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.
I'm a pretty optimistic guy and I like to think of myself as someone who, for the most part, embraces change. And yet this short playlist of 5 songs which reflect change and moving (in honor of our Curator Andy Propst's move over the next two weeks) is really pretty depressing.
Moving is always traumatic, even when it's under control. Few of us have the nerve to throwaway boxes of stuff (physical and emotional) that haven't been opened in years and yet we hang on to it. I honestly think that someone should set up a moving business that has the job of losing half of your boxes on the move from one location to another. Yes, valuable things would fall by the wayside but it's all ultimately just "stuff" and we could be free of it. (I say this as someone who has a flat full of programs and theatrical memorabilia: Don't even think of tossing that "Frankenstein: Live at the Palace" jacket into the Charity pile!" )
Hopefully Erik in his playlist will begin with Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" and end with the impossibly optimistic "The Sun is Gonna Shine Again" from Bright Star. Because mine starts out with a mother and daughter running from their (comically) murderous mad-scientist husband/father and goes darker from there.
I've written before about my love and affection for Three Bedroom House from Bat Boy: The Musical. Performed by Caitlin Hopkins and Kerry Butler with music and lyrics by Laurence O' Keefe this song is a dream duet for musical theatre actresses. Not only is it a great "moving" song with a driving melody and beat, it also has some of the funniest and most incisive lyrics ever put to paper.
Next up is Benj Pasek & Justin Paul's heartbreaking "Pretty Funny" from the musical Dogfight. Sometimes a song about change is downright painful and thanks in great part to Lindsay Mendez's startling performance this song is not so much about change as it is about the self-realization that must come if one is going to change. The overall tone and craft on display here is the precursor to that internal angst that Pasek and Paul explore so affectingly in the upcoming Broadway entry, Dear Evan Hansen.
After that I certainly need a more light-hearted look at change and when it comes to that sort of thing nothing is as light as the delightful The Drowsy Chaperone with Tony-award winning music & lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison. In that delightful show Beth Leavel (in a performance which would garner her a Tony Award) sings a contractually-obligated (by her character) anthem to endurance entitled "As We Stumble Along," that is simultaneously cliché-ridden, rousing and rather hilarious.
And now back to introspection:
"The Road You Didn't Take" is one of the many mini-masterpieces in Stephen Sondheim's extraordinary score for Follies. It's an insightful meditation on the changes we don't make in our lives. You can take your pick of sterling performances of this song from John McMartin on the Original Cast Recording to the more recent Ron Raines on the 2011 revival recording. If I had to choose my favorite though it's one that went un-recorded (legally): Victor Garber in the 2007 Encores! production. He found the right amount of sophistication, dry wit and selfish middle-aged angst in the song that transformed it from a depiction of regret into something more revelatory, something with a tiny bit of hope. It's a hard, unflinching and uncompromising song; one which can inspire introspection in all of us.
My last song is about change over which we have no control. "Go Back Home" is from one of John Kander & Fred Ebb's last collaborations The Scottsboro Boys. Because they worked on multiple projects and most of them took awhile to be produced, it's hard to say which one of the three—Curtains, The Scottsboro Boys, or The Visit—was their last collaboration. It doesn't really matter, all three have their extraordinary qualities. On the Original Cast Recording of Scottsboro this plaintive ballad is sung by Tony nominee Joshua Henry. I never thought of it as a standalone ballad as it so perfectly suited the situation and moment it had in the show. However, when it appeared as the title track on the Audra McDonald solo recording, I found myself listening to it again and again. Instead of being specifically about being unlawfully jailed down South, it became a reflection on the kind of change that isn't always moving forward, a look back to a time in one's life when things were simpler or maybe just easier to understand.
Now where did I put those pills?
Oh what the hell - let's end on an upbeat note from Dreamgirls inevitably: "I Am Changing." Choose your favorite recording: the magnificent Jennifer Holiday from Broadway, the powerhouse version from Jennifer Hudson on the film soundtrack or my personal favorite Lilias White on the Concert Version 2-Disc set. I was lucky enough to be there that night and for the first time in all my Dreamgirls experience the song became the actual second act show-stopping number that the show always needed. And for a bit of fun, if you can find the Korean Cast Recording the version there is simply terrific (if you speak Korean I'm guessing it's even better) and proves when it comes to power ballads about "Change," there is no language barrier.
"My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Cole Porter ain't talkin' 'bout the ones celebrated on Father's Day. It still amazes me that there was a time when someone could appear on Broadway have a show-stopping number and six weeks later be on the cover of Life Magazine. That's what happened with Mary Martin when she appeared on Broadway in Porter's Leave it to Me and brought the house down in an otherwise kinda forgettable show. Listen to her sweetly sing this saucy ditty and smile.
Ok, now I'll take this week's subject seriously.
The Father/Son relationship and the Son/Father relationship is a complex minefield of emotions. I think it's safe to say 98% of us have our issues and as for the other 2%? There's got to be something going on. But this isn't a self-help column let's talk BwayTunes shall we?
This has been a great year for Sheldon Harnick what with both Fiddler on the Roof and She Loves Me currently running in glorious revivals on Broadway and a revisal of his (& Jerry Bock & Sherman Yellen)'s musical The Rothchilds (now called Rothschild & Sons) having played off-Broadway earlier this year, I'd say he's in pretty good shape and deserves every accolade that is being thrown his way. In The Rothchilds there is a number called "Sons" in which the Tony-winning Hal Linden sings about what "sons" can do for him and his vision of building an empire; not too much pressure on the kids; it has a driving melody and Harnick's signature intelligent clear-headed witty lyrics. It's a fun sequence in the old-fashioned musical comedy tradition. And while you're there you might as well listen to the horn-laden Overture as well, it has nothing to do with Father's Day and everything to do with a certain kind of Broadway lushness thanks to Don Walker's pristine orchestrations.
"New Words" is a Maury Yeston song which appeared in his musical version of the 5 books of Moses: 1-2-3-4-5 later retitled In the Beginning and for all I know it might have even another title now, that's not the point - the point is the song has been recorded by Brent Barrett on The Maury Yeston Songbook, Laura Osnes on If I Tell You: The Songs of Maury Yeston, and on Andrea Marcovicci's album titled New Words. It's a great parent/child song that starts out sweetly enough and I promise you ends with a sentimental tear in your eye.
Don't put the hankie away just yet, because here comes another one and this from David Yazbek’s raucous score for The Full Monty. This song finds the usually rambunctious Mr. Yazbeck in a more mellow mood, it looks at the inherent and undefinable love a father has for his son and the unknowable power that the son will always have over his father. It's called "A Breeze Off the River" and on the Broadway cast recording it is sung with warmth and conviction by Patrick Wilson. What makes this song so special for me is its point of view. It's not really telling us anything new, but it reveals the vulnerability (whether acknowledged or not) that rests inside of every Dad.
And finally, it all comes down to Barbra, a Boat and fabulous Big note. What Father doesn't want to hear that from his son on Father's Day? Yes, "she was too old for Yentl" but get over it. Michel Legrand and Marilyn & Alan Bergman's "A Piece of Sky" is simply stunning. We spend our lives seeking our Father's approval and many of us are/were lucky enough to get it at some point. And yet at some point even after they're gone, we still strive for it. And in this song with its miraculous last note, Ms. Streisand sings for us all.
The question this year isn't "What is going to win?", the question is "How Many?"
In my lifetime there have only been two years like this, where so many categories are predictable in their outcome. The first was A Chorus Line where it lost in only one category in which it was nominated (Costume Design to Pacific Overtures) and the second was The Producers, which won in every category in which it was nominated.
In that Chorus Line year I didn't think the show had any vulnerabilities in terms of awards and I was pretty much right. The year of The Producers I felt that David Yazbek's score for The Full Monty had a real shot as did Kathleen Freeman's old style vaudevillian performance in the same show. I guessed wrong.
So you should take my feelings about this year with a grain of salt.
While the Hamilton win is a sure-thing if ever there was one. My vote would be for Shuffle Along, a show that I think we'll all be arguing about for years to come.(We're not allowed to argue about Hamilton.) Shuffle did for me what Hamilton does for so many others: it's a reason to love the theatre…for the high that it gives audiences, and for the very ephemeral nature of the show and the theatre itself. There are few more chilling and cruel moments to be had in the theatre than when toward the end of the evening Brooks Ashmanskas in speaking to the company onstage and simultaneously, referring to the audience, says "They won't remember you." In a nutshell, that's what people who commit their lives to working in the theatre commit to: "the moment," that evening in the theatre which might be forgotten by the time they get home or might be remembered for a lifetime. Shuffle Along is the crystallization of what working in the theatre is all about. Something extraordinary that only lasts a moment and that moment makes a creative life worthwhile. Truly thrilling.
Best Score written for the Theatre
Though it isn't "my" music there is no denying Lin-Manuel's achievement with Hamilton. In any other year though Sara Bariellies' distinctive and enjoyable score for Waitress would be a front-runner, and even though some of the bad/non-rhymes kill me, Steve Martin & Edie Brickell's score to Bright Star is the most infectious and enjoyable in many a year. (Full disclosure: I love the show so much that after more than a decade of not writing liner notes I happily accepted the assignment to do so for this show.)
Best Book of a Musical
There's a great line in Urinetown which says: "Nothing kills a show faster than too much exposition." Hamilton proves them wrong. So much information is crammed into Lin-Manuel Miranda's sung-through book that it dazzles the mind. It may not touch the heart, but it's an amazing achievement.
Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical
I wish it were going to be Zachary Levi for She Loves Me. He's a total charmer. He makes it all look so easy, as he did that in First Date a few years ago, and I thought he deserved a Tony nomination for that. But it's not his year, I think it's a toss-up between Leslie Odom Jr for Hamilton or Danny Burstein for his down-to-earth performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Other Tevye's have done variations of Zero Mostel or Topol, but this is the first Tevye I've seen who isn't "larger-than-life." This one is for real. He's confused and angry and questioning in a very real way about real familial and societal problems. It's a radical performance and I think it's great. I liked Alex Brightman a lot in School of Rock but I felt he was working too hard, and while lots of folks love that in a performer, I'm not one of them.
Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical
While I think Phillipa Soo is fine in Hamilton her performance is the least of the five actresses in this category. Four of whom would be shoo-ins for the win in any other year. Laura Benanti is at the peak of her form both as a comedienne and as a singer with her thoroughly engaging performance as Amalia Balash in She Loves Me. She wins - hands down. Carmen Cusack's engaging and heartfelt performance in Bright Star accomplishes that rare thing of making someone as jaded as myself say: "Where have you been all my life?" Her seamless transition from a 17-year-old to a 40 year old before our very eyes is a wonder and worthy of a Tony Award win. When I saw Cynthia Erivo in London at the Menier Chocolate Factory in The Color Purple I was astounded. Since then I've seen her in a few other things along the way and she is the real deal. A few weeks ago on Broadway I saw her again in The Color Purple, and it was as if she were performing it for the first time. A great star performance, and stunning Broadway debut. She's gonna take home that Tony. But what about Jessie Mueller in Waitress? She's great. Really great. She is the emotional glue that holds Waitress together. But this isn't her year. Kind of like when Meryl Streep gets nominated and doesn't win, sure she deserves to win, but she can also afford to give others a crack at it. She'll be back for the win soon enough.
Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical
I thought Brandon Victor Dixon was great in Shuffle Along but so was everyone else, so I'm not sure why he was the one singled out by the nominating committee. The nominations for two of the Hamilton guys, Christopher Jackson and Jonathan Groff are well-deserved. The third guy from the show, Daveed Diggs is the front runner here for his barnstorming portrayal of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Lord knows he's been campaigning hard for it. Is there a benefit, chat show, luncheon, political panel, whatever- that he hasn't been involved with and charmingly so? Enough already. I'm sure he's going to win. I just want him to finally relax. Jeesh. The fifth nominee in this category is Christopher Fitzgerald in Waitress. He's hilarious, touching and joyful in the show, and if it were up to me he'd take the trophy home.
Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical
This, too, is an amazing category and all of these ladies deserve the win.
Jane Krakowski for brilliant comic timing and vocal stylings in She Loves Me; Adrienne Warren for wonderful, soulful portrayal of Florence Mills in Shuffle Along; Danielle Brooks for her powerful and humor-filled turn in The Color Purple; and Renee Elise Goldsberry for her passionate, elegant, intelligent performance in Hamilton. She's probably going to win. She's one of our finest actresses (both dramatic and musical) and deserves every accolade that's coming her way. But, for my money Jennifer Simard in Disaster! should win the award simply because she is giving the kind of master class in musical comedy performing for which this category was invented. Every time she was onstage in Disaster! her bits landed. Her performance of "Never Can Say Goodbye" is hilarious. I actually think that any voter who actually saw the show wouldn't hesitate to cast a vote for Ms. Simard. She was that good and if she won, it would be the stuff of theatrical legend. Wouldn't that be great?
Forgive me this week, the column is going to be a little preachy. But it was the nature of the topic I was given.
Over half (soon to be 10) of the Tony-winning Best Musicals of the 21st century originated off-Broadway or in regional theatres. In the previous 16 years only 2 Tony-winning musicals originated off-Broadway or in the regionals. And one can add only 4 more if one goes all the way back to 1949 - the first year the Tonys were handed out. So let me do some addition for you. In the 70 year history of the Tonys there have been 14 Tony Award-winning Best Musicals which originated off-Broadway or in the regionals and over half of them have been in the past 16 years.
Is it the influence of Off-Broadway or is it something else?
I think it's something else.
Once upon a time, there was a sizable difference between Broadway and Off-Broadway. Off-Broadway musicals offered all sorts of different opportunities for creative people. They could be scrappy revivals of shows such Anything Goes, House of Flowers, Leave It to Jane, and By Jupiter, or affectionate tributes like Dames at Sea, which made a virtue out of their modesty and energy. There would be new hip alternative musicals like Your Own Thing, Peace, Salvation, and Promenade, or there would be modest civilized topical comedic revues like the Julius Monk shows or concoctions of individual genius, which defied description such as "El Grande de Coca Cola". Occasionally there would be a smash hit new musical that was smart enough to stay off-Broadway such as Little Shop of Horrors. The one thing they all had in common, though, was that they were most assuredly Off-Broadway material.
The ticket prices were cheaper and the venues were probably less accommodating. However, the energy and drive of the creative teams involved usually made up for those deficiencies for we intrepid theatergoers who loved pushing our Manhattan-centric geographical boundaries.
In this pre-workshop era Broadway shows would have Backer's Auditions and then out-of-town tryouts and learn from audiences and critics out in the hinterlands (Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, etc.) how their shows were faring and make changes to them before bringing them to Broadway where they would either succeed or fail.
By the mid-80's, for a variety of reasons, the costs of a pre-Broadway tryout grew to be mostly prohibitive. And gradually a workshop (or two) of a show became the norm for Broadway musicals instead of a tryout. And that workshop also served as the Backers Audition. So now shows were being created inside a rehearsal room and presented there and the artistic staff didn't have the luxury of actually seeing what their show was in front of a real audience and quite often the show that they were workshopping became more about raising money than making the show itself better.
Additionally, the costs of doing a show off-Broadway grew to such an extent that it was very hard to make economic sense of playing a show in a 200 seat house vs. playing it in a 900 seat house. At the same time, commercial producers realizing that they were missing out on actual audience feedback which was a great benefit to the out-of-town tryout of a show, began relationships with the non-profit sector by approaching them with starry commercial packages in hand as well as significant enhancement money and saying: if you produce it first at your theatre and its a success, you can be involved in a commercial transfer. It's win/win. I save money by doing it first Off-Broadway and you make money if it transfers.
But by and large these are not shows which one would've categorized as "Off-Broadway" , these are Broadway productions starting small.
So now Off-Broadway (insofar as most musicals are concerned) is really the equivalent of an out-of-town tryout and the world of weird, scrappy and idiosyncratic musicals has been relegated to Off-Off-Broadway and Fringe Festivals where occasionally one will sneak through to the bigger world - Hello, Urinetown!
Of the 10 musicals from Off-Broadway which have won (or are about to win) the Tony for Best Musical, only one, Contact, did not have a commercial management attached from the very beginning. The partnership between the profit and non-profit world is one of the things that has changed what an "Off-Broadway" show is.
And of those soon-to-be-10 shows how many of them would actually fall into the category of the Off-Broadway musicals that I described?
Avenue Q for sure (and happily it's found a way to run even longer back off-Broadway where it started.) Once (which could easily follow the Avenue Q route - I wonder why it hasn't?) possibly Spring Awakening though its production values even at the Atlantic were far too dazzling to be kept downtown, and last season's Fun Home. And Fun Home is that miracle of a show; one which clearly is Off-Broadway in every way: subject matter, construction, staging - everything; yet its producers found the perfect venue for it, rolled the dice and found themselves with a bona-fide Off-Broadway hit right smack in the middle of Broadway. A show which, for me honestly erased the line between the two sensibilities.
Just as A Chorus Line began life Off-Broadway, this year's presumptive Tony winner Hamilton claims Off-Broadway roots, I didn't buy it for A Chorus Line and I'm not buying it for Hamilton. Broadway (and the world) was always at its heart and was its goal. It's no more Off-Broadway than "Hello, Dolly!" it just didn't have the adventure of a bumpy tryout in Detroit or Washington.
A real test though will be what happens with the accomplished and moving musical Dear Evan Hansen when it makes the leap from Off-Broadway (with significant commercial enhancement) to Broadway later this year. To my mind it's very much an Off-Broadway musical which is helped by a sense of "discovery" and for me that would mean, not playing on the mainstem. But I would've said the same thing about Fun Home and look how that turned out.
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.