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Erik Haagensen

Playwright-Lyricist and Arts Journalist

Erik’s musicals seen Off-Broadway, regionally, and internationally include A Fine and Private Place (from Peter S. Beagle’s novel), the Obie-winning musical revue Taking a Chance on Love: The Lyrics and Life of John Latouche, the Richard Rodgers Award–winning Summer (from Edith Wharton’s novel), and a revised version of Jule Styne, E.Y. Harburg, and Nunnally Johnson’s Darling of the Day. For Indiana University, Erik reconstructed Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s original draft of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, directing a student production that was also presented at the Kennedy Center.

Erik was the final theatre editor and head critic for Back Stage, where he worked in various capacities for 13 years. He has also written for American Theatre, The Sondheim Review, Show Music Magazine, and more.

Mar
24

Blossom Time

Having saluted spring’s arrival last year in part with a playlist of songs about it, I needed a new angle for 2017. Suddenly the 1921 Sigmund Romberg operetta Blossom Time came to mind. A gigantic hit for the Shubert brothers that ran for 516 performances originally, then 592 in a revival that opened in 1924, just over a year after it closed (both at the Ambassador Theatre, current home to the mega-hit revival of Chicago), it gave me my theme: songs that reference particular flowers.

Then last weekend I saw Disney’s new live-action film of Beauty and the Beast, which, surprisingly, I quite liked. I love the original 1991 animated film and didn’t see any reason to do a remake. But if it was to be done, director Bill Condon has accomplished the task very well indeed, and a hit live-action musical of the proportions shaping up for Beauty will surely make it easier to continue the resuscitation of the genre.

The fine Howard Ashman–Alan Menken–Tim Rice score doesn’t have any songs that fit my theme, but the plot does hinge on a magical rose that is slowly dying. I thought, maybe just “rose” songs? There are, indeed, many of them, but the list had a certain sameness. Therefore, though roses may predominate, they are not exclusive. Without further ado, my Broadway/Hollywood bouquet.

“Overture,” from the film of My Fair Lady
I still remember being 10 years old and sitting on the aisle of the Colony Theatre in Shaker Heights, Ohio, anxiously waiting for the film version of my favorite musical to begin. Conductor André Previn led the lush orchestra in the iconic opening chords of the overture as close-ups of luscious flowers began to fill the huge screen. You could almost smell them. Of course, I thought to myself, after all, it’s about a flower girl. To this day I find the opening credit sequence thrilling. And I can’t wait for director Bartlett Sher’s revival next year at Lincoln Center.

“I Won’t Send Roses,” from Mack & Mabel
The minute I heard Jerry Herman’s 1974 character-defining solo for silent film director Mack Sennett, especially as delivered by the great Robert Preston, I knew it was a winner. Then came the touching solo reprise from Bernadette Peters as Sennett star Mabel Normand, to whom Mack sings this anti-ballad, and things got even better. Conductor-musicologist John McGlinn and I used to argue about one line in Herman’s lyric: “Just turn and go.” John thought the “just” was a pad and said that it should have been “Pack up and go.” I didn’t, and still don’t, agree. “Pack up” is too harsh for me, and the use of “just” as a colloquial intensifier is well established.

“I Always Say Hello to a Flower,” revue material
Murray Grand, who wrote this 1958 specialty number, was a frequent contributor to musical revues, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, including the New Faces series on Broadway (check out his best-known songs, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which has a lyric by Elisse Boyd, from New Faces of 1952, and “April in Fairbanks,” from New Faces of 1956). I couldn’t track down a show to go with “Flower,” but the tune was probably intended for one and ended up recorded by a number of famous artists, among them Beatrice Lillie (hear her on YouTube) and Elisabeth Welch. Digitally, you can catch John Lithgow’s and Faith Prince’s versions. Among the blooms catalogued, sometimes in delightful double entendres, are lilacs, hollyhocks, daisies, snowballs, violets, dogwoods, gladioli, pansies, pussy willows, and, of course, roses.

“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” from Gypsy
Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Jule Styne added a catch phrase to the American language with this hit song, which, of course, is also sung by a character named Rose. This fact caused Jerome Robbins, the show’s director-choreographer, to ask rather testily, upon first hearing it, “I don’t get it. Everything’s coming up Rose’s what?”

“(I’ll Marry) The Very Next Man,” from Fiorello!
New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s long-suffering secretary, Marie, explodes in this song of romantic frustration late in Act 2, after her clueless boss has lost his wife but still doesn’t see that Marie has been pining for him since before his marriage. The 1959 original had nothing to do with blossoms, but an attempted sarcastic joke about enduring domestic abuse in order to gain the joys of wedlock (“And if he likes me /Who cares how frequently he strikes me? /I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling /Just for the privilege of wearing his ring”) caused Harnick to revise it in 1984. The new lines: “When he proposes,/I'll have him send me tons of roses,/Sweet-scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour./Why should I settle for just one Little Flow’r?” Neat, no? He also did a less-show-specific version for Barbara Cook in 2004, returning the song to non-floral status: “I’m through with moping/Moping from all this pointless hoping/Hoping he’ll notice me and open his heart./Time now to break away and make a new start.” I like 1984 the best.

“Rose of Washington Square,” from Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, 1919 Edition
The legendary Fanny Brice introduced this famous torch song that became the title of a 1939 Alice Faye–Tyrone Power movie musical about a Ziegfeld Follies star’s unhappy marriage to a con man (shades of Brice and Nicky Arnstein?). The song also shows up in the 1967 Julie Andrews flapper film musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, sung in the background in a restaurant. Though the Rose of the title is a person and not a flower, Ballard Macdonald’s lyric (to James F. Hanley’s tune) employs floral imagery for the character: “They call me Rose of Washington Square/ I’m withering there/In basement air I’m fading.” I couldn’t find a recording of Brice, but you can hear Tammy Grimes’ version on her 1962 eponymously titled album.

“Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” from the film of Little Shop of Horrors
Levi Stubbs introduced this soulful blast of savagery, in which the man-eating plant from the cosmos, Audrey II, announces plans to take over the Earth. It brought Alan Menken and Howard Ashman an Oscar nomination in 1987 for best original song, but they lost to “Take My Breath Away,” from Top Gun. They would soon make up for that, however, winning in 1990 for “Kiss the Girl,” from The Little Mermaid, and in 1992 for the title song of Beauty and the Beast, though by then the world had lost the immensely gifted Ashman to AIDS.

“Wait,” from Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Mrs. Lovett contemplates brightening up Sweeney’s barbershop with some flowers in an attempt to divert him from his obsession with revenge against the evil Judge Turpin. Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim makes it a struggle between gillyflowers and daisies. The former is actually an archaic name for several varieties of blossoms, including carnations, stocks, and wallflowers. “Nothing like a nice bowl of gillies” is her ultimate decision. Sondheim once singled out this song as one he would replace if a film version of Sweeney was ever made; I don’t remember his reasons, but ultimately, of course, he didn’t.

“In the Mandarin’s Orchid Garden,” from the unproduced East Is West
George and Ira Gershwin wrote this uncharacteristic slice of exotica in 1929 for an unfinished musical based on a 1918 Broadway play of the same name. It was to be sung by a “Sing-Song Girl” on one side of the stage while a ballet unfolded. It uses the metaphor of a lone buttercup growing in an orchid garden to express the sheltered girl’s unease with the outside world. In his 1959 book of collected lyrics, Ira included it and explained that it was published as a possible art song – but “only sold a few copies.” One night, however, on his first trip to Hollywood, he was at a party in Bel-Air when his hostess pulled him aside and began to recite the lyric. “How did you happen to learn it?” he asked her incredulously. It turned out that she didn’t know the music; her elocution teacher had given it to her as an exercise. Sarah Brightman, fortunately, sings it on her album Encore.

“Be Happy” and “I Never Met a Rose,” from the film The Little Prince
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe reunited after more than a decade to write this 1974 film musical based on Antoine de St. Exupéry’s classic fable. “Be Happy” does not reference flowers at all, but as the character who sings it actually is a rose, I think it qualifies for inclusion here. In her passive-aggressive way, the Rose is trying to stop the Little Prince from leaving his asteroid (and her) to go in search of learning. Donna McKechnie sang and danced the part, but her efforts were cut to ribbons on screen. Fortunately, the full vocal was included on the soundtrack LP, though the pseudo-rock dance break, eerily predictive of “The Music and the Mirror,” wasn’t. Lerner and Loewe envisioned the number as a peppy Broadway uptempo in 4/4, no doubt underlining the Rose’s vanity and insincerity, and were not happy with its reworking by director Stanley Donen (Lerner leaves him unnamed while calling him “some cinematic Bigfoot” in his memoir, The Street Where I Live).

In “I Never Met a Rose,” a middle-aged Pilot, who has crash landed in the Sahara desert, tries to cheer up the Little Prince, who as part of his interplanetary journey has been telling the Pilot of his complicated relationship with the Rose. The change in Richard Kiley’s vocal timbre is due to the Pilot’s occasional use of a megaphone, improvised from a piece of paper, in Rudy Vallee style. The effort leads him unexpectedly to a touching moment of self-discovery. The song was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, as was the film’s gorgeous title song, but both lost to, of all things, “Benji’s Theme (I Feel Love).” Lerner and Loewe, however, took home the trophy for original score.

“In My Garden of Joy,” from the film Star!
Director Robert Wise needed a tacky music hall number for this 1968 biography of the great English stage star Gertrude Lawrence, in which Gertie, still a chorus girl, gets revenge on her fellow chorines for their disapproval of her spotlight-stealing antics. Julie Andrews is a hoot in Michael Kidd’s go-for-broke staging. However, the song is not a period piece. The music department couldn’t find the right tune to satisfy Wise, so Saul Chaplin, the film’s producer and former MGM music man (not to mention Harold Prince’s father-in-law), up and wrote one, and the blossom list is long. It’s not available digitally, so you have to settle for buying the soundtrack CD.

“Under the Sunset Tree,” from Darling of the Day
In typical Yip Harburg fashion, he invents a plant for this touching evocation of late-in-life love, which has music by Jule Styne. The lyric does reference “apple blossoms,” but they are reserved for the young; older people instead watch “in the harvest time of love” as “the bold leaf turns to gold/Under the sunset tree.” If star Vincent Price can at best lightly croon it, his co-star, the incomparable Patricia Routledge, who won a Tony for her performance despite the show only running for 31 performances in 1968, more than makes up for his lack of vocal prowess. The song was written out of town to replace another soaring ballad, “That Stranger in Your Eyes,” which I can only assume was even harder for Price to negotiate. Happily, both are used in my adaptation of the musical.

“Tomorrow Mountain,” from Beggar’s Holiday
Lyricist John Latouche wrote this optimistic siren song for the disenfranchised with composer Duke Ellington as the 1946 show’s first-act closer. As with Harburg, Latouche invents his botanical subjects, referencing “cigarette trees” and “diamond bushes” among the promises of paradise. Alas, no OBCR was made of this ahead-of-its-time, racially integrated adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, but Lena Horne blazes brightly on her cover version, which also serves as my finale.

But before I go, I’m returning to Beauty and the Beast for what feels like a fitting conclusion for a column saluting the arrival of spring. One of the film’s many pleasures is hearing some previously unused verses by Howard Ashman, written for but cut from the original. In the closing reprise of the title song, Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Potts sings this gem as the Beast transforms into a handsome prince, the staff becomes human again, and their frozen castle returns to life: “Winter turns to spring./Famine turns to feast./Nature points the way./Nothing left to say./Beauty and the beast.” It brought a tear to my eye. Here’s to you, Howard.

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Mar
10

Kander Pink

Composer John Kander celebrates his 90th birthday a week from tomorrow, and he can certainly look back on a stellar career. But these days he appears only to be looking forward. He has two new musicals in the works with collaborator Greg Pierce, and Kid Victory, his second original musical with Pierce since the death of his longtime lyricist, Fred Ebb (the first is a collection of three flavorful one-acts called The Landing), is currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre after opening to largely favorable, if occasionally perplexed, reviews. Pierce has done the book and lyrics (the original story is credited to both Pierce and Kander), and the very serious subject matter is the recovery of a gay teenage boy from abduction and sexual abuse at the hands of a much older man. I wrote about my love for this show in my recent spring preview column (“Spring Doth Let Her Colors Fly,” see below), so I will confine myself here to saying that anyone who cares about serious musical theatre should not miss it. It closes March 19, so you have 11 performances left. Go!

And speaking of serious musical theatre, I confess that it is what I enjoy the most. It’s not that I don’t like musical comedy—I have more than my share of favorites—but I ultimately prefer musicals with some substance to them. It’s a personal bias. I’ll take Fun Home over Something Rotten! every time. And Kander and Ebb certainly wrote their share in the genre: Cabaret, Zorbá, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Scottsboro Boys, The Visit—not a title there of which I’m not a fan. Nevertheless, that’s not all they wrote.

The French playwright Jean Anouilh was known for dividing his plays into two categories: “rose et noir,” or pink and black, with the two categories very roughly corresponding to comedy and tragedy. It seems to me that Kander has done much the same, especially in his work with Ebb, generally alternating one with the other. So today it’s a few of the pink musicals that I want to discuss, because I love some of them too—or at least their scores.

A Family Affair
This 1962 musical comically chronicling a Jewish wedding not only marked Kander’s Broadway debut as a composer but Harold Prince’s as a director. Prince took over out of town for Word Baker, just off his success with The Fantasticks, and while Prince didn’t make it a hit (the show only ran 65 performances), the general consensus was that he came close. The lyrics are by Kander and brothers James and William Goldman, with all three also being credited for the book. What’s immediately apparent is Kander’s confidence as a composer, traversing a wide range of styles and sometimes coming up with idiosyncratic song forms that nevertheless fit the situation perfectly (such as the groom’s last-minute fed-up rant, “What I Say Goes,” whose unfortunate mining of misogyny for comedy is a function of its time).

Notable songs include the charming introductory “Anything for You” and quirkily romantic “There’s a Room in My House,” both for the putative bride and groom (beautifully sung by Larry Kert and Rita Gardner); the comic quartet “Harmony” (confidently led by the redoubtable Bibi Osterwald as a cynical wedding consultant), which displays Kander’s gift for pastiche; and the groom’s mother’s quiet acknowledgement of mortality, “Summer Is Over” (beautifully delivered by the great actress Eileen Heckart, the original Rosemary in Picnic, in her sole Broadway musical). I was surprised years later when a cut song, the lilting “Mamie in the Afternoon,” for which I have the sheet music, showed up sung and danced libidinously by Liza Minnelli in Kander and Ebb’s score for The Act as “Arthur in the Afternoon,” retooled as a paean to the benefits of casual sex.

The United Artists OBCR of A Family Affair came out on CD from DRG in 2005, but it’s not available digitally. If you want a sample before deciding to buy the hard copy, download “There’s a Room in My House” from Harbinger Records’ invaluable collection John Kander: Hidden Treasures, 1950–2015.

Flora, the Red Menace
Thanks to Harold Prince, who produced, the team of Kander and Ebb debuted on Broadway with this 1965 musical comedy about a young girl in New York City during the Depression who wants to be a graphic artist and falls in love with a Communist. Based on Lester Atwell’s novel Love Is Just Around the Corner, it only managed an 87-performance run, but its star, Liza Minnelli, won the Tony for best actress in a musical in what was also her Broadway debut. Director George Abbott co-wrote the book with Robert Russell, and when years after hearing the LP I finally got to read it, it seemed clear why the show didn’t work: the writing was awfully formulaic and not suited to the source material, probably because the politically conservative Abbott was a bad match for it.

The RCA Victor OBCR, however, sounds like a hit show, especially whenever Minnelli is belting numbers such as “All I Need (Is One Good Break)” and “Sing Happy,” and particularly on the stunning ballad “A Quiet Thing.” Mary Louise Wilson is fun as a committed party member singing “The Flame,” while Bob Dishy shines on the political temptation that is “Sign Here.” A 1987 rewrite by David Thompson, directed by Scott Ellis, choreographed by Susan Stroman, and starring Veanne Cox, served to lift those artists out of theatrical obscurity and was generally considered an improvement over the original, though I didn’t (and don’t) agree.

The Happy Time
From the moment I heard the swirling vamp for the title song, a surging waltz that opens this 1968 musical with a book by N. Richard Nash, “suggested by the characters in stories by Robert L. Fontaine,” I was hooked by this score, the most intimate and romantic I’d yet heard from Kander and Ebb. The story of a family black sheep, a supposedly successful photographer who returns home and is the subject of his teenage nephew’s hero worship, much to the boy’s father’s dismay, it was supposedly overwhelmed by director-choreographer Gower Champion’s massive production, prominently featuring projections that dwarfed the characters and story. It ran only 286 performances; still, Robert Goulet, magnetic on the OBCR, walked off with a Tony for best actor in a musical (catch him in the title song and the nostalgic trio “A Certain Girl” on the 1968 Tony Awards on YouTube), while Michael Rupert (playing the nephew in his Broadway debut) and veteran David Wayne (the original Og in Finian’s Rainbow), as the family patriarch, both got nominations for best supporting actor.

Again, I only read the script years later (in a Samuel French acting edition), and it seemed to me that Nash’s thin writing was what doomed the piece. But then, in 2008, I saw director Michael Unger’s vest-pocket production in the smaller of Signature Theatre’s two spaces in Alexandria, Va. Somewhat revised with material from earlier drafts, it worked like a charm, with David Margulies especially memorable as the grandfather. The story is delicate, the sentimentality a danger, but there is truth at the center, and the Kander and Ebb score deftly set tone, developed character, and provided heart, with Kander excelling at suggesting the French Canadian atmosphere. How I wish it could have transferred to NYC.

Something for Everyone/Funny Lady
Kander hasn’t had an extensive Hollywood career of original projects, though in the 1980s and ’90s he wrote a few orchestral film scores, working mostly with directors Robert Benton and John Erman. His most famous movie gig, of course, is writing (with Ebb) the original songs for Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, but that’s a black musical. I’m particularly fond of his witty debut background score, redolent of Teutonic oom-pah-pah and Viennese schmaltz, for Harold Prince’s 1970 black comedy Something for Everyone. Featuring a screenplay by Hugh Wheeler based on Harry Kressing’s novel The Cook, the film was just recently released on Blu-ray DVD after decades of unavailability. Angela Lansbury stars as an impoverished countess rattling around a decaying castle in post–WWII Austria, with Michael York, two years before Cabaret, flashing great legs as a servant with dreams of nobility and wealth who beds not only the countess but also her son and daughter. It’s devilish and delicious. “To money! Without money there is nothing!”

Writing the score for a sequel to Funny Girl might have seemed like an unenviable job: How do you top Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s iconic work? But Kander and Ebb didn’t really have to try, as their new songs for 1975’s Funny Lady were interspersed with a liberal amount of period material. The two big numbers, “How Lucky Can You Get” and “Let’s Hear It for Me,” hold their own as Streisand showstoppers (though I wish the verse to the latter had been included on the soundtrack recording), but I’m most partial to the rueful ballad “Isn’t This Better,” which has Fanny Brice comparing her sedate second marriage to producer-songwriter Billy Rose with her passionate first one to Nicky Arnstein. I’m also charmed by “I Like Him/Her,” a nifty countermelody to the E.Y. Harburg–Billy Rose–Harold Arlen classic “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” in which Brice and Rose first size each other up. There are also two fun pieces of special material, “Blind Date” and “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” that fit Streisand’s Brice and Ben Vereen’s Bert Robbins like a glove, though both numbers are sadly truncated on screen. The Arista CD soundtrack is unavailable digitally, but you can hear “Isn’t This Better” on the OCR of the Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes ’Round.

70, Girls, 70
I’m saving the favorite for last here. When this 1971 musical comedy, about a group of senior citizens on Manhattan’s Upper West Side who start robbing stores in order to save their retirement home from being sold out from under them, closed after only 35 performances, I became worried about being able to buy the OBCR. That’s because I had already had trouble ordering rare titles out of the Schwann catalogue at my local suburban Ohio record store, Hurst Tune Town, even though the catalogue insisted that they were available. I waited for weeks with bated breath, but it finally arrived—and I loved every note of it. The score is pure musical comedy, from Mildred Natwick, as the prim and proper Ida, and company singing of the virtues of “Home” to waitresses Lillian Hayman and Goldye Shaw confiding that “the trouble with the world today is coffee in a cardboard cup” to Tommy Breslin, the sole young ’un in the company, exhorting us to “Go Visit Your Grandmother” to Natwick’s climactic double whammy of “The Elephant Song,” asking what happens to elephants after they die, and “Yes,” an exhortation to life sung after death while sitting on a moon. The score is pure joy.

I never saw the Broadway production, but I did catch the show’s 1991 West End premiere, starring the great Dora Bryan and featuring a somewhat revised book (by David Thompson) and slightly revised score, and a 2000 York Theatre Company Musicals in Mufti concert presentation of that same version starring a great cast of veterans headed by Jane Powell, both of which worked splendidly. I find the show to be a complete, if admittedly ramshackle, delight, and I don’t understand why it isn’t done more often.

During the Thanksgiving–Christmas holiday stretch of 1976, having only moved to New York a month earlier, I was working at Macy’s as a clerk, shuttling between the stationery and picture frame departments. Who should come in looking for a frame but Fred Ebb! I waited on him, and, just as I was wrapping up the sale, I screwed up the nerve to tell him how much I liked his work. He seemed pleased to be recognized, and so I went a bit further, telling him that 70, Girls, 70, was my favorite Kander and Ebb score. He looked a bit startled, then smiled and said, “Mine too.” I think I spent the rest of my shift vibrating.

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Feb
24

Spring Doth Let Her Colors Fly

As Charlotte Rae memorably sang in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ parody of opera singer Helen Traubel’s Las Vegas club act in Ben Bagley’s The Littlest Revue, “Spring Doth Let Her Colors Fly,” and many musical shows are soon to be upon us. The unfortunate fact is that I am not especially excited about the majority of the musicals slated to arrive in NYC this spring. That said, I hope my expectations are disproved by all of them. Here, in any case, are a few projects—about half new and half revivals—that set my heart beating at least a little faster in anticipation. As is usual for me, most are happening off- or off-off-Broadway.

The first is John Kander and Greg Pierce’s Kid Victory, off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, and actually I’ve already seen it, at a press preview this past weekend. The show didn’t open until Wednesday evening, however, too late for me to include the critical response in this piece. Myself, I thought it was wonderful. The subject matter—the recovery of a gay teenage boy in a religiously fundamentalist rural Kansas family who was held in captivity for a year by a man who sexually abused him—is disturbing, but Pierce and Kander, who share credit for the original story, treat it with clarity and compassion, and the result is compelling and moving. Their score is much more traditional in form than that of their first collaboration—a collection of three one-act musicals called The Landing—which fragmented the use of music and proved unsatisfying for some (I was a fan). Songs such as the mother’s “There Was a Boy” (delivered devastatingly by an excellent Karen Ziemba), the abuser’s “You, If Anyone” (chillingly rendered by a superb Jeffrey Denman), and the father’s climactic “Where We Are” (beautifully sung and acted by Daniel Jenkins) are seriously memorable. In the non-singing role of the teenager, Brandon Flynn is captivating and heartrending. Reaction on certain chat boards has already been mixed, and I suspect the critical response may mirror that, but I say don’t miss it.

Next is The View UpStairs, which opens off-Broadway at the Culture Project on Tuesday and tells the story of a gay fashion designer who, in 2017, buys an abandoned New Orleans property that was home in the 1970s to a glam rock gay bar in which a horrible homophobic attack happened. The show looks at 40 years of LGBT history and compares where we were to where we are. Glam rock is generally not my thing, but the cast—including Nathan Lee Graham, Frenchie Davis, Michael Longoria, Nancy Ticotin, and Randy Redd—is promising and the premise intriguing. The young author, Max Vernon, has won a Jonathan Larson grant, worked with Ars Nova (incubator of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) and Goodspeed Musicals (now that’s eclectic), and is a graduate of my alma mater, the NYU masters program for writing musicals. The equally young director, Scott Ebersold, has already amassed impressively varied credits and assisted John Doyle on his excellent re-imagination of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro at Classic Stage Company, which sadly went unrecorded. I will have seen it this past Wednesday night (again, too late to write about that here).

Beginning performances tomorrow off-Broadway is the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti concert version of Jerry Herman’s 1969 flop Dear World, based on Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and starring Tyne Daly in the role for which Angela Lansbury won a Tony. David Thompson has revised the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Among the tasty names in the company are Alison Fraser, Ann Harada, Lenny Wolpe, Stephen Mo Hanan, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, and the director is Mufti veteran Michael Montel (who did a terrific job on my adaptation of Darling of the Day at the York not once but twice). I gather it’s sold very well, so I wouldn’t wait any longer to get a ticket. I’m a big fan of Herman’s score, and I’m seeing the show this coming Thursday afternoon.

Stephen Sondheim is having a busy spring, with three revivals, two of them off-Broadway and one on. The last, of course, would be the transfer of the highly praised Encores! fund-raiser concert version of Sunday in the Park With George, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, which opened just last night and is only playing for 10 weeks to accommodate the film star’s schedule. Upcoming are an acclaimed London staging of Sweeney Todd that was done site-specifically in a real meat pie shop (which is being simulated here at the Barrow Street Theatre in a commercial production opening Wednesday night and featuring the English cast) and director John Doyle’s take on Pacific Overtures at Classic Stage Company, which starts previews April 5. English minimalism meets Kabuki and Noh; that should be interesting.

On Broadway I am most curious about War Paint—from Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Doug Wright, the authors of Grey Gardens—which details the rivalry between cosmetic giants Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden and stars Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Critics and audiences gave it a mixed reception in Chicago, where it premiered at the Goodman Theatre, but the creators say they have addressed the problems with rewrites. As the work they did on Grey Gardens in between off-Broadway and Broadway was very smart, I am hoping that history will repeat itself.

Also on Broadway is Anastasia, book by Terrence McNally and score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on the 1997 animated film. I, quite frankly, couldn’t bear the movie, but McNally has jettisoned the ridiculous subplot featuring Rasputin and his evil bat sidekick, and I’ve always thought the property a good idea for musicalization (despite George Abbott, Guy Bolton, Robert Wright and George Forrest’s failure with it as an operetta in 1965 called Anya), so I’m optimistic. Ahrens and Flaherty have reportedly done a number of new songs as well as rewrites on their film score. Critical response to the show in an engagement at Hartford Stage, where it was directed by A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’s Tony-winning Darko Tresnjak, who repeats the task for Broadway, was promising.

When I was a grad student at NYU, my professor Arthur Laurents and I got into an argument over the staging of “I Am What I Am” at the end of Act 1 of La Cage aux Folles. I felt that it was too muddy; as the music is a real song that Albin sings in the nightclub, is he actually singing his meltdown to the audience, making up perfectly crafted verses on the fly? Or is he speaking to them? And why is he declaring all this to strangers, when he’s angry at his husband and son? Arthur accused me of being too literal and “wanting to write Ibsen musicals.” He had a point, but I never knew there actually was such a thing. On March 2 Fjeldfuglen (The Mountain Bird) arrives off-off-Broadway at La MaMa E.T.C. Ibsen’s unfinished 1859 original opera libretto, “inspired by a medieval Norwegian legend of a woman discovered to be the sole survivor of the Black Death,” has been set to music by Filip Sande; the show will play three performances only in Norwegian with English supertitles. Being one-quarter Norwegian myself, how could I possibly miss such strange music?

May brings the last three projects I’m looking forward to. First, on May 2, is a one-night-only concert presentation of the 1991 flop musical Nick & Nora, with a score by Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby Jr. and a book by the above-mentioned Arthur Laurents. I worked in an unofficial capacity on the original production, learning a lot in the process. Stars Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason are returning, along with other members of the original cast such as Chris Sarandon, Yvette Lawrence, and Thom Sesma. Christine Pedi steps into the role of a Rose Kennedy-esque figure, created brilliantly by Debra Monk, and gets to sing the wickedly funny “People Get Hurt.” The form of the presentation will be a radio broadcast, and some cut songs (and there are many!) will also be included. While I don’t think the show ever really worked, it contained a lot of good writing and was much better than its reception indicated. No word yet on whether Faith Prince will return to her first Broadway role, the coked-out Bostonian lesbian secretary Lorraine Bixby, who ends up the murder victim. Prince was a riot in the part, especially excoriating “Men” in a great Maltby-Strouse song, so fingers crossed that she decides to do it again.

(And speaking of Maltby, I’m also excited about Sousatzka, a musical adaptation of Bernice Rubens’ novel Madame Sousatzka, the basis for the 1988 film starring Shirley MacLaine. Maltby has done the lyrics to David Shire’s music, Craig Lucas has written the book, and the powerhouse trio of Victoria Clark, Montego Glover, and Judy Kaye stars. Convicted felon Garth Drabinsky is making a producing comeback with it in Toronto as I write, with an opening slated for March 23. But it’s not part of this spring’s NYC season, alas, and if it does come to Broadway Drabinsky can’t come with it unless he wants to be arrested.)

Second is a revival of Raisin, the seldom-staged 1974 Tony winner for best musical, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama A Raisin in the Sun. It starts performances off-off-Broadway May 4 at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, where I saw a perfectly decent, no-frills production of Allegro a few years back. There are some fine songs in the Judd Woldin–Robert Brittan score, and I’ve always been curious about how the show plays, even if it has been unable to match the original drama in staying power.

Last, but most definitely not least, is Encores! long-requested concert staging, from May 4 to May 10, of John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ The Golden Apple, which I consider to be a shamefully neglected American masterpiece. Over the years I’ve seen one production and one concert version, but neither fully rose to the challenge of presenting this extraordinary work. Michael Berresse directs and Joshua Bergasse choreographs; no casting has yet been announced. With Rob Berman leading the excellent Encores! orchestra in Moross and Hershy Kay’s scintillating original charts for this through-sung musical comedy opera from 1954 (which makes it the same age as I am), perhaps the third time really will be the charm.

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Feb
10

From This Day On

In honor of Valentine’s Day the topic is romance in musical theatre. We might as well be discussing the importance of air and water to life on earth. Searching for a handle, the idea of love at first sight popped into my head. It’s certainly ubiquitous in the early days of the genre, both in operetta and musical comedy. But what about once musicals grew up?

I decided to take a look at the work of some of our major musical theatre writers in the post–Oklahoma! world. Did they make use of love at first sight? And if so, how? What follows is by no means exhaustive, but I think it nevertheless instructive.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Let’s start at the very beginning, as it were. What did Rodgers and Hammerstein do? Well, interestingly, they didn’t use the concept very much, a mere three times. It’s there in the TV musical Cinderella, memorably articulated in the song “10 Minutes Ago,” but that, of course, is a fairy tale. It is arguably one of the weaker points of South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable’s sudden, overpowering love for Liat, a young Tonkinese girl with no education who can barely communicate with him, seems awfully convenient (“Younger Than Springtime” is a gorgeous song but hardly a compelling basis for a long-term relationship). However, it is front and center in the dysfunctional coupling of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow in Carousel, and the result is tragic. I would argue that Carousel is a pretty good argument against love at first sight.

Frank Loesser
Loesser makes use of the idea in two shows, and both treatments are memorable. In The Most Happy Fella, middle-aged vintner Tony Esposito is immediately taken with a youngish waitress he meets in a diner. Too shy to speak up, he leaves her a note and his “genuine amethyst tie pin” as a token of his feelings. But when she travels to meet him at his Napa Valley ranch, fantasy quickly runs headlong into reality, and they only make a successful marriage by starting from scratch and getting to know one another. In the satirical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, secretary Rosemary Pilkington falls hard and fast for young go-getting would-be executive J. Pierrepont Finch, though he is initially oblivious. But when she fantasizes about being “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” her love starts to sound awfully transactional.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
In seven Broadway musicals, Bock and Harnick made use of the device in only two of them. In their final show, The Rothschilds, young Nathan Rothschild falls in love (“it happened in a trice”) in Act 2 with an aristocratic English woman who initially resists his advances. Both authors are on record as considering its inclusion as a subplot a mistake, a sop to the prevailing view in 1970 that a musical needed a heterosexual romantic interest to succeed commercially. Indeed, when Harnick and book writer Sherman Yellen reconceived the piece in 2015 (after Bock’s death), under the title Rothschild and Sons, the romance—along with Hannah—was eliminated. She Loves Me neatly subverted the concept. Parfumerie clerks Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash are at each other’s throats from the moment she is hired, but the real reason is their tremendous romantic attraction, which it takes the whole show for them to discover, though other characters identify it early on. And of course by that time they know each other well enough to embark upon a pretty grounded marriage.

Jerry Herman
As perhaps befits one of the sunniest of musical theatre songwriters, Herman uses love at first sight in several Broadway shows. In his first, Milk and Honey, which I just saw this past weekend in a fine concert presentation at the York Theatre, it happens late in Act 2, when the man-starved widow Clara Weiss (a part created by Molly Picon) meets Israeli widower Sol Horowitz and ends up remarried before you can say mazel tov. My immediate reaction was to hope that he isn’t a serial killer. In his second, Hello, Dolly! (heading back to Broadway this spring starring Bette Midler), lowly store clerks Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker fall for milliner Irene Molloy and her assistant, Minnie Fay, respectively, in the course of a day. Of course, the show is pure fantasy, based on Thornton Wilder’s romantic period farce The Matchmaker. In his third, Mame, the instant love is between a bohemian blueblood aunt and her young orphaned nephew and is the most persuasive bond of the three. It is not, however, romantic love. Herman’s final four Broadway book shows—Dear World, Mack and Mabel, The Grand Tour, and La Cage aux Folles—eschew the notion entirely. A sign of maturation, perhaps?

John Kander and Fred Ebb
In the course of writing 14 Broadway musicals over a period of 50 years, Kander and Ebb rarely resorted to using love at first sight. Only two shows—Zorbá and Steel Pier—traffic in it at all. In Zorbá, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic novel Zorbá the Greek, the two central romantic relationships both develop speedily. However, that between Zorbá and the aging prostitute Hortense seems less a product of love and more one of mutual need, while the connection between the young outsider intellectual, Nikos, and a socially ostracized unnamed Cretan widow, is both hesitant and doomed. In Steel Pier we get love at first sight on steroids: Stunt pilot Bill Kelly actually comes back from the dead to pursue his instantaneous feelings for down-on-her-luck performer Rita Racine, though David Thompson’s unwieldy original book withholds his otherworldly status from the audience for most of the show. It’s entirely unpersuasive, which is in part why Steel Pier folded after only 76 performances. In both musicals we’re a long way from Margot and the Red Shadow aching for each other.

Stephen Sondheim
Surprisingly for the musical theatre’s reigning iconoclast, there are a number of examples of variations on love at first sight in his canon, the majority of them early in his career. The most iconic is West Side Story, which is based on Romeo and Juliet, so it came with the territory. Sondheim is, of course, on record as to how uncomfortable he is with the lyrics for the two songs that most dramatize the situation: “Maria” and “Tonight.” In Gypsy Rose and Herbie combine pretty instantaneously in “Small World,” but as with Zorbá and Hortense, it feels more like a seduction of calculated self-interest than love. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, however, young noble-born Hero goes gaga at the simple sight of the prostitute Philia and explains himself in the charming “Love, I Hear,” one of the most convincing expressions of love at first sight I’ve ever heard. Of course, it helps that the source material is the Roman comedies of Plautus. In Sondheim’s very first professional musical, Saturday Night, which went unproduced for more than 40 years, the romantic leads, Gene and Helen, are attracted quickly due to both of them being con artists. And in the TV musical Evening Primrose, poet Charles, who has taken up refuge living in a department store, sleeping by day and writing at night, is immediately drawn to the lovely Ella, imprisoned there since the age of six by others who had the same idea as Charles. However, she’s the only possible romantic partner for our scribe, so maybe it’s just a case of what’s available. And it doesn’t end well.

Once Sondheim reaches his maturity with Company in 1970, however, incidences of love at first sight decrease. It happens to the juveniles in Sweeney Todd, Anthony and Joanna, but the musical is based on a melodrama and Sondheim doesn’t take their love very seriously, using them mostly for comic relief. Mary Flynn falls for Franklin Shepard the first time she meets him in Merrily We Roll Along, on the rooftop gazing at Sputnik, but all that leads to is frustration, heartache, and alcoholism. The sickly Fosca develops her Passion for Giorgio even before they meet, but the unlikeliness of it being reciprocated coupled with her needy obsessiveness is hardly a traditional take on the situation. In Bounce and Road Show, Addison Mizner is immediately entranced by the young aristocrat Hollis Bessemer, who doesn’t return the feeling until he realizes what Addison can do for him. Ultimately, it dissolves in recriminations, though the relationship does allow for one of Sondheim’s most sincere and touching love songs, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” repurposed most effectively from a slangy and breezy evocation of heterosexual lust in Bounce.

Alan Jay Lerner
I left Lerner for last because he is unquestionably the most starry-eyed romantic of all the writers being discussed. Much to my astonishment, though, he trails Sondheim in his employment of love at first sight. There is Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s attachment to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which is a bit of a problem for contemporary productions, as the show simply accepts the situation without explanation. My favorite Freddy was Robert Sella, in director Howard Davies’ otherwise unsatisfying 1993 Broadway revival. Rather than play the expected clear-eyed, apple-cheeked juvenile, Sella rooted his nerdy Freddie’s attraction to Eliza in the realization, caused by her behavior at Ascot, that she is just as much a social misfit as he is. He was like a suffocating man given a sudden hit of oxygen and gasping gratefully. Lise and Gerry combust predictably in An American in Paris, but if your assignment is to write a 1951 MGM film vehicle for Gene Kelly constructed around the Gershwin songbook, isn’t that awfully inevitable? In Carmelina, our titular Italian war widow complains about her inexplicable attraction to the annoyingly importuning Vittorio in “Why Him?,” which is amusing but really doesn’t help the romance. And in Lerner’s final show, Dance a Little Closer, we see a flashback in which cheesy song-and-dance man Harry Aikens implodes like a ton of bricks for a brassy American singer who subsequently reappears years later as the haughty English mistress of a diplomat who denies that she knows him. That, however, is pretty much it for love at first sight and Lerner, with one glaring exception.

That would be Brigadoon, his 1947 musical fantasy about a Scottish town that only comes to life for one day every hundred years. American Tommy Albright meets and is drawn to the lovely Fiona MacLaren, who has earlier told us in “Waitin’ for My Dearie” that she would rather be a spinster than marry the wrong man. Fiona is equally smitten, but once Tommy discovers the truth about Brigadoon, he must decide before day is out whether to commit to the feeling or not. Unsurprisingly, he can’t and must return home to his hard-shelled fiancée before realizing that Fiona is the one and only woman for him. Rushing back to Scotland, he manages to awaken the town through his love, proving that “when ye love someone deeply, anything is possible.” It’s absolutely over-the-top romantic, but when done with conviction it soars. One of the most memorable theatrical moments I’ve experienced in more than 50 years of theatregoing occurred in director Vivian Matalon’s 1980 Broadway revival: As Tommy and Fiona finished singing their song of parting, “From This Day On,” the set split in two and waves of fog rushed in as the lovers were violently separated, hands grasping for each other in vain. It was glorious. In Brigadoon the 29-year-old Lerner set himself the task of making love at first sight believable, and he succeeded. Whenever I get too cynical, I remember that.

Of course, Brigadoon is now 70 years old and seems more a tip of the hat to the operettas that preceded it than a musical theatre innovation. That said, a 2014 production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, which featured a somewhat rewritten book by Brian Hill, charmed even the New York Times’ curmudgeonly Charles Isherwood (who just left the paper this week) and proved that the show can still sway contemporary audiences. And any Broadway season that has Aladdin, Wicked, Waitress, and The Phantom of the Opera still running can hardly be said to disown love at first sight. Nevertheless, the admittedly anecdotal evidence submitted here suggests to me that the Broadway musical is at least a bit more adult than it is often given credit for being.

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Jan
27

Musical Theatre Mavericks

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a maverick is “a person who shows independence of thought and action, especially by refusing to adhere to the policies of a group to which he or she belongs.” I guess that means that we are not discussing James Garner musicals, which is good, as I’m only aware of one (Victor/Victoria), and he doesn’t even sing in it.

I will take that definition and move it one step further. For me, a maverick is someone whose work is so idiosyncratic that it resides strikingly outside the mainstream. Some mavericks reinvent the mainstream, others affect it in various ways, while others remain apart and often unknown. Here’s a sampling of all three kinds.

Oscar Hammerstein II
At first glance Hammerstein would seem an unlikely choice. After all, he was born into theatrical royalty and spent his early career toiling in the highly commercial, sweetly scented world of operetta. Nevertheless, he staked his claim to the title with Show Boat in 1927, which addressed the fraught topic of race in America head on and thoroughly upended all notions of what musical theatre could and could not do.

It took him another 16 years before he could establish the character-oriented, plot-driven, musically integrated book musical as the dominant commercial form, which he did with Oklahoma!, though along the way shows such as the anti-authoritarian Rainbow and the operetta-musical hybrid Music in the Air attempted to expand boundaries. And even once Rodgers and Hammerstein became a cottage industry, his willingness to unflinchingly address such serious topics as spousal abuse (Carousel), racism again (South Pacific), and feminism (The King and I) in complacent post-WWII America kept his maverick status intact.

Bertolt Brecht
When I attended Northwestern University in the early 1970s, Brecht was the god of the theatre department. I didn’t like what I knew of his work, so I decided to choose him as my subject in directing class. I had to give two one-hour lectures about him and his oeuvre, and I figured that by immersing myself in it I might come to see what everybody else was seeing. At the end I remained unpersuaded that the alienation effect would work on audiences as he intended (I continue to believe that people are more vulnerable emotionally than intellectually), but I also came to see it as a powerful tool that could be used in conjunction with other means of ensnaring an audience.

Certainly The Threepenny Opera, which he wrote with composer Kurt Weill in 1928, has influenced a host of more mainstream musical theatre writers, including Stephen Sondheim (Assassins, Pacific Overtures, hell, even “Rose’s Turn”), which is odd as he claims not to be a fan. There are also the lighter but equally cynical Happy End, the thunderous Mahagonny, and the waspish ballet cantata The Seven Deadly Sins, all written with Weill, to reckon with. Brecht’s musical theatre works still feel idiosyncratic today. He was definitely sui generis.

Marc Blitzstein
Indisputably a child of Brecht (his biggest success was his 1954 off-Broadway translation of Threepenny), Blitzstein may not loom as large, but what he accomplished remains both singular and vital. Indeed, his signature work, the scorching 1937 The Cradle Will Rock, employs Brechtian alienation to look at all forms of prostitution—sexual, moral, political, religious—an approach suggested by Brecht himself. Regina, his 1949 opera based on Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, improves on the play while still making for an utterly uncompromising look at the rancid side of American machismo and untrammeled capitalism. Even Juno, his unsuccessful 1959 Broadway musical adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, for which he only wrote the songs, features a powerful dramatic score unique in the annals of the Great White Way.

Blitzstein began his career as an experimental “serious” composer only to decide that he’d rather reach the masses after becoming a Communist. He knew what made a great popular tune, but that wasn’t in his wheelhouse, as he himself lamented more than once. I’m glad that it wasn’t. His spiky, thorny, yet often rapturously beautiful musical vocabulary married to outstanding verbal felicity and fervent political commitment stands by itself.

John Latouche
When I was asked by the York Theatre Company in 1999 to create a musical revue based on the life and work of Latouche, I knew next to nothing about him. Most of his work had never been recorded or published and little was known about his life. Research rectified the situation, and I was stunned that someone so gifted and original could be largely lost in the mists of time, thanks to his sudden death at age 41 in 1956 from a heart attack.

A bit of a Blitzstein acolyte and openly gay at a time when that was nearly impossible, he was equally at home with avant garde artists and Broadway veterans. He wrote scripts and/or lyrics to everything from musical comedies (Cabin in the Sky) to operettas (Candide) to dance cantatas (Ballet Ballads) to musical dramas (Beggar’s Holiday, a then-contemporary interracial gloss on Threepenny) to operas (The Golden Apple and The Ballad of Baby Doe). He contributed a song, "The Girl With the Prefabricated Heart" (watch it on YouTube), inspired by his divorce from a lesbian, to the first full-length surrealist film (Dreams That Money Can Buy). Indeed, he worked constantly, but his intellectual bent and iconoclastic philosophy of life consistently undercut his chances for popular success, despite repeated critical encomiums. Encores! has recently started to rediscover him, first with its wonderful reconstruction last year of Cabin and later this year with The Golden Apple. Award-winning biographer Howard Pollack’s latest book, The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work, comes out from Oxford University Press this September. Don’t miss it.

Al Carmines
Between 1962 and 1977, the Rev. Carmines composed, with a variety of collaborators, a string of off-off-Broadway musicals that, as the Village Voice put it upon his death in 2005, explored “polymorphous perversity” and “render[ed] conventional realism out of style if not obsolete.” Minister at the Judson Memorial Church just off Washington Square, he started Judson Poets Theater, which joined La Mama ETC and the Café Cino as hotbeds of theatrical experimentation. Ten of his musicals transferred to off-Broadway commercial runs, including Peace (based on Aristophanes), Joan (the story of St. Joan), The Faggot (gay life in 1973 NYC), In Circles (the poetry of Gertrude Stein), and Promenade (a surreal fable about race, class, and money in America), and he won five Obie Awards, including one for lifetime achievement. All of the above shows were recorded (I have them all), but only the last remains available. A brain aneurysm pretty much put a stop to his composing career.

As New York Times critic Clive Barnes, a Carmines champion, put it: “There is literally nothing Mr. Carmines will not use—gallops, waltzes, polkas, circus blares and musical bumps and grinds—to get his work done.” His one show for Broadway, W.C., based on the life of W.C. Fields and starring Mickey Rooney and Bernadette Peters, closed on the road. Eclectic, freewheeling, extravagant, and marvelously messy, his work remains ripe for rediscovery, especially Promenade, which couldn’t be timelier in the age of the one percent and President Donald Trump.

Elizabeth Swados
Swados, a student of Peter Brook, began a white-hot streak of critical acclaim with her off-Broadway musical revue Nightclub Cantata at the Village Gate in January of 1977. Swados set poems by people such as Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, Carson McCullers, and herself to dizzyingly eclectic international musical styles and even had the company imitating birdcalls. Clive Barnes, in the New York Times, “adored it.” I wanted to see it but couldn’t, because as the sole box office treasurer for Starting Here, Starting Now I worked the exact same performance schedule. I first encountered Swados as incidental composer for Andrei Serbain’s Lincoln Center productions of The Cherry Orchard and Agamemnon, both intriguing. Then came her biggest success, Runaways, which moved to Broadway and brought her five Tony nominations (for musical, score, book, direction, and choreography), and she lost me. When the company marched downstage at the end of Act 1 and blamed the entire audience for the problem of teenage homelessness, my 24-year-old self marched out of the Plymouth Theatre incensed at such a blanket condemnation. My guess is she would have liked that.

Her streak continued with Dispatches (about the Vietnam War) and The Haggadah, a Passover Cantata, only to founder with an ill-received 1980 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland starring brand-new film star Meryl Streep, all produced by Joe Papp at the Public Theater, the last of which you can see done for PBS on video. Two forays into commercial musical theatre with political cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Doonesbury on Broadway in 1983 and Rap Master Ronnie (as in Reagan) off-Broadway in 1984, both failed, and the critical bloom was off the rose. Swados, however, just kept going, creating fiercely uncompromising shows in whatever venues were available. Being financially independent probably helped. But when she died of cancer in 2016 at age 64, only months before Runaways was to be revived by Encores! Off-Center, legions of her students and collaborators testified to her importance in their lives and careers. She was much loved, and I daresay had as great an effect on musical theatre artists as many a commercial writer.

Jeanine Tesori
I see Tesori’s career as split between pay-the-rent gigs (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Shrek the Musical) and passion projects (Violet; Caroline, or Change; Fun Home). I’ve never been able to warm to the former, but I am astounded by the intelligence and artistry of the latter. Ultimately, I see her as a maverick because, when not taking the check, she so thoroughly commits to whatever the dramatic requirements may be to both create the necessary universe and tell the story well, all else be damned. I find it hard to imagine three more different scores than the above passion projects, yet each is extraordinary in its own way. Now that Fun Home has been both an artistic and a commercial Broadway success, even generating a national tour, let’s hope that her days of artistic bifurcation are behind her.

Dave Malloy
Of course it’s too early to know whether Malloy, creator and composer-lyricist of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, is a maverick or not. However, I think the signs are there. His through-composed off-Broadway hit, based on a section of War and Peace, offered reams of sung narrative and self-conscious commentary rife with verbal anachronisms all wrapped up in a playful immersive staging in what passed for a Russian café, complete with dinner and drinks. It wasn’t my thing (I found the constant narration distancing and the pierogis too doughy), but I respected it and Malloy’s strikingly original sensibility, and audiences had fun. It’s too bad that in the journey to Broadway, where pop singer Josh Groban replaced Malloy as the hapless, passionless Pierre, director Rachel Chavkin has pushed its cheeky downtown attitude into overdriven, calcified shtick.

Malloy’s follow-up show, Preludes, part of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 series of new works, was a “musical fantasia set in the hypnotized mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff” and even more experimental than Natasha, looking at three years in the composer’s life when he suffered from writer’s block. I missed it, as Drama Desk voters were not invited and the show sold out the tiny theatre almost at once after Ben Brantley’s bravura rave in the New York Times. (The rest of the notices were far more measured and decidedly mixed.) The OCR CD is puzzling, with text but no synopsis or liner notes, but there is a great deal of arresting music, some by Malloy, some by Rachmaninoff, and some by both of them. However, Kismet for the 21st century this is not. My guess is you had to be there, though I did greatly enjoy a dramatic set piece about the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s first symphony and its spectacular failure under the guidance of a drunk conductor. Malloy currently has the Times in his corner, both Brantley and Isherwood, but Swados also had the Times in hers—for a time. It will be interesting to see whether this clearly talented man, who has just been named the first musical theatre playwright in residence for NYC’s Signature Theatre, can broaden his palette or even has any desire to do so. And that will ultimately decide his maverick status.

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Jan
13

A Spider on the Ceiling

Songs about superstition and luck are plentiful in the musical theatre canon. Three that come to mind almost immediately are “Luck Be a Lady,” from Guys and Dolls; “Lucky to Be Me,” from On the Town; and “’Till Good Luck Comes My Way,” from Show Boat. But there have to be less obvious examples. How to find them? I decided to think in terms of characters who subscribe to superstitions or for whom luck looms large in their stories. I figured that would lead me to songs – and it did, from 10 shows.

Gideon Briggs, in Greenwillow
Frank Loesser’s 1960 musical adaptation (with an assist on the book from Lesser Samuels) of B.J. Chute’s hit 1956 novel wasn’t a box office success, but it features an enchanting score. Chute’s fable, set in the titular village, has young Gideon Briggs worried that his love for the gentle Dorrie Whitbred will only hurt her. That’s because the eldest son in the Briggs family is cursed with the call to wander far and wide, as Gideon’s own father has done. This superstitious belief is given voice in the soaring “The Music of Home,” sung when Gideon’s father makes one of his brief visits home and his son and the townspeople try to convince him to stay, and the tortured “Never Will I Marry,” in which Gideon, having failed with his father, vows not to ruin Dorrie’s life. Anthony Perkins, making his musical debut on Broadway right after shooting Psycho, is terrific in both songs. I’d love to see this programmed by Encores!; Nicholas Barasch, about to play Huck Finn in Big River for the company this season, would be an ideal Gideon.

Ottilie, in House of Flowers
An incandescent 19-year-old Diahann Carroll made her Broadway debut as a naive young West Indies prostitute longing for true love in this 1954 musical by Truman Capote (book and lyrics) and Harold Arlen (music and lyrics). Ottilie claims not to believe in magic and voodoo, but in the yearning “A Sleepin’ Bee” she sings of the superstition she does believe, one that will let her know when that longed-for love has arrived. Alas, Capote proved to be a better lyricist than book writer; though the songs are uniformly good, the plot line on which they were hung proved far too thin, and the show closed after only 165 performances. Nikki M. James, while still an NYU student, played Ottilie for Encores! in 2003 and was lovely, but the show itself still didn’t work.

Wilson Mizner, in Wise Guys (1999)/Bounce (2003)/Road Show (2008)
This real-life con artist, as played by Victor Garber/Howard McGillin/Michael Cerveris, was all about the scam and getting rich quick, and several of Stephen Sondheim’s songs for him in this long-gestating, oft-retitled show contain references to and incidents of luck. These would include “Gold!,” during which Willie loses an Alaska gold-mine claim in a card game (the fullest version is on the Road Show OCR), “The Game” (which can be heard in different versions on both Road Show and Bounce), and “I Love This Town” (only on Bounce). I have heard a live audio recording of Wise Guys (I had tix for the workshop, but my performance was canceled) and saw Bounce and Road Show, and while I don’t think any version really works, my favorite was director Harold Prince’s musical comedy vision of the show, Bounce, particularly for the performances of McGillin and the wonderful Richard Kind as Willie’s more cautious brother, Addison.

Miss Horoscope and Miss Mysticism, in Love Life
These two ladies are trotted out by the Interlocutor of a meta minstrel show to offer the grumpily divorced Sam and Susan Cooper, still youthful at the age of about 180, a way to happiness. “For cards and fate/Rule what you do/So why should you be sad?/Oh, come and be relieved with Madame Zuzu,” plead the misses. It doesn’t work. The Kurt Weill–Alan Jay Lerner score for this 1948 concept musical is top drawer, but a recording strike prevented a cast album. However, you can hear a shortened version of “The Illusion Minstrel Show” on the OBCR of Harold Prince and Alfred Uhry’s LoveMusik, a 2007 bio-musical about Weill and his wife, Lotte Lenya, where it is recast as “The Illusion Wedding Show.”

Porgy, in Porgy and Bess
DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin, and George Gershwin’s landmark 1935 Broadway opera contains plenty of superstitious beliefs and crap games, but for most of its length its hero, the goodhearted “cripple” Porgy, eschews such things. However, in Act III, when a coroner and a detective arrive and arbitrarily choose Porgy to identify the body of the villainous Crown, he is suddenly terrified. Why? Because Porgy killed Crown while defending the woman he loves, Bess, and he believes that if he looks on the body of his victim, Crown’s wounds will begin to bleed, giving Porgy away. You can hear the gripping sequence on the track labeled “What Is Your Name?,” which also displays one of the creators’ inspired ideas: the white characters don’t sing; their bigotry and racism won’t allow it.

Tamate, in Pacific Overtures
Pre-Broadway, in Boston, this wife of Kayama Yesaemon, “a samurai, but one of little consequence,” responded to her husband being suddenly summoned by the Shogun by singing “Prayers,” in which she begged the gods to let her see good omens, such as “a spider on the ceiling” or “a river overflow.” The song blossomed out to include him and then the Shogun’s councilors, all making similar requests. Sondheim recycled some of the imagery and music in the song “Chrysanthemum Tea,” for the Shogun’s mother, wife, and retinue, written in Boston to replace another song of the same title in the same spot. You can hear Sondheim perform “Prayers” at a backers’ audition as a bonus track on PS Classics’ recording of Roundabout’s 2004 revival of this 1976 show.

Duddy Kravitz, in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
The feverishly ambitious Duddy Kravitz is the kind of character who tries to make his own luck and ends up regularly skewered by the effort. In David Spencer and Alan Menken’s second go-round at adapting Mordecai Richler’s hard-edged novel about a terminally unscrupulous young wannabe, they appear to have finally succeeded in making some luck themselves, judging by the favorable Toronto reviews and the just-released OCR from Ghostlight Records. In this fine new score there is one song that explicitly fits today’s theme, a short piece called “One Dollar Betting Limit,” in which Duddy is conned by a snooty colleague (they are both waiters) and his girlfriend into using his hard-earned tips as the bank in a rigged roulette game. Duddy ends up losing all his funds but the wiser for it. I hope we get to see the show in NYC sometime soon.

Eglantine Price, in Bedknobs and Broomsticks
The spell this apprentice witch discovers goes “Treguna Mekoides Tracorum Satis Dee,” and, when properly invoked in the song “Substitutiary Locomotion,” it allows her to save England from a Nazi invasion. I’m not sure if this really counts as a superstition, as the magic turns out to be real, but luck does play a role in Eglantine’s success. In any event, Angela Lansbury gives such an endearing performance and the Richard M. Sherman–Robert B. Sherman score for this 1971 Disney film musical is so enjoyable that I’m including it. The film was unfortunately hacked to bits after its limited roadshow release, but a 1996 restoration on DVD shows that less is not always more. Make sure to watch the restored version.

Li’l Augie, in St. Louis Woman
Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen’s book for this 1946 musical, based on Bontemps’ novel God Sends Sunday, revolves around a curse put on its hero, the jockey Li’l Augie, by a dying man who blames him for his death. Li’l Augie, whose jaunty establishing song is called “I Feel My Luck Comin’ Down,” begins to lose races and blames the curse, even though he is innocent of the man’s murder. But eventually things turn around for him, and he abandons his belief in superstition in the joyous “Riding on the Moon.” The rich Harold Arlen–Johnny Mercer score includes such standards as “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” both sung by Li’l Augie’s love interest, Della Green, and it got a welcome reconstruction and full recording in 1998 thanks to a concert production at Encores!. However, it’s unfortunate that the show’s abridged OBCR, released on CD by Broadway Angel in 1992, is unavailable digitally, as it contains definitive performances from original stars such as Harold Nicholas (of the famed Nicholas brothers) as Li’l Augie; Ruby Hill (at the time a well-known New York City nightclub singer) as Della; and especially the great Pearl Bailey, making her Broadway debut in a supporting role and delivering two delicious comedy songs, “Legalize My Name” and “It’s a Woman’s Prerogative,” that helped to make her a star.

Petunia Jackson, in Cabin in the Sky
In this hit 1940 musical fantasy, its actually Petunia’s husband, Joe, who likes to gamble. Nevertheless, this deeply religious woman loves him despite his faults, and it’s her fervent prayer to the Lord that saves his life after he has been knifed in a barroom brawl started by accusations of loaded dice. However, Joe’s only on probation for six months. Petunia must reform her husband in that time, replacing his gambling and womanizing with religious faith, or else he dies and his soul goes to Satan. Petunia has rolled the dice big time herself, and she sings about that in the Vernon Duke–John Latouche–Ted Fetter standard “Taking a Chance on Love.” The song was a reworking by Latouche of an existing Duke-Fetter tune called “Fooling Around With Love,” and it went into the show at the final Broadway preview. Duke and Latouche believed that it’s what made Cabin in the Sky into a hit. Now that’s a gamble that paid off.

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Dec
23

I Don’t Remember Christmas

Being a secular guy, I don’t celebrate Christmas, so my knowledge of Christmas albums with a theatre connection is scanty. Instead, I have put together a list of 20 holiday-themed songs you may not know, mostly from lower-profile musicals. Hopefully some of them will prove to be happy discoveries.

“Blissful Christmas,” from Gone With the Wind
If you enjoy the work of Harold Rome, then you need to know the score for his and book writer Horton Foote’s musicalization of Margaret Mitchell’s blockbuster novel. A success in Japan (1970) and London (1972), it folded on the road to Broadway. In this song Mammy, Prissy, and Aunt Pittypat decorate for the holidays while anticipating Ashley’s return on leave from the Civil War. The OLCR was a limited 1,000-CD release on Kritzerland in 2011 and so is quite pricey when found, but you can hear the whole recording on YouTube. This song is at the 9:15 mark.

“Three Wishes for Christmas,” cut from Gypsy
Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim wrote this for the burlesque sequence in Act 2, but it went unused. Fortunately, the OBCR starring Patti LuPone includes an appendix featuring all the show’s cut material performed by members of the 2008 Broadway cast.

“Speakeasy Christmas,” from Legs Diamond
Peter Allen’s try at a musical was a real mess. I know, because I was around its edges back in 1988, as a good friend and collaborator, Eric Stern, was the musical director and vocal arranger. This performance number for female chorus falls into the short but sweet category. The show is the last production to have played the Mark Hellinger Theatre before it became a church.

“Christmas at Hampton Court,” from Rex
King Henry VIII’s three children nervously wait to be announced at court in this 1976 Richard Rodgers–Sheldon Harnick number, which opened Act 2. Playing the eldest, Princess Mary, is a then-unknown Glenn Close, who I heard sing her part impromptu and a cappella at a benefit celebrating Harnick’s 80th birthday.

“Christmas Eve Broadcast,” from Sherry!
Book writer–lyricist James Lipton funded a starry 2003 studio recording of the score of his and composer Laurence Rosenthal’s 1967 flop, adapted from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner. No doubt he did it with the profits from his high-profile TV show At the Actors Studio. Here the title character’s annual Christmas radio broadcast descends into hysteria as Act 1 ends.

“I Don’t Remember Christmas,” from Starting Here, Starting Now
This is probably the best-known song on my list, but I’m including it because I love it. And as the show’s box office treasurer off-Broadway at Barbara Ann’s Theatre Restaurant in 1977, I was around to hear it right after Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire wrote it expressly for George Lee Andrews. It was not in the show’s first production, at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1976 under the title Theater Songs by Maltby and Shire. Andrews replaced an unavailable Michael Tucci.

“A Christmas Bûche,” from Charlotte Sweet
Playwright-lyricist Michael Colby and composer Gerald Jay Markoe’s 1982 off-Broadway musical wasn’t my cup of tea, but this demented parody of an English Victorian melodrama was quite the hit without my seal of approval. In this song Charlotte’s beau, Ludlow Ladd, gives her a Christmas log cake.

“Christmas Eve,” cut from She Loves Me
In the first of two cut songs from this classic 1963 Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick score, both to be found on Harbinger Records’ invaluable compendium Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures, 1949-2013, Mr. Maraczek and his clerks sing a Christmas song in the parfumerie on Christmas Eve. It went because it was too static.

“Merry Christmas Bells,” cut from She Loves Me
This proved too complicated an approach to the scene in which Kodaly, Ilona, Arpad, and Sipos decorate the shop for Christmas. Snippets of its musical commentary reappeared in its replacement, “Ilona,” in which Kodaly heats up his frosty mistress.

“Christmas Is My Favorite Time of Year,” from Catch Me If You Can
I singled out this quiet Act 1 closer as a dramaturgical mistake in my Backstage review of Terrence McNally, Marc Shaiman, and Scott Wittman’s 2011 musical about a real-life teenage con man, but it was the impetus for singing that I objected to, not the song itself. This is one show that is much more enjoyable to listen to than it was to experience.

“Greenwillow Christmas,” from Greenwillow
I’ve always loved Frank Loesser’s score for this bucolic 1960 Broadway musical fantasy about a young village man cursed with the call to wander. This Act 1 closer uses as its main musical theme a cut song from Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella, “Eyes Like a Stranger,” which became apparent when the song was restored in that show’s 1979 Broadway revival.

“The First Chanukah Night,” from Yours, Anne
This year the first night of Chanukah falls on Christmas Eve, so I’m including this defiantly celebratory Act 1 curtain song from playwright-lyricist Enid Futterman and composer Michael Cohen’s 1985 off-Broadway musical based on The Diary of Anne Frank. The show only managed to run two months, but there is much of value in the score, and I don’t say that just because Futterman is a friend and graduate school classmate.

“That Time of the Year,” from That Time of the Year
This 2006 off-Broadway musical revue of original songs about Christmas, Chanukah, and New Year’s Eve/Day was conceived and lyricized by Laurence Holzman and Felicia Needleman, produced by the York Theatre Company, and utilized no fewer than seven composers. Nicholas Levin was responsible for the title tune, which salutes the holiday season in totality.

“Christmas in Your Heart,” from the TV musical The Gift of the Magi
I paid $85 at Footlight Records for this rare 1958 soundtrack LP (the sticker is still on it) that features a score by Richard Adler, his first work after the untimely death of his young songwriting partner, Jerry Ross. You, however, can now buy it digitally for a small fraction of that. With this tune, sung by Adler’s wife at the time, Sally Ann Howes, who starred in this adaptation of the classic short story, Adler notes that “what I say in the lyric is a humble attempt to paraphrase O. Henry’s message in the story,” according to the LP liner notes.

“Tomorrow Is Christmas,” from The Gift of the Magi and The Last Leaf
I don’t know this musical stage adaptation by Peter Ekstrom of the two O. Henry stories, but as I also musicalized “The Last Leaf” (with above-mentioned composer Eric Stern) and the cast is a sturdy one—Emily Loesser, Don Stephenson, Theresa McCarthy, and Bruce Adler—I included it. Ah, the joys of public domain. The Actors Theatre of Louisville presented it annually for more than 20 years, apparently. Harbinger Records released it in 2001.

“The Gift of Maggie (and Others),” from The Mad Show
A pre-Laugh-In Jo Anne Worley already has her comic persona in place as she delivers this Mary Rodgers–Marshall Barer spoof of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” in which the singer complains about her outré Christmas gifts from relatives. This hit 1966 off-Broadway revue was based on Mad magazine and ran for 871 performances.

“Too Fat to Fit,” from Pete ’n’ Keely
My husband was the casting director for this kitschy 2000 off-Broadway musical spoof by actor James Hindman about a divorced, middle-aged pop singing duo who reunite to film a 1968 TV special. As Sally Mayes and George Dvorsky were part of the package from the beginning, his main job consisted of finding a supply of special guest stars (the show plugged them in regularly one at a time). 1960s names that he managed to inveigle to appear include the just-mentioned Worley, Phyllis Diller, and Charo. The score mixed standards with original tunes by Mark Waldrop (who also directed) and Patrick Brady, such as this one about an excessively portly Santa Claus. Alas, the Fynsworth Alley OCR is out of print, but you can hear the tune on Carols for a Cure, Vol. 5.

“My Holiday,” from Now Is the Time for All Good Men
I have long been a fan of the score for this 1967 off-Broadway musical, which served as the theatrical debut of Gretchen Cryer (book and lyrics) and Nancy Ford (music). Cryer also starred but under the pseudonym of Sally Niven, playing a sensitive music teacher and church choir leader in suburban Indiana opposite her then-husband, David Cryer, as a rebellious English teacher. Both are still going strong today, as is their more famous son Jon, who once worked at the concession stand for me as a young lad when I was theatre manager of Equity Library Theatre. “My Holiday” is a lovely wish for love at Christmas time.

“The Christmas Medley,” from Oil City Symphony
A hit off-Broadway in 1987, this quirky little show, created by and starring Mike Craven, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, and Mary Murfitt, is a re-creation of a recital by four middle-aged amateur musicians who have reunited in the auditorium of the Ohio high school they attended in the 1960s to pay tribute to their retiring music teacher. Thus it is the only track here that isn’t an original song; rather, it’s a medley of Christmas carols. I didn’t expect to like the show, but I was wrong. It was delightful, and they even got me to do the “Hokey Pokey,” despite my horror of audience participation.

“Christmas Child,” from Irma La Douce
An English adaptation of a French musical that subsequently ended up on Broadway in 1960, this show tells the story of an unusual love affair between a woman of the streets and her pimp, who in this case is a penniless young law student doing it for love. Its star, Elizabeth Seal, bested Broadway heavyweights Carol Channing (for Show Girl), Nancy Walker (for Do Re Mi), and Julie Andrews (for Camelot) to win the Tony for best actress in a musical. A recent Encores! concert version revealed that the show hadn’t aged very well, but the score remains frequently attractive. This is the musical’s finale, in which everyone celebrates the birth of Irma’s child. And so, I thought, why not use a finale as my finale?

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Dec
16

Nine Days to Christmas

“Nine days to Christmas/Nine days to Christmas/Still enough time to do your Christmas shopping” sings the ensemble in She Loves Me. And it is. So, without further ado, here are five gift ideas for friends and family with a variety of interests.

Out of the Shadows: Rediscovered American Art Songs
This would be for the theatre fan who is also a lover of classical music. In this Pentatone Music release, soprano Lisa Delan traverses a wide array of composers, who have chosen a colorful variety of texts. There is theatricality and drama in many of these art songs (I was especially taken with four songs by John Duke based on e.e. cummings poems that run the gamut from playfully whimsical to soaringly rhapsodic), but the theatre connection that makes this disc a good gift consists of the song suite “Blue Mountain Ballads,” written by Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams, and John Kander’s setting of a Civil War document, “A Letter From Sullivan Bayou,” made famous in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civil War.

Bowles and Williams wrote their four ballads—“Heavenly Grass,” “Lonesome Man,” “Cabin,” and “Sugar in the Cane”—in 1946, the same year in which Bowles wrote the incidental music for Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, a play whose leading character, Amanda Wingfield, discusses her youthful days living at a place called Blue Mountain while entertaining gentlemen callers. (By the way, you can hear Bowles’ score for the play on the recently reconstructed 1966 TV adaptation starring Shirley Booth that was just shown on Turner Classic Movies.) Bowles also set some Williams poems, but this piece is a rare instance of Williams creating original lyrics for songs. Their intimate, conversational tone is deliciously atmospheric, while Bowles’ deceptively simple music makes excellent use of shifting meters to create a sense of the way a character would speak. Previously only recorded by men—Thomas Hampson, William Sharp, and Samuel Ramey—it’s fascinating to listen to them as interpreted by a woman, which results in, as the cogent and extensive liner notes put it, “differences in timbre, tempo, and tone.” Actually, the only other woman I know of to have recorded any of them is the popular 1950s singer Jeri Southern, whose rendition of “Cabin” can be heard on The Warm Singing Style of Jeri Southern: The Complete Decca Years 1951–1957. Her version is as pop as Delan’s is classical, and the contrast is startling.

Sullivan Bayou was a volunteer major in the Union Army, and he wrote his now-famous letter to his wife, Sarah, on July 14, 1861, a mere week before he died in the Battle of Bull Run. In it, he wrestles with the fact that he has put his happy life with wife and young son in danger due to his love of country. Kander encountered it, along with millions of Americans, in Burns’ 1990 film and used his classical training (his mentors were opera composers Douglas Moore and Jack Beeson) to turn it into a sung piece. Renee Fleming premiered it in 1994 at a Carnegie Hall 60th birthday tribute to Marilyn Horne, and a live recording of that performance was released. This, however, is the art song’s first studio recording, and Delan is extremely effective in charting the letter’s journey from turmoil to transcendence. Kander sets the prose cleanly while providing a harmonic language and nuanced accompaniment that dramatize the writer’s wealth of feeling beautifully. What a multifaceted talent he is.

Betty Comden Sings Songs From ‘Treasure Girl’ and ‘Chee-Chee’
This new digital release from JAY Records is for anyone who loves the Great American Songbook. I don’t know what possessed playwright-lyricist Betty Comden to go into a studio in 1963 and record these 10 obscure songs from two 1928 flops, but I’m awfully glad she did. Chee-Chee, by Herbert Fields (book), Lorenz Hart (lyrics), and Richard Rodgers (music), opened first, on Sept. 25, and managed a mere 31 performances. Treasure Girl, by Fred Thompson and Vincent Lawrence (book), Ira Gershwin (lyrics), and George Gershwin (music), debuted Nov. 8 and more than doubled that run, surviving for 68 performances. Rodgers and Hart’s score boasted more than 30 individual numbers, some of them quite short and all of them integrated into an absurd Candide-like episodic plot involving a Grand Eunuch who wants his married son to take over his job, sending the son and his narcissistic wife on the run. (A 2002 concert of the show at Musicals Tonight! was as fascinating as it was head-scratching. Can you have too many castration jokes?) It generated no song hits. The more conventional Treasure Girl starred Gertrude Lawrence as a spoiled young woman participating in a treasure hunt and had a book called “remorselessly dull” and “absolutely inane” by the critics, although it did produce one standard, “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”

All 10 songs, five from each show, sound fresh as paint and feature melodic and inventive music married to witty lyrics filled with fun wordplay and ingenious rhymes (my favorite was Hart’s pairing of “appetite” with “wrap it tight” in “Better Be Good to Me”). Comden’s light soprano and conversational phrasing highlight their musical charm, and she mines every bit of gold from the lyrics, no doubt aided by being a wordsmith herself. Richard Lewine, a Broadway composer and successful producer of television musical specials, has arranged them splendidly for piano, bass, and guitar, and his deft musical direction and piano playing are pure pleasure. Chances are that most American Songbook aficionados will be unfamiliar with at least some of this repertoire, so it really makes it a great gift.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road
Sony Masterworks has done a good deed by re-releasing the OCR for this groundbreaking 1978 Public Theater musical by Gretchen Cryer (book and lyrics) and Nancy Ford (music). A feminist cri de coeur, it’s a good choice for anyone who believes in fighting for women’s rights but especially for younger people, who likely won’t know it, despite a run of nearly four years off-Broadway and numerous productions all over the world. The show’s appeal abated as society moved on and people began to see it as being dated by its subject matter. However, I would argue that recent concert versions by the York Theatre Company (2011) and Encores! Off-Center (2013) more than established the material’s continued relevance. Indeed, with a confessed sexual predator and obvious misogynist about to assume the presidency, this exploration of sexual politics is almost scarily timely.

Thirty-nine-year-old successful singer-songwriter Heather (played by author Cryer, whose silvery soprano is a force of nature) is preparing for a new road tour with her band and backup singers by rehearsing a new act full of just-written material. But she wants to shed her nonthreatening good-girl image and showcase the liberated woman she wants to be. Her controlling male manager, a former lover, hates the idea and the act, and throughout one rehearsal they battle over it. Cryer and Ford’s smart and tuneful score is written in a folk rock idiom and consists solely of pop songs; all the singing is real singing, not the expressions of characters’ thoughts. The pinnacle is undoubtedly the wise and wistful “Old Friend,” which became a cabaret staple, but other highlights include the exuberant opener, “Natural High,” the ironic “Miss America,” the caustic “Strong Woman Number,” the confessional “Lonely Lady” (for which Cryer supplied the music as well), and the joyous “Happy Birthday.” Incidentally, this landmark cast recording was produced by A Chorus Line lyricist Edward Kleban, whose assistant was Craig Zadan, co-producer of many an onscreen musical, including the recent Hairspray Live!.

Spoon River Anthology
I have loved Edgar Lee Masters’ 1915 book of blank-verse “epitaphs” ever since I appeared in its stage adaptation in high school. Now the OBCR of that 1963 Broadway show has been re-released on CD, again by Sony Masterworks, and it’s a joy to have it back. For anyone who enjoys poetry, it should prove a welcome gift.

Though the show is not a musical, original folk songs by Naomi Carol Hirshhorn, also a cast member, and Charles Aidman, who conceived, directed, and performs, punctuate the proceedings, so this is not just a spoken-word recording. Broadway and film musical star Betty Garrett and veteran stage and screen actress Joyce Van Patten are the names in the six-person ensemble, whose members play more than 30 characters with impressive authority and versatility. Masters wrote about the hypocrisy of small-town social niceties and moral conventions with gimlet-eyed truthfulness, and if our world is a very different one from his, human nature hasn’t changed much in the intervening years. In effect much like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Spoon River Anthology is an aching but fortifying consideration of mortality.

First Daughter Suite
Finally, for musical theatre devotees, especially those that don’t live in the New York City area and thus would have been unable to see this superb Public Theatre presentation, there is Ghostlight Records’ OCR for Michael John LaChiusa’s First Daughter Suite, which in my mind tied with George C. Wolfe’s Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed as the best musical of the 2015-16 season. A stunning cast of eight powerhouse women and one extremely talented girl—including such names as Alison Fraser, Barbara Walsh, Mary Testa, and Rachel Bay Jones, who’s currently on Broadway in the hot new hit Dear Evan Hansen—bring four short musicals about the women who’ve lived in the White House to blazing life.

In “Happy Pat,” Richard Nixon’s daughters, Julie and Tricia, snipe at each other just prior to Tricia’s White House wedding while rain threatens the Rose Garden ceremony, mother Pat tries to referee, and the disapproving Quaker ghost of Nixon’s mother torments her daughter-in-law. “Amy Carter’s Fabulous Dream Adventure” has young Amy and her mother, Rosalind, merrily sailing on the presidential yacht along with a tippling, dance-happy Betty Ford and her truculent daughter, Susan, who’s angry at having to move out of the White House. Amy’s loopy fantasy dream involves sailing to Iran to rescue the hostages. In “Patti by the Pool,” Nancy Reagan negotiates her daughter Patti’s implacable hostility for having been frozen out by her parents for more than six months after she published a novel based on their family life. Nancy has reasons for wanting a rapprochement having to do with the Iran Contra scandal. The moving closer, “In the Deep Bosom of the Ocean Buried,” features Barbara Bush on a cold, windswept ocean beach in Kennebunkport, Maine, communing with the grown-up ghost of her daughter Robin on the 50th anniversary of Robin’s death from leukemia at age 3. Barbara is also bitterly disappointed in her son George’s presidency and keeps fending off the attempts of his wife, Laura, to get her on the campaign trail for his re-election.

LaChiusa’s portraits of these women and his observations on the intersection of power, politics, and family drama are richly rewarding, while his varied and melodic score dramatizes the action and characters potently. Ghostlight has recorded the complete experience on a two-disc set, beautifully capturing the show’s muscular theatricality. It’s the next best thing to having been there (I went twice).

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Dec
09

Trains and Boats and Planes and More

The title, of course, references the 1965 pop hit by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. But it’s also this week’s challenge: a list of theatre songs about transportation. I’ve arranged mine according to means of travel, beginning with Burt and Hal’s three enumerated modes but not ending there, for a list of 21 in all.

Trains
“Subway Directions/Ride Through the Night,” from Subways Are for Sleeping
Sydney Chaplin, as a former Wall Streeter turned voluntarily homeless man, instructs Carol Lawrence’s magazine writer in how to ride the subway all night on a single fare. As I said when I reviewed an off-Broadway revival of this 1961 misfire for Backstage in 2009, the show is undoubtedly Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s worst, which is especially unfortunate, as the Comden-Green–Jule Styne score is a honey. The Columbia Records OBCR was somehow acquired for CD release by Bruce Kimmel for his old Fynsworth Alley label, so it’s not available digitally, but you can hear Styne’s soaring tune on Percy Faith and His Orchestra: Subways Are for Sleeping.

“The Five Fifteen,” from Grey Gardens
It’s the summer of 1941, and Long Island socialite and amateur singer Edith Beale bustles about preparing for her daughter’s engagement party while awaiting the arrival of her husband from his Wall Street office on the LIRR. The divine Christine Ebersole handles Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s witty, period-flavored song with deft insouciance, and by the time it’s finished, Edith’s character is fully established.

“All Aboard for Broadway,” from George Washington, Jr.
George M. Cohan wrote this catchy chorus number about catching the train for Broadway in 1906 for this long-forgotten show, which according to the Internet Broadway Database took place in Mount Vernon, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; and Rhode Island. As all three connect to NYC by train, I have no idea where it was sung. I first heard it at the Palace Theatre in the 1968 bio-musical George M., starring a scintillating Joel Grey and also offering Bernadette Peters as Cohan’s sister Josie in her first featured role in a Broadway musical.

“Life Is Like a Train,” from On the Twentieth Century
I’m a huge fan of Cy Coleman’s faux operetta score for this musical farce, set to the whip-smart words of Comden and Green, but I didn’t get it when I saw it originally in 1978. Four Pullman porters tapped their way through this existential comment song to open Act 2 while I scratched my head. It was only by listening to the OBCR that it finally clicked with me, with this song now a particular favorite. “You get on at the beginning/You get off at the end” indeed!

Boats
“August Winds,” from The Last Ship
Sting wrote an attractive and stirring score for this 2014 musical about a dying shipyard in the north of England, but it was sunk by a seriously implausible book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, based on an original story by Sting. In this lovely ballad, our heroine sings of standing on the shore and watching the ships come and go while waiting for the lover who abandoned her for the sea to return. When he finally does after 14 years of silence, she’s engaged to someone else and things get complicated.

“All Aboard,” from The Frogs
I first saw this 1974 Stephen Sondheim–Burt Shevelove musicalization of Aristophanes’ comedy, presented originally in a swimming pool at Yale University, in its second production, in 1975, at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. I liked it then, and I liked it even more when Nathan Lane and Sondheim expanded it for Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 2004. This song, in which Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, welcomes the dead for their boat trip to Hades, was written for the expansion. A suitably sepulchral John Byner announces, among other things, “Club Dead/Straight ahead.”

“Four Black Dragons,” from Pacific Overtures
In another Sondheim song, the Japanese populace recounts the arrival of U.S. Commodore Mathew Perry’s ships, sent to open the closed nation to international trade and investment. I saw the show’s first Broadway preview, on Dec. 31, 1975, and when Boris Aronson’s origami-inspired ship burst open and hurtled downstage center at the song’s conclusion, the effect was breathtaking.

“Travel,” from Starting Here, Starting Now
Though it debuted in this 1977 Richard Maltby Jr –David Shire off-Broadway musical revue, “Travel” was written for an unproduced adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel “The River,” about “a close-knit English family living in India” just after World War II. They were to sing this gathered around the piano, and it is filled with imagery of sailing on the titular waterway. Loni Ackerman, George Lee Andrews, and Margery Cohen regularly got a great hand for it. I know, because I was the box office treasurer.

Planes
“Rainbow Tour,” from Evita
Eva Perón flew to Europe as the first lady of Argentina in 1947 to gain international respect for the company’s new fascist government headed by her husband, General Juan Perón. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1979 Broadway musical dramatizes it spiced with acid commentary from the show’s narrator, Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Supposedly, the real reason Evita made the tour was to stash money away in Swiss bank accounts.

“What Do We Do? We Fly!,” from Do I Hear a Waltz?
Lonely American tourist Leona Samish encourages her newly met fellow guests in a pensione in Venice to stay for cocktail hour and gab, and they bond over the indignities of air travel circa 1965. The result is this amusing and entertaining Richard Rodgers–Stephen Sondheim send-up of chitchat that simultaneously establishes the show’s gallery of supporting characters. As the Sherman brothers might have said, a spoonful of humor makes the exposition go down.

“Airport Song,” from Honeymoon in Vegas
This 2014 musical based on the hit 1992 film comedy got great notices, and yet somehow it never caught on with audiences. It wasn’t my cup of tea (neither was the film), but I did admire the craft of Jason Robert Brown’s score. This number comes late in Act 2, when the neurotic shmuck of a hero is trying desperately to get a flight from Hawaii to Las Vegas to stop his ex-fiancée from marrying a gangster. It’s a one-joke song, but it tells the joke very well.

“Doomed, Doomed, Doomed,” from The Golden Apple
OK, the vehicle in this case is a rocket ship, not a plane, but it’s still a mode of air travel. The insidious Mayor Hector, of the defeated city of Troy, under the guise of hospitality is showing the city sights to Ulysses and his victorious men while actually picking them off one by one. Here he introduces them to a lady scientist who announces that the earth is doomed and so, to save mankind, she has invented a “super gadget” to take us to another world. Of course, there’s a catch, and Ulysses loses another compatriot. Portia Nelson dithers delightfully to a ragtime beat; unfortunately, the middle chorus was cut for space on the 1954 OBCR, and it was also inexplicably cut from a 2015 production in Irving, Texas, that produced the first “full-length” live recording of John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ brilliant score. Here’s hoping we get the whole song at Encores! in the spring.

Horse-Drawn Ground Travel
“Goin’ on a Hayride,” from Three Wishes for Jamie
For the most part songwriter Ralph Blane wrote in collaboration with Hugh Martin, but this unsuccessful 1952 show was a rare solo outing for him. At least it proves that Blane could write both music and lyrics. In Martin’s 2010 autobiography, published when he was 96, the tunesmith insisted that of all the songs attributed to him and Blane, the only one on which Blane did any writing at all was “Buckle Down Winsocki,” from Best Foot Forward. I can’t say that I was convinced. Surprisingly, I had the chance to review a concert presentation of Three Wishes for Jamie for Backstage in 2010. I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced by that, either.

“Louisiana Hayride,” from Flying Colors
A much-better-known hayride song is this Arthur Schwartz–Howard Dietz tune from the hit 1932 musical revue Flying Colors. Star dancer Tamara Geva introduced it. Most people know it today, however, because Betty Comden and Adolph Green included it in their Dietz and Schwartz songbook film musical, The Band Wagon, where Nanette Fabray socked it over. The subject of a hayride certainly seems to make composers write awfully bouncy tunes.

“I’m on My Way,” from Paint Your Wagon
This rousing opener from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s 1951 Gold Rush musical has a host of prospective miners converging on California by covered wagon. Lerner goes out of his way to stress their varying ethnic backgrounds, even including two Chinese prospectors in the mix. In the show, they sing a bit of this number in their native language, but it wasn’t preserved on the OBCR, and the bit (and the characters) was cut in Encores! 2015 concert production, presumably because it was considered offensive, though I don’t see why myself. Lerner clearly liked the idea, as he also used it in this song in his radically rewritten 1969 film adaptation of the property.

“The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” from Oklahoma!
Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers were especially adept at writing indirect love songs, and this choice one, in which cowboy Curly tries to get farm girl Laurey to go the box social with him by painting a picture of the elegant rig he will take her in, is among their best. Lyric and music work together effortlessly to conjure up the sights and sounds of the countryside with details such as “isinglass curtains” (made of an almost transparent gelatin) “you can roll right down” beautifully employed. Hammerstein said that he always cried when he heard it, moved by its youthful innocence.

Motorized Ground Travel
“The Stanley Steamer,” from the film Summer Holiday
The great stage and screen director Rouben Mamoulian came a cropper with this 1948 MGM film musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness. It previewed badly, and producer Arthur Freed made a substantial amount of cuts before releasing it almost two years after it was shot, with nearly half of the Ralph Blane (lyrics) and Harry Warren (music) score getting the axe. Turner Classic Movies released a soundtrack CD that reconstructed the original, unedited score on its Rhino label in 2004, but that is not available digitally, so you can’t hear Mickey Rooney deliver this joyful paean to a certain automobile. However, as it was the only song from the score to become well known outside the film, there are numerous pop covers. Here is Jo Stafford singing it on The Capitol Rarities 1943–1950.

“There’s Nothing Like a Model T,” from High Button Shoes
Composer Jule Styne made his Broadway debut, after years of toiling in Hollywood, with this 1947 musical hit based on the novel The Sisters Liked Them Handsome by Stephen Longstreet, who also wrote the show’s book. The lyrics were by Sammy Cahn, who didn’t enjoy the experience and hightailed it back to Hollywood, though he did try Broadway again with several shows in the mid-’60s. Styne stayed and the rest is history. Star Phil Silvers slams this novelty number over backed by a highly enthusiastic chorus. Notice that not only does it mention the Stanley Steamer automobile; it also has a passing reference to another song about motorized ground transport, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s “The Trolley Song,” made immortal by Judy Garland in the film Meet Me in St. Louis.

“Madrid Is My Mama,” from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Danny Burstein, as the cab driver narrator of this musical version of Pedro Almodóvar’s quirky film comedy, performed this sexy opening number while tooling around the stage of the Belasco Theatre in a taxi. It was written during previews as composer-lyricist David Yazbek, book writer Jeffrey Lane, and director Bartlett Sher labored to fix their troubled show. Alas, they never quite got there (see my Backstage review), but Yazbek’s score has much to admire in it. I’m seeing his next musical, The Band’s Visit, the Wednesday before Christmas at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company. Here’s hoping!

“The Gentleman Is a Dope,” from Allegro
Though this Rodgers and Hammerstein torch song from their 1947 experimental concept musical isn’t about transportation, I had to include it because I love its ending, when Emily, the nurse who pines for the oblivious doctor for whom she works, tries and fails to hail a taxi. She does it in rhythmic coordination with the song’s vamp, then spits out “Oh, hell, I’ll walk!” to button the number, putting a perfect cap on the mounting frustration she’s exhibited in the song. John Doyle cut it from the song in his otherwise excellent chamber version of the show at Classic Stage Company in 2014, and boy did I miss it.

Bonus: “Seattle to Los Angeles,” from Gypsy
Wait, you say, there’s no tune with this title in Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne’s iconic score for Gypsy. Well, no, there isn’t, but there is a musical sequence early in Act 1 in which we see Rose and her two daughters travel by car between these two cities, picking up young boys for their vaudeville act along the way. I have no idea who thought of it. Book writer Arthur Laurents? Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins? The musical basis of the sequence is Rose’s introductory song, “Some People,” but who wrote this arrangement? Styne? Dance arrangers John Kander and Betty Walberg? It has only been recorded once, on the 2008 OBCR of the Laurents-directed revival starring Patti LuPone, where it is given the above title. And it’s really nice to have it.

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Dec
02

It’s a Puzzlement

To welcome the arrival of Dear Evan Hansen to Broadway, the subject is musicals that contain moral or ethical conundrums. With quite an array from which to choose, I have decided to pick 10 shows in which the dilemma is a large one, central to the musical’s narrative, and of interest to me.

Dogfight
As Dear Evan Hansen has a score by the hot new songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, what better place to start than with their NYC debut show, which I reviewed for Backstage in 2012. The show’s moral conundrum is the choice by its leading character, Marine Eddie Birdlace, to take part in a “dogfight,” a dance to which each marine invites the ugliest girl he can find. At the dance, whoever has brought the worst “dog” gets whatever cash is left over from what was donated potluck to fund the proceedings. Eddie picks up the shy, folk music–loving Rose and inveigles her to attend, but when she discovers what’s going on, she lambastes him in front of all and leaves. Suddenly full of moral disquiet over what he has done, Eddie spends the rest of the show pursuing Rose for forgiveness and ends up falling for her.

Reviews for this Second Stage production were mostly positive, but there was an internet backlash among some attendees, who felt that the presentation of misogyny was ipso facto endorsing such behavior. The response generated its own moral dilemma: to disagree was to risk being seen as endorsing misogyny oneself. As they sing in Falsettos, what a world we live in.

Let ’Em Eat Cake
This 1933 sequel to George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and George and Ira Gershwin’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize–winning satire Of Thee I Sing postulated the establishment of a fascist dictatorship in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The moral dilemma is whether or not the characters should support such an enterprise in exchange for power. A much darker satire than its progenitor, it only ran 90 performances, but I actually prefer it, though I am a fan of both shows. I think it is particularly relevant in the light of current events, and I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve never had the opportunity to see a production, but the wonderful double concert version of Sing and Cake produced at BAM in 1987 under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas remains a vivid and happy memory. Thank goodness CBS Records recorded it.

Fun Home
At first glance this 2015 Tony-winning Lisa Kron–Jeanine Tesori musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel seems to be a lesbian coming-of-age story rather than something built on a moral dilemma. But I think there is one, and right at the heart of the story. It’s the pact made by Alison’s parents, Bruce and Helen, in their marriage. Closeted Bruce is gay and sexually and romantically unfulfilled, which means that Helen is unfulfilled as well, but they accept the situation in exchange for suburban conventionality and respectability, as well as for the kids. Bruce and Helen have been lying for so long that they don’t know how to be truthful anymore, and the results aren’t pretty.

Jekyll & Hyde
I confess I am not one of the international legions of fans of composer Frank Wildhorn’s work, but it feels remiss not to include his and Leslie Bricusse’s musical version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story, as I have loved the tale since I read Stevenson’s novel as a lad. It certainly is one of the great moral conundrums of all time: Should Man Tamper With God’s Creation? The 1997 musical’s 2013 Broadway revival was one of the last reviews I wrote for Backstage, and it’s always a challenge to review a property for which one has no affinity. I did find some things to praise, but one that I neglected is that whatever one thinks of the quality of the material, the show loudly and forcefully proclaims Stevenson’s moral dilemma, and in that sense is quite true to its source.

Me and My Girl
Not all shows about moral dilemmas have to be serious, or even serious satire. This delightful 1939 London musical comedy hit, with book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber and music by Noel Gay, didn’t make it to Broadway until 1986, when it arrived in an adaptation by British actor Stephen Fry and its director, Mike Ockrent. Stars Robert Lindsey and Maryann Plunkett both won Tonys for their performances, and the show received nominations for best book, score, and musical but lost to the juggernaut that was Les Misérables (famous for its own moral dilemmas). The question here is whether cockney Bill Snibson, who out of the blue has inherited a fabulously wealthy estate, will betray both his class and the girl he loves for riches and a title. The exuberant Act 1 closer, “The Lambeth Walk,” in which the upper and lower classes come together, always makes me cry due to its joy and innocence.

The Visit
John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally’s 2015 Broadway musical adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s classic drama is one giant moral and ethical dilemma itself. Much-widowed octogenarian billionairess Claire Zachannassien returns to her European hometown of Brachen determined to exact revenge on the man who jilted her as a teenager. The town has fallen on hard economic times, and she offers to provide it with fabulous wealth in exchange for the life of her former lover. What’s a villager to do?

Chita Rivera was ultimately extraordinary in a part originally intended for Angela Lansbury, though it took her a while to get there. She first played the role in 2001, in Chicago, then again in 2008, in Washington, D.C., both times under Frank Galati’s direction. Then I found her game but miscast, too ebullient a personality for the frosty and furious Claire. But under John Doyle’s guidance, first in Williamstown, Mass., in 2014, and then on Broadway, she was all one could hope for in the part, every trace of sentimentality and show biz gone. I especially treasure seeing her penultimate performance in the sadly short Broadway run. Sick with a horrible cold, she insisted on going on (knowing that the show was closing the next day) but was forced to talk most of her songs. And yet she was astonishing, the best I had ever seen her in the role. It was a lesson in the power of a legendary star to command a stage.

Pal Joey
The moral dilemma here is one for the authors rather than in the show itself. The title character created by book writer John O’Hara (based on his own short stories) is a thoroughly amoral, not very bright heel who’s out for Joey at the expense of anyone else around him. But in musical comedy there is supposed to be hope and change. Would O’Hara and songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart compromise and soften Joey, making him a better, wiser man as the curtain falls? Nope. The hard-bitten manipulator learns absolutely nothing from his failure as an older socialite’s boy toy and a younger innocent’s boy friend, and it’s that hard-edged vision that distinguishes the show.

Rodgers’ daughter Mary spent many years asking various writers to turn it into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, where Joey learns his moral lesson and acts in noble sacrifice at the end, but to no avail. Today it’s hard to make this landmark musical work, despite its wonderful score, because it mixes well-written characters and mature subject matter (the central love triangle) with 1930s musical comedy (a secondary plot concerning chorus girls and blackmail) in all its zany arbitrariness. In 1940 audiences probably needed the latter to swallow the former (“Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” famously wrote New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson), but today the musical comedy part is so dated and foreign that it undermines everything else. If the show is to succeed with contemporary audiences, some inspired director will have to figure out how to reconcile the two writing modes. Massive rewrites for moral uplift is not the answer.

Hannah…1939
A Jewish dress designer of international renown who runs her own sewing factory is the title character of this 1990 off-Broadway musical by Bob Merrill. Set in Prague after the Germans have occupied the city just prior to World War II, the show looks at Hannah’s initial decision to collaborate with the Nazis—in order, she thinks, to protect her workers—and her growing realization that she has made a terrible mistake that exacts a great moral price. The show marked Merrill’s return to the New York musical stage after an absence of 18 years and is the final produced work of the man who wrote lyrics and/or music for such hits as New Girl in Town, Take Me Along, Carnival, Funny Girl, and Sugar.

I confess that a friend and I marched out of it at intermission in high dudgeon, convinced that Merrill was trivializing his intense subject matter. Now nearly 27 years older and decidedly less hot-headed, I listen to the score and hear a flawed but not uninteresting work that though undoubtedly too soft is enriched by good performances, especially that of Julie Wilson in the title role. Merrill fans in particular will want to check it out.

Oliver!
Is there a more potent example of a sung moral conundrum than Lionel Bart’s “As Long As He Needs Me”? Goodhearted prostitute Nancy wants to see the sweet-natured titular orphan saved from a life of poverty and crime by a rich relative, but she doesn’t want to do it by betraying her lover, the abusive thief and kidnapper Bill Sykes. I fell in love with Bart’s 1960 musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic when I saw the 1968 film version while on a trip to NYC with my fellow high school thespians. To this day I find Carol Reed’s cinematic adaptation a great improvement over Bart’s stage show, especially in regard to his slapdash book. Alas, the soundtrack CD is not available digitally, so here instead is the show’s original London cast recording, featuring the one thing that the stage show had over the movie: the great Georgia Brown as Nancy.

The Apple Tree
Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock’s 1966 collection of one-act musicals offers not one but three moral conundrums, so it serves for my finale. In Act 1, based on Mark Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” it’s the world’s original one: Will Adam and Eve disobey God’s order and trade innocence for knowledge? In Act 2, based on Frank R. Stockton’s “The Lady or the Tiger?,” will the high strung Princess Barbára choose revenge or passion in deciding the fate of her unfaithful (or so she thinks) lover? In Act 3, based on Jules Feiffer’s “Passionella,” will the titular chimney sweep magically transformed into a movie star abandon honesty and earnestness for a soulless life of tinsel and glamour? With the delicious Barbara Harris making the decisions, things just couldn’t get any better. In the words of Princess Barbára’s court: “Yeah, yeah, manna/Yeah, yeah, callu/Yeah, yeah, manna, callu/Yeah! Yeah!”

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