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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.

Apr
13

Me and R&H

I was six years old and growing up in suburban Ohio when the writing partnership of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II was sundered due to the death of its wordsmith, so the timing was not good. I never had the opportunity to see a new Rodgers and Hammerstein show in its original Broadway production. Indeed, the first R&H show I ever saw on stage was my high school’s production of Oklahoma!, when I was a sophomore. (Roberta McLaughlin was a memorable Ado Annie.)

I did, however, get to see Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot in its national tour, and that experience coupled with my love for the OBCR of My Fair Lady (since age four) made me a Lerner and Loewe fan, with Rodgers and Hammerstein coming in a distant second. (And still being a Lerner and Loewe fan, I must momentarily pause here to say how glorious Lincoln Center Theater’s new production of My Fair Lady is. I saw it last weekend on my birthday, and, under Bartlett Sher’s inspired direction, the show seemed brand new. Don’t miss it.)

It’s not that I didn’t like R&H shows; I played the soundtrack to The King and I almost as much as My Fair Lady’s OBCR. However, as a youth I was extremely competitive, and I tended to rate things hierarchically (the years have changed me, I believe), so it was L&L number one, R&H number two, slipping to three after I heard the OBCR of Stephen Sondheim’s score for Company when I was 16.

It was only in adulthood that I came to realize how groundbreaking the best R&H musicals were, and how greatly the form I loved—the serious book musical, driven by character and story—was indebted to them, and especially to Hammerstein. Yes, Lerner was a wonderful writer, but Hammerstein was the major innovator, indeed a revolutionary, something he became early in his career by writing Show Boat with Jerome Kern but didn’t further pursue until his partnership with Rodgers. This point, by the way, is driven home forcefully in Todd S. Purdum’s new book, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution. Its stated intention is to introduce a new generation to their lives and work, and if the book is, being a dual biography, necessarily less extensive than earlier solo tomes about each man, it includes all the major things you need to know coupled with just enough new stories to keep geezers like me interested.

Purdum begins his book on the night of the live national broadcast of R&H’s TV musical Cinderella, starring a 21-year-old Julie Andrews (moonlighting from her job of playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady on Broadway). He does so to highlight the cultural importance and influence of R&H: 107 million people watched at least part of the live show on the evening of March 31, 1957, in a country with a population of about 172 million. I, alas, being one week short of turning three, was tucked safely in bed, making me one of the unlucky 65 million who missed it.

I did, however, see the 1965 remake produced for TV by Rodgers, shot on videotape and shown on the evening of Feb. 22, starring Lesley Ann Warren. I was enthralled, and I can still see my 10-year-old self singing “Ten Minutes Ago” at the top of my lungs as I took our trash cans out to the tree lawn after the show, waltzing with them down a snow-dusted driveway. Today, alas, I am not quite so fond of that version, considering it inferior to the iconic original and third behind 1997’s multicultural rendition starring Brandy, with its smart script by Robert L. Freedman. (Oops, there I go again, getting hierarchical.) Surprisingly, considering a starry supporting cast that includes Bernadette Peters, Victor Garber, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Alexander, and Whitney Houston, plus the dreamy Paolo Montalban as the prince, it is not only not available digitally; it apparently was never released as a soundtrack CD.

I confess to not being a fan of Douglas Carter Beane’s script for the show’s belated 2013 Broadway debut (see my Backstage review for why), but I did enjoy Laura Osnes in the title role, Santino Fontana as her prince, and the radiant Victoria Clark as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. They and Danny Troob’s gorgeous orchestrations make the OBCR very worth having.

As a teenager and even into my 20s, I knew R&H shows principally from their film versions, which I first encountered on commercial TV bisected by commercials and sometimes cut to fit time slots. I saw The King and I first and fell hard for it, even with commercials and cuts, and, like most of my generation, I adored the film of The Sound of Music upon its release in 1965 (though in subsequent years I could never quite warm to it as a stage piece, as I find the film much better written).

However, I thought the films of Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific were disappointing and clunky and preferred to listen to their OBCRs rather than the soundtracks. I liked the score for Flower Drum Song but found the movie garish and tacky. The 1962 remake of State Fair, which I saw first, was elephantine, coarse, and, quite frankly, stupid. The 1945 original, R&H’s only musical written directly for the big screen, proved a charming corrective, but the score contained only one book song (“It Might as Well Be Spring”), so it was too slight for my taste. Pipe Dream and Me and Juliet were oddities, some nice songs here and there notwithstanding. Even reading their scripts didn’t do much for me. (That said, after seeing Pipe Dream at Encores! in 2012, I rate its score much higher than I used to, especially thanks to the terrific OCR of that production, which is much more complete than the original recording.)

And then there was Allegro. I listened to the extremely abbreviated OBCR a lot and was fascinated by the script, which I read repeatedly at my local library. I was entranced by the idea of the show (depicting a man’s life from birth up to the age of 35 while using a Greek chorus for commentary) but found it hard to imagine in my head, especially with so much music missing. I wasn’t even sure if the chorus’ lines were spoken in unison or sung. (Fortunately, the show finally got a superb complete studio recording in 2009. How I wish that had been available to teenage me.)

Then, in 1978, while I was working off-Broadway as theatre manager and box office treasurer for Equity Library Theatre, we did a production. I was enormously excited by what I saw and heard, and though I could see that the work was not without flaws, I immediately fell in love with Allegro and have remained so ever since. Richard Rodgers came to that production, and he liked it so much that during intermission he asked to meet the cast afterward. He gave a touching and clearly heartfelt speech thanking them for bringing the show back to life. He said that it was the first time he had seen it since it closed on Broadway.

My initial opportunity to experience Carousel on stage came in 1986, when Hammerstein’s son James directed a production at the Kennedy Center, with choreography by Peter Martins, that was clearly aimed at Broadway. Names in the cast included Tom Wopat as Billy Bigelow (I had worked with Wopat before he became a TV star, when he played Curly in Oklahoma! at ELT), an as yet unknown Faith Prince as Carrie Pipperidge, and Milo O’Shea as the Starkeeper (a last-minute replacement for Jack Gilford). I was floored by the show’s dramatic power and the vast reach of its full musical score (to this day there is no complete commercial recording of Carousel), so different from the pale film version. Alas, the critics caviled just enough to scotch a Broadway transfer. In particular, Wopat suffered at the hands of Washington Post critic David Richards (who subsequently wrote for The New York Times), I think possibly because of his Dukes of Hazzard TV fame. I thought he gave a fine performance as Billy. Perhaps I was too green to see the production’s flaws, but I was bowled over by it, and it made me a Carousel convert for life. Director Nicholas Hytner’s 1994 production for Lincoln Center, of course, was an absolute stunner, the proverbial gold standard. (Alas, the OBCR is not available for download, but you can get the 1993 recording of Hytner’s production in its debut with a largely different cast at London’s National Theatre.)

I have not yet seen director Jack O’Brien’s new production, which opened last night on Broadway after my deadline for this column, so I have no idea what the critics said. Reported cuts and changes to the script and score (no “Geraniums in the Winder” and “Stonecutters Cut It on Stone,” giving half of “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’?” to Renee Fleming as Nettie Fowler, and beginning the show in heaven with the Starkeeper, as the film unfortunately does) worry me, but the four leads—Joshua Henry, Jessie Mueller, Alexander Gemignani, and Lindsay Mendez as Billy, Julie, Enoch, and Carrie, respectively—are all excellent singing actors, so there’s hope.

My final conversion to R&H supremacy came late, in 2008, with Lincoln Center’s version of South Pacific, directed by Bartlett Sher (see above and My Fair Lady). It was, surprisingly, my first chance to experience this classic on stage, though I had seen the private film that Rodgers and Hammerstein made of the original London production, starring Mary Martin and Wilbur Evans. Shot in an empty Drury Lane Theatre, it is an odd duck, with the actors stiffly hanging for applause that does not, of course, come, but it does attest to Martin’s magic in the role of nurse Nellie Forbush, which the OBCR doesn’t fully catch, and the at-the-time revolutionary fluidity of Joshua Logan’s staging.

In any event, Sher and his co-stars Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot made a believer out of me. A show I considered to be neither fish nor fowl, half an old-fashioned musical comedy and half a serious musical play, came together organically and played with great power, especially with regard to its anti-racism theme. I had been seriously wrong; South Pacific was a great, and daring, musical. (And if I am ever tempted to doubt that judgment, I just put on my home-burned DVD of the PBS Live From Lincoln Center broadcast of the production.)

As this column has dwelled on the standard R&H canon, I thought I’d end by offering a few lesser-known items for your delectation. First up is Richard Kiley: Rodgers and Hammerstein Songbook. This double LP album, released in January 1960,

features 24 songs and contains both standards (“Some Enchanted Evening,” “If I Loved You”) and more-obscure numbers (“So Far,” “Marriage Type Love”). Kiley would have been ideal as Curly McClain, Billy Bigelow, or Emile de Becque, had he been the right age to do them, but the only Rodgers role he got to originate was David Jordan in 1962’s No Strings, Rodgers’ first show after Hammerstein’s death, for which he wrote lyrics as well as music. Kiley’s manly baritone is ideal for the repertoire, and his singing is authoritative and well acted. The musical arrangements, however, are very period. Aside from cast recordings, it is the only album Kiley ever released. I wonder if it helped him get the role in No Strings.

Rodgers & Hammerstein in London gives you a chance to hear original London cast recordings for Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific. Alas, they are only selections, as the English didn’t make complete cast recordings back then. They offer Harold Keel (who eventually became Howard) as Curly, Stephen Douglass (of Damn Yankees and The Golden Apple) as Billy, and Wilbur Evans (of Mexican Hayride, Up in Central Park, and By the Beautiful Sea) as Emile.

Bernadette Peters presents her own spunky take on R&H in the 2002 release Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers and Hammerstein. She sings 12 R&H songs but oddly also includes “Something Good,” written by Rodgers for the film of The Sound of Music after Hammerstein’s death. The CD is worth having just for her rendition of “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World,” written by R&H for a Broadway comedy they produced, Mary Chase’s Happy Birthday, a vehicle for Helen Hayes. Chase is better known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning comedy Harvey.

Rodgers & Hammerstein Overtures came out in 1992 and features renowned conductor John Mauceri leading the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in musical suites from all 11 of their titles, uncut and in the original orchestrations. This disc features the only recording of the overture to Me and Juliet (what’s on the OBCR is actually the brief musical prologue to the musical within the musical), an extended overture to Flower Drum Song created for the show’s national tour, and a special suite for State Fair created by legendary Broadway orchestrator Sid Ramin (West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) just for this recording.

Conversations With 2 Legends of the American Musical Theatre – Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is just that, separate half-hour one-on-one interviews conducted by Tony Thomas. I haven’t listened yet, but how could it be anything other than interesting?

Finally, there’s a real R&H rarity: the 1953 MGM film Main Street to Broadway. For years I wanted to see this movie, in which Rodgers and Hammerstein have a cameo appearance, but I couldn’t find it anywhere, not even on late night TV. The movie’s plot, about an aspiring young man from the Midwest who has written a play for Tallulah Bankhead, is beside the point. The film is stuffed with cameos of New York theatre actors, writers, producers, directors etc., from cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to actors Ethel and Lionel Barrymore to writer-director John van Druten (he helmed The King and I), and even people such as lyricist Dorothy Fields and composer Arthur Schwartz can be spotted in the background in scenes (you’ll see them in the lobby of the Martin Beck Theatre). You really get a sense of the Broadway world of the 1950s.

R&H show up first with Joshua Logan and some chorus girls in an audition scene, after which they are depicted writing the song “There’s Music in You,” meant for Mary Martin to sing in a new Broadway show. Finally, we see Martin perform it in rehearsal as R&H look approvingly on and give some tips. Interestingly, Rodgers is depicted as writing the tune first, something that the team rarely did. The empowerment anthem wasn’t a hit, but it is now a part of the score for Cinderella, sung by Cinderella’s fairy godmother, and both Whitney Houston and Victoria Clark did very well by it.

A few years ago I found a DVD of Main Street to Broadway for sale on a boutique website specializing in rare films. I even gave a copy to Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, because he didn’t have it. For fans of R&H, not to mention anyone interested in the history of Broadway, I think it’s a must.

 

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Mar
30

Comedy Songs Tonight

Sunday is April Fool’s Day, and so in recognition of that unalterable fact I am looking at comedy songs. As these are legion, I’ve added some parameters. All must come from book shows, no songwriter can be represented more than once, and the choices are skewed toward lesser-known tunes. Obvious candidates, such as “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” from Kiss Me, Kate; “Adelaide’s Lament,” from Guys and Dolls; and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” from West Side Story, are eschewed. Here are 15 from 14 shows, plus a bonus: a totally unknown Stephen Sondheim lyric cut from Do I Hear a Waltz?

“I Cain’t Say No,” from Oklahoma!
OK, this 1943 Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II song for the lusty Ado Annie is an exception, but it was obscure to me when I experienced it for the first time in 10th grade in my high school production of the show. I still vividly remember how captivated I was as joke after joke landed perfectly, each one topping the last. It’s proof that Hammerstein could be as funny as the next guy when he wanted to be. I’ve encountered many fine renditions in the intervening years, but nobody beats the original, Celeste Holm, whom I have seen perform the song live, so I know. Although I am partial to Julie Andrews’ brief tussle with it in a medley sung with Carol Burnett on the 1962 TV special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall: She ends with “I cahn’t say ‘cain’t.’” You can see it on YouTube. Priceless.

“You’ll Be Back,” from Hamilton
It seems to me these days that the flat-out comedy song is less in evidence in musicals, particularly the ones with pop- and rock-based scores. Lin-Manuel Miranda, however, is well versed in musical theatre history and knows how potent this form can be. In any event, he certainly employs it with great skill in this song of “romantic” disappointment with America for England’s King George III. It’s an instant classic.

“Miss Marmelstein,” from I Can Get It for You Wholesale
This Harold Rome ditty for a secretary frustrated by her co-workers’ excessive formality put Barbra Streisand on the Broadway map back in 1962 and lightened the increasingly dark second act of this musical drama about an amoral climber in the garment industry. Streisand was up for the Tony for best featured actress in a musical opposite Phyllis Newman, who had her own comic showstopper, “I Was a Shoo-In,” in the musical Subways Are for Sleeping. Consensus at the time was that it was a two-woman race, and Newman triumphed, probably because she had the flashier song and role.

“The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” from Grey Gardens
Opening Act 2 of this 2006 musical about the nonconformist mother and daughter Edith Beales of East Hampton, this song does a lot of work: setting us in the new world of 1973 and the now-decaying mansion that we saw in its 1941 prime in Act 1, characterizing the changes in Little Edie caused by 32 years of increasing isolation from the world, and setting up the dramatic conflict between the Beales and their community. It’s also drawn directly from a monologue in the documentary on which the musical is based. And yet it is also a comedy song in form, thanks to Michael Korie’s smart, intricately rhymed lyric and Scott Frankel’s upbeat, jauntily militaristic music. Christine Ebersole grabbed it and ran, and the result was breathtaking.

“I’m Past My Prime,” from Li’l Abner
This 1956 show based on Al Capp’s famous comic strip about the white trash denizens of Dogpatch, U.S.A., is filled with comedy songs, but I think this duet is my favorite. Heroine Daisy Mae laments her single status at the ripe old age of 17 and worries about her future, as her friend Marryin’ Sam commiserates. Johnny Mercer’s lyric is filled with delightful and surprising rhymes totally appropriate to character (“I ask you who’s elated/When you’s Methuselated?/Like a mummy underground/When you is antiquated/Boys ain’t enchantiquated/They prefers you in the round”) and Gene de Paul’s loping tune charms without ever getting too in your face.

“Dante, Petrarch, and Poe”/“Sur les Quais,” from Lolita, My Love
I recently spent three days at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., doing research in the Alan Jay Lerner and Arthur Laurents papers, just for fun, and this ill-fated 1971 musicalization of Vladimir Nabokov’s notorious classic was much in evidence. These are two songs but one unbroken sequence in Act 1. In the first, anti-hero Humbert Humbert lectures a suburban Vermont audience on the erotic attractions of nymphets while justifying his desire through the examples of the titular heralded writers, all of whom loved or even married underage girls. Humbert’s scandalized audience eventually flees, and he finds himself alone in the back yard with his landlady, the lonely and rather vulgar widow Charlotte Haze, who has romantic designs upon him. In the first, a patter song that alternates with flights of lyricism, Lerner and composer John Barry perfectly capture Humbert’s mixture of dry academics and obsessive ardor (“My series of lectures exclusively features/Poets enraptured and captured by creatures/Barely pubescent…/Who charm them/Enthrall them/What else is there to call them/But a nymphet?” and “How can you compare a woman’s Chase Manhattan charm/To dusty little toes, a sticky hand, a scrawny arm?”), while in the latter Barry’s sunny can-can melody serves to comically highlight Charlotte’s increasing desperation while ridiculing her pretensions to sophistication (“Tonight my peonies seem like fleur de lis/And across the yard staring down at me/I see Notre Dame sur les quais de Rahmsdale, Vermont” – changing the pronunciation of the flat American A in Ramsdale to make the rhyme). The show has a brilliant score, but book problems and a cashless producer stranded it in Boston. You can hear John Neville and Dorothy Loudon in these two songs, however, thanks to a bootleg sound system tape made just before the Boston closing. Dante and Quais” are both on YouTube.

“Book Report,” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown, Linus, Schroeder, and Lucy each struggle with writing a 100-word book report on “Peter Rabbit” for school in songwriter Clark Gesner’s Act 1 closer for the 1967 off-Broadway megahit. Lucy spits out a literal plot synopsis while meticulously counting her words and padding when she has to (“the very, very, ve-e-e-ry end”), Linus diverts to writing about “Robin Hood,” Schroeder looks for deep meaning and sociological implications, while Charlie Brown feverishly procrastinates. It’s a four-part hoot.

“Repent,” from On the Twentieth Century
Imogene Coca was a riot in 1978 singing this Betty Comden–Adolph Green–Cy Coleman number in which we learn that her character, an “elderly, sweet” wealthy widow named Letitia Peabody Primrose, is in reality a nutty religious fanatic who is slapping stickers saying “Repent” all over the train known as the Twentieth Century Limited. Letitia, however, does have her practical side: “Like you I once was wild/Men shouted, ‘Oh, you kid!’/A life of shame I led/And dirty doings did/Until one night I saw the light/And heard salvation’s call (Ta-ta-da-da-da-da-da)/I’m so glad I didn’t hear it/Until I did it all!” Perhaps she was known as Tish the Dish in her day.

“Changing My Major,” from Fun Home
I don’t know how aware first-time book writer–lyricist Lisa Kron, already a well-regarded playwright, was about the history of the comedy song in musicals, but whether she knew them or not she wrote a damn good one for this adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel. Here middle Alison (the show has three actresses in the role at varying ages) giddily celebrates her sexual awakening in the bed of college girlfriend Joan. As was done for “Dance 10/Looks 3” in A Chorus Line (whose real title is “Tits and Ass”), what would actually be the title of this song, “I’m Changing My Major to Joan,” wasn’t used in the program, to avoid spoiling the laugh. Kron eventually piles up increasingly unexpected rhymes for “Joan” till she gets to the kicker: “I’ll go to school forever/I’ll take out a dementedly huge high-interest loan/’Cause I’m changing my major to Joan.” Alexandra Socha (off-Broadway in 2013) and Emily Skeggs (on Broadway in 2015) both killed with it. You can see Socha on YouTube.

“Wunderbar,” from Kiss Me, Kate
I’ve seen too many productions of this 1948 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in which this number, intended to be an actual waltz from a Viennese operetta, is sung with a generalized nostalgic romanticism. Wrong! It’s all about Lili Vanessi and Fred Graham, divorced from each other but still starring together, competing for attention while sending themselves up, sending each other up, sending the song up, and remembering why they fell in love. Watch Broadway originals Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison (who just celebrated her 103rd birthday) do it in a 1958 TV adaptation of the musical on YouTube (the song starts at 2:12). It’s a veritable one-act play, and, in particular, Drake’s reading of “And you’re mine dear” tells you everything you need to know. Songwriter Cole Porter was in on the joke. His verse begins with “Gazing down on the Jungfrau from our secret chalet for two.” You can’t do that. The Jungfrau is the highest mountain in its range in the Swiss Alps.

“Artificial Flowers,” from Tenderloin
Just as Porter was parodying operetta, songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick were making cheeky fun of the kind of sentimental storytelling ballads so popular in America in the 1890s. Tommy is an amoral social climbing reporter for the cheesy Tatler magazine who wants to join a church choir to get close to a society girl. He auditions with this song about a penniless waif named Annie. I’m especially fond of “With paper and shears/With wire and wax/She labored and never complained/Till cutting and folding her health slipped away/And wiring and waxing she waned.” Amazingly, Bobby Darin had a pop hit with the number when the show opened in 1960. I guess cheap sentiment never goes out of style.

“Summer Is a-Comin’ In,” from The Lady Comes Across
This 11 o’clock number by John Latouche and Vernon Duke comes from a three-performance flop in 1942 that lost its star—Britisher Jessie Matthews, in what was to have been her Broadway debut—out of town to a nervous breakdown. Sung by “four shoppers and ensemble,” I have no idea of its dramatic context, but the four were played by the Martins, a singing group consisting of soon-to-be songwriters Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin (the score for Meet Me in St. Louis) joined by two sisters, Jo Jean and Phyllis Rogers. Also a parody, this time of a medieval folk air, it juxtaposes lighthearted, innocent music with a saucy lyric about sexual awakening. Fourteen years later Latouche repurposed it for Charlotte Rae, who sang it in both her club act and the Broadway show The Littlest Revue.

“The Echo Song,” cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
The man who wrote “Comedy Tonight” has penned more comedy songs than you can shake a baton at, but I have chosen this pretty obscure Stephen Sondheim number for a simple reason: I saw it work on stage like gangbusters. Cut from Forum’s original production in 1962, “The Echo Song” was put back in for the musical’s 1972 Broadway revival, starring Phil Silvers, by co–book writer and revival director Burt Shevelove, which I caught pre-Broadway in Chicago. Shevelove removed the courtesan Philia’s “That’ll Show Him” to make room for it, and I think it’s a better choice, although subsequent productions have reverted to the original song stack. In it, Philia prays to her gods for an answer as to whether she can leave Captain Miles Gloriosus, who after all has a contract for her, to run away with her love, Hero. Philia’s gods only answer in echoes, and a hidden Hero struggles to find the right ones to gain himself a bride. The revival, alas, wasn’t recorded, but you can hear Liz Callaway and Steven Jacob sing it on A Stephen Sondheim Evening. I believe it’s the only commercial recording of the song, though Sondheim himself performs it on the sound system recording of his 1971 appearance in the 92nd Street Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists Series.

“The Coconut Girl,” from The Girl Who Came to Supper
In this eight-minute Act 2 showpiece, star Florence Henderson, playing a London chorus girl in 1911 named Mary Morgan, acts out the songs and story to The Coconut Girl, a musical in which she is appearing. She is relating all this to the son of her lover, Grand Duke Charles, the Prince Regent of the fictional European country of Carpathia. The sequence has little to do with story or character, but Henderson is very funny as she plays multiple roles, singing in a deep voice for the hero and a high soprano for the heroine, and even performing her harmony part for the song “Six Lilies of the Valley” (“We’re six lilies of the valley”/pause, pause, pause, pause, pause, “Sally”). Noël Coward’s songs deftly skewer the musical comedy styles of the day. The 1963 show was a musical version of Terrence Rattigan’s 1953 hit stage comedy The Sleeping Prince, starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, which was made into the 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, starring the unlikely pairing of Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. The musical only managed 112 performances. Was it the fault of Harry Kurnitz’s book? Did José Ferrer and Henderson lack chemistry? I don’t know, but Coward blamed them all, plus director-choreographer Joe Layton, in his diary.

BONUS: “Philadelphia!,” cut from Do I Hear a Waltz?
This song has been something of a Holy Grail for me since I discovered its existence back in the early 1970s by reading the Variety review of this 1965 Richard Rodgers–Stephen Sondheim–Arthur Laurents musical’s out-of-town New Haven, Conn., debut. The Northwestern University library had bound copies of Variety issues going years back, and I would go through them specifically to read out-of-town reviews, in part because they always included a song stack, so you could see which numbers had been cut prior to Broadway. Once I moved to New York, I acquired rare demo recordings of many Sondheim obscurities, but this one never surfaced. When I became Laurents’ student in the mid-’80s, I asked him about “Philadelphia!” (What did it do? Who sang it?), but he professed not to remember it at all. I eagerly grabbed my advance copy of Sondheim’s book of lyrics Finishing the Hat and went right to the Do I Hear a Waltz? section, only to discover that it wasn’t included. Was I crazy? Had it even existed?

Yes, it had, as my recent trip to D.C. finally proved. The typewritten lyric, on a page by itself, not integrated into the script, was in Laurents’ papers, and the music manuscript, in the composer’s hand, was in the Rodgers archive. The song happened in Act 2, when heroine Leona Samish, on holiday from America, throws a party for her fellow tourists staying in a Venice pensione to celebrate her new romance with the very married Renato di Rossi. It was replaced by “Perfectly Lovely Couple.” Here is Laurents’ description of the song he wants: “The following is a rough indication of the party scene. A polished draft depends on the musical element, which weaves in and out. This should be based on a song, first stated by the phonograph record and then taken up by the orchestra, which should be a gay ‘novelty,’ nonsense ditty. Or, to be more elegant, a ‘divertissement,’ lyrically irrelevant to the place, the time and the people; a number they can have fun with at the beginning and yet play against later on.” In other words, the partygoers pick up the song from the record and sing snatches of it to each other as they party, eventually with subtextual intent.

The song is a parody of the kind of ditty written as a paean to a geographical place. Rodgers’ melody, which splits the first iteration of the word “Philadelphia” on a booming octave jump, is peppy and boosterish. And undoubtedly an inside joke by the man who wrote the songs “Oklahoma!” and “All I Owe Ioway.” Also, there’s that exclamation point, which Variety did not include but both the typed lyric and music manuscript pointedly do. One note: In the first four lines of the verse, the original choices of cities Mineola and Harrisburg have been crossed out and replaced in handwriting by Tallahassee and San Berdoo. A crucial change, no?

So here is the lyric. Print it out and slip it into your copy of Finishing the Hat.

“Philadelphia!”
Lyric by Stephen Sondheim, music by Richard Rodgers
Verse:
I have been to Tallahassee
I have been to San Berdoo
You can keep your Tallahassee
You can keep your San Berdoo

I’ve been back to Sacramento
I’ve been back to Louisville
You can keep your Sacramento
All I’ll ever want is

Chorus:
Philadelphia –
There isn’t a finer spot!
Philadelphia –
The city I love a lot.
Pennsylvania
Is better because it’s got
Philadelphia!
Philadelphia!

Interlude:
I knew a girl from Philly,
Said her name was Ruth.
I used to call her Milly,
Which was closer to the truth.
I lived in Piccadilly,
But I wooed her still.
She said, “You’ll think I’m silly,
But I never could leave Phil-

Second Chorus:
-adelphia.
There isn’t a finer spot!
Philadelphia –
The city I love a lot.
Pennsylvania
Is better because it’s got
Philadelphia!
Philadelphia!
The city of brotherly love!”
 

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Mar
16

Eire’s Musical Fare

Amazingly, after nearly four years of columns here at BwayTunes, we have never done a salute to the Irish in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. So here’s a look at some of the ways Ireland and musicals have intersected over the years. I’m thinking shows, songs, and artists.

Editor Andy Propst mentioned Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s landmark drama Juno and the Paycock, in his newsletter announcing this topic, but I’m including it here simply because I’m such a fan of the score. Alas, Joseph Stein’s book and Blitzstein’s songs never meshed well enough for the 1959 show to succeed. In 1992 director Lonny Price worked with Stein and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh on a revisal at the Vineyard Theatre, with Anita Gillette and Dick Latessa as the battling Boyles. The production had much to offer but didn’t solve enough of the problems. However, an earlier attempt at revising the musical was made in 1976 by adapters Richard Maltby Jr. and Geraldine Fitzgerald (who also played the title role opposite Milo O’Shea as her husband), with additional lyrics from Maltby as well and direction by Arvin Brown, then artistic director of Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre, where the production debuted. , It was even retitled as Daarlin’ Juno, but mixed reviews nixed a future for it. However, a script and complete live tape exist, and I think they reveal that a lot of smart work was done. If any further attempt is made to fix Juno, I’d start with the 1976 try.

Finian’s Rainbow is, of course, the first musical that came to mind when considering this topic, and Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg’s “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” is probably the most memorable Irish song ever written for the Great White Way. I initially encountered Finian’s at the ripe old age of 14 via its 1968 film version, and that makes the soundtrack recording my go-to disc for this score, especially for the superb performance of Petula Clark as Sharon McLonergan, though I am also partial to the recording of the 2009 Broadway revival (a production I reviewed very favorably for Backstage.) That said, the role’s originator, Ella Logan, is a commanding presence on the OBCR. Just recently I found a rare TV appearance by Logan on YouTube in which she sings “Look to the Rainbow.” It dates to 1954, a mere seven years after she created the part, and while her highly stylized performance would be unlikely to fly today, I bet it worked like gangbusters in 1947, rocketing right to the last row of the balcony at the 46th Street Theatre.

And speaking of memorable Irish songs on Broadway, who arrives in my brain but George M. Cohan. If ibdb.com is correct, he was involved with no fewer than 106 Broadway productions in a career spanning from 1901 to 1940, in the capacities of producer, director, songwriter, playwright, or star (sometimes all at once). Not one of his many hit musicals has ever received a cast recording (though you can hear Cohan and his contemporaries singing some of his songs on George M. Cohan: Rare Recordings), but I grew up knowing such Irish-flavored tunes as “Mary” (“Plain as any name can be”), “Harrigan” (“Proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me/Divil a man can say a word agin’ me”), “Down by the Erie” (“Poor John O’Leary/I’m afraid you’ve lost your gal/For she’s left you flat, my dearie/By the Erie Canal”), and “Nellie Kelly, I Love You” (“The boys are all wild about Nellie/The daughter of Officer Kelly”). Of course, Cohan’s big four—“You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Over There”—are still immediately recognizable today, more than a century later. In 1969 I saw the great Joel Grey play Cohan at Broadway’s Palace Theatre in the bio-musical George M!, whose cast album is a grand introduction to his catalogue. Incidentally, Grey recently reprised that performance, tapping away as a surprise guest in the musical revue Hey, Look Me Over! at Encores! Not bad for 85.

Cohan not only wrote memorable songs; he was a memorable character in his own right. So who are a few memorable fictional Irish characters from musicals? To start, there’s Dolly Gallagher Levi, an Irish lass widowed by her Jewish husband, currently treading the boards in the person of Bernadette Peters in director Jerry Zaks’ revival of Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre. Then there’s Arvide Abernathy, who gives granddaughter Sarah Brown some sage romantic advice in Frank Loesser’s lovely “More I Cannot Wish You” in Guys and Dolls. Rapscallion lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago is of Irish heritage, as is newsboy Jack Kelly in Newsies, though neither sings about it. Aggie and Rooster Hannigan, however, do employ a bit of a brogue when recalling words of wisdom from their sainted Irish mother in Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse’s “Easy Street” from Annie. Pert Kelton’s Widow Paroo, on the other hand, in both the stage and screen versions of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, sings with an accent as thick as a shillelagh in “Piano Lesson” and “Gary, Indiana” (the latter only in the film).

Irene O’Dare, in the person of Debbie Reynolds, gets a whole song celebrating that she’s “An Irish Girl,” written specifically for the 1973 Irene revisal by Otis Clements (lyric) and Charles Gaynor (music). On screen Marjorie Main’s salt-of-the-earth Katie the maid went songless in Meet Me in St. Louis, but that wouldn’t do when you have Betty Garrett playing the role, so Hugh Martin wrote “A Touch of the Irish” for her in the 1989 stage adaptation. Anthony Newley’s Irish accent as “cat’s meat man” Matthew Mugg in the 1967 film musical Doctor Doolittle proves as fickle as Dick Van Dyke’s infamous stab at a cockney one in Mary Poppins as Newley delivers such Leslie Bricusse songs as “My Friend the Doctor,” “After Today,” “Where Are the Words,” and the title song. Alas, the soundtrack CD is long out of print and used copies are pricey, but La-La Land Records recently released a wonderfully complete deluxe two-CD set of the soundtrack in a limited edition of 3,000 units that I highly recommend to fans of this score.

Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green had great fun with the stereotype of the Irish cop in “Darlin’ Eileen” from Wonderful Town (“Mother’s a Swede and Father’s a Scot/And so Irish I’m not/And I never have been./Hush you Eileen/Hush you Eileen/Fairest Colleen that ivver I’ve seen/Don’t ya give me none o’ that blarney/Ya come from Killarney/Ye’re Irish Eileen!”) Finally, there’s the not-so-familiar Thomas Doyle, a penniless bum turned burlesque comic in the 1985 flop Grind, directed by Harold Prince, which boasts a strong score by Larry Grossman (music) and Ellen Fitzhugh (lyrics). Timothy Nolen does well by the haunting “Katie, My Love,” in which Doyle expresses his regret at continuing to live after the deaths of his wife and young son, and by the powerful “Down,” in which we discover that his work as an Irish terrorist was responsible for those deaths.

Three great Irish playwrights—Oscar Wilde, Eugene O’Neill, and Dion Boucicault—had their work turned into musicals. Anne Croswell (book and lyrics) and Lee Pockriss (music) metamorphosed Wilde’s The Importance Being Earnest into Ernest in Love, an off-Broadway hit in 1960 at the Gramercy Arts Theatre (currently the home of Repertorio Español), while no less than Noël Coward came a-cropper trying to musicalize the same playwright’s Lady Windermere’s Fan as After the Ball, which ran in the West End in 1954 for only 188 performances. A revised version, however, did play at Manhattan’s Irish Repertory Theatre in 2004, directed by Tony Walton. Composer-lyricist Bob Merrill wrote the scores for two Broadway shows derived from O’Neill plays, 1957’s New Girl in Town and 1959’s Take Me Along, both box office hits. The former was based on the 1921 Pultizer Prize–winning drama, Anna Christie, and the latter was a musicalization of O’Neill’s only comedy, 1933’s Ah, Wilderness! Boucicault’s show is the most obscure of them all: the 1963 off-Broadway success The Streets of New York, based on the hit 1869 melodrama of the same title. Barry Alan Grael (book and lyrics) and Richard B. Chodosh (music) came up with a clever and tuneful score that captures the correct tone without resorting to camp. The OCR from AEI is not available digitally, but you can get the CD at Amazon.com. The show ran for 318 performances at the Maidman Theatre on 42nd Street between Ninth and 10th avenues, which was later rechristened the John Houseman Theatre before being demolished in 2005, eventually making way for the Pershing Square Signature Center theatre complex and apartment building.

I’d like to close with a look at two Irish-related musicals of which I am inordinately fond. The first is Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty’s A Man of No Importance, which played off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater for 124 performances in the fall of 2002. Based on the wonderful 1994 film of the same name, it tells the tale of Alfie Byrne, a gay but closeted bus conductor in 1963 Dublin who lives with his unmarried older sister and is obsessed with putting on an amateur production of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. Alfie is also hopelessly in love with his bus driver, the considerably younger and unfortunately heterosexual Robbie Fay. Roger Rees, Faith Prince, and Steven Pasquale all gave superb performances in the leading roles (played in the film by Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker, and Rufus Sewell), as did Sally Murphy as a young woman with a secret whom Alfie casts as Salome. The Ahrens and Flaherty score is top drawer and dovetails beautifully with McNally’s perceptive book. The show is a real charmer, both funny and moving. It cries out to be rediscovered.

My Vaudeville Man! is a deft and delightful look by Jeff Hochhauser (book and lyrics) and Bob Johnston (music and lyrics) at the early life of Broadway hoofer Jack Donahue, who hit the big time starring on Broadway in three back-to-back hits: 1925’s Sunny (opposite Marilyn Miller), 1928’s Rosalie, and 1929’s Sons o’ Guns (for which he also co-wrote the book), before alcoholism took his life in 1930. Produced off-Broadway by the York Theatre Company in 2008, My Vaudeville Man! is a two-hander, the only other character on stage being Jack’s very Irish mother, who doesn’t want to see him throw his life away on the show business. The musical begins in 1910, when 18-year-old Jack sneaks away from home to take his first professional job, on a vaudeville tour of New England. A host of other characters appear through the eyes of our two leads, and considerable dramatic ingenuity is employed in the telling of the tale. Numbers such as Act 1’s “Picnic in the Kitchen,” in which Jack remembers how his mother dealt with family financial setbacks due to his father’s drinking, and Act 2’s “The Tap Drunk,” in which Jack tries to beat four other hoofers in a bar to win a $25 pool, are standouts. The latter served as a remarkable tour de force for Shonn Wiley in a triple triumph of acting, singing, and dancing. Karen Murphy brought yards of charm to “Mud” (short for “mother”) Donahue, then turned around for a dramatic tour de force in Act 2 with “So the Old Dog Has Come Home,” sung when her abusive husband returns from his longest bender yet. I confess that I’ve known Johnston since he was a classmate at NYU, and Hochhauser is a good friend of many years standing, but that has no bearing on my opinion of My Vaudeville Man! As many a friend of mine will attest, don’t ask Erik what he thinks unless you really want to know, because he’ll tell you.

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Artists

Mar
02

Revueing the Situation

Book musicals have always been my thing, even though I have created two musical revues in the course of my theatrical career (neither of which I’ve considered eligible here), so when asked to come up with a list of my 10 favorite musical revues, I initially thought, “Will I be able to find a full list?” To my surprise it proved hard to whittle it down to 10, and so I’ve included another 10 honorable mentions as well. Another surprise? I’ve seen 16 out of 20 in performance! Here they are, in alphabetical order.

Closer Than Ever
When I saw this collection of smart and perceptive songs by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire during previews at the Cherry Lane Theatre in October of 1989, I liked it well enough but didn’t think it surpassed their earlier revue, 1977’s Starting Here, Starting Now. That show had focused on young people discovering love and their life’s purpose, and at 35 I think that still spoke more to me than did Closer Than Ever’s songs about mid-life crises and concerns. However, when I saw the York Theatre Company’s 2012 revival, I was immediately and thoroughly hooked. Perspectives change, eh?

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter
I discovered the LP of this 1965 Ben Bagley–produced off-Broadway show while in high school and fell in love with it immediately. A terrific cast of top Broadway talent—Harold Lang, William Hickey, Carmen Alvarez, and Elmarie Wendel—backed up star Kaye Ballard on 12 lesser-known Cole Porter songs full of sass, sex, wit, and wicked double entendres. And the finale was a wonderfully creative medley of Porter hits strung together by surprising and very funny lyrical segues. I got to see a production in Chicago in the winter of 1974 while attending Northwestern University, and the show, which contained many additional songs not on the OCR, was even more fun. When the recording came out on CD in 1991, it included 16 of those other tunes, taken from live tapings made during the revue’s 273-performance run, including cuts by such cast replacements as Bobby Short, Tammy Grimes, Danny Meehan, and Dody Goodman. Incidentally, the theatre it played, the Square East, went on to become the legendary music venue known as the Bottom Line in 1974. It closed in 2004 and New York University classrooms now occupy the space. The OCR has never been available digitally, and I’m afraid the CD is long out of print, but used copies of it and the LP can be found at Amazon.com.

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway
I caught this anthology of the great director-choreographer’s Broadway work during previews in January of 1989, which means I got to see Charlotte d’Amboise sing and dance the number “Dreams Come True,” from Billion Dollar Baby, before Robbins cut it before opening. The great thrill I got from this show came from being able to see work that I had only been able to read about in its original staging, including sets and costumes (though the choreography for some pieces, such as On the Town’s “New York, New York” and “Times Square Ballet,” had been lost, so Robbins had to re-create it in the spirit of the original). I don’t think any director-choreographer has surpassed Robbins’ work in musical theatre, and this show laid that out for all to see. It won the Tony for best musical but, due to its fiendish complexity, doesn’t often get produced. However, the St. Louis Muny will be doing it from June 11–17, in what is billed as the show’s “first major staging since leaving Broadway in 1990.”

New Faces of 1952
Producer Leonard Sillman began this Broadway franchise that put a spotlight on new talent in 1934, when he wrote the sketches for and appeared in New Faces of 1934. He took over as producer for the 1936 edition and continued in that role for five more incarnations: 1943, 1952, 1956, 1962, and 1968. However, by far the most successful was ’52, which featured such future stars as Alice Ghostley, Eartha Kitt, Carol Lawrence, Ronny Graham, and Paul Lynde, sketches principally by Mel Brooks and Graham, and songs by, among others, Sheldon Harnick, Arthur Siegel and June Carroll, Michael Brown, and Murray Grand. It ran for 365 performances and was made into a CinemaScope motion picture, featuring the original cast, in 1954, which is how I got to see it (you can stream it on Amazon Prime or buy the DVD). Highlights include Ghostley’s riotous bout with sexual repression in Harnick’s “Boston Beguine,” Kitt smoldering on Siegel and Carroll’s “Monotonous,” Carroll debuting the future Grand cabaret standard (with a lyric by Elisse Boyd) “Guess Who I Saw Today?,” and the full company romping through Brown’s hoedown tribute to “Lizzie Borden” (“Oh, you can’t chop your momma up in Massachusetts/Not even if you’re tired of her cuisine”).

Oh Coward!
Noël Coward made his final public appearance attending a performance of this long-running off-Broadway musical revue saluting his work on Jan. 14, 1973, looking frail on the arm of Marlene Dietrich as they entered the New Theatre on East 54th Street. I got the cast recording as soon as it was released, and it served as an overdue introduction to the songs of the Master (there weren’t a lot of recordings of Coward songs available in the early ’70s). I virtually memorized it, and I was overjoyed when I finally got to see it in a first-rate 1986 Broadway revival featuring original star, director, and creator Roderick Cook backed up by the estimable Catherine Cox and Patrick Quinn (oh, for a recording of that!). There was a shortened video version made for Showtime in 1980 with Cook, Jamie Ross, and Pat Galloway that’s now very hard to find (I did!), and the LP on Bell Records never even made its way to CD (except in my house), but used copies can be found at Amazon.com.

Oh What a Lovely War
Director Richard Attenborough’s star-studded 1969 film version of this 1963 London musical revue skewering the monstrous folly known as World War I introduced me to the property. I was so stunned by it that I went back the following weekend to see it for a second time. After that it disappeared from view, until I had the chance to catch it in a one-night-only screening at Lincoln Center in the mid-’80s. Eventually I managed to videotape a cable TV broadcast, and I finally was able to purchase it on DVD some years after that. The revue, created by experimental director Joan Littlewood and her company of actors known as Theatre Workshop, interweaves historical facts with satirical parodies of patriotic war songs written by the soldiers who fought in the trenches, and it is both blistering and deeply moving. It ran for 501 performances in London, and David Merrick brought it to Broadway in 1965 for a 125-performance run. A few years ago the second half of a TV broadcast in the Netherlands in the mid-’60s, performed in English by members of Theatre Workshop, surfaced (the first half, alas, is missing), so I actually have seen some of the stage production. There was no OBCR, but the London cast recording did come out briefly on CD from Must Close Saturday Records and now goes for a lot at Amazon.com but considerably less on eBay. The excellent film soundtrack, alas, exists only on LP, but you can stream the movie on Amazon Prime or buy the DVD.

The Show Goes On
This “and then we wrote” revue dedicated to the work of and starring composer Harvey Schmidt and playwright-lyricist Tom Jones opened off-Broadway at the York Theatre Company on Dec. 17, 1997, and ultimately ran for 88 performances, extending its original limited run due to popular demand. Act 1 covered their commercial material, while Act 2 was devoted to more-experimental work. The songwriters performed alongside three singing actors: JoAnn Cunningham, Emma Lampert, and J. Mark McVey, and the results were immensely entertaining. DRG Records recorded the show live in performance, and if the single CD isn’t the complete show, it amply illustrates its pleasures, particularly in capturing much of Jones’ witty and insightful narration on the nature of their creative process. (Not available for download, you can stream or buy the CD at Amazon). Highlights include three different title songs for I Do! I Do!; three star-turn songs for the same slot tailored to three different divas for 110 in the Shade; a wonderful topical cabaret song written for the 1958 Julius Monk revue Demi-Dozen, “Mr. Off-Broadway”; and a wickedly funny tribute to the results of embalming, “Wonderful Way to Die,” from 1975’s The Bone Room (their only produced show as of 1997 not to get a cast recording, you can read The New York Times’ review here). Simultaneous with the show, Limelight Editions published Jones’ how-to book Making Musicals, which I highly recommend to any of you out there hoping to do so.

Side by Side by Sondheim
I caught this show in London’s West End twice in August of 1976 during a two-week stay, even though I already knew practically every song in it. English audiences were not familiar with Stephen Sondheim at all at that point, despite Company having been done in the West End a few years earlier, and I got a tremendous high from their enthusiastic, astonished responses. Performers David Kernan, Millicent Martin, and Julia McKenzie were top-notch, and host Ned Sherrin’s self-written patter, largely skewering celebrities and politics, was a delight. It’s not on the recording, but that’s probably just as well, as the references would now undoubtedly be plenty dated and rather obscure. One song I didn’t know, “I Never Do Anything Twice,” written for but cut from the 1976 Sherlock Holmes film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, still lives in my head today as a great theatrical memory, thanks to Martin’s smashingly naughty rendition.

Sondheim on Sondheim
Reviewing this Roundabout Theater Company production for Backstage in 2010, I ended with “An evening of your own with Steve? Grab it while you’ve got the chance.” The revue was conceived and directed by James Lapine, and at its core was Sondheim on video discussing his oeuvre and dishing about his experiences making theatre. You only hear that on the two-CD set, but it doesn’t make it any less interesting. A strong ensemble of eight, most of them not known for performing Sondheim, gave the evening a sense of freshness. My favorite moment, however, was when Barbara Cook and Norm Lewis came out and did several songs from Passion in costume and fully in character. I had never had the chance to see Cook, one of our finest singing actors, appear in a book show, and I at last got my chance, however abbreviated. She was superb and gained a Tony nomination for her effort in her final Broadway outing.

Starting Here, Starting Now
I suppose I really can’t be objective about this Maltby and Shire revue (which I mentioned above), as I was the box office treasurer for it back in winter of 1977 after having moved to New York City a mere four months prior. I saw it many, many times (well, at least the first act, as the box office had to be open at intermission, but I usually stayed for Act 2 as well), and it never failed to make me very happy. Back in 2012, at my suggestion, the York Theatre Company reassembled the spectacular cast of Loni Ackerman, George Lee Andrews, and Margery Cohen for a one-night-only benefit performance with limited rehearsal, and not only were they brilliant, they were totally off book and exactly re-created the staging as well (thanks to a video of the original made in 1977 by the show’s choreographer, Ethel Martin, so she could replicate her staging, and lots of muscle memory). It was heaven, and I’m very proud of having set that ball in motion. The evening was so successful that it had to be repeated two more times. Four years later the York did the show with a new cast in a Mufti concert, and that was terrific as well. I know this list is in alphabetical order, but I don’t care, this show is my favorite revue ever!

Honorable Mention:
Berlin to Broadway With Kurt Weill
– This 1972 off-Broadway revue is a great Weill primer, but alas the OCR never made it past LP. The York Theatre Company did it as a Mufti concert last winter, which, shockingly, I somehow failed to catch.

LingoLand – Another York production, from 2005, had Kenward Elmslie in person providing a guided tour through his career as lyricist, book writer, opera librettist, and poet, and his decidedly original, offbeat sensibility is well captured on this two-CD set.

The Littlest Revue – From 1956, this is another Ben Bagley off-Broadway production, with songs principally by Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke but also contributions from Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, Sheldon Harnick, John Latouche, Kenward Elmslie, and Michael Brown, among others, and a cast that included Joel Grey, Charlotte Rae, and Tammy Grimes before they were famous. I was only two, so I missed it.

The Mad Show – This 1966 off-Broadway hit based on Mad magazine ran for 871 performances and featured music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by four guys, including Stephen Sondheim (billed as Esteban Nio Rido), whose sole contribution, “The Boy From…,” hilariously delivered by Linda Lavin before she was Linda Lavin, makes this recording a necessity. Caught the York’s 2011 Mufti concert version.

Putting It Together – Another Sondheim revue, from 1993 off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, and though the attempt to put his songs into a new storyline didn’t really come off, the recording contains a great performance from Julie Andrews as a rich wife with a straying husband.

Show Girl – You can’t go wrong with Carol Channing, and she is at her zaniest in this 1961 Broadway revue by Charles Gaynor, especially in the musical play parodies “This Is a Darn Fine Funeral” and “Switchblade Bess.” It’s too bad the Cecilia Sisson routine isn’t on it, but you can see that on YouTube, taken from a video version made for pay TV.

Tintypes – A highly imaginative look at the immigrant experience in America, this unusual show, conceived by Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin, and Gary Pearle, uses period songs of the late 1800s and early 1900s to make trenchant political and social commentary. It played 134 performances off-Broadway in 1980, transferred to Broadway for 93 more, and even made it to video. Famed director Jerry Zaks, currently represented on Broadway with the hit revival of Hello, Dolly!, leads a cast of five.

Tomfoolery – Not only produced but “devised” by legendary English producer Cameron Mackintosh, this compendium of songs by the brilliant American satirist Tom Lehrer has the advantage of collecting all of his best ones in one place. A hit in England in 1980, it flopped off-Broadway in 1981 (where I saw it), I think because American audiences already knew all the jokes.

Two on the Aisle – I’ve never had the chance to see this hit 1951 Betty Comden–Adolph Green–Jule Styne Broadway revue, but stars Bert Lahr and Dolores Gray shine, and the songs, especially “If You Hadn’t but You Did” and “Catch Our Act at the Met,” are nifty.

Two’s Company – Another show I’ve never caught, this 1952 Broadway revue with songs principally by Ogden Nash and Vernon Duke is a must because it stars Bette Davis flinging herself into musical comedy with scary fervor, especially on “Turn Me Loose on Broadway.” Her wry “Just Like a Man,” however, is actually pretty good.

 

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Feb
16

Doing Good

Tomorrow, Sat., Feb. 17, is apparently Random Acts of Kindness Day, and in honor of that we are looking at songs that involve in some way generosity, good works, or kindness. Here are 20 tunes from 15 shows.

“Doing Good,” “We Need Him,” and “Pow! Bam! Zonk!,” from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman
This 1966 satirical musical adaptation of the famous comic strip—one of the rare musical comedies to be directed by the legendary Harold Prince—was the first thing to come into my mind, as Superman, of course, is the ultimate do-gooder. And, indeed, three songs in the witty Charles Strouse–Lee Adams score fill the bill. “Doing Good” is the first song in the show, sung by Superman as he changes back into his secret identity as Clark Kent. He tells us that “ev’ry man has a job to do/and my job is doing good,” then goes on to enumerate: “It’s a satisfying feeling when you hang up your cape/To know that you’ve averted murder, larceny, and rape.” It’s immediately followed by the citizens of Metropolis vigorously acclaiming their superhero for all he has done for them (“He brought the orphans Christmas turkey/He flew my asthmatic son to Albuquerque”). And finally, “Pow! Bam! Zonk!” is an action-packed finale in which Superman vanquishes the 10-time Nobel Prize–losing scientist Dr. Abner Sedgwick, who wants to take revenge on the world by depriving it of Superman, and his minions, the Flying Lings, a Chinese acrobatic troupe who want to destroy Superman because no one will pay to see their routines when they can see him fly for free. I love this score, and the show’s 2013 Encores! concert production was an absolute delight, as I wrote for Backstage at the time. Interestingly, thinking of this show sent me to review Bono and the Edge’s score for 2011’s infamous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, positing that there must be a candidate for this list there as well, but no such luck. A superhero musical without a song about good deeds? What were they thinking?

“(Just a) Simple Sponge,” from SpongeBob SquarePants, the New Musical
I am not the target audience for Broadway’s latest adventure in brand-reinforcing musicals (Jimmy Buffett and Donna Summer are up next, I hear), so I have not seen it and don’t plan to go. However, I have heard some of the music and was sufficiently aware of the plot to know that the little yellow sponge saves his undersea community from an exploding volcano. And, yes, there is a song that deals with that, written by Brendon Urie, front man for the rock band Panic! at the Disco. In Act 1 SpongeBob sings it as he gets up his courage to try to save his town, and it comes back in Act 2 when he achieves his goal. Does Urie really think that “wanted” and “done it” rhyme? Oh brave new world….

“On the Side of the Angels,” from Fiorello!
As this 1959 musical biography of New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia begins, he is an impoverished young lawyer whose practice involves a steady stream of charity cases. In this opening number by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, we hear about LaGuardia’s penchant for serving the poor from members of his staff, as well as from a number of his clients who are directly asking for his help in counterpoint. Imagine, a lawyer as a hero! The musical won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but I’m not sure Shakespeare would have approved.

“The Army of the Just” and “It’s Grand How the Money Changes Hands,” from Tenderloin
Bock and Harnick followed Fiorello! the next year with this musical adaptation of a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams about a crusading preacher trying to shut down prostitution in the Tenderloin district of Manhattan during the latter half of the 19th century. In the first song Reverend Brock and several of his young male parishioners make plans to go undercover in the district to gain the evidence necessary to achieving their goal. In the second one we watch them doing just that as Act 1 ends. Tenderloin was not the hit Fiorello! was, however, mostly because while LaGuardia was a figure already beloved by New Yorkers as a reformist politician, audiences saw Brock as a busybody killjoy, despite the best efforts of British Shakespearean star Maurice Evans in his one and only Broadway musical. Rex Harrison had a lot to answer for.

“Ya Got Me” and “I Understand,” from On the Town
Three sailors in the U.S. Navy—Ozzie, Chip, and Gabey—get 24-hour shore leave in New York City during World War II, so of course they go looking for girls. And they all find them, but then Gabey’s girl, Ivy Smith, fails to show up at the appointed hour. The solution? Ozzie and Chip, along with their girls Claire and Hildy, take Gabey on a nightclub crawl while waiting for Hildy’s roommate, Lucy, to show up as a substitute. “Ya Got Me” is their buoyant attempt to cheer up Gabey, and the irresistible Latin rhythms are the hallmark of composer Leonard Bernstein, while Betty Comden and Adolph Green provide the deliciously fizzy words. The stentorian “I Understand” is quite the contrast. It’s the more-than-generous response of Claire’s fiancé, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework, to the fact that she is romancing with Ozzie right in front of his nose under the guise of her work as an anthropologist making a study of man. In 1944, when On the Town debuted, so did its creators, at the start of their long and fruitful theatrical careers. Producers Oliver Smith and Paul Feigay definitely did a good deed by commissioning this show.

“Be Kind to Your Parents,” from Fanny
Late in Act 2 our titular French heroine sings this lighthearted Harold Rome ditty to her young son, Cesario, who has grown old enough to start asking questions about his real father, Marius, who impregnated Fanny then followed his lifelong dream of going to sea, unaware of the coming child. Cesario thinks that the kindly, older Panisse, whom Fanny married to stay respectable, is his father, but he has also heard about Marius as an old family friend and wants to meet him. This, naturally, upsets Panisse, and Fanny tries to make light of the situation by asking Cesario to forgive the grownups for “the foolish things they do” because they are in “a difficult stage of life.” Curiously, this is the last cut on the OBCR. The musical’s finale, a reprise of one of the show’s big songs, “Welcome Home,” during which Panisse dies, is left off. I guess the powers that be thought in 1954 that death was too much of a downer for a commercial recording, but it does make the listening experience maddeningly anticlimactic.

“Round and Round,” from The Fantasticks
“There is a curious paradox that no one can explain./Who understands the secret of the reaping of the grain?/Who understands why spring is born out of winter’s laboring pain?/Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again,” asks the dashing bandit El Gallo late in Act 2 of this 1960 Tom Jones–Harvey Schmidt classic, adding, “I do not know the answer; I merely know it’s true./I hurt them for that reason, and myself a little bit too.” Them, of course, refers to Matt and Luisa, also known as the Boy and the Girl. El Gallo arranges for his accomplices to kidnap and torture Matt, then has Luisa watch it through magic glasses that make it look pretty. In this increasingly frenetic waltz, he leads her on romantically only to leave her when it’s over. Generous emotional damage. Who knew?

“Look Back/Look Ahead,” from Giant
In this 2012 musical adaptation by Sybille Pearson (book) and Michael John LaChiusa (music and lyrics) of Edna Ferber’s sprawling 1952 novel about Texas and its economic shift from ranching to the oil business, protagonist Bick Benedict, owner of the grand Reata Ranch, ages across 27 years. This song comes at a crucial moment in his life, when, newly married to the haughty Eastern beauty Leslie Lynnton, he descends into paralyzing grief over the accidental death of his beloved older sister, Luz, who was 18 years older and raised him after the death of his mother when Bick was only five. His Uncle Bawley, something of a recluse, hears of the situation and makes a rare visit to his nephew to try to bring him to his senses. As shades of Luz and other Benedict ancestors beg not to be forgotten, Bawley insists that Bick must honor the dead but nevertheless “look ahead.” John Dossett was an unforgettable force of nature as Bawley (see my Backstage review), who succeeds in his rescue mission. LaChiusa’s rich, Aaron Copland–esque score is filled with pleasures and probably his most accessible work. There are also splendid performances from Bryan d’Arcy James, as Bick; Kate Baldwin, as Leslie; and Michelle Pawk, as Luz. If you don’t know it, you’re missing out on something special.

“Happy to Make Your Acquaintance,” from The Most Happy Fella
In announcing this week’s topic, editor Andy Propst listed the 1956 Frank Loesser song “Love and Kindness” as an example. In it a doctor suggests that his patient take “love and kindness from the good-looking nurse.” The patient is middle-aged vintner Tony Esposito, who is recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash. Nursing him is his mail-order bride, Rosabella, a former diner waitress, who discovered upon arrival that Tony had sent her a picture of his handsome young foreman instead of himself. Rosabella left rather than marry Tony, and he chased her in his car, only to crash it. Thinking Tony was on death’s doorstep, Rosabella allowed herself to be pressured into going through with the marriage. Now they both must try to start anew, which they do in this song. She generously forgives him, and he thoughtfully brings her waitress pal Cleo to come work at the vineyard and live with them, so Rosabella won’t be lonely. The great Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan, and Susan Johnson take charm about as far as it can go in this one. You can also watch them in it on YouTube, courtesy of “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“Jeannie’s Packin’ Up,” from Brigadoon
In this short chorus number, Jean MacLaren’s girlfriends pack her trousseau for her on the eve of her marriage to Charlie Dalrymple. The number, performed “in one” in front of the curtain, existed solely so the scenery could be changed, which is probably why it was left off the show’s 1947 OBCR, not used in the MGM film version, and is sometimes omitted from stage productions today. It took 11 years to make it to vinyl, on Goddard Lieberson’s much more complete studio recording of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s first Broadway hit. I am fond of “What with all the clothes/All the these and those/Why do ye suppose/Jeannie never froze?” Jeannie’s got some hardworking friends!

“Kindness,” from Inner City
This vest-pocket 1971 rock musical was based on a book of verses called “The Inner City Mother Goose” by Eve Merriam. Composer Helen Miller set the verses and also wrote music for new ones by Merriam. The cast of nine included Delores Hall, Larry Marshall, and Linda Hopkins, who won a Tony for best featured actress in a musical (she beat Adrienne Barbeau, for Grease; Beatrice Winde, for Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death; and Bernadette Peters, for a revival of On the Town). Subtitled “a street cantata,” it was really a plotless musical revue focusing on the travails of life in the inner city. “Kindness” is an ironic song that tells of the symbiotic relationship between a cop on the beat and the neighborhood drug dealer, with the cop being “kind” by looking the other way in exchange, of course, for a cut. The reviews were not great, and it only lasted for 97 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. However, while it was playing, its director, downtown avant-garde superstar Tom O’Horgan, had four shows running on Broadway: Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Lenny (Julian Barry’s phantasmagorical play about Lenny Bruce), and this.

“I Got the Sun in the Morning,” from Annie Get Your Gun
In Act 2 of songwriter Irving Berlin’s most enduring musical, the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill are both penniless, though each thinks the other is a financial success. The two Bills plot to merge their shows, but once reality is discovered, the jig appears to be up. That’s when sharpshooter Annie Oakley saves the day be selling all the medals she was won on a European tour to fund the merger. It leaves Annie penniless, but it reunites her with the love of her life, sharpshooter Frank Butler. So Annie, in the person of the great Ethel Merman, sings this Berlin rouser to celebrate her generous act (“Got no diamonds, got no pearl/Still I think I’m a lucky girl/I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night”).

“Never Will I Marry,” from Greenwillow
Frank Loesser’s 1960 bucolic fable, based on a novel by B.J. Chute (and with a book assist from Lesser Samuels), failed largely because audiences found the gentle story about a young man struck with the curse of wanderlust entirely too twee. The score, however, is glorious, and I hope one day Encores! will do the whole thing, rather than the snippets presented in its just-closed musical revue Hey, Look Me Over!. In this corker, our hero, young Gideon Briggs, has just become convinced, after hoping otherwise, that he will suffer with wanderlust as his father, Amos, still does. Gideon has essentially grown up fatherless, with Amos only making the occasional visit home, and he doesn’t want to do that to his own child, so he dramatically swears off marriage to his sweetheart, Dorrie. Star Anthony Perkins was ill when he recorded the OBCR and was apparently upset that he cracked on a high note in this rangy number, but I think it only adds to Gideon’s vulnerability. Judy Garland took a more upbeat, feminist approach on her TV show, which you can see on YouTube and download digitally from Judy Takes Broadway! With Friends.

“Is It a Crime?” and “Hello, Hello There,” from Bells Are Ringing
Telephone answering service worker Ella Peterson is always going above and beyond the call of duty to do personal favors for her clients. In “Is It a Crime?” she tries to distract a police detective, who thinks she is part of a prostitute ring, from following her as she goes to the apartment of playwright Jeff Moss, with whom she is in love, to save him from himself and his hard-living ways. He’s lying in a drunken stupor and will miss an important deadline if she doesn’t. The incomparable Judy Holliday wrings every bit of comedy from this melodramatic cri de coeur about helping others. A little later in Act 1, Ella and Jeff are on the New York City subway and she counters his cynicism about what the people in the car are really like by brightly saying hello to a stranger. He is so shocked and delighted that he does it to someone else and soon the whole car is helloing each other in song and dance. A simple act of kindness leads to an epiphany of joy. Lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green recycled the idea from material they had written early in their career as part of the nightclub comedy act the Revuers. The melody by Jule Styne, however, was entirely new in 1956.

“The Cradle Will Rock,” from The Cradle Will Rock
Marc Blitzstein’s electrifying title song for this 1937 anti-1%, pro-union Brechtian parable rings in my head frequently in today’s dark political times. Union organizer Larry Foreman has been hauled into night court for distributing leaflets and by doing so “inciting a riot.” He warns the conservative Liberty Committee, apparatchiks for the town’s big shot, Mister Mister, who are also under arrest due to a mix-up, that the day of the downtrodden is coming. And in the show’s finale, Foreman achieves his goal, as he hears musical signals from the various trade workers—the boilermakers, the roughers, the rollers, the steel makers—indicating that they have agreed to form that union. Each group has a musical signal, and in Blitzstein’s terrific orchestration we hear them all sounding out in glorious cacophony as the workers come together in a march singing a reprise. Unfortunately, that orchestration is almost never heard, as it became traditional to perform the show with just a piano after its dramatic premiere, which the federal government tried to prevent by locking the company out of its theatre. This led to a search for a new theatre and the use of a single piano played by the author. The good news is that Opera Saratoga’s lauded production of last summer, which used a full orchestra, was recorded live, and the company is promising an upcoming release on CD. Each time I read about the possible blue wave of the 2018 elections, I hear in my head “That’s thunder/That’s lightning/And it’s gonna surround you./No wonder/Those storm birds/Seem to circle around you./Well, you can’t climb down/And you can’t sit still./That’s a storm that’s gonna last until/The final wind blows./And when the wind blows/The cradle will rock!”

 

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Feb
02

‘Love’-less Love Songs

Ira Gershwin hated writing love songs. The main reason was that he felt he was just saying the same thing over and over, and it was hard to find a fresh way to put it. He liked to challenge himself by trying to write love songs without ever using the word “love.” Thus, this year’s Valentine’s Day column will look at “love”-less love songs, by Gershwin and others, with an emphasis on lyricists of the Great American Songbook.

“They All Laughed,” from the film Shall We Dance
Sung by Ginger Rogers as a performance number and then danced by her and Fred Astaire in this 1937 film musical from RKO, this song, lyric by Ira Gershwin and music by George Gershwin, is a full-throated celebration of a successful romantic relationship built on the idea that everyone thought it would never work. In his invaluable book Lyrics on Several Occasions, Ira says, “This lyric is an example of the left-field or circuitous approach to the subject preponderant in Songdom.” Indeed, you don’t even know it is about a romance until you get to the release and the line “They laughed at me wanting you.” Until then it’s a list song about unlikely triumphs by such folk as Christopher Columbus, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and Eli Whitney.

“Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy and Bess
During his long career Ira Gershwin was rarely called upon to write lyrics that delved deeply into character. However, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t do it. In this exultant love duet from his brother George’s masterpiece of an opera, the crippled Porgy showers Bess, newly liberated from her violent lover, Crown, with his love without once using the word, and she responds in kind. The repetition of “mornin’ time and ev’nin’ time and summer time and winter time” gets me every time. Ira’s lyric is a collaboration with the 1935 opera’s librettist and co-lyricist, DuBose Heyward, but as the music was written first, and Heyward wrote almost all of his lyrics first, it’s likely that Ira’s work on it was considerable. In looking for a copy of the original sheet music online, I was appalled to discover that DuBose Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, is also now listed as co-lyricist on the aria. This is due to a deal struck between the Gershwin and Heyward estates after Ira’s death (he was the last of the authors to die) to revise the opera’s writing credits, most likely made in order to extend the copyright for the Heyward estate (Dorothy died years after her husband) in exchange for making the opera’s official title The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Dorothy Heyward co-wrote the play on which the opera is based. She had no hand in the writing of Porgy and Bess, she certainly didn’t write one syllable of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and it remains shameful that the estates now claim otherwise.

“All Alone,” from The Music Box Revue of 1924
Though Irving Berlin wrote this famous ballad for the above show, he liked it so much that it was first introduced as an interpolation into the national tour of The Music Box Revue of 1923. The singer is obsessing about a love affair that has apparently been interrupted, and the elegantly simple lyric is a model of succinct writing. The reversal at the end “Wond’ring how you are/And where you are/And if you are/All alone too” is perfection in its inevitability and indirection (if you are all alone as well, does that mean you still love me?). Obviously, there is no OBCR, but you can hear Judy Garland, who knew a thing or two about singing Berlin’s songs, caress it here.

“My Funny Valentine,” from Babes in Arms
In a recent humor piece in The New York Times called I Told You Never to Play That Slut-Shaming Song Again,” Joyce Wadler imagines one Gloria from Woodstock calling in to the equally imaginary Smash the Patriarchy Easy Listening Hour to rail against this 1937 Richard Rodgers–Lorenz Hart ballad because it cruelly makes fun of a person’s physicality (“Is your figure less than Greek?/Is your mouth a little weak?”). In her reply to Gloria, Wadler remarks in passing that “the song is about Valentine’s Day.” Um, no, it’s not. It’s about a young man, an expression of affection by a girl named Billie Smith for her boyfriend, Val LaMar (short for Valentine). Billie catalogues her beau’s flaws tenderly, then demands, “Don’t change a hair for me/Not if you care for me.” And, of course, there is a delightful double meaning on the final line, “Each day is Valentine’s Day.” So far I have not seen a correction in the paper of record. Guess that’s what happens when you fire the fact checkers and copyeditors.

“My Darling, My Darling,” from Where’s Charley?
Clearly designed by songwriter Frank Loesser to be the breakout tune of his score for this 1948 musicalization of Brandon Thomas’ 1893 chestnut of a farce, Charley’s Aunt, this full-throated operetta-flavored duet is as unabashedly romantic as any song could be. It’s also sung by a pair of young upper-class lovers in Victorian England, so the fact that the word “love” is never uttered is particularly notable. Of course, its replacement is the titular endearment. You’ll also observe a standard songwriting ploy: Loesser puts specific references in the song’s verse, reserving the chorus for more-general sentiments. And, indeed, in a brief search for pop covers, I didn’t find one that includes the verse. The Broadway production, starring Ray Bolger in the titular drag role, never got a cast recording despite running for 792 performances, due to a recording strike. Fortunately, the 1958 London version, featuring Norman Wisdom, though only managing 380 performances, did.

“They Were You,” from The Fantasticks
The summer I was 16, I co-produced, co-directed, and played the Boy in this classic 1960 off-Broadway musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. This rueful love duet late in Act 2 was always my favorite moment to play, despite the fact that I was terrified of screwing up the vocal harmonies (my sense of pitch not being my strongest suit). Though the phrase “lovely lights” does appear in the lyric, Jones manages to reunite the sadder but wiser teenage lovers in expert “love”-less fashion to Schmidt’s plangently beautiful waltz. I’m especially fond of the release: “Without you near me/I can’t see./When you’re near me/Wonderful things come to be.”

“Telephone Wire,” from Fun Home
This Lisa Kron–Jeanine Tesori duet for father and daughter out for a car ride while she is home from college on vacation is certainly not your average love song, but love is what is driving them both to try to connect over the fact that each has recently discovered that the other is gay. The song is actually a remembrance years later by the daughter, who desperately wants to change their past failure but, of course, can’t, because this was the last time she and her father spoke. She returned to school, and he committed suicide not long afterward. The decision to include a fantasy exchange where they do start to talk was inspired, and when after it Alison sings, “Make this not the past/This car ride” with growing intensity on Tesori’s inexorably rising melody, I usually lose it.

“(You’re) Timeless to Me,” from Hairspray
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s vaudeville-flavored duet for Wilbur and Edna Turnblad, two middle-aged parents in 1962 Baltimore celebrating their marital bliss, quite properly avoids “love” at all costs. Neither character would stoop to such goop. Wilbur, who owns a joke shop, expresses himself with “You’re like a stinky old cheese, Babe/Just getting riper with age,” while Edna, overweight and insecure about her physicality, offers, “I can’t stop eating/Your hairline’s receding” while still professing undying devotion. It’s just their way of saying “I love you,” and both times I saw this 2002 musicalization of John Waters’ 1988 cult film comedy, Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein brought down the house with it. I could do without the false rhyme, though. Why not “retreating”?

“Haleed’s Song About Love,” from The Band’s Visit
Though “love” appears in the title of this David Yazbek song, it’s nowhere to be found in the hypnotic lyric, in which a macho Egyptian trumpet player tries to bolster the spirits of a shy Israeli lad who finds it hard to talk to girls and is facing a double date at a roller disco in a backwater Israeli village. Hunky Ari’el Stachel does very well by this smoothly jazzy meditation (the character is a Chet Baker fan) on the OBCR of what I think is the front-runner for both best musical and best score at the Tony Awards this season.

“Something Very Strange,” from Sail Away
Middle-aged cruise ship social director Mimi Paragon finds herself falling for the much younger passenger Johnny Van Mier and sings this gorgeous Noël Coward ballad about the situation near the top of Act 2, when the ship is docked in Tangiers. I’ll never forget the great Elaine Stritch delivering it with transcendentally bruised wonder in a 1999 concert version at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, in which she re-created her 1961 Broadway role. The word “love” never appears because that would be too much for Mimi to hope for. Alas, the OBCR is not available digitally, though you can purchase the CD on Amazon.com. However, you can download the Master himself singing it on a demo recording he made of his score, linked above.

“We’re Gonna Be All Right,” from Do I Hear a Waltz?
The first iteration of this cynical Stephen Sondheim lyric inspired Richard Rodgers’ appropriately shiny melody, but Rodgers’ wife, Dorothy, thought the portrait of an unhappy marriage hit too close to home, so she made Rodgers make Sondheim change it to something distinctly more innocuous, which is what was recorded for the OBCR (it doesn’t use “love” either). Happily, the unexpurgated original is now back in the show, and it worked very well when Claybourne Elder and Sarah Hunt put it over in the recent concert production at Encores! In it, young Eddie and Jennifer Yaeger caustically consider the marriages they see around them while plotting how to keep their unhappy union from folding. In a way it is a love song, as they want to stay together, but obviously the actual word would be out of place in their banter, except perhaps used ironically in quotes. There is a reference to each taking a temporary lover, but that is most decidedly not about love. In his collection of lyrics titled Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says that he deliberately wrote this to echo the style of Rodgers’ first collaborator, Lorenz Hart. Judy Kuhn and Malcolm Gets do a fine job with it on her 2015 CD Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel.

“When We Get Our Divorce,” from Sunny
Forty years separate this 1925 Jerome Kern–Otto Harbach–Oscar Hammerstein II song from the Rodgers-Sondheim one above, but, as my BwayTunes editor Andy Propst pointed out to me, they do seem to have some similarities. And even if Sondheim was consciously echoing Hart, Hammerstein was his mentor, so perhaps this comic ditty was rattling around in his subconscious back in 1965, when he wrote the lyrics for Do I Hear a Waltz? Sunny is a circus performer fleeing a forced marriage in England who stows away on a ship bound for New York City. She sings this with a young man she meets on board, who offers to marry her to get her into the U.S., after which they will get a divorce. Of course, they end up falling in love for real. I’m quite fond of the “best if I” and “testify” rhyme. The compilation recording linked above includes two renditions: The first is from a 1926 radio broadcast that purports to offer the show’s original star, Marilyn Miller, though she is not explicitly credited in the liner notes for the track, while the second is of the original London cast, which starred Binnie Hale.

“Let’s See What Happens,” from Darling of the Day
This enchanting waltz by Jule Styne and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was Styne’s favorite song out of all he had written. Middle-aged cockney widow Alice Challice, at home in her cozy parlor, is attempting to gently seduce a butler named Henry Leek, with whom she has been corresponding via a matrimonial agency, on the occasion of their first face-to-face meeting. What she doesn’t know is that Leek is dead, and his employer, the internationally renowned painter Priam Farll, has taken his identity in an attempt to escape his fame. Farll is smitten, and by the end of the song asks her, though still as Leek, to marry him. The word “love,” of course, would be far too threatening, which is why Alice never employs it, though it is certainly what she is hoping for when she sings “and if a great adventure happens to happen.” That’s a neat use of phrase by Harburg, because The Great Adventure is the title of the Arnold Bennett play upon which the musical is partly based, with the play an adaption of Bennett’s novel Buried Alive, the other source for this musical. Patricia Routledge, who won a Tony for best actress in a musical despite the show only running 31 performances, is perfection itself on the show’s 1968 OBCR.

“I Could Have Danced All Night” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” from My Fair Lady
Both of these Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe songs are highly indirect expressions of surprised affection. Lerner and Loewe found in adapting George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that the key to the stormy relationship between language professor Henry Higgins and his student, the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, was to never overtly suggest the subject of a romantic love between them. Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch’s excellent The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner—currently available in hardcover directly from Oxford University Press and by digital download at Amazon.com, with hardcover sales elsewhere beginning March 1—documents the songwriters’ discovery with lyrics for cut songs that do bring up romantic feelings between the two central characters. By the time the show first hit the stage in New Haven prior to Broadway, however, all such suggestions were gone. I first saw My Fair Lady when the 1964 film version premiered, and I have never understood why so many people insist that her return at the end, taken from the 1938 film adaptation, means that Higgins and Eliza will marry. It has always seemed ambiguous to me, and it will be very interesting to see how the ending plays in Bartlett Sher’s upcoming revival for Lincoln Center Theater. I already have my tickets for April 7, which happens to be my birthday. Will I still think at 64 what I thought at 10? We’ll see.

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Jan
19

My Favorite Recordings of 2017

I suspect I am not alone in being glad to see 2017 pass into history. That said, a few good things did happen, and as far as theatre-related recordings go, here are 10 of them, in no particular order, plus a bonus.

Kid Victory
John Kander and Greg Pierce’s brave, uncompromising musical about a closeted gay 17-year-old boy from a fervently evangelical Christian family in small-town Kansas who is coping with PTSD after having been kidnapped and held hostage for more than a year by a man who repeatedly abused him sexually was my favorite musical of the 2016-2017 season. However, the fact that its leading character, Luke, doesn’t sing (he’s too traumatized to express his emotions in song), coupled with Kander and Pierce’s sometimes deliberately off-kilter choices about who should sing and where, made me wonder if an OCR could capture the intensely dramatic effect I experienced at the Vineyard Theatre. Fortunately, it does, in producer Michael Croiter’s vibrantly theatrical rendering for Broadway Records that includes just enough dialogue for context. It also preserves some exceptionally fine performances (alas, we only get a taste of Brandon Flynn’s superb work as Luke), particularly those of Karen Ziemba as Luke’s mother (her rendition of “There Was a Boy” is devastating), Daniel Jenkins as his father (his account of the show’s closer, “Where We Are,” is infinitely moving), and Jeffrey Denman as the abuser (his ultimate breakdown, “You, If Anyone,” is riveting). Deeply human, Kid Victory is a stunner from start to finish.

The Band’s Visit
Now an unlikely sell-out show at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, this unassuming musical version of a 2007 indie Israeli film about an Egyptian military band stranded by accident in a backwater Israeli town premiered off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in December of 2016, which is where I caught it. Itamar Moses’ smart, quietly observant book dovetails neatly with David Yazbek’s soulful score that beautifully blends the sounds of Broadway and the Middle East. It also features a leading man, in this case the band’s conductor, Tewfiq, who doesn’t express his emotions in song (though he does sing one “real” song in Arabic); it’s the cornerstone of his dignified formality. Nevertheless, Tony Shalhoub’s subtle and complex performance comes through, while Katrina Lenk shines as a sexy café proprietor with whom Tewfiq improbably connects. But, really, everyone in this both touching and amusing ensemble piece is terrific. It’s Yazbek’s finest score to date, and Ghostlight Records’ OBCR, co-produced by the composer-lyricist and Dean Sharenow, with Kurt Deutsch executive producing, showcases it very well.

War Paint
Based on the career-long rivalry between cosmetic giants Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, this Doug Wright (book)–Michael Korie (lyrics)–Scott Frankel (music) musical never quite solved the dramatic problem posed by the fact that the two women never met in real life. The lack of dramatic conflict, however, is less of a problem on disc than it was on stage, and Korie and Frankel delivered a strong and well-crafted score. What did work like gangbusters were the hi-fi performances from Christine Ebersole (as Arden) and Patti LuPone (as Rubenstein), which album producers Steven Epstein, Kurt Deutsch, David Stone, and Frankel have vividly captured for Ghostlight Records. John Dossett and Douglas Sills do strong supporting work as the men in these ladies lives, especially in an Act 2 comic lament called “Dinosaurs” (guess who they mean). The musical’s last three songs, “Pink” for Arden, “Forever Beautiful” for Rubenstein, and “Beauty in the World,” a duet the women sing in an invented meeting that is the highpoint of the show and Wright’s book, are as good as Broadway songwriting can get. They alone make this recording required listening.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
I missed Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s debut off-Broadway musical back in 1979 because my work schedule as box office treasurer at Equity Library Theatre matched its performance schedule. Based on Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, the show excited some critics and generated buzz in the theatre community, but it only ran for six weeks and I just couldn’t get there. When I finally was able to encounter it, in a 2003 concert presentation at the Cooper Union, I found it bursting with talent but fatally flawed in its dramatic execution, and I had the same response to a 2016 concert version at Encores!. Nevertheless, Ghostlight Records’ recording, produced by Menken and Michael Kosarin, is a delight, sounding for all the world like a hit. The Ashman-Menken chemistry leaps out at you, aided and abetted by a strong ensemble cast, with Santino Fontana, Brynn O’Malley, and Skyler Austin doing stellar work in principal roles. Finally, this lost score has been found. And who doesn’t need more Ashman-Menken songs?

Iow@
This absurdist musical by Jenny Schwartz (book and lyrics) and Todd Almond (music and lyrics) sharply divided the critics in its 2015 production at Playwrights Horizons. I didn’t catch it because Playwrights didn’t (and usually doesn’t) invite Drama Desk voters, and the reviews, whether positive or negative, didn’t entice me to pay for it. I don’t know if that was a mistake or not, but listening to Yellow Sound Label’s OCR, produced by Almond and Michael Croiter, I found myself increasingly intrigued by its succession of loopy but decidedly listenable art songs that punctuate the tale of Becca, an emotionally mature teenager yanked from her life in New York City by a flaky mother who abruptly relocates them to the titular state to join a man she has been canoodling with online. The show reminded me in its ambitions of a less political version of Al Carmines and Maria Irene Fornes’ 1969 off-Broadway absurdist fable, Promenade, which is a particular favorite of mine. I liked Almond’s music for his and Adam Bock’s equally ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s gothic novel We Have Always Live in the Castle, produced by Yale Repertory Theatre in 2010, which I called “a heartbreaker” in my Backstage review. Schwartz, whose 2008 play God’s Ear made critics stand up and pay attention (alas, I missed it, though the critic I sent for Backstage, BwayTunes editor Andy Propst, loved it), has a refreshingly imaginative way with language, and Almond remains in my view a talent to watch. In Iow@, their 16-minute musical sequence featuring four battling Mormon sister wives shouldn’t work but somehow does. It alone makes the recording, which admittedly is probably not for everyone, more than worth checking out.

Falsettos
This first complete recording of the final combined version of William Finn and James Lapine’s two landmark one-act musicals about a divorced gay man and his extended family in Manhattan in the late ’70s and early ’80s was released digitally in December of 2016, but the handsomely packaged CD didn’t arrive until January of 2017, so I’m including it. I was the assistant box office treasurer at the Westside Arts Theatre for the commercial run of March of the Falsettos, which is now the first act of Falsettos, in 1981, so I go way back with this material. I loved it then, and I love it even more now, as Finn and Lapine have deepened and clarified it over the years. Lapine’s stunning direction of this Lincoln Center Theatre revival completely rethought the piece, and his cast—Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Stephanie J. Block, Brandon Uranowitz, Anthony Rosenthal, Tracie Thoms, and Betsy Wolfe—delivered bravura performances filled with psychological nuance. Knowing the originals—and their peerless casts—as well as I do, I was worried that a revival wouldn’t live up to my memories, but I actually found this incarnation the most satisfying of all, and Kurt Deutsch’s two-disc recording for Ghostlight Records captures it beautifully. I’m beginning to think he’s a reincarnation of Goddard Lieberson.

Sunday in the Park With George
I confess that I was a bit underwhelmed when I experienced this revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize–winning musical about Georges Seurat and the process of making art. Having begun life as a benefit concert version for Encores!, it seemed too often to settle for surfaces in a piece noted for its complexity, and I wasn’t wild about the physical production, which is of immense importance to this piece. However, when I listened to the two-disc OBCR, the show’s power was undeniably present, with stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford finally making the roles their own. Perhaps they grew into their parts during the course of the show’s 61-performance limited engagement, or perhaps I was having a bad day when I caught the show. In any event, as produced for Warner Music by Bart Migal with a keen sense of theatricality, this is a recording I will definitely return to in the future as an occasional alternate take to the iconic 1984 original starring Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.

Through the Years
I am generally a bit leery of studio cast recordings of musicals, mostly because the performances tend to lack the authenticity that comes from having played the role on a stage night after night. Nevertheless, two such recordings have made this list, and this first digital release of a 2001 reconstruction of composer Vincent Youmans’ final complete Broadway score is one of them. With lyrics by Edward Heyman and a book by Brian Hooker, this 1932 show was based on the hit 1919 romantic fantasy Smilin’ Through, and it shows a very different Youmans from the composer of such peppy musical comedies as No, No, Nanette and Hit the Deck. Strongly sung by a five-person cast—Heidi Grant Murphy, Brent Barrett, Hunter Foster, Jennifer Cody, and Philip Chaffin—under the eloquent musical direction of conductor and restorer Aaron Gandy, the recording is a fascinating glimpse of a composer trying mightily to stretch himself and the form in which he’s working. Alas, Through the Years did not succeed with critics or audiences and only ran for 20 performances. Youmans contracted tuberculosis not long after writing it and spent the last 12 years of his life fighting the disease rather than composing musicals. It was a great loss for the American theatre, which makes the existence of this loving restoration, produced by Tommy Krasker and Joel Moss for PS Classics, particularly gratifying.

You Never Know
The other studio recording on this list also came out in 2001 but wasn’t released digitally until 2017. It’s director-adapter Paul Lazarus’ revisal of a 1938 Broadway flop with a score by Cole Porter. You Never Know was the show Porter was writing when he had the famous horseback riding accident that shattered his legs. It was based on a European chamber musical, an intimate sex farce set in Paris that the Shuberts acquired and turned into a big Broadway extravaganza. The publishing house of Samuel French found the script and score in its files and approached Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival for a production. The company turned to Lazarus to direct and told him, “It needs a little work.” Lazarus took a look and decided to return it to a chamber piece, which was mounted in Vermont in the summer of 1982 and was enough of a hit to be brought back the following summer. Further productions and revisions were done, culminating in a well-received 1991 production at the Pasadena Playhouse that starred David Garrison, Harry Groener, Donna McKechnie, Megan Mullally, and Angela Teek. That became the version licensed by French, and I saw a production of it in 1996 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, with a different cast and director. It was, quite frankly, a soufflé that resolutely refused to rise, so when this studio recording came out a few years later, I didn’t bother to buy it, even though it featured the Pasadena cast (with one exception) and Lazarus back directing. Listening to it now, it seems that alchemy is everything. The Porter songs are bright, breezy, sophisticated, and tuneful, and the company (with a young Kristin Chenoweth stepping in for Mullally, who in the interim had become a TV star) delivers them with panache. Steve Orich’s arrangements, orchestrations, and musical direction are spot on, and the interpolation of three better-known Porter songs from other shows is done reasonably unobtrusively. I don’t know if Lazarus’ new book works when he directs it, but we only get the score here, and it’s a lot of fun. Originally produced by Bruce Kimmel for Varèse Sarabande Records, the digital release comes from the ubiquitous (at least on this list) Ghostlight Records. And who doesn’t need more Cole Porter songs?

Hamlisch Uncovered
How did such a talented musical theatre composer wind up with so many unsuccessful shows? Marvin Hamlisch had two hits—A Chorus Line and They’re Playing Our Song—but came a cropper with Jean Seberg, Smile, The Goodbye Girl, Ballroom, Sweet Smell of Success, Imaginary Friends, and The Nutty Professor. Now his lyricist on Success and Friends, Craig Carnelia, in collaboration with musical director Michael Lavine and producer Chip M. Fabrizi, have put together for Broadway Records a nifty collection of songs from Hamlisch’s flops that reminds us just how prodigiously talented he was. Most are newly recorded tracks featuring top Broadway talent such as Kelli O’Hara, Nancy Opel, Randy Graff, and Tony Sheldon singing to piano accompaniment, while some are demos performed by Hamlisch and Carnelia. Rarities include songs from Smile with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh (she died during the writing process and Hamlisch started from scratch with Howard Ashman); a lovely ballad, “Everything You Do,” with a lyric by Carnelia, from the team’s aborted musicalization of Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway; a song from a rewrite of the 1978 musical Ballroom done for Tyne Daly (Hamlisch came on board to write new songs with Marilyn and Alan Bergman after original composer Billy Goldenberg died); and seven delightful vaudevillian comment numbers written for Nora Ephron’s unsuccessful play with music about the feud between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarty, Imaginary Friends. My single favorite track is O’Hara singing “That’s How I Say Goodbye,” from Sweet Smell of Success, which ended the musical in its Chicago tryout. I saw the show there, and O’Hara was riveting in the song, which should never have been cut. It’s so great to have it preserved here. And who doesn’t need more Marvin Hamlisch songs?

Bonus: The Complete Solo Piano Works of Leonard Bernstein
Strictly speaking, this two-disc collection isn’t theatre music, but it is by my favorite theatre composer, and one of the pieces, “Non Troppo Presto,” composed in 1937, was subsequently used in On the Town as the dance music for “Presenting Miss Turnstiles,” so I’m making the collection a bonus. Leann Osterkamp plays them all with vigor, precision, and flair (she is joined by Bernstein protégé Michael Barrett for “Bridal Suite”), and as they are short pieces, you can sample them at your leisure like little bon bons. It’s interesting to hear what Bernstein comes up with for well-known personages, such as Paul Bowles, Aaron Copland, Sergei Koussevitzky, Stephen Sondheim and more, as well as for his various family members and friends. His melodic gift, rhythmic dexterity, and harmonic invention are amply displayed, and you can hear in these selections both prefigurements and echoes of his theatrical scores.

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Jan
05

Sweet (and a Few Not-so-Sweet) Beginnings

In honor of the start of 2018, we here at BwayTunes are looking at songs that involve beginnings. I’ve broken my list down into four categories: diegetic songs, songs that come at or near the beginning of a show, songs that change a show’s course and begin something new, and concluding songs that carry within them the promise of a beginning after the curtain comes down. I’ve ended up with 20 songs from 19 shows.

Diegetic Songs

Perhaps because I am a plot and character kind of guy, I had the hardest time thinking of songs that fall into this category, that of actual performance numbers rather than songs that express feelings or move the story forward. Here are three.

“Begin the Beguine,” from Jubilee
I knew this Cole Porter standard long before I made my acquaintance with the 1935 musical from whence it sprang, especially from Eleanor Powell’s energetic tap version in the film Broadway Melody of 1940, where it is indeed a performance number. When I finally did see a concert version of Jubilee, I discovered that it’s diegetic there as well. A prince on the run from a revolution sees a nightclub singer performing it and falls in love.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” interpolated into Here’s Love
Songwriter Meredith Willson quite naturally wanted to use his 1951 Christmas standard in his 1963 musicalization of the Yuletide-themed Miracle on 34th Street. But he didn’t want to look crass about it, so he composed a countermelody to the song called “Pine Cones and Holly Berries” and had Santa Claus sing that first as a Christmas tune before sneaking his hit in as a counterpoint. Indeed, the title was never even mentioned in the song listing in the program or on the LP.

“First Steps First,” from Bandstand
When Julia Trojan sings this supposed World War II standard with Donny Novitski’s band, it marks the beginning of their professional collaboration in Richard Oberacker and Robert Taylor’s sadly underappreciated musical from last season. Fittingly, the nifty lyric employs the kind of snappy wordplay and inventive rhyming characteristic of the Great American Songbook while also commenting on the dramatic situation.

In-the-Beginning Songs

These were the easiest to think of, probably because it makes sense that songs about beginnings would come at or near a musical’s beginning. I’ve whittled them down to seven from six shows.

“What If?,” from If/Then
In Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s 2014 contemporary NYC–set musical, Idina Menzel and company opened the show by wondering about beginnings, specifically how random, chance events can substantially alter the course of our lives. I found the premise too obvious to support an entire evening, but there was much to be enjoyed in the score along the way.

“In the Beginning, Woman,” from Timbuktu!
This 1978 musical comedy adaptation of the 1953 hit Kismet transplanted the story from ancient Persia to long-ago Africa and had an all-black cast. As a result, the introductory song for Lalume, wife of wives to the exalted Wazir of Baghdad, had to go, as it was titled “Not Since Nineveh.” Songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest wrote this feminist cry of woman’s superiority over man expressly for star Eartha Kitt, and she spat it out with vigor eight times a week after being escorted onto the stage of the Mark Hellinger Theatre by a cadre of bodybuilders (watch her entrance and performance of the song on YouTube). Alas, there was no cast recording, but you can get Rosemary Ashe singing it on Jay Records’ complete studio recording of Kismet, which has all four of the new songs penned for Timbuktu!, including “Power,” which got cut pre-Broadway, largely because star William Marshall, who also got cut pre-Broadway, couldn’t really sing at all.

“Anything for You,” from A Family Affair
In the first song out of the gate for this 1962 John Kander–James Goldman–William Goldman musical about a wedding, Larry Kert and Rita Gardner both charm and soar as she accepts his wedding proposal while warning him about her faults. The original Tony from West Side Story and Luisa from The Fantasticks make a great team, and though the show only managed 65 performances, this delightful debut score from Kander abundantly showcased his talent and promise. It’s not available digitally, but you can get a used CD for as low as $3.97 on Amazon. Considering Kander’s importance to the form, if you are a serious devotee of musical theatre, you should know this score.

“A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd,” from Ballroom
Dorothy Loudon gives a master class in vulnerability in her opening song from this Jerome Kass–Billy Goldenberg–Alan and Marilyn Bergman 1978 Broadway adaptation of their acclaimed original 1975 TV musical Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. Recently widowed, middle-aged Bea Asher is timidly venturing back out into the social world by going to a local ballroom and looking for a dancing partner. Loudon gets up the nerve to enter in this ultimately hopeful soliloquy that very effectively introduces us to Bea.

“Who Gave You Permission?,” cut from Ballroom
Out of town, however, the show began as the film did, with Bea at home alone and expressing her confusion and anger at her husband’s early death, which is its own unwanted beginning. Maureen Stapleton was marvelous on screen in the song, and the great Carmen McRae is quite persuasive on her 1975 album I Am Music, choosing to largely talk it, as Stapleton did. I don’t know how Loudon performed it, but producer, director, and choreographer Michael Bennett decided it was too much of a downer and cut it. Indeed, he cut a number of book songs before the show reached Broadway, which was, I believe, its downfall. I saw it from standing room at the Majestic Theatre. The performance numbers in the ballroom were wonderfully choreographed (Bennett won a Tony for them) and brilliantly executed by a company of older Broadway veterans, but with the characters insufficiently dramatized in song, the dances overwhelmed the delicate story.

“Polishing Shoes,” from Yank!
Stu is a closeted gay soldier during World War II, and here he meets fellow soldier Mitch, who teaches him the military way to polish his shoes, a process that’s freighted with double entendres. Authors David and Joseph Zellnick (brothers, David does words and Joseph music) use this musical sequence to set up the various members of Stu’s unit while also dramatizing the beginning of Stu and Mitch’s romance. In its 2010 off-Broadway production at the York Theatre Company, the show had much promise but needed a strong hand to focus it. Director David Cromer was brought in to be that hand and take the show to Broadway, but somehow it never happened. Too bad, because the promise was real, and Bobby Steggert’s sensitive performance as Stu is one I’ll always remember.

“The Bench Scene,” from Carousel
This 12-minute sequence from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s Liliom is, for my money, one of the greatest achievements in the history of musical theatre. New England millworker Julie Jordan has fallen in love with troubled carousel barker Billy Bigelow and impulsively decides to give him her virginity. The seamless interplay of music, dialogue, and singing, the brilliant exposition of character, and the delicate dance of human emotions combine into a work of genius. And, of course, a relationship begins. My favorite recording (not available digitally, alas) is of Michael Hayden and Sally Murphy’s stunning work 24 years ago at Lincoln Center, but I look forward to seeing what director Jack O’Brien and actors Joshua Henry and Jessie Mueller mine from it later this season in producer Scott Rudin’s Broadway revival. Originators John Raitt and Jan Clayton never got to record the whole thing, but they re-created it on TV in a 1954 salute to Rodgers and Hammerstein. As directed by the great Rouben Mamoulian, the sexual energy is palpable even in a much more socially conservative era. Clayton’s slowly ascending hand reaching to caress Raitt’s neck as he kisses her, carefully timed to a swelling musical climax, told everything 1945 audiences needed to know. Watch it on YouTube.

Songs That Change Course

“What'd I Miss?,” from Hamilton
Thomas Jefferson’s return to America from France opens Act 2 of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s massive hit musical from the 2015-16 season and changes the course of its characters lives and America’s history. This jazzy explosion of interest is given a joyously caffeinated performance by Daveed Diggs and artfully combines the dramatization of character with plot narration and the energy of a musical showstopper.

“The Seven Deadly Virtues,” from Camelot
In another second-act game changer, the evil Mordred, unacknowledged bastard son of the otherwise childless King Arthur, arrives at his father’s court with the intention of spreading dissension among the knights and ultimately usurping the crown. Mordred’s arrival heralds the beginning of the end of Arthur’s dream of peace and a just society. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote this song while out of town in 1960 to replace a reprise of “Fie on Goodness” that went as follows: “Tell me, Mordred, you marvelous boy,/Doesn’t Camelot warm your heart?/Lolly lo! Lolly lo!/It’s so pregnant with possible mis’ry/One hardly knows where to start./Lolly lo! Lolly lo!/Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelo’....!/Melancholia where e’er you go….!/Oh, my head’s in a spin,/How shall I begin/Unstatusing the quo?” Clearly, a complete song was needed to give the moment proper punctuation, but Lerner managed to salvage his play on “status quo.”

“You Are Woman, I Am Man,” from Funny Girl
Performer Fanny Brice and gambler Nick Arnstein have been dancing around each other for a while in Isobel Lennart, Bob Merrill, and Jule Styne’s 1964 musical biography of the Ziegfeld Follies star when Arnstein finally decides to pounce. This restaurant seduction in a private dining room initiates a sexual relationship. In the very next scene Fanny bolts from the Follies national tour to follow a suddenly penniless Arnstein to Europe, on a quest to replenish his bank account. Sex, sex changes everything.

“Ring of Keys,” from Fun Home
Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s 2014 Tony-winning musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s memoir in the form of a graphic novel eschews linear storytelling in favor of an impressionistic assortment of scenes in differing time frames. Alison is played by three actors, and it’s the youngest of the Alisons, her prepubescent incarnation, who sings this impassioned song, in which, while sitting in a diner with her father, she spots a butch deliverywoman and experiences a thrilling sense of connection. It comes late in the show, but it is a potent dramatization of the beginning of Alison’s self-acceptance as a lesbian, vitally affecting how she will live her life.

“Loving You,” from Passion
Stephen Sondheim provided a missing puzzle piece when he wrote this song during Broadway previews of his and James Lapine’s 1994 musical adaptation of Ettore Scola’s film Passione d’Amore. Hysterical, unattractive Fosca’s obsessive pursuit of handsome soldier Giorgio was alienating audiences, so Sondheim gave her this heartfelt, straightforward explanation of why she has no choice but to pursue her passion. In hearing her out, we see the first glimmers of the most unlikely love that Giorgio comes to feel for Fosca. It is, indeed, the moment when the entire musical shifts.

Concluding Songs That Are Also Beginnings

“It Only Takes a Moment,” from Hello, Dolly!
Jerry Herman’s touching ballad doesn’t conclude this 1964 musical version of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, though it comes very late in the game, but it does put a button on the growing relationship between grocery store clerk Cornelius Hackl and milliner Irene Molloy by describing the moment in which it all began. And its final words, “It only took a moment to be loved a whole life long,” are actually the beginning of a lifelong journey. Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin currently give it justice eight times a week at the Shubert Theatre.

“Being Alive,” from Company
In Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 musical about Manhattanites and marriage, we spend the whole evening watching swinging bachelor Robert avoid commitment. However, once the older, much married and much divorced Joanne puts the moves on him, something snaps, and Robert gingerly opens himself up to the possibility of love in this iconic closing song. The character makes an emotional breakthrough, and it leads, as breakthroughs are wont to do, to a new beginning. In director John Doyle’s 2006 Broadway revival, it even led to Raúl Esparza’s Robert learning to play the piano.

“Sweet Beginning,” from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd
This Anthony Newley–Leslie Bricusse rouser brings the curtain down on their 1965 fable (the setting is “a rocky place”) about the battle between the upper and lower English classes. Sir and Cocky realize that they can’t do without each other and so pledge to work together to make a better life. I’ve always been partial to the double-edged line “Let’s see this sweet beginning through to the bitter end.” Is this the way to get single-payer health care?

“I’ll Begin Again,” from Scrooge
Here’s a conundrum: How do you write an anthem of rejuvenation for a leading man with a limited vocal instrument? You write in short phrases, keep the range narrow, and back the whole thing up with a soaring accompaniment. Albert Finney, playing both old and young Scrooge, turned it into a bravura acting moment on screen in the 1970 film. On stage in 1992 Anthony Newley did his best to make it one of his patented vocal showstoppers, with Bricusse going so far as to expand it somewhat for him. Alas, as I wrote in my last column, the film soundtrack has never made it past LP and cassette tape. Newley is certainly credible, but I think the honors go to non-singer Finney. Oh, and though the song doesn’t quite end the picture, it does complete Scrooge’s character arc while offering him a new beginning in life.

“We’ve Just Begun,” from The Golden Apple
At Encores! concert production last May of this 1954 John Latouche–Jerome Moross retelling of Greek myth in an Americana setting, I found myself deeply moved by this aria of hard-won reconciliation between Ulysses and his longsuffering wife, Penelope. It ended the show in its off-Broadway run at the Phoenix Theatre, but the producers made the authors cut it in favor of a reprise of Ulysses and Penelope’s Act 1 romantic ballad “It’s the Going Home Together,” backed by full chorus, when the musical traveled to Broadway. Perhaps that made show-biz sense at the time, but it sent the wrong message entirely. Penelope and Ulysses are not returning to something that once worked for them; rather, they are starting afresh, hoping to have learned from and put aside the mistakes of the past. This dictates a new song. Fortunately, after Latouche’s untimely death in 1956 at the age of only 41, Moross restored “We’ve Just Begun” to its rightful place in the published score and made the reprise of “It’s the Going Home Together” part of the curtain call. Personally, I think a good way to make a relationship work is to perpetually begin it, never taking anything for granted. Touché to Touche and Jerry.

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Dec
15

I Still Don’t Remember Christmas

For the fourth year in a row it’s time for me to come up with a Christmas-related column. And because I’m a confirmed secularist who happily opted out of the holiday years ago, it’s always a struggle. I can credit the hubby for this column: “Call it ‘I Don’t Remember Christmas’ and make a list of venting songs.” Great idea! However, as I used the title for last year’s column (which was a list of lesser-known holiday-related songs from musicals), I’ve made a small adjustment. Here are 20 outbursts of one sort or another.

“I Don’t Remember Christmas,” from Starting Here, Starting Now
“Did we trim the tree together?/I can’t get the image through!/’Cause I don’t remember Christmas/And I don’t remember you!!” As the singer mentions more and more things he does not remember about his failed relationship, the lie inherent in the title blazes brighter and brighter. One of the few new songs written by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire for this 1977 off-Broadway musical revue taken from their songbook, it went on to become something of a cabaret staple, but it has never been acted (or sung) better than by the man who introduced it, the incomparable George Lee Andrews.

“Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” from The King and I
Mrs. Anna pours out her frustrations with the king of Siam in the privacy of her chambers. I just finished listening to Gertrude Lawrence, Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon, Barbara Cook, Risë Stevens, Julie Andrews, Donna Murphy, Elaine Paige, and Kelli O’Hara (linked above) interpret this iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein soliloquy (interestingly, only Cook, Murphy, Paige, and O’Hara get to do it uncut), and all eight performances are more than worthy, but the best version I have ever encountered was Angela Lansbury’s in 1978, when she played the role opposite Michael Kermoyan for two weeks while star Yul Brynner took a vacation. Lansbury’s dazzling mix of indignation, fury, scorn, tenderness, bravado, sarcasm, hopefulness, and consternation positively roared off the stage of the Uris Theatre. I’ll never forget it.

“A Hymn to Him,” from My Fair Lady
Henry Higgins’ rant about the superiority of the male sex is informed by the emotional wounds inflicted by Eliza Dolittle in choosing to reject him and leave his household. And it’s Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s canny use of subtext that allows the song to be more than just a laundry list. According to legend, star Rex Harrison was so worried about flubbing the intricate lyric that he ran over it in his dressing room before every performance. I already have my Lincoln Center member tickets for director Bartlett Sher’s revival next spring. Harry Hadden-Paton and Lauren Ambrose seem an unlikely pair of leads, but I trust Sher after his excellent work on South Pacific, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof, so I am hopeful.

“Scrap,” from The Full Monty
It’s unusual for an opening number to involve venting, but in this case it’s necessary to set up this 2000 musical’s central premise of unemployed steelworkers in Buffalo, N.Y., feeling cast aside by society. Patrick Wilson, Jason Danieley, John Ellison Conlee, and Romain Frugé deliver David Yazbek’s muscular blue-collar lament with grit to spare. Interestingly, the song is one of two Yazbek wrote on spec to get the gig. It’s rare to hit the bull’s-eye with an opening on the very first try, especially when you’ve never written for the theatre before. Clearly, the guy was a natural. And he’s only gotten better over the years, as his score for Broadway’s newest musical hit, The Band’s Visit, which gets a digital release today, proves. Fusing sinuous melodies with Middle Eastern-inflected rhythms and harmonies and finished with hints of jazz, this superb score is unlike any you’ve ever heard in a Broadway show. I’ve listened to an advance copy, and it’s entirely wonderful (as is the show, which I saw off-Broadway last season).

“Smile, Smile,” from Hallelujah, Baby!
Not all venting songs need be serious. This one is seriously satirical, as heroine Georgina, her mother, and her beau take aim at white America’s oppression of blacks, in particular its requirement that they behave as subservient, shuffling stereotypes forever smiling for and soothing ol’ Massa. This 1967 musical by Arthur Laurents, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne is the only show to win the Tony for best musical after it had closed. Nevertheless, Leslie Uggams (who won the Tony for best actress in a musical), Lillian Hayman, and Robert Hooks reunited to perform this number on the 1968 Tony Awards, which you can catch on YouTube. It’s possibly the most biting song in the score, and they clearly revel in delivering it on national television a mere three weeks to the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

“Enough,” from In the Heights
When I first encountered this musical, off-Broadway in the winter of 2007, it was immediately apparent that Lin-Manuel Miranda was one talented guy. However, I had my issues with the show, especially that it purported to dramatize an entire social community while refusing to include even one gay character. (I later learned that there had been one, a major supporting character, but he was jettisoned once commercial producers became attached. Hmmmmm.) Issues aside, though, I loved this Act 2 song in which a mother finally explodes in frustration at the ongoing unhealthy behavior of her husband, daughter, and employee (who is also her prospective son-in-law). Priscilla Lopez delivered it with a fierceness that was striking to behold.

“Nothing,” from A Chorus Line
And speaking of Priscilla Lopez, she gets another slot on this list with this story song by Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban from their 1976 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical. Though Diana Morales is ostensibly telling us about her experience with an acting teacher, the song seethes with her anger at the insensitive treatment she was forced to endure from a condescending misogynist.

“I Wouldn’t Marry You,” from The Gay Life
The late, great Barbara Cook excelled at fire. Whether denouncing an older man who fails to return her ardor (“I’ll Show Him,” from Plain and Fancy), gleefully and gluttonously reveling in precious jewels received for her sexual favors (“Glitter and Be Gay,” from Candide), smoldering with anger at a pushy music salesman and a gossipy town (“The Piano Lesson,” from The Music Man), furiously refusing to let a hated co-worker get the better of her (“Where’s My Shoe?,” from She Loves Me), or delivering Mrs. Anna’s above-noted critique of a king, she can sizzle like no one else. In this short-lived 1961 musical based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Anatol, she is a virginal good girl in love with a sophisticated Viennese roué. Composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz gave her two songs to flame out on, the delicious “The Label on the Bottle,” in which she vows to become worldly in order to win Anatol’s heart, and this one, her 11 o’clock outburst in which, furious that Anatol has a woman in his bedroom on the morning of her long-awaited wedding to him, she lets him have it right between the eyes. If you don’t know this score, you should. It’s filled with gems, even if the book is a mess.

“I’ve Heard It All Before,” from Shenandoah
Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson, a widower with six sons and a daughter, sings this antiwar broadside, written by composer Gary Geld and lyricist Peter Udell, to his brood at Sunday breakfast when it becomes apparent that his older sons are considering fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. I saw the show on Broadway in the first week of January of 1976, and while I thought it emotionally simplified the film on which it is based, starring James Stewart, it had many effective components, the greatest of which was John Cullum’s commanding performance as Anderson, for which he won the 1975 Tony Award for best actor in a musical.

“No, No, Nanette,” from No, No, Nanette
Ingénues can vent too, which is what schoolgirl Nanette does in both the original 1925 production and Burt Shevelove’s 1971 revisal of this Vincent Youmans–Otto Harbach–Irving Caesar–Frank Mandel hit musical comedy. Nanette is a determined flapper, but her stuffy guardians won’t let her go on a trip to Atlantic City with her friends. Naturally, she complains about it pertly and prettily to a bevy of backup boys, and nobody did pert and pretty better than Susan Watson, the original Girl in The Fantasticks (when it was a one-act Barnard College production) and the original Kim in Bye Bye Birdie (a role that prevented her playing the Girl off-Broadway).

“We Do Not Belong Together,” from Sunday in the Park With George
The sundering of a romantic relationship is almost invariably messy, something Stephen Sondheim captures tellingly in this duet, in which the painter Georges Seurat’s mistress, Dot, leaves him but not before finally expressing her unhappiness at being shut out of his emotions and always coming second to his work. Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin gave iconic performances creating the roles in 1984, but Annaleigh Ashford and Jake Gyllenhaal are quite compelling on the OBCR of last season’s Broadway revival, just out from Warner Music Group. The two-disc set is a bit more complete than the OBCR (I especially liked having more of the dialogue in “Putting It Together” included), the orchestra sounds great, and the disc has been produced with a keen sense of theatricality.

“Pity the Child,” from Chess
American chess master Freddie Trumper is an arrogant, abrasive, thoroughly dislikeable character, so songwriters Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, and Björn Ulvaeus wrote this wailing Act 2 aria to give us some idea of why. In it, Freddie caustically remembers his deeply troubled upbringing by two uncaring parents. It’s an impressive piece in a pretty terrific score, but it comes far too late in the game to do much to change audiences’ perceptions. Perhaps TV and film writer Danny Strong will address the problem in his new book for the 1984 rock opera (supplanting Rice’s dialogue-less original, which racked up a three-year run in London, and playwright Richard Nelson’s Broadway version, which only managed 68 performances in 1988). Strong’s book debuts at the Kennedy Center in a concert production Feb. 14–18, with Michael Mayer directing and Raúl Esparza asking for the pity.

“The Gentleman Is a Dope,” from Allegro
Emily works for Dr. Joseph Taylor Jr. as his nurse in a Chicago hospital and carries a great big torch for her idealistic boss from a small town. She’s also aware of his shallow wife’s infidelities. She lets her frustrations out in this Rodgers and Hammerstein number, which first brought Lisa Kirk to prominence. Performing it pre-Broadway in New Haven, she fell into the orchestra (which was on the theatre floor, as there was no pit), picked herself up and went right on singing. She got such a hand she did it again at the next performance. Afterward, Rodgers came to her dressing room and told her, “Do that again and you’re fired.” Actors!

“Kids,” from Bye Bye Birdie
I first encountered Paul Lynde’s sarcastic small-town Ohio dad, Harry MacAfee, on screen at Radio City Music Hall over the Easter holiday of 1963. Being from small-town Ohio I loved his performance and especially this Charles Strouse–Lee Adams Charleston-esque denunciation of small fry, of which, at age nine, I was one. The hall was so packed that our family couldn’t find enough seats together. I sat with my grandmother, while my older brother sat with my parents. Molly and I adored the movie and were shocked afterward to discover that my parents were appalled by it, finding it, and especially Ann-Margret, “immoral.” I silently noted that my beloved Grandmar was more with it than her daughter. Go figure.

“Rags,” from Rags
In this powerful denunciation of the false promises of the American Dream for Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, young Bella berates her father for what she considers his foolish, starry-eyed optimism. (Watch the extraordinary Judy Kuhn perform the Charles Strouse–Stephen Schwartz number on the 1987 Tony Awards on YouTube.) I attended the show’s first workshop, at which “Rags” made a strong first-act curtain. However, that version of the show had interlocking stories with no central character and was too dramatically amorphous. The authors decided to make Rebecca Hershkowitz, a wife arriving with her young son to join her husband in the new world, into the show’s leading role. Bella kept the title song, but you couldn’t end an act on a supporting character, so they wrote a closer for Rebecca. The first, “Nothing Will Hurt Us Again,” was replaced on Broadway by “In America.” Both also dealt with disillusionment, but the dramatic stakes weren’t high enough and neither could top “Rags,” despite the best efforts of star Teresa Stratas. Now I hear that in David Thompson’s radically revised version of Joseph Stein’s original book for the show, “Rags” once again ends Act 1, but now it is sung by a reconceived, more active Rebecca. Good idea. The revisal, which just closed at the Goodspeed Opera House, got very positive notices, and I have heard rumors about interest in it from Roundabout. Let’s hope!

“Take Him,” from Pal Joey
Rarely do people vent with charm, but that’s the case with this Richard Rodgers–Lorenz Hart song. Amoral society matron Vera Simpson is ready to give her badly behaved boy toy back to his sweet and simple girlfriend Linda English, but she has wised up and doesn’t want him anymore. Patti LuPone and Daisy Prince do a fine job with it on the OCR of Encores! 1995 concert production, which restored Hans Spialek’s sensational original orchestrations. “Please take my benediction/Take my old Benedict too.” Ah, that Larry Hart!

“I Hate People,” from Scrooge
OK, OK, here’s a Christmas song, or, rather, an anti-Christmas song, for the list. Composer-lyricist Leslie Bricusse does a great job in setting out Ebenezer Scrooge’s desiccated heart in this nimble patter song from his 1970 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal story. Surprisingly, although the film has become a beloved holiday classic, its soundtrack never even made the transition from LP to CD, much less to digital download. So you’ll have to stream it, rent it, catch it on TCM, or buy the DVD to experience Albert Finney’s peerless performance. However, you can hear Dominick Hauser’s rendition on Music From the 1970 Picture “Scrooge.” For reasons unfathomable to me, Bricusse rewrote it as “I Hate Christmas” for the 1992 U.K. stage adaptation, which offered Anthony Newley as Scrooge. Not, I think, an improvement, but why not judge for yourself?

“If You Hadn’t but You Did” from Two on the Aisle
Venting can get heated, but this Jule Styne–Betty Comden–Adolph Green song from their 1951 musical revue takes things to lethal levels as star Dolores Gray shoots her unfaithful lover dead right at the end of the introductory verse. “If/ You had not left me home when you had two seats for South Pacif” is echt Comden and Green. Gray, incidentally, purloined the number from supporting performer Kaye Ballard, whose part she kept whittling back in the pre-Broadway tryout until Ballard gave up and left the show. Gray certainly lands the song, but I bet Ballard was funnier.

“I’m in Love! I’m in Love!,” from The Rothschilds
Occasionally, venting can take the form of extreme happiness, and that’s the case with this Sheldon Harnick–Jerry Bock song from their 1970 musical based on Frederic Morton’s biography of the famous European banking family. Young Nathan Rothschild is living in London while pursuing the family’s financial interests when he falls in love with “a Jewish Joan of Arc,” the aristocratic Hannah Cohen. Paul Hecht gives an appropriately delirious rendition, and a young and then-unknown Jill Clayburgh shows off an attractive singing voice in an argumentative reprise. Nevertheless, Clayburgh would do only one other Broadway musical: Pippin. Harnick and book writer Sherman Yellen subsequently decided that the inclusion of the romance was a sop to convention and eliminated it and the song for their revisal of the show, Rothschild and Sons, seen at the York Theatre Company in 2015. I understand their point of view, but I missed it.

“Rose’s Turn,” from Gypsy
Momma Rose’s musical nervous breakdown at the end of Gypsy is the momma of all venting songs and, thus, a natural end to this list. Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne fashioned what is perhaps the best soliloquy ever written for a musical, and it has been interpreted by great ladies over the years. It’s hard to pick a favorite, though if I must it would probably be Patti LuPone’s lacerating interpretation in book writer and director Arthur Laurents’ brilliant 2008 Broadway revival. Laurents, at 91, was fearless in his reinvestigation of material he had written 50 years earlier, and the result was the richest incarnation of this landmark show that I’ve ever seen. Bravo, Arthur!

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Dec
01

Steve and Lynn

I first heard Stephen Flaherty’s music in winter of 1984 in a makeshift NYU classroom in Times Square known as “The Space,” which was provided by the Shubert Organization and whose windows overlooked the TKTS booth. We were both students in “Cycle 2” (sounds like a dog food, no?) of the university’s graduate program in writing for the musical theatre. That means we were only the second class in the history of the program (it’s now on Cycle 27). In the first year of the two-year master’s degree process, students pursued a round robin of collaborations on various assignments designed to teach us the craft of writing musicals. Everybody was supposed to have a chance to work at least once with everybody else. The composer I most wanted to have a crack at was Steve.

Alas, it was not to be. He left before the end of year one, convinced that he would be better off devoting his time to writing with his regular collaborator, Lynn Ahrens, who was older, already making a living as a writer, and thus had not applied to the program. It was a wise choice, and the rest, as they say, is history. To me Steve will always be the composer that got away, and I have always been a fan. In particular, I find him to be one of the great melodists of his day, which is what immediately drew me to his music in the first place. And I have to admit to a twinge of jealousy: I can’t imagine that I would have been able to give him better lyrics than Lynn has. The two of them just fit, as with any great songwriting team.

For this tribute column, assigned because their 1990 show Once on This Island is getting a Broadway revival that opens two days from now, I’d like to focus on my four favorite Ahrens and Flaherty musicals. They are not in any particular order, and only one was a commercial hit, which may explain a sentiment expressed by one of my NYU teachers, Richard Maltby Jr., with regard to the commerciality of my taste (I like to think with tongue planted firmly in cheek): If Erik likes it, you know you’re in trouble.

A Man of No Importance (2002)
When I read that playwright Terrence McNally wanted to musicalize this 1994 indie film—about Alfie Byrne, a closeted middle-aged gay bus conductor in 1960s Dublin who is in love with his heterosexual younger driver, Robbie Fay, and obsessed with directing an amateur theatre production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome—I was immediately excited. I had loved the film, and it seemed a natural to me as a musical. Steve and Lynn, however, were hesitant at first; they worried that the movie was too naturalistic to accommodate songs. (Arthur Laurents did once accuse me of wanting to write “Ibsen musicals.”) Nevertheless, they found their way in, coming up with a beautiful score that deftly evoked time, place, and culture while defining character with artful—and gentle—precision.

The title song is both a model opening number and a textbook example of how to translate material from one medium to another. As does the movie’s opening sequence, it follows an ordinary day in Alfie’s working life while introducing us to the main characters and the story’s central dramatic conceit. It also has such a potent, haunting melody that a simple reprise of the title phrase at the show’s curtain wields great emotional power. “The Burden of Life” judiciously presents Alfie’s conservative Catholic older sister, Lily, who lives with him and runs his household. She has been postponing her marriage to an ardent butcher for years, waiting for her brother to find a girl and wed. “The Streets of Dublin” exuberantly and tunefully limns Robbie as a man of the flesh. Two comic numbers for the St. Imelda Players, “Going Up” in Act 1 and “Art” in Act 2, both artfully individualize the supporting characters while simultaneously melding them into a stylized group force. “Books,” an Act 1 comic duet for Lily and her intended, crucially humanizes two fairly unsympathetic people, allowing Lily’s Act 2 passionate outburst upon finally discovering that her brother is gay, “Tell Me Why,” to resonate with anguish and regret. “Love Who You Love” beautifully sums up the theme of the musical and is smartly initially assigned to Alfie, who sings it as a piece of advice for another character, setting Alfie up as a good man who nevertheless considers himself so outside of mainstream society that he cannot take his own advice. Finally, the score dovetails expertly with McNally’s solid book, the two trading back and forth with exhilarating dexterity.

The show had top-notch performances from Roger Rees, as Alfie; Faith Prince, as Lily; and Steven Pasquale, as Robbie, the last a bursting-onto-the-scene event. Joe Mantello directed them and a rock-solid company with finesse and insight, and the hope was for Lincoln Center Theater to transfer the show from the intimacy of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre upstairs to the much larger Vivian Beaumont for a commercial Broadway run. However, that plan was dashed by a condescending review from Ben Brantley in the New York Times, who deemed the source material “pretty treacly stuff” and whose terror of appearing sentimental is a hallmark of his criticism. I hope someday New York City audiences get another chance to discover just how good this show is.

Rocky (2014)
Unlike with Man, when Rocky was announced I thought it was a terrible idea. I had actively disliked Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen’s sleeper indie film hit about a sad-sack pugilist when it premiered in 1976, and I couldn’t imagine a reason to musicalize it. Steve and Lynn were also skeptical when book writer Thomas Meehan first approached them with the idea. He convinced them to just read the screenplay, and much to their surprise they reacted strongly to it, finding it to be like a gritty Playhouse 90 TV drama from the 1950s. And because it was sparely written, they saw the opportunity to flesh out the characters in song.

And that’s what I feel they did so successfully. I responded to Rocky and his girlfriend Adrian in the musical in a way that I never did on screen because of such character-enriching songs as their establishing solos, “My Nose Ain’t Broken” for him and “Rain” for her, their touching skating rink duet “The Flip Side,” their Act 2 duet of quiet domestic “Happiness,” and especially the newly confident Adrian’s scorching rebuke of her abusive brother, “I’m Done.” Even Rocky’s Act 1 closer, the anthemic “Fight From the Heart,” did its show-biz job while staying focused on his psychology.

Director Alex Timbers’ innovative staging was remarkable in its ability to be intimate in one moment, then epic in the next, and his direction of the climactic boxing match, during which some audience members left their seats to sit on bleachers on the Winter Garden stage while the ring moved into the house and over the front of the orchestra section, was terribly exciting. Stars Andy Karl and Margo Siebert gave indelible, career-making performances as Rocky and Adrian. I saw the show twice, once at the first preview and then shortly after it opened, and both audiences were extremely happy ones, so I was surprised when word of mouth didn’t turn the musical into a long-running hit, as had happened in Hamburg, Germany, where it premiered prior to Broadway and ran for more than three years. The New York notices were a bit mixed but generally more positive than negative, so word of mouth should have done the trick.

I have come to believe that the same skepticism I felt hearing about the idea is what foiled the show. Audiences receptive to Rocky didn’t want to see it as a Broadway musical, and people who love musicals didn’t want to see one of Rocky. It was an unlikely show, which made the fact that it was good sweeter and its demise sadder. Ah, show business.

Dessa Rose (2005)
This musical, based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams that intertwines the stories of a runaway female slave, Dessa Rose, who incited a rebellion, and an abandoned wife, Ruth, who shelters runaway slaves to keep her plantation going, is, for me, the team’s most ambitious to date. It was also written in an unusual way, with Lynn writing a draft of the book and lyrics first, and Steve composing second, instead of working simultaneously, as they usually do. Lynn’s use of twin narrations—as old women Dessa Rose and Ruth each narrates the other’s story in flashback—is marvelously sophisticated, giving the show a novelistic texture. Along with director-choreographer Graciela Daniele, the authors created a work of total theatre, employing story-theatre techniques, song fragments and set pieces, nearly continuous underscoring, commentary and action, time shifting, and fluid movement to tell their tale.

The show is so interwoven that Jay Records producer John Yap made the decision to record the whole thing rather than try to disentangle the music for a standard OCR. This probably explains why some of the songs aren’t better known, but there are some very good ones. These include Ruth’s realization of her husband’s desertion, “At the Glen”; a song of obsession for a white journalist, Adam Nehemiah, who interviews Dessa Rose in prison, “Capture the Girl”; Dessa Rose’s stunning Act 1 closer, “Twelve Children,” sung to her infant daughter; an Act 2 quintet of various lovers longing for one another across time and space, “In the Bend of My Arm”; and the incantatory opening number for the whole company, “We Are Descended.”

LaChanze and Rachel York were endlessly compelling as Dessa Rose and Ruth, playing the characters at both old and young ages with effortless authority. Michael Hayden was riveting as the obsessive journalist and Norm Lewis memorable as a runaway slave who helps Dessa Rose but becomes romantically involved with Ruth. But more than anything else, I think the best thing about this show is Lynn’s extraordinary book. Even though she had written scripts for musicals before (Lucky Stiff, Once on This Island, Seussical) and has since (The Glorious Ones, Little Dancer), she is often thought of more as a lyricist. And nothing could be further from the truth.

Ragtime (1998)
I always prefer to encounter the score of a new musical on stage. I want to be completely tabula rasa and first experience the songs in dramatic context. However, when the concept album Songs From Ragtime was released in 1996 to more or less coincide with the show’s pre-Broadway bow in Toronto, I couldn’t help buying it and listening. After all, the musical wasn’t going to get to Broadway right away (it actually took a little more than a year), and I just had to hear the new Ahrens and Flaherty score. Though they had made a commercial and an artistic splash with the transfer of Once on This Island from Playwrights Horizons to Broadway’s Booth Theatre, I feared that the failure of My Favorite Year on Broadway had stalled their train. I mean, they had to audition to get the gig.

For the most part I liked what I heard a lot, but even with a reasonably detailed synopsis to guide me, I was frustrated by not having access to the Terrence McNally book. Oh, I had managed to read an early version, which ended with Tateh, his daughter, Mother, and Sarah and Coalhouse’s orphaned baby all in Coalhouse’s restored Model T. The stage direction read: “And the car flies.” However, things had clearly changed since then, and I couldn’t figure out how (or if) the show worked. I revered E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel, and I so wanted the musical version to be the landmark show it should be.

When I finally saw it on stage, late in previews at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts—a suffocating barn of a theatre that had replaced two graceful ones—I’m afraid I had a few qualms. I admired so much of it—writing, staging, design, and performances—and I thought the title song, thanks to choreographer Graciela Daniele’s stunning work, to be one of the best opening numbers ever created for a musical. Nevertheless, it felt lumbering in spots, and director Frank Galati’s reverent approach to McNally’s extensive use of narration held me at a bit of an emotional reserve. I swallowed any criticisms and recommended it far and wide while feeling guilty about my caveats. And I was seriously unhappy when Ragtime lost the Tony for best musical to The Lion King after winning the awards for both book and score.

Fast-forward almost five years to Cardiff, Wales, in October of 2002. I had a musical being presented in the first International Festival of Musical Theatre, which was being held in various spots all over town. One festival event was a concert presentation of Ragtime. Naturally, I made sure to attend. The cast included Maria Friedman as Mother, Kenita Miller as Sarah, and Lawrence Hamilton, with whom I had worked very happily nearly a decade earlier, as Coalhouse. It was a night I’ll never forget. The show virtually levitated off the stage, and the audience went wild for it. They seemed almost shocked: How could a piece of writing this good be so unknown to us? Indeed, at intermission I overheard variations on that sentiment repeatedly expressed. The performance was filmed by the BBC for TV broadcast, and I treasure my recording of it.

Hardly a word or note had been changed from Broadway, aside from small adjustments dictated by the concert format. Clearly, Ragtime was indeed the landmark musical I had wanted it to be. Afterward I saw Steve in the lobby looking very happy, as he should have been. I congratulated him, then said: “I guarantee you they couldn’t do that with The Lion King.”

I don’t know what’s next from Steve and Lynn, but I know I’ll be there with bells on. Their work ranks right up there with the very best of the American musical theatre.

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