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.
Every year the theatrical award season brings controversies and surprises from which, most of us find a way to recover and move on with our lives. Over the last 16 years I've shouted "No!" a few times but more often than not, I've shouted "Yes!"
And sometimes the "Yes!" is accompanied by a smile and a "well, they got that right didn't they? "
So here are five Tony Award wins that I didn't expect but was thrilled that they happened.
Actor in a Musical
In 2007, the nominees for Best Actor in a Musical were Michael Cerveris for LoveMusik , Raul Esparza for Company, Jonathan Groff for Spring Awakening, Gavin Lee for Mary Poppins and David Hyde-Pierce for Curtains. The big money was on the oft-nominated Esparza or the dreamy newcomer Jonathan Groff, but they opened the envelope and David Hyde-Pierce was the winner.
While Mr. Hyde-Pierce doesn't possess the vocal chops or dancing acumen of some of the other nominees, he does have that all-too-rare thing known as charm. We like him. In Curtains he played a stage-struck police investigator and was able to convey his love of musicals in a breezy effortless style. I love Curtains and I think its joys were under-appreciated when it played on Broadway. Yes, I know it ends at least three times, and by the time it's actually over one is left to wonder who exactly did what to whom. I don't care. The Kander & Ebb score (aided and abetted by Rupert Holmes) sparkles throughout. There are throwaway show tunes of the old school *"In the Same Boat" and "Thataway"), some lovely heartfelt ballads ("I Miss the Music" and "Coffee Shop Nights"), and a couple of swell Kander & Ebb showstoppers ("It's a Business" and "Show People"). What's not to like? Plus it's all performed by a top-notch Broadway cast led by Mr. Hyde-Pierce including Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Jason Danieley Is Curtains an important show? Nah, but it's lots of musical comedy fun. His win was a win for the show and what it represented.
Actress in a Musical
In 2005 the nominees for leading actress in a musical were Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity, Erin Dilly in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sutton Foster in Little Women, Sherie Rene Scott in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Victoria Clark in Light in the Piazza. What I loved about this category was that, with the exception of the charming Ms. Applegate, they were all Broadway babies. Performers that New Yorkers knew and loved but weren't TV or film stars. Looking at the list now with 20/20 hindsight, of course Victoria Clark won, but back then I felt it was a three-way race between Ms. Applegate, Ms. Clark and Ms. Scott, who had turned in a hilarious comic turn in Scoundrels. What won the day for Ms. Clark though were two things: the dramatic complexity and detail of her restrained performance both in musical terms with Adam Guettel's lush score and her performance history. We had become used to her supporting (mostly comic) performances in shows such as the revival of How to Succeed in which she played second banana to Megan Mullally , Titanic (delivering far too much exposition in that thrilling opening number but ending with a glorious "She MUST be Somebody!!!") and in A Grand Night for Singing, where her "I Cain't Say No" was a comic gem; but with Piazza she stepped up and became a bona-fide Broadway star by bringing a unity to the proceedings that invited us deep into her character's issues. Listen to "Dividing Day" or "Fable" and marvel at one of our finest musical theatre actresses.
Featured Actor in a Musical
In 2007 the nominees for Featured Actor in a Musical were Brooks Ashmanskas's deeply hilarious comic turn in Martin Short's Fame Become Me , Christian Borle for his exceedingly likable performance in Legally Blonde, John Cullum for his homespun father in 110 in the Shade, David Pittu as the always disagreeable Bertolt Brecht in LoveMusik, and the new kid on the block John Gallagher, Jr. in Spring Awakening. It's wins such as Mr. Gallagher's that make me smile the most. Out of nowhere a kid, well 23 years old, lands a great part in a great show and runs with it. Granted he had the hottest haircut on stage and the showiest part (suicide or death of any sort in a musical is catnip to Tony voters), but he also had that something extra that when you see it in a young performer it makes you happy: a future. Often times in the theatre a Tony Award early on is the high point of a career. For John Gallagher, Jr it's just the tip of the iceberg.
Featured Actress in a Musical
Again in 2007, (clearly that was a year where I was pretty happy with the results) the nominees for Featured Actress in a Musical were: Charlotte D'Amboise in the revival of A Chorus Line, Rebecca Luker in Mary Poppins, Orfeh in Legally Blonde, Karen Ziemba in Curtains, and Mary Louise Wilson in Grey Gardens. All of those ladies were terrific in their roles but in this category Ms. Wilson won for her portrayal of Old Edie Beale in the musical Grey Gardens, and she also won for hanging in there in a very long career in the theatre and on television. She stopped whatever show was in whether it was the first time I saw her (in a Julius Monk revue that was broadcast on Channel 2 in Boston), or as the drollest Tessie Tura ever, in the Angela Lansbury Gypsy, or as an untalented member (by marriage)of the Cavendish acting clan in the sterling Eva La Gallienne/Rosemary Harris revival of The Royal Family. And 20 years later dazzled us all in her one woman play about Diana Vreeland Full Gallop. Her performance in Grey Gardens was, in every sense of the word, delicious. And her two food-oriented songs from Scott Frankel & Michael Korrie's smart score "The Cake I Had" and "Jerry Likes My Corn" capture the idiosyncratic energy of Ms Wilson's wonderful and heartfelt performance.
The Tony in recent years that I've been happiest about though was in 2012 when the award went to Once. To be honest it wasn't the toughest year for musicals; the other nominees were Leap of Faith, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Newsies. Each of which had their assets (Leslie Odom Jr. in Leap, Judy Kaye & Michael McGrath's inspired clowning in Nice Work, and Jack Feldman & Alan Menken's tuneful score for Newsies). But the deceptively modest Once had that special something - a perfect fusion of all the elements of great musical theatre: Story, Design, Performances, Music, Movement - everything! And what made me happiest was that, on both an artistic and commercial level, the audience and the critics were there for the show. Was it the hottest ticket in town? Were people all over the country selling their souls to get tickets? No. It was a show that an audience could discover and appreciate without being told to. I love it from start to finish; it's a show which made me very happy.
This was the assignment we bloggers were given this week:
"We all have them –the numbers that we wish had been performed on a Tony Awards broadcast…"
Do we? In order to answer this I need to look at 50 years of Tony Awards shows and figure out what they didn't do. As Lady Chiang said to Tuptim:
"I think not, Princess."
I started to write a diatribe about how much I dislike most numbers on the Tonys because they try to accomplish too much and rarely communicate for me the sheer joy of performing that happens only when you see a Broadway musical live and not through a camera lens. And to back myself up I went to YouTube and fell down a rabbit hole.
The entire 1971 Tony Broadcast is there in all its simplicity and glory.
That was the year of the 25th Anniversary of the Tonys and so the entertainment consisted of one song from all the previous 25 Tony-winning shows. Most of the original stars of those shows were still alive and so there they all were in an elegant evening hosted by Angela Lansbury, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Quinn and Anthony Quayle. The show is basically a two hour crash course in the history of the American Musical Theatre.
Now I'm realistic enough to know that lots of the performers who appear on this show are unknown to most people nowadays, or they're known for other endeavors. Alfred Drake? Zero Mostel? But the fact of the matter is that these people were honest-to-God Broadway stars. Vivian Blaine? Yul Brynner? Patricia Morrison? Theatrical fame is indeed ephemeral.
The program is a summing up of what we now think of as "The Golden Age" of Broadway; and not just because of the 25th Anniversary aspect, but because these are the Tony Awards where the musical categories were dominated by two "game-changing" shows: Company and No, No, Nanette.
Both shows would change forever what Broadway was too become.
Prior to Nanette first class revivals of Broadway musicals were a rare occurrence. No more than 10 in the previous 25 years. Old shows were relegated to summer stock, or City Center revivals with 2 week engagements, low ticket prices, touring sets but with the advantage of some terrific star casting). After Nanette Broadway became awash with revivals, driven by producers wanting to play it safe as well as audiences who were becoming less and less adventurous. Don't get me wrong lots of those revivals were/are sensational, but they also take up valuable real estate and limit the number of new musicals which appear on Broadway. Ultimately, I don't think the dependence upon revivals is a healthy thing - but that's a different blog.
And Company which I've written about before was a musical that thrust contemporary society onto the Broadway stage and was the beginning of the thrilling Prince/Sondheim era which for me defined the next decade of the Broadway musical where "Everything was Possible."
So this Tony telecast actually captures a particular moment in time of celebrating and appreciating the old while embracing something completely new and different. I wonder if this year's telecast will also be a bellwether of things to come. Or perhaps it was last year's win for Fun Home which will define the future direction of our musical theatre? Only time will tell.
In any event, it was a great rabbit hole down which to fall and I urge you all to do it.
I promise next week I'll be back on message.
The following aren't necessarily my favorite Tony Award-winning musicals but are some of my favorite recordings of musicals which won the Tony for Best Musical in that year. These are the recordings that somehow capture the energy and drive of the live theatre experience. The ones where you listen to them and think: "God, I loved that show." or "God, I wished I'd seen that."
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1962 Original Broadway Cast): Frank Loesser's PulitzerPrize–winning musical comedy masterpiece is a delight from start to finish: from Robert Ginzler's sizzling orchestrations in the Overture to the musical comedy character voices of Bonnie Scott and Claudette Sutherland in such time capsule worthy satirical songs as "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" and "Cinderella, Darling." As for Robert Morse as J. Pierpont Finch, it's actually possible to hear the delight he possesses in performing "The Company Way" or "Grand Old Ivy" or well, anything on this album. It's musical comedy heaven.
1776 (1969 Original Cast Recording): The surprise sleeper hit of the 1969 Broadway theatre season. Sherman Edward's score is secondary to Peter Stone's great libretto, and yet this cast recording, impeccably performed by a company led by William Daniels, doesn't have a lot of dialogue. Nevertheless it succeeds in thrillingly recreating the excitement and tension of this deeply moving show. I first experienced its impact from standing room ($4.60) at the 46th Street Theatre on the Friday night after it won the Tony Award. The choral power of "Sit Down, John!" still makes me sit up and take notice, and thanks to Eddie Sauter's orchestrations (which with harpsichord and flute, slyly camouflage Mr. Edward's 60's pop music sensibilities), the whole show feels immediate and alive, honoring both the past and the present. (The present in this case being 1969.) I love the wit of "Cool Cool Considerate Men" and the warmth of Virginia Vestoff in both "Til Then" and "Yours, Yours, Yours." Best of all though is Mr. Daniels' peerless and thrilling "Is Anybody There?" A great musical beautifully captured for all time.
Company (1970 Original Broadway Cast Recording): One of the most important and game-changing musicals ever written is happily captured in a cast recording equally as important. Thanks to the great D.A. Pennebaker documentary Original Cast Album: Company we all are witness to the painstaking, exhausting, tension-filled and exhilarating process of what goes into (hopefully) capturing the essence of live musical theatre for generations to come. On first hearing in 1970, Stephen Sondheim's score—aided by Jonathan Tunick's hip orchestrations—sounded like it was imitation Burt Bacharach, but on repeated listenings we all discovered there was so much more going on. It's hard for younger folk to realize that there was a time when Stephen Sondheim was not yet the deservedly exalted hero of the American Musical Theatre. He’d written the lyrics to two great shows and a mediocre one, and the full scores to two others (a hit and a flop) and it had been 5 years since he’s had a show on Broadway.This at a time when composers tended to have shows on Broadway every other year. Everything about Company was a revelation. If you've never heard this recording put it on and listen to it from start to finish uninterrupted. It's simply thrilling. And if you're like me and know it backwards and forwards, do the same thing and remind yourself of the greatness of this show.
Fosse (Original Broadway Cast Recording): Really Billy? Fosse? Yeah, really. I love this album (I worked on it so I might be a bit prejudiced) and for me it accomplishes the near-impossible task of recreating the excitement of a show where the object and focus is primarily visual. I put on this recording and thanks to the extraordinary music staff led by Gordon Lowry Harrell, conductor Patrick Brady, and the stunning Ralph Burns & Doug Besterman orchestrations, I am in the world of Bob Fosse. Great vocal performances from the cast led by Valerie Pettiford's "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" to stunning work from one of the tightest band's that has ever played on Broadway ("Crunchy Granola Suite," "Rich Man's Frug" and of course the thrilling "Sing! Sing! Sing!") make this one of my favorite show recordings ever.
Avenue Q (Original Broadway Cast Recording): I worked on this one as well, and it's a true delight. Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez's score continues to sparkle all these years later with its irreverent charm, sweetness, and off-the-wall vulgarity. Ann Harada's hilarious "The More You Ruv Someone" or the all-too-true "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" or the eternal bitter optimism of "For Now" all combine to make this recording not only a great way to start the day but also to remind us all what a genuinely surprising and wonderful show this is. While it might be small-scaled, it's big-hearted, smart, sassy and tuneful. I love it and I know you will too.
They’ve asked me to salute memorable Mothers in musicals (but try to avoid Gypsy) for Mother’s Day.
Ok, but you know we all have our issues…
Next to Normal
Tom Kitt & Brian Yorkey’s Pulitzer Prize musical tells the compelling and deeply troubling story of Diana Goodman portrayed by in a Tony-winning performance by Alice Ripley attempts to cope with her bi-polar condition and the disastrous emotional consequences her illness has on her family. Her character’s emotional highs and lows are nearly unbearable; not just for her, but all around her (as well as the audience). (“I Miss the Mountains”) To this extraordinary work’s credit the shimmering pop-infused score often disguises the darkness of the subject matter revealing no matter what her mental state, Diana still strives to be a good mother whatever that may be (“Maybe (Next to Normal)”).
Whatever dramaturgical issues I may have with this show are all thrown aside because any evening in the theatre which affords Chita Rivera to strut her extraordinary stuff is totally worthwhile. Well maybe not Merlin or Bring Back Birdie, but you know what I mean. From her opening song “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” to the charms of her duet with Liza in “The Apple Doesn’t Fall,” Ms. Rivera’s Anna is first presented to us making the decision to live for herself alone, and by the end of the evening, she learns to have her independence but to also not resent the obligations, joys and frustrations of motherhood. She’s an invigorating character given exuberant life thanks to Kander & Ebb’s bright score.
Any inadequacies that I may have felt which were committed by Terence McNally’s book to The Rink are erased by the sheer brilliance and mastery of his book to Ragtime. Its fusion of book, music and lyrics into one singular vision is a modern musical theatre miracle. The score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty achieves the near impossible task of always topping itself throughout the evening. But we’re here to talk about Mothers so let me get right to it: Marin Mazzie as Mother in Ragtime, was astonishing. We as an audience saw her grow from a woman who was little more than a dignified doormat to a person of substance, conscience and passion. Wow. From “Goodbye My Love” to her innate kindness in “Our Children” to her thrilling 11’o clock number “Back to Before,” Mother’s emotional journey in a show filled with emotional journeys was, for me, the most compelling, hopeful and satisfying.
It’s hard for me to discuss the musical Big Fish dispassionately since I know many of the people involved with its creation, production and ultimate heartbreak very well. And for me to include it in a Mother’s Day blog is rather odd since the show is really about Father/Son issues (just wait until the Father’s Day blog!). However, for me, the emotional core of Big Fish came from Kate Baldwin’s deeply felt performance as Sandra, the somewhat-suffering wife and patient and loving mother. It was in the material created for Sandra, that I felt as composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa found the show’s heart and melody. Two songs performed by Ms. Baldwin stand out for me “Time Stops” (a duet with Norbert Leo Butz) and the rueful and honest “I Don’t Need a Roof.”
I’ve always been a huge fan of this Alfred Uhry-Jason Robert Brown-Harold Prince show which depicts the gut-wrenching story about Leo Frank’s struggle for justice in the wake of his being falsely accused of the murder of 13 year old Mary Phagan. And because the musical’s subject matter ,the story and trauma of Mary’s family and their grief and need for justice (however misguided) is pushed to one side. Except for one moment and a beautiful one it is too. Mary’s mother (portrayed by remarkable Jessica Molaskey) gives her testimony in a song entitled “My Child Will Forgive Me,” which goes straight to the heart of parental grief and guilt in the wake of tragedy. Well almost. In this brief interlude we begin to understand what the murdered child’s parents are feeling, and we begin to care but at the end of the song our empathy disappears because of the deeply seeded racial and religious prejudices that the child was no doubt taught. It’s a tribute to both the composer and the performer that for 2:26 seconds we remember and mourn the situation’s first victim and are reminded that even bigots can be mother’s who feel grief.
And on that cheery note….Happy Mother’s Day!
On what might be the flimsiest of excuses this week, in honor of the word “May” as in “May I?” not the “Lusty Month of …” Andy has asked us to come up with a short playlist of question songs.
And so this week’s blog is brought to you by the interrogative: “Who?”
“Who Are You Now?” is a sort of “Miss Congeniality” of ballads from Jule Styne & Bob Merrill’s amazing score of Funny Girl. In any other show it would’ve stood out as a show-stopping ballad but in Funny Girl it had to compete with two other heart-stopping ballads “People” and “The Music that Makes Me Dance.” And in truth I never paid much attention to it until I heard Barbara Cook sing it on her thrilling Live at Carnegie Hall recording, since that time it’s become one of my favorite songs. Marin Mazzie couples the song with “I Got Lost in His Arms” on her and hubby Jason Danielle’s terrific Opposite You album of a few years ago.
It won’t surprise you to know that I probably learned more about the world from Show Tunes than from my teachers at Brookline High School. Before I heard Charles Strouse & Lee Adams’s “Who’s that Girl?” from Applause I thought that Lew Ayres was just the guy who played Doris Day’s father on her TV show. (What is he talking about? Who is Lew Ayres? Who is Doris Day?) This rather giddy number served as a quick cultural history refresher for audiences in 1970 who might not have remembered exactly who Lauren Bacall (as Margo Channing) was.
One of the many astounding achievements of the musical James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is that it had was able to fuse both complex contemporary character’s self-reflection with old fashioned Broadway production values. Nowhere is this more evident than in the rousing and legendary production number “Who’s That Woman?, the number (astoundingly choreographed by Michael Bennett) as performed by the brassy Mary McCarty is heavily abbreviated on the original Broadway Cast Recording, so my personal favorite is Phyllis Newman on the legendary live NY Philharmonic recording with a great group of back-up singers: Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Elaine Stritch , Betty Comden etc. you can feel the electricity of the number that brought the house down. Nowadays though, I thoroughly enjoy Teri White’s rendition on the recording of the most recent revival of the show.
Whatever issues I may have with Henry Krieger & Bill Russell and now Bill Condon’s cult musical Side Show (and I have a few) I have none whatsoever with a couple of show-stopping numbers from the show. One of them “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” is simply gorgeous and as sung originally by the sterling duo of Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley on the Original Cast Album might just make it to the finals of my desert island disc list. I didn’t see last season's critically well-received revival but the recording of that production featuring Erin Davie and Emily Padgett is pretty terrific as well.
A long time ago the musical revue was a mainstay of Broadway, but with advent of radio, and then television variety shows they all but disappeared from the theatre. These reviews had satirical sketches, funny novelty numbers, production numbers and comic turns. And between those number there was always a romantic ballad or two. For New Faces of 1952 songwriters Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd wrote what is essentially a perfect one-act play and arguably one of the finest cabaret songs ever written: "Guess Who I Saw Today?" Over the years I’ve heard any number of renditions of the number from Nancy Wilson, Eydie Gorme, Mary-Cleere Haran Janis Siegel etc. My current favorite rendition though is from Maria Friedman’s 2006 recording Now and Then. Her version is sad and yet without recombination. Just beautiful.
This week Andy has asked us to discuss how and when Shakespeare has inspired musical theatre writers.
There are the usual suspects:
Sam & Bella Spewack and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate - an acknowledged classic show with so many terrific numbers that, go ahead and sue me, I still simply don’t like. Though to be honest the last two times I saw it the actresses playing Lilli Vanessi: Hannah Waddingham at the Old Vic, and Marin Mazzie on Broadway, made a very strong case for me to stop being a curmudgeon about it and actually like the show.
Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story - a glorious show with an astounding score which is taught in high schools to make the Bard more accessible. But other than the basic plot what does Shakespeare have to do with it? It’s akin to the relationship that Mamma Mia! has to Buena Sera, Mrs Campbell.
And a personal favorite of mine: Rodgers and Hart’s The Boys From Syracuse with a breezy book by George Abbott; a 2nd tier classic completely trivial and utterly delightful with some swell tunes(“Sing for Your Supper,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “Falling in Love”)with Love and one line from the show’s source material The Comedy of Errors.
And I think that’s it for the “A” list. The chances are if you read this column you know about those shows and if you don’t? Start listening!
There are songs from Shakespeare peppered throughout musicals:
“Fear No More” from Stephen Sondheim’s The Frogs, lovely to be sure butler’s be honest here, Mr. Sondheim is his own best lyricist.
“What a Piece of Work is Man” from the Galt McDermott, James Rado and Gerome Ragni Hair, a song that has taken me out of whatever production of Hamlet that I’ve ever seen because when the Prince gets to this speech in my head I hear Mr. McDermott’s tune.
And there are a lot of free-wheeling adaptations that have had varying degrees of success:
Danny Apolinar and Hal Hester’s Your Own Thing (based on Twelfth Night, a genuine smash back in 1968 but largely forgotten now, though I’ve always been fond of Marcia Rodd’s rendition of “The Middle Years.”
Galt McDermott and John Guare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, which in 1972 beat out Follies for the Tony, but we really have to let that go. If you listen to the Act One finale “Night Letter” and the exuberant singing of Jonelle Allen and Clifton Davis you can imagine how vibrant, young and “new” it all sounded. You can begin to understand why it won.
In the same vein Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ cheeky adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost (which I didn’t see) offers up a similar kind of energy but with a 21st Century spin. I thoroughly enjoy the recording of the show especially the songs: “To Be With You” and “Stop Your Heart,” as well as “I Don’t Need Love” and “The Tuba Song.”
And of course there are the failures:
Music Is - a sadly joyless (and unrecorded) adaptation of Twelfth Night by Richard Adler & Will Holt with a book by George Abbott that tried to recapture the ease of his adaptation The Comedy of Errors, but when produced in 1976 felt as if it had been written in the 1576.
Oh Brother! - another loose adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, which was a comic look at Middle-Eastern terrorism. LOL! It had a game cast including Judy Kaye, David Carroll, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Joe Morton; and the score has its charms most notably M.s Kaye’s “How Do You Want Me?” and the raucous female quartet “A Loud and Funny Song;” it had some funny moments but it was asking a lot of the audience to laugh at the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
And inevitably Cliff Jones's Rockabye Hamlet, which in its Broadway presentation was tragic for all the wrong reasons with a cast including Meat Loaf and Beverly D’Angelo; it was the low point in the great director/choreographer Gower Champion’s career, he attempted to show how “now” and “with it” he was and for this material he simply wasn’t. He would be redeemed a few years later with his final show 42nd Street, which showcased the sort of production numbers in which he excelled.
That’s not really a lot is it? I know I’ve left out stuff, but my point is that Shakespeare is Shakespeare. He doesn’t need musicalizing to enlighten us. The language is already heightened enough to be musical. It’s why musical adaptations of Edmond De Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac or the plays of Tennessee Williams are doomed to failure. Those works, like so many of Shakespeare’s are already musicals, all we have to do is lean forward and listen.
The first time I can recall hearing that April 15 was Income Tax Day was in 1962 on the Allan Sherman My Son, The Folksinger recording in the song “Oh Boy!” About 30 seconds into the song, which is sort of a more reserved Jewish version of a Baptist shout-and-respond song, the Chorus sings: “April 15 Income Tax” to which Mr. Sherman responds despondently: “ Oooooh Boooooooy!” I didn’t really know what it meant, but from the tone expressed, I knew it wasn’t good. (You can take a listen on YouTube).
Not surprisingly most of what I have come to know about economics, money management and taxes has come from musicals. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but at least it’s an enjoyable one.
Any economic journey through theatre music should probably begin with the original Cabaret and “The Money Song,” which was probably too razz-a-matazzy for its message to get across and has since been usurped by “Money, Money,” which was written for the masterful film version of the show. I’ll happily listen to Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey teach me just about anything!
The harsh realities of being a worker in Edwardian England shouldn’t be the subject of bouncy and tuneful lesson, but in Half a Sixpence we learn, thanks to Tommy Steele and company, just what a boss does in “All in the Cause of Economy.”
From Pacific Overtures’ opening number “The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea” I learned about the circular economics of “The Rice,” wherein Mr. Sondheim explains why a worker who farms the rice ends up paying more for the rice than anyone else.
In Coco I learned from Katharine Hepburn (as well as Alan Jay Lerner and Andre Previn) in “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom” that every “franc in the bank means freedom” and how to use personal trauma in a creative way that reaps economic rewards, something which songwriters have been doing since time began. [See Carol King: Beautiful.]
From Ethel Merman and Irving Berlin, in Call Me Madam I learned what political patronage can buy with “The Hostess With The Mostes' On The Ball” and “Can You Use Any Money Today?” Of course these songs were written in a somewhat more innocent time: before the dark forces of the Koch Brothers were at work. Still the basic principal remains the same.
In terms of the advantages of charity I was convinced by the late great Alice Playten in the almost-forgotten musical Henry Sweet Henry when she sang “Poor Little Person” (which can be seen and heard here on YouTube), but for a more contemporary view of the goodness of giving one only has to turn to the always delightful and consistently relevant Avenue Q and “The Money Song.”
One doesn’t think of Merrily We Roll Along as a musical which offers financial advice despite the presence of a song entitled “Rich and Happy.” However, there’s one line in the glorious “Opening Doors” number which for me sums up one’s early years pursuing whatever dreams of the future one may have “We’re opening doors singing 'here we are!,' filling out days on a dime.” Has ever the feeling of being young and broke been put in a more optimistic and innocent way?
And to answer that rhetorical question: actually yes, and it’s not a monetary economic lesson, it’s a spiritual one from Annie Get Your Gun courtesy of Irving Berlin and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.” Those are the words to remember when writing out that check to the IRS.
Not necessarily the best, or the most popular, but My Favorite...
Most of you know what an “I Want” song is, and if you don’t know specifically what it is, you probably know instinctively. It usually happens after the opening number and is sung by a leading character whose journey you’re going to be following for the rest of the evening.
An easy example is “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady. It even begins with: “All I WANT is a room somewhere...” By the end of the number we have a pretty good idea of who Eliza is and what her journey is going to be during the evening. Will she get what she wants? The chances are pretty good, loverly in fact.
And that concludes our lesson in Musicals 101 for today.
So let’s remember I am not subject to editorial control here (a few suggestions occasionally, but that’s as far as it goes) so there is zero chance that the ever popular “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miz or the inexplicably popular “I Need to Know” from Jekyll & Hyde will appear here. For fun I made a playlist of my favorite “I Want” songs and I stopped at 33. So while “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin isn’t in this top five, please be assured I didn’t forget about it. That’s good for at least 6 more blogs.
Here are my very subjective top 5.
5. “Larger than Life” from My Favorite Year. After a smashing opening number, My Favorite Year follows that up with this textbook example of an “I Want” song. Evan Pappas was a total charmer as Benjy Stone in the flawed and short-lived Ahrens & Flaherty musical version of the popular Peter O'Toole film. Someday they’ll get it right, I’m sure.
4. “Scrap” from The Full Monty. I have to assume that when David Yazbek sat down to write his first musical he was told: “We need a song at the top of the show which explains what the main characters want.” Dutifully Mr. Yazbek sat down and wrote this aggressive and caustic opening number. In another column here on BwayTunes I wrote about feeling a “click” when a show gets something right; where I feel I can relax and enjoy what’s happening in front of me. When I first heard “Scrap” I felt that “click.” The rest of the evening was as delightful as any musical of the last 20 years or so, thanks to the score, Terence McNally’s book and Jack O’Brien’s skillful production (along with Jerry Mitchell’s butch choreography!). But it was “Scrap” which set the scrappy and satisfying tone to the show.
3. “A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd” from Ballroom. Dorothy Loudon wasn’t in great voice the day they recorded Ballroom, which is a shame, yet despite that this song never fails to thrill me. Not only do we learn a lot about her character from the song, by the end of the number we love her. We want her to be happy. Unfortunately while the show has some additional swell numbers, “More of the Same” and of course, “50 Percent,” the overall score suffers from a lack of heat. That doesn’t stop this song from being in heavy rotation on my iPod.
2. “Somebody, Somewhere” from Frank Loesser’s masterpiece The Most Happy Fella. In musicals, characters have to have something to sing about, and the basic human need to be wanted and loved I don’t believe has ever been expressed as honestly as when Rosabella opens her heart to an audience as she does in this show. Whether it’s Jo Sullivan on the Original Cast Recording or Sophie Hayden on the two-piano Goodspeed/Lincoln Center Theatre production (or Shhhh! Laura Benanti if you got hold of a pirate recording from the Encores! production), it’s a perfect “I Want” song.
1. “Twin Soliloquies” from South Pacific. Two people from different cultures and opposite sides of the world find each other on a terrace and sing their inner thoughts. Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza? Kelli O’ Hara and Paulo Szot? They don’t answer their questions, but the possibility of the answer to what they’ve each been looking for is staring them in the face. For me the mammoth achievement of this number is that the questions are in the lyric, but the answer is in the music: bold, powerful, ecstatic. As the number ends, they might be unsure of what is about to happen to them, but we aren’t. Sometimes you simply can’t beat Rodgers & Hammerstein.
Bright Star, with a score by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, has justed opened, and this weekend Sara Bareilles' Waitress begins previews, let’s hope they are as successful as a theatre composers as some of the other pop artists who have turned to the musical theatre in recent years.
Some have taken to it successfully and some not so much. There was Bono-The Edge and Paul Simon; none of whom really joined the community or the theatrical process in a positive way. There was also Harry Connick Jr., and in Harry’s case, I think he should be welcomed anytime he wants to come back.
Easily the most successful is Elton John with Aida, Billy Elliot, and lots of The Lion King to his credit. While he won the Tony for Aida, I think his most theatrical and accomplished score is Billy Elliot. However, from most reports about the creation of those shows he wasn’t nearly as involved as theatre composers usually are in the creative process. I gather there was a lot more faxing involved than actual time in the room creating the show. In this case though the process doesn’t matter so much as the result, and with his shows, the results are pretty terrific.
And then there is Cyndi Lauper who won a Tony for her work on the smash hit Kinky Boots. She’s always been a terrific pop songwriter with a feel for the dramatic (just listen to “True Colors” if you have any doubt about that) and with Kinky, she was able to show off a lot of her musical personalities to a grand effect.
After her would probably be David Bryan (from Bon Jovi) who has a very successful ongoing collaboration with Joe DPietro, and they won a Tony Award for their score to Memphis. Together they have written two other musicals, The Toxic Avenger which was produced off-Broadway in 2009 and Chasing the Song, which was recently produced in La Jolla and will no doubt be Broadway-bound in the near future.
Less successful but perhaps more ambitious was Trey Anastasio of the group Phish, who wrote the score (with Amanda Green) for Hands on a Hardbody two seasons ago. The show took a while to grab me, but once it did, the score and the performances were brave and satisfying. I hope he comes back and tries again.
However, for me the best score by a pop icon of recent years was Boy George’s for the autobiographical musical Taboo. I had seen the show in London where it possessed a ramshackle charm. The book was messy but it didn’t matter; the story of a displaced artist trying to grapple with early success and fading celebrity was rather moving. By the time the musical had gotten to Broadway, it was all a lot slicker than it needed to be, and while the book was more focused, it lacked the rawness and honesty that had been one of the hallmarks of the London production. The result, despite some terrific performances, wasn’t really satisfying. What is satisfying is the Broadway cast recording where Boy George’s songs shine: Euan Morton’s heartbreaking “Stranger in this World” and Liz McCartney’s “Talk Amongst Yourselves” are in pretty constant rotation on my iPod and they should be on yours as well.
In trying to come up with a way to discuss “musicals set in Spring or songs about Springtime,” I came up with some obvious answers: “It Might as Well Be Spring,” “Finding Words for Spring,” “Springtime for Hitler….” It became clear that the only requirement for getting onto this playlist was to have the word “spring” in your title. That really wasn’t a playlist I felt like pursuing, but one title popped out at me: “Did Spring Come to Texas?” from Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Giant. I hadn’t listened to the recording since it first came out two years ago. So on went the headphones and…
Wow! Let me say it again. “Wow!”
How has this show gotten lost in the shuffle of great contemporary musicals? Seriously, how? Sometimes in the midst of a theatre season we lose track of the big picture. Those aggressively-hyped musicals find a way to overshadow more “worthy” works. Style wins over substance. Or critics and the chatterati focus on an element that has little to do with the actual quality of the final product: the running time, the number of gunshots, an actor who wouldn’t pose for a selfie after a two-performance day etc. But I digress…
Giant is a great work of musical theatre. Flawed? Yes. But great. And way back in 2013 it got a fair amount of acclaim, but not enough. It didn’t generate that ever-elusive “heat.” And let’s face it, once the awards season settles down, shows which didn’t win or have closed tend to be forgotten (even by me!). So let me make up for lost time by reminding you that you still can get a sense of its greatness by listening to the vibrant Original Cast Recording.
How about that Brian D’Arcy James? Listen to the pride and optimism in his stirring opening song “Did Spring Come to Texas?,” and the next track is the lovely Kate Baldwin’s character’s establishing ballad “Your Texas.” By the end of those two numbers we not only know who our heroes of the evening are going to be, but we understand them. Later, when their all-too-human flaws occur, we may not approve of their actions but we accept them.
Also in the first act we have another beautifully written character song sung by the formidable Katie Thompson: “He Wanted a Girl.” This would be a good time for me to point out a “flaw” with the show which I am happily overlooking. Given the epic, sprawling nature of Edna Ferber’s novel, a lot of information had to be either eliminated and/or condensed in order to keep the action flowing and not have a five-hour running time. The result is that while Sybille Pearson’s book is finely crafted in terms of our being able to follow all the various plot lines, we do in fact have a show which becomes more of a character pageant than a straightforward narrative musical. People come in and declare (usually musically) who they are and what their specific issues might be, and sometimes the issue is solved by the end of the song. I’ll admit that at first when I was watching the show it bothered me. However, once I settled into that rhythm of storytelling whatever my issues were with it were simply swept away by the beauty of what I was experiencing.
The opening of Act Two, “Our Mornings/That Thing,” is an extended musical scene between Mr. D’arcy James and one of my favorite actresses (musical or otherwise) Michelle Pawk. The respect and affection between these characters during this song is palpable. Later on in the act, Ms. Pawk’s husband (in real life, not on the stage) John Dossett, has a surprising and stirring self-revelatory ballad “Place in the World.” One of the achievements of the show is that it treats the conflicting urban and rural sensibilities with respect and sympathy. The penultimate number in the show is “The Desert,” a summing up and looking forward by our leading couple in as lush a musical style as Mr. LaChiusa has ever written.
This is a bold musical, rich in character and melody. In an intelligent and theatrical manner it deals seriously and humanely with so many issues relevant to our times.
If a definition of “spring” (outside of the season which was supposed to be subject of this blog) is:
“Move or jump suddenly or rapidly upwards or forwards” then I think it can be amended with the words:
(see Musical Theatre: Giant).