his son. Jason’s worried that he might grow up to be gay. Through many trials and tribulations, many of which don’t lead to happiness all around, Marvin can finally embrace Jason. And Jason, to his relief finds himself with a newfound appreciation for the curves of the female sex. The show finishes with Marvin telling Jason that he loves him and no matter what happens in the future, he’ll always love and support him.

 Well, that’s our top ten greatest musical theater fathers. They may come from different backgrounds and have different ideas about raising their children, but what it all gets down to is that fathers and their offspring have a strong bond. And if everyone can learn to understand each other happiness can result.

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Jun
16

Memorable Musical Fathers

To salute Father’s Day last year we chose five songs about or sung by dads. This year we are looking at memorable fathers in the musical canon. Needless to say, the examples are diverse and legion. But there are also some who don’t get the recognition due their influence. Indeed, some of them don’t even appear in person. I call them absent fathers, and here are 11.

Phelan Beale, Grey Gardens
In Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie’s Grey Gardens, Phelan Beale is expected to arrive for his daughter Little Edie’s engagement announcement party throughout the first act. There’s even an entire song about it, “The Five Fifteen.” However, when a telegram arrives saying that he is not coming home but rather heading with his secretary to Mexico and wants a divorce, Little Edie’s hopes of happiness with young Joe Kennedy Jr. are effectively torpedoed. The show then leaps 32 years forward to show the profound consequences of Phelan’s betrayal in Act 2.

Mr. Bowles, the film of Cabaret
In Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay for the significantly altered film version of Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles brags about her very important diplomat dad who is always traveling but with whom she supposedly has a great relationship (“he’s always swooping down and carrying me off on divine vacations”). However, when he fails to show up after promising to meet up with her in Berlin, she is devastated and reveals the truth to her closeted gay housemate, Brian, a writer. “He just doesn’t care. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m not worth caring about.” Her father’s absence, literal and emotional, helps explain her desperate need for attention and stardom. It also is the catalyst for Sally and Brian’s relationship becoming a sexual one and sets up the Kander and Ebb standard “Maybe This Time.” Important guy, that Mr. Bowles.

Edwin Dennis, Mame
Mame Dennis’ conservative Presbyterian brother’s death sets the plot of Mame in motion via his orphaned 10-year-old son’s arrival in Manhattan to live with his bohemian aunt. (Patrick and his traveling companion, the heavily sheltered Agnes Gooch, sing about it amusingly in Jerry Herman’s opening song, “St. Bridget.”) Edwin Dennis hovers over the musical in the personage of Dwight Babcock of the Knickerbocker Bank, the equally conservative executor of Edwin’s estate who he names in the will as Patrick’s guardian, put in place to curb his sister’s bohemian excesses. When Mame, angry at interference in her parenting, spits out a profanity, Patrick grabs his pencil and pad to write down the new word to add to his vocabulary. His aunt helpfully spells it out for him in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s book for the musical: “That word, dear, is bastard. B-A-S-T-A-R-D. And it means Mr. Babcock.”

Mr. Bessemer, Bounce and Road Show
In John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce and its subsequent revision, Road Show, when middle-aged architect Addison Mizner meets the young, handsome, to-the-manor-born Hollis Bessemer on a train bound for Florida, Hollis has just been disowned by his rich industrialist father due to his interest in artistic rather than business pursuits. In the song “Talent,” the rebellious lad tells his life story to Addison, ending with a profane instruction for pops, whose action ultimately sets both a shady real estate scheme and a doomed love affair in motion. Dontcha hate it when that happens?

Papa (accent on the second syllable), Coco
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel invented herself from the ground up, obscuring in particular her unhappy and impoverished youth. In Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn’s Coco, Katharine Hepburn as the celebrated French couturier remembers a moment when her father, a traveling champagne salesman (“He was just like his product: just as irresistible and if you’re poor just as hard to find”) briefly visits with her and the “two cold gray aunts in a cold gray house” who were raising her. Papa never has a name and only appears in two dimensions, on film, just long enough to sing “Gabrielle,” a song in which Lerner fancifully suggests that he provided his daughter with her famous nickname. Papa promises to return in six weeks with, at her request, a distinctly unorthodox bright red dress for her first communion. Then he disappears forever, prompting Coco to sing a title song in which she vows to rely only upon herself in the future, cementing her character firmly in place.

Joe, The Most Happy Fella
In Frank Loesser’s musically abundant The Most Happy Fella, the absent father is on stage for much of the first act, but not in his role as father. He is the manly, rugged, and taciturn Joe, foreman of the Napa Valley grape ranch owned by the show’s protagonist, Tony Esposito. When Tony’s mail order bride, a San Francisco diner waitress he was smitten with and left a mash note for, arrives, she thinks that Joe is her husband-to-be, because the rotund, middle-aged Tony sent her Joe’s picture instead of his own. Furious at the deception and crushed with disappointment, she tries to leave but ends up in Joe’s bed that night after marrying Tony, who has had a car accident chasing after her and seems near death (the infidelity is dramatized in the stunning Act 1 closer, “Don’t Cry”). But Tony lives, and it is the fact of Joe’s child, conceived that night, that complicates the new marriage. Joe, however, has succumbed to the wanderlust he earlier expressed in the haunting “Joey, Joey, Joey” and is long gone, utterly unaware of his fatherhood, absent forever.

Lars “Papa” (accent on the first syllable) Hansen, I Remember Mama
In turning Kathryn Forbes’ short stories (and John van Druten’s stage adaptation) into a musical play, book writer Thomas Meehan faced the task of creating dramatic thrust and narrative tension. His solution was to send the loving, avuncular patriarch of the immigrant Hansen clan back to Norway from San Francisco due to financial woes at the end of Act 1, while the family is forced to stay behind. The choice kept poor George Hearn offstage for almost all of Act 2, but that was about all it accomplished. However, it did turn Lars, a beloved salt-of-the-earth character, into an absent father, a dubious achievement. This 1979 show featured the great Richard Rodgers’ last score (lyrics by Martin Charnin, additional lyrics by Raymond Jessel), and for that reason alone you should know it, even if it is not first-drawer Rodgers. There are several lovely ballads, especially “You Could Not Please Me More” and “Time.” It has become conventional wisdom that star Liv Ullman was the main problem due to her lack of singing ability (the only recording of the score, a studio affair done several years after it closed and Rodgers was dead, features Sally Ann Howes, not Ullman). However, that calumny is wrong. Ullman was terrific as Mama, incandescently maternal, and her quirky, less-than-polished singing suited the character perfectly. The problems were all in the writing.

Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude
An avant garde painter/filmmaker who makes his living through commercial art, Abraham Ebdus moved to Gowanus, Brooklyn, in 1975 at the behest of his counter-cultural wife, Rachel, who believes that their son, Dylan (named for Bob), will benefit from growing up in the mixed-race, lower-economic-class environment. “We can make this just like Berkeley,” she says. But before the opening number is done, Rachel takes off her wedding ring and decamps for Berkeley alone. The emotionally reserved Abraham responds by burrowing into his work (expressed in the stunning song “Painting”), and Dylan is pretty much left to fend for himself on the mean streets. Itamar Moses (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) adapted Jonathan Lethem’s 511-page novel about the unlikely friendship between two boys, one white and one black, and what time and American culture do to them in their journey to manhood for a 2014 production at the Public Theater. If some things were lost in the inevitable condensation, it was still an imaginative, intelligent, and affecting musical, notable particularly for Friedman’s first-rate score that used the pop sounds of its era in bracingly theatrical ways.

The Mysterious Man, Into the Woods
We don’t know the identity of the old man dashing about in the woods trying to help the Baker and the Baker’s Wife in their search for the magic ingredients that will lift a Witch’s curse and allow them to have a child. Well, at least until late in book writer James Lapine’s second act, when it is revealed that he is the Baker’s father, who abandoned his son after inadvertently initiating that curse through his own actions and losing his baby daughter to the Witch in punishment and his wife to death by heartbreak. In Stephen Sondheim’s cathartic “No More,” he convinces his grown son not to make the same mistake of abandoning his own infant son after having lost his wife, breaking the cycle of dysfunction. As such, he’s the only absent father on this list who attempts to ameliorate the damage he has caused.

Benjamin Barker, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
We hear a lot about Benjamin Barker in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Grand Guignol musical tale about a serial-killing barber in Victorian London, but we never get to meet him. That’s because by the time the musical starts, Barker has morphed into the title character, psychologically warped beyond recognition due to his unjust incarceration in a faraway prison by an evil judge who took advantage of his absence to rape his beautiful young wife, destroying her sanity, and acquire his infant daughter as a ward. I think we come closest to seeing the young, naïve, hopeful Barker during Sweeney’s Act 2 song “Johanna,” in which he sings sweetly and lovingly of his lost daughter as he blithely slits throat after throat in his barber’s chair.

Bruce Bechdel, Fun Home
It would first appear that this is the only character mentioned here who is not relegated to limited-to-no stage time. However, I would argue that Bruce is indeed absent throughout Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s masterful 2015 musical adaptation of Alison Bechel’s autobiographical graphic novel. That’s because the price of being a closeted gay man in a heterosexual marriage is to smother your authentic self. No one, including Bruce, knows who that man might have been had society—and Bruce—allowed him to live openly. His final song, “Edges of the World,” which he sings before deliberately stepping in front of an oncoming truck, is a wrenching acknowledgement, appropriately stated only through indirection and metaphor, of Bruce’s tragic loss of himself.

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Jun
16

A Musical Father's Day

Father's Day is just a couple of days off, and so I asked the guys to think about dads in musical theater. You'll find that both Erik and Ken have tackled the assignment with aplomb, and I am pretty sure you'll be surprised at some of the choices they've made this week!

To complement Erik's and Ken's columns, allow me to offer up the following:

  • Bye Bye Birdie - As far as memorable musical dads go, you can't beat Paul Lynde's turn as Mr. MacAfee in this classic tuner. "What is the matter with kids...?"
  • Ragtime - This musical interweaves a trio of stories to examine how America was changing at the beginning of the 20th century. Each one of them features a different sort of father, and so, in addition to just being a great listen, this cast album triply fits this week.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


Dads - present, absent, good, bad - they all commingle (or at least songs that relate to them do) on this week's Spotify playlist. It's about an hour of music that takes you from Broadway's Golden Age through to the present day. And for all you dads out there, Happy Father's Day!


In keeping with our Father's Day theme, we've got a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein song performed by Heather Mac Rae as a tribute to her dad, who so memorably played Curly in Oklahoma! on screen, as our current free song download.


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • Anastasia - Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have written some lovely tunes for this musical about the young woman who might be a Russian princess.
  • 2017 Tony Award Season - You'll get a quick aural snapshot of Broadway in 2016-2017 thanks to this great compilation, which features numbers from the musicals that opened during the course of the season.
  • “Beyond the Moon” - Audra McDonald’s sounding marvelous (natch) on this single from the soundtrack to the movie version of Michael John LaChiusa’s Hello, Again.
  • Chip Defaa’s Irving Berlin Rediscovered: Rare Songs of Love and Longing – You’ll find a wonderful amalgam of the composer’s forgotten gems on this just-out album.

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • War Paint - Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole both offer up amazing performances in this new show that examines the lives of two corporate titans, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.  
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Tony winner Christian Borle's newest role is the legendary Willy Wonka, and he's sounding grand in this new musical version of the Roald Dahl story that features a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
  • Gershwin: Complete Piano Works - Maurizio Zaccaria dazzles on this recording that features some of Gershwin’s best-known songs in arrangements that the composer himself penned. There are also sterling renditions of some rarities, including “Rialto Ripples.”
  • Hot l Baltimore - You’ll feel like you’ve got the best seat in the house for the original production of this classic Lanford Wilson drama thanks to this recording that preserves the entirety of the show and some grand performances. It’s a valuable release that deserves a listen!
  • Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn – You can’t beat the Berlin score for this show that’s based on the movie classic.
  • Hello, Dolly! - Bette Midler's gotten some rave reviews for her performance in this Jerry Herman classic. You'll understand why as you listen to this fantastic just-released cast album that's been getting a lot of play here at BwayTunes.
  • Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - A marvelously adventuresome musical that's traveled from off-Broadway to Broadway get a new cast album to preserve its latest incarnation, including Josh Groban's terrific sounding central performance. 
  • Amelie – Philippa Soo charms on this recording of the new musical based on the hit indie movie of the same title.
  •  Dreamgirls – This new London cast recording preserves the entirety of the hit 1980s musical, once again reminding listeners that this Motown-infused show could be considered a pop/rock ‘n’ roll opera. It’s a fantastic listen.
  • Seriously Upbeat - A live recording of a Chip Zien concert takes you on a whirlwind and tuneful tour of his career that has included the original productions of shows such as Into the Woods, Falsettos, and Merrily We Roll Along.
  • Blurred Lines - Lea Salonga’s newest solo recording showcases her gorgeous voice as she offers up renditions of such Great American Songbook classics as “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “My Foolish Heart.”
  • In Transit - Billed as "Broadway's first a cappella musical," this show features tunes by the likes of Frozen's Kristen Anderson-Lopez and some grand performances by Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, and Margo Seibert, among others.
  • Iowa - This Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz musical had its New York premiere back in 2015, and it's great to finally have a cast recording that preserves the show's tuneful zaniness!
  • Groundhog Day - Andy Karl's been earning raves as the star of this new show that's based on the popular Bill Murray film, even with his newly injured knee. The musical has a score by Tim Minchin that's just swell, and this new cast album will definitely deserve some repeated plays.
  • The Soul of Richard Rodgers - Tony winner Billy Porter pays tribute to composer Rodgers on this album that's composed mostly of duets with similarly fantastic singers, many also Tony winners, such as Leslie Odom, Jr., Cynthia Errivo, and Patina Miller. It's a grand listen!
  • Story Songs - Tony winner Betty Buckley's newest album terrifically showcases her range. It includes everything from a new tune by Joe Iconis written especially for her to Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" to Radiohead's "High and Dry."
  • I Will Always Love You - Deborah Cox is wowing audiences in the national tour of The Bodyguard, and this new album allows you to experience her performance. It comprises eight of the Whitney Huston hits heard in that show.
  • Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke - Sharon Paige and Keith Ingram offer up some terrific renditions of songs by Burke, including "Aren't You Glad You're You?," "Swinging on a Star," and "Humpty Dumpty Heart."
  • Broadway at the Keys – Tony Award-winning singer-pianist Levi Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet) gives some Broadway classics a invigorating new spins on his debut solo album.
  • Cockeyed Optimist - Jenn Gambatese delivers some swell interpretations of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics on this one!
  • The Flash - Duet – Music met superheroes on the CW a few weeks back and this EP features performances by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, Broadway vet Darren Criss, and Melissa Benoist (of Glee fame), as well as musical vets Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman who deliver "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls.
  • Spamilton: An American Parody - Gerard Alessandrini (creator of Forbidden Broadway) takes aim at Broadway's mega-hit--and a few other theatrical targets--in this delightful new satire.
  • Beauty and the Beast - "A tale as old as time" indeed, this beguiling animated musical, with a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, returns to the screen next week in a new live-action version. Of course, there's a soundtrack (both deluxe and regular) featuring all of your/our faves, plus some additional songs with lyrics by Tim Rice. 

I'm going to be traveling for the rest of June and most of July. So there will be a corresponding sabbatical for me in terms of updating BwayTunes. Dodgy WiFi will make big changes to the site difficult at best.

While I won't be sending you a newsletter for a while, I will be keeping new releases up-to-date on the homepage, and I hope to offer up a couple of free song downloads during this temporary break as well.

Enjoy the beginning of summer, and to send you on your way I suggest a listen to PS Classics' Love on a Summer Night, which features some great tunes by Sam Davis.

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Jun
02

Tony Predictions 2017

Andy asked Erik and me to come up with some Tony Award predictions. Well, to be honest I haven’t seen all the nominees but why should that stop me from having opinions. I hear lots and lots of criticisms from friends who haven’t seen the shows and don’t know what they’re talking about. And perhaps my taste isn’t the most reliable.

My friend Harry and I saw Les Miz in London right after it transferred from the Barbican, and we knew it was rubbish. Oh, and Marcia Lewis invited me to the dress rehearsal when the revival of Chicago moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre. I hadn’t seen it at Encores but I knew that no Broadway audience would accept a revival with Victoria’s Secret–inspired costumes, no sets, the orchestra on stage, little fealty to the original concept, and “Fosse-inspired” choreography. It would be a stretch for it to run more than a week.

Got the idea? Of course, ever since those two slight miscalculations, I’ve a perfect record.

Ahem. So, here are my predictions for the upcoming Tony Awards. Gulp!

BEST MUSICAL: Apparently it’s a horse race between Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away. I haven’t seen the latter show but… well, see above. Even Hansen is a very good, intelligent, emotional show. And, as I wrote in my last column here on BwayTunes, it has an excellent book. And I’m a big fan of Pasek and Paul’s work. Their score for A Christmas Story was equally good. That was one of the best musicals of the decade so far.

Come From Away certainly has its supporters. Some of my friends were very affected by the story while others felt manipulated. Both shows are doing extremely well at the box office. And some know-it-alls think that the out-of-town Tony voters want to vote for shows that they think will do well at the box offices of their theatres. Certainly, Come From Away fits the bill with simpler production values. But without the sliding panels and its very busy projections Evan Hansen could be staged for the same smaller budget.

So, all in all, I think that Evan Hansen will take home the Tony.

P.S. I think A Bronx Tale should have been nominated. Not the flashiest musical on the block but it didn’t played it straight without pandering to the audience. Its casting, script, direction, book, and production values were all top-drawer. A well-made audience pleaser that might have been a little old-fashioned for the nominators but certainly not for the enthusiastic audiences that have made it a success.

BEST PLAY: Again, I haven’t seen all the plays but from what I hear the race is between Oslo and A Doll’s House Part 2. I saw both of these plays and both their directing and acting were exemplary. Oslo’s three-hour running time raced by because of the above-mentioned production values and the entertaining and intelligent script by J.T. Rogers, but there wasn’t an overarching message or take-away to the script. It was sort of a staged Wikipedia article (I thought the same of War Paint.)

 

Playwright Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 also contains beautifully rendered performances from the cast of four and excellent directing that seems effortless (not easy to pull off especially since it’s all talk, albeit brilliant talk). Most people know the basics of Ibsen’s original, but this play turns our suppositions upside down. The play gives each of its beautifully realized characters their own moments that perfectly illustrate and deepen the original play. Though it runs a mere 90 minutes or so (and wouldn’t it be great if more plays did that?) it packs a real wallop and gives the audience the satisfaction one seeks when confronted with an intelligent, entertaining, and emotional evening in the theatre.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 will and should win the Tony. But it’s a tough call.

BEST REVIVAL OF A MUSICAL: Duh, Hello, Dolly!

BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Here’s another nail-biter. Ben Platt has the title character in Evan Hansen, and he gives a remarkably nuanced performance, which is rare in a musical even one as complex at this. And most impressively, while his character goes on its journey, Platt doesn’t give the ending away with his performance. And he’s basically an unknown, so his performance was a surprise to hard-boiled theatergoers. Plus, he actually cries during one of his numbers!

Andy Karl is always a favorite of audiences even though he seems to be saddled with shows that don’t live up to his impressive talents (think Rocky). And the fact that he’s finally in a successful show makes him a theatre community favorite. Groundhog Day certainly makes him earn his paycheck, and he does so seemingly without effort. And you’ve seen a lot of actors telegraph the audience that they’re working really, really hard for the people out in front. Karl’s constantly running around, down, over and up in a super-charged performance. He’s handsome, sings wonderfully, really connects with the audience, and absolutely has the entire show on his shoulders. But the show doesn’t have much depth beyond its imaginative staging and glib score. Still, his performance shines. And, he suffered an accident early on and, in the best show biz tradition, continued on in wearing a knee brace. So, he deservedly gets extra points for his show-must-go-on spirit.

The best races are those that are the tightest. I think Ben Platt with squeak by to win the Tony.

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL seems to be Bette Midler’s to lose. Some have carped on her singing and the Midlerisms in her performance. But that’s what musical comedy is about: making the role fit your strengths. Speaking of Hello, Dolly! when the estimable Phyllis Diller took over the role on Broadway she played it straight. But audiences came to see Phyllis Diller on stage with the role of Dolly secondary. So, Diller’s reception was not what she expected. But at one performance something screwed up on stage and Diller let loose with her patented laugh that sounded like a hyena braying and the audience went crazy. She was smart enough to get the point and from then on she gave the audience what they wanted, the Phyllis Diller characters’ interpretation of Dolly.

BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Gavin Creel will win this. A lot of voters are impressed with his evolution from an energetic, attractive ingénue to a mature performer who knows how to build a character and get both laughs and sympathy from the audience. Andrew Rannells was very effective in a difficult role in Falsettos, and his performance was also a great leap from his previous work in The Book of Mormon. But the revival was not a financial success and closed too long ago. Meanwhile, Dolly! is a current smash and that adds lots of votes to the ballots.

BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL: That Dolly! momentum should carry Kate Baldwin to a Tony. Besides, she’s developed a multi-layered performance and her singing is delightful. Lots of people fell in love with Jennifer Simard’s sweetly comic performance as Ernestina in Dolly! but she wasn’t nominated. I guess the role just wasn’t large enough. Still, it’s great to give her a shout out for her wonderful work.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Like the Best Musical category it’s between Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen. The former is a little too simplistic like the score from Once was. But it can be affecting. Dear Evan Hansen deserves the award for its multi-layered, intelligent, and emotional score. It’s also rare for a modern musical to not have songs that 1) Are declarative rather than illustrative and 2) Work to compliment the libretto and fill in emotions that are best served musically. Oh, also the score is smart and every word scans correctly and the rhymes are true. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but most shows today do not have craft or more than the simplest emotions.

DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL might go the veteran revivalist Jerry Zaks since Dolly! is such a smash. Audiences and Tony voters sometimes think that directing a musical comedy is easy. But it isn’t. I saw early previews of both the revivals of Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing that were directed by Jerry Zaks. And neither show seemed destined to be a success. By opening night each show was working perfectly and gave the audience exactly what they came to see with a bit of unexpected emotion wending through the laughs. Michael Greif deserves a lot of credit for the emotional balancing act in Evan Hansen. It wasn’t easy to get just the right tone in a story that could have been preachy instead of being a downer or an uplifting life lesson that was easy to take by the audience. He did a masterful job. Zaks might get swept along in the Dolly! tsunami that will certainly come. But Grief has earned a Tony and should win.

Well, that’s the major awards for musicals (and Best Play). The costumes, sets, and lighting will deservedly go to Dolly! Denis Jones has a shot at winning Best Choreography for Holiday Inn even though it was a failure. As far as Orchestrations go, Larry Hochman’s fine work on Dolly! retains a lot of the Philip J. Lang’s work on the original as well as Peter Howard’s fantastic and unheralded work on the original’s Dance and Incidental Music that deserved its own special Tony at the time. So, Larry won’t win. Alex Lacamoire provided a rich, emotional orchestration for Evan Hansen and certainly deserves to win.

So, come June 11th see if my predictions come true or if my previous track record proves once again that my crystal ball (souvenir from the musical Big) needs a tune up!

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Jun
02

And Now It’s Tonys Time

“And now it’s Tonys time,/Predict the Tonys time./It’s time to cogitate and analyze/Just who will win the prize.” And for the Skip Redwine tune for that, go to the OCR of producer Ben Bagley’s delicious 1965 off-Broadway songbook revue The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter and listen to the closing medley. I saw an excellent production of this terrific show in Chicago in the early 1970s while in school at Northwestern University. Alas, the OCR is not available digitally, but used CDs and LPs can be found at Amazon.com. Get the CD if you can; it has additional live-in-performance tracks. When is someone going to acquire the Bagley Painted Smiles catalogue and re-release it? The unavailability of these invaluable recordings, particularly the Revisited Series, which features the lesser-known tunes of classic Broadway songwriters interpreted by such diverse artists as Barbara Cook, Kaye Ballard, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Perkins, Jerry Orbach, Bobby Short, Dorothy Loudon, Elaine Stritch, Blossom Dearie, Katharine Hepburn and many more top talents, is a crime. But I digress.

It’s been an unusually busy season for original musicals, with 13 of them opening on the Great White Way. On the other hand, we’ve only had six revivals, one of which, the critically acclaimed Sunday in the Park With George, took itself out of the Tony competition due to its extremely limited run of only 10 weeks, necessitated by star Jake Gyllenhaal’s crowded film schedule (if the consistently sold-out show had had to invite Tony voters, it probably wouldn’t have been able to recoup its investment). The undoubted also-ran in the revival field is British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose new productions of Cats and Sunset Boulevard failed to garner a single nomination. Still, right now Lloyd Webber has a remarkable four hit musicals running on Broadway at once, so, as they used to say about Liberace, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

As only Broadway shows are eligible to win a Tony, I am not including off-Broadway in the “should have been nominated” choices. However, let me state up top that as far as I am concerned the two best musicals of the 2016-2017 season were John Kander and Greg Pierce’s Kid Victory, at the Vineyard Theatre, and David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ The Band’s Visit (which took the 2017 New York Drama Critics’ Circle prize for best musical and two Obie Awards, one for its authors and the other for its director, David Cromer, among other prizes), at the Atlantic Theater Company. Both shows have announced OCRs, and The Band’s Visit will transfer to Broadway, beginning previews on Oct. 7 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in advance of a Nov. 9 opening.

More often than not the Tony nominators (and voters) like to spread the wealth, but not this year. The shows nominated for best musical and best revival of a musical also dominate in the other categories, and I think we’re unlikely to see any winners from productions not in this elite circle. Let’s start with the acting awards.

Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos
Jenn Colella, Come From Away
Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Will Win: Jenn Colella
Should Win: Stephanie J. Block
Should Have Been Nominated: Beanie Feldstein, Hello, Dolly!

Colella has the advantage of sticking out in a crowd-pleasing ensemble show, but Block, in a much meatier role, demonstrated a depth and range that she hadn’t hitherto been asked to express. Feldstein’s delightful Minnie Fay seems especially newly minted. Mary Beth Peil could pull an upset here for her fine work as the Russian Dowager Empress, as she is well loved, the part is arresting, and the voters may think that Anastasia was unfairly snubbed overall.

Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos
Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

Will Win: Lucas Steele
Should Win: Andrew Rannells
Should Have Been Nominated: Bobby Conte Thornton, A Bronx Tale

I think this is between Steele and Creel, but the former has the flashier role. As for Rannells’ sexy, devastating Whizzer, see Stephanie J. Block. Thornton, a bright new talent who was exceptional in the Musicals in Mufti concert of Starting Here, Starting Now at the York Theatre Company last year, does an amazing (and often thankless) job of heavy lifting as the young narrator of A Bronx Tale.

Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Denée Benton, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Christine Ebersole, War Paint
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Will Win: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Should Win: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Should Have Been Nominated: Laura Osnes, Bandstand

If there ever was a lock, this is it. Osnes, alas, suffers from her ingénueness, even though she regularly transcends it.

Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day the Musical
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!
Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

Will Win: Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Should Win: Christian Borle, Falsettos
Should Have Been Nominated: Corey Cott, Bandstand

I think this is between Platt and Karl, but the former’s tour de force is ultimately more impressive than the latter’s, due to the material. Neither is playing a character as well written as Borle’s, however, whose impressively nuanced Marvin was the rock-solid anchor of Falsettos. Cott is providing the same thing for the underappreciated Bandstand, and his chemistry with Osnes is electric.

Best Orchestrations
Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand
Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!
Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Will Win: Alex Lacamoire

Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Michael Starobin, Falsettos

This is between Lacamoire and Malloy, and I think it will be close. Malloy might get it because he isn’t going to win for best score and Lacamoire won last year for Hamilton. There was no orchestration award in 1993, but I would give it to Starobin for his iconic charts, newly tweaked, for this landmark show.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater
Come From Away, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Dear Evan Hansen, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Groundhog Day the Musical, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy

Will Win: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Should Win: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Should Have Been Nominated: Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, War Paint, and Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor, Bandstand

The battle here is between Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, but I think Tony voters will take notice of the former’s OBCR debuting at number 8 on Billboard’s 200 chart, the highest debut for a Broadway show in 56 years. Oberacker and Taylor somehow manage to use big-band pastiche to successfully explore character, and they wrote a dynamite 11 o’clock number, “Welcome Home.” Whatever the dramaturgical flaws of War Paint, Frankel and Korie have given it a score of great craft and intelligence. The show’s final three numbers—“Pink,” “Forever Beautiful,” and “Beauty in the World”—constitute the best songwriting of the season.

Best Book of a Musical
Come From Away, Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Dear Evan Hansen, Steven Levenson
Groundhog Day the Musical, Danny Rubin
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy

Will Win: Steven Levenson
Should Win: No Award
Should Have Been Nominated: Nothing

Too many book problems this season, at least in my book. Levenson will get it for creating an original story and striking characters, and he did a lot of good (and hard) work, but I can’t get past the queasy moral copout of his unearned feel-good ending. I’d happily give the award to Itamar Moses or Greg Pierce, however, preferably in a tie.

Best Choreography
Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand
Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day the Musical
Kelly Devine, Come From Away
Denis Jones, Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical
Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Will Win: Kelly Devine
Should Win: Andy Blankenbuehler
Should Have Been Nominated: Spencer Liff, Falsettos

It hasn’t been a fertile year for choreography, which is why I think Devine will get it for creating a tapestry of successful movement for non-dancers. However, if musical staging is taking the award, then it really should be Liff’s vastly superior work for a vastly superior show. I’d go with Blankenbuehler, however, who created some highly original, consistently imaginative steps for Bandstand.

Best Direction of a Musical
Christopher Ashley, Come From Away
Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen
Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day the Musical
Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!

Will Win: Michael Grief

Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: James Lapine, Falsettos

This is the award to watch for a clue to the big one, and it’s one of the hardest races to predict. If Grief doesn’t get it (meaning Ashley, Chavkin or Zaks will; I don’t think Warchus is in the hunt), and if Come From Away takes choreography while Dear Evan Hansen gets book and score, then look for the 1992 Falsettos/Crazy for You split, with the sunnier, more upbeat show taking the big prize. Lapine was nominated but lost for direction in 1993, so he’s eligible again, and he should have been nominated and should win for his amazing re-conception of this extraordinary show, plumbing it for even greater depth and richness this time around.

Best Revival of a Musical
Falsettos
Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon

Will Win: Hello, Dolly!
Should Win: Falsettos
Should Have Been Nominated: Nothing

I love both of the above revivals, but Hello, Dolly! is largely a re-creation of Gower Champion’s legendary direction and staging, while Lapine completely reinvented his own original direction of Falsettos, making what might have now seemed like a period piece into an incredibly fresh and deeply human show for the ages.

Best Musical
Come From Away
Dear Evan Hansen
Groundhog Day the Musical
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Will Win: Dear Evan Hansen
Should Win: Dear Evan Hansen
Should Have Been Nominated: Bandstand and War Paint

This is a tight race between the first two on the list, but I think Dear Evan Hansen has the momentum (and the fan base). This category should have been expanded to five shows due to all the possibilities, but even if it weren’t, I’d still prefer Bandstand and War Paint in it replacing two of the four nominees (I’ll leave it to you to guess which ones). Both of those shows are well worth your time and money despite their imperfections, and I hope you won’t let their relative lack of Tony love dissuade you from attending them.

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Jun
02

It's Tony Awards Time!

The 2017 Tony Awards will be handed out on June 11th, and that means it's the time of year when everyone's predicting who's going to pick up prizes for excellence in theater. You can see Ken's and Erik's prognostications in their columns this week!

As the guys have comprehensively gone through the Tony Award lineup, I figured I would point you toward two recordings of off-Broadway shows that have gotten Drama Desk Award nominations this year:

  • Spamilton: An American Parody - Gerard Alessandrini's up for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics for this hysterical take on the phenomenal hit Hamilton.
  • Why We Build the Wall (Selections from 'Hadestown') - This tuner from Anais Mitchell is one of the Drama Desk nominees for Best Musical this year. The full cast album has yet to be released, but you can get a sense of it from the four tracks on this dynamic EP.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 

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Breeze through the 2016-2017 Broadway season with the current playlist on Spotify. There are selections from all of the released cast recordings, plus for the revivals I've tucked in tracks from the shows' original cast albums!


This week's free song download comes from Maurizio Zaccaria's stunning new album Gershwin: Complete Piano Works. Grab it now. You'll be happy you did!


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • War Paint - Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole both offer up amazing performances in this new show that examines the lives of two corporate titans, Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.  
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Tony winner Christian Borle's newest role is the legendary Willy Wonka, and he's sounding grand in this new musical version of the Roald Dahl story that features a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
  • Gershwin: Complete Piano Works - Maurizio Zaccaria dazzles on this recording that features some of Gershwin’s best-known songs in arrangements that the composer himself penned. There are also sterling renditions of some rarities, including “Rialto Ripples.”
  • Hot l Baltimore - You’ll feel like you’ve got the best seat in the house for the original production of this classic Lanford Wilson drama thanks to this recording that preserves the entirety of the show and some grand performances. It’s a valuable release that deserves a listen!
  • Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn – You can’t beat the Berlin score for this show that’s based on the movie classic.

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • Hello, Dolly! - Bette Midler's gotten some rave reviews for her performance in this Jerry Herman classic. You'll understand why as you listen to this fantastic just-released cast album that's been getting a lot of play here at BwayTunes.
  • Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - A marvelously adventuresome musical that's traveled from off-Broadway to Broadway get a new cast album to preserve its latest incarnation, including Josh Groban's terrific sounding central performance. 
  • Amelie – Philippa Soo charms on this recording of the new musical based on the hit indie movie of the same title.
  •  Dreamgirls – This new London cast recording preserves the entirety of the hit 1980s musical, once again reminding listeners that this Motown-infused show could be considered a pop/rock ‘n’ roll opera. It’s a fantastic listen.
  • Seriously Upbeat - A live recording of a Chip Zien concert takes you on a whirlwind and tuneful tour of his career that has included the original productions of shows such as Into the Woods, Falsettos, and Merrily We Roll Along.
  • Blurred Lines - Lea Salonga’s newest solo recording showcases her gorgeous voice as she offers up renditions of such Great American Songbook classics as “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “My Foolish Heart.”
  • In Transit - Billed as "Broadway's first a cappella musical," this show features tunes by the likes of Frozen's Kristen Anderson-Lopez and some grand performances by Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, and Margo Seibert, among others.
  • Iowa - This Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz musical had its New York premiere back in 2015, and it's great to finally have a cast recording that preserves the show's tuneful zaniness!
  • Groundhog Day - Andy Karl's been earning raves as the star of this new show that's based on the popular Bill Murray film, even with his newly injured knee. The musical has a score by Tim Minchin that's just swell, and this new cast album will definitely deserve some repeated plays.
  • The Soul of Richard Rodgers - Tony winner Billy Porter pays tribute to composer Rodgers on this album that's composed mostly of duets with similarly fantastic singers, many also Tony winners, such as Leslie Odom, Jr., Cynthia Errivo, and Patina Miller. It's a grand listen!
  • Story Songs - Tony winner Betty Buckley's newest album terrifically showcases her range. It includes everything from a new tune by Joe Iconis written especially for her to Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" to Radiohead's "High and Dry."
  • I Will Always Love You - Deborah Cox is wowing audiences in the national tour of The Bodyguard, and this new album allows you to experience her performance. It comprises eight of the Whitney Huston hits heard in that show.
  • Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke - Sharon Paige and Keith Ingram offer up some terrific renditions of songs by Burke, including "Aren't You Glad You're You?," "Swinging on a Star," and "Humpty Dumpty Heart."
  • Broadway at the Keys – Tony Award-winning singer-pianist Levi Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet) gives some Broadway classics a invigorating new spins on his debut solo album.
  • Cockeyed Optimist - Jenn Gambatese delivers some swell interpretations of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics on this one!
  • The Flash - Duet – Music met superheroes on the CW a few weeks back and this EP features performances by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, Broadway vet Darren Criss, and Melissa Benoist (of Glee fame), as well as musical vets Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman who deliver "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls.
  • Spamilton: An American Parody - Gerard Alessandrini (creator of Forbidden Broadway) takes aim at Broadway's mega-hit--and a few other theatrical targets--in this delightful new satire.
  • Beauty and the Beast - "A tale as old as time" indeed, this beguiling animated musical, with a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, returns to the screen next week in a new live-action version. Of course, there's a soundtrack (both deluxe and regular) featuring all of your/our faves, plus some additional songs with lyrics by Tim Rice. 

As we hit the middle of June it's time for Father's Day, and so I've asked Erik and Ken to think about dads in musical theater. Some are upstanding sorts of guys. Others are...well...flawed.

See who they single out as great musical patriarchs in just a couple of weeks.

Until then, you can listen to an album that toasts one real-life musical father, Gordon McRae, thanks to his daughter Heather's beautiful tribute album Songs for My Father.

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May
19

Beauteous Musical Books

Though it may be a cliché, it is nevertheless true that writing the book for a musical is a terribly misunderstood craft. Moreover, book writers cannot win. If the show is a success, its book is rarely mentioned as a reason why. If the show is flawed or completely fails, the blame is immediately put on the book writer. Many people think the book is just the dialogue, but there is much more to it. Dramatic structure, choices of what to musicalize, and the ability to set up a song properly all factor into the job.

The books I have chosen to discuss don’t constitute a 10-best list. Indeed, I have avoided some of the most obvious choices, shows such as Gypsy, 1776, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, and Oklahoma!, all of which are largely acclaimed examples of good book writing. Instead, I have chosen 10 shows that all have detractors but which I consider successful, sometimes in spite of flaws, in part because of the quality of their books.

She Loves Me
This 1963 succes d’estime was playwright Joe Masteroff’s first attempt to write the book for a musical, and he did an unusual thing: He wrote this adaptation of Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie (also the basis for the films The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime) as a complete play, then handed the script to songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They found the opportunities for singing to be so bounteous that the show ended up with far more music than usual. Nevertheless, Masteroff provided a strong dramatic spine, beautifully drawn characters, and generous story-driven momentum. This quiet, romantic show was overshadowed in its initial 301-performance engagement by bigger, noisier entertainments (Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl), but the years have proven its durability and appeal, thanks in part to two well-received Broadway revivals by Roundabout Theater Company in 1994 and 2016. It is, I think, and at long last, finally considered a classic musical.

My Fair Lady
You may think that this 1956 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe megahit is recognized as an example of a great book for a musical, and perhaps in one sense that’s true. However, I find that often its quality is ascribed to its source material, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, rather than to Lerner’s masterful adaptation of it. Indeed, in its last two major professional productions, on Broadway in 1993 and in the West End in 2001, English directors Howard Davies and Trevor Nunn were both allowed to put sections of Shaw’s text that Lerner had cut, including an entire character, Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s sister, Clara, back into the musical. Lerner removed Clara because the principal reason for her existence, a private tea party scene at the home of Higgins’ mother, had been transformed into a public journey to the horse races at Ascot in which Clara’s presence was dramatically superfluous. Putting her back elsewhere in the show, where she is little more than window dressing, just adds bloat. Lerner also did much more than just edit Shaw. His inspired decision to expand the play by musically dramatizing offstage events and his ability to write dialogue in expert Shavian style (Higgins’ speech about the beauty of the English language that provides the intro to “The Rain in Spain,” for example) were key to his book’s success. Here’s hoping director Bartlett Sher sticks with Lerner’s script for Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival.

Allegro
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1947 concept musical that follows a man’s life from his birth to his 35th year made money but was considered a failure because it fell short of the tremendous commercial success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel. Famously, its flawed second act, in which Dr. Joseph Taylor Jr. forsakes serving his rural hometown to work as a doctor for the wealthy in Chicago, seems to say that country life is good and city life is bad. Of course, it doesn’t actually say that; Hammerstein even goes out of the way to explicitly say the reverse in one dialogue exchange. Still, I’ve seen it leave that impression in the four full productions I’ve attended over the years. Only John Doyle’s 2014 condensed chamber version Off-Broadway managed to clearly convey Hammerstein’s message: That a good man can still lose track of himself. I don’t care, however. Hammerstein’s inventive use of a Greek chorus to both voice Joseph Jr.’s innermost thoughts and feelings and provide commentary gives the deliberately conventional story the kind of size it needs to soar emotionally, and when Joe finally wises up and heads home I never fail to be moved. Oh, the score ain’t bad either, but it’s really the wise and humane book that gets me on this one.

Anyone Can Whistle
The general wisdom on this 1964 piece of musical theatre of the absurd is that Arthur Laurents’ unwieldy, pretentious, hard-to-follow book gets in the way of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful score. Rubbish. Sondheim’s score wouldn’t even exist without Laurents’ vivid original characters and quirky story about an economically dying town and the false miracle devised to save it and its venal politicians. If Sondheim’s score is wonderful (and it is), then it is so in part because of the Laurentian creations it is dramatizing. I’ve particularly never understood the “hard-to-follow” accusations. I find it all quite clear, and if people are so confused, then why does Laurents so consistently land his abundant laughs? (I’ve seen at least six stagings and, trust me, he does.) It’s faults? It does tend to run its themes into the ground a bit before it ends; a two-act structure, not the three-act one it has, would probably have been a better idea. These days Sondheim belittles it as the smart kids in the class showing off. Personally, I think that’s part of its cheeky, subversive charm.

Annie
I saw this 1977 Thomas Meehan (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Martin Charnin (lyrics and direction) hit from standing room shortly after it opened, but I wasn’t persuaded, mostly because of my jejune disdain for musical comedy at the tender age of 23. However, in the summer of 1981 I went on tour with it to L.A. and D.C. for three months total, selling souvenirs, LPs etc. in the lobby. As a result, I got to see it many, many times (again, from standing room), and what I got was an education in good structure and proper pacing. In particular Meehan makes damn sure to have the right laugh at the right time to keep the audience consistently engaged. I still find the score rather uneven, though all the best numbers are in the right places, for which, again, Meehan is at least partially responsible. His book is a Swiss watch of comedy.

Sunday in the Park With George
Back in 1984, the naysayers for this Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical about the French painter Georges Seurat, and they were legion, whined that Act 1 was complete as a show and Act 2 was superfluous. You still hear the complaint, but not as much. It’s nonsense, of course. What the authors wanted to say about the difficulty and costs of creating art was at the heart of the second act, which is set 100 years later. The structure is theme and variations, and Lapine employs it to maximum effect. The connections among the characters in each act are meticulously planned and elegantly rendered. Is there a more cathartic moment in musical theatre than the second act climax, “Move On”? Yes, it’s a great song, but it has also been spectacularly prepared for by Lapine’s rock-solid construction.

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Terrence McNally learned a lesson in storytelling on this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel about Molina, an effeminate gay window dresser, sharing a jail cell with Valentin, a macho straight revolutionary, in an unnamed South American country. Originally, to escape into fantasy, Molina narrated to Valentin the story of one musical movie that starred his beloved Aurora, also known as the Spider Woman. The audience couldn’t keep that story in its head for the whole show while also following the Molina-Valentin plot, John Kander and Fred Ebb couldn’t successfully unify their twin scores (one for the movie and one for the characters), and the result was chaos. It took McNally realizing that Molina should instead narrate individual scenes from many movies, relieving the audience of the need to follow twin dramatic threads, to turn the show into a success. Happily for Kander and Ebb, they didn’t have to rewrite quite as much as he did. It’s been 24 years since Spider Woman debuted on Broadway in 1993. It’s time for a revival!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart based their ingenious book for this bawdy 1962 musical on the Roman comedies of Plautus, which means that it inevitably traffics in extremely low, sometimes even vulgar humor. Stephen Sondheim’s score doesn’t dramatize the heavily plotted shenanigans; instead, it serves as a respite, giving the show moments in which to breathe but never derailing the farcical momentum. It’s also written in a more refined, almost intellectual humorous style, but the tonal mismatch isn’t a problem; instead, one complements the other. Still, at the end of the day it’s the book that makes this show work like gangbusters. The score is ornamentation, though of a very high order.

Fun Home
Playwright-performer Lisa Kron made an extremely assured debut as a book writer with this 2015 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s popular autobiographical lesbian-coming-of-age graphic novel. Kron made an audacious choice to split the leading role in three: “Small Allison,” “Medium Allison,” and “Allison,” the last in the process of writing her book. She also told the story in nonlinear fashion, mixing up events from different time periods with stunning effect. These choices gave the material richness and depth and more fully explored the maturation of her central character. Yet Kron always kept the action clear and engaging. The story is ultimately heartbreaking, but the telling of it in Kron’s inspired construction proves purgative, not depressing, just as it was for Bechdel in real life. Composer Jeanine Tesori’s score, to Kron’s lyrics, is a vital component, but in this case I think what makes the show is the way the story is told.

Assassins
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think that John Weidman’s book for this musical about a very dark strain in the American psyche, seen by exploring the lives of the various people who assassinated (or tried to) a succession of American presidents, may be the best book ever written for a musical. Allowing the various assassins to interact with each other, the inspired metatheatricality of setting it in a cosmic shooting gallery, the compact but detailed character writing are all assets, as is using a musical revue structure rather than a more conventional plot-oriented one. Stephen Sondheim’s coruscating score works with Weidman’s book hand in glove, and the result is ferocious. The climactic scene of the assassins materializing in the Texas Book Depository to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with killing John F. Kennedy is so shattering that they recorded it for both the original 1990 off-Broadway cast recording and the 2004 Broadway revival one. How often does an entire book scene get that treatment?

Bonus: The Golden Apple
Well, I was going to stop at 10, but seeing the extraordinary Encores! presentation of this 1954 John Latouche–Jerome Moross masterpiece this past weekend changed my mind. Just because it is through-sung doesn’t mean it hasn’t got a book. Resetting the story of the Greek myths of The Iliad and The Odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Washington state, Latouche finds consistently amusing character parallels while also managing to put the story of Ulysses and Penelope’s troubled marriage front and center with affecting clarity. The Golden Apple is a unique show told exactly as its authors wanted without bowing to any established rules, and it is never going to be embraced by everyone (as the mixed reception from critics and on chat boards showed). Still, its glorious mixture of show biz, sentiment, psychological exploration, and cultural dialectics, all told in brilliantly rhymed lyrics set to Moross’ giddy and gorgeous Americana score, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, at least for some of us.

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May
19

Top Ten Books for Musicals

Wow! This is a really tough one. In fact, it’s impossible. But here’s my list of more than ten libretti – some from the far past, some from mid-century and some from today. All of which keep the audience involved and have humor, drama, and realistic characters. Beyond that these shows’ songs and scripts compliment each other perfectly, making a beautiful whole.

First on my list is Show Boat. Yes, it’s ungainly especially at the end when the passage of time has to be sped up to the then-present. Edna Ferber’s book is huge and making the many episodes and characters into a three-hour show is a bitch.  But along the way, Oscar Hammerstein showed how a musical could be perfectly integrated and speak to larger societal issues. Heck, Hammerstein even makes the Mississippi River a character in the show. In the right hands it might just be the most emotional musical ever written. And Hammerstein also deserves credit for the second place musical:

Carousel. Of course, it’s difficult to separate the book from the score they’re so perfectly integrated. But each element, while seemingly simple, speaks to great emotions. And the characters are true and complicated even if sometimes our political correctness demands all edges be sanded down to make us comfortable. But it’s Hammerstein’s point to keep the edges and, like in all his musicals, develop characters that are flawed but have the power to be redeemed.

Speaking of redemption, Gypsy has the most powerful punch; in it a character finds herself stripped bare and acknowledging her own truth and coming to acceptance. It’s often cited as the greatest musical libretto of all time and that may be true. Women who have played the title role like Merman, Lansbury, and others make it look easy, but it’s an incredibly difficult part to do well. A gorgon who reveals the insecurities and needs she has inside.

In the above musicals characters come to a realization and either actually change or consider change and reject it. My Fair Lady probably has the most impressive about-faces in the theatre. Eliza Doolittle is literally changed from a “guttersnipe” into a presentable upper-class woman. But the teacher also changes, and Henry Higgins finds his own humanity, and even though at the end of the show he asks Eliza to fetch his slippers, the audience knows that he has come to terms with himself also.

Prejudices are also overturned in Guys and Dolls, perhaps the second runner-up in the best libretto race. Sister Sarah is prejudiced against gambler Sky Masterson, but each is open enough to slowly see the humanity and even insecurities of each other (even if a few rums help to loosen pre-determined prejudices). This show has abundant humor, true emotions, and leaves the audience in a state of bliss. Come to think of it, Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey’s book for The Music Man has a lot in common with Guys and Dolls. A gambler/conman loosens up a prim Salvation Army girl/librarian.

And for pure humor with no pretension of greater good, no message, characters that don’t change essentially our vote goes to On the Twentieth Century. Especially the original production, which under the direction of genius Harold Prince, roared down the tracks in a barrage of humor. Hand it to the great Betty Comden and Adolph Green for scribing a hilarious farce. And speaking of Betty and Adolph their other scripts for On the Town and Wonderful Town and Bells Are Ringing, etc., etc. are also hilarious, realistic (true!), and emotional.

Before we get to some shows that are currently playing here’s our vote for the most unusual great script – 1776.  Really – a  musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Strong characters, real drama, important issues like slavery, and something no other musical has had in such abundance: suspense. Yes, we already know the outcome but if it’s a really good production we actually have our doubts as the pages on the calendar on the wall slip away.

Now I’m may be an old curmudgeon but there are three terrific libretti currently on Broadway.

Translating the novel Wicked for the musical theatre was, like Show Boat, a humongous task, and Winnie Holzman did yeoman’s work distilling the immense plot into a clear, entertaining musical that still carried a powerful message for the audience. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, it’s one of the few musicals in which the book is better than the score…which is rare.

The Book of Mormon seems to have nothing on its mind but to make us laugh. Yes, it can be somewhat scatological and religiously impertinent and though it’s completely in the South Park mode with plenty of subversive, and often raunchy humor, its greatest accomplishment is its underlying heart, which carries a real emotional punch. To the audience’s surprise they actually care for characters that they thought were only caricatures.

Dear Evan Hansen is the most recent great book of a musical. When was the last time you saw a show and really and truly couldn’t figure out how the heck the authors were going to wrap up the story? That they do so with such skill, logic and audience satisfaction is an admirable thing. And they have a wonderful score, production, and strong cast to carry the remarkable story forward.

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May
19

Our Best Books...

Any given musical book can often be either its most overlooked or its most maligned element. This week I've asked Ken and Erik to talk about the shows that they think have the best (or feature their most favorite) books. It's fascinating to see what they've picked!

To complement Erik's and Ken's columns, allow me to offer up the following:

  • On the Town - It's pretty easy to dismiss the book for this World War II--era lark, particularly given Leonard Bernstein's music and Jerome Robbins' choreography. But Betty Comden and Adolph Green provide an entirely original book where those elements, plus comedy and a certain amount of bittersweet drama blend seamlessly.
  • Bring It On - No. I'm not saying that this one breaks any ground or is particularly profound. At the same time I think that Jeff Whitty crafted a pretty smart piece and the fact that he managed to sneak in a whole All About Eve plotting device that I never figured out does impress me no end.

Remember, if you need to add any of the recordings mentioned here and in the guys' blogs to your collection, you can find links to them in the carousels on the BwayTunes.com homepage. 


What I've done for this week's playlist over on Spotify is to choose one big number from each of the shows that Erik, Ken, and I have all chosen. It's turned out to be a pretty cool potpourri of tunes, and I hope you enjoy!


Our current free song download comes from a beautifully remastered (and most welcome re-release) of Tim Rice and Stephen Oliver's 1983 musical Blondel!


Take a look at the marvelously diverse array of new music that we've gotten for you, particularly:

  • Hello, Dolly! - Bette Midler's gotten some rave reviews for her performance in this Jerry Herman classic. You'll understand why as you listen to this fantastic just-released cast album that's been getting a lot of play here at BwayTunes.
  • Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - A marvelously adventuresome musical that's traveled from off-Broadway to Broadway get a new cast album to preserve its latest incarnation, including Josh Groban's terrific sounding central performance. 

In addition to these albums, you’ll want to check out these new releases, which can be found in the main carousel at the top of the home page and in the “New and Recommended” one at the bottom of the page.

  • In Transit - Billed as "Broadway's first a cappella musical," this show features tunes by the likes of Frozen's Kristen Anderson-Lopez and some grand performances by Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, and Margo Seibert, among others.
  • Iowa - This Todd Almond and Jenny Schwartz musical had its New York premiere back in 2015, and it's great to finally have a cast recording that preserves the show's tuneful zaniness!
  • Groundhog Day - Andy Karl's been earning raves as the star of this new show that's based on the popular Bill Murray film, even with his newly injured knee. The musical has a score by Tim Minchin that's just swell, and this new cast album will definitely deserve some repeated plays.
  • The Soul of Richard Rodgers - Tony winner Billy Porter pays tribute to composer Rodgers on this album that's composed mostly of duets with similarly fantastic singers, many also Tony winners, such as Leslie Odom, Jr., Cynthia Errivo, and Patina Miller. It's a grand listen!
  • Story Songs - Tony winner Betty Buckley's newest album terrifically showcases her range. It includes everything from a new tune by Joe Iconis written especially for her to Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" to Radiohead's "High and Dry."
  • I Will Always Love You - Deborah Cox is wowing audiences in the national tour of The Bodyguard, and this new album allows you to experience her performance. It comprises eight of the Whitney Huston hits heard in that show.
  • A Bronx Tale - Chazz Palmintieri's autobiographical one-man show has returned to Broadway as a full-blown musical replete with a terrific score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.
  • Come From Away - This new cast recording allows listeners to savor the heartwarming tales of the airline passengers who were diverted to Newfoundland on 9/11 and the community that welcomed them.
  • Burke Beautiful: The Songs of Johnny Burke - Sharon Paige and Keith Ingram offer up some terrific renditions of songs by Burke, including "Aren't You Glad You're You?," "Swinging on a Star," and "Humpty Dumpty Heart."
  • Broadway at the Keys – Tony Award-winning singer-pianist Levi Kreis (Million Dollar Quartet) gives some Broadway classics a invigorating new spins on his debut solo album.
  • Cockeyed Optimist - Jenn Gambatese delivers some swell interpretations of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics on this one!
  • The Flash - Duet – Music met superheroes on the CW a few weeks back and this EP features performances by Tony nominee Jeremy Jordan, Broadway vet Darren Criss, and Melissa Benoist (of Glee fame), as well as musical vets Victor Garber, Jesse L. Martin, and John Barrowman who deliver "More I Cannot Wish You" from Guys and Dolls.
  • Spamilton: An American Parody - Gerard Alessandrini (creator of Forbidden Broadway) takes aim at Broadway's mega-hit--and a few other theatrical targets--in this delightful new satire.
  • Beauty and the Beast - "A tale as old as time" indeed, this beguiling animated musical, with a score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, returns to the screen next week in a new live-action version. Of course, there's a soundtrack (both deluxe and regular) featuring all of your/our faves, plus some additional songs with lyrics by Tim Rice. 
  • #ThrowbackThursday - Corey Brunish takes the Facebook/Twitter hashtag in a musical direction with this album of classic tunes by songwriters such as George and Ira Gershwin; Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green; and Bart Howard.
  • Philip Glass: Music for 'The Crucible' - Last season a fascinating revival of Arthur Miller's The Crucible hit Broadway and one of its chief assets was an intriguing score by Philip Glass, which you can now savor on this cool new release.
  • Dream Ago - This remarkable album comes from a remarkable talent: Gabrielle Stravelli. Her voice has power, warmth, and, sometimes, great humor. It's been hard for me to stop playing this one. If you don't know her work, you should certainly sample some now!

You'll be getting our next newsletter just a little over a week before the 2017 Tony Awards are handed out.

In honor of this annual celebration of the best on Broadway, Ken and Erik will be sharing some of their predictions about who will be picking up prizes come June 11.

Of course one of the biggest questions this year is, which show will pick up the award for Best Musical...Come From AwayDear Evan HansenGroundhog Day, or Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812?

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May
05

Betty From Brooklyn

Betty Comden was my neighbor. She moved into the apartment building across the street from me on Manhattan’s Upper West Side not too many years after it was erected in 1986. I would see her out and about in the ’hood, and it was also not unusual to spot her writing partner, Adolph Green, walking down Broadway toward her building, Tower 67, from his home in the Beresford on Central Park West. Throughout their long career, they apparently always worked at Betty’s place.

They wrote the lyrics for their last Broadway score, 1991’s The Will Rogers Follies, music by Cy Coleman, in that apartment, and I remember imagining them working on it just a stone’s throw away. I hadn’t yet met Betty when she first moved in, but I did so eventually, and although I hardly knew her well, she was always pleasant and welcoming if we bumped into each other. Once we were on the same train to the Hamptons (she had a home out there) and my husband and I (we were visiting friends) almost gave her a lift in our cab when a friend was late in picking her up (she arrived at the last minute, darn it).

My husband knew her professionally from his job as, first, associate director and then, later, director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. One year, during NAMT’s annual festival of new musicals, he and I were walking with Betty from one concert reading to another when I told her how excited I was that the AMC TV channel was about to show the 1964 film What a Way to Go! uncut and in widescreen format (I had only seen it pan and scan and chopped up for commercials.) It’s a star-studded comic vehicle for Shirley MacLaine as a woman who becomes increasingly wealthy as husband after husband suddenly drops dead, and Adolph and she had written the screenplay, as well as the lyrics for two songs (music by Jule Styne) for a mini-musical sequence featuring Gene Kelly as one of the husbands. Nevertheless, she fixed me with a withering glance and asked, “Why? It’s terrible!” I hadn’t liked what I had seen, but I was hoping to have a different opinion of the unaltered product. As it turned out, she was pretty much on the money, but when it came out on DVD I bought it anyway: It was by Comden, Green, and Styne!

I confess I was late to the Comden and Green party. As a teen I enjoyed their work, but I was much more enamored of the “serious” book musical and its authors, people such as Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. Comden and Green were rooted in their comic-revue beginnings, even when writing book shows, and I thought that was a lesser form. Oh, I loved On the Town and liked Wonderful Town, but I chalked that up to Bernstein’s music. It took some getting over myself to realize my mistake.

Probably my first corrective was seeing A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green at the now long-gone Morosco Theatre in the winter of 1977, just months after arriving in NYC. It was the first Broadway revival of a show they premiered in 1958, which was inspired by the fact that though they had started on stage, they had become relegated to only performing at parties. I was enraptured by their ferocious energy, great style, and unpretentious intelligence. Their witty repartee about writing together drew this playwright-lyricist hopeful right in, and it was fascinating to hear them doing songs that I associated with other actors. Of course, I already knew their hilarious “I Get Carried Away” (from On the Town, which you can see on YouTube), but when Betty sang “If,” from the 1951 musical revue Two on the Aisle, or partnered with Adolph on the manic “Inspiration,” from 1947’s Bonanza Bound (which closed before reaching Broadway), it was clear how her performance style at times influenced her writing choices. She was also very adept with a ballad, whether it be “The Party’s Over,” from 1956’s Bells Are Ringing, or “Some Other Time,” from On the Town.

Betty’s simple, direct, clear way with a song is on most obvious display on an LP she recorded in 1963, Betty Comden Sings ‘Treasure Girl’ and ‘Chee Chee.’ Both shows were fast flops in 1928, but the former has songs by George and Ira Gershwin, while Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart scored the latter. Neither show generated any song hits, but, as I wrote in my suggested Christmas gifts column last year, “all 10 songs, five from each show, sound fresh as paint and feature melodic and inventive music married to witty lyrics filled with fun wordplay and ingenious rhymes (my favorite was Hart’s pairing of “appetite” with “wrap it tight” in “Better Be Good to Me”). Comden’s light soprano and conversational phrasing highlight their musical charm, and she mines every bit of gold from the lyrics, no doubt aided by being a wordsmith herself. Richard Lewine, a Broadway composer and successful producer of television musical specials, has arranged them splendidly for piano, bass, and guitar, and his deft musical direction and piano playing are pure pleasure.” Once again, I urge you not to miss this one.

My two favorite Comden and Green musicals are On the Town and 1978’s On the Twentieth Century, the latter featuring a wonderful operetta-spoof score by Cy Coleman. As far as songs go, I am particularly partial to some of their goofier comic pieces, usually written for supporting characters. Songs such as “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged,” from 1964’s Fade Out—Fade In, sung by Carol Burnett and Tiger Haynes doing spot-on impersonations of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at their most irritatingly upbeat. And then there’s “Salzburg,” from Bells Are Ringing, in which a geographically challenged con man played by Eddie Lawrence (“lovely Salzburg by the sea”) tries to bilk Jean Stapleton’s telephone answering service owner out of her nest egg (“With your life savings in a little blue sock/We will have enough to keep us out of hock”) while giddily promising “We’ll live in style/Gold by the pile/Goulash for two as we barge down the Nile!” Perhaps the best of them all is “I Was a Shoo-In,” from 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping. Phyllis Newman played a Southern beauty queen who spent the whole show clad only in a towel, a tactic to keep her hotel from evicting her. The song is her account of her beauty pageant successes, and not only is it a hilarious tour de force, it probably won Newman her Tony for best featured actress in a musical (beating out Barbra Streisand for her performance in I Can Get It for You Wholesale). The OBCR, alas, is out of print and not available digitally, but you can hear Newman sing it on YouTube. I saw Newman perform the number live several times over the years, the last being in 2007 at Betty’s memorial tribute at the Majestic Theatre. Though 74, she still hit it out of the park. I always hoped someday to see Betty do it; I’m sure she would have been equally sensational.

In December of 1998 Betty attended the Richard Rodgers Award–sponsored reading of my musical Summer, based on the novel of the same name by Edith Wharton. Though we had met by then, it was only cursorily, and I don’t think she would have remembered me. She wasn’t present on my account but rather because the show’s composer was Paul Schwartz, son of Broadway giant Arthur Schwartz, whose song catalogue with Howard Dietz formed the basis of Betty and Adolph’s 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. After the reading I was talking to friends in the crowded York Theatre lobby when a woman came up to me to offer her congratulations. I was completely floored when I turned to find Betty Comden standing there. She had specifically sought me out to tell me how much she had liked the show and to offer praise to a fellow book writer and lyricist. She could easily have left without doing that. It was a classy and generous gesture from a great lady and a moment that I will always treasure.

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