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Sep
15

A Book Report on ‘Peter Rabbit’

September marks the beginning of the new school year, and so this week we are saluting the topic of education with a playlist of musical theatre songs that somehow are related to the subject. After eschewing such obvious candidates as “Do Re Mi,” from The Sound of Music; “Getting to Know You,” from The King and I; “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific, and “The Rain in Spain,” from My Fair Lady, here are my 25.

“The Best of All Possible Worlds,” from Candide
Not the Richard Wilbur lyric on the 1956 OBCR, which is about Candide and Cunegonde’s wedding, but the John Latouche one first written for this Leonard Bernstein tune, restored to the show by book adapter Hugh Wheeler and director Harold Prince in their 1973 revisal at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The production subsequently moved to Broadway for 740 performances, winning five Tony Awards. Latouche’s lyric conjugates Latin verbs and takes the form of a lecture in a classroom.

“All for Him,” from Paint Your Wagon
Written out of town by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe as part of an attempt to lighten this 1951 Gold Rush musical, this comic set piece has Ben Rumson’s daughter, Jennifer, returning to her home out west after having been sent east against her will by her father for a year to get educated. “Him” doesn’t refer to her pa, though, but to her Mexican lover, Julio, whom she has returned to marry now that she is 18 and of age. I have always been partial to “I can curtsey but not/Make an Indian squat.”

“Useful Phrases” and “The Little Ones’ ABC,” from Sail Away
Noël Coward’s amusing 1961 diatribe against American tourists has not one but two education-related songs. The first satirizes phrase books for learning a foreign language (I never fail to smile at “My cousin is deaf. Kindly bring me a hatchet.”), while the latter is an attempt to subdue an unruly gaggle of children. Elaine Stritch is divine singing both of them, especially on her final comment to the kiddies. Alas, she is not available digitally, only on CD, but you can download Coward singing both songs on Noël Coward Sings “Sail Away” and Other Coward Rarities.

“Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?,” from Funny Girl
This Act 1 Bob Merrill–Jule Styne comic turn for Fanny Brice’s mother and best friend didn’t make it into the movie version, but on stage in 1964 it provided a welcome opportunity for Danny Meehan and the great Kay Medford to show their stuff as their characters muse upon their responsibility in Fanny’s transformation into a Ziegfeld Follies star. (“Whaddaya mean, ‘Momma who?’”)

“Changing My Major,” from Fun Home
Never has a sexual awakening been more delightfully dramatized than in this Jeanine Tesori–Lisa Kron showstopper from the 2015 winner of the Tony Award for best musical. Tony-nominated Emily Skeggs was terrific in the role on Broadway, but I confess I found the character’s Off-Broadway originator, Alexandra Socha, even better. Watch her performance of this number on YouTube.

“Dancing,” from Hello, Dolly!
“33-year-old chief clerks taught how to dance” reads the card that Dolly Gallagher Levi hands to Cornelius Hackl in Irene Molloy’s millinery. And she proceeds to fulfill the promise in Jerry Herman’s delectable waltz, currently bringing joy eight times a week at the Shubert Theatre as performed by Bette Midler or Donna Murphy and company. I loved both of them, for different reasons, but I do urge you to catch Murphy in her one-night-a-week gig. Midler more than deserved her Tony, but had Murphy been the actress for whom the production was created, I believe she would have won too.

“The Varsity Drag,” from Good News
This 1927 musical comedy smash by Laurence Schwab (book), B.G. DeSylva (book and lyrics), Lew Brown (lyrics), and Ray Henderson (music) takes place on the campus of Tait College, so many of its songs have an education connection, including “Students Are We,” “On the Campus,” “Tait Song,” “The Football Drill,” and “The Girl of Pi Beta Phi.” But “The Varsity Drag,” in which soubrette Babe O’Day teaches her fellow students the latest dance craze down at the campus malt shop (well, at least in the show’s 1993 adaptation by Mark Madama and Wayne Bryan), was the score’s biggest hit.

“The Things I Learned in High School,” from Is There Life After High School?
Composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia contributed his first complete Broadway score for this short-lived 1982 show musicalizing a group of adults’ high school memories. A lot of young, largely unknown talent, including actors Harry Groener (who sings this tune), David Patrick Kelly, Maureen Silliman, and Alma Cuervo, understudy Scott Bakula, and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, were involved. The show didn’t work, but it’s a score very much worth knowing, especially Silliman’s sensitively acted “Diary of a Homecoming Queen.”

“It’s Fun to Think,” from All American
In this chipper Charles Strouse–Lee Adams tune from their 1962 flop follow-up to Bye Bye Birdie, star song-and-dance man Ray Bolger, as immigrant middle-aged engineering professor Stanislaus Fodorski, turns his previously uninterested southern Baptist students on to the joy of using their noggins. The sly number proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise rather uninspired concert version of the show staged by Musicals Tonight!, which I reviewed for Backstage in 2011.

“Happy to Make Your Acquaintance,” from The Most Happy Fella
Napa Valley vintner Tony Esposito and his mail-order waitress bride get off on a spectacular wrong foot in Frank Loesser’s masterwork. In this charming number, she is nursing him after an auto accident has put him in a wheelchair, and they try to reboot their relationship as she teaches him the etiquette of introductions. You can watch the terrific trio of Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan, and Susan Johnson performing the entire sequence in 1956 on The Ed Sullivan Show, available on YouTube.

“The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Thomas Jefferson throws a luncheon at the White House to introduce his guests to delectable foreign delicacies that he encountered in his European travels. Leonard Bernstein’s tune is as infectious as Alan Jay Lerner’s lyric is witty. On the road prior to Broadway in 1976, Lerner rewrote the section that begins “Cakes and ale and buttered rum” to broaden the subject matter, instead having the guests gossip about their president. Included was the quatrain “No pursuit of happiness/Ever found him aloof./Father of democracy,/And I’m told there is proof.” The full rewrite will be in The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, due out from Oxford University Press for the Lerner centenary in 2018.

“Build My House,” from Peter Pan
Bernstein wrote both music and lyric for this lovely ballad in which Wendy instructs the Lost Boys how to build a house for her. It comes from a 1950 Broadway staging of the James M. Barrie play starring Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook. Bernstein provided five tunes (none of them for Peter or Hook) and incidental music. As a young boy I loved the OBCR, which is mostly dialogue and tells the story with flair. It, however, jettisoned Bernstein’s highly theatrical incidental music for a gentler new score written just for LP by Alec Wilder. You can hear Bernstein’s complete incidental score, plus all the songs, including a couple of cut ones, on a studio recording starring Linda Eder and Daniel Narducci.

“Sex Is in the Heel,” from Kinky Boots
Though an attempt was made in 2013 to make a pop hit of this sizzling Cyndi Lauper song, it didn’t really take off on the charts. However, it works quite well in the show, as drag performer Lola and her backup girls instruct English shoemaker Charlie Price and his workers on what they need in a sexy and sparkly thigh-high boot with high heels that can support a manly frame.

“I’m the Bravest Individual,” from Sweet Charity
Trapped in a stalled elevator with the nerdy Oscar, a young man suffering from claustrophobia, dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine gives the stranger a lesson in how to overcome his fear. Songwriters Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields replaced the song in the 1966 hit musical’s 1969 film version with the tender ballad “It’s a Nice Face,” but I prefer the lesson.

“Keep ’Em Busy,” from Now Is the Time for All Good Men
Forward-thinking English teacher Mike Butler’s unorthodox ideas stir up the staid faculty of a rural Indiana high school in this Gretchen Cryer–Nancy Ford number. How I wish Encores! Off-Center would do a concert version of this totally original Off-Broadway musical, which ran for 111 performances in 1967, especially now that we are in Trump America.

“No Other Love,” from Me and Juliet
You’d never know it from the OBCR of this 1953 Rodgers and Hammerstein backstage musical, but this love song is actually used in a diegetic fashion in the show. Assistant stage manager Larry is coaching chorus singer Jeanie in how to perform the role of Juliet, which she is understudying. You can see Bill Hayes and Isabel Bigley in the complete nine-minute sequence on YouTube, which also includes the song “The Big, Black Giant.” It details what it’s like for an actor to face an audience.

“No Understand,” from Do I Hear a Waltz?
Rodgers and lyricist Stephen Sondheim penned this nifty negotiation of adultery, in which a young American expatriate painter and the sophisticated older owner of the Venice pensione in which he and his equally young wife are staying plot to canoodle in a gondola. The vehicle is the painter giving an English lesson to the pensione’s perplexed maid, who must not see her boyfriend that evening so she can hold down the fort at work.

“Chapter 54, Number 1909,” from Seesaw
Gay New York City dancer David helps Midwestern law student Jerry Ryan bone up for the bar exam by teaching him how to memorize law statutes in rhythm, synchronized to David’s tap dancing. Really. Tommy Tune, Ken Howard, and Michele Lee, as Jerry’s girlfriend, sparkle in this decidedly original number by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields from the 1973 musical version of William Gibson’s 1958 hit two-hander romantic comedy/drama, Two for the Seesaw.

“Suzy Is a Good Thing,” from Pipe Dream
In this Rodgers and Hammerstein scene-in-song, the madam of a whorehouse tries to convince one of her girls of her innate self-worth. In the Encores! 2012 concert presentation of this musical based on two books by John Steinbeck, Leslie Uggams and Laura Osnes made this touching sequence a real highlight, which it is not on the show’s 1956 OBCR, where, sadly, it is too truncated to work as intended.

“Rahadlakum,” from Kismet
Has the mere recitation of a recipe ever proved as blazingly erotic as this one? Written by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from the music of Russian composer Alexander Borodin, it did well for Joan Diener on stage in 1953 and Dolores Gray on screen in 1955, but its most memorable incarnation was Eartha Kitt’s searingly sultry showstopper in 1978’s Timbuktu!, which moved the story of a penniless itinerant poet and his beautiful young daughter’s adventures from Persia to Africa. Alas, there was no OBCR, but you can see Kitt perform the number on YouTube. Believe it or not, she is toning the innuendo down for TV. (“Constantly stirring with a long…wooden…spoon.”)

“Sign Here,” from Flora, the Red Menace
Fashion illustrator Flora Meszaros is in love with intense young artist Harry Toukarian in Depression-era New York City, but she is surprised when he tries to talk her into joining the Communist Party. He quizzes her intently on her beliefs, relying on feel-good generalities about a better world, and she is ultimately won over in this dynamic Kander and Ebb number. Liza Minnelli and Bob Dishy are perfection.

“To Break in a Glove,” from Dear Evan Hansen
On the surface a regimen for how to break in a brand-new baseball glove, this Benj Pasek–Justin Paul song is really about a bereaved father aching for a lost son and a lonely young man wishing for an involved dad. It is certainly one of the high points of this 2017 Tony-winning best musical, especially as performed by Michael Park and Ben Platt.

“Experiment,” from Nymph Errant
Cole Porter’s 1933 West End musical told the story of a young girl returning home to London after graduating from a Swiss finishing school. In execution of her teacher’s advice, she wants to “experiment” by losing her virginity before arriving in England. Though young and attractive, she finds it decidedly difficult to do. Gertrude Lawrence starred, and the show was a hit in London, but she never took it to Broadway. Porter always said that he considered it his best score. I saw a 1982 Equity Library Theatre staging, which was the show’s American premiere, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Book Report,” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
In this 1967 Off-Broadway musical based on Charles Schultz’s famed “Peanuts” cartoon strip, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Schroeder have all been assigned a 100-word book report on the story “Peter Rabbit” for school. Each goes about the task in his or her own way, with Charlie Brown procrastinating, Linus overdramatizing, Schroeder over-intellectualizing, and Lucy eking out a bald plot synopsis. As she obsessively counts her words, she ends with “94, 95…the very, very, very end.” And so it is.

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Sep
15

Back-to-School Special!

Ah, September. The time when school's back in session and summer vacation already has come to seem as if it were just a distant memory. For this "back to school" time of year, Ken and Erik are looking at songs about teaching and learning. They've come up with some terrific (and surprising) choices, and I'm betting you'll have a great time reading their columns.

The sad news that songwriter Michael Friedman passed away over the weekend is informing my choices for complementing the guys’ work this time around. You can't go wrong listening to either of these anytime, but if you'd like to remember Friedman's remarkable gifts...

  • Love's Labour's Lost - Friedman and director Alex Timbers, who'd written Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson together, brought a contemporary sensibility to Shakespeare's play about a bunch of guys who try to go without women...all because they want to concentrate on their studies. Yeah. Right. <grin>
  • The Fortress of Solitude - School is never far away from the stage in this grand musical about the friendship between a couple of teenage boys. The notion of education and where a kid gets to go, not to mention controlled substances, comes center stage in one number, "High High High School." 

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. 


You get everything from a tune from the 1920s collegiate romp Good News to tracks from recent Broadway hits like Fun Home and Kinky Boots in this week's Spotify playlist. Even the glummest of pupils, I hope, will smile with this musical theater back-to-school special.


Take an aural trip back in time to a moment when Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart were raising money for their musical Barnum with our current free song download. It's a rare listen to a private Backers Audition!


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

  • In Full Swing - Seth MacFarlane lends his smooth vocals to a host of American Songbook classics on this new album. Among the recording's niftiest tracks are "Have You Met Miss Jones?," "I Like Myself," and "Almost Like Being in Love."
  • Abandoned Heart - A terrific array of Broadway performers has been assembled for this new album showcasing the songwriting talents of Michael Mott. Among the artists who have contributed are Jennifer Damiano, Andy Mientus, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Jenna Ushkowitz, and Natalie Weiss.

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.

  • Legally Bound - Andy Karl and Orfeh are a married couple with a pair of powerhouse voices. We've gotten to see them share a couple of scenes together in Legally Blonde, and now with this terrific new album they join up for an entire evening of song.
  • Life Is What You Make It - This EP gives you the soundtrack for the poignant documentary from Jhett Tolentino, who's brought shows such as Hand to God to Broadway. Four of the songs come from singer-songwriter Dennis Sy.
  • The View Upstairs - This pop-infused, New Orleans-set tuner bends time to tell an intriguing and moving story about a little-known slice of gay history. For those of you who didn't get to see this one, it's definitely worth a listen.
  • Zipperz - Created by Nathaniel Stookey and Dan Harder, this piece started life as a song cycle for orchestra and then became one for two performers. The recording features Manoel Felciano and Robin Coomer, who deliver powerfully on this splendid album.
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Santino Fontana, Skylar Astin, and Brynn O'Malley are all sounding pretty marvelous on this just-out recording of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's 1979 tuner.
  • Portraits of Joni – Jessica Molaskey lends her distinctive style and gorgeous voice to a bevy of Joni Mitchell standards.
  • Bubble Boy - There are delights aplenty to be heard on this cast album of a show written by one of the guys responsible for the hit film Despicable Me. It's definitely worth a listen!
  • The Lightning Thief - Based on Rick Riordan’s hit novels for young people, this tuner brings Percy Jackson to the realm of musicals. The show picked up an award nomination or two after its run last season; it’s pretty special.
  • The Hamilton Instrumentals - Fans of the phenomenal hit get to sing along and sound like they’re backed by the Broadway orchestra thanks to this release that simply features the show’s score.
  • 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.
  • 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.”

From her screen roles as a practically perfect nanny and a spuriously confident governess to her stage work that ranges from a lovelorn flapper to an adulterous monarch, Julie Andrews has charmed us all.

In just a couple of weeks she'll be celebrating her 82nd birthday (it's Oct. 1 to be precise), and we all want to salute this überly talented performer's career and vocal talents.

How Ken and Erik will approach writing about her remains to be seen. Until their columns appear, take a listen to Julie as she charms her way through her first Main Stem outing, the original Broadway cast recording of Sandy Wilson's gleeful The Boy Friend.

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Sep
15

Everything I Know I Learned from Musical Theatre

It’s back-to-school time and our fearless leader, Andy, has given us the subject “Teaching.” Instead of giving you, our faithful readers, a list of musical theatre’s teaching songs like “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific and everyone’s favorite, “Every Little Girl Can Teach Me” from Theodore & Company, I’ve decided to explore musicals that actually taught things. From historical figures and events to the way we should lead our lives.

Let’s start with the facts of history. Now, of course, none of these musicals were written as lessons, and there’s usually a love story set against the historical events they depict. Nevertheless they still can introduce audiences to the general events upon which they are set.

The two shows that are most like actual history lessons (though amazingly entertaining) are Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s current mega-hit Hamilton. But these two shows don’t only deal in the facts but they also dramatize their stories through the experiences and emotions of their characters.

Other shows offer us more traditional musical theatre stories that are set against historical events that show the effects of history on the lives of its characters. I’d put South Pacific at the top of this list. It’s difficult today to realize the true impact of this story when it was first produced. Everyone in the US knew someone who had served during World War II, and they knew its horrors. Against the fun of “Honey Bun” and the romance of “This Nearly Was Mine” was the reality of these men and woman dying for their country. In fact, Lt. Cable is killed when on a mission. Everyone talks about “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (which is an important lesson song), but the overall arc of South Pacific is an important history lesson on its own.

Other historically-set shows that illuminate the time in which take place are The Rothschilds, Fiddler on the Roof, and Juno, to name a few. The historic events that unfold during these shows are not just a background.  They actually drive the narratives. Meyer Rothschild and family as well as the residents of Anatevka have to deal with the anti-Semitism of their times. In Juno, as in Sean O’Casey’s original play, the characters are coping with “The Troubles” of the Irish rebellion, its horrors, and its effect on the family.

Of course, not all historically-based musicals are quite as serious as those above. Politics are a dicey subject for musicals, but Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello! views the New York of the time with seriousness and humor, qualities that they also inject into  their Fiddler. More lighthearted but still carrying a potent message are the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘em Eat Cake.

Show Boat is set against a background that seems always current. But Show Boat doesn’t wield a hammer in getting its points across. “Ol’ Man River” is no less impactful or have less depth of feeling because it lets its audience infer what life is really like on the Mississippi for a segment of the population. And Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy has a serious subject, the American Revolution, but treats it ever-so-amusingly in the “Battle of Murray Hill” where Mrs. Murray and her girls distract the British high command with feminine wiles so that the Yankees can move their troops into place. The fact that this is based on a true story only makes it all the more delightful.

There are, of course, shows that really wield a hammer. Especially those of Marc Blitzstein (see Juno above). His The Cradle Will Rock itself became of of political and sociological interest when the government tried to shut it down and the intrepid theatre company grabbed the piano, wheeled it with the cast to another theatre where they performed the show. And there was another mark of defiance, Actors Equity would not let them perform their show on the stage so the actors placed themselves among the audience members in the orchestra section. Oh, and have a listen to No for an Answer for even more intense politics.

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Aug
25

Here's To Barbara Cook!

The musical theater world lost a treasure a little over two weeks ago when Barbara Cook passed away. We couldn't let the death of this legendary Broadway performer go unnoticed, and so this week Erik and Ken have penned tributes to the woman and her career.

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

  • No One Is Alone - The 2007 album from Barbara Cook displays her virtuosity with almost any song. The selections on it range from the title track (a tune from Into the Woods) to "Some Other Time" (from On the Town). I've always thought it beautiful.
  • Cheek to Cheek - Cook joins forces with Michael Feinstein on this album, recorded live. It's got some great stuff on it, particularly their goofy duet "You Could Drive a Person Crazy."

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. 


From a selection from the show that introduced Barbara Cook to theatergoers (Flahooley) to some of her last recordings, our current Spotify playlist, I hope, paints an aural portrait of one gifted (and already very much missed) performer.


Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio have delighted millions with their writing for the Despicable Me movies. Now they're doing it with a musical, Bubble Boy, and we've got a wonderful track from that show's cast album for you this week as our Free Song Download.


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

  • Legally Bound - Andy Karl and Orfeh are a married couple with a pair of powerhouse voices. We've gotten to see them share a couple of scenes together in Legally Blonde, and now with this terrific new album they join up for an entire evening of song.
  • Life Is What You Make It - This EP gives you the soundtrack for the poignant documentary from Jhett Tolentino, who's brought shows such as Hand to God to Broadway. Four of the songs come from singer-songwriter Dennis Sy.
  • The View Upstairs - This pop-infused, New Orleans-set tuner bends time to tell an intriguing and moving story about a little-known slice of gay history. For those of you who didn't get to see this one, it's definitely worth a listen.

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.

  • Zipperz - Created by Nathaniel Stookey and Dan Harder, this piece started life as a song cycle for orchestra and then became one for two performers. The recording features Manoel Felciano and Robin Coomer, who deliver powerfully on this splendid album.
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Santino Fontana, Skylar Astin, and Brynn O'Malley are all sounding pretty marvelous on this just-out recording of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's 1979 tuner.
  • Portraits of Joni – Jessica Molaskey lends her distinctive style and gorgeous voice to a bevy of Joni Mitchell standards.
  • Bubble Boy - There are delights aplenty to be heard on this cast album of a show written by one of the guys responsible for the hit film Despicable Me. It's definitely worth a listen!
  • The Lightning Thief - Based on Rick Riordan’s hit novels for young people, this tuner brings Percy Jackson to the realm of musicals. The show picked up an award nomination or two after its run last season; it’s pretty special.
  • The Hamilton Instrumentals - Fans of the phenomenal hit get to sing along and sound like they’re backed by the Broadway orchestra thanks to this release that simply features the show’s score.
  • 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.
  • 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!

It's back-to-school time around the country. In some places classes have already started up. In others students are just about to head back into the classroom.

So with all things academic in mind, I'm asking Ken and Erik to think about shows and songs that have to do with education.

I've told them that even a song like "An English Teacher" from Bye Bye Birdie counts. It will be interesting to see where they each go with this one...true?

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Aug
25

One Spicy Soprano

As I write this it’s been about a week and a half since we lost the great Barbara Cook, yet the tributes and appreciations keep coming, especially on social media. It’s a virtual avalanche of affection, and here is my small attempt to add to it.

The hubby and I have found ourselves watching videos of her various TV performances, among them a collection of her appearances in the early 1960s on The Bell Telephone Hour, singing “Magic Moment” from The Gay Life on The Ed Sullivan Show, a 1960 special called The Ziegfeld Touch in which she performs songs from the Ziegfeld Follies, and her work in Babes in Toyland and Bloomer Girl in the mid-1950s. The last I am particularly fond of, even though she publicly pooh-poohed her performance when a kinescope of the show was released on commercial videotape sometime, if I remember correctly, in the 1990s.

Bloomer Girl, featuring a score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, was broadcast on May 28, 1956, as an episode of a TV show called Producers’ Showcase, which puts it at just under three months since Cook had closed in Plain and Fancy at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (making way for My Fair Lady) and seven months before she opened as Cunegonde in Candide at the Martin Beck Theatre. Cook said that she didn’t like watching herself in it, as she was giving a standard ingénue performance rather than really acting the role of early feminist heroine Dolly Bloomer, who created the scandalous garment bearing her name that punctured the hoop skirt for good. I think she is a delight: feisty and sly, winningly romantic but no man’s toy. There is Cook’s ability always to be present, in the moment, and to deliver songs with penetrating simplicity. Yes, it’s still early in her career (she’s 28), and she did grow as an actor and a performer, but all the qualities that made her special are already abundantly apparent in Bloomer Girl. (I even burned myself a CD of the TV soundtrack score.)

I first encountered Cook when I was 15, on the OBCR of Candide. Her “Glitter and Be Gay,” of course, once heard cannot be forgotten. Not long after that I discovered the recording of She Loves Me for the first time, at the Cleveland Public Library, and that really sealed the deal. I got Plain and Fancy and Flahooley in college the instant those recordings were reissued on LP after being long unavailable, and I bought the out-of-print The Gay Life at Chicago’s Rose Records, which bought up multiple copies of cast recordings when they went out of the catalogue and then sold them at, for the most part, surprisingly reasonable prices to musical theatre fans such as myself. I must confess that I did not listen to her most iconic role, Marian Paroo in The Music Man, very often. I saw the film when it was released in 1962 (I was 8) and loved it and Shirley Jones. That was the LP we had at home and that I knew note by note. Oh, I bought the OBCR once I started buying albums on my own, but the movie was too implanted on my brain, so I didn’t play it a lot. I did recognize that Cook was excellent on it, but my heart had already been given to another.

The only OBCR of a Cook musical I had a chance to buy when it first came out was the short-lived 1971 adaptation of Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp. When I heard that wonderful cast (Cook, Carol Brice, Karen Morrow, and Russ Thacker in particular) singing that glorious score by Kenward Elmslie (book and lyrics) and Claibe Richardson (music), I could not fathom how this show could have failed at the box office so spectacularly (a mere seven performances at the Martin Beck Theatre). Cook is radiant, whether luxuriating in a summer’s day in “Dropsy Cure Weather,” marching to the beat of nonconformity in the stirring “Yellow Drum,” trying to mend a broken relationship in the heartfelt finale, “Reach Out,” and especially when contemplating her character’s life as a spinster in the earth-mother clarion call of “Chain of Love.” The recording is currently out of print and unavailable digitally, but you can listen to it on YouTube. Even better are excerpts from a live recording of the show’s closing performance, also on YouTube. The rapturous audience response suggests that they know that something special is being lost that night.

You may have noticed that up until now I have written only about Cook’s work as an actor in musical theatre. She, of course, in the early 1970s famously struggled with alcoholism, which caused her to gain a great deal of weight, and both things pretty much brought an end to her Broadway career. Then, under the guidance of musical director and composer Wally Harper, she reinvented herself as a cabaret performer, triumphantly reclaiming the spotlight with a highly lauded evening, Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall, in 1975. She also beat her addiction to alcohol, and over the next 40 or so years she would refine her abilities as an interpreter of songs to the point that she became one of the greatest American singers ever. Full stop.

I’m afraid I must confess that my initial response to her career change was decidedly mixed. I considered her a supreme singing actor, and the cabaret art form, songs interpreted out of dramatic context, held a lesser appeal for me than the musical theatre. Oh, I bought and enjoyed her recordings, but what I really longed for was to see her on stage creating a role in a new musical. When it was announced in 1988 that she would play Margaret White in Carrie, I was beside myself with anticipation, even though I was somewhat dubious about the property. But, of course, she left the musical after its disastrous tryout engagement in Stratford, England, so it was not to be. When I did see the unfortunate production during its preview period on Broadway, with Betty Buckley playing Margaret, I consoled myself with the thought that clearly Cook had made the right call.

I missed her now-legendary appearance as Sally Durant Plummer in 1985’s Follies in Concert at Lincoln Center because it sold out so fast that I was caught flat-footed, though at least I got to see excerpts of her performance on the commercially released documentary about the evening. Of course, as the concert—intended to result in a complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s extraordinary score, which had been truncated on its OBCR—replaced James Goldman’s book with narration, she didn’t really get to play the role. Still, it was a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been (and oh, yes, indeed, what that might have been!).

When Barbara Cook: A Concert for the Theatre was announced in 1987 to play Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre for 26 performances (13 of which were previews), I did not repeat my mistake. I went during previews. It was the first time I saw her in live performance, and it was somewhat disconcerting. The audience wanted to hear signature songs from her Broadway career, but she was singing her concert repertoire, which pretty much avoided them. The response was polite, despite the fact that some of her choices (the pop standard “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All,” and Wally Harper’s dynamic arrangement of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Wait Till You See Him” in particular) were stunners. It was only on song number 15 that she finally gave the audience what it wanted, launching into an absolutely superb rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Mr. Snow,” from Carousel, that mined the song for every bit of humor and romance in it. She had, of course, played Carrie Pipperidge for R&H in a 1954 City Center revival. (You can hear her sing the role of Julie Jordan in Carousel on this 1987 studio recording.) The crowd went nuts. She followed with equally superb accounts of “Dear Friend,” “Ice Cream,” and “Till There Was You,” with the applause becoming more and more intense. Alas, it seemed to annoy rather than energize her; indeed, I thought she was angry with the audience. However, when her admirably blunt and candid memoir, Then & Now, came out last year, she made it clear that if she was upset with anyone, it was with herself, calling the concert “a big mistake [that] simply didn’t work.” She even went on to reference Frank Rich’s largely negative review in the New York Times, saying, “I think he was right…. I knew the show should have been better.” That’s one gutsy and classy lady.

In 2010, however, I finally got my wish to see her inhabit a character in a Broadway musical, if only briefly. It happened near the end of Act 1 of Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical revue conceived and directed by James Lapine. Cook arrived on stage in costume and character as Fosca, the sickly and hysterical anti-heroine of Passion, and, opposite Norm Lewis as the handsome soldier Giorgio, gave us a riveting miniature version of Fosca’s emotional journey, starting with “I Read,” continuing through Giorgio’s “Is This What You Call Love?,” and ending with “Loving You.” It was bliss.

In 2011 I reviewed her show You Make Me Feel So Young at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency for Back Stage, and I highly recommend its live recording. Other favorite Cook discs for me include her tribute to lyricist Dorothy Fields, Close as Pages in a Book; her show composed mostly of songs from a list Stephen Sondheim drew up of songs he wishes that he had written, interspersed with a few he had, Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim (also available on video); and especially her 1959 tribute to Rodgers and Hart, Barbara Cook Sings From the Heart, on which she shows a particular affinity for the wise but wounded words of Larry Hart.

I also love her 1988 The Disney Album, made up of tunes from Walt Disney films and featuring a lush orchestral landscape. Released by MCA Records, it is apparently out of print and unavailable digitally, which is a crime (though you can buy an audio cassette of it on Amazon). When it came out I made a tape of it for my very English dad, who did a lot of driving around the Midwest for his job and, though not much of a patron of the arts, did like to listen to music in the car. He had a thing for sopranos: Jeanette MacDonald, Kathryn Grayson, and Julie Andrews being three favorites. I actually made several tapes of Cook for him, culling material from a variety of sources, including some of the wonderful cuts she had on various Ben Bagley Revisited Series albums. Dad tended to resist anything new, but I thought, who knows? Maybe he’ll like her.

When he had a heart attack in 1990, I went back to Cleveland to see him through triple bypass surgery, and I discovered that all the Cook tapes were sitting right on top, easily in reach, in his glove compartment. I mentioned finding them, and he smiled a bit and said, with typical British understatement, “That Barbara Cook. She’s one spicy soprano.” Go well, Ms. Cook. And thank you.

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Aug
25

Barbara Cook

There were four great female stars of the American Musical Theatre: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, and Barbara Cook. All had their unique appeal. Merman’s voice and bravado was her primary asset but she could also display vulnerability when necessary. Mary Martin had an all-American homespun character with a terrific voice and a sly sexiness that served her well in her earliest roles. Gwen Verdon also had that vulnerable quality and lots of personality. She was a good actress and singer and had what none of the other three had, a remarkable dancing ability. It would be fair to say she was the greatest dancer in Broadway history. Parenthetically, it’s interesting that these four women as well as gentlemen stars of Broadway such as John Raitt, Alfred Drake, and Richard Kiley never had much of a film or television career.

Now we come back to Barbara Cook. Of course, her voice was resplendent and she could interpret a song brilliantly. And in her earliest years she, also had a sexy quality matched with a fully developed backbone (witness The Music Man and The Gay Life) and also a softness (She Loves Me, anyone?) that made her irresistible to audiences. I interviewed her for NPR and asked her how she got a non-singing role in Jules’s Feiffer’s play Little Murders. She responded, “What did you think I was doing in all those shows between songs?” She was right, of course, though she only appeared in three plays on the Rialto. And once she had weighed out of ingénue roles she recreated herself as a cabaret, concert and recording star.

While theatergoers and Broadway aficionados knew the work of Barbara Cook she was still relatively unknown. But when she started singing in clubs, concert halls, recordings, and television, her fame grew wider. And the arrangements of longtime musical partner Wally Harper fitted her perfectly and helping in defining her style to a wide audience. You can hear the evolution of their partnership with albums like It’s Better With a Band and Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.

How many Broadway singers from the 1970s on have achieved as a great a success out in the musical world at large as Barbara Cook. Jerry Orbach was widely known for his work on Law & Order but not for his singing talents. In fact, his sole solo recording was made up of songs written for Off-Broadway. Perhaps Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone who both have also had successful television careers in addition to their Broadway and concert work.

But Barbara Cook stands alone as a Broadway singer who reached a wide, general audience after her Broadway career had concluded. And even if she only had a Broadway musical theatre career or only had a career singing off the stage she still would be celebrated as a great singer.

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Aug
11

Give My Regards to Stephen, Remember Me to Harold Prince

Whenever my good friend John McGlinn would jet off to New York City from Northwestern University for a few days to see Broadway shows and study songwriting with Stephen Sondheim (ah, the things you can do when your dad is vice president of Campbell Soup), I would sing the title of this column to him. The billing order is revelatory; I wanted to write musicals, not direct them. And in my college days I had still seen very little Broadway theatre, indeed not a lot of professional theatre of any kind, so I did not yet fully realize the importance of the director. I thought then that he (female directors on Broadway, alas, weren’t on my, or almost anyone’s, horizon at that time) was mostly responsible for realizing the writer’s vision, almost a servant, as it were. It was specifically Prince’s work on a string of new musicals with scores by Sondheim that changed my understanding of how great theatre is created, introducing me to the concept of a director’s vision and the collaborative relationship between author and stager.

My first encounter with a Prince staging was one he didn’t actually direct. In the summer of 1970, as I prepared to enter my senior year in high school in suburban Cleveland, the Kenley Players over in Warren, Ohio, did a production of Cabaret, which had debuted on Broadway only three-and-a-half years prior. Cleveland native Joel Grey was on hand to once again play his Tony-winning role as the M.C., but he also directed, and the theatre claimed in press coverage that he would be re-creating Prince’s Broadway work. I was a big fan of the musical, having read the published script and repeatedly listening to the OBCR, and I was determined to see this. I somehow convinced my older brother, then a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy and largely uninterested in theatre, to drive me there and back, a little more than an hour each way on Interstate 80. While at 16 I don’t think I really grasped the concept of the comment songs taking place in a nonrealistic “limbo” (I just saw them as cabaret acts), as opposed to the realism of other scenes and songs, I loved the show, especially the energy with which it moved. Also, Anita Gillette, who had played it on Broadway, was an excellent Sally Bowles.

My next Prince experience was the national tour of Company, which I caught at Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre sometime in 1971 or 1972, headlined by a very effective George Chakiris as Bobby. I knew the backstory of how Prince had read George Furth’s collection of seven short plays and announced that they should be turned into a musical, so I understood that he had had an impact on the writing beyond just directing the show, but I wasn’t sure how much. Though a number of original cast members began the tour in Los Angeles, the only one left by the time the show hit Cleveland was Elaine Stritch, and it was exciting to see her sing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Alas, Boris Aronson’s set had had to be simplified in order to tour, so the functioning elevators were gone. But, again, I was impressed by the fluidity and energy of the staging, as well as the way Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett treated Bobby’s set of friends as a single unit, a living organism unto itself. That, I figured, was a directorial touch. Still, for me, the great thing about Company was Sondheim’s score. Playing that OBCR for the first time changed my life.

I missed Prince’s masterwork, Follies, because I couldn’t get to New York and its national tour began and ended in Los Angeles. From everything I read about it, Prince’s work had been on the level of a co-author, but I had to take that on faith. I did catch a local amateur production in Berea, Ohio, directed by future Prince assistant director Fran Soeder, with one of my collaborators-to-come, composer Eric Stern (we didn’t meet until later, in New York City), at the piano leading the onstage band, and my very first composer, best friend Bill Sisson, playing viola in the pit. I thought it was wonderful, but it wasn’t the original.

I saw the national tour of A Little Night Music twice at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago in 1974 while attending Northwestern. It wasn’t to the very Midwestern audience’s taste, for the most part, and the response was tepid, which left me enraged. I was very taken with the use of the lieder singers, which I ascribed to Prince, as well as the complicated staging of “A Weekend in the Country” and Act II’s dinner table scene. However, Boris Aronson’s sliding Plexiglas panels of birch trees, which facilitated Prince’s use of screen dissolves as a stage device, were too loud and reflected too much light. I assumed that modifications had been necessary for touring. Overall, I was still ascribing more weight to the text and score than the direction.

That changed on Dec. 31, 1975, when I experienced the first Broadway preview of Pacific Overtures at the Winter Garden Theatre. It remains the most thrilling night I have ever spent in a theatre. Eye-poppingly beautiful, its every scene bristled with an uncompromising artistic vision and a blazing theatricality. Like Company, it came into being because Prince read a new play and decided that it should be a musical. And Sondheim himself had told interviewers that he had had to be convinced to write it. From that night on I was as fierce a fan of Prince as of Sondheim. Bill Sisson and I joined a small crowd at the stage door that had assembled despite the light rain. We applauded, whistled, and cheered as Prince and Sondheim exited the theatre.

I saw Pacific Overtures on my first visit to New York City in six years, a four-day jaunt during which Bill and I also caught Bob Fosse’s brilliant staging of Chicago at the 46th Street Theatre, with the full original cast, and Prince’s environmental production of Candide, which was closing that week at the Broadway Theatre after a run of 740 performances. (Alas, we couldn’t get tix to A Chorus Line and settled instead for Shenandoah, which was enjoyable and offered a wonderful performance by John Cullum but simply wasn’t in the league of the other three shows.) That hat trick cinched the deal for me. I finally understood what a great director could bring to the table.

The only Prince NYC stagings I have missed since then are the plays Some of My Best Friends (1977) and Play Memory (1984), both due to the brevity of their runs (seven and five performances, respectively). I did catch his work on Arthur Kopit’s 1984 End of the World (With Symposium to Follow), a Pirandellan black comedy about the threat of nuclear weapons to world survival. I liked it a lot and was greatly disappointed when it only ran for 33 performances despite terrific performances from Barnard Hughes, as a wealthy industrialist looking to commission a play on the subject; John Shea, as an idealistic playwright long on ambition but short on cash; and Linda Hunt, as super agent Audrey Wood. With what’s happening in the world today, some smart director ought to take a look at it.

I followed Prince off Broadway for Diamonds, a spotty 1984 musical revue about baseball that provided a platform for a host of talented young songwriters (listen to Craig Carnelia’s “What You’d Call a Dream,” sung by James Barbour on Broadway in Concert, and Jonathan Sheffer and Howard Ashman’s “Hundreds of Hats,” in an authors’ demo on YouTube); The Petrified Prince, a 1994 Candide-like musical fable that featured a fascinating score by Michael John LaChiusa (oh, for a recording of that one) but had book problems; and his own play, Grandchild of Kings, adapted from the autobiographies of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, in 1992 at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Prince gave it a marvelous environmental staging in a warehouse-like space on the Lower East Side, but he proved a better director than writer.

I had one professional interaction with him, in 1989. Composer Paul Schwartz and I were contemplating writing a musical together, and we did a test run on the collaboration by structuring the film Sunset Boulevard as a musical and writing about 20 minutes worth of it, including an opening number and the closing scene and song of Act 1. As Paul was conducting The Phantom of the Opera at the time, he asked Mr. Prince to look at our work. He graciously invited us to his office for feedback, and his remarks were shrewd and to the point. On the basis of this (and he was by no means uncritical of the work), Paul and I were offered the opportunity to develop and write a show for Prince’s new venture, a producing organization called New Musicals that intended to mount initial incarnations of musicals away from the eyes of the critics on the campus of SUNY Purchase in front of paying audiences. Of course, the company famously foundered when New York Times scribe Frank Rich insisted on reviewing its first offering—a musical version of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman by Terence McNally (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics), directed by Prince—despite not being invited. He panned the show, which admittedly was not in very good shape, and that ended New Musicals (though not Spider Woman, which after major rewrites went on to success in Toronto, London, and on Broadway). I will, however, always be grateful for the opportunity, and I especially admire the way Prince has consistently supported young talent.

As with any director of longstanding, Prince has had a career dotted with highs and lows. For every Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Show Boat there is a Grind, A Doll’s Life, and Whistle Down the Wind (Prince’s production closed pre-Broadway in Washington, D.C. when he and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber disagreed about rewrites; he had no connection with the subsequent London version). I saw them all, and I never regretted a single moment spent doing so. Indeed, I always learned something, hit or not. What I do regret are the ones I missed because I grew up in Cleveland, especially 1963’s She Loves Me, whose double LP OBCR practically lived on my turntable once I was able to track a copy down (it had gone out of print), and 1966’s It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, which I listened to regularly at the Cleveland Public Library (it was also out of print). Oh, for a time machine!

I’d like to end by discussing Prince’s 2007 Broadway musical, LoveMusik. I heard about the project, a biographical show about the relationship between composer Kurt Weill and his wife, actress and singer Lotte Lenya, early on, as my good friend Kristen Blodgette was to be its musical director. Kristen asked me to suggest rare Weill material that might be used in the piece. I usually loathe jukebox musicals, so I was highly skeptical. Still, Harold Prince was doing this one. I suggested some songs and that was that.

I attended the show’s fifth preview with considerable anxiety. Fortunately, it became almost immediately apparent that Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry had solved the jukebox problem. The songs were used in near-Brechtian fashion, framing the action, commenting on it, sometimes heightening it in stylized ways. They were rarely employed as direct expressions of feeling or character, though when they were used that way, they worked. Prince, who has not always been seen as an actor’s director, had elicited four absolutely first-rate performances from Donna Murphy, as Lenya; Michael Cerveris, as Weill; David Pittu, as Bertolt Brecht; and John Scherer, as gay impresario George Davis (only Scherer missed a Tony nomination, no doubt because his character didn’t appear until midway in Act 2).

Prince provided moments of greatly effective theatrical simplicity: a proletarian Brecht snarling “Moritat” at a party celebrating Weill and Lenya’s newfound bourgeois status thanks to the success of The Threepenny Opera; Weill’s death indicated by the dropping of a packed suitcase, which spills its contents, followed by a grieving Lenya slowly repacking it; Lenya, under Davis’ stern gaze, silently getting into costume and makeup while terrified of returning to the stage as Jenny in an off-Broadway revival of Threepenny more than 20 years after it premiered in Berlin; and especially the throat-catching curtain, in which Lenya strides upstage into the glare of lights with her back to us, strikes a pose and points while declaiming: “Look! There goes Mack the Knife.” Prince could have ended it much more sentimentally, with Murphy doing a blazing rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” but that wouldn’t have been nearly as moving as stopping just at the moment of rebirth, which he framed perfectly.

It was a jewel of a show, and it told a story that I’d never seen in a Broadway musical: how two people navigate the shoals of an open marriage. That wasn’t all it was about, but it was a large part of it. Fifty-seven years after he debuted on Broadway as an assistant stage manager, and 45 years after he directed his first Broadway musical, 1962’s A Family Affair, Prince was still breaking ground artistically, addressing contemporary culture, and working at the top of his game. And now, another 10 years later, we get a new show: Prince of Broadway, a consideration of his career. I’ll be there, hoping to learn something new.

 

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Aug
11

Princely Firsts

The first new musical production of the new season is Prince of Broadway, the musical revue that celebrates Harold Prince’s impressive Broadway career as both a producer and director. He’s justly celebrated for such breakthrough musicals as West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and the remarkable run of hits by Stephen Sondheim.

But one aspect of his career has gone largely unnoticed. Hal Prince was a protégé of the great George Abbott. One of Abbott’s many achievements was in recognizing new talents and giving them a break on Broadway. Abbott directed many of Prince’s early producing credits and the idea of giving talented newcomers a chance was carried forward by Prince.

Let’s take a look at just the first few years of Hal Prince’s Broadway productions.

The Pajama Game (1954) was the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ first Broadway musical. It was also Bob Fosse’s first choreographic job on Broadway.

Then came Damn Yankees (1955), which gave Gwen Verdon her first leading role on Broadway after she made a smash hit as a principal dancer in Can-Can.

Verdon’s next Broadway musical was New Girl in Town (1957) and for the first time Broadway heard a score by up and coming songwriter Bob Merrill.

West Side Story (1957) was Prince’s next show. That show gave a chance to Broadway neophyte Stephen Sondheim making his debut as a lyricist of a Broadway musical.

Next up on Prince’s roster was Fiorello! (1959) for which Jerome Weidman wrote his first libretto for Broadway and which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Quite a debut!

A Family Affair (1962) wasn’t a success but it let another genius of the musical theatre get his Broadway musical start: composer John Kander. The show was also William Goldman’s first  Broadway libretto. And even Prince had a first with the show. He made his Broadway directorial debut with A Family Affair.

That same year, Prince produced the raucous farce, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). With that hit came Burt Shevelove’s Broadway debut as a librettist. It was also Tony Walton’s first scenic design for a musical. And we shouldn’t forget that A Funny Thing was the first Broadway show for which Stephen Sondheim’s penned both music and lyrics.

That raucous musical comedy was followed by its exact opposite, the sweet and tender She Loves Me (1963). Joe Masteroff saw his first musical libretto produced. It was also Patricia Zipprodt’s first Broadway costume assignment for a musical. And the wonderful Daniel Massey enjoyed his first musical performance on Broadway.

We could go on and on but you get the idea. Harold Prince not only gave many, many artists their first chances to work on the Broadway musical but all these talents went on to have remarkable careers. And a lot of their later successes were also in Harold Prince shows, for he’s nothing if not faithful to the many talents he’s nurtured.

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Aug
11

A Prince of a Producer-Director

The musical compendium Prince of Broadway will open at Manhattan Theatre Club's Friedman Theatre on Aug. 24. Currently in previews, the show's a tribute to the exceptional lifework of director-producer Harold Prince. We decided to toast both the production and Mr. Prince this week, and so you'll find Erik and Ken sharing their (as usual) sharp insights about the man who's brought us everything from West Side Story to Follies to On the Twentieth Century to The Phantom of the Opera and beyond.

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

  • A Gala Concert for Hal Prince - The big hits from the shows that the visionary director-producer has brought to the stage all come to vivid life on this album, which preserves a concert given in his honor 10 years ago.
  • Flora, the Red Menace - Prince produced this musical that brought an 18-year-old Liza Minnelli to Broadway. It's always a delight, not just for her work but also for the winsome Kander and Ebb score and some other superb performances, particularly from Bob Dishy and Mary Louise Wilson.

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. 


"Steam Heat," "The Music of the Night," "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," and...well, I could go on and on. The Spotify Playlist this week pulls from all of the incredible shows that Harold Prince has worked on during his exceptional career, and it's a beaut, if I do say so myself.


Jessica Molaskey is sounding pretty fantastic on her newest album, Portraits of Joni. I've not been able to get enough of this one and am delighted we've got a track from it to share with you as this week’s Free Song Download.


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

  • The View Upstairs - This pop-infused, New Orleans-set tuner bends time to tell an intriguing and moving story about a little-known slice of gay history. For those of you who didn't get to see this one, it's definitely worth a listen.
  • Zipperz - Created by Nathaniel Stookey and Dan Harder, this piece started life as a song cycle for orchestra and then became one for two performers. The recording features Manoel Felciano and Robin Coomer, who deliver powerfully on this splendid album.
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Santino Fontana, Skylar Astin, and Brynn O'Malley are all sounding pretty marvelous on this just-out recording of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's 1979 tuner.
  • Portraits of Joni – Jessica Molaskey lends her distinctive style and gorgeous voice to a bevy of Joni Mitchell standards.

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.

  • Bubble Boy - There are delights aplenty to be heard on this cast album of a show written by one of the guys responsible for the hit film Despicable Me. It's definitely worth a listen!
  • The Lightning Thief - Based on Rick Riordan’s hit novels for young people, this tuner brings Percy Jackson to the realm of musicals. The show picked up an award nomination or two after its run last season; it’s pretty special.
  • The Hamilton Instrumentals - Fans of the phenomenal hit get to sing along and sound like they’re backed by the Broadway orchestra thanks to this release that simply features the show’s score.
  • 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.
  • 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."

News this week of Barbara Cook's death saddened us all at BwayTunes. Erik said to me that day, "It's hard to imagine a world without Barbara Cook."

It's true. For so many years she has been a fixture on stages in New York and around the country.

When you hear from us next, we'll be paying tribute to Ms. Cook and her extraordinary career that spanned more than 60 years. There's so much we all could talk about. 

I'm betting you've been playing your favorite Cook recordings over the past couple of days. If you've not had her At the Met on, do take a listen.

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Jul
28

Scorchers

I hate the heat. Summer is my least favorite of the four seasons, and pretty much anytime the thermometer rises past 70 degrees, I retreat to air conditioning whenever possible. My parents, both transplanted Brits, were the same, especially my mother. In preparation for the summer of 1964, when I was but 10 years old, we were the first family in our middle-class suburban Ohio neighborhood to install whole house air conditioning. It was such an ostentatious and expensive move for us that Gwen would never admit that it was done to please her (she had just had my little brother in March and at the age of 42 couldn’t face a hot summer with an infant). So she told the neighbors that it was done for the health of our new St. Bernard puppy, Nana. Uh-huh.

I do not, however, hate songs about the heat, and here’s an attempt to put together a varied and enjoyable playlist. I must admit I was surprised that I couldn’t find an overabundance of candidates, but I think 20 will suffice. It’s intriguing that so many of them are opening or closing numbers of either Act 1 or Act 2.

“Gonna Be Another Hot Day,” from 110 in the Shade
This nicely atmospheric Tom Jones–Harvey Schmidt opening number of the 1963 Broadway musicalization of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker describes a small town in an unnamed Western state afflicted by a prolonged and scorching drought. Whenever I see high temperatures predicted, it immediately starts playing in my head.

“Old Maid,” from 110 in the Shade
This Act 1 closer conflates the sexuality of the show’s heroine, Lizzie, a woman who sees herself as plain and is afraid of ending up alone in life, with imagery of drought and heat. Original star Inga Swenson famously sang it on an empty stage backed by the image of a blood-red setting sun (giving the show its logo), and while for me she remains the gold standard, Audra McDonald also did very well by it in Roundabout Theatre Company’s excellent 2007 revival. For that production director Lonny Price worked with the authors to somewhat revamp the book and score, and the results elevated what I had always considered a decent but second-tier show into the ranks of the classics.

“Heat Wave,” from As Thousands Cheer
My mother liked to sing popular songs at the drop of a hat, whenever something in the conversation brought one to mind, and that is how I first encountered this 1933 Irving Berlin standard. Gwen, however, was decidedly conservative, so all she would sing in my presence were the first and last A sections of this AABA song. The second A, which begins with “She started a heat wave/By letting her seat wave” and the release, which insists that “Gee/Her anatomy/Made the mercury/Jump to 93” I only heard years later, and not from Mom. The incomparable Ethel Waters introduced it on Broadway, while Marilyn Monroe burned up the screen with it in the 1954 Berlin song catalogue pic, There’s No Business Like Show Business. I have a fondness for Mary Beth Peil’s cheeky rendition—backed by Howard McGillin, Kevin Chamberlin, and B.D. Wong, no less—in the Drama Dept.’s delightful 1999 off-Broadway revival of Cheer, but that is out of print on CD and unavailable digitally.

“Conversation Piece,” from Wonderful Town
This Leonard Bernstein–Betty Comden–Adolph Green set piece hilariously depicts five people making awkward chit chat in a dry and dusty Greenwich Village back yard during a summer heat wave. Star Rosalind Russell’s delivery of “I was rereading Moby Dick the other day…. It’s about this—whale” never fails to get me.

“It’s Getting Hotter in the North Everyday,” cut from Show Boat
In the legendary 1927 Oscar Hammerstein II–Jerome Kern musical, this nine-minute song and dance served as the show’s original 11 o’clock number. It’s southern dancing that is generating northern heat, and young women are told they must learn to “strut” to “the dances of a warmer clime.” Star Norma Terris didn’t like it, though, so out it went prior to Broadway. Big mistake in my book. Conductor-scholar John McGlinn rediscovered it, and at least one recent production restored it. Interestingly, the original dance arrangement has a section quoting the melody of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” a hit from the 1921 all-black musical Shuffle Along.

“Sit Down, John,” from 1776
Sherman Edwards’ opening number for his and book writer Peter Stone’s Tony-winning 1969 musical depicts our founding fathers loudly complaining that “It’s hot as hell/In Philadelphia” and arguing about opening windows (“Too many flies!”). ’Nuff said.

“Summer Is,” from The Body Beautiful
In the theatre in 1958 this charming Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick waltz opened Act 2 with a chorus of prizefighters-in-training singing “Summer is bees and flowers/Calling to everyone./Why are we wasting hours/In the broiling sun?/That’s no fun.” But though you won’t hear those lines on the authors’ demo recording linked here, Harnick’s lyric is full of such apt imagery that it evokes the hazy heat of summer without ever mentioning it.

“Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?,” from Street Scene
The inhabitants of a rundown New York City tenement lament the torrid temperatures as Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes, and Elmer Rice’s 1947 musical version of Rice’s classic 1929 drama opens. The famous Harlem Renaissance poet wrote a brilliant set of lyrics for this stunning show, which verges on being an opera. How I wish he had written more for the musical theatre than he did.

“This Plum Is Too Ripe,” from The Fantasticks
In this Act 2 opener of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1960 off-Broadway fable of young love and growing up, its characters are “burned a bit and burnished by the sun” as night turns to day and the headiness of romance gives way to the sour taste of disillusionment. Love the angular jazz harmonies but found them hard to sing when I played the Boy in high school.

“Sunday in the Park With George,” from Sunday in the Park With George
As Georges Seurat’s mistress, Marie, poses for him in a park on a stifling Sunday afternoon, she complains of many things, including the weather. I’ve never seen the pungent “A trickle of sweat/Right under the tit” fail to get a sympathetic laugh of recognition in the various productions I’ve seen of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1985 Pultizer Prize winner.

“It’s Hot Up Here,” from Sunday in the Park With George
Marie’s complaints open Act 1, but to open Act 2 she is joined by everyone in Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” carping about being immortalized (and trapped forever) on such a hot day. This is one of my favorite Sondheim ensemble songs.

“Why Is the Desert?,” from the film The Little Prince
A nameless airplane pilot downed on an African desert and a visiting child prince from an asteroid share this delicately beautiful Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe song of friendship as they traverse the baking sands looking for water. Unfortunately, the first chorus was cut in half in the final release print of this 1974 screen adaptation of Antoine de St. Exupéry’s classic fable. The missing lines go as follows: LP: “Why is the desert lovely in May?” P: “Why is it lovely?” LP: “June’s on the way./Oh and what music waits everywhere” BOTH: “Hiding, hiding in the air.” LP: (Yawning) “Why am I happy I’m sleepy tonight?” P: “Why are you happy you’re sleepy tonight?” LP: “Only one reason: Knowing that when/The night is over I’ll see you again.” P: “Happy as I am knowing that when/The night is over I’ll see you again.” They, and many other unknown Lerner lines, will be in Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch’s The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, coming out for the Lerner centenary in 2018.

“The Girls of Summer,” from the play Girls of Summer
A still-unknown Stephen Sondheim wrote this song of romantic recalcitrance for N. Richard Nash’s short-lived 1956 drama. According to the Samuel French website, it concerned a 30-year-old woman (played by Shelley Winters) who put her own life on hold to raise her younger sisters in a “house of smothered emotions.” Sondheim wrote the song with Lena Horne in mind, but Dawn Upshaw on her CD I Wish It So proves that sopranos can smolder too.

“Steam Heat,” from The Pajama Game
Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote this novelty number utilizing the hissing and banging sounds of a radiator to open the second act of this 1954 musical comedy about union organizing in a pajama factory. It’s performed at a union meeting for no particular reason, but thanks to Bob Fosse’s sexy choreography and Carol Haney, Peter Gennaro, and Buzz Miller’s dynamite dancing, audiences didn’t mind the plot being put on hold. What’s more, Adler and Ross got a pop hit out of it.

“White Heat,” from The Band Wagon
This 1931 Arthur Schwartz–Howard Dietz rarity was introduced by Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, and Astaire subsequently recorded it as a solo. Like the Kern-Hammerstein “It’s Getting Hotter in the North Everyday,” it features cultural appropriation in the form of white people learning black dancing. It’s obscurity, however, is no doubt due to the eyebrow-raising lyric that insists that white people have improved the dancing from “a black art” to “white heat.” It’s a sobering reminder of the pervasiveness of racism in Depression-era America that two proudly liberal Jewish writers could author it without noticing its chilling condescension. No wonder Astaire didn’t sing it in MGM’s 1953 film adaptation.

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” from The Third Little Show
Beatrice Lillie introduced this witty Noël Coward comedy song on Broadway, also in 1931, but she doesn’t seem to have recorded it. Perhaps that’s because Coward himself did, and repeatedly. My favorite rendition of his is on Noël Coward at Las Vegas, which was preserved for posterity live. Comic lyric writing doesn’t get much better than “In Bengal/To move at all/Is seldom, if ever, done/But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

“Washer/Dryer,” from Caroline, or Change
The opening scene of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s landmark 2004 through-sung musical drama (the first eight tracks of the OBCR) has its African-American domestic-servant heroine doing laundry for an upper-middle-class Jewish family in a sweltering Louisiana basement. The radio, washing machine, and dryer all sing to her as she works. “Turn on the dryer/Roasty, toasty ’lectric fire” exults Chuck Cooper as he contemplates doing his job, ending with the triumphantly sadistic announcement that it’s “time to suffer heat.” The great Tonya Pinkins watched the Tony go to Idina Menzel in Wicked, while Kushner and Tesori lost book, score, and musical to Avenue Q. Ah, the crimes of the Tony Awards.

“Summer Share,” from Romance/Romance
This 1988 show by Barry Harman (book, lyrics, and direction) and Keith Herrmann (music) was two one-act musicals dealing with romantic complications, the first set in Vienna in 1900, based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler, and the second set in the then-present-day Hamptons, based on a play by Jules Renard. Featuring a cast of four headed by Alison Fraser and Scott Bakula, it proved to be something of a sleeper, running for nearly 10 months at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Act 2 begins with the characters deciding to “get a breath of air” by deserting Manhattan and the heat for a summer vacation by the sea. A friend of mine described the bewitching Fraser in it as “the bastard love child of Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury.”

“Night Song,” from Golden Boy
“Summer/Not a bit of breeze/Neon lights are shining/Through the tired trees” sings Sammy Davis Jr. as Joe Wellington, a promising prizefighter fighting the pernicious racism of 1960s America. Joe feels like his “brain is on fire” and asks, “Where do you turn/When you burn with this feeling of rage?” Based on Clifford Odets’ hit 1937 drama, the musical ran for 568 performances and had a strong dramatic score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who had up to then only written musical comedies. “Night Song” is, for me, a particular highlight.

“Too Darn Hot,” from Kiss Me, Kate
What better way to end than with this classic 1948 Cole Porter tune in which actors in an out-of-town tryout of a musical based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew cavort in the alley next to the theatre during intermission while complaining that the heat makes sex impossible? It’s one more act opener in this list, but the bowdlerized 1953 MGM film adaptation gave the song to Ann Miller and had her sing and dance it to Cole Porter and guests in his penthouse apartment. The censors made Porter change “According to the Kinsey Report/Ev’ry average man you know/Much prefers to play his favorite sport/When the temperature is low” to “According to the latest report/Ev’ry average girl you know/Much prefers her lovey-dovey to court/When the temperature is low,” not to mention “But when the thermometer goes way up/And the weather is sizzling hot/Mr. Adam upon his madam is not” to “Mr. Adam for his madam is not.” Hollywood doin’ the production code! But that’s another musical—and column.

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