In his 20-year career in the recording industry (1990 - 2009) Bill Rosenfield was responsible for over 65 Original Cast Recordings which garnered over 30 Grammy nominations.
As a playwright his play, True Fans recently premiered at the Abbey in Orlando, Florida. His other plays (Let Me, 46 Beacon) have had reading at various theaters around the country. In April of 2014, City Center Encores! premiered his script adaptation of The Most Happy Fella directed and choreographed by Casey Nicolaw.
Bill is the recipient of 2 Drama Desk Awards in 1992 (on behalf of RCA Victor) and in 2002 for Lifetime Achievement as well as a Richard Rodgers Award and a SDC Governor's Award.
Western Union Messenger: I have a telegram for you.
Woman who Answers Door: Is it a singing telegram? I've always wanted a singing telegram. Please tell me it's a singing telegram!
Western Union Messenger: Well, it's not, it's-
Woman who Answers Door: Oh that's such a disappointment! I would so have loved a singing telegram. Are you sure it isn't a singing telegram?
Western Union Messenger: Well I -
Woman who Answers Door: Please! Oh please let it be a singing telegram! There'll be a generous tip in it for you!
Western Union Messenger: Golly, I guess there's no harm -
Woman who Answers Door: Oh Thank you! Thank you! Now go on - SING!
Western Union Messenger: Da da, Da da, da DA: Your sister Rose is Dead!
And so it was that at a very young age watching Beatrice Lillie on the Jack Paar Show I learned that you can get away with all sorts of bad news by singing it.
Anything can be (and has been) a musical it's just a matter how the creative team finds their way "into" the project. Bill Finn's Falsettos aside, there are a lot of shows which deal with harsh realities that would seem to be unlikely fodder for musical theatre practitioners. Mr. Finn's A New Brain for one. What without music could simply be a peculiar Lifetime movie about a struggling songwriter's encounter with the threat of a brain tumor becomes something much deeper and more moving thanks to Mr. Finn's gift for heartfelt melody and quirky way with words.
What follows are four musicals which challenged both their creators and their audiences.
Parade, conceived by Harold Prince with a book by Alfred Uhry and a score by Jason Robert Brown, is a perfect example of a great musical emerging from an unlikely subject. Based upon the famous Leo Frank case it involves the themes of Anti-Semitism, Race, the South still mourning their loss of the Civil War, political and judicial corruption, and of course a complicated and enduring love story.
I've always loved this show, and while it certainly is emotionally draining and depressing the surprise is how damned lively and catchy Mr. Brown's Tony-winning score is. There's so much bad news that occurs during the show that, under less assured hands, the music would've been an unrelentingly depressing spiral of sturm und drung. But it's not. It's jazzy, syncopated and at times downright joyful while almost always delivering bad news. There's the soaring opening number "The Old Red Hills of Home," which firmly establishes the social climate in which the story takes place; Evan Pappas's vaudeville delivery of "Big News;" the incomparable Carolee Carmello's heart-stopping "You Don't Know This Man;" the sheer musical theatre theatricality of "The Factory Girls/Come Up to My Office" (wherein Brent Carver in a brave unlikeable performance as Leo is allowed to let loose and break through that character's reticence); Rufus Bond Jr.'s show-stopping "That's What He Said;" and of course the soaring love ballad "All the Wasted Time." All of this is brought to life by an exemplary cast with gorgeous orchestrations by Don Sebesky. This is a great modern musical telling of a difficult complex story. Given that we are living in a time where race-baiting, religious prejudice, and manipulation of the press and the crowd is happening on a national stage, if you don't know Parade already, you need to.
Wings. For me this show is one of the unsung musical masterpieces of the last 25 years. Jeffrey Lunden and Arthur Perlman's musical based upon Arthur Kopit's acclaimed play sort of fell between the cracks when it was produced at the Public Theater in 1993 after a sensational attention-grabbing engagement at Chicago's Goodman Theatre the previous year. (Raves in the New York Times of regional theatre productions tend to do that.) The Public Theater was going through a shift of artistic administrations, and, as is usually the case, the outgoing administration which brought the project in wasn't there to shepherd the show with the time and attention it deserved; and the new administration had no real emotional ownership of this challenging property, but did have an obligation to produce it.
All that aside, the beautiful recording produced by Tom Shepard is an engrossing and rewarding experience. It's not a show album in the usual sense; it's a complex radio play which takes you inside the mind of Emily Stilson, a former aviatrix who has a stroke. The central performance by Linda Stephens is a wonder. The score is complex, intense, soaring and deeply moving. It's one of those shows where you when you put it on you need to listen all the way through to honestly experience it. I'm confident that at some point the show will get the recognition it deserves.
Floyd Collins. With a book by Tina Landau and a score by Adam Guettel (and additional lyrics by Ms. Landau), Floyd Collins is a difficult, challenging and, please forgive me, ugly piece of musical theatre. It concerns the story of a man trapped in a cave, the attempts to rescue him, and the media circus which is created around the rescue. Like the harsh (but brilliant) Billy Wilder film The Big Carnival, which covers the same subject, the artists involved have held up a mirror to our lowest selves, and I find it hard to take. It doesn't stop Mr. Guettel's score (and the recording) from being one of the more influential and powerful musical theatre recordings of recent times. What the ugliness does do, though, is make for an inevitably claustrophobic uncompromising evening. One that I deeply admire but find difficult to enjoy. It served as Mr. Guettel's arrival as an artist with great promise on the musical theatre scene, one whose gift for melody and intelligent lyric was to be realized a few years later with the masterful The Light in the Piazza.
London Road. This is a divisive musical with a book and lyrics by Alecky Blythe and music and lyrics by Adam Cork. It premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2011 and concerns the true story of one street's efforts to clean up its reputation in the wake of a series of murders of prostitutes by a serial killer. Now that's a musical! What makes it all the more challenging is that there are virtually no songs. The words are all verbatim taken from interviews with the people who lived the story. It's entirely sung through in its own unique style. It was a huge hit for the National and garnered acclaim and a fair number of awards. There is also a film version of it with a stellar cast which has recently been released. I saw the show a couple of times (I haven't seen the film yet) and found it deeply moving and unlike any musical I had ever seen. Not only for its style but also for its variety of characters and its central theme of the need for community in times of unexplainable darkness. The antecedent of this show would be Street Scene, the magnificent Kurt Weill musical with lyrics by Langston Hughes and a book by Elmer Rice (based upon his play) which is also entirely sung-through. But London Road is harsher and more focused. Now I'll be honest here, I sent a fair number of American visitors to see it when they were visiting and I believe all of them fled the theatre screaming at the interval. Hence my use of the word "divisive" in my first sentence. You've been warned. [Editor's Note: the original London cast recording of this one is not available digitally, but you can get a sense of the show through the original motion picture soundtrack.]
That divisiveness though goes to the heart of what urges creative teams of unlikely musicals to find and develop challenging material. As the song in Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's too brilliant and hilarious [title of show] says: "I'd rather be 9 people's favorite thing, than 100 people's 9th favorite thing." None of the shows I've mentioned is an evening's light entertainment, but all of them, whether you "like" them or not are deeply rewarding, thought-provoking and surprising.
Finally a topic I can warm to!
You can't have a successful musical without conflict and you can't have conflict without some dissatisfaction or for the purposes of this blog: grumpiness. So there were a lot of songs from which to choose. Some will be familiar and some of them you'll probably think: Does that even qualify for this category? To which I say: Bugger off, will ya?.
"Why Can't the English?" from My Fair Lady. This was fresh in my head after last week's revisiting of the show in honor of Julie Andrews. Henry Higgins (as perfected by Rex Harrison) has to be one of the most irascible heroes of a musical comedy ever conceived. He's totally disagreeable and pretty much remains so for the entire length of the show and yet we want him to get together with Eliza Doolittle, a character we've grown to genuinely love. Why would we want her to have a lifetime of suffering with this awful man? Yet all of that comes after this brilliant introduction to the character of Prof Higgins and his singular view of the world.
"Miss Marmelstein" from I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Two years before nobody but nobody was gonna rain on her parade, Barbra Streisand stopped this show dead in its tracks with this delightfully dizzy character song written by Harold Rome. Other than in What's Up Doc I don't think she has ever been freer or funnier than she is in this number as the hen-pecked and put-upon secretary.
"Piano Lesson" from The Music Man. I've always had a special fondness for this song ever since my sister Jodi played Amaryllis in the Eastmoor High School production of the show in Columbus, Ohio. Of course Amaryllis doesn't sing in the number, she's too busy playing her exercises, which Meredith Wilson deftly incorporated into this Mother/Daughter "discussion" of the Daughter's exacting standards for what she looks for in a man. This song was probably my first exposure to "Balzac, Shakespeare and all those other hi-falutin' Greeks." And probably when I first fell in love with Barbara Cook and the delightful Pert Kelton.
"What Do You Want of Me?" from Man of La Mancha. I think that Aldonza must rival Henry Higgins for disagreeability in a musical. Yes, she's had a rough life "spawned in a ditch by a mother who left [her] there naked and cold and too hungry to cry." But that Don Quixote simply won't take no for an answer…and she needs to know just why. The result is a simply beautiful ballad that, more than asking questions why someone would care, looks deeper and becomes more introspective than the character probably intended. Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's song is truly beautiful, and here it is definitively rendered by Joan Diener.
"Say Liza" from Liza With a Z. Well she's not that grumpy but she does have a valid complaint. This Kander & Ebb classic was originally heard back in 1972, and I doubt if anyone ever makes that Lisa/Liza mistake any more. This is Ms. Minnelli at her absolute peak, performing one of the best pieces of "special material" ever written. However, my favorite performance of this song was done by the blissfully oblivious Christopher Durang and Dawne (John Augustine and Sherry Anderson) in their show long ago at the Criterion Center in New York wherein Mr. Durang explained that Kander & Ebb wrote this piece of material especially for him.
"You Must Meet My Wife" from A Little Night Music. Only one of the characters in this brilliant Sondheim duet could possibly qualify as "grumpy" and that would be Desiree Armfeldt played to bitchy perfection by Glynis Johns. The other character Frederik Egerman played by Len Cariou is too lovestruck to notice he's being cut down to size every time she opens her mouth. Heaven.
"Class" from Chicago. Every once in awhile a razzamatazz musical has to stop and breathe - giving the cast and the audience a rest before hurtling on to a sensational finale. In Chicago—that miracle of a show from Kander & Ebb—it's this number wherein Mary McCarty and Chita Rivera (or Marcia Lewis and Bebe Neuwirth if you're listening to the revival recording) wonder not-so- ironically "Whatever Happened to Class?" The song always works.
"The Oldest Profession" from The Life. When Cy Coleman (and lyricist Ira Gasman) hand you a six-and-a-half minute jazzy solo in a new musical you take it and run with it. That's just what the soulful and sensational Lillias White did with this tour de force of a number which single-handedly won her a Tony Award. I'm not really a fan of this show but I know a classic Broadway showstopper when I hear one. And boy are her dogs barkin'.
My Favorite Year. I've written before about this Ahrens & Flaherty show, and its thrilling opening number before; but buried late in the show is a sorta grouchy song with an overlay of romance (or is it a romantic song with an undertone of grouchiness?). No matter which it's a beautiful song that tactfully expresses the yin-yang of romantic attachments: why couples who couldn't possibly seem more ill-suited for one another are actually perfectly matched: whether it's Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, Desiree Armfeldt and Frederik Egerman; or in this case Benjy Stone and K.C. Downing (aka the "Breck" girl) charmingly portrayed by Evan Pappas and Lannyl Stephens, exposing one's grouchiness can lead to a happy ending if both parties will just "Shut Up and Dance."
In honor of Julie Andrews "co-directing" (with the formidable Frank Galati at her side) a "new" production of My Fair Lady in Australia, which recreates the original sets (Oliver Smith) and costumes (Cecil Beaton) , we're saluting Dame Julie this week.
Unlike many of my favorite great stars, I never got a chance to discover Julie Andrews. She was simply presented to me as such.
I never got the chance to ask: "Who's that woman?" because everyone knew who she was and everyone immediately loved her. That's because apart from everything else everyone in America, it seemed, owned the original cast recording of My Fair Lady. I don't believe I actually saw her until the telecast of Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall and I'll be honest here, given my age at the time, I probably paid more attention to Ms. Burnett's genius clowning then Ms. Andrews.
Yet I knew she was a great star; after all her name was almost as wide as the cast album itself on the My Fair Lady recording. That had to mean something.
Like so many other people of my generation, though, Mary Poppins is what defines Julie Andrews for me. Everything she has done since then (good or bad) has been a sort of:
"Mary Poppins as..:"
- a concerned assistant to a nuclear physicist in Torn Curtain
- a driver on a British Army Base in The Americanization of Emily
- a German Spy/British Music Hall entertainer in Darling Lili
- the perfect Governess and Best Friend in (of course) The Sound of Music
That's because the first time I "got" her she was playing someone truly magical, caring, funny and understanding; someone who, as a kid growing up in Ohio in the midst of a very ugly parental divorce, I needed.
The consequence of this is that I have no critical facility whatsoever when it comes to Ms. Andrews. None. I love her. She can do no wrong. Even when she does wrong. Little Miss Marker anyone? She can do NO wrong. Capisce?
However we're here to talk about BwayTunes, aren't we? The hard part about that is for once I think anyone reading this knows Dame Julie's basic ouvre as well as I do.
So here's a 19 song playlist which is titled "Why I Love Julie Andrews…."
My Fair Lady
So the first track is an instrumental, but it's the Overture and frankly any excuse to hear this magnificent piece of music should be seized and savored. The rest of the tracks from this dazzling show are self-explanatory. And let's be honest, there are few more gloriously sung musical phrases in all of the musical theatre than the final "I could have danced, danced, danced all night!"
2. "Wouldn't It Be Loverly"
3. "The Rain in Spain"
4. "I Could Have Danced All Night"
5. "Show Me"
I came to this show late, and while I love the score the show is, for me, really about Arthur and Lancelot. Call my therapist for more insight into that. When I was growing up it was their tracks that I was most interested in. Sorry Jules.
Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall
There are many gems on this recording of their historic television special but unsurprisingly the highlight is, for me, the "History of the Musical Theatre" medley which careens seamlessly from comedy to romance to farce to passion and ends with a surprisingly moving "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love."
There has rarely been a more perfect piece of fusion of a performer, a character and music than Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins. Was it what PL Travers wanted? Well as we learned from Emma Thompson a couple of years ago, no it wasn't. But sorry, sometimes authors don't know what they've created. I will however say that no matter how many times I've seen the film and listened to the recording—and I happily acknowledge that it's also a beautiful song—I still get bored by Feed The Birds.
6. "A Spoonful of Sugar"
8. "The Sound of Music"
9. "I Have Confidence"
10. "My Favorite Things"
We all wanted Star! to be a great movie. The biography of the one and only Gertrude Lawrence would have seemed to have been the perfect vehicle for Julie Andrews. First there was the double-truck ad in the Sunday Times depicting a drawing of the World Premiere of the film in a reserved-seat engagement at the Rivoli Theatre in New York (where the film of The Sound of Music played for 22 months) but then the movie, despite being very classy, proved to be surprisingly boring. And yet, in this one number there was a sense of sheer musical theatre magic. Wonderfully choreographed by Michael Kidd, "The Saga of Jenny" seemed to have captured what "star quality" is all about.
12. "The Saga of Jenny"
I adored this movie when it first came out and I played the soundtrack to death (mine, if my step-mother had had her way.) The film itself hasn't really aged well but the musical sequences (staged by Joe Layton) have, for me, survived the test of time.
13. "Thoroughly Modern Millie"
15. "Jewish Wedding Song"
Here was a film that simply didn't work. I've tried to like it any number of times over the years but I never could figure out what it was supposed to be. And Paramount Pictures couldn't either given how many times they changed the ad campaign. However, one thing was clear - the film opened with a beautiful Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer ballad, "Whistling in the Dark" and it deserves a larger audience.
16. "Whistling in the Dark"
A truly wonderful movie. Julie was perfect. James Garner a brilliant foil for her, and the best star turn of all was the master-class-of-a-performer known as Robert Preston. Henry Mancini and Leslie Briccuse's score is a delight, and there are three musical sequences in the film that deliver a perfect mixture of both a cinematic and theatrical sensibility. The elegant duet with Mr. Preston and Julie, "You and Me," the artfully restrained and eloquent rendering of Julie singing "Crazy World," and of course "Le Jazz Hot" with her breathtaking vocal glide up the musical scale to the stratosphere .
17. "You and Me"
18. "Crazy World"
19. "Le Jazz Hot"
While she continued to make recordings and stage appearances in the many years following the film of Victor/Victoria I'm going to stop my playlist here on a literal high note.
I was lucky enough to work with her once; on the recording of the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting it Together and all I can tell you is that she knows who she is and what she means to all of us and she doesn't disappoint us. I am in awe of her.
Her talent. Her career. Her way of being. It can't be easy being "Julie Andrews" and yet she has managed to be that for a very long career that gathers more and more devotees with each succeeding generation. I envy those folks in Australia who are working with her on My Fair Lady, a beautiful part of musical theatre history is being imparted to those artists down there. More than seeing the show, I'd kill to be there for the rehearsals!
One of the shows I'm most looking forward to this autumn is Holiday Inn - The New Irving Berlin Musical. Not because it's going to be a game-changer in the American Musical Theatre (it isn't) or because it's going unearth hitherto unknown emotional depths in Mr. Berlin's songs. I'm going because I'm hoping that it captures that something which isn't nostalgia, but just simple theatrical musical comedy joy. And I hope it finds a way to create a show which is in its own way "timeless." Because timelessness in the theatre is something which eluded Mr. Berlin in his long and thrilling career.
His place in the pantheon of great American composers is unquestioned. The list of "standards" of which he is the author is astounding.
But what about the shows, how well have they fared? There's Annie Get Your Gun which is revived fairly often though less so now, due to its dodgy depiction of Native Americans, and Call Me Madam, which I adore but needs so much contextual explanation to a contemporary audience that it hardly seems worth it ("You see there was this woman named Pearl Mesta ...") and then there's...well golly, Mr. President? Face the Music? Louisiana Purchase? Miss Liberty? My point is that we know tons of his songs, but we don't know the shows. They aren't revived unless for special occasions or an Encores! production. They lack staying power. And the reason is that they were all basically trivial. Often they were vehicles for stars, but mostly they were vehicles for his delightful, romantic songs. The shows weren't built to last, the songs were.
So we are left with an extraordinary song catalog and a minor list of musical comedies. The best of which has, (arguably)the greatest list of tunes ever composed for one show, is pretty un-producable in today's political climate. Annie Get Your Gun has the following songs in it: "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Doin' What Comes Naturally," "Anything You Can Do," "I Got the Sun in the Morning," "They Say it's Wonderful," "The Girl That I Marry," "I Got Lost in His Arms," "My Defenses are Down," and "Moonshine Lullaby ," and those are the standards which came from this show. I mean really? Is there another show with that many standards. (I'm not talking about revisals which interpolate songs from other shows) well yeah, Porgy and Bess, but still, it's pretty amazing. And yet Annie Get Your Gun isn't a great show, it's almost always hugely enjoyable ( I say "almost" because I still can't unremember a horrific production at the Young Vic a few years ago directed by Richard Jones which oozed loathing of the musical comedy form in virtually every scene.) Yet when we make our list of the Best Musicals of all time, Annie Get Your Gun isn't there because of it's current state of un-producability. And if that's the best of his shows does that mean that there's no Irving Berlin show on the list? That just doesn't seem right.
As for Call Me Madam, it offers a great deal of joy, the Encores! recording featuring Tyne Daly & Lewis Cleale, was the first one to capture completely the easy wit and melody of the show. Cast album aficionados know why, but I'll tell the rest of you. When the show opened RCA Victor paid a lot of money for the recording rights to the show. But what no one thought about was the fact that Ethel Merman, the show's star (and creative raison d'être ) was signed to Decca Records. The result was that RCA had one their top recording artists (Dinah Shore) play Ms. Merman's part on the recording (alongside the rest of the original cast) while Decca had Ms. Merman record an album "Ethel Merman sings her hits from Call Me Madam." And while there was a film soundtrack featuring Ms. Merman, there never was a complete recording of the show which featured her.
The score has some great songs "The Hostess With Mostes'," "Can You Use Any Money Today?," "The Best Thing for You," "It's a Lovely Day Today," and, for me the best number in the show by far is Mr. Berlin's counterpoint show-stopping masterpiece: "(I Wonder Why) You're Just in Love." So while Mr. Berlin's songs stand the test of time, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse doesn't. Don't get me wrong, it's enjoyable and funny but with jokes about Margaret Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, it's all a bit too dusty for a general audience.
Over the years there have been number of attempts to create "a new Irving Berlin musical" (the way the Gershwins have done with shows such as Crazy for You, My One and Only and Nice Work If You Can Get It); such as Easter Parade or Top Hat (which one an Olivier Award for Best Musical a few years ago, but has yet to make it across the pond) and they've had some success with the stage adaptation of White Christmas which is fun and has a terrific cast recording, but by its very nature is ghettoized to a certain time of year. The same could be true of Holiday Inn but the show's producers are trying to sell the show in a non-holiday way, the ad campaign looks more like Brigadoon than anything else. That's fine by me, anything that brings Mr. Berlin's glorious timeless songs to a 21st Century audience is doing us all a great service.
Songs that are color-centric in honor of the change of seasons?
The first song I thought of was the Marvin Fisher/Jack Segal cabaret classic "When Sunny Gets Blue." It's not a Broadway Tune but it sure is packs a wallop whether sung by a very young Barbra Streisand where it reflects the heartbreak of an early love or Barbara Cook on her Loverman album of a few years ago, where her vocals express an entire lifetime of heartbreak.
Andy had suggested the Cy Coleman / Michael Stewart classic from Barnum, "The Colors of My Life," and it's lovely song, but even when I first saw the show early in its run I thought they had their eyes on a Kodak theme song rather than a tune suitable for the show. Speaking of which another Kodak song, Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" would fit the bill for this blog except it's not from a show. At least that's what I thought, but then I found it had been used in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so I guess it counts as a sort of Step-ShowTune. Later, I found a much more preferable version of the song on Volume 2 of the many soundtracks from the TV series Glee. The song is over-produced in the manner consistent with the musical numbers on that show, but it still shows what a marvelous composer and lyricist Ms. Lauper is. If "True Colors" wasn't written for the theatre, it certainly signaled that its author has a genuine talent for it.
And speaking of songs not written for the theatre but which signaled an understanding of it, one could do no better than to look at John Kander & Fred Ebb's very first collaboration: "My Coloring Book." The song is deceptively simple in its straightforward construction, but the complexity of the lyric and fullness of the backstory it evokes is a thing of wonder. What an astounding song on which to begin one of the great musical theatre collaborations of all time. For me the most satisfying version of the song (and probably the most famous ) is the one recorded by Barbra Streisand. But if proof of the durability of the song is needed, there are other versions from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Perry Como, Cliff Richard and most recently a beautifully performed version from Kristen Chenoweth. Color it "Perfection."
And since I am sliding down a Kander & Ebb rabbit hole I figure I'll mention a gem of theirs which is either underrated or ignored. It's from The Happy Time and it's called "Walking Among My Yesterdays," beautifully sung by Robert Goulet on the Original Broadway Cast recording but performed with the fullness of time and experience by Barbara Cook (again!) on her Barbara Cook's Broadway and on her tribute to musicals staged by Gower Champion, That Champion Season, where it is paired with the buoyant title song of "The Happy Time." Come to think of it, this song sung in the show by a world-roaming Photographer would be a perfect fit for "that Kodak moment."
Has there ever been a more powerful endorsement for appreciating a color than that from Alice Walker in her novel The Color Purple?
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.”
Attention must be paid to The Color Purple. It's a beautiful, passionate, let me get a color metaphor in here, rainbow of a show. If you have never seen it, do so. If you have, you know what I'm talking about. I loved the Brenda Russell-Stephen Bray-Allee Willis score for this show in its initial Broadway production as well its fast-moving pulsating cast recording (yeah, I worked on it so I'm prejudiced). However, the John Doyle directed re-invention of it from the Menier Chocolate Factory in London mined depths and beauty in the show which had hitherto been largely ignored.
LaChanze's well-deserved Tony-winning performance was thrilling in the Broadway original, but we all knew that LaChanze was terrific before she appeared in the show. With this new version we discovered a star in Cynthia Erivo. This kind of breakthrough performance is the stuff of Broadway legend, and the fact that it's happening NOW means that you shouldn't be reading this; you should be booking tickets to see the show or at the very least listening to the New Broadway Cast Recording. Just play it through from start to finish.It's a different, less smooth (thanks to the artfully reduced orchestrations) experience than the first album; but alongside Ms. Erivo you have the pleasure of Jennifer Hudson's sassy portrayal of Shug Avery and the fabulous Danielle Brooks performance of the very sassy Sofia. (There's a lot of sass in The Color Purple.) On a personal level I'm sorry that I won't be able to see Heather Headley (who replaced Ms. Hudson last spring) in her wildly acclaimed portrayal of Shug. Everyone I know (and seemingly all the critics) agree that she lifts the show up even further than before. Those tears which stream down the cheeks of every member of the audience nightly are something to which every musical aspires.
Purple: now there's a color to brighten up the change of seasons.
I had a lot of fun writing this week's blog. I got out the iPod and started scrolling through show after show after show playing my favorite songs obscure and popular in search of my favorite bits of linguistic play. Instead of just a playlist of 10 lyrics, though, I'm highlighting the work of five lyricists whom I admire. So what follows aren't necessarily the best songs, or even the best lyrics, but lyrics that give me some sort of genuine pleasure; either for their cleverness or outrageousness or they just make me smile. I've tried to avoid songs with lyrics I adore which I've highlighted in other blogs so no "Three Bedroom House" from Bat Boy or "Home Sweet Heaven" from High Spirits will be found here.
See what I did there?
Anyhoo, I've put them in random order because, well when there is so much fun to be had why make it a competition?
It's quite possible that Tim Rice is the most financially successful theatrical lyricist of all time. Between Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Beauty and the Beast, and oh yeah, The Lion King, he's done ok. Surprisingly though when people write about the musical theatre's great lyricists his name, more often than not, doesn't appear. I'm as guilty as anyone in that regard, and yet, he's given us some extraordinary work over the years and he's a master craftsman. He rarely takes the easy way out. He has a way of winking at those members of the audience who are actually listening to the words of a song rather than being swept away by whatever spectacle is put in front of them. My two favorite bits of linguistic play of his are from none of those smash shows. The first is from the usually ill-fated musical Chess and the show's hit song "One Night in Bangkok:"
Tea, girls, warm, sweet
Some are set up in the Somerset Maugham suite.
How can you not love that?
The second is from his (and Elton John's) Tony-winning score of Aida. Let's face it, Aida isn't a great show, but it is lots of fun and never more fun than in Amneris's introductory self-aware number "The Strongest Suit." It was this song, as smashingly performed by Sherie Rene Scott on Broadway, that I sat back and relaxed and allowed the show to just give me a good time, rather than have me analyze it to death. When a creative team is confident enough to put a number like this in their show, they clearly know what they're doing. But back to the lyric:
From your cradle via trousseau
To your deathbed you're on view, so
Never compromise, accept no substitute.
I would rather wear a barrel
Than conservative apparel
For my dress has always been
My strongest suit
The list of comic musicals where the lyrics are as smart and funny as the book is very short. Near the top of that list is City of Angels written by Larry Gelbart, Cy Coleman and David Zippel. Mr. Gelbart's libretto contains wit and triple entendre in virtually every line and one would have forgiven whoever the lyricist of the show was for not being able to keep up with him. But in fact we don't have to forgive Mr. Zippel anything, his lyrics are as smart and biting as Mr. Gelbart's book and sometimes unexpectedly vulgar as in this excerpt from this book song with a beat, "It Needs Work" smartly sung by Kay McClelland:
With dangers cropping up
And sweet young strangers popping up like weeds
So if you wish official pardoning
You better do a little gardening
Ya know ya needn't be so gen'rous with your seeds
Your fertile lies don't fertilize
It needs work
There's a teeny bit of a yuck factor there, but golly it's clever.
One of the true giants of the musical theatre he's responsible for two of the best musicals ever written (Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella since you asked) and was capable of deep emotion as well as easy laughs. For me though, the score of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is the great achievement. The show was a deeply cynical and incisive indictment of corporate life in the early 60's or it was a simply a delightful though somewhat sexist musical comedy. Mr. Loesser, and his chief collaborator on the show Abe Burrows, let the audience decide which show they were seeing. The Pulitzer Committee saw the former and gave it their prestigious prize. The audiences of the initial four-year run of the show on Broadway saw the latter. I have always been in awe of the following lyric in the "Coffee Break" number:
If I can't make three daily trips
Where shining shrine benignly drips
And taste cardboard between my lips
Something within me dies
And something within me dies
I mean really: Where shining shrine benignly drips? That's genius.
Growing up I'd always heard of Noel Coward but never really knew his work until I saw A Noel Coward Revue at the small Theatre-in-the-Dell in Toronto. (The revue later became Oh, Coward!) Soon I found a copy of the original cast album of Sail Away and devoured it. Listen to Elaine Stritch's gravelly voice croon these words from "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?"
Please do not think that I criticize or cavil
at a genuine urge to roam
But why, oh why do the wrong people travel when the right people stay back home
made me sit up and expand my world view. I'm sure at dinner that night I had to ask my father and step-mother what "cavil" meant. I only wish I remember what I said when they asked why I wanted to know.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green
The brilliance of Comden and Green is unquestioned. They wrote great shows, classic films, and were always wonderful guests on talk and variety shows. Their lyrics could be heart-breaking ("Some Other Time" from On the Town), inspiring ("Never Never Land" from Peter Pan), or just plain smart ("I've Got it All" from On the Twentieth Century). But I think my favorite lyric is one that still has the ability to make me laugh more than 50 years after a first heard it. It's from Bells are Ringing and it's the end of the song "Drop That Name." The song itself always amused me: who were all those people: Daniel Mann and Lynn Fontanne; Bernie Baruch and King Farook; Carol Reed and Sammy Snead? I had so much to learn! The genius part of the song is that the main character Ella is as much as outsider to the litany of celebrity as we are and the only "name" she can drop is "Rin Tin Tin" until the climax of the song which goes like this:
(Errol Flynn!) Rin Tin Tin!
(Edmund Gwenn!) Ren Ten Ten!
(Ali Kahn!) Rahn Tan Tan!
(Raymond Massey!) Lassie!
The name "Lassie" makes me smile every time. Even now as I type this - see I'm smiling. Oh, to have been in the room when that happened!
A new season where everyone is hopeful and optimistic about what's coming up and the doom-sayers are keeping quiet until the first hint of disaster rears its head (as it inevitably will). And by saying that I've become a doomsayer right out of the gate.
I'm going to concentrate on the musicals which open before Christmas and not discuss all the big guns which are headed our way in the annual spring pre-awards season crush. And frankly it's a bit thin this fall. Already there is a revival of Cats about which people are either a) enthusiastic or b) resigned to. I offer no further comment.
Ahead of us in order of opening are:
I've got high hopes for Holiday Inn a "new" Irving Berlin musical with a book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge, directed by Mr. Greenberg and choreographed by Denis Jones, if only because all it has to do is entertain me with songs, dances and jokes. It's not out to be a game-changer; it's not out to bring in audiences who "don't usually go to the theatre." I believe it's there to simply celebrate Mr. Berlin's extraordinary catalog of music and give us a good time. And with Bryce Pinkham and Megan Lawrence heading the cast I'm pretty sure that's what's going to happen.
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. At long last the Broadway transfer of Dave Malloy's inventive and audacious off-off Broadway musical of 2012. As I said in blog a few weeks ago, I adored it in the intimate off-off Broadway space Ars Nova, but didn't have a good time when it transferred to an uncomfortable tent in the meat-packing district. I'm hopeful that the talented director Rachel Chavkin and the rest of the creatives, as well as the casting of pop vocal superstar Josh Groban, make this a huge distinctive Broadway hit.
Dear Evan Hansen. With a heartfelt score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (and a smart book by Steven Levenson) makes the leap from an off-Broadway run where it garnered unanimous raves to Broadway. It's a musical of this moment in time where whether we like it or not social media guides our responses to most everything which happens in our lives. Aside from the emotional power of the show, it boasts at least two award-worthy performances come season-end: that's the amazing Ben Platt and the heart-breaking eloquence of Rachel Bay Jones. (And as far as I'm concerned she should've been at least nominated, if not won for the revival of Pippin).
When I walk into A Bronx Tale with a book by Chazz Palminteri and a score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (who have collaborated on Sister Act and Leap of Faith), I'll be at a disadvantage as I've never seen or read or listened to any incarnation of the story. Everybody involved is really talented (though I honestly never thought that a Broadway musical would be co-directed by Robert DeNiro). Part of me says that I should use this time to familiarize myself with one of its incarnations, but the other part of me says-if I come in with no expectations of favorite scenes or incidents, I can actually judge it on its own merits. So I 'm pretty sure that's what I'm going to do.
I'm faced with a similar situation with the long-gestating In Transit. Book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez (yes of Frozen fame), James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth and directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. The only thing I know about it is that it's an a cappella musical being performed in the relatively intimate space of the Circle in the Square Theatre. Maybe it's the "sleeper" musical which captures the hearts of critics and audiences that every small show opening on Broadway hopes to be? Fingers crossed.
As for revivals on Broadway this fall there is just one: Falsettos, Bill Finn and James Lapine's emotional, hilarious, and heart-breaking musical. Readers of this blog know of my deep affection for this show, so I won't go on and on about it again but with a gold-plated cast headed by Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Wolfe, and Brandon Uranowitz I just can't wait to see it and probably see it again and maybe one more time after that.
I'm going to step away from the musical front for a moment and tout a Broadway show this season that isn't a musical but is an astonishing experience and that's Simon McBurney's wondrous one man play The Encounter. Ostensibly it's about a trip up the Amazon, but actually it's about so much more. It's a theatrical experience like no other I've ever had and one that you'll probably never forget.
Three words which strike terror in my heart
As much as I love the idea of "summer" more often than not when I was growing up it filled me with a certain dread. This week, I'm to choose five "outdoorsy" songs which relate to "camp, recreation, and sports," three of the most horrifying words in the English language as far as I'm concerned.
Growing up what I loved about summer was reading the Summer Theatre Schedules: Ann Miller in Can-Can. Oh wow! Noel Harrison in Half a Sixpence. Sign me up! Alas, that's probably not what Andy had in mind.
So here is something close to the assignment:
"Hello Muddah Hello Faddah." It seems almost impossible to believe but this Allan Sherman gem was a mainstream pop hit in the summer of 1963. (According to Wikipedia it was #2 for three weeks in August of that year!) I grew up on Allan Sherman's seriously funny Jewishy parodies of popular and classical tunes, and I was one of those obnoxious kids that knew every lyric from the first three albums. (I still do.) His score for the affectionately-thought-of flop The Fig Leaves Are Falling is sadly, surprisingly bland. And the misconceived off-Broadway musical revue of his songs entitled Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah wasn't very good. The parodies which I love so much seem too rooted in their particular time and place to feel fresh anymore. Still, listening to this song harkens back to a much more innocent time in our country's history and during this divisive and brutal election year we should try and remember that time when something relatively gentle and funny captured the nation's heart.
"The Baseball Game." In Bill Finn's amazing musical Falsettoland, "The Baseball Game" is an uproarious scene in which a very "modern family" observes a genetically klutzy Jewish boy play baseball. Needless to say I identified with it very strongly. In the show it's a delightful sequence, however my favorite performance of it was in the Infinite Joy concert which was performed for a few Monday nights at Joe's Pub in New York wherein the wild Stephen Da Rosa delivered a musical theatre tour de force by performing all of the roles at the same time. Listen and be dazzled!
"A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd." I'm stretching a bit here. File this selection under "recreation. In the flawed, but rather wonderful musical Ballroom, the recently widowed Be—a taking the advice from her friend Angie—goes to a ballroom for a night out. This song, "A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd," memorably performed by the late great Dorothy Loudon is an "I Want" song of the highest order. And my favorite lyric in the song is also a subtly inspiring one as well: "It's not the Matterhorn, it's only a flight of stairs." It never fails to move me. Thanks both to the words themselves and Ms. Loudon's gutsy delivery of them.
"How Shall I See You Through My Tears?" And speaking of stretching...One of the most underrated and misjudged musicals of the last 50 years is Bob Telson and Lee Breuer's extraordinary The Gospel at Colonus. Here's a show that was a Pulitzer finalist, had a PBS Broadcast, played BAM and on Broadway. It fused genuine gospel music and performers with the purity of Greek tragedy together into a musical evening of pulse-quickening power. Confession time: Not being familiar with gospel music when I first saw it (on PBS before it came to Broadway) I didn't actually understand that all the music was original. And I think that there were others like me so that when it did finally appear on Broadway Bob Telson & Lee Breuer's achievement was under-appreciated. How, you may ask, does this relate to the subject of "Camp, Recreation, and Sports"? Well the opening number of Todd Graff's indispensable movie Camp is Sasha Allen's rendering of one of many beautiful songs from the show: "How Shall I See You Through My Tears?," and I thought this is an opportunity to give a shout-out to an over-looked theatre score that was decades ahead of its time.
"The Sun Is Gonna Shine Again." Not falling under the category of "Camp, Recreation, or Sports" but most definitely an "Outdoorsy" tune is Steve Martin & Edie Brickell's ridiculously optimistic "The Sun is Gonna Shine Again" from their infectiously melodious score for Bright Star. Just let the new Broadway star Carmen Cusack and the rest of the company fill your heart with joyful end-of-summer optimism. And besides, you know what the end-of-summer signals? That's right - a new season of musicals is upon us!
If a show has a good strong opening number, it buys at least 20 to 30 minutes of the audience's indulgence in its story. It's up to the creative team to deliver on the promise of a strong opening. One of my most favorite opening numbers is "20 Million People" from Ahrens & Flaherty's My Favorite Year. If you were to listen to it, you'd be sure you were at a hit. Unfortunately by three songs into the first act that show had somehow lost its way. And while there is a lot of gold in the score and its performances, there's also a fair amount of silver-plate as well.
The five openings I've chosen (in random order of course) all find ingenious ways to let the audience in on what's in store for them over the next two hours or so. For some of these shows the opening number was the best part of the evening; happily for playlist purposes we don't have to worry about what follows them. Let's just enjoy the riches that these numbers offer on their own.
Once. Nothing in Once happens by accident and the brilliant opening of this deceptively modest show is one of the more unusual opening numbers ever conceived for a musical. It's a fairly short instrumental— "The North Strand"—that utilizes the Oscar-winning main musical theme of the show "Falling Slowly" in a vibrant aggressive acoustic arrangement by Martin Loewe. What makes it special is that it establishes from the outset a couple of things. 1.That the actors/musicians doubling which takes place throughout the show is organic to the language (musical and dramatic) of the show. 2. All of the characters are musical, and the way they think and interact is musical. 3. By rejiggering the familiar tune into a lively barroom ballad, the show takes us on a journey where everything about these characters is revealed in either music or movement. Stunning.
Something Rotten. I may have some reservations about this show-bizzy period musical, but none whatsoever about its sparkling cast (Brian D'Arcy James, Heidi Blickenstaff, John Cariani, Brad Oscar and Christian Borle) and very few about its robust tuneful score by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick. This opening number "Welcome to the Renaissance" lets us in on the cheeky humorous anachronistic tone of the show from the start. That the show starts to overstay its welcome by the time Act Two comes along is beside the point. There's enough to revel in during the first half to satisfy even the toughest of theatergoers.
The Fortress of Solitude. I've previously written about this lively ambitious show with a dirty 70's funk score by Michael Friedman. This is an opening number which announces a melody line ("Oh Baby, You're the One I Remember...") that lands in your ear and stays there for months on end. If I even think of this show, that line comes back into my head and before you know it this number is blasting through my headphones. In the theatre I was confused by it because of the staging, but that confusion evaporates on the fabulous recording, powerfully orchestrated by John Clancy and Matt Beck.
If/Then. This is one of the more overlooked shows of recent years, If/Then has a skillful score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and bang-up orchestrations by Michael Starobin. The opening number "What If" is a supremely confident soaring ensemble ballad which showcases the remarkable voice of Idina Menzel and a fine supporting cast. It does what all great opening numbers should do, tells the audience what the evening's journey is going to be. I love it.
Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Author Dave Malloy's (Book, Music & Lyrics) tour de force musical of an incident in War and Peace simply astounded me when I first saw it at off-off-Broadway at the extremely intimate Ars Nova. I was less impressed the second time I saw it, downtown in a vast tent where faux-Russian waitresses attempted to up-sell me wildly over-priced bottles of vodka. ("I ain't buying.") But that doesn't stop me from loving the show's opening number which freely acknowledges all the fears we have about being able to follow an adaptation of anything from the pen of Leo Tolstoy. The show's "Prologue" is an irreverent musical master class in exposition. It could easily be retitled "...Previously, on War and Peace."
But my favorite opening number of the past 16 years isn't from a musical at all, it's from the 2013 Tony Awards broadcast where it was sung by Neil Patrick Harris and a cast of thousands. It's called "Bigger" and it's by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manual Miranda, and if it doesn't get you excited about what the musical theatre is able to accomplish nothing will. Visit YouTube and even if you've seen it before, watch again and be thrilled.
Here's Andy's instruction of this week: "Finales - let's pick 5 that we think are the most unusual or daring."
Just what constitutes unusual or daring? People coming back from the dead for a finale should be considered unusual or daring but frankly in musical theatre it happens far too often and too effectively for it to be considered either of those things. Mega-mixes reprising all the great songs that we heard earlier in the evening? That's a posrt-ending device, but it doesn't mean I don't love them. So I'm just gonna go with five finales that I love listening to again and again with the understanding between us that next week their might be five that I love more. Ok?
Candide. This always flawed and frustrating musical has one of the most glorious scores ever written for the theatre. Leonard Bernstein's music and the exquisite lyrics of John Latouche, Richard Wilbur and Dorothy Parker on the 1956 Cast recording are something to be studied and cherished by everyone who loves the musical theatre. I first heard this recording when I was 16 years old and from the magnificent "Overture" forward I was hooked. Did I understand it all? No, of course not, I was only 16. However, when I got to the breathtaking finale "Make Our Garden Grow" I had found a new philosophy of life. How could someone listen to that song with its stunning acapella section (in the pre-Stephen Oremus era) and not stand and cheer? Now that's a finale to change one's life!
Avenue Q. Lately I've been listening to this recording more than in the past. It's easy to dismiss the show as sweet, funny charmer, but part of the reason this Jeff Marx/Bobby Lopez/Jeff Whitty concoction has had such a long life is that underneath it all there is an optimistic view of the world to which we should all subscribe. It's summed up in a characteristically witty manner in the finale "For Now." No one expects to go into a puppet show and find the human condition so sympathetically and smartly illuminated. That surprise is at the heart of this upbeat finale.
Titanic. Well we all knew how it was going to end. The surprise in the tear-filled, emotionally manipulative (in the best possible way) "Finale" is that we come to care about the passengers as a group rather than the specific characters. The show has one of the best opening sequences in Broadway history, but somehow finds a way to evoke that exhilarating opening number in its heartbreaking finale. Instead of the joy found in the anticipation of the journey the finale probes the depth of the grief in the lives that were shattered by the ship's sinking. Maury Yeston's score never fails to thrill me and the "Finale" never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
But enough of tears at the end - let's leave the theatre with a happy buzz. Let's leave wanting to dance our way home and for that we look no further the next two shows:
Kinky Boots. I don't care what you thought about this show, you cannot deny that its Finale sends you out into the night on a high, loving your fellow man and hoping for a better world. Thanks to Cyndi Lauper's upbeat score (with a deep nod to Mr. Oremus for his orchestrations and arrangements), Jerry Mitchell's take-no-prisoners staging and a kick-ass performance by the band and cast, the finale "Just Be/Raise You Up" delivers what any audience wants from a musical. Happiness and a well-ordered fair-minded world in which to live.
Hairspray. Has there ever been a more infectious get-up-and-dance tune written for a Broadway musical than Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's "You Can't Stop the Beat?" I don't think so. Put it on, and I defy you to sit still or not singalong. For a musical which is pretty upbeat from the word go, it's a major achievement by director Jack O'Brien, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell and their fabulous cast to top all that giddiness which preceded it with this pulse-racing finale.