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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.

Dec
07

There’s Something About a War

This week my intentionally vague charge from editor Andy Propst is to write “something seasonal.” I think that’s his way of letting me off the hook this year about writing a Christmas music column. In any event, I’m availing myself of the opportunity. My blog goes live on Dec. 7, which just happens to be Pearl Harbor Day. So I decided to look at musicals that take place during wartime.

I’ve chosen 15, with an eye to including titles that haven’t shown up in past columns, and I am starting off with a quintet of shows by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Their musicals rarely appear here because, frankly, I’m not a fan. However, as they seem incapable of writing any musical without a war in it, I felt it only fair to lead off with their five shows that made it to the West End and/or Broadway. They certainly seem to have taken Stephen Sondheim’s song “There’s Something About a War,” cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to heart.

Les Misérables
This show, based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, famously takes place during a French revolution, though not the French Revolution. I saw it in London in the winter of 1986, accompanied by my first husband, just after it had transferred to a commercial West End run from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barbican Centre. He wanted to leave at intermission, but I insisted on staying so that I could report back to friends on the show, already a huge hit despite negative reviews. As the house lights came up after the end of Act 1, a flat, male, American voice rang through the theatre: “Well, that’ll set Broadway back 10 years.” I whirled to see if I could identify the source, but no luck. My husband had his own witticism: “Someone should tell Patti LuPone to stop acting with her lips.” Of course, none of our indignant youthful opprobrium made a dent. LuPone won an Olivier Award, and the show is now a classic beloved by millions. I, however, remain not of their number. Can’t speak for the ex, as we don’t.

Miss Saigon
I saw this new version of Madame Butterfly, now set against the backdrop of America’s war with Vietnam, at a matinee during West End previews at the Drury Lane Theatre in September of 1989. I was alone (hubby number one refused to go) and sitting in my friend and mentor lyricist Richard Maltby Jr.’s production seat, having been seriously warned in a phone call to “keep your mouth shut,” as I could be sitting next to one of his collaborators on the musical. I did as I was told, but I didn’t like the show. I didn’t see Richard at all on that London trip, but we eventually encountered each other back in NYC. Asked what I thought, I tried to be diplomatic by saying, “Well, Richard, it’s just not my cup of tea.” He looked at me with a tolerant smile and said, “I don’t think it’s going to matter.” Boy, was he right.

Martin Guerre
On Feb. 28, 1998, my current hubby and I attended the closing West End performance of this epic, based on the story of the titular real-life peasant in early modern France who fled an arranged Catholic marriage to a woman he does not love to fight in a war against the Protestant Huguenots. Word came that he had been killed, but then a man arrives in the village claiming to be Martin Guerre. Intrigue, deception, sex, and religious intolerance ensue. The show had opened to poisonous reviews and only middling business, and producer Cameron Mackintosh had had the authors revise it twice during its 20-month run, but apparently to little avail. I liked it not a whit, but it had its enthusiastic followers and the closing-night audience was, of course, passionately in its favor. We had great orchestra seats and found ourselves not far from Boublil and Schönberg. At intermission I looked at the hubby and said, under my breath, “If only I had a gun, I could save the American musical theatre.” It seemed funny at the time. These days, however, I’d never jest about such a thing. Martin Guerre never reached Broadway, although it did have a tour across America and Canada, which got preserved on disc. Further revisions were done for that tour, and a quick comparison of song titles indicates that not one is shared with the original. That’s some revision!

The Pirate Queen
Who can possibly forget Stephanie J. Block giving birth, then immediately rising to wield her sword and run into battle? As the titular 16th-century heroine leading the Irish in a rebellion against the English, she gave a fine performance amidst much silliness and bombast. Boublil and Schönberg partnered with American writer John Dempsey (Zombie Prom, The Fix, The Witches of Eastwick) and chose to premiere their 2007 musical on Broadway rather than in London. During a severely troubled Chicago tryout engagement, Richard Maltby Jr. was brought in to help with rewrites, but the show couldn’t be saved, folding after only 85 performances in the cavernous Hilton Theatre (now the renovated-to-make-it-more-intimate Lyric, where Harry Potter is playing).

Marguerite
This is the only Boublil-Schönberg show I did not see, though the hubby and I did listen to the OLCR in a rental car while driving home from vacation in New Hampshire. It opened in the West End in 2008 and is notable for having music by Michel Legrand, not Schönberg, who instead gets a co-book credit, along with Boublil and English director Jonathan Kent, who also helmed the production. Boublil did the French lyrics, which Herbert Kretzmer then rendered into English ones. Inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, it is set in German-occupied Paris during World War II. Marguerite (Ruthie Henshall) is a former lady of high society reduced to living with Otto, a German officer (Alexander Hanson), when she falls in love with Armand, a musician (Julian Ovenden). The show was not sung-through, as the team’s previous four were, and Legrand’s music is less declamatory than Schönberg’s, with some attractive jazz influences. Still, notices were not good, and the musical closed in four months. And that’s been it for B&S so far. Hmmm. B&S – has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it?

The Grand Tour
Composer-lyricist Jerry Herman and book writers Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble slid right off the rails with this 1979 musical about a Polish-Jewish intellectual, S.L. Jacobowsky, fleeing the Nazis. He has bought a car that he doesn’t know how to drive and ends up being chauffeured by an anti-Semitic Polish colonel trying to get to England to provide Poland’s government-in-exile with a list of undercover agents in his occupied country. It’s based on Franz Werfel’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel as adapted by American playwright S.N. Behrman, and when I saw The Grand Tour at Broadway’s Palace Theatre it laid there like a lox, despite a few good Herman tunes and a valiant Joel Grey in the lead. A 1988 vest-pocket off-Broadway revisal at Jewish Repertory Theatre featuring Stuart Zagnit had much more charm, but the book problems weren’t solved. That said, I don’t know a single Herman score not worth listening to, and songs such as “Marianne” (about the colonel’s French girlfriend, who is traveling with them and with whom Jacobowsky ends up falling in love), “Mrs. S.L. Jacobowsky” (about the wife he has never had), “You I Like” (when Jacobowsky and the colonel finally bond), and “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow” (Jacobowsky’s anthem of survival) are vintage Herman.

Pins and Needles
Harold Rome wrote most of the material for this 1937 musical revue produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and performed by amateurs, all union members. It had a left-wing political view and ran for 1,108 performances, closing in 1940 before America joined World War II but after it began. A studio cast album released in 1962 was billed as a “25th anniversary edition” and featured a young Barbra Streisand, who was then appearing in Rome’s musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Many of the sketches and songs were about union issues, but some of them addressed the war in Europe. One such song was “Four Little Angels of Peace,” which referenced the Anschluss and the Second Sino-Japanese War as it satirized Neville Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, and Adolf Hitler. I don’t think Streisand would get away with that Japanese accent today.

Ben Franklin in Paris
Playwright Sidney Michaels had back-to-back Broadway hits with the 1962 comedy Tchin-Tchin and the 1964 drama Dylan. He then wrote two musicals, both set against a war background, with less felicitous results. 1964’s Ben Franklin in Paris managed to run just over six months, thanks mostly to the star power of Robert Preston, who played the inventor of the stove during his days as America’s ambassador to France. It was largely due to Franklin that the French came into the Revolutionary War on our side and stayed there. Michaels also wrote the lyrics, to music by first-time Broadway composer Mark Sandrich Jr., in his sole Broadway outing. While their score has its merits, their inexperience was too great. In particular, Michaels doesn’t put enough dramatic action in the songs, reserving it for his book, which is why the OBCR doesn’t tell the story very well. Jerry Herman was brought in to write what to me are the most memorable songs, “Too Charming” and “To Be Alone With You.”

Goodtime Charley
Michaels ceded the job of writing lyrics to Hal Hackady on this 1975 musical about the relationship between Joan of Arc and the Dauphin of France during Europe’s Hundred Years War. Larry Grossman provided the top-notch music (as orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, the overture is one of my favorites), but the piece never gelled and the run lasted just under three months. I didn’t see it, but stars Joel Grey and Ann Reinking are engaging on the OBCR, and I gather an Onna White dance number in which Reinking kicked over all the castles of the Loire was something else. Unlike Ben Franklin, this is a flop score that I still listen to. Favorite songs include a forceful Reinking on “Voices and Visions” and “One Little Year,” and Grey, attractively understated, on “I Leave the World” and the title song. And did I tell you about that overture?

Blitz!
Lionel Bart did just about everything on this 1962 original musical set in a London under Nazi bombardment: He wrote the music and lyrics, co-wrote the book (with Joan Maitland), and directed. The story involves quarreling proprietors of a herring stall and a fruit stall in Petticoat Lane. The complication is that their children fall in love. But the show’s real purpose was to re-create history, dramatizing a community and celebrating the British spirit. Bart’s follow-up to his smash hit Oliver! doesn’t have that show’s take-home tunes, but it’s raffish and quirky and attractively redolent of the English music hall. World War II songstress Vera Lynn makes a prerecorded cameo appearance singing “The Day After Tomorrow” on the radio, and the lovely song does its job of evoking her wartime hits such as “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square.” Shirley Bassey covered the plaintive “Far Away,” which was on the pop charts for 19 weeks, cresting at number 24. My favorite is the saucily defiant “Who’s This Geezer Hitler?”.

Bloomer Girl
This 1944 Broadway hit is both pro-feminist and anti-war as it tells the tale of Evelina Applegate, the daughter of a hoop-skirt magnate from the North who forsakes her father’s sartorial dictates, preferring to wear newfangled bloomers invented by her forward-thinking Aunt Dolly. Evelina is romanced by the man her father has chosen for her, Jeff Calhoun, from a formerly wealthy Southern family, and against her better judgment, she falls for him, only to see him leave to fight for the Confederacy. All ends happily, of course, but not until Agnes de Mille gets to stage the somber Civil War Ballet, expressing women’s emotions in war, which lyricist E.Y. Harburg called “dreadful” but composer Harold Arlen supported. The critics agreed with Arlen. The lovers were played on Broadway by Celeste Holm, fresh out of Oklahoma!, and David Brooks, soon to originate the role of Tommy Albright in Brigadoon. The first-rate score includes “Evelina,” “It Was Good Enough for Grandma,” “I Got a Song,” and the thrilling “The Eagle and Me,” sung by a runaway slave about his need to be free. There is a good, if considerably shortened, TV version starring Barbara Cook and Keith Andes (which reproduces de Mille’s ballet), and Encores! did an excellent concert version in 2001 featuring Kate Jennings Grant, Michael Park, Kathleen Chalfant (in a musical!), and the redoubtable Philip Bosco, whom we just lost.

Dogfight
Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul made their NYC debut with this 2012 off-Broadway adaptation of Nancy Savoca and Bob Comfort’s 1991 indie drama about a group of teenagers about to ship out for Vietnam in 1963. The night before they leave they stage a “dogfight,” a contest to see who can bring the ugliest girl to their going-away party. Under Joe Mantello’s acute direction, Lindsay Mendez was heartrending as Rose Fenny, a young woman who gets used by Derek Klena’s insensitive Marine. When she eventually catches on and tells him off, he realizes what he’s done and pursues her to make amends. A nascent romance starts to emerge, but what chance will it have under the circumstances? I loved this tough, smart show and said so in my Backstage review. I first saw Annaleigh Ashford here, as a young streetwalker who wises Rose up in the searing title song, and she made quite the impression. Despite all their subsequent success, I think this is still the finest work that Pasek and Paul have done.

Something for the Boys
Cole Porter wrote his last score for Ethel Merman for this 1943 hit about three cousins—each unknown to the other—who inherit an abandoned Texas hacienda only to discover that soldiers from a nearby Army training base want to use it as housing for their wives and girlfriends. The cousins turn it into a boarding house and comic complications abound. Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ slapdash script seeks only to entertain, and they actually resolve what there is of a plot when Merman’s character discovers that she can receive radio signals through fillings in her teeth. Porter’s songs are in the big-band mode popular at the time, and if the romantic tunes are rather generic, some of the comedy songs are gems, especially “The Leader of a Big Time Band” and “By the Mississinewah,” in which an Indian chief’s two sex-starved wives lament his inattention. (There really is a Mississinewah River, in Porter’s hometown of Peru, Ind.) Thanks to a radio broadcast, you can hear Merman and company in a shortened version of the score. For the full version, you can get P.S. Classics’ studio recording, which comes out a week from today, featuring a stellar cast that includes Danny Burstein, Andréa Burns, Elizabeth Stanley, and Edward Hibbert and uses the show’s original orchestrations.

Yank!
I first encountered this musical by the Zellnik brothers—David did the book and lyrics and Joseph the music—as part of a reading series presented by the gay theatre group TOSOS II in 2001. At that point it only consisted of a couple of scenes and songs, but I was immediately intrigued by the material and the idea: two men serving in the U.S. Army in World War II fall in love, done in the style of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The show continued to be developed in a variety of venues, including a 2007 production at Brooklyn’s Gallery Players, before finally landing at the York Theatre Company in 2010. That production did so well that the piece was optioned for Broadway. I saw it at the York and found it tremendously promising but still in need of some work. The producers brought heavyweight Broadway director David Cromer in to oversee that work, and in winter of 2011 Roundabout did a workshop to look at the revisions. Alas, that’s the last I’ve heard of Yank!. It’s a shame, because there is so much in it that’s good, as you can tell by listening to the OCR and the sterling performances of Bobby Steggart, Jeffrey Denman, Ivan Hernandez, and Nancy Anderson.

Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War
Mashall Pailet (book, music, and direction) and A.D. Penedo (book and lyrics) based this sly look at the high cost of hubris on an unproduced screenplay by J.T. Allen about the intelligence mistakes that led to the start of the Iraq War. It got a well-reviewed (New York Times Critic’s Pick) nonprofit off-off-Broadway run at the Actors Temple Theater in Midtown in 2015, which led to a three-month off-Broadway mounting at St. Luke’s Theatre in 2017 featuring a talented cast of unknowns that included a pre-SpongeBob Ethan Slater. Penedo’s lyrics are smartly turned and savvy about character, while Pailet’s music employs a range of styles dictated by both character and situation. Highlights include “Das Man,” sung by a nerdy German intelligence underling who fancies himself a hot shot; “Berry and the Bad Boy,” a rap for a low-rung female CIA operative whose ambition gets the better of her; and “Stay,” an unsettling plea from a creepy Iraqi looking for asylum in Berlin in exchange for secrets about Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program. The satire stings, but so do the ugly truths about human nature. I remember hearing about this and being intrigued. Having listened to the score, I wish I’d made the effort to see it.

 

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Nov
23

Favorites by Decade – The 1950s

I have to pick only five favorite musicals from this incredibly fruitful decade? Really?! Well, it can’t be done. I winnowed it down to six indispensable Broadway titles, but I just couldn’t get to five. Then, to spice it up a bit, I added five off-Broadway shows, as I did for the 1990s column back in April. As off-Broadway was born in the 1950s, I wondered if I could find five titles, but it wasn’t hard at all.

Interestingly, three of the five were produced by T. Edward Hambleton and Norris Houghton, co-founders of the intrepid Phoenix Theatre, which was located at Second Avenue and 12th Street. Alas, today this historic house, built as a Yiddish theatre, has been chopped up into a multiplex cinema. You can see its interior in the 1981 slasher flick The Fan, starring Lauren Bacall as a Broadway musical star stalked by a murderous admirer. Bacall sings Tim Rice and Marvin Hamlisch’s “Hearts, not Diamonds” on its stage, and the film’s climactic scene takes place in the empty theatre. The admittedly rather cheesy movie can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

In winnowing I had to leave out some major likes, including Guys and Dolls, Wonderful Town, Candide, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Peter Pan, The Boy Friend, Fiorello!, Flower Drum Song, Juno, and The Sound of Music. As I said, it was a fruitful era, the height of Broadway’s Golden Age. Nevertheless, here are my fifties faves, in chronological order by opening date.

The King and I (Opened March 29, 1951 at the St. James Theatre)
I liked this Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II adaptation of Margaret Landon’s autobiographical novel Anna and the King of Siam when I saw its 1956 film version broadcast on TV sometime in the early 1960s, but I fell in love with it at age 12 upon the film’s 1966 re-release, when I could see it widescreen and uninterrupted by commercials. I attended opening night of its 1977 Broadway revival in a borrowed tux and sat a couple of rows behind Rodgers, who I watched almost as much as the stage. (Shockingly, its OBCR is not available digitally, but you can buy used copies of the CD on Amazon.) Most recently, I was transported by director Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival starring Kelli O’Hara, who finally won her well-deserved Tony for it after five preceding nominations. While there are many fine King and I recordings, my gold standard remains the film soundtrack featuring the brilliant Yul Brynner, who of course originated the role on stage and won both a Tony and an Oscar for it, and the craftily combined efforts of Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon. For me, no one has ever bested Brynner or Kerr/Nixon in their roles, and there is no more perfect moment in all of musical theatre than “Shall We Dance?” as executed by the three of them.

The Threepenny Opera (Opened March 10, 1954 at the Theatre de Lys)
Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertolt Brecht’s book and lyrics for this slashing account of capitalism’s endemic corruption remains, for me, the best English version I have encountered, despite the bowdlerization of some lyrics on the OCR to allow for radio airplay. In particular, due to Blitzstein’s own gifts as a songwriter, the lyrics fit beautifully with Kurt Weill’s clashing, angular score. And, of course, this off-Broadway production featured Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, re-creating the role of Jenny, the whore she made famous 26 years earlier in the show’s 1928 Berlin premiere. But the OCR also offers the talents of Jo Sullivan, Charlotte Rae, Beatrice Arthur, John Astin, and Paul Dooley. Scott Merrill, who starred as the sexy but treacherous gangster Macheath, may not have achieved the stardom of his fellow cast members, but his performance is indelible. When he left the production, a young guy named Jerry Orbach took over. The show ran for more than six years and just over 2,700 performances. Oh, how I wish I could have seen it.

The Golden Apple (Opened March 11, 1954 at the Phoenix Theatre)
Off-Broadway was clearly hopping in 1954, with John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ delightful through-sung re-telling of Greek myth opening the night after Threepenny. Blitzstein and Latouche were friends, but I bet Latouche missed Blitzstein’s opening night in this case, as Apple had a preview performance on March 10. Did Blitzstein show up at the Phoenix on March 11 to bask in the glow of his raves? I wonder. As Latouche had once planned to translate Threepenny himself (instead he wrote his own modern adaptation of the story, 1946’s Beggar’s Holiday, with music by Duke Ellington), I’m sure he eventually caught the show. Apple was a critical smash and moved to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre, but it was too artsy for the Main Stem crowd and folded after three-and-a-half months. You need both the heavily cut OBCR, for the iconic performances of its original cast, especially Kaye Ballard as Helen of Troy, and the full-length live recording of a production at Texas’ Lyric Stage, so you can grasp the complete work. The splendid 2017 Encores! concert staging, alas, went unrecorded.

Sandhog (Opened Nov. 23, 1954 at the Phoenix Theatre)
Hambleton and Houghton followed up their off-Broadway success with The Golden Apple with this piece by Waldo Salt (book and lyrics) and Earl Robinson (composer) based on Theodore Dreiser’s short story “St. Columba and the River.” It told the story of the building of the Holland Tunnel. Labeled “a ballad in three acts,” the show blends dialogue and song in highly unusual and dramatic ways, and Robinson’s music is haunting. The cast included David Brooks (the original Tommy Albright of Brigadoon), Jack Cassidy, Alice Ghostley, Michael Kermoyan, and Paul Ukena, plus as three street kids Betty Ageloff (who changed her last name to Aberlin and went on to fame as Lady Aberlin on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), Yuriko, and Eliot Feld. Bernard Gersten, later producer at the Public Theater and Lincoln Center Theater, was the stage manager, Hershy Kay did the orchestrations, and Howard Da Silva directed. An OCR was recorded, though with piano-only accompaniment, but it went unreleased, probably due to some sound problems in its second half that weren’t apparent until after it was finished. So Salt and Robinson made their own recording, a rather elaborate authors’ demo that still aptly conveys the piece. An extremely rare LP for many years, it has recently been released on CD by Stage Door Records and includes selected cuts from the OCR as a bonus. John Latouche, who wrote the hit cantata “Ballad for Americans” with Robinson in 1939, served as dramaturge, and Latouche’s life partner, librettist, lyricist, and poet Kenward Elmslie, funded the making of the OCR. Producer-director-actor Charlotte Moore of the Irish Rep has told me that she wants to do a production of Sandhog there (its main characters are, after all, Irish). Get a move on, Charlotte!

My Fair Lady (Opened March 15, 1956 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre)
What more is there left for me to write about Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s magnum opus? I fell hard for the OBCR when I was four and even harder for the full show when I was 10 and the movie version was released. OK, a story about that. As the opening credits played on screen at Shaker Heights’ Colony Theatre, I was so excited that I started to hum along with the overture. My older brother quickly interrupted me, telling me that I was being rude to my fellow audience members. Embarrassed, I realized immediately that he was right, which was also very annoying. However, never again as an audience member did I act as if I was at home in my living room. I haven’t caught Laura Benanti yet in Lincoln Center Theater’s beautiful revival, but I’m hearing great things about her Eliza Doolittle, and I’ll get there soon.

The Most Happy Fella (Opened May 3, 1956 at the Imperial Theatre)
Frank Loessser’s bounteous musical adaptation of Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama, They Knew What They Wanted, about a middle-aged California vintner and his younger mail-order bride, had the misfortune of opening less than two months after My Fair Lady. In any other season it would have swept the Tonys; instead, it got six nominations and no wins. (Lady had 10 nominations and six wins.) Still, it ran for 676 performances and spawned what I think was the first three-LP original Broadway cast recording, preserving for all time virtually every note of Loesser’s extraordinary score. It was revived at City Center in 1959 and on the Great White Way in 1979 and 1992, and Encores! did very well with it in 2014 starring Shuler Hensley and Laura Benanti, but I think it’s time for Broadway to see it again. The show is much too good to be relegated to concert stagings. Bartlett Sher, are you ready?

West Side Story (Opened Sept. 26, 1957 at the Winter Garden Theatre)
If you haven’t been to the Jerome Robbins exhibit currently on display at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, I urge you to hie yourself over there pronto (it runs through March 30). There is some really fascinating material about the creation of this Arthur Laurents–Stephen Sondheim–Leonard Bernstein musical (and its subsequent film adaptation) about warring street gangs on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which Robbins, of course, conceived, directed, and choreographed. In particular, one fascinating tidbit is Robbins’ editing notes about the musical numbers to his co-director on the 1961 movie version, Robert Wise, given long after Robbins was fired from the picture for filming too slowly. There is also a list of all the NYC locations considered for filming, as well as which were finally chosen. I live on 68th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, and I always point out to guests that most of the movie’s location shots were made just down my block, on 68th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenue, which was one of the few blocks still standing after area demolition to make way for the erection of Lincoln Center. Once the movie finished shooting, the buildings came down, and a large apartment complex was built in their place, causing 68th Street to stop at Amsterdam Avenue. I point to a particularly ugly gray apartment building (of much more recent vintage than the above-mentioned complex, though it still stands as well) and announce, “The Jets and the Sharks danced right over there!”

The Music Man (Opened Dec. 19, 1957 at the Majestic Theatre)
Meredith Willson’s sepia-tinted musical comedy about life in rural Iowa at the start of the 20th century duked it out with West Side Story come awards time, and the more conventionally commercial show won both the Tony and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best musical. I would have voted for gang warfare, and yet I would never diss The Music Man as the inferior of the two. It is just about as good as a musical comedy can get. Also, as with West Side, it got a splendid film version, again directed by its original stage director, in this case Morton Da Costa. In choosing which recording to listen to, it’s always a bit of a dilemma: Barbara Cook or Shirley Jones? “My White Knight” or “Being in Love”? As I knew the film first, I tend to go with that more often than not. I always thought it would be great fun to have Cook and Jones play the Brewster sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace. Alas, we’ll never know if I was right.

Once Upon a Mattress (Opened May 11, 1959 at the Phoenix Theatre)
This is the third of the Hambleton-Houghton off-Broadway tuners on the list, and this musical comedy version of the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea,” unconcerned with anything more than entertainment, is a distinct departure from the artistic ambitions of The Golden Apple and Sandhog. And yet, when it, like Apple, moved to Broadway’s Alvin Theatre, it too only managed a short run, just 244 performances, essentially double the length of Apple’s 125-performance run. I don’t get it. The Mary Rodgers–Marshall Barer score is witty and tuneful, and the Barer–Jay Thompson–Dean Fuller book is a delight. Carol Burnett clowned spectacularly under George Abbott’s direction (something we know for sure because her performance was captured in not one but two TV adaptations in the 1960s). So what was the problem? Perhaps it was the raciness of the premise. No one in the kingdom can get married until the prince is wed, something his possessive mother seems determined to prevent. Alas, one of the ladies in waiting has gotten pregnant. What’s an expectant mother to do without a hubby to do it with? I know this story line KO’d a production at my high school in 1970. The principal told our drama teacher that it would embarrass several students who were in similar straights. We did Little Mary Sunshine instead (see below). Then said drama teacher directed Mattress that summer with a student cast for a local amateur troupe. Mr. Sherlock was always pretty tenacious about getting his way.

Gypsy (Opened May 21, 1959 at the Broadway Theatre)
There is virtually nothing of interest in the Robbins exhibit at Lincoln Center about Gypsy, despite it being possibly the best integrated musical ever written. I think that’s probably because, although Robbins directed and choreographed, the show belongs to book writer Arthur Laurents’ conception of how to tell the tale of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee: by putting her pushy stage mother, Rose, front and center. Even Robbins apparently told Laurents at the time, and not happily, that the show was his show rather than a Robbins show, which he felt occurred because he wasn’t involved enough in the writing process, as he had been on West Side Story. I do think, if one has to choose, that it is probably the best book ever written for a musical, though the Stephen Sondheim–Jule Styne score is pretty nifty too. There have been a lot of great Roses over the years, but I do wish I could have seen the role’s originator, Ethel Merman, play the part. I have heard a live tape of her closing performance, but it’s not the same thing. Just recently, I found a clip on YouTube of Merman singing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” “exactly as she does it in the show.” It’s from The Kraft Music Hall program broadcast Oct. 5, 1960, while Merman is still doing Gypsy on Broadway. I’ve seen her perform the song many times, but always out of context as an upbeat anthem. In this clip, even though Merman is not in costume, you can see the desperate, domineering Rose come through. Believe me, it’s something.

Little Mary Sunshine (Opened Nov. 18, 1959, at the Orpheum Theatre)
When Mr. Sherlock told us that our high school musical would be Rick Besoyan’s delicious spoof of operettas, I had never heard of it, or him, and I knew precious little about operetta, except that I didn’t like it much, probably because my parents did. I immediately purchased the OCR and plunked it down on our living room hi-fi player. I was wary, but I ended up very charmed, and I loved being in the show’s chorus as a Forest Ranger. I knew that “Colorado Love Call” spoofed “Indian Love Call” from Rose Marie, because my mom loved Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald. But I really didn’t get most of the other references: “Look for a Sky of Blue” twits “Look for the Silver Lining” from Sally, “Tell a Handsome Stranger” sends up “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden,” from Floradora (you can hear the song on Tallulah Bankhead: Give My Regards to Broadway), “The Forest Rangers” comes from “Stouthearted Men” from The New Moon, and, of course, “In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essenzook Zee” spoofs “In Egern on the Tegern See” from Music in the Air. In the years that followed it was always fun when I heard an operetta song for the first time and realized it had a counterpart in Besoyan’s score. Nobody does this show anymore, probably because audiences no longer have knowledge of operetta. But I came to love the show without knowing the references, so why couldn’t others? I think it would work at Encores! starring Kristin Chenoweth (age be damned), if directed with just the right amount of cheek. By the way, you need the London cast recording as well as the OCR, because only by combining them do you get the complete score. In London Little Mary was played by the redoubtable Patricia Routledge, while off-Broadway she was first created by the equally formidable Eileen Brennan. Both are priceless.

 

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Nov
09

Twixt Twelve and Twenty

This week’s topic is teenagers in musicals, in salute of next week’s Broadway opening of The Prom, about an adolescent girl in small-town Indiana who is forbidden to bring her girlfriend to the titular event. And a quick look at the shows currently on the Great White Way proves that The Prom’s teenagers have plenty of company: Aladdin, Dear Evan Hansen, Frozen, Mean Girls, The Book of Mormon, and Wicked feature a plethora of leading or supporting adolescent characters. Ti Moune’s age in Once on This Island isn’t specified, but Hailey Kilgore, who plays her, was 18 when the revival opened nearly a year ago (though LaChanze, who originated the role in 1990, was 28 at the time). And then there are the kids in School of Rock, who are poised on the puberty precipice, with several members of the original cast even admitting before opening to being, gasp, 13.

I confess that to me, practically doddering at 64, it has started to seem as if Broadway is becoming more juvenile-oriented than ever before. So I decided to make a list of teenage musical theatre characters I find memorable, to see if my assumption is accurate. It was surprisingly easy, so I fear I was just being a curmudgeon. I have winnowed the list to a mere 15, while avoiding the most obvious shows, such as West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Hairspray, and Spring Awakening.

Liesel von Trapp in The Sound of Music
This is hardly avoiding the obvious, but I just had to start with one of musical theatre’s iconic teenagers. I mean, she even gets a Rodgers and Hammerstein song about being one, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Lauri Peters, who originated the role in 1959, was 26 at the time, but period TV footage shows that she looked the part. Charmian Carr, who played Liesel in the 1965 blockbuster movie version, was only 22 when she filmed it. However, despite giving a fine performance, she has always come off to me on screen as 16 going on 30. I think it’s the very ’60s hair they gave her.

Jack Kelly in Newsies
Jeremy Jordan, currently back on Broadway in the new play American Son, leapt from obscurity thanks to his work as Jack Kelly, a brash 17-year-old newsboy in 1899 New York City in this hit Alan Menken–Jack Feldman–Harvey Fierstein tuner based on the flop 1992 Disney film. When I reviewed the show’s 2011 pre-Broadway engagement at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse for Backstage, I said: “The ebullient Jeremy Jordan is giving a breakout star performance as Jack. You know it when you see it, and I saw it.” It’s always nice when history proves you right.

Ottilie in House of Flowers
In Truman Capote’s slender tale of dueling whorehouse madams on an unspecified Caribbean island, 16-year-old Ottilie works for Madame Fleur until she falls for the hunky Royal, a mountain boy new to the city. Even though the show only managed 165 performances in the 1954-1955 season, the role put 19-year-old Diahann Carroll on the map, and with such gorgeous Capote–Harold Arlen songs to sing as “A Sleepin’ Bee” and “I Never Has Seen Snow,” it’s no wonder. Carroll had one more out of town, the plangent “Don’t Like Goodbyes,” but star Pearl Bailey got jealous and appropriated it for Madame Fleur. Didn’t stop Diahann, though, now did it?

Richard Miller in Take Me Along
Robert Morse was 28 and well known on Broadway when he played Richard Miller, teenage son of small-town newspaper editor Nat Miller, in this 1959 musicalization by Bob Merrill (songs) and Joseph Stein and Robert Russell (book) of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, 1933’s Ah, Wilderness!. The character is a thinly veiled O’Neill self-portrait, and Morse’s rendition of “I Would Die,” Richard’s fervent declaration of love for his neighbor’s daughter, Muriel Macomber, is as funny as his performance of “Nine O’Clock,” a song of tremulous romantic anticipation, is touching.

Medium Alison in Fun Home
In Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s 2013 musical based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, the leading role is split into three: Small Alison, Medium Alison, and Alison. Medium Alison is 19 and in the process of coming out of the closet as a lesbian in her freshman year at Ohio’s Oberlin College. Her discovery of sex is wonderfully documented in the song “Changing My Major,” which in this case would be to Joan, her new girlfriend. It’s to Kron’s credit that all three Alisons are memorable, and the interplay among them in her masterful mixing of chronology is one of the show’s great strengths.

Wang San in Flower Drum Song
The thoroughly Americanized younger son of Chinese immigrant Wang Chi Yang isn’t a big role in this 1958 Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II–Joseph Fields musical adaptation of C.Y. Lee’s gently comic novel, but 15-year-old Patrick Adiarte, then billed as Pat, made it stand out, both with his brashly athletic dancing and his confident way with then-contemporary teenage American slang. He didn’t get his own song, but Adiarte comes through loud and clear when Wang San and his friends sing a reprise of “The Other Generation,” which in its first iteration is sung by grownups who are trashing the younger set. He repeated the role in the musical’s 1961 film adaptation and is a winning screen presence, which he had also been as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn in the 1956 film version of The King and I.

Lili in Carnival
In 1961 Anna Maria Alberghetti was 24 when she made her one and only Broadway appearance playing the orphaned waif Lili, who joins a tatty traveling European circus to work as an apprentice. The character’s age is never specified, but the plot turns on our belief that she is so innocent that she doesn’t understand that the performing puppets she comes to love are being manipulated by the brooding, unhappy puppeteer who loves her from afar and frightens her up close. The circus impresario calls her “child” when he first meets her, though she is clearly a post-pubescent one. Michael Stewart adapted Helen Deutsch’s screenplay for the 1953 MGM film Lili, which starred Leslie Caron, and was based on Paul Gallico’s short story “The Seven Souls of Clement O’Reilly.” Bob Merrill wrote some wonderful songs for her to sing, including the delicate “Mira,” the soaring “Yes, My Heart,” and the enchanting “Love Makes the World Go Round.”

Evan Goldman in 13
Technically, Evan Goldman is not a teenager in this original 2008 musical by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Dan Elish and Robert Horn (book). He is “just about to turn 13,” as he sings in Brown’s dynamic scene-setting opening number, “13/Becoming a Man.” But as the whole show is about how kids negotiate turning into teenagers, and he does turn 13 before it ends, I think he qualifies. I thought 13 had equal parts wit, wisdom, and heart and was distressed at its middling notices and short run of only 105 performances. Graham Phillips commanded the stage like a seasoned pro as Evan, who is seriously upset that he is being uprooted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Appleton, Ind., due to his parents’ divorce. The rest of the cast, which included Ariana Grande in a small role, were every bit as good.

Alexandra “Zan” Giddens in Regina
Zan is the shy, sheltered daughter of one of the great anti-heroines of all time, the grasping, greedy Regina Giddens, whom the world first met in Lillian Hellman’s ironclad 1939 melodrama, The Little Foxes. Marc Blitzstein’s operatic version, which I think deepens the material, debuted on Broadway in 1949 with Zan played by Priscilla Gillette, who would go on to star in Cole Porter’s Out of This World and John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ The Golden Apple. Both the play and the opera turn on the transformation of Zan from insecurity to confidence. Her long-overdue confrontation with her mother, “All in One Day,” is short but shattering, mixing music and dialogue to great effect, making for a stirring conclusion.

The Artful Dodger in Oliver!
I saw director Carol Reed’s brilliant 1968 film version of Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist at a Manhattan cinema the week I turned 15. I left exhilarated by the film and with a serious crush on Jack Wild, who played the thieving Artful Dodger and was also 15 when he filmed the picture. Indeed, I had an erotically charged view of his relationship with the younger Oliver that I’m sure nobody intended, not Reed, Bart, Wild, or Dickens. Charmingly roguish and effortlessly musical, Wild was so good that he got an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. At the time I already had a crush on Davy Jones of the pop band the Monkees, who had played the Artful Dodger on Broadway in 1963, though I didn’t know that, and was 21 when I first encountered him in 1966 on TV. I guess I had a type: Cockney, cute, and rough around the edges.

Katrin in I Remember Mama
This 1979 Richard Rodgers–Martin Charnin–Thomas Meehan musical based on Kathryn Forbes’ stories about a valiant Norwegian mother with a large brood of children (and John Van Druten’s 1944 dramatization of them) had a troubled out-of-town tryout during which director-lyricist Charnin was fired. (He sent a telegram to the company that read, in part, “There are no more fjords in my future.”) Originally, Mama’s eldest, Katrin, was split into Younger Katrin and Older Katrin, who as a successful writer narrates the story in flashback from adulthood. New director Cy Feuer combined the roles and hired Maureen Silliman, who at 29 was nevertheless able to convincingly pass for Katrin’s younger version. I didn’t think the musical worked well on Broadway, despite some lovely songs and a terrific title role performance by Liv Ullmann, but I remember being immediately arrested by Silliman’s emotional lucidity and understated command. Ten years later she would create a role in my first professionally produced musical, A Fine and Private Place, at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn., and she was just as good and a joy to work with. She continues to act steadily today in theatres across the country and NYC. Alas, she is not on the studio recording of I Remember Mama, which wasn’t made until 1985, six years after Rodgers’ death. Ann Morrison, the original Mary in Merrily We Roll Along, does a fine job narrating, singing the title song, and leading her brothers and sisters in “Mama Always Makes It Better.” Still, I remember Silliman.

Luke in Kid Victory
Actor Brandon Flynn had a very difficult assignment in this off-Broadway musical by John Kander and Greg Pierce: His character, 17-year-old Luke, who is the lead, never sang. That’s because Luke, who is gay but closeted, is only just starting to recover from an 11-month ordeal of being kidnapped, held in confinement, and sexually abused by a much older man who initially befriended him. His well-meaning family and neighbors, all born again Christians in a small Kansas town, don’t make his recovery any easier, wanting him to act as if it never happened and get on with his life. Flynn began in serious head-down mode and charted Luke’s almost imperceptible progress with great sensitivity and focused gravity. And he is a strong presence on the OCR as well, without singing a note. That said, the notes that are sung, by people such as Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jenkins as Luke’s parents and Jeffrey Denman as his kidnapper, are impressive in this superb and unusual score. I thought Kid Victory was the best new musical of the 2016-2017 season.

Evangeline Edwards in Nymph Errant
When Gertrude Lawrence played the role of an English girl graduating from a European finishing school, which would make Evangeline 16 or possibly 17 at most, Lawrence was 35. And perhaps that was a good thing for this 1933 musicalization by Romney Brent (book) and Cole Porter (songs) of James Laver’s scandalous hit 1932 novel, because Evangeline is on a quest across Europe to lose her virginity. Disappointingly, she keeps failing, despite what seem robust opportunities. Porter always said that this was his best score, but possibly he did that simply because the show, a hit in the West End, never came to Broadway. Lawrence, however, did record five numbers from it: “Experiment,” “It’s Bad for Me,” “How Could We Be Wrong,” “The Physician,” and the title tune, and each is a honey. You can hear them on Gertrude Lawrence: Star. A star-studded 1989 recording of the full score, made live in concert at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, has never made it to digital download, but you can find used CD copies for reasonable prices on Amazon.com.

Arpad Laszlo in She Loves Me
Book writer Joe Masteroff describes Arpad, a delivery boy for a parfumerie in an unnamed European city in the early 1930s, as “15 or 16.” He has one standout solo, “Try Me,” in which he tries to persuade his boss to promote him from delivery boy to clerk. I encountered She Loves Me while at college and soon knew virtually the entire Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick score by heart. Though by that point I had ceased acting and was focusing on writing musicals, I, for whatever reason, desperately wanted to play Arpad. And Northwestern University’s theatre department did produce She Loves Me, but in 1976, the year after I graduated. I was still living in Evanston, working at McDonald’s to earn enough money to move to Manhattan. I had friends in the cast and, so, of course I caught the show. But it was torture not to be up there doing it. It really is a fun part that offers an opportunity to shine, as both Ralph Williams, in the 1963 original production, and Nicholas Barasch, in Roundabout’s superlative 2016 revival, discovered. Watching Barasch, I realized that a part of me still wanted to be up there in his place, but I fear that ship has sailed.

Bonus: Dolores “Lolita” Haze in Lolita, My Love
I was going to leave this column evenhanded, seven lads and seven lasses, but I have been spending a great deal of time with Dolores Haze recently, and I just couldn’t leave her out. I have been editing together a script for this 1971 Alan Jay Lerner–John Barry adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel from voluminous papers donated by the Lerner estate to the Library of Congress. No fewer than six complete scripts exist, two of them written after the show closed in its out-of-town tryout in Boston. Lerner and Barry continued revising the show for four months, hoping to bring another production to Broadway the following year (Mike Nichols had agreed to direct), before Barry decided to quit the project. As a result, Lolita, My Love never had a fixed text, and I think much of Lerner’s book rewrites post-Boston are better than what came before, no doubt informed by seeing what wasn’t working in performance. In any event, I have drawn from all six scripts to create one that is still all by Lerner, and what will be performed from Feb. 22 to March 3 in the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti concert series will contain both book and musical material never before seen in performance anywhere. In Nabokov’s novel Lolita is age 12 at the beginning; Lerner and Barry, having compressed the time period over which the story takes place, start her at 14. But in both she is still the same cheerful, gum-chewing American girl who is cynical about most things, especially adults, and more aware of her nascent sexuality than she lets on. I look forward to meeting her in person at the York this winter, and I hope audiences do too. The Lerner-Barry score is absolutely top drawer. As a taste, here is a YouTube link to Denise Nickerson’s rendition of “Saturday,” a song in which Lolita meets European literary professor Humbert Humbert for the first time and thoroughly bewitches him. In it she explains that while she would love for him to tutor her in French, with which she is struggling in school, she can’t possibly study on her day off.

 

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Oct
27

Threnodies for the Season

For my Halloween column I decided to take my hubby’s suggestion to select a list of songs from musicals sung by characters who are dead. But before doing so, I want to say something about a show I just saw that, entirely coincidentally, fits my theme like a glove.

Currently running at the York Theatre Company is a terrific new musical called Midnight at the Never Get. Now, admittedly, I’ve worked a lot at the York, and I am about to do so again as the editor for the script of Lolita, My Love in the upcoming Mufti series celebrating Alan Jay Lerner’s centenary. But as artistic director Jim Morgan knows, my affection for him and his theatre company doesn’t extend to praising shows that I don’t think deserve it. This one does, very much.

It fits this column because, as the musical is set in the afterlife, all 13 of its songs are sung by dead people. Two, to be precise: performer Trevor Copeland and songwriter-accompanist Arthur Brightman. As lovers in 1963 Greenwich Village, they have an act at a gay bar called the Never Get in which Trevor sings Arthur’s songs about male same-sex relationships with the pronouns unchanged, quite a daring thing for the times. Mark Sonnenblick’s imaginative book chronicles Trevor and Arthur’s love affair and what the times they live in do to it (and them) with great affection and piercing understanding. His insinuatingly melodic songs are all written with uncommon craft and discipline in the style of the Great American Songbook, and every one is a keeper. All are actual songs for Trevor’s act, and Sam Bolen (who also co-conceived the musical) delivers them beautifully in a tour de force performance, virtually never leaving the stage for the show’s intermissionless 90-minute duration. (This week’s free song download is the demo track for the sardonic “Wallace Falls,” in which Trevor sings of his experiences growing up gay in rural America.)

The run ends Nov. 4, so see it while you have the chance. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here is the rave review from the New York Times. Get yourself to the Never Get. You’ll be glad you did.

Plug over. Now here are 13 other songs sung by dead characters, each by different songwriters.

“When You’re an Addams,” from The Addams Family
Andrew Lippa’s catchy opening number for this 2010 musical, based on Charles Addams’ classic cartoon characters, has the sepulchral family singing about its ghoulish proclivities backed up by a chorus line of ghostly ancestors, who popped in and out of the action all night to very little effect. In my less-than-impressed Backstage review I called it “one of the flimsiest excuses for a chorus since Captain Jim romanced Rose Marie.” Still, they’re dead and they sing.

“If I Loved You (reprise),” from Carousel
With a few simple word and tense changes, Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers devastatingly limn Billy Bigelow’s realization of all that he has lost when he killed himself rather than face the consequences of participating in a botched robbery attempt. He sings this reprise late in Act 2 directly after his widow, Julie Jordan Bigelow, has by accident momentarily been allowed to glimpse his ghost. For me, it’s one of the most intensely moving moments in all of musical theatre.

“Oh! Ain’t That Sweet,” from Thou Shalt Not
This David Thompson (book)–Harry Connick Jr. (songs)–Susan Stroman (conception, direction, and choreography) 2001 musicalization of Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin reset the story of adultery that leads to murder in mid–20th century New Orleans. It rather spectacularly didn’t work, but some of Connick’s songs were attractive, if too pop-oriented to function dramatically. Variety critic Charles Isherwood singled this one out, saying that as the ghost of Camille, the murdered husband, Norbert Leo Butz “raises the roof with a Sinatra-style toe-tapper, ‘Oh! Ain’t That Sweet!,’ in which he smoothly insinuates his ghostly presence between the desperately disturbed Laurent and Therese.” The short-lived show was Butz’s Broadway breakthrough, earning him Drama Desk and Tony noms for best featured actor in a musical, but alas the OBCR isn’t available digitally. You can, however, hear Connick on the song on Harry on Broadway: Act 1.

“Home Sweet Heaven,” from High Spirits
Tammy Grimes, as the accidentally summoned ghost of author Charles Condimine’s first wife, Elvira, made this deliciously witty list song detailing her life in heaven into an Act 2 showstopper in Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s1964 musical adaptation of Noël Coward’s classic 1941 comedy, Blithe Spirit. The lyric, however, is not by Gray and Martin but by the Master himself. He wrote it during the show’s out-of-town tryout when Martin and Gray’s version wasn’t working well enough, but he declined to take credit (he was already directing the musical), instead just slipping it under Grimes’ hotel door. The OBCR is, alas, not available digitally, but Steve Ross does a splendid job with it on his CD Most of Ev’ry Day.

“Come to My Garden,” from The Secret Garden
A sickly, wheelchair-bound boy named Colin living in 1911 England is given encouragement to rejoin the world by the spirit of his dead mother, Lily, in Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s 1991 musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel. It must be good to play a ghost, because, as with Norbert Leo Butz’s Camille, Lily put a young and radiant Rebecca Luker on the Broadway map, leading to her starring role as Magnolia in Harold Prince’s production of Show Boat three years later.

“Tevye’s Dream,” from Fiddler on the Roof
Sholom Alecheim’s iconic Jewish-Russian milkman must convince his mercenary wife, Golde, to allow their eldest daughter to marry the penniless Motel Kamzoil, a tailor, rather than the rich butcher Lazar Wolf. So he invents this elaborate dream in which Golde’s Grandmother Tzeitel, for whom the daughter is named, comes all the way from the other world to deliver a deadly warning should her great-grandchild marry the wrong man. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick outdid themselves on this one, while Jerome Robbins’ hilariously scary staging couldn’t be bettered. It’s a hoot.

“What Would I Do?,” from Falsettos
Male lovers Marvin and Whizzer share this final parting duet, sung just after Whizzer has died from AIDS at the very beginning of the epidemic. William Finn wrote it for his and James Lapine’s 1990 one-act musical Falsettoland, a sequel to their 1981 musical March of the Falsettos, which told how Marvin and Whizzer first got together. The two were combined into one show on Broadway in 1992, and Finn won a Tony for his score. Whether you go with Michael Rupert and Stephen Bogardus, who created the roles, or Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in the splendid 2016 Broadway revival, you can’t go wrong. It gets me every time, especially “Once I was told that good men get better with age/We’re just gonna skip that stage” and the shatteringly simple question, “What would I do if you had not been my friend?”

“Sincerely, Me,” from Dear Evan Hansen
In this surprisingly comic trio by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, two teenage boys in effect summon the ghost of a troubled classmate who committed suicide as they try to create an email trail of correspondence between one of them and the dead boy in order to convince the boy’s grieving family that their severely antisocial son had a friend. What begins as a seemingly harmless attempt to help ends up causing untold pain for all involved in book writer Stephen Levenson’s entirely original story. The 2017 Tony winner for best musical is still regularly selling out at the Music Box Theatre.

“Our Mornings/That Thing,” from Giant
Michael John LaChiusa wrote this arresting eight-minute sequence that opens Act 2 of his and book writer Sybille Pearson’s 2012 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel about a Texas ranching family. In it family patriarch Bick Benedict has a colloquy with the ghost of his older sister, Luz, telling her of his disappointment with his too-refined teenage son and preference for his wild daughter, named for the equally rugged sister. When, at the end, Luz, who is loving but ultimately not a positive influence, urges her brother to “Keep me alive/Look back/I’m here,” inverting a song from Act 1 called “Look Back/Look Ahead” in which Bick’s uncle challenges him to conquer his paralyzing grief over Luz’s death, things get very unsettling. Brian d’Arcy James and Michele Pawk are spot on.

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” from Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus’ treacherous disciple Judas comes back from the dead with his own backup choir to taunt his former leader during his crucifixion, accusing him of getting too self-important and thus being the architect of his own demise. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock opera has never been more effectively rendered than in its original record release, where Murray Head is the one doing the screaming. However, you can also check out Ben Vereen’s take on the 1971 OBCR. It’s the third ghost role in this list that brought an actor stardom, in this case leading to Vereen’s Tony-winning role as the Leading Player in Pippin a year later.

“Fear No More,” from The Frogs
Here is a rare example of Stephen Sondheim setting someone else’s lyric (he also set playwright George Furth’s lyric for the song “Hollywood and Vine” in Furth’s 1971 Broadway comedy Twigs). In this case the lyric is by William Shakespeare (putting Furth in very good company), and Shakespeare also sings it to the Greek god of drama and wine, Dionysus, who has journeyed to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw to speak to the world and help it to solve its problems. After hearing it, Dionysus changes his mind and takes Shakespeare instead. Sondheim wrote “Fear No More” for the show’s second production, in 1975 at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (the first was a production in the swimming pool at Yale in 1974). In 2004 Nathan Lane expanded Burt Shevelove’s original book, based on Aristophanes’ comedy, and starred in a Broadway production at Lincoln Center directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman with additional Sondheim songs. The critics were mixed, but I liked it a great deal and found Michael Siberry quite touching as the Bard.

“Song of Hareford,” from Me and My Girl
In the middle of Act 2 of this 1937 English musical romp by Noel Gay (music) and Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose (book and lyrics), Maria, Duchess of Dene, and her ancestors remind the long-lost heir to the family title and fortune, a Cockney from London named Bill Snibson, of his noblesse oblige. The ancestors step out of their portraits and prove to be highly proficient at choral singing and tap dancing. The show took until 1986 to reach Broadway, with a revised book by Stephen Fry, where it played for 1,420 performances and won Tonys for Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett as Bill and his Cockney ladylove, Sally Smith. However, it is the great Jane Connell, who was Tony nominated for her work as best featured actress in a musical, who triumphantly leads this number.

“We’ll Never Tell Them,” from Oh What a Lovely War
English director Joan Littlewood’s highly subversive satirical musical revue surveyed the hypocrisy, futility, and carnage of World War I through song parodies of the day sung (and often created) by the very soldiers who fought it. This was the haunting finale, in which the war dead sang ironically about their experience to the tune of Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me,” a big hit song in 1917. It wasn’t until the 1984 publication of Robert Kimball’s The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter that it was revealed that Porter was the author of the parody lyric. The revue played Broadway for three-and-a-half months in 1964, but no OBCR was recorded, and the London OCR is out of print on CD, but you can hear the lyric on a recording called The Great War (remembered in songs and poems). If you can, check out director Richard Attenborough’s extraordinary 1969 film version. It’s available on DVD and can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, and the way Attenborough filmed this finale is a stunner.

 

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Oct
12

One Alone

I have always been a big fan of soliloquies in musicals. You know, that moment when a character, usually alone on stage, steps to the footlights and unburdens his or her feelings in song, one that is frequently longer and has a more adventurous musical structure than a standard 32-bar tune. They are ideally suited to displaying wide swings of emotion and fascinating shades of character, and they often culminate in important realizations or decisions. More often than not they are dramatic in tone, but comic ones exist as well. Here are 20 favorites, evenly divided between women and men.

“Lonely Room,” from Oklahoma!
I think of the advent of musical theatre soliloquies as synonymous with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s revolution, which made the integration of character and story in song its central goal. This kind of in-depth focus on character simply wasn’t needed for musical comedies. I was going to begin with the mother of all soliloquies, the one Billy Bigelow sings in Carousel, but then I remembered that it has this predecessor. Jud Fry, alone in his smokehouse, marinating in envy, resentment, and sexual frustration, reveals himself all too clearly to us. It’s a shame that Howard Da Silva, the original Jud, never got to record it, and that it wasn’t retained when Hollywood made the movie. I think it’s one of the best things Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote.

“Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” from The King and I
For many years I only knew this R&H gem in its shortened form on both the OBCR and soundtrack recordings, though of course I read the complete lyric in the published script. It’s better longer, because the section usually cut, which portrays Anna’s love for her pupils and fervent hope that as a teacher she has made a difference in their lives, is an effective contrast to her anger at the King of Siam’s imperious ways. It shows us how torn she is in her emotions about Siam.

“Mamma, Mamma,” from The Most Happy Fella
Frank Loesser’s 1956 adaptation of Sidney Howard’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize–winning play is, unusually for a musical, structured in three acts. This number ends Act 2 and has middle-aged vintner Tony Esposito singing to his dead mother that he has finally found happiness with a bride, in this case the much younger Rosabella, formerly a diner waitress. What makes it so poignant is that while Tony’s happiness is real and shared by his wife, we in the audience know what Tony does not, that in a moment of intense emotional vulnerability she slept with his handsome young foreman, Joe, and has just learned that she is pregnant by him. Opera star Robert Weede made his Broadway debut with this show, and the joy he expresses here is vivid and heartbreaking.

“Sunday in the Park With George,” from Sunday in the Park With George
In the opening number of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical about the life and work of French artist Georges Seurat, we get to hear the inner thoughts of Dot, his mistress and model, as she poses for him in a park on an island in the Seine. So though she is hardly alone on stage, she is alone with us. The moment when Dot’s concentration becomes so formidable that her dress pops open and she steps out of it, momentarily free to scamper about the stage, is always a particular delight for me.

“This Is the Life,” from Love Life
I wrote about this 1948 Kurt Weill–Alan Jay Lerner song a couple of columns back in a tribute to Lerner’s centenary, but I’m including it again so soon because it’s not well known and deserves to be. In it a man, just divorced after a long marriage that produced two children, is exulting in his newfound freedom. That exultation, however, rings more than a bit hollow in this expert depiction of “the lady doth protest too much” psychology. Thomas Hampson hits all the right notes, musical and dramatic, under the baton of John McGlinn on Kurt Weill on Broadway.

“One Halloween,” from Applause
This Charles Strouse–Lee Adams song comes midway in Act 2 of this 1970 musical based on the same short story as the classic film All About Eve. In it the conniving Eve Harrington glories in her success at climbing the ladder to stardom while knifing others to get there. The first half is new material, a bitter, minor-key reminiscence about an unhappy childhood, then the second half is an explosive reprise of Margo Channing’s first song in the show, “But Alive.” Eve is trying to usurp Margo’s place in the world, so usurping her music makes total sense. Penny Fuller’s naked ambition is searing.

“The Call,” from Floyd Collins
An ambitious12-and-a-half-minute sequence, this is the first character song in the 1995 musical at Playwrights Horizons, and it announced the off-Broadway arrival of a composer-lyricist of singular vision and ability, Adam Guettel. The title character is spelunking beneath the frozen earth of 1925 Kentucky, looking to discover a cave that he can open as a tourist attraction and use to make his fortune. The sequence is punctuated with Floyd’s exuberant yodels, which are meant to create echoes that will tell him where a cave might be but also dramatize his enthusiasm and optimism. I still vividly recall Christopher Innvar’s dynamic, highly physical performance of it.

“Glitter and Be Gay,” from Candide
This Leonard Bernstein–Richard Wilbur aria, in which the lady Cunegonde reviews her situation, lamenting her morally fallen state while taking refuge in the precious jewels she has acquired as a result of it, is a parody of “The Jewel Song” from Gounod’s Faust. Wilbur’s witty lyric (“And yet, of course, these trinkets are endearing/I’m also glad my sapphire is a star./I rather like a 20-carat earring./If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!” is a particular delight. Many singers have scaled this songwriting Everest, but no one has ever bettered Barbara Cook’s original rendition from 1956.

“I Hate People,” from Scrooge
In this 1970 film musical with a score by Leslie Bricusse, Ebenezer Scrooge sings this as he traverses the crowded streets of London on his way home from the office on Christmas Eve. The song is heard in voiceover, adding to the sense of Scrooge’s separation from the world in which he lives, and Albert Finney gives it a bitter, biting rendition. Alas, the soundtrack to Scrooge has never escaped vinyl (though you can, of course, buy, rent, or stream the DVD), so for digital download you must settle for the OCR of the show’s stage adaptation, produced in Birmingham, England, in 1992. For that Bricusse doubled the song’s length and retitled it “I Hate Christmas.” Scrooge, as played by Anthony Newley, now also hates Christmas, woman, and children, as well as people. Bricusse provides some neat new wordplay, but I prefer the more concentrated original.

“Old Maid,” from 110 in the Shade
Lizzie Curry, a proud young woman of the West who is too smart and not pretty enough for most men and getting past marriageable age, faces a potential future bereft of husband and children in this searing first-act closer by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Inga Swenson sang it on a bare stage with an angry red sun glaring down on her during a punishing drought in this 1963 musical based on N. Richard Nash’s 1954 drama The Rainmaker. Swenson is the gold standard, but Audra McDonald did pretty well by it too in Roundabout’s sterling 2007 revival.

“Gigi,” from Gigi
This 1958 Oscar-winning Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe title song—which Lerner is on record as calling his favorite of anything he wrote—is structured in two parts: a long, pattery verse in which Gaston alternately rants and reminisces about Gigi, followed by a melodically long-lined, flowing chorus in which he recognizes that he now has romantic feelings for her. Lerner carefully constructs the verse to have a psychological through-line leading to the moment when the light bulb goes on over Gaston’s head. Gigi begins as “a babe, just a babe,” and travels through “tot,” “snip,” “cub,” “papoose,” to progress to “child,” and then, finally, “girl.” There is also a series of adjectives to those nouns, culminating in “silly child,” “clumsy child,” and “growing child,” which leads to the idea of girls “getting older, it is true/Which is what they always do/’Till that unexpected hour/When they blossom like a flower”—and flash! It’s light-bulb time for Gaston. Lerner and Loewe reused the music of “Where’s My Wife,” from their 1945 Broadway musical The Day Before Spring, which was never recorded, for the verse.

“Patterns,” from Baby
Middle-aged Arlene and her husband, Alan, have an unplanned pregnancy on their hands just as the last of their brood has left the nest for college. Alan is overjoyed; Arlene is not. She was looking forward to life with just her husband. In this song she contemplates having an abortion, even though the subject is never mentioned in Richard Maltby Jr.’s lyric. David Shire’s stunning music provides the same restricted patterns that Arlene sees in her life so far and longs to break free of. In previews the song was first in Act 1 and then in Act 2. Finally, Maltby cut it, saying that he want to remove all the “melodrama” from this 1983 musical. When he came to her dressing room to tell her of his decision, Beth Fowler told me that her first thought was “there goes my Tony nomination.” Fortunately, Maltby let her record it for the OBCR and has since restored it to Baby. But because it was cut for a time, that’s why it is also in the Maltby-Shire revue Closer Than Ever.

“Donny Novitski,” from Bandstand
Songwriters Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor provided their leading man, Corey Cott, with this pulsing character-establishing song, and the dynamic Cott took it and ran. In it Donny tells us about his childhood, his experience of serving in World War II, his songwriting talents, and his plans to put together a band made up of war veterans, which he hopes will win a national contest that will establish them beyond the confines of Cleveland clubs. It’s smart songwriting, and it made me sit up and take notice in 2017 at the Jacobs Theatre. The show had gotten underwhelming reviews, and I wasn’t expecting too much. The critics were wrong about this one. Though Bandstand was not without flaws, it deserved a much longer run than 166 performances.

“Meadowlark,” from The Baker’s Wife
Producer David Merrick disliked this long Stephen Schwartz story song so much that he climbed into the orchestra pit and stole the parts, so that it would have to be cut from the pre-Broadway tour of the show. In it young Genevieve tries to justify her desire to leave her unprepossessing middle-aged husband for a sexual dalliance with a young hunk from their rural French village. The Baker’s Wife closed in Washington, D.C., prior to Broadway, but the song soon became a cabaret staple, fueled no doubt by Patti LuPone’s full-throttle performance on the OCR, released on Bruce Yeko’s then very small but scrappy label, Original Cast Records. The musical has also managed to live on, getting more revisions with each subsequent production and even a run in the West End, though it never has made it to Broadway.

“O Tixo, Tixo Help Me,” from Lost in the Stars
Rev. Stephen Kumalo’s son, who is black, has accidentally murdered a white man during a botched robbery attempt in Johannesburg, South Africa. A wayward boy with a penchant for falsehoods, he has been shocked by this event into seeing the error of his ways and has vowed to his father never to lie again. But only lying will get him acquitted. Kumalo’s cynical and secular brother also has a son who was involved and is determined to see him deny the charges no matter what. After all, the South African justice system is hopelessly corrupt and biased against blacks. In this soliloquy by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill, the reverend wrestles with his dilemma: Should he advise his son to lie and live or speak truth and die? Todd Duncan, George Gershwin’s original Porgy, is wrenching in his delivery of this aria from the 1949 musical adaptation of Alan Paton’s classic novel Cry, the Beloved Country.

“Fable,” from The Light in the Piazza
Adam Guettel made good on the promise of Floyd Collins with this 2005 musical adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novel. Due to an accident with a horse in her childhood, Clara Johnson is 26 but has a mental age of about 10. On vacation in Italy with her protective mother, Margaret, Clara falls in love with the young and handsome Fabrizio. Margaret initially does all she can to discourage the romance, but when she comes to believe that Clara and Fabrizio might be happy together, she accedes to their wedding without telling him or his family about her daughter’s condition. This impassioned song, which closes the show, gives us Margaret’s fervent wish for Clara’s happiness as she watches the wedding. Vicki Clark is transcendent. Guettel won a Tony for his score and has not been heard from since. What gives?

“Meditation,” from Shenandoah
Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson justifies refusing to allow his six sons to join the Confederate army to his dead wife in this passionate Act 1 declaration by Gary Geld (music) and Peter Udell (lyric), which returns as a threnody late in Act 2. My friend John McGlinn came back from a trip to New York over Christmas of 1974 with a live tape of the show, an adaptation of the 1965 hit film starring James Stewart, which had just opened. He shared it with me knowing of my penchant for dramatic soliloquies. I saw Shenandoah over the Christmas holiday of 1975, and John Cullum was extraordinary, particularly in this number, though the show was more maudlin and less effective than the film. It’s not sophisticated songwriting, but sometimes blunt force is all that it takes.

“I’m Way Ahead,” from Seesaw
NYC dancer Gittel Mosca brings down the final curtain with this powerful Cy Coleman–Dorothy Fields song at the end of her affair with the WASPy married lawyer Jerry Ryan, in town from the Midwest, in this 1973 musicalization of William Gibson’s two-hander comedy-drama Two for the Seesaw. You can see the great Michele Lee perform it on the 1974 Tony Awards on YouTube. She is something. I, however, only got to see the national tour, starring Lucie Arnaz. It’s a performance burned into my brain. Peerless. Fields was 68 when she wrote this amazingly colloquial and contemporary lyric. How did she do that?

“I’m Talkin’ to My Pal,” cut from Pal Joey
This 1940 Richard Rodgers–Lorenz Hart song is the only pre–Rodgers and Hammerstein one on my list. It’s fairly short, but its introspection serves as a kind of character summation for nightclub hoofer and heel par excellence Joey Evans. In three simple lines Hart proves that he could have flourished in the R&H book musical era: “I can’t be sure of girls./I’m not at home with men./I’m ending up with me again.” Cut prior to Broadway, the song is often reinstated for revivals as Joey’s final number, bringing down the Act 2 curtain. Peter Gallagher did well with it in 1995 at Encores!

“Rose’s Turn,” from Gypsy
Leave it to the self-admittedly competitive Stephen Sondheim to try to top his mentor. Rose Hovick unleashes a lifetime’s worth of pent-up frustration and anger in this sustained outburst that is I think even more psychologically acute than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel “Soliloquy.” The music by Jule Styne is drawn from all the parts of his score that relate to Rose (including “Momma’s Talkin’ Soft,” a cut song that Rose’s young daughters sang as a counterpoint to “Small World”), and the initial road map for the piece was actually made by Sondheim and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins working together at a piano. It’s a feast for actresses, and I’ve seen Tyne Daly, Linda Lavin, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Imelda Staunton dine sumptuously on it. I was too young to see Ethel Merman originate it in 1959, and I just missed seeing Angela Lansbury in the 1974 revival. It played Chicago pre-Broadway but left town just a week or so before I was to return to college early to do some late summer work for Northwestern’s Waa-Mu Show. I ended up catching John Payne and Alice Faye in the pre-Broadway tour of a revival of Good News instead. Wasn’t the same.

 

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Sep
28

Lenny and Me

I don’t believe in ultimate superlatives. I won’t say that X is the best musical ever written, or that Y is the finest actor of all time. And yet, somehow, I have a favorite theatre composer: Leonard Bernstein. He has taken me on quite the journey.

I knew individual songs before I became acquainted with the man who wrote them and the shows from whence they came. My mother, a feisty New Yorker (by way of England) transplanted by marriage to the arid terrain of suburban Cleveland, used to sing “New York, New York” from On the Town at the drop of a hat. I don’t remember not knowing that song, though Gwen sang the bowdlerized version (“a wonderful town” not “a helluva town”). The 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story came out when I was seven, so my parents deemed me too young to see it. That didn’t stop me from becoming familiar with hit tunes such as “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Tonight,” and “America,” all of which I heard on the radio. And you couldn’t live in Ohio without knowing “Ohio” (“Why oh why oh why oh?”), though most people probably didn’t know it was from Wonderful Town.

Finally, a favorite recording from the age of four was the Boris Karloff–Jean Arthur Peter Pan. It contained a few songs but was really a spoken word recording that told the story, which was why I listened to it. I really didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the man who wrote the songs was named Leonard Bernstein.

I was first aware of Bernstein the man as a celebrity conductor. Though I was too young to have seen his TV appearances demystifying classical music on Omnibus (I was seven months old when he debuted and two weeks shy of my fourth birthday when he finished), Bernstein was so ubiquitous in American culture that you couldn’t miss him. Also, my mother believed in giving her two boys a decent arts education, so we did things like attend children’s concerts given by the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall (with George Szell conducting). I also took a musical appreciation course in junior high school where we listened to classical compositions, and maestro Bernstein regularly appeared on the curriculum.

I admired classical music more than I liked it. I was, and still am, too much of a words person to be quite as enthralled by a symphony or concerto as I am by a musical or an opera. However, when music steeped in classical composition techniques is successfully wedded to language to tell a story and make theatre, I am a goner. As I once told my English nephew Taylor, who toils as a pop singer-songwriter and record producer, my three Bs are not Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, but Blitzstein, Britten, and Bernstein.

I became serious about forging a career in musical theatre around the age of 14 and started collecting cast recordings with purpose. One of the first I bought, probably because of my love for “New York, New York,” was Bernstein’s 1960 studio recording of On the Town, which reunited most of the show’s original Broadway cast. When the musical premiered in 1944, OBCRs were not standard practice, so only a few selections had been recorded, two of which (“Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me”) were sung by Broadway star Mary Martin, who was not even in it. (You can hear her recording of the latter on Composers on Broadway: Leonard Bernstein.)

The jazzy, complicated (at least to my ears), muscular score floored me, and I enjoyed the ballet music as much as I did the songs. I didn’t know that On the Town’s director, George Abbott, had referred to Bernstein’s music approvingly as “that Prokofi-eff stuff,” but it was immediately clear to me that this music was different from the musical theatre composers I already knew and admired, principally Richard Rodgers and Frederick Loewe. I loved the size of it, the swagger, the unpredictability. Even when it was lighter than air, it had scope and weight.

Not too long after acquiring On the Town I saw a re-release of West Side Story at the Detroit Theatre in Lakewood, Ohio. To say that it devastated me would be an understatement. I think it was probably that one-two punch that sealed the deal for Lenny and me. Naturally, I bought the soundtrack immediately thereafter. I didn’t acquire the OBCR until much later, and while I recognized its quality and iconic performances, I had bonded with the film too closely for it to supplant the soundtrack in my affections.

I soon got around to Wonderful Town, which was a lot of fun but seemed to me a slighter, more conventional work, and finally to Candide. That was thanks to my best friend, Bill Sisson, a violist and classical music buff (who also introduced me to Samuel Barber’s lyric rhapsody “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and Aaron Copland’s ballet “Rodeo,” among many others). Candide intimidated me at first, I think because it was the most classically oriented of Bernstein’s musicals, and I knew that I wasn’t getting a lot of the inside jokes. But I persisted, and though I’m sure I still don’t get all the references, I came to embrace it thoroughly. My final Bernstein discovery was his 1952 one-act opera Trouble in Tahiti. I liked it, but even though it did indeed play Broadway in 1955 as part of a triple bill called All in One (alongside a revival of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and a dance play by and starring Paul Draper), it wasn’t like getting a full-blown Broadway musical.

And that’s where it stopped. It seemed that Bernstein had abandoned Broadway after 1957’s West Side Story. (I didn’t find out until years later that in the 1960s he tried to write two Broadway musicals but gave up on both.) I think perhaps the exclusivity of his output on the Great White Way, and what seemed the unlikeliness of his adding to it, may have factored into his favorite status with me.

Of course, Mass came along in 1971 to open the Kennedy Center, but it wasn’t a book musical with proper characters and it didn’t play Broadway. I enthusiastically bought the recording and liked a lot of the music, but it was a different animal from the one I wanted. There was also director Harold Prince’s revised version of Candide in 1974, which was recorded completely on two LPs and which I caught in its closing weekend on Broadway and went bonkers for. It had musical material I didn’t know in it, including some freshly contributed lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, and I adored Hugh Wheeler’s totally new book and Prince’s freewheeling production, but it wasn’t really a new musical.

And then, amazingly, it was announced that Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner would bring 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Broadway for the bicentennial year of 1976. My favorite theatre composer working with the man whose musicals had made me want to be a playwright-lyricist. And on a piece of political theatre triggered by Richard Nixon’s corrupt presidency. I was beside myself with anticipation. I followed the show’s out-of-town tryouts with increasing dismay, as the reviews started out bad in Philadelphia and only got worse in Washington, D.C. The critics annihilated it on Broadway, and it closed in one week in May (I remember hearing the news of its demise over the radio while working the counter taking orders at a McDonald’s in Evanston, Ill.) I moved to NYC in October of 1976, and the marquee was still up at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. I walked by it regularly on my way to work in the theatre district, and I would always stop for a moment, look at it sadly, and wonder what in the hell happened.

It took me a number of years to find out. I acquired whatever script material I could from actors I met (Reid Shelton) or worked with (Lee Winston) who had been in the show. I tracked down live bootleg tapes from Philadelphia and Broadway (a D.C. tape existed too, but I never got a copy until only a few years ago). It was clear from these tantalizing pieces that it had been a serious, somewhat experimental work of great ambition that was fundamentally betrayed by commercialism. The score was sensational, both music and lyrics.

I finally got the full picture when the Bernstein estate hired me not long after his death to reconstruct the authors’ original version of the musical. Bernstein had saved every scrap of paper from the show’s gestation, and I virtually relived the writing of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a little servant’s apartment high in the Dakota with windows overlooking Central Park. It was the room in which Bernstein composed most of the show’s music.

Ultimately, I was asked to direct a workshop of my reconstruction using students from Indiana University’s opera department, which went so well that it was turned into a full production and booked into the Kennedy Center for several performances after its run in Bloomington, Ind. This time audiences and critics reacted largely positively to essentially the same show that had been so reviled in 1976. The production utilized a full orchestra, and staging brilliant Lerner-Bernstein songs supported by those glorious Sid Ramin–Hershy Kay orchestrations was, indeed, the thrill of a lifetime. If Bernstein had ever been in danger of losing his status of favorite with me, that danger vanished forever after that experience.

1600 was not recorded in 1976. Neither Bernstein nor Lerner wanted it memorialized in the form in which it ended up, so the planned OBCR on Capitol Records was canceled. Deutsche Grammophon’s A White House Cantata contains much of the score, but the most political material has been omitted, rendering the story senseless, and the decision to cast opera singers rather than Broadway singer-actors is damaging. The best recorded versions are conductor John McGlinn’s account of “The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March” and “Duet for One,” sung by Davis Gaines and Judy Kaye, respectively, and Bruce Hubbard singing “Seena,” a love song for the leading character of Lud Simmons, a free black servant in the White House. It’s on his CD For You, For Me, no doubt because Hubbard was in the chorus of 1600 and also sang the small role of Reverend Bushrod.

Bernstein’s last theatre hurrah was the opera A Quiet Place, a sequel to Tahiti. It premiered in Houston in 1983 on a double bill with Tahiti, in effect forming the evening’s second act. Poorly received, it was revised with the help of conductor John Mauceri, interspersing Tahiti into the opera as flashbacks and cutting some material for length. This version was recorded in 1986 and finally got its Big Apple premiere in a largely well-reviewed New York City Opera production in 2010. Indeed, as head critic for Back Stage, I was one of the aisle-sitters. It was my first time seeing it (though I had certainly bought and listened to the recording), and reviewing it felt like a coda to my Bernstein journey.

Now A Quiet Place has been revised once more. In 2013 Garth Edwin Sunderland removed all the Tahiti material, restored some discarded character arias, and cut down the orchestration from more than 70 players to a mere 18, creating a chamber opera version. Conductor Kent Nagano’s recording, released in June by Decca, has been getting praise, and it will be on my Kindle as I leave tonight for a two-week vacation in a cabin by a lake in northern New Hampshire. Though the supply is now sadly finite, I can never get me enough Bernstein.

 

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Sep
14

Making Use of Mother Nature

Tomorrow is National Greenpeace Day, so naturally we are making lists of songs that reference the environment and Mother Nature. A few are simply about the lady in question, but most use her as a vehicle for exploring situation and character. Here is my version of a green playlist.

“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” from Oklahoma!
What better beginning than this beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein opening number from their initial collaboration in 1943? It’s a testament to the vast power that can be unleashed by the wedding of the right words and music. Here it’s done with such simplicity that it even starts offstage. Many have sung it, but nobody beats the great original Curly, Alfred Drake.

“Beautiful, Beautiful World,” from The Apple Tree
Adam is bathing while singing this celebration of the joys of the Garden of Eden by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. What you can’t tell from the 1966 cast album is that at the end of it, he sees a lion suddenly devour a lamb and realizes that Eve has eaten of the forbidden fruit. Out of town in Boston the song was used as an establishing song for Eve, and Alan Alda sings that fuller version for the OBCR, not the shortened one he performed on stage at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre.

“Look Around,” from The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Review
Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman added this gentle lament so late in previews that a program insert had to be included to let opening-night audiences know about it. In 1991 it was about heedless industrialization; in the face of global warming, it has a new resonance. As the titular American humorist Keith Carradine accompanied himself on guitar and gave a beautifully understated account of it.

“I Said Good Morning,” from A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green
This frenzied greeting of all of the lord’s creations was written for but cut from the film It’s Always Fair Weather, so Comden and Green repurposed it as an opening number for their two-person revue of their own songs that played the Golden and Morosco theatres in 1959. Never were good manners so debilitating. The tune is by André Previn.

“What a Lot of Flowers,” from Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Peter O’Toole sang this Leslie Bricusse paean to the beauty of nature with an inspired blend of bewilderment and rapture as his old maid schoolteacher reacted to having married a much younger star of the London musical stage. Alas, the soundtrack of the 1969 film is not available digitally, but you can hear John Mills sing it on the cast recording of the movie’s stage adaptation, which played England’s Chichester Festival Theatre in 1982.

“Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Our recent loss of the great Barbara Harris sent me to my video collection to watch her sing this Alan Jay Lerner–Burton Lane classic back in 1965 in character as the psychically gifted Daisy Gamble, who can make flowers grow by talking to them, on the Bell Telephone Hour (catch it on YouTube). I always wish Lerner hadn’t cut the first A of the second AABA chorus: “Bloom buttercup/Buds are better up/Where in case of nuptials you’re handy.”

“Grow for Me,” from Little Shop of Horrors
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken present the dark side of Lerner and Lane’s tune with this lament about a mysterious plant that won’t grow. “I’ve given you sunlight/I’ve given you rain/Looks like you’re not happy/’Less I open a vein!” Sad sack florist assistant Seymour Krelbourn makes the first of many mistakes by sharing his blood with Audrey II. I worked in the Orpheum Theatre box office for this 1982 show and often stuck my head in to watch this number. It always worked.

“Farming,” from Let’s Face It
One would hardly expect to find urban sophisticate Cole Porter extolling the great outdoors, but this devilish list song is a spoof of a 1941 fad for celebrities seeking the simple joys of country living. Danny Kaye introduced it in his first starring role on Broadway. There isn’t an OBCR, alas, but you can hear him sing a pop version on Danny Kaye: 43 of His Essential Songs. Love that the gay joke about George Raft’s bull flew under the radar and onto the radio.

“World Weary,” from This Year of Grace
Noël Coward is another unlikely nature lover, though he did eventually have country homes in Jamaica and Switzerland, which may perhaps explain the lines “I want an ocean blue/Great big trees/A bird’s-eye view/Of the Pyrenees.” However, as this revue song was written in 1928, before those real estate acquisitions, perhaps it inspired them. Of course, the Pyrenees are in France and Spain, not Switzerland. But it’s harder to rhyme “Alps.” You can hear the Master sing it in his club act on Noël Coward at Las Vegas.

“City Lights,” from The Act
Fred Ebb proves that he really was an outdoor misanthrope in this catchy 1977 showstopper, writing a wicked attack on the pleasures of nature in the form of a number from nightclub performer Michelle Craig’s act. These days composer John Kander is pretty dismissive of his work on this Liza Minnelli vehicle, but I’ve always loved this song. “I won’t breath nothin’ I can’t see” indeed!

“It Wonders Me,” from Plain and Fancy
I have a special fondness for this score by Albert Hague (music) and Arnold B. Horwitt for the 1955 Broadway musical set in Pennsylvania’s Amish community, in part because Equity Library Theatre did a fine off-Broadway production of it in 1980 during my last season of employment there as theatre manager. Donna Bullock was a radiant Katie Yoder and sang our virginal heroine’s establishing song praising the autumn countryside beautifully. Oh, and this was the first New York job for one of Broadway’s top musical directors, Kristen Blodgette, who was most recently seen on stage at the Palace Theatre conducting a 40-piece orchestra and Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard. We grew up together in Fairview Park, Ohio, and I got her the gig.

“Penguins Must Sing,” from Birds of Paradise
Winnie Holzman (book and lyrics) and David Evans (book and music) started this 1987 off-Broadway musical about an amateur theatre group producing a musical based on Chekhov’s The Seagull as a master’s thesis at NYU. This nutty number from the musical within the musical opened Act 2 and had Andrew Hill Newman, Donna Murphy, and J.K. Simmons cavorting in penguin suits while lamenting that the world is threatened with extinction “due to the ice age and federal cutbacks.” The score contains one gem after another, and the cast also included Todd Graff, John Cunningham, Christa Moore, Mary Beth Peil, and Barbara Walsh. If you don’t know it, you should go get it.

“The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster, and the Mole,” from Closer Than Ever
Let’s stay with the animal kingdom with this Richard Maltby Jr.–David Shire song, which was written for their 1983 musical Baby but eliminated when the character who sang it was cut from the show. In it a scientist uses the mating habits of various animals to justify single motherhood. Lynne Wintersteller introduced it in 1990, and Christiane Noll inherited it in the York Theatre Company’s 2012 revival. You can’t go wrong with either.

“Heartbreak Country,” from Giant
Making up after their first fight, conservative cattle baron Bick Benedict confesses his love of the Texas land to his liberal new bride from the East, who vows to learn to love it too. Michael John LaChiusa’s majestic, muscular music evokes Aaron Copland and the Texas range in equal measure. This ambitious 2012 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel deserved a longer run, but at least we have the OCR.

“I Remember,” from Evening Primrose
The beautiful Ella has lived nocturnally as a prisoner in a department store since she was 6, and in this wistful ballad Stephen Sondheim evokes her dim memories of the outside world—sky, snow, ice, rain, leaves, trees—through indoor similes such as ink, feathers, vinyl, strings, paper, and coat racks. Charmian Carr—Liesl in The Sound of Music—introduced it on TV in 1967, but as that recording is not available digitally, here’s Theresa McCarthy’s take on it.

“Poems,” from Pacific Overtures
In another Sondheim song, two Japanese men, a “samurai of little consequence” and a fisherman, trade haikus about their great loves on a long journey by foot. The former loves his wife and the latter loves America, which he visited accidentally and illegally. In their poems they praise their beloveds using imagery mostly drawn from nature. Pre-Broadway they sang “Leaves,/I love her like the leaves,/Changing winter into spring,/And the change is everything.” Haikus, however, don’t rhyme, and so for Broadway Sondheim replaced his inadvertent one by changing the third line to “Changing green to pink to gold.”

“Sand,” from the unproduced film musical Singing Out Loud
Completing a Sondheim trio, this 1992 song ingeniously compares being in love to the physical properties of sand. It was supposed to be the bad opening number of a movie musical in trouble in the editing room, but I think it’s pretty nifty. Celia Berk does a suitably slinky job with it on her CD You Can’t Rush Spring.

“The Desert Song,” from The Desert Song
In keeping with our arid theme, how about this 1926 Sigmund Romberg–Otto Harbach–Oscar Hammerstein II title song? It doesn’t get swoonier than “Blue heaven and you and I/And sand kissing a moonlit sky/The desert breeze singing a lullaby/Only stars above you/To say I love you.” The dashing Red Shadow, leading the Moroccans in revolt against the occupying French, is by day the nerdy Pierre, son of the French commanding general. See? Superman wasn’t the first hero to hide behind glasses. Wilbur Evans and Kitty Carlisle do the honors here.

“Under the Sunset Tree,” from Darling of the Day
Star Vincent Price didn’t have the pipes to do justice to this gorgeous Jule Styne–E.Y. Harburg ballad from their 1968 flop based on Arnold Bennett’s comic novel Buried Alive. However, when the silver-throated Patricia Routledge joins in, you hear at once the song’s quality. Harburg’s lyric uses nature imagery most affectingly to depict an unlikely middle-aged love affair.

“Make Our Garden Grow,” from Candide
This 1956 Richard Wilbur–Leonard Bernstein chorale is the mother of all finales, so I’m ending with it. I can still remember hearing it for the first time as a junior in high school. When it hit the a cappella section, I went goose bumps all over. And you know what? I still do.

 

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Aug
31

A Hymn to Him

If you have even a passing acquaintance with my past writings for BwayTunes, you know that I am passionate about the work of Alan Jay Lerner. He is the reason I have led a life in the theatre.

Today he would have been 100. Born to wealth (his father owned the lucrative Lerner clothing shops), and by his own admission a lifelong bon vivant, he handled his death (at only 67, from lung cancer) with his inveterate insouciant charm. According to his widow, the actress Liz Robertson, on the day he died he asked for a glass of champagne in his hospital room. After downing it, he looked at her and said, “Moet and morphine. That’s the way to go.”

In celebration of his centenary, I thought I’d share favorite Lerner songs from his 14 Broadway shows and five original screen musicals, in chronological order.

What’s Up? (Opened Nov. 11, 1943, 63 performances) – “You’ve Got a Hold on Me” and “My Last Love”
This is Lerner’s only lost Broadway musical, a romp about some randy aviators stranded on an island with a bunch of schoolgirls. An early preproduction script survives, as do most, but not all, of the songs he wrote with composer Frederick Loewe. He blamed himself for its failure and called it “a major disaster,” despite direction and choreography by George Balanchine and sets by Boris Aronson. It did, however, have these two fine ballads. In them you hear the promise of a great songwriting team finding its voice. Frank Sinatra covered the former on a 1943 Columbia V-Disc, while Steve Ross sings the latter on I Remember Him Well – The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner.

The Day Before Spring (Opened Nov. 22, 1945, 167 performances) – “My Love Is a Married Man”
Considerably more sophisticated than its predecessor, this Lerner and Loewe show told the story of a well-off but bored Upper East Side housewife’s re-infatuation with a former lover, Alex, who has written a romance novel about their failed affair. Attraction is rekindled at their college reunion right under the nose of her staid husband, Peter, who stole her away from Alex. This comic lament is sung by a young co-ed who has the hots for Peter and stalks him relentlessly. Julie Andrews does a bang-up job with it on Here I’ll Stay – The Words of Alan Jay Lerner.

Brigadoon (Opened March 13, 1947, 581 performances) – “From This Day On”
Surely everyone knows Lerner and Loewe’s first smash hit, about a Scottish village that comes to life for only one day in each century. I am especially partial to this duet of parting between our Scottish heroine, Fiona, and the very American Tommy, who stumbles into Brigadoon on its one day in the 20th century while hunting. In a 1980 revival directed by Vivian Matalon (whom we just lost), Meg Bussert and Martin Vidnovic were standing on a bridge leading into the town. As the day ended, the bridge broke in two and swept Tommy and Fiona apart as steam billowed forth to obscure them. It was simple but stunning. That revival was never recorded, so try Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones on a 1957 studio cast recording of Brigadoon that is my favorite version of the score.

Love Life (Opened Oct. 7, 1948, 252 performances) – “This Is the Life”
Lerner and Loewe broke up acrimoniously after Brigadoon, so for this experimental musical that looks at the institution of marriage in America over the course of 150 years, Lerner turned to composer Kurt Weill. Sam and Susan Cooper begin as an already married couple with two young children in 1791, and all four never age as the years fly by. The Coopers divorce in 1948, and late in Act 2 Sam spills out his guts in this dramatic tour de force. Thomas Hampson sings it with relish under the baton of John McGlinn on Kurt Weill on Broadway. Ray Middleton, who originated the role, told me in the mid-1970s that Weill and Lerner added it out of town in Boston. Middleton recalled with great pride, “Kurt came to me and said, ‘My boy, I’ve written you an aria.’”

Royal Wedding (Released March 23, 1951) – “Too Late Now”
After Love Life Lerner accepted an offer from MGM producer Arthur Freed to go west and check out motion pictures. His first film starred Fred Astaire and Jane Powell as performing siblings who both find romance in England during the festivities surrounding Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip. This Oscar-nominated tune was actually written for Judy Garland, who briefly was slated to star. Powell does a lovely job with it in the movie, but when Garland finally sang it in 1963 on her TV show, it was clear that Lerner and Lane had tailored it expertly for her.

Huckleberry Finn (Film production closed down in late September of 1951) – “Headin’ for New Orleans”
Lerner’s third picture for MGM (his second, the Oscar-winning An American in Paris, had a Gershwin score) was to have been an adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic, with music again by Burton Lane. It’s a delightful 10-song score, most of which can be heard on studio and author demos that were released in 1998 on DRG’s Lyrics by Lerner CD, which, alas, is now out of print and quite rare. Fortunately, Brent Barrett included this jaunty celebration on The Alan Jay Lerner Album. It was the introductory song for Gene Kelly, playing a con man known as the Duke. He sings it in a prison cell to some fellow inmates when a young girl arrives to buy his freedom. Of course, by the end of the song he has ditched not only jail but her as well.

Paint Your Wagon (Opened Nov. 12, 1951, 289 performances) – “In Between” and “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door”
Lerner and Loewe kissed and made up for this Gold Rush musical. It’s a great score married to a too-earnest book, but though it offers standards such as “I Talk to the Trees,” “They Call the Wind Maria,” and “Wand’rin’ Star,” I have always liked the impish “In Between,” which showcases star James Barton’s vaudevillian chops as grizzled miner Ben Rumson. In it Ben flirts with a passing Mormon’s second wife as she is being auctioned off for marriage to the sex-starved miners (an event that really happened). The lyric is so saucy that for the cast recording Barton was not allowed to sing the title as the final punch line, choosing instead to laugh insinuatingly. Keith Carradine gives a fine and unexpurgated rendition on the excellent Encores! recording of Paint Your Wagon, but I find Barton’s take deliciously definitive, despite his improvising a bit with the lyric.

In 1969 a film adaptation of Paint Your Wagon was released featuring Ben Rumson in the midst of an otherwise totally new plot. Loewe, in retirement, declined to provide music for any new songs, so Lerner corralled MGM arranger and orchestrator André Previn to do it. They wrote five numbers, of which I think this ballad, in which the above-mentioned Mormon ex-wife is wishing for a home to share with Ben, her new husband, is the best. Shockingly, the film soundtrack is not available digitally, but you can hear the song on Paint Your Wagon: The Paul Masters Orchestra.

My Fair Lady (Opened March 15, 1956, 2,717 performances) – “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”
Most people will probably only know the chorus of this Lerner-Loewe standard, but I love it because of its middle section, in which Henry Higgins angrily denounces his ungrateful Galatea, Eliza Doolittle. It would be many years before I found out that this section is a reprise of the middle section of a cut song from Act 1, “Come to the Ball,” in which Higgins tries to reassure Eliza after her disaster at Ascot. The upbeat “I can see you now in a gown by Madame Worth/When you enter ev’ry monocle will crash” morphs into the sneering “I can see her now, Mrs. Freddy Eynsford-Hill/In a wretched little flat above a store.” Made me love the song even more. Rex Harrison was, of course, perfection, but Harry Hadden-Paton in the current Lincoln Center revival is quite remarkable.

Gigi (Released June 25, 1958; Opened on Broadway Nov. 13, 1973, 103 performances) – “Liane’s Skating Waltz” and “The Contract”
Loewe wrote a particularly lovely waltz to underscore the film scene in which Liane, Gaston’s unfaithful mistress, is taking skating lessons. It begs to be sung, so Lerner wrote a rather undistinguished pop lyric for it called “A Toujours.” Gogi Grant recorded it, but hardly anyone else did. Then, for the stage adaption, Lerner used the waltz as the basis for a hilarious 10-minute scene-in-song, “The Contract,” in which Gigi’s caustic Aunt Alicia negotiates the terms for her niece becoming Gaston’s mistress, much to the dismay of Gigi’s loving grandmamma. Agnes Moorehead and Maria Karnilova are priceless. “Only those who have no taste at all understate. Understate…!”

Camelot (Opened Dec. 3, 1960, 803 performances) – “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”
Infidelity has infested the relationship of King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, but they try to forget it in this wistful attempt to cheer themselves up. On stage it ends with a rueful sung coda indicating the impossibility of their attempt (watch it on YouTube), but on screen subtext becomes text as Arthur and Guenevere dance with increasing abandon until they come together to kiss and she suddenly shrinks from him, tears in her eyes, covering her face with her hands in shame as he looks away in frustration. Vanessa Redgrave is terribly moving, and it’s the version I like the most. By the way, Lerner and Loewe recycled the idea from a cut song from Paint Your Wagon called “What Do Other Folks Do?,” which you can hear Keith Carradine and Alexandra Socha perform as a bonus track on the Encores! cast recording of that show.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Opened Oct. 17, 1965, 280 performances) – “Don’t Tamper With My Sister”
Loewe retired after Camelot for health reasons, so Lerner returned to writing with Burton Lane for his next show. This song is almost always cut from productions, as it is from the current Irish Rep revisal, but I think it’s a hoot. Our heroine in Regency-era England, haughty Melinda Welles (who in the present has been reincarnated as shlub Daisy Gamble), is in London’s salacious Hellraker’s Club trying to force one Sir Hubert Insdale to acknowledge and support his bastard child by a friend of hers. When Sir Hubert tries to force his attentions on Melinda, a passing young roué protects her by claiming she is his sister. She pretends to be appalled by his behavior but actually falls for him because of it. I particularly favor “Don Juan had once a royal marriage lined up/Until he left a blonde Venetian’s blind up.”

Coco (Opened Dec. 18, 1969, 329 performances) – “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom”
The Lerner-Lane collaboration had been a stormy one, so now Lerner teamed with André Previn (mentioned above re the film of Paint Your Wagon, written simultaneously). In this song French couturier Coco Chanel gets out her scrapbook and recounts her rise to success to her young protégée Noelle Forrestier. Director-choreographer Michael Bennett staged it brilliantly, with the action swirling around star Katharine Hepburn as she sat on the floor singing Chanel’s story. I include it here because, in January of 1970, Hepburn locked eyes with 16-year-old me and sang it directly into them as I sat dead center in the front row of the Cleveland Music Hall during the show’s post-Broadway national tour. That’s something you never forget.

Lolita, My Love (Closed pre-Broadway in Boston, March 27, 1971, 24 performances) – “In the Broken Promise Land of Fifteen”
Lerner moved on to film composer John Barry for this adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s deeply subversive, darkly comic novel about a sophisticated European pedophile and a gum-popping American nymphet. The victim of a seriously troubled production and a morally troubled audience, it folded quickly. Lerner was devastated and continued to work on it for four months after the closing, until composer Barry bailed altogether. The plan had been to finally bring it to Broadway in a new production directed by Mike Nichols. Lerner felt it contained some of his very best writing, and I agree. In this haunting song anti-hero Humbert Humbert recalls the event that he blames for his condition with young girls. The roiling, circular obsessiveness of Barry’s melody combined with Lerner’s almost fruity poetic imagery is the perfect distillation of Humbert’s character. Brent Barrett sings it on his Alan Jay Lerner Album.

The Little Prince (Released Nov. 7, 1974) – “Little Prince”
Seeing the national tour of Camelot at age eight was my first experience of the professional theatre (and made me want to do that, whatever that was, for my career). As Loewe retired after that show, I thought I’d never get a new Lerner and Loewe musical. Then Loewe returned to do this film of Antoine de St. Exupéry’s famous fable with Lerner. Unfortunately, disagreements between director Stanley Donen and the songwriters led to a compromised product, with one song cut entirely and four more truncated, three of them severely. But I didn’t know all that upon the film’s release, and I loved it. Still do, actually, in spite of the compromises. When I first heard Richard Kiley deliver the soaring title song, my eyes welled with tears, both because of what was happening in the story and the fact that it is as good a song as Lerner and Loewe ever wrote. They had not lost their touch.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (Opened May 4, 1976, 7 performances) – “This Time”
When I reconstructed and directed Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s political musical back in 1992, this searing duet for Lud and Seena Simmons never failed to receive a thunderous ovation from audiences. Husband and wife are free black servants in the White House. She wants to take advantage of President Monroe’s offer of repatriation for blacks to Liberia; he doesn’t, having promised Abigail Adams as a boy to “take care of this house.” Free blacks are being snatched off of Washington, D.C., streets and sold into slavery, and she fears losing him. The performances on the unfortunately de-politicized A White House Cantata (which features a number of songs from the musical’s score) are not optimum, too stilted and operatic, but it’s the only available recording of the piece. Of course, it was the first song removed out of town when two new directors came aboard. It’s a downer, they said. Rather than fix the show’s problems, they started a wholesale evisceration of Lerner and Bernstein’s vision in a frantic attempt to make it more commercial. They couldn’t and didn’t. They just destroyed it.

Carmelina (Opened April 8, 1979, 17 performances) – “One More Walk Around the Garden”
When I caught Carmelina midway through its preview period on Broadway, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane entered the theatre separately and watched from standing room, keeping as far apart as possible and never acknowledging each other. The famously contentious collaboration clearly was so again. The show had its charms, including some fine songs and a genuine star turn from Georgia Brown, but the comic soufflé resolutely refused to rise under José Ferrer’s leaden direction. However, when the three ex-GIs who each might be the father of Carmelina’s daughter showed up and sang this gorgeous paean to mortality, the audience broke into the first genuinely excited applause of the night. I also took the song to be a bit autobiographical on Lerner’s part, as he hadn’t had a Broadway or film hit for 10 years, the last being Coco in 1969.

Dance a Little Closer (Opened May 11, 1983, 1 performance) – “I Don’t Know/Anyone Who Loves”
I’m afraid that this show, based on Robert E. Sherwood’s 1936 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama Idiot’s Delight, made Carmelina look like My Fair Lady. Lerner directed it himself and created it as a vehicle for his wife, Liz Robertson, so I chalked it up to his having no perspective on the work. There were a few lovely songs (music by Charles Strouse), but what stood out to me was Lerner’s positive portrait of a young gay male couple. It was rather naïve, but his heart was most definitely in the right place and certainly forward-looking for a Broadway musical in 1983. In this sequence Charles and Edward, faced with an imminent nuclear holocaust, ask an Episcopalian minister to marry them. It causes consternation and discussion among the stranded hotel guests, then the moral is delivered by Robertson’s character, just after she has broken up with her Henry Kissinger-esque sugar daddy. I think “Anyone Who Loves” is a terrific song and, alas, still very timely today.

My Man Godfrey (Left unfinished at Lerner’s death in 1986) – “I’ve Been Married”
Lerner was writing lyrics only for this adaptation of the 1936 Depression-era film comedy, with a book by a twentysomething English TV writer named Kristi Kane, whose work was apparently found wanting by Lerner and his composer, English pop songwriter Gerard Kenny, a friend of Liz Robertson’s. In any event, Kane only completed a draft of the first act. Robertson performs this song in her club act “Lerner Without Loewe,” and in her patter links it to Lerner’s feelings about his fourth wife (he had a total of eight), Micheline Muselli Pozzo di Borgo, a French lawyer. Their divorce was epically nasty, and in his memoir Lerner refuses to mention her name while claiming good relations with his other six exes. In any event, he was certainly well equipped to write this witty song, which Steve Ross delivers on I Remember Him Well – The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner.

Lerner never got that one last success, though he would have if he hadn’t developed lung cancer. He was just beginning to collaborate with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Phantom of the Opera when he was diagnosed. I’d like to leave you with my favorite moment from his work, the finale reprise of “Camelot,” in which King Arthur entreats a boy named Tom of Warwick (yes, read Mallory) not to join in battle with Lancelot but rather to go home, grow old, and tell the story of the court of Camelot to all who will listen. There is a spoken part of this sequence that is generally unknown, an underscored speech that though printed in the full piano-vocal score was eliminated from the published script. It can only be heard on the original London cast recording as performed by Laurence Harvey, which, alas, is out of print and very rare. Arthur tells Tom the following:

“My teacher Merlyn, who always remembered things that haven’t happened better than things that have, told me once that a few hundred years from now it will be discovered that the world is round. Round like the table at which we sat with such high hope and noble purpose. If you do what I ask, perhaps people will remember how we of Camelot went questing for right and honor and justice. Perhaps one day men will sit around this world as we sat once around our table and go questing once again for right and honor and justice.”

In these dark and divisive times, when truth is no longer truth, we all need to go questing once again for right and honor and justice. To paraphrase another great writer of musicals, Peter Stone, in 1776, “People of the world, I say ye Alan Jay Lerner.”

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Jun
08

Not Just Another Tony Year

Another year, another Tony Awards. Except it’s not just another year for me. For the first time in at least 15 sun orbits, I have not seen every Broadway show of the season. That’s because the Drama Desk tightened its rules for eligibility, and my gig here at BwayTunes was no longer enough to qualify me for membership. As being a Drama Desk voter required me to see not only every Broadway show but also as many off- and off-off-Broadway shows as I could, it has meant a sizeable drop in my theatregoing. I went from attending nearly 100 shows to a little fewer than 25. Of course, that 100 was already a reduction from my days as theatre editor and head theatre critic for Backstage, when I would see as many as 250 shows in a season (and was also a Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award voter).

I confess I don’t miss the volume or the voting. Going to the theatre only when I want to has been a blessing, though it’s not so easy on the pocketbook, while deciding between two or more different but equally worthy efforts just for the sake of choosing was never fun. I prefer noncompetitive awards saluting excellence, such as the Obie and Theatre World awards.

However, not seeing all the nominated shows does make Tony prognostication harder. In recognition of that fact, I have eliminated the “should have been nominated” category, except in two instances in which I felt that an artist should have not only been nominated but should win the category as well. Both of those cases involve the musical revue Prince of Broadway, which was egregiously denied any nominations at all. For my money it should have been tapped in the categories I’m looking at here for Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical (Emily Skinner and Bryonha Marie Parham), Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Tony Yazbeck), Best Orchestrations (Jason Robert Brown), Best Choreography (Susan Stroman), Best Director of a Musical (Harold Prince), and Best Musical. To see which two I think it should have won, you’ll have to read below.

To be as transparent as possible, here are the shows nominated for the following awards that I have not seen: Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 and 2, Frozen, and the revival of Once on This Island (though I have heard the OBCRs of the last two). I also skipped Escape to Margaritaville, but so did the Tony committee when handing out nominations, so bullet dodged there. No doubt in part due to the lack of Tony love, the poorly reviewed Jimmy Buffett jukebox musical will be closing on July 1 after a run of only three-and-a-half months.

And now, without further ado…

Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Ariana DeBose, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Renée Fleming, Carousel
Lindsay Mendez, Carousel
Ashley Park, Mean Girls
Diana Rigg, My Fair Lady

Will Win: Lindsay Mendez
Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Emily Skinner

However good her work may be, DeBose is stuck in a badly reviewed jukebox musical. Rigg is superb, but it’s a very small role and she doesn’t sing. Park is appealing, but the part lacks definition and good songs. This brings it down to Fleming and Mendez. The former sings beautifully but fails to impress in the acting department. Mendez has been better elsewhere, but it’s a good role, she was well reviewed, and it’s her first time at the dance. That makes it Mendez by process of elimination. Also, she won the Outer Critics’ Circle and Drama Desk awards. Personally, I think Skinner’s consistently fresh and vital takes on “Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs,” “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Send in the Clowns,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and especially a stunning reinvention of “Now You Know” constituted the best work I saw by a featured actress in a musical this season.

Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Norbert Leo Butz, My Fair Lady
Alexander Gemignani, Carousel
Grey Henson, Mean Girls
Gavin Lee, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit

Will Win: Norbert Leo Butz
Should Win: Ari’el Stachel

Gemignani is very good indeed as Enoch Snow, but director Jack O’Brien has cut the role to ribbons. Henson is agreeable but playing an awfully tired gay cliché. Lee is fine, but the role of Squidward Q. Tentacles is pretty much what it sounds like, and Lee was more impressive in Mary Poppins. I think it’s a race between Butz and Stachel, and I’m predicting Butz because he doesn’t just put the numbers over with style; he also absolutely nails Doolittle’s big scene with Higgins. Plus he’s a Broadway favorite. Still, he doesn’t banish my memories of Stanley Holloway and George Rose, while Stachel’s subtle and original take on a macho Egyptian ladies man cum musician was seriously compelling. Lee did take the Drama Desk, but in a field that included neither Butz (ridiculously not nominated) nor Stachel (nominated last year but lost to Gavin Creel for Hello, Dolly!), and Butz beat Lee for the Outer Critics’ Circle Award. So Butz it is. My vote, though, would be Stachel by a hair.

Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Lauren Ambrose, My Fair Lady
Hailey Kilgore, Once on This Island
LaChanze, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical
Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
Taylor Louderman, Mean Girls
Jessie Mueller, Carousel

Will Win: Katrina Lenk
Should Win: Lauren Ambrose

Six nominees. Really? Still, I shouldn’t be snarky, as I haven’t seen the work of LaChanze and Hailey Kilgore. For the former’s chances, though, see Ariana DeBose above. For the latter’s, she sounds charming on the OBCR, but LaChanze herself couldn’t win in the role back in 1991, when it was unaccountably in the featured category. Louderman should be in the featured category, and her performance, though certainly successful, is by requirement one loud note. Mueller isn’t doing her best work as Julie Jordan and already has her Tony. She did win the Drama Desk, but in a race that didn’t include either Lenk or Ambrose, the former inexplicably denied a nomination last year and the latter equally inexplicably denied one this year (see above for Norbert Leo Butz; those nominators really do seem to have had a bee in their bonnets when it came to My Fair Lady). Thus, once again, it’s a two-way race. Ambrose has the harder part and inhabits it more fully than any stage Eliza I’ve seen. Lenk is every bit as good, though, doing rich, flavorful, surprising work. Unfortunately, Ambrose missed at least four performances during peak Tony voter attendance (no word as to why), which won’t help her. Also, there seems to be a segment of the community that resents her for moving into musical theatre, despite the fact that she is clearly more than talented enough to do so. I’ll be happy with either winning, but my vote would go to Ambrose.

Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Harry Hadden-Paton, My Fair Lady
Joshua Henry, Carousel
Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit
Ethan Slater, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: Tony Shalhoub
Should Win: Tony Shalhoub and Harry Hadden-Paton in a tie

This, for me, is the hardest category in terms of predictions, because I think any of the four could take it. I don’t understand all the over-the-top raves for Ethan Slater’s helium-voiced sponge (he does the job well enough, but some job), but they exist, and he prevailed at the Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle competitions and won a Theatre World Award, so he should certainly be considered a front-runner. Henry is done no favors by director Jack O’Brien’s defenestrating revival, which, between ill-advised cuts and head-scratching additions and alterations, definitely throws the show out the window. Nevertheless, Henry’s reviews were largely good, he sings the role impressively, and many think his hard-shelled, raging macho swagger is how Billy Bigelow should be played (I don’t). Over at the Gold Derby website practically none of the “experts” think Hadden-Paton has a chance. As his Henry Higgins is the first to make me forget Rex Harrison, I find that shocking and unpersuasive. But perhaps Higgins is not an award-winning role at this juncture in our social politics. Shalhoub was the heart and soul of The Band’s Visit, the glue that held everything together, and his reviews were stunning. Nevertheless, he only had one song, and it wasn’t a character song. Also, though he returned to do some performances for Tony voters in May, he’s now out of the part for good, which is never a good thing if you want to win a Tony. Slater won both times without Shalhoub in the mix, as he was eligible for the Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle awards last year. I prefer to believe that the Tonys will go with substance over flash, but don’t bet the farm on it.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater
Adrian Sutton, Angels in America
David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit
Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, Frozen
Jeff Richmond and Neil Benjamin, Mean Girls
Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler & Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper & Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic! at the Disco, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani & Lil’C, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: David Yazbek
Should Win: David Yazbek

I think Yazbek is a lock for best score. His only possible competition is the starry horde of pop tunesmiths for SpongeBob SquarePants (I think the nomination should ditch the long list and simply read “Far Too Many Writers”), but The Band’s Visit is the best work of his career, and he’s already been the bridesmaid for three fine scores.

Best Orchestrations
John Clancy, Mean Girls
Tom Kitt, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Annmarie Milazzo and Michael Starobin, Once on This Island
Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit
Jonathan Tunick, Carousel

Will Win: Jamshied Sharifi
Should Win: Jamshied Sharifi

The majority of Tony voters don’t really understand what an orchestration is and generally end up voting for whatever they choose for best score. However, this is a tough category, with only John Clancy’s bland work on a generic score not, I think, in the hunt. Kitt amazingly made SpongeBob almost sound like a coherent, and theatrical, score; Milazzo and Starobin brought a whole new, more acoustic approach to Island using found objects as instruments; and Broadway legend Tunick elegantly reduced the size of Carousel’s orchestra without sacrificing (well, not too much) the lush sound of Don Walker’s classic original charts. Sharifi’s hypnotic scoring of Middle Eastern–flavored sounds not normally heard on Broadway is exhilarating, and, when the band plays without vocals, positively electric. If he doesn’t win, I think Tunick, who won the Drama Desk, though without Sharifi in the race, is most likely to take it away from him.

Best Book of a Musical
Itamar Moses, The Band’s Visit
Jennifer Lee, Frozen
Tina Fey, Mean Girls
Kyle Jarrow, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: Tina Fey
Should Win: Itamar Moses

Lee is there merely to fill out the category (the Tony committee did that to the Disney production in each of Frozen’s three nominations), while Jarrow’s picaresque cultural pastiche is pretty ramshackle. Moses’ work is light years ahead of Fey’s in craft, but she is a big name and can write good one-liners. Plus the voters are going to want to give something to Mean Girls, and this is the most likely category. However, I really hope I’m wrong.

Best Choreography
Christopher Gattelli, My Fair Lady
Christopher Gattelli, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Steven Hoggett: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Justin Peck, Carousel

Will Win: Justin Peck
Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Susan Stroman

This is only the second category so far that I think is a lock, and that would be Justin Peck’s highly lauded work on Carousel. It’s big and showy, but it also unbalances the musical and comes up short in the storytelling and character departments. Nicholaw is repeating himself to lesser effect; Gattelli admirably displays his command of two very distinct vocabularies, but dance is not centrally important to either show; and Hoggett is not going to win for movement in a play. Stroman did yeoman work rethinking classic numbers in Prince of Broadway in fresh ways that honored the originals. Her wrenching staging of “The Right Girl” alone, particularly as interpreted by the astonishing Tony Yazbeck, should have brought her the prize. Yazbeck, by the way, just won the 2018 Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Male Dancer in a Broadway Show for his work in Prince of Broadway.

Best Direction of a Musical
Michael Arden, Once on This Island
David Cromer, The Band’s Visit
Tina Landau, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical
Casey Nicholaw, Mean Girls
Bartlett Sher, My Fair Lady

Will Win: David Cromer
Should Win: David Cromer and Bartlett Sher in a tie

I see this as a three-person race among Landau, Cromer, and Sher. For Nicholaw’s chances, see choreography above. Arden’s conceptual reimagining of Island was critically praised, but the show is struggling to break even in a small theatre. Landau gets points for bringing her avant-garde sensibilities to commercial material without alienating audiences, and she tied with Sher for the Outer Critics’ Circle Award and beat him for the Drama Desk. However, SpongeBob, underperforming at the box office for six months now, is not milking its brand. Sher has once again made a classic Golden Age musical bracingly relevant and fresh, while Cromer performed that hardest of all tasks: shepherding a new and unconventional musical to commercial success. Also, Cromer won the 2017 Drama Desk Award for best director of a musical when The Band’s Visit debuted at the Atlantic Theatre Company, a rare Drama Desk win for an off-Broadway show. As Cromer was not in the Outer Critics’ and Drama Desk races this year, I think the Tony will go to him.

Best Revival of a Musical
My Fair Lady
Once on This Island
Carousel

Will Win: My Fair Lady
Should Win: My Fair Lady

Because there were only three eligible revivals this season, a nomination here is not an achievement, as the Tony committee is required to fill out all categories. As I noted above, I haven’t seen Island, but as a property it is not on the same level as the Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe masterpieces, so that doesn’t bode well for its chances. For me, director Jack O’Brien ran away from the dark themes of Carousel, choosing instead to gussy things up gaudily (it’s worth noting that he was not nominated for best director for the Tony and the Outer Critics’ Circle awards), while Sher delivered a bracingly modern take that made My Fair Lady feel newly minted. However, both productions have their champions and detractors in the theatre community, and I think it will be a close race. Interestingly, My Fair Lady won the Drama Desk even though the nominators clearly preferred Carousel. I’m going with Alan and Fritz.

Best Musical
The Band’s Visit
Frozen
Mean Girls
SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical

Will Win: The Band’s Visit
Should Win: The Band’s Visit

This is my third lock of the night. I can’t conceive of any other outcome, as I do not want to live in a world where The Band’s Visit loses to any of its three competitors. I’m sure the hubby is planning to hide all the sharp objects just in case.

 

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May
25

Some Compleat Complete Recordings

Director Joe Mantello’s excellent production of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking play, The Boys in the Band, opens on Broadway next week. I saw it during early previews, just a couple of days prior to Jim Parson’s curtain call slip-up, which fractured his foot. He’s now playing the show in a boot and with the aid of a cane, but I’m sure that will make no difference in his dynamic performance as Michael, the self-hating gay man and party host, though navigating the two-story set may prove a challenge. Already a hot ticket, thanks in part to its starry cast of out gay actors, the show will be harder than ever to get into once the reviews arrive, so I advise you to get your tix now.

The original 1968 production was a landmark cultural event, captured on screen in 1970 in William Friedkin’s definitive film version, also featuring the original stage cast. But before the movie, the show was available on a complete double LP set, which as a closeted teenager I listened to at my local library (it was too dangerous to take it home). Boys was hardly the first Broadway play to be waxed in its entirety. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Murray Schisgal’s Luv, Sidney Michaels’ Dylan, Frank D. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, among others, were also preserved for posterity by their original casts. And there was even an entire record label, Caedmon Records, devoted to recording classic plays with top actors. Alas, none of that repertory appears to be available today in digital form, whether on CD or for download, except for the Albee drama. Still, in honor of that tradition, and The Boys in the Band in particular, our topic today at BwayTunes is favorite complete recordings of musicals. Here are 10 of mine, in alphabetical order.

Candide (1974 Broadway Cast Recording)
I was already a fan of this classic Leonard Bernstein–Richard Wilbur (mostly) score thanks to its 1956 OBCR starring the incomparable Barbara Cook. So when I heard that director Harold Prince and book writer Hugh Wheeler were doing an off-Broadway revisal at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I was thrilled. I had read Lillian Hellman’s published script for the musical and found it problematic; perhaps they would fix the flaws. Hellman forbade the use of any of her text, so Wheeler was allowed to start afresh, and he brought the show closer in tone and style to Voltaire’s original, freewheeling “schoolboy jape” satire on unbridled optimism. The production pleased the critics and transferred to a commercial Broadway run of 740 performances, of which I finally managed to see the 738th. But before that I listened to this over and over; it was the next best thing to being there. Also, it had the scintillatingly cynical “Auto-da-Fé (What a Day)” sequence, with its brilliant John Latouche lyric (augmented a bit by Stephen Sondheim), which was not recorded in 1956. The reduced orchestra didn’t bother me; it felt in keeping with the cartoon-like style. To this day it’s also the only version of Candide I have seen that I think worked as a piece of theatre, and I have seen more than my share, even writing narration for a concert version given by the San Francisco Symphony in 1993. My husband, who saw the show at BAM, was such a fan of this recording that he bought two of them, so he could stack his record player up and play the show straight through without getting up to flip sides. We didn’t know each other then, but now, whenever we encounter one of life’s confounding moments of arbitrary cruelty, we are apt to share a glance and mouth Wheeler’s curtain line, spoken at the end of the soaring “Make Our Garden Grow” when a cow suddenly shudders, falls over, and dies: “Ah, me. The pox!”

The Cradle Will Rock (1985 Original Cast Recording)
Marc Blitzstein’s Brechtian broadside about prostitution in all its forms eluded me until I saw the Acting Company perform it off-Broadway in 1983, I think because previous recordings were limited to the songs, and I had never really understood their dramatic context and the piece’s overall performance style. This production traveled to London’s Old Vic Theatre and was recorded there by Jay Records two years later. Patti LuPone won an Olivier Award for her performance (in tandem with her work in Les Misérables the same season), but the whole company is superb, and director John Houseman’s opening narration recounting the piece’s dramatic history is as riveting on disc as it was in the theatre. (Houseman co-produced the original in 1937 as part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre.) This complete recording lets you hear Blitzstein’s scorching sui generis blending of spoken dialogue, Sprechstimme, underscoring, and song in its full glory.

Dessa Rose
Jay Records producer John Yap made the fortuitous decision to record this ambitious 2005 off-Broadway musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) in its entirety because the show seamlessly interweaves dialogue and song. Employing story-theatre techniques, song fragments and set pieces, nearly continuous underscoring, commentary and action, time shifting, and fluid movement, the end result was a work of total theatre. LaChanze and Rachel York are outstanding as, respectively, Dessa Rose, a runaway slave who incited a rebellion, and Ruth, an abandoned Southern wife who shelters runaways to keep her plantation going. Michael Hayden as a journalist obsessed with Dessa Rose and Norm Lewis as a runaway slave who helps her but becomes romantically involved with Ruth provide strong support. Ahrens’ 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 that could only be captured by a complete recording. Oh, and the luxurious CD packaging, including a hardcover full script, is faboo.

Falsettos (March of the Falsettosand Falsettoland)
William Finn’s one-act Marvin musicals were as groundbreaking in their way as The Boys in the Band, coming in 1981 and 1990 and eventually being combined on Broadway in 1992, though the Broadway version, which contained rewrites and changes, wasn’t recorded until 2016’s phenomenal revival, helmed by original director and co–book writer James Lapine. In 1981 leading gay characters in a musical were as new as Mart Crowley’s open homosexuals were in 1968. The 1981 and 1990 recordings are necessary both as documents of Finn and Lapine’s initial impulses and for the definitive performances of Michael Rupert, Chip Zien, Stephen Bogardus, Alison Fraser, Faith Prince, Lonny Price, Heather Mac Rae, Janet Metz, James Kushner, and Danny Gerard. The 2016 recording is a heart-stopping rendering of the extraordinary final product, with great work from Christian Borle, Brandon Uranowitz, Andrew Rannels, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Wolfe, and Anthony Rosenthal that resoundingly honors their predecessors.

The Golden Apple (2014 Lyric Stage Cast Recording)
Lyric Stage of Irving, Texas, did musical theatre lovers a great service by programming a production of John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ delicious 1954 retelling of the myths of the Trojan War set in bucolic turn-of-the-20th-century America with the explicit intent of recording the whole thing live in performance. The show’s OBCR, released by RCA in 1954, was confined to one LP and far too truncated to convey what the through-sung musical was, though the faultless performances of Kaye Ballard, Priscilla Gillette, Stephen Douglass, Jack Whiting, Martha Larrimore, Shannon Bolin, Portia Nelson, and Bibi Osterwald are happily captured for all time. If Lyric’s able regional company can’t match their brilliance, or the wonderful work done by the company of the 2017 production mounted by Encores! at City Center, they are more than good enough to let the piece speak for itself. What’s more, who knows if Encores! would ever have produced the show if the Lyric Stage recording hadn’t come out?

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass
When Mass, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to open the Kennedy Center, premiered on Sept. 8, 1971, it was the first new stage work from Leonard Bernstein since West Side Story opened in 1957. As I was only three years old then and not yet aware of the musical theatre, Mass was really the first Bernstein “musical” of my life. I was tremendously excited by the prospect but confess to being disappointed when I first heard Columbia’s two-LP boxed recording. While I liked a lot of the music, the lack of a detailed story and characters frustrated me. It wasn’t until I saw the piece broadcast by PBS in a 10th anniversary production that I “got” the work, and I have loved it ever since, despite being as secular a person as one could possibly be. Alan Titus is a commanding yet vulnerable Celebrant, and his fury at the chorus of questioning believers during the consecration of the bread and wine is coruscating. Indeed, I remember the outraged cries of “Sacrilege!” against Bernstein at the time. Lenny being controversial. Who’d a thunk it?

The Most Happy Fella
The three-LP boxed set OBCR of Frank Loesser’s 1956 musical comedy opera based on Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted was long out of print by the time I became interested in the show. Even the well-stocked Cleveland Public Library didn’t have it. I had to settle for a single, tantalizing disc of excerpts. When I finally acquired the full-length recording from Chicago’s Rose Records while at college at Northwestern University, it was like finding the Holy Grail, and listening to it was an ecstatic and revelatory experience. And, yes, I know it’s technically not complete, because the short comedy dialogue scene in which Shorty Long teaches Susan Johnson to paste labels on crates is missing, but I’m including it in this list anyway. Uber completists will find that scene on Jay Records’ 2000 studio recording, which also has a useful appendix of cut numbers, including two for Tony’s sister, Marie, that I think should be restored in performance: “Nobody’s Ever Gonna Love You Like I Love You” (a duet with Tony) and “Eyes Like a Stranger.”

Porgy and Bess (1976 Houston Grand Opera Cast Recording)
I spent my weekend food money to get a prime orchestra seat at the Mark Hellinger Theatre to see Houston Grand Opera’s acclaimed production of George Gershwin’s masterpiece of an opera, and it was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. You forget living on leftover cereal and stale bagels for two days, but I’ll remember that performance all my life. I didn’t see Clamma Dale’s Bess, alas (though Esther Hinds was excellent), but Donnie Ray Albert’s transcendent Porgy and Larry Marshall’s galvanic Sportin’ Life are burned into my duodenal lining forever. This was only the second full-length recording, coming within a year of the release of one done by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of its new (at the time) maestro Lorin Maazel. (A 1951 studio recording conducted by the eminent Broadway musical director Lehman Engel for Columbia Masterworks claimed it was complete but only included about two-thirds of the score, clocking in at 129 minutes. Nevertheless, it was my introduction to the work, and I will always think of it fondly. It’s available on CD but not for digital download.) I had Maazel’s recording, but once I heard the Houston discs I could never go back to it. Maazel was too “legit” and stodgy for me. And, of course, the singers on Maazel’s opus didn’t have the advantage of having played the roles on stage.

Putting It Together
This musical-revue-with-a-wisp-of-plot utilized the songs of Stephen Sondheim to tell the tale of a troubled upper-class WASP marriage. Conceived and directed by English musical theatre star Julia McKenzie, it played a limited run of 96 performances off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1993. The run sold out before the show began performances because the star was none other than Julie Andrews, in her first appearance on the New York stage since Camelot, 33 years earlier. I didn’t think the wisp of a plot worked very well, but nevertheless I somehow managed to see the show three times (once taking advantage of a blizzard) because Andrews’ work in it was so extraordinary, supremely intelligent and bracingly adult. She gave textbook acting lessons on songs such as “Could I Leave You?,” “Country House,” “My Husband the Pig/Ev’ry Day a Little Death,” “Like It Was,” and especially a virtuosic rendition of “Getting Married Today” in which she sang all the parts. I enjoy the contributions of Michael Rupert, Stephen Collins, Rachel York, and Christopher Durang as well, but I listen to this for Andrews.

Regina (1958 New York City Opera Cast Recording)
In 1979 Encompass New Opera Theatre did a vest-pocket off-off-Broadway production of Marc Blitzstein’s masterful musical adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Incorporating some jazz-band-inflected material for the African-American characters that had been cut at Hellman’s request originally, it was a triumphant evening in the theatre and cemented a love of this show in my heart then and there. Regina premiered on Broadway in 1949 to mixed notices and a run of only 56 performances, but its reputation was greatly enhanced by New York City Opera’s 1958 production starring the great Brenda Lewis in the title role (she had played Birdie on Broadway in 1949), with George S. Irving, in a rare non-comedic part, opposite her as Regina’s ruthless older brother Ben. The recording positively crackles with theatrical electricity. That said, in 1992 conductor John Mauceri recorded his and Leonard Bernstein’s restoration of the opera, including the material that Encompass did back in 1979 and more, based on Scottish Opera’s 1991 production. Alas, it’s out of print, but copies of the CD do sometimes show up on Amazon.com. It’s not as theatrical as the NYCO version, but if you want to know Regina, you need both recordings.

 

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