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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.

Sep
15

A Book Report on ‘Peter Rabbit’

September marks the beginning of the new school year, and so this week we are saluting the topic of education with a playlist of musical theatre songs that somehow are related to the subject. After eschewing such obvious candidates as “Do Re Mi,” from The Sound of Music; “Getting to Know You,” from The King and I; “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific, and “The Rain in Spain,” from My Fair Lady, here are my 25.

“The Best of All Possible Worlds,” from Candide
Not the Richard Wilbur lyric on the 1956 OBCR, which is about Candide and Cunegonde’s wedding, but the John Latouche one first written for this Leonard Bernstein tune, restored to the show by book adapter Hugh Wheeler and director Harold Prince in their 1973 revisal at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The production subsequently moved to Broadway for 740 performances, winning five Tony Awards. Latouche’s lyric conjugates Latin verbs and takes the form of a lecture in a classroom.

“All for Him,” from Paint Your Wagon
Written out of town by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe as part of an attempt to lighten this 1951 Gold Rush musical, this comic set piece has Ben Rumson’s daughter, Jennifer, returning to her home out west after having been sent east against her will by her father for a year to get educated. “Him” doesn’t refer to her pa, though, but to her Mexican lover, Julio, whom she has returned to marry now that she is 18 and of age. I have always been partial to “I can curtsey but not/Make an Indian squat.”

“Useful Phrases” and “The Little Ones’ ABC,” from Sail Away
Noël Coward’s amusing 1961 diatribe against American tourists has not one but two education-related songs. The first satirizes phrase books for learning a foreign language (I never fail to smile at “My cousin is deaf. Kindly bring me a hatchet.”), while the latter is an attempt to subdue an unruly gaggle of children. Elaine Stritch is divine singing both of them, especially on her final comment to the kiddies. Alas, she is not available digitally, only on CD, but you can download Coward singing both songs on Noël Coward Sings “Sail Away” and Other Coward Rarities.

“Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?,” from Funny Girl
This Act 1 Bob Merrill–Jule Styne comic turn for Fanny Brice’s mother and best friend didn’t make it into the movie version, but on stage in 1964 it provided a welcome opportunity for Danny Meehan and the great Kay Medford to show their stuff as their characters muse upon their responsibility in Fanny’s transformation into a Ziegfeld Follies star. (“Whaddaya mean, ‘Momma who?’”)

“Changing My Major,” from Fun Home
Never has a sexual awakening been more delightfully dramatized than in this Jeanine Tesori–Lisa Kron showstopper from the 2015 winner of the Tony Award for best musical. Tony-nominated Emily Skeggs was terrific in the role on Broadway, but I confess I found the character’s Off-Broadway originator, Alexandra Socha, even better. Watch her performance of this number on YouTube.

“Dancing,” from Hello, Dolly!
“33-year-old chief clerks taught how to dance” reads the card that Dolly Gallagher Levi hands to Cornelius Hackl in Irene Molloy’s millinery. And she proceeds to fulfill the promise in Jerry Herman’s delectable waltz, currently bringing joy eight times a week at the Shubert Theatre as performed by Bette Midler or Donna Murphy and company. I loved both of them, for different reasons, but I do urge you to catch Murphy in her one-night-a-week gig. Midler more than deserved her Tony, but had Murphy been the actress for whom the production was created, I believe she would have won too.

“The Varsity Drag,” from Good News
This 1927 musical comedy smash by Laurence Schwab (book), B.G. DeSylva (book and lyrics), Lew Brown (lyrics), and Ray Henderson (music) takes place on the campus of Tait College, so many of its songs have an education connection, including “Students Are We,” “On the Campus,” “Tait Song,” “The Football Drill,” and “The Girl of Pi Beta Phi.” But “The Varsity Drag,” in which soubrette Babe O’Day teaches her fellow students the latest dance craze down at the campus malt shop (well, at least in the show’s 1993 adaptation by Mark Madama and Wayne Bryan), was the score’s biggest hit.

“The Things I Learned in High School,” from Is There Life After High School?
Composer-lyricist Craig Carnelia contributed his first complete Broadway score for this short-lived 1982 show musicalizing a group of adults’ high school memories. A lot of young, largely unknown talent, including actors Harry Groener (who sings this tune), David Patrick Kelly, Maureen Silliman, and Alma Cuervo, understudy Scott Bakula, and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin, were involved. The show didn’t work, but it’s a score very much worth knowing, especially Silliman’s sensitively acted “Diary of a Homecoming Queen.”

“It’s Fun to Think,” from All American
In this chipper Charles Strouse–Lee Adams tune from their 1962 flop follow-up to Bye Bye Birdie, star song-and-dance man Ray Bolger, as immigrant middle-aged engineering professor Stanislaus Fodorski, turns his previously uninterested southern Baptist students on to the joy of using their noggins. The sly number proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise rather uninspired concert version of the show staged by Musicals Tonight!, which I reviewed for Backstage in 2011.

“Happy to Make Your Acquaintance,” from The Most Happy Fella
Napa Valley vintner Tony Esposito and his mail-order waitress bride get off on a spectacular wrong foot in Frank Loesser’s masterwork. In this charming number, she is nursing him after an auto accident has put him in a wheelchair, and they try to reboot their relationship as she teaches him the etiquette of introductions. You can watch the terrific trio of Robert Weede, Jo Sullivan, and Susan Johnson performing the entire sequence in 1956 on The Ed Sullivan Show, available on YouTube.

“The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Thomas Jefferson throws a luncheon at the White House to introduce his guests to delectable foreign delicacies that he encountered in his European travels. Leonard Bernstein’s tune is as infectious as Alan Jay Lerner’s lyric is witty. On the road prior to Broadway in 1976, Lerner rewrote the section that begins “Cakes and ale and buttered rum” to broaden the subject matter, instead having the guests gossip about their president. Included was the quatrain “No pursuit of happiness/Ever found him aloof./Father of democracy,/And I’m told there is proof.” The full rewrite will be in The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, due out from Oxford University Press for the Lerner centenary in 2018.

“Build My House,” from Peter Pan
Bernstein wrote both music and lyric for this lovely ballad in which Wendy instructs the Lost Boys how to build a house for her. It comes from a 1950 Broadway staging of the James M. Barrie play starring Jean Arthur as Peter and Boris Karloff as Captain Hook. Bernstein provided five tunes (none of them for Peter or Hook) and incidental music. As a young boy I loved the OBCR, which is mostly dialogue and tells the story with flair. It, however, jettisoned Bernstein’s highly theatrical incidental music for a gentler new score written just for LP by Alec Wilder. You can hear Bernstein’s complete incidental score, plus all the songs, including a couple of cut ones, on a studio recording starring Linda Eder and Daniel Narducci.

“Sex Is in the Heel,” from Kinky Boots
Though an attempt was made in 2013 to make a pop hit of this sizzling Cyndi Lauper song, it didn’t really take off on the charts. However, it works quite well in the show, as drag performer Lola and her backup girls instruct English shoemaker Charlie Price and his workers on what they need in a sexy and sparkly thigh-high boot with high heels that can support a manly frame.

“I’m the Bravest Individual,” from Sweet Charity
Trapped in a stalled elevator with the nerdy Oscar, a young man suffering from claustrophobia, dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine gives the stranger a lesson in how to overcome his fear. Songwriters Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields replaced the song in the 1966 hit musical’s 1969 film version with the tender ballad “It’s a Nice Face,” but I prefer the lesson.

“Keep ’Em Busy,” from Now Is the Time for All Good Men
Forward-thinking English teacher Mike Butler’s unorthodox ideas stir up the staid faculty of a rural Indiana high school in this Gretchen Cryer–Nancy Ford number. How I wish Encores! Off-Center would do a concert version of this totally original Off-Broadway musical, which ran for 111 performances in 1967, especially now that we are in Trump America.

“No Other Love,” from Me and Juliet
You’d never know it from the OBCR of this 1953 Rodgers and Hammerstein backstage musical, but this love song is actually used in a diegetic fashion in the show. Assistant stage manager Larry is coaching chorus singer Jeanie in how to perform the role of Juliet, which she is understudying. You can see Bill Hayes and Isabel Bigley in the complete nine-minute sequence on YouTube, which also includes the song “The Big, Black Giant.” It details what it’s like for an actor to face an audience.

“No Understand,” from Do I Hear a Waltz?
Rodgers and lyricist Stephen Sondheim penned this nifty negotiation of adultery, in which a young American expatriate painter and the sophisticated older owner of the Venice pensione in which he and his equally young wife are staying plot to canoodle in a gondola. The vehicle is the painter giving an English lesson to the pensione’s perplexed maid, who must not see her boyfriend that evening so she can hold down the fort at work.

“Chapter 54, Number 1909,” from Seesaw
Gay New York City dancer David helps Midwestern law student Jerry Ryan bone up for the bar exam by teaching him how to memorize law statutes in rhythm, synchronized to David’s tap dancing. Really. Tommy Tune, Ken Howard, and Michele Lee, as Jerry’s girlfriend, sparkle in this decidedly original number by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields from the 1973 musical version of William Gibson’s 1958 hit two-hander romantic comedy/drama, Two for the Seesaw.

“Suzy Is a Good Thing,” from Pipe Dream
In this Rodgers and Hammerstein scene-in-song, the madam of a whorehouse tries to convince one of her girls of her innate self-worth. In the Encores! 2012 concert presentation of this musical based on two books by John Steinbeck, Leslie Uggams and Laura Osnes made this touching sequence a real highlight, which it is not on the show’s 1956 OBCR, where, sadly, it is too truncated to work as intended.

“Rahadlakum,” from Kismet
Has the mere recitation of a recipe ever proved as blazingly erotic as this one? Written by Robert Wright and George Forrest, adapted from the music of Russian composer Alexander Borodin, it did well for Joan Diener on stage in 1953 and Dolores Gray on screen in 1955, but its most memorable incarnation was Eartha Kitt’s searingly sultry showstopper in 1978’s Timbuktu!, which moved the story of a penniless itinerant poet and his beautiful young daughter’s adventures from Persia to Africa. Alas, there was no OBCR, but you can see Kitt perform the number on YouTube. Believe it or not, she is toning the innuendo down for TV. (“Constantly stirring with a long…wooden…spoon.”)

“Sign Here,” from Flora, the Red Menace
Fashion illustrator Flora Meszaros is in love with intense young artist Harry Toukarian in Depression-era New York City, but she is surprised when he tries to talk her into joining the Communist Party. He quizzes her intently on her beliefs, relying on feel-good generalities about a better world, and she is ultimately won over in this dynamic Kander and Ebb number. Liza Minnelli and Bob Dishy are perfection.

“To Break in a Glove,” from Dear Evan Hansen
On the surface a regimen for how to break in a brand-new baseball glove, this Benj Pasek–Justin Paul song is really about a bereaved father aching for a lost son and a lonely young man wishing for an involved dad. It is certainly one of the high points of this 2017 Tony-winning best musical, especially as performed by Michael Park and Ben Platt.

“Experiment,” from Nymph Errant
Cole Porter’s 1933 West End musical told the story of a young girl returning home to London after graduating from a Swiss finishing school. In execution of her teacher’s advice, she wants to “experiment” by losing her virginity before arriving in England. Though young and attractive, she finds it decidedly difficult to do. Gertrude Lawrence starred, and the show was a hit in London, but she never took it to Broadway. Porter always said that he considered it his best score. I saw a 1982 Equity Library Theatre staging, which was the show’s American premiere, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Book Report,” from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
In this 1967 Off-Broadway musical based on Charles Schultz’s famed “Peanuts” cartoon strip, Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, and Schroeder have all been assigned a 100-word book report on the story “Peter Rabbit” for school. Each goes about the task in his or her own way, with Charlie Brown procrastinating, Linus overdramatizing, Schroeder over-intellectualizing, and Lucy eking out a bald plot synopsis. As she obsessively counts her words, she ends with “94, 95…the very, very, very end.” And so it is.

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Artists

Aug
25

One Spicy Soprano

As I write this it’s been about a week and a half since we lost the great Barbara Cook, yet the tributes and appreciations keep coming, especially on social media. It’s a virtual avalanche of affection, and here is my small attempt to add to it.

The hubby and I have found ourselves watching videos of her various TV performances, among them a collection of her appearances in the early 1960s on The Bell Telephone Hour, singing “Magic Moment” from The Gay Life on The Ed Sullivan Show, a 1960 special called The Ziegfeld Touch in which she performs songs from the Ziegfeld Follies, and her work in Babes in Toyland and Bloomer Girl in the mid-1950s. The last I am particularly fond of, even though she publicly pooh-poohed her performance when a kinescope of the show was released on commercial videotape sometime, if I remember correctly, in the 1990s.

Bloomer Girl, featuring a score by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, was broadcast on May 28, 1956, as an episode of a TV show called Producers’ Showcase, which puts it at just under three months since Cook had closed in Plain and Fancy at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (making way for My Fair Lady) and seven months before she opened as Cunegonde in Candide at the Martin Beck Theatre. Cook said that she didn’t like watching herself in it, as she was giving a standard ingénue performance rather than really acting the role of early feminist heroine Dolly Bloomer, who created the scandalous garment bearing her name that punctured the hoop skirt for good. I think she is a delight: feisty and sly, winningly romantic but no man’s toy. There is Cook’s ability always to be present, in the moment, and to deliver songs with penetrating simplicity. Yes, it’s still early in her career (she’s 28), and she did grow as an actor and a performer, but all the qualities that made her special are already abundantly apparent in Bloomer Girl. (I even burned myself a CD of the TV soundtrack score.)

I first encountered Cook when I was 15, on the OBCR of Candide. Her “Glitter and Be Gay,” of course, once heard cannot be forgotten. Not long after that I discovered the recording of She Loves Me for the first time, at the Cleveland Public Library, and that really sealed the deal. I got Plain and Fancy and Flahooley in college the instant those recordings were reissued on LP after being long unavailable, and I bought the out-of-print The Gay Life at Chicago’s Rose Records, which bought up multiple copies of cast recordings when they went out of the catalogue and then sold them at, for the most part, surprisingly reasonable prices to musical theatre fans such as myself. I must confess that I did not listen to her most iconic role, Marian Paroo in The Music Man, very often. I saw the film when it was released in 1962 (I was 8) and loved it and Shirley Jones. That was the LP we had at home and that I knew note by note. Oh, I bought the OBCR once I started buying albums on my own, but the movie was too implanted on my brain, so I didn’t play it a lot. I did recognize that Cook was excellent on it, but my heart had already been given to another.

The only OBCR of a Cook musical I had a chance to buy when it first came out was the short-lived 1971 adaptation of Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp. When I heard that wonderful cast (Cook, Carol Brice, Karen Morrow, and Russ Thacker in particular) singing that glorious score by Kenward Elmslie (book and lyrics) and Claibe Richardson (music), I could not fathom how this show could have failed at the box office so spectacularly (a mere seven performances at the Martin Beck Theatre). Cook is radiant, whether luxuriating in a summer’s day in “Dropsy Cure Weather,” marching to the beat of nonconformity in the stirring “Yellow Drum,” trying to mend a broken relationship in the heartfelt finale, “Reach Out,” and especially when contemplating her character’s life as a spinster in the earth-mother clarion call of “Chain of Love.” The recording is currently out of print and unavailable digitally, but you can listen to it on YouTube. Even better are excerpts from a live recording of the show’s closing performance, also on YouTube. The rapturous audience response suggests that they know that something special is being lost that night.

You may have noticed that up until now I have written only about Cook’s work as an actor in musical theatre. She, of course, in the early 1970s famously struggled with alcoholism, which caused her to gain a great deal of weight, and both things pretty much brought an end to her Broadway career. Then, under the guidance of musical director and composer Wally Harper, she reinvented herself as a cabaret performer, triumphantly reclaiming the spotlight with a highly lauded evening, Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall, in 1975. She also beat her addiction to alcohol, and over the next 40 or so years she would refine her abilities as an interpreter of songs to the point that she became one of the greatest American singers ever. Full stop.

I’m afraid I must confess that my initial response to her career change was decidedly mixed. I considered her a supreme singing actor, and the cabaret art form, songs interpreted out of dramatic context, held a lesser appeal for me than the musical theatre. Oh, I bought and enjoyed her recordings, but what I really longed for was to see her on stage creating a role in a new musical. When it was announced in 1988 that she would play Margaret White in Carrie, I was beside myself with anticipation, even though I was somewhat dubious about the property. But, of course, she left the musical after its disastrous tryout engagement in Stratford, England, so it was not to be. When I did see the unfortunate production during its preview period on Broadway, with Betty Buckley playing Margaret, I consoled myself with the thought that clearly Cook had made the right call.

I missed her now-legendary appearance as Sally Durant Plummer in 1985’s Follies in Concert at Lincoln Center because it sold out so fast that I was caught flat-footed, though at least I got to see excerpts of her performance on the commercially released documentary about the evening. Of course, as the concert—intended to result in a complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s extraordinary score, which had been truncated on its OBCR—replaced James Goldman’s book with narration, she didn’t really get to play the role. Still, it was a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been (and oh, yes, indeed, what that might have been!).

When Barbara Cook: A Concert for the Theatre was announced in 1987 to play Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre for 26 performances (13 of which were previews), I did not repeat my mistake. I went during previews. It was the first time I saw her in live performance, and it was somewhat disconcerting. The audience wanted to hear signature songs from her Broadway career, but she was singing her concert repertoire, which pretty much avoided them. The response was polite, despite the fact that some of her choices (the pop standard “Sweet Georgia Brown,” Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All,” and Wally Harper’s dynamic arrangement of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Wait Till You See Him” in particular) were stunners. It was only on song number 15 that she finally gave the audience what it wanted, launching into an absolutely superb rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Mr. Snow,” from Carousel, that mined the song for every bit of humor and romance in it. She had, of course, played Carrie Pipperidge for R&H in a 1954 City Center revival. (You can hear her sing the role of Julie Jordan in Carousel on this 1987 studio recording.) The crowd went nuts. She followed with equally superb accounts of “Dear Friend,” “Ice Cream,” and “Till There Was You,” with the applause becoming more and more intense. Alas, it seemed to annoy rather than energize her; indeed, I thought she was angry with the audience. However, when her admirably blunt and candid memoir, Then & Now, came out last year, she made it clear that if she was upset with anyone, it was with herself, calling the concert “a big mistake [that] simply didn’t work.” She even went on to reference Frank Rich’s largely negative review in the New York Times, saying, “I think he was right…. I knew the show should have been better.” That’s one gutsy and classy lady.

In 2010, however, I finally got my wish to see her inhabit a character in a Broadway musical, if only briefly. It happened near the end of Act 1 of Sondheim on Sondheim, a musical revue conceived and directed by James Lapine. Cook arrived on stage in costume and character as Fosca, the sickly and hysterical anti-heroine of Passion, and, opposite Norm Lewis as the handsome soldier Giorgio, gave us a riveting miniature version of Fosca’s emotional journey, starting with “I Read,” continuing through Giorgio’s “Is This What You Call Love?,” and ending with “Loving You.” It was bliss.

In 2011 I reviewed her show You Make Me Feel So Young at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency for Back Stage, and I highly recommend its live recording. Other favorite Cook discs for me include her tribute to lyricist Dorothy Fields, Close as Pages in a Book; her show composed mostly of songs from a list Stephen Sondheim drew up of songs he wishes that he had written, interspersed with a few he had, Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim (also available on video); and especially her 1959 tribute to Rodgers and Hart, Barbara Cook Sings From the Heart, on which she shows a particular affinity for the wise but wounded words of Larry Hart.

I also love her 1988 The Disney Album, made up of tunes from Walt Disney films and featuring a lush orchestral landscape. Released by MCA Records, it is apparently out of print and unavailable digitally, which is a crime (though you can buy an audio cassette of it on Amazon). When it came out I made a tape of it for my very English dad, who did a lot of driving around the Midwest for his job and, though not much of a patron of the arts, did like to listen to music in the car. He had a thing for sopranos: Jeanette MacDonald, Kathryn Grayson, and Julie Andrews being three favorites. I actually made several tapes of Cook for him, culling material from a variety of sources, including some of the wonderful cuts she had on various Ben Bagley Revisited Series albums. Dad tended to resist anything new, but I thought, who knows? Maybe he’ll like her.

When he had a heart attack in 1990, I went back to Cleveland to see him through triple bypass surgery, and I discovered that all the Cook tapes were sitting right on top, easily in reach, in his glove compartment. I mentioned finding them, and he smiled a bit and said, with typical British understatement, “That Barbara Cook. She’s one spicy soprano.” Go well, Ms. Cook. And thank you.

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Artists

Aug
11

Give My Regards to Stephen, Remember Me to Harold Prince

Whenever my good friend John McGlinn would jet off to New York City from Northwestern University for a few days to see Broadway shows and study songwriting with Stephen Sondheim (ah, the things you can do when your dad is vice president of Campbell Soup), I would sing the title of this column to him. The billing order is revelatory; I wanted to write musicals, not direct them. And in my college days I had still seen very little Broadway theatre, indeed not a lot of professional theatre of any kind, so I did not yet fully realize the importance of the director. I thought then that he (female directors on Broadway, alas, weren’t on my, or almost anyone’s, horizon at that time) was mostly responsible for realizing the writer’s vision, almost a servant, as it were. It was specifically Prince’s work on a string of new musicals with scores by Sondheim that changed my understanding of how great theatre is created, introducing me to the concept of a director’s vision and the collaborative relationship between author and stager.

My first encounter with a Prince staging was one he didn’t actually direct. In the summer of 1970, as I prepared to enter my senior year in high school in suburban Cleveland, the Kenley Players over in Warren, Ohio, did a production of Cabaret, which had debuted on Broadway only three-and-a-half years prior. Cleveland native Joel Grey was on hand to once again play his Tony-winning role as the M.C., but he also directed, and the theatre claimed in press coverage that he would be re-creating Prince’s Broadway work. I was a big fan of the musical, having read the published script and repeatedly listening to the OBCR, and I was determined to see this. I somehow convinced my older brother, then a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy and largely uninterested in theatre, to drive me there and back, a little more than an hour each way on Interstate 80. While at 16 I don’t think I really grasped the concept of the comment songs taking place in a nonrealistic “limbo” (I just saw them as cabaret acts), as opposed to the realism of other scenes and songs, I loved the show, especially the energy with which it moved. Also, Anita Gillette, who had played it on Broadway, was an excellent Sally Bowles.

My next Prince experience was the national tour of Company, which I caught at Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre sometime in 1971 or 1972, headlined by a very effective George Chakiris as Bobby. I knew the backstory of how Prince had read George Furth’s collection of seven short plays and announced that they should be turned into a musical, so I understood that he had had an impact on the writing beyond just directing the show, but I wasn’t sure how much. Though a number of original cast members began the tour in Los Angeles, the only one left by the time the show hit Cleveland was Elaine Stritch, and it was exciting to see her sing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Alas, Boris Aronson’s set had had to be simplified in order to tour, so the functioning elevators were gone. But, again, I was impressed by the fluidity and energy of the staging, as well as the way Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett treated Bobby’s set of friends as a single unit, a living organism unto itself. That, I figured, was a directorial touch. Still, for me, the great thing about Company was Sondheim’s score. Playing that OBCR for the first time changed my life.

I missed Prince’s masterwork, Follies, because I couldn’t get to New York and its national tour began and ended in Los Angeles. From everything I read about it, Prince’s work had been on the level of a co-author, but I had to take that on faith. I did catch a local amateur production in Berea, Ohio, directed by future Prince assistant director Fran Soeder, with one of my collaborators-to-come, composer Eric Stern (we didn’t meet until later, in New York City), at the piano leading the onstage band, and my very first composer, best friend Bill Sisson, playing viola in the pit. I thought it was wonderful, but it wasn’t the original.

I saw the national tour of A Little Night Music twice at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago in 1974 while attending Northwestern. It wasn’t to the very Midwestern audience’s taste, for the most part, and the response was tepid, which left me enraged. I was very taken with the use of the lieder singers, which I ascribed to Prince, as well as the complicated staging of “A Weekend in the Country” and Act II’s dinner table scene. However, Boris Aronson’s sliding Plexiglas panels of birch trees, which facilitated Prince’s use of screen dissolves as a stage device, were too loud and reflected too much light. I assumed that modifications had been necessary for touring. Overall, I was still ascribing more weight to the text and score than the direction.

That changed on Dec. 31, 1975, when I experienced the first Broadway preview of Pacific Overtures at the Winter Garden Theatre. It remains the most thrilling night I have ever spent in a theatre. Eye-poppingly beautiful, its every scene bristled with an uncompromising artistic vision and a blazing theatricality. Like Company, it came into being because Prince read a new play and decided that it should be a musical. And Sondheim himself had told interviewers that he had had to be convinced to write it. From that night on I was as fierce a fan of Prince as of Sondheim. Bill Sisson and I joined a small crowd at the stage door that had assembled despite the light rain. We applauded, whistled, and cheered as Prince and Sondheim exited the theatre.

I saw Pacific Overtures on my first visit to New York City in six years, a four-day jaunt during which Bill and I also caught Bob Fosse’s brilliant staging of Chicago at the 46th Street Theatre, with the full original cast, and Prince’s environmental production of Candide, which was closing that week at the Broadway Theatre after a run of 740 performances. (Alas, we couldn’t get tix to A Chorus Line and settled instead for Shenandoah, which was enjoyable and offered a wonderful performance by John Cullum but simply wasn’t in the league of the other three shows.) That hat trick cinched the deal for me. I finally understood what a great director could bring to the table.

The only Prince NYC stagings I have missed since then are the plays Some of My Best Friends (1977) and Play Memory (1984), both due to the brevity of their runs (seven and five performances, respectively). I did catch his work on Arthur Kopit’s 1984 End of the World (With Symposium to Follow), a Pirandellan black comedy about the threat of nuclear weapons to world survival. I liked it a lot and was greatly disappointed when it only ran for 33 performances despite terrific performances from Barnard Hughes, as a wealthy industrialist looking to commission a play on the subject; John Shea, as an idealistic playwright long on ambition but short on cash; and Linda Hunt, as super agent Audrey Wood. With what’s happening in the world today, some smart director ought to take a look at it.

I followed Prince off Broadway for Diamonds, a spotty 1984 musical revue about baseball that provided a platform for a host of talented young songwriters (listen to Craig Carnelia’s “What You’d Call a Dream,” sung by James Barbour on Broadway in Concert, and Jonathan Sheffer and Howard Ashman’s “Hundreds of Hats,” in an authors’ demo on YouTube); The Petrified Prince, a 1994 Candide-like musical fable that featured a fascinating score by Michael John LaChiusa (oh, for a recording of that one) but had book problems; and his own play, Grandchild of Kings, adapted from the autobiographies of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, in 1992 at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Prince gave it a marvelous environmental staging in a warehouse-like space on the Lower East Side, but he proved a better director than writer.

I had one professional interaction with him, in 1989. Composer Paul Schwartz and I were contemplating writing a musical together, and we did a test run on the collaboration by structuring the film Sunset Boulevard as a musical and writing about 20 minutes worth of it, including an opening number and the closing scene and song of Act 1. As Paul was conducting The Phantom of the Opera at the time, he asked Mr. Prince to look at our work. He graciously invited us to his office for feedback, and his remarks were shrewd and to the point. On the basis of this (and he was by no means uncritical of the work), Paul and I were offered the opportunity to develop and write a show for Prince’s new venture, a producing organization called New Musicals that intended to mount initial incarnations of musicals away from the eyes of the critics on the campus of SUNY Purchase in front of paying audiences. Of course, the company famously foundered when New York Times scribe Frank Rich insisted on reviewing its first offering—a musical version of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman by Terence McNally (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics), directed by Prince—despite not being invited. He panned the show, which admittedly was not in very good shape, and that ended New Musicals (though not Spider Woman, which after major rewrites went on to success in Toronto, London, and on Broadway). I will, however, always be grateful for the opportunity, and I especially admire the way Prince has consistently supported young talent.

As with any director of longstanding, Prince has had a career dotted with highs and lows. For every Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Show Boat there is a Grind, A Doll’s Life, and Whistle Down the Wind (Prince’s production closed pre-Broadway in Washington, D.C. when he and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber disagreed about rewrites; he had no connection with the subsequent London version). I saw them all, and I never regretted a single moment spent doing so. Indeed, I always learned something, hit or not. What I do regret are the ones I missed because I grew up in Cleveland, especially 1963’s She Loves Me, whose double LP OBCR practically lived on my turntable once I was able to track a copy down (it had gone out of print), and 1966’s It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, which I listened to regularly at the Cleveland Public Library (it was also out of print). Oh, for a time machine!

I’d like to end by discussing Prince’s 2007 Broadway musical, LoveMusik. I heard about the project, a biographical show about the relationship between composer Kurt Weill and his wife, actress and singer Lotte Lenya, early on, as my good friend Kristen Blodgette was to be its musical director. Kristen asked me to suggest rare Weill material that might be used in the piece. I usually loathe jukebox musicals, so I was highly skeptical. Still, Harold Prince was doing this one. I suggested some songs and that was that.

I attended the show’s fifth preview with considerable anxiety. Fortunately, it became almost immediately apparent that Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry had solved the jukebox problem. The songs were used in near-Brechtian fashion, framing the action, commenting on it, sometimes heightening it in stylized ways. They were rarely employed as direct expressions of feeling or character, though when they were used that way, they worked. Prince, who has not always been seen as an actor’s director, had elicited four absolutely first-rate performances from Donna Murphy, as Lenya; Michael Cerveris, as Weill; David Pittu, as Bertolt Brecht; and John Scherer, as gay impresario George Davis (only Scherer missed a Tony nomination, no doubt because his character didn’t appear until midway in Act 2).

Prince provided moments of greatly effective theatrical simplicity: a proletarian Brecht snarling “Moritat” at a party celebrating Weill and Lenya’s newfound bourgeois status thanks to the success of The Threepenny Opera; Weill’s death indicated by the dropping of a packed suitcase, which spills its contents, followed by a grieving Lenya slowly repacking it; Lenya, under Davis’ stern gaze, silently getting into costume and makeup while terrified of returning to the stage as Jenny in an off-Broadway revival of Threepenny more than 20 years after it premiered in Berlin; and especially the throat-catching curtain, in which Lenya strides upstage into the glare of lights with her back to us, strikes a pose and points while declaiming: “Look! There goes Mack the Knife.” Prince could have ended it much more sentimentally, with Murphy doing a blazing rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” but that wouldn’t have been nearly as moving as stopping just at the moment of rebirth, which he framed perfectly.

It was a jewel of a show, and it told a story that I’d never seen in a Broadway musical: how two people navigate the shoals of an open marriage. That wasn’t all it was about, but it was a large part of it. Fifty-seven years after he debuted on Broadway as an assistant stage manager, and 45 years after he directed his first Broadway musical, 1962’s A Family Affair, Prince was still breaking ground artistically, addressing contemporary culture, and working at the top of his game. And now, another 10 years later, we get a new show: Prince of Broadway, a consideration of his career. I’ll be there, hoping to learn something new.

 

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Jul
28

Scorchers

I hate the heat. Summer is my least favorite of the four seasons, and pretty much anytime the thermometer rises past 70 degrees, I retreat to air conditioning whenever possible. My parents, both transplanted Brits, were the same, especially my mother. In preparation for the summer of 1964, when I was but 10 years old, we were the first family in our middle-class suburban Ohio neighborhood to install whole house air conditioning. It was such an ostentatious and expensive move for us that Gwen would never admit that it was done to please her (she had just had my little brother in March and at the age of 42 couldn’t face a hot summer with an infant). So she told the neighbors that it was done for the health of our new St. Bernard puppy, Nana. Uh-huh.

I do not, however, hate songs about the heat, and here’s an attempt to put together a varied and enjoyable playlist. I must admit I was surprised that I couldn’t find an overabundance of candidates, but I think 20 will suffice. It’s intriguing that so many of them are opening or closing numbers of either Act 1 or Act 2.

“Gonna Be Another Hot Day,” from 110 in the Shade
This nicely atmospheric Tom Jones–Harvey Schmidt opening number of the 1963 Broadway musicalization of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker describes a small town in an unnamed Western state afflicted by a prolonged and scorching drought. Whenever I see high temperatures predicted, it immediately starts playing in my head.

“Old Maid,” from 110 in the Shade
This Act 1 closer conflates the sexuality of the show’s heroine, Lizzie, a woman who sees herself as plain and is afraid of ending up alone in life, with imagery of drought and heat. Original star Inga Swenson famously sang it on an empty stage backed by the image of a blood-red setting sun (giving the show its logo), and while for me she remains the gold standard, Audra McDonald also did very well by it in Roundabout Theatre Company’s excellent 2007 revival. For that production director Lonny Price worked with the authors to somewhat revamp the book and score, and the results elevated what I had always considered a decent but second-tier show into the ranks of the classics.

“Heat Wave,” from As Thousands Cheer
My mother liked to sing popular songs at the drop of a hat, whenever something in the conversation brought one to mind, and that is how I first encountered this 1933 Irving Berlin standard. Gwen, however, was decidedly conservative, so all she would sing in my presence were the first and last A sections of this AABA song. The second A, which begins with “She started a heat wave/By letting her seat wave” and the release, which insists that “Gee/Her anatomy/Made the mercury/Jump to 93” I only heard years later, and not from Mom. The incomparable Ethel Waters introduced it on Broadway, while Marilyn Monroe burned up the screen with it in the 1954 Berlin song catalogue pic, There’s No Business Like Show Business. I have a fondness for Mary Beth Peil’s cheeky rendition—backed by Howard McGillin, Kevin Chamberlin, and B.D. Wong, no less—in the Drama Dept.’s delightful 1999 off-Broadway revival of Cheer, but that is out of print on CD and unavailable digitally.

“Conversation Piece,” from Wonderful Town
This Leonard Bernstein–Betty Comden–Adolph Green set piece hilariously depicts five people making awkward chit chat in a dry and dusty Greenwich Village back yard during a summer heat wave. Star Rosalind Russell’s delivery of “I was rereading Moby Dick the other day…. It’s about this—whale” never fails to get me.

“It’s Getting Hotter in the North Everyday,” cut from Show Boat
In the legendary 1927 Oscar Hammerstein II–Jerome Kern musical, this nine-minute song and dance served as the show’s original 11 o’clock number. It’s southern dancing that is generating northern heat, and young women are told they must learn to “strut” to “the dances of a warmer clime.” Star Norma Terris didn’t like it, though, so out it went prior to Broadway. Big mistake in my book. Conductor-scholar John McGlinn rediscovered it, and at least one recent production restored it. Interestingly, the original dance arrangement has a section quoting the melody of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” a hit from the 1921 all-black musical Shuffle Along.

“Sit Down, John,” from 1776
Sherman Edwards’ opening number for his and book writer Peter Stone’s Tony-winning 1969 musical depicts our founding fathers loudly complaining that “It’s hot as hell/In Philadelphia” and arguing about opening windows (“Too many flies!”). ’Nuff said.

“Summer Is,” from The Body Beautiful
In the theatre in 1958 this charming Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick waltz opened Act 2 with a chorus of prizefighters-in-training singing “Summer is bees and flowers/Calling to everyone./Why are we wasting hours/In the broiling sun?/That’s no fun.” But though you won’t hear those lines on the authors’ demo recording linked here, Harnick’s lyric is full of such apt imagery that it evokes the hazy heat of summer without ever mentioning it.

“Ain’t It Awful, the Heat?,” from Street Scene
The inhabitants of a rundown New York City tenement lament the torrid temperatures as Kurt Weill, Langston Hughes, and Elmer Rice’s 1947 musical version of Rice’s classic 1929 drama opens. The famous Harlem Renaissance poet wrote a brilliant set of lyrics for this stunning show, which verges on being an opera. How I wish he had written more for the musical theatre than he did.

“This Plum Is Too Ripe,” from The Fantasticks
In this Act 2 opener of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1960 off-Broadway fable of young love and growing up, its characters are “burned a bit and burnished by the sun” as night turns to day and the headiness of romance gives way to the sour taste of disillusionment. Love the angular jazz harmonies but found them hard to sing when I played the Boy in high school.

“Sunday in the Park With George,” from Sunday in the Park With George
As Georges Seurat’s mistress, Marie, poses for him in a park on a stifling Sunday afternoon, she complains of many things, including the weather. I’ve never seen the pungent “A trickle of sweat/Right under the tit” fail to get a sympathetic laugh of recognition in the various productions I’ve seen of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1985 Pultizer Prize winner.

“It’s Hot Up Here,” from Sunday in the Park With George
Marie’s complaints open Act 1, but to open Act 2 she is joined by everyone in Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” carping about being immortalized (and trapped forever) on such a hot day. This is one of my favorite Sondheim ensemble songs.

“Why Is the Desert?,” from the film The Little Prince
A nameless airplane pilot downed on an African desert and a visiting child prince from an asteroid share this delicately beautiful Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe song of friendship as they traverse the baking sands looking for water. Unfortunately, the first chorus was cut in half in the final release print of this 1974 screen adaptation of Antoine de St. Exupéry’s classic fable. The missing lines go as follows: LP: “Why is the desert lovely in May?” P: “Why is it lovely?” LP: “June’s on the way./Oh and what music waits everywhere” BOTH: “Hiding, hiding in the air.” LP: (Yawning) “Why am I happy I’m sleepy tonight?” P: “Why are you happy you’re sleepy tonight?” LP: “Only one reason: Knowing that when/The night is over I’ll see you again.” P: “Happy as I am knowing that when/The night is over I’ll see you again.” They, and many other unknown Lerner lines, will be in Dominic McHugh and Amy Asch’s The Complete Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, coming out for the Lerner centenary in 2018.

“The Girls of Summer,” from the play Girls of Summer
A still-unknown Stephen Sondheim wrote this song of romantic recalcitrance for N. Richard Nash’s short-lived 1956 drama. According to the Samuel French website, it concerned a 30-year-old woman (played by Shelley Winters) who put her own life on hold to raise her younger sisters in a “house of smothered emotions.” Sondheim wrote the song with Lena Horne in mind, but Dawn Upshaw on her CD I Wish It So proves that sopranos can smolder too.

“Steam Heat,” from The Pajama Game
Richard Adler and Jerry Ross wrote this novelty number utilizing the hissing and banging sounds of a radiator to open the second act of this 1954 musical comedy about union organizing in a pajama factory. It’s performed at a union meeting for no particular reason, but thanks to Bob Fosse’s sexy choreography and Carol Haney, Peter Gennaro, and Buzz Miller’s dynamite dancing, audiences didn’t mind the plot being put on hold. What’s more, Adler and Ross got a pop hit out of it.

“White Heat,” from The Band Wagon
This 1931 Arthur Schwartz–Howard Dietz rarity was introduced by Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, and Astaire subsequently recorded it as a solo. Like the Kern-Hammerstein “It’s Getting Hotter in the North Everyday,” it features cultural appropriation in the form of white people learning black dancing. It’s obscurity, however, is no doubt due to the eyebrow-raising lyric that insists that white people have improved the dancing from “a black art” to “white heat.” It’s a sobering reminder of the pervasiveness of racism in Depression-era America that two proudly liberal Jewish writers could author it without noticing its chilling condescension. No wonder Astaire didn’t sing it in MGM’s 1953 film adaptation.

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” from The Third Little Show
Beatrice Lillie introduced this witty Noël Coward comedy song on Broadway, also in 1931, but she doesn’t seem to have recorded it. Perhaps that’s because Coward himself did, and repeatedly. My favorite rendition of his is on Noël Coward at Las Vegas, which was preserved for posterity live. Comic lyric writing doesn’t get much better than “In Bengal/To move at all/Is seldom, if ever, done/But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

“Washer/Dryer,” from Caroline, or Change
The opening scene of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s landmark 2004 through-sung musical drama (the first eight tracks of the OBCR) has its African-American domestic-servant heroine doing laundry for an upper-middle-class Jewish family in a sweltering Louisiana basement. The radio, washing machine, and dryer all sing to her as she works. “Turn on the dryer/Roasty, toasty ’lectric fire” exults Chuck Cooper as he contemplates doing his job, ending with the triumphantly sadistic announcement that it’s “time to suffer heat.” The great Tonya Pinkins watched the Tony go to Idina Menzel in Wicked, while Kushner and Tesori lost book, score, and musical to Avenue Q. Ah, the crimes of the Tony Awards.

“Summer Share,” from Romance/Romance
This 1988 show by Barry Harman (book, lyrics, and direction) and Keith Herrmann (music) was two one-act musicals dealing with romantic complications, the first set in Vienna in 1900, based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler, and the second set in the then-present-day Hamptons, based on a play by Jules Renard. Featuring a cast of four headed by Alison Fraser and Scott Bakula, it proved to be something of a sleeper, running for nearly 10 months at the Helen Hayes Theatre. Act 2 begins with the characters deciding to “get a breath of air” by deserting Manhattan and the heat for a summer vacation by the sea. A friend of mine described the bewitching Fraser in it as “the bastard love child of Bernadette Peters and Angela Lansbury.”

“Night Song,” from Golden Boy
“Summer/Not a bit of breeze/Neon lights are shining/Through the tired trees” sings Sammy Davis Jr. as Joe Wellington, a promising prizefighter fighting the pernicious racism of 1960s America. Joe feels like his “brain is on fire” and asks, “Where do you turn/When you burn with this feeling of rage?” Based on Clifford Odets’ hit 1937 drama, the musical ran for 568 performances and had a strong dramatic score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who had up to then only written musical comedies. “Night Song” is, for me, a particular highlight.

“Too Darn Hot,” from Kiss Me, Kate
What better way to end than with this classic 1948 Cole Porter tune in which actors in an out-of-town tryout of a musical based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew cavort in the alley next to the theatre during intermission while complaining that the heat makes sex impossible? It’s one more act opener in this list, but the bowdlerized 1953 MGM film adaptation gave the song to Ann Miller and had her sing and dance it to Cole Porter and guests in his penthouse apartment. The censors made Porter change “According to the Kinsey Report/Ev’ry average man you know/Much prefers to play his favorite sport/When the temperature is low” to “According to the latest report/Ev’ry average girl you know/Much prefers her lovey-dovey to court/When the temperature is low,” not to mention “But when the thermometer goes way up/And the weather is sizzling hot/Mr. Adam upon his madam is not” to “Mr. Adam for his madam is not.” Hollywood doin’ the production code! But that’s another musical—and column.

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Jun
16

Memorable Musical Fathers

To salute Father’s Day last year we chose five songs about or sung by dads. This year we are looking at memorable fathers in the musical canon. Needless to say, the examples are diverse and legion. But there are also some who don’t get the recognition due their influence. Indeed, some of them don’t even appear in person. I call them absent fathers, and here are 11.

Phelan Beale, Grey Gardens
In Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie’s Grey Gardens, Phelan Beale is expected to arrive for his daughter Little Edie’s engagement announcement party throughout the first act. There’s even an entire song about it, “The Five Fifteen.” However, when a telegram arrives saying that he is not coming home but rather heading with his secretary to Mexico and wants a divorce, Little Edie’s hopes of happiness with young Joe Kennedy Jr. are effectively torpedoed. The show then leaps 32 years forward to show the profound consequences of Phelan’s betrayal in Act 2.

Mr. Bowles, the film of Cabaret
In Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay for the significantly altered film version of Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, Liza Minnelli’s Sally Bowles brags about her very important diplomat dad who is always traveling but with whom she supposedly has a great relationship (“he’s always swooping down and carrying me off on divine vacations”). However, when he fails to show up after promising to meet up with her in Berlin, she is devastated and reveals the truth to her closeted gay housemate, Brian, a writer. “He just doesn’t care. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I’m not worth caring about.” Her father’s absence, literal and emotional, helps explain her desperate need for attention and stardom. It also is the catalyst for Sally and Brian’s relationship becoming a sexual one and sets up the Kander and Ebb standard “Maybe This Time.” Important guy, that Mr. Bowles.

Edwin Dennis, Mame
Mame Dennis’ conservative Presbyterian brother’s death sets the plot of Mame in motion via his orphaned 10-year-old son’s arrival in Manhattan to live with his bohemian aunt. (Patrick and his traveling companion, the heavily sheltered Agnes Gooch, sing about it amusingly in Jerry Herman’s opening song, “St. Bridget.”) Edwin Dennis hovers over the musical in the personage of Dwight Babcock of the Knickerbocker Bank, the equally conservative executor of Edwin’s estate who he names in the will as Patrick’s guardian, put in place to curb his sister’s bohemian excesses. When Mame, angry at interference in her parenting, spits out a profanity, Patrick grabs his pencil and pad to write down the new word to add to his vocabulary. His aunt helpfully spells it out for him in Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s book for the musical: “That word, dear, is bastard. B-A-S-T-A-R-D. And it means Mr. Babcock.”

Mr. Bessemer, Bounce and Road Show
In John Weidman and Stephen Sondheim’s Bounce and its subsequent revision, Road Show, when middle-aged architect Addison Mizner meets the young, handsome, to-the-manor-born Hollis Bessemer on a train bound for Florida, Hollis has just been disowned by his rich industrialist father due to his interest in artistic rather than business pursuits. In the song “Talent,” the rebellious lad tells his life story to Addison, ending with a profane instruction for pops, whose action ultimately sets both a shady real estate scheme and a doomed love affair in motion. Dontcha hate it when that happens?

Papa (accent on the second syllable), Coco
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel invented herself from the ground up, obscuring in particular her unhappy and impoverished youth. In Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn’s Coco, Katharine Hepburn as the celebrated French couturier remembers a moment when her father, a traveling champagne salesman (“He was just like his product: just as irresistible and if you’re poor just as hard to find”) briefly visits with her and the “two cold gray aunts in a cold gray house” who were raising her. Papa never has a name and only appears in two dimensions, on film, just long enough to sing “Gabrielle,” a song in which Lerner fancifully suggests that he provided his daughter with her famous nickname. Papa promises to return in six weeks with, at her request, a distinctly unorthodox bright red dress for her first communion. Then he disappears forever, prompting Coco to sing a title song in which she vows to rely only upon herself in the future, cementing her character firmly in place.

Joe, The Most Happy Fella
In Frank Loesser’s musically abundant The Most Happy Fella, the absent father is on stage for much of the first act, but not in his role as father. He is the manly, rugged, and taciturn Joe, foreman of the Napa Valley grape ranch owned by the show’s protagonist, Tony Esposito. When Tony’s mail order bride, a San Francisco diner waitress he was smitten with and left a mash note for, arrives, she thinks that Joe is her husband-to-be, because the rotund, middle-aged Tony sent her Joe’s picture instead of his own. Furious at the deception and crushed with disappointment, she tries to leave but ends up in Joe’s bed that night after marrying Tony, who has had a car accident chasing after her and seems near death (the infidelity is dramatized in the stunning Act 1 closer, “Don’t Cry”). But Tony lives, and it is the fact of Joe’s child, conceived that night, that complicates the new marriage. Joe, however, has succumbed to the wanderlust he earlier expressed in the haunting “Joey, Joey, Joey” and is long gone, utterly unaware of his fatherhood, absent forever.

Lars “Papa” (accent on the first syllable) Hansen, I Remember Mama
In turning Kathryn Forbes’ short stories (and John van Druten’s stage adaptation) into a musical play, book writer Thomas Meehan faced the task of creating dramatic thrust and narrative tension. His solution was to send the loving, avuncular patriarch of the immigrant Hansen clan back to Norway from San Francisco due to financial woes at the end of Act 1, while the family is forced to stay behind. The choice kept poor George Hearn offstage for almost all of Act 2, but that was about all it accomplished. However, it did turn Lars, a beloved salt-of-the-earth character, into an absent father, a dubious achievement. This 1979 show featured the great Richard Rodgers’ last score (lyrics by Martin Charnin, additional lyrics by Raymond Jessel), and for that reason alone you should know it, even if it is not first-drawer Rodgers. There are several lovely ballads, especially “You Could Not Please Me More” and “Time.” It has become conventional wisdom that star Liv Ullman was the main problem due to her lack of singing ability (the only recording of the score, a studio affair done several years after it closed and Rodgers was dead, features Sally Ann Howes, not Ullman). However, that calumny is wrong. Ullman was terrific as Mama, incandescently maternal, and her quirky, less-than-polished singing suited the character perfectly. The problems were all in the writing.

Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude
An avant garde painter/filmmaker who makes his living through commercial art, Abraham Ebdus moved to Gowanus, Brooklyn, in 1975 at the behest of his counter-cultural wife, Rachel, who believes that their son, Dylan (named for Bob), will benefit from growing up in the mixed-race, lower-economic-class environment. “We can make this just like Berkeley,” she says. But before the opening number is done, Rachel takes off her wedding ring and decamps for Berkeley alone. The emotionally reserved Abraham responds by burrowing into his work (expressed in the stunning song “Painting”), and Dylan is pretty much left to fend for himself on the mean streets. Itamar Moses (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) adapted Jonathan Lethem’s 511-page novel about the unlikely friendship between two boys, one white and one black, and what time and American culture do to them in their journey to manhood for a 2014 production at the Public Theater. If some things were lost in the inevitable condensation, it was still an imaginative, intelligent, and affecting musical, notable particularly for Friedman’s first-rate score that used the pop sounds of its era in bracingly theatrical ways.

The Mysterious Man, Into the Woods
We don’t know the identity of the old man dashing about in the woods trying to help the Baker and the Baker’s Wife in their search for the magic ingredients that will lift a Witch’s curse and allow them to have a child. Well, at least until late in book writer James Lapine’s second act, when it is revealed that he is the Baker’s father, who abandoned his son after inadvertently initiating that curse through his own actions and losing his baby daughter to the Witch in punishment and his wife to death by heartbreak. In Stephen Sondheim’s cathartic “No More,” he convinces his grown son not to make the same mistake of abandoning his own infant son after having lost his wife, breaking the cycle of dysfunction. As such, he’s the only absent father on this list who attempts to ameliorate the damage he has caused.

Benjamin Barker, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
We hear a lot about Benjamin Barker in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Grand Guignol musical tale about a serial-killing barber in Victorian London, but we never get to meet him. That’s because by the time the musical starts, Barker has morphed into the title character, psychologically warped beyond recognition due to his unjust incarceration in a faraway prison by an evil judge who took advantage of his absence to rape his beautiful young wife, destroying her sanity, and acquire his infant daughter as a ward. I think we come closest to seeing the young, naïve, hopeful Barker during Sweeney’s Act 2 song “Johanna,” in which he sings sweetly and lovingly of his lost daughter as he blithely slits throat after throat in his barber’s chair.

Bruce Bechdel, Fun Home
It would first appear that this is the only character mentioned here who is not relegated to limited-to-no stage time. However, I would argue that Bruce is indeed absent throughout Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s masterful 2015 musical adaptation of Alison Bechel’s autobiographical graphic novel. That’s because the price of being a closeted gay man in a heterosexual marriage is to smother your authentic self. No one, including Bruce, knows who that man might have been had society—and Bruce—allowed him to live openly. His final song, “Edges of the World,” which he sings before deliberately stepping in front of an oncoming truck, is a wrenching acknowledgement, appropriately stated only through indirection and metaphor, of Bruce’s tragic loss of himself.

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Jun
02

And Now It’s Tonys Time

“And now it’s Tonys time,/Predict the Tonys time./It’s time to cogitate and analyze/Just who will win the prize.” And for the Skip Redwine tune for that, go to the OCR of producer Ben Bagley’s delicious 1965 off-Broadway songbook revue The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter and listen to the closing medley. I saw an excellent production of this terrific show in Chicago in the early 1970s while in school at Northwestern University. Alas, the OCR is not available digitally, but used CDs and LPs can be found at Amazon.com. Get the CD if you can; it has additional live-in-performance tracks. When is someone going to acquire the Bagley Painted Smiles catalogue and re-release it? The unavailability of these invaluable recordings, particularly the Revisited Series, which features the lesser-known tunes of classic Broadway songwriters interpreted by such diverse artists as Barbara Cook, Kaye Ballard, Roddy McDowall, Anthony Perkins, Jerry Orbach, Bobby Short, Dorothy Loudon, Elaine Stritch, Blossom Dearie, Katharine Hepburn and many more top talents, is a crime. But I digress.

It’s been an unusually busy season for original musicals, with 13 of them opening on the Great White Way. On the other hand, we’ve only had six revivals, one of which, the critically acclaimed Sunday in the Park With George, took itself out of the Tony competition due to its extremely limited run of only 10 weeks, necessitated by star Jake Gyllenhaal’s crowded film schedule (if the consistently sold-out show had had to invite Tony voters, it probably wouldn’t have been able to recoup its investment). The undoubted also-ran in the revival field is British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose new productions of Cats and Sunset Boulevard failed to garner a single nomination. Still, right now Lloyd Webber has a remarkable four hit musicals running on Broadway at once, so, as they used to say about Liberace, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

As only Broadway shows are eligible to win a Tony, I am not including off-Broadway in the “should have been nominated” choices. However, let me state up top that as far as I am concerned the two best musicals of the 2016-2017 season were John Kander and Greg Pierce’s Kid Victory, at the Vineyard Theatre, and David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ The Band’s Visit (which took the 2017 New York Drama Critics’ Circle prize for best musical and two Obie Awards, one for its authors and the other for its director, David Cromer, among other prizes), at the Atlantic Theater Company. Both shows have announced OCRs, and The Band’s Visit will transfer to Broadway, beginning previews on Oct. 7 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in advance of a Nov. 9 opening.

More often than not the Tony nominators (and voters) like to spread the wealth, but not this year. The shows nominated for best musical and best revival of a musical also dominate in the other categories, and I think we’re unlikely to see any winners from productions not in this elite circle. Let’s start with the acting awards.

Best Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos
Jenn Colella, Come From Away
Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Will Win: Jenn Colella
Should Win: Stephanie J. Block
Should Have Been Nominated: Beanie Feldstein, Hello, Dolly!

Colella has the advantage of sticking out in a crowd-pleasing ensemble show, but Block, in a much meatier role, demonstrated a depth and range that she hadn’t hitherto been asked to express. Feldstein’s delightful Minnie Fay seems especially newly minted. Mary Beth Peil could pull an upset here for her fine work as the Russian Dowager Empress, as she is well loved, the part is arresting, and the voters may think that Anastasia was unfairly snubbed overall.

Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos
Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

Will Win: Lucas Steele
Should Win: Andrew Rannells
Should Have Been Nominated: Bobby Conte Thornton, A Bronx Tale

I think this is between Steele and Creel, but the former has the flashier role. As for Rannells’ sexy, devastating Whizzer, see Stephanie J. Block. Thornton, a bright new talent who was exceptional in the Musicals in Mufti concert of Starting Here, Starting Now at the York Theatre Company last year, does an amazing (and often thankless) job of heavy lifting as the young narrator of A Bronx Tale.

Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Denée Benton, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Christine Ebersole, War Paint
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Will Win: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Should Win: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!
Should Have Been Nominated: Laura Osnes, Bandstand

If there ever was a lock, this is it. Osnes, alas, suffers from her ingénueness, even though she regularly transcends it.

Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day the Musical
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!
Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

Will Win: Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen
Should Win: Christian Borle, Falsettos
Should Have Been Nominated: Corey Cott, Bandstand

I think this is between Platt and Karl, but the former’s tour de force is ultimately more impressive than the latter’s, due to the material. Neither is playing a character as well written as Borle’s, however, whose impressively nuanced Marvin was the rock-solid anchor of Falsettos. Cott is providing the same thing for the underappreciated Bandstand, and his chemistry with Osnes is electric.

Best Orchestrations
Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand
Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!
Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Will Win: Alex Lacamoire

Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: Michael Starobin, Falsettos

This is between Lacamoire and Malloy, and I think it will be close. Malloy might get it because he isn’t going to win for best score and Lacamoire won last year for Hamilton. There was no orchestration award in 1993, but I would give it to Starobin for his iconic charts, newly tweaked, for this landmark show.

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theater
Come From Away, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Dear Evan Hansen, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Groundhog Day the Musical, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, music and lyrics by Dave Malloy

Will Win: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Should Win: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Should Have Been Nominated: Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, War Paint, and Richard Oberacker and Rob Taylor, Bandstand

The battle here is between Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, but I think Tony voters will take notice of the former’s OBCR debuting at number 8 on Billboard’s 200 chart, the highest debut for a Broadway show in 56 years. Oberacker and Taylor somehow manage to use big-band pastiche to successfully explore character, and they wrote a dynamite 11 o’clock number, “Welcome Home.” Whatever the dramaturgical flaws of War Paint, Frankel and Korie have given it a score of great craft and intelligence. The show’s final three numbers—“Pink,” “Forever Beautiful,” and “Beauty in the World”—constitute the best songwriting of the season.

Best Book of a Musical
Come From Away, Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Dear Evan Hansen, Steven Levenson
Groundhog Day the Musical, Danny Rubin
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy

Will Win: Steven Levenson
Should Win: No Award
Should Have Been Nominated: Nothing

Too many book problems this season, at least in my book. Levenson will get it for creating an original story and striking characters, and he did a lot of good (and hard) work, but I can’t get past the queasy moral copout of his unearned feel-good ending. I’d happily give the award to Itamar Moses or Greg Pierce, however, preferably in a tie.

Best Choreography
Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand
Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day the Musical
Kelly Devine, Come From Away
Denis Jones, Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical
Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Will Win: Kelly Devine
Should Win: Andy Blankenbuehler
Should Have Been Nominated: Spencer Liff, Falsettos

It hasn’t been a fertile year for choreography, which is why I think Devine will get it for creating a tapestry of successful movement for non-dancers. However, if musical staging is taking the award, then it really should be Liff’s vastly superior work for a vastly superior show. I’d go with Blankenbuehler, however, who created some highly original, consistently imaginative steps for Bandstand.

Best Direction of a Musical
Christopher Ashley, Come From Away
Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen
Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day the Musical
Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!

Will Win: Michael Grief

Should Have Been Nominated and Should Win: James Lapine, Falsettos

This is the award to watch for a clue to the big one, and it’s one of the hardest races to predict. If Grief doesn’t get it (meaning Ashley, Chavkin or Zaks will; I don’t think Warchus is in the hunt), and if Come From Away takes choreography while Dear Evan Hansen gets book and score, then look for the 1992 Falsettos/Crazy for You split, with the sunnier, more upbeat show taking the big prize. Lapine was nominated but lost for direction in 1993, so he’s eligible again, and he should have been nominated and should win for his amazing re-conception of this extraordinary show, plumbing it for even greater depth and richness this time around.

Best Revival of a Musical
Falsettos
Hello, Dolly!
Miss Saigon

Will Win: Hello, Dolly!
Should Win: Falsettos
Should Have Been Nominated: Nothing

I love both of the above revivals, but Hello, Dolly! is largely a re-creation of Gower Champion’s legendary direction and staging, while Lapine completely reinvented his own original direction of Falsettos, making what might have now seemed like a period piece into an incredibly fresh and deeply human show for the ages.

Best Musical
Come From Away
Dear Evan Hansen
Groundhog Day the Musical
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812

Will Win: Dear Evan Hansen
Should Win: Dear Evan Hansen
Should Have Been Nominated: Bandstand and War Paint

This is a tight race between the first two on the list, but I think Dear Evan Hansen has the momentum (and the fan base). This category should have been expanded to five shows due to all the possibilities, but even if it weren’t, I’d still prefer Bandstand and War Paint in it replacing two of the four nominees (I’ll leave it to you to guess which ones). Both of those shows are well worth your time and money despite their imperfections, and I hope you won’t let their relative lack of Tony love dissuade you from attending them.

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May
19

Beauteous Musical Books

Though it may be a cliché, it is nevertheless true that writing the book for a musical is a terribly misunderstood craft. Moreover, book writers cannot win. If the show is a success, its book is rarely mentioned as a reason why. If the show is flawed or completely fails, the blame is immediately put on the book writer. Many people think the book is just the dialogue, but there is much more to it. Dramatic structure, choices of what to musicalize, and the ability to set up a song properly all factor into the job.

The books I have chosen to discuss don’t constitute a 10-best list. Indeed, I have avoided some of the most obvious choices, shows such as Gypsy, 1776, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, and Oklahoma!, all of which are largely acclaimed examples of good book writing. Instead, I have chosen 10 shows that all have detractors but which I consider successful, sometimes in spite of flaws, in part because of the quality of their books.

She Loves Me
This 1963 succes d’estime was playwright Joe Masteroff’s first attempt to write the book for a musical, and he did an unusual thing: He wrote this adaptation of Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie (also the basis for the films The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime) as a complete play, then handed the script to songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They found the opportunities for singing to be so bounteous that the show ended up with far more music than usual. Nevertheless, Masteroff provided a strong dramatic spine, beautifully drawn characters, and generous story-driven momentum. This quiet, romantic show was overshadowed in its initial 301-performance engagement by bigger, noisier entertainments (Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl), but the years have proven its durability and appeal, thanks in part to two well-received Broadway revivals by Roundabout Theater Company in 1994 and 2016. It is, I think, and at long last, finally considered a classic musical.

My Fair Lady
You may think that this 1956 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe megahit is recognized as an example of a great book for a musical, and perhaps in one sense that’s true. However, I find that often its quality is ascribed to its source material, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, rather than to Lerner’s masterful adaptation of it. Indeed, in its last two major professional productions, on Broadway in 1993 and in the West End in 2001, English directors Howard Davies and Trevor Nunn were both allowed to put sections of Shaw’s text that Lerner had cut, including an entire character, Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s sister, Clara, back into the musical. Lerner removed Clara because the principal reason for her existence, a private tea party scene at the home of Higgins’ mother, had been transformed into a public journey to the horse races at Ascot in which Clara’s presence was dramatically superfluous. Putting her back elsewhere in the show, where she is little more than window dressing, just adds bloat. Lerner also did much more than just edit Shaw. His inspired decision to expand the play by musically dramatizing offstage events and his ability to write dialogue in expert Shavian style (Higgins’ speech about the beauty of the English language that provides the intro to “The Rain in Spain,” for example) were key to his book’s success. Here’s hoping director Bartlett Sher sticks with Lerner’s script for Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival.

Allegro
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1947 concept musical that follows a man’s life from his birth to his 35th year made money but was considered a failure because it fell short of the tremendous commercial success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel. Famously, its flawed second act, in which Dr. Joseph Taylor Jr. forsakes serving his rural hometown to work as a doctor for the wealthy in Chicago, seems to say that country life is good and city life is bad. Of course, it doesn’t actually say that; Hammerstein even goes out of the way to explicitly say the reverse in one dialogue exchange. Still, I’ve seen it leave that impression in the four full productions I’ve attended over the years. Only John Doyle’s 2014 condensed chamber version Off-Broadway managed to clearly convey Hammerstein’s message: That a good man can still lose track of himself. I don’t care, however. Hammerstein’s inventive use of a Greek chorus to both voice Joseph Jr.’s innermost thoughts and feelings and provide commentary gives the deliberately conventional story the kind of size it needs to soar emotionally, and when Joe finally wises up and heads home I never fail to be moved. Oh, the score ain’t bad either, but it’s really the wise and humane book that gets me on this one.

Anyone Can Whistle
The general wisdom on this 1964 piece of musical theatre of the absurd is that Arthur Laurents’ unwieldy, pretentious, hard-to-follow book gets in the way of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful score. Rubbish. Sondheim’s score wouldn’t even exist without Laurents’ vivid original characters and quirky story about an economically dying town and the false miracle devised to save it and its venal politicians. If Sondheim’s score is wonderful (and it is), then it is so in part because of the Laurentian creations it is dramatizing. I’ve particularly never understood the “hard-to-follow” accusations. I find it all quite clear, and if people are so confused, then why does Laurents so consistently land his abundant laughs? (I’ve seen at least six stagings and, trust me, he does.) It’s faults? It does tend to run its themes into the ground a bit before it ends; a two-act structure, not the three-act one it has, would probably have been a better idea. These days Sondheim belittles it as the smart kids in the class showing off. Personally, I think that’s part of its cheeky, subversive charm.

Annie
I saw this 1977 Thomas Meehan (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Martin Charnin (lyrics and direction) hit from standing room shortly after it opened, but I wasn’t persuaded, mostly because of my jejune disdain for musical comedy at the tender age of 23. However, in the summer of 1981 I went on tour with it to L.A. and D.C. for three months total, selling souvenirs, LPs etc. in the lobby. As a result, I got to see it many, many times (again, from standing room), and what I got was an education in good structure and proper pacing. In particular Meehan makes damn sure to have the right laugh at the right time to keep the audience consistently engaged. I still find the score rather uneven, though all the best numbers are in the right places, for which, again, Meehan is at least partially responsible. His book is a Swiss watch of comedy.

Sunday in the Park With George
Back in 1984, the naysayers for this Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical about the French painter Georges Seurat, and they were legion, whined that Act 1 was complete as a show and Act 2 was superfluous. You still hear the complaint, but not as much. It’s nonsense, of course. What the authors wanted to say about the difficulty and costs of creating art was at the heart of the second act, which is set 100 years later. The structure is theme and variations, and Lapine employs it to maximum effect. The connections among the characters in each act are meticulously planned and elegantly rendered. Is there a more cathartic moment in musical theatre than the second act climax, “Move On”? Yes, it’s a great song, but it has also been spectacularly prepared for by Lapine’s rock-solid construction.

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Terrence McNally learned a lesson in storytelling on this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel about Molina, an effeminate gay window dresser, sharing a jail cell with Valentin, a macho straight revolutionary, in an unnamed South American country. Originally, to escape into fantasy, Molina narrated to Valentin the story of one musical movie that starred his beloved Aurora, also known as the Spider Woman. The audience couldn’t keep that story in its head for the whole show while also following the Molina-Valentin plot, John Kander and Fred Ebb couldn’t successfully unify their twin scores (one for the movie and one for the characters), and the result was chaos. It took McNally realizing that Molina should instead narrate individual scenes from many movies, relieving the audience of the need to follow twin dramatic threads, to turn the show into a success. Happily for Kander and Ebb, they didn’t have to rewrite quite as much as he did. It’s been 24 years since Spider Woman debuted on Broadway in 1993. It’s time for a revival!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart based their ingenious book for this bawdy 1962 musical on the Roman comedies of Plautus, which means that it inevitably traffics in extremely low, sometimes even vulgar humor. Stephen Sondheim’s score doesn’t dramatize the heavily plotted shenanigans; instead, it serves as a respite, giving the show moments in which to breathe but never derailing the farcical momentum. It’s also written in a more refined, almost intellectual humorous style, but the tonal mismatch isn’t a problem; instead, one complements the other. Still, at the end of the day it’s the book that makes this show work like gangbusters. The score is ornamentation, though of a very high order.

Fun Home
Playwright-performer Lisa Kron made an extremely assured debut as a book writer with this 2015 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s popular autobiographical lesbian-coming-of-age graphic novel. Kron made an audacious choice to split the leading role in three: “Small Allison,” “Medium Allison,” and “Allison,” the last in the process of writing her book. She also told the story in nonlinear fashion, mixing up events from different time periods with stunning effect. These choices gave the material richness and depth and more fully explored the maturation of her central character. Yet Kron always kept the action clear and engaging. The story is ultimately heartbreaking, but the telling of it in Kron’s inspired construction proves purgative, not depressing, just as it was for Bechdel in real life. Composer Jeanine Tesori’s score, to Kron’s lyrics, is a vital component, but in this case I think what makes the show is the way the story is told.

Assassins
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think that John Weidman’s book for this musical about a very dark strain in the American psyche, seen by exploring the lives of the various people who assassinated (or tried to) a succession of American presidents, may be the best book ever written for a musical. Allowing the various assassins to interact with each other, the inspired metatheatricality of setting it in a cosmic shooting gallery, the compact but detailed character writing are all assets, as is using a musical revue structure rather than a more conventional plot-oriented one. Stephen Sondheim’s coruscating score works with Weidman’s book hand in glove, and the result is ferocious. The climactic scene of the assassins materializing in the Texas Book Depository to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with killing John F. Kennedy is so shattering that they recorded it for both the original 1990 off-Broadway cast recording and the 2004 Broadway revival one. How often does an entire book scene get that treatment?

Bonus: The Golden Apple
Well, I was going to stop at 10, but seeing the extraordinary Encores! presentation of this 1954 John Latouche–Jerome Moross masterpiece this past weekend changed my mind. Just because it is through-sung doesn’t mean it hasn’t got a book. Resetting the story of the Greek myths of The Iliad and The Odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Washington state, Latouche finds consistently amusing character parallels while also managing to put the story of Ulysses and Penelope’s troubled marriage front and center with affecting clarity. The Golden Apple is a unique show told exactly as its authors wanted without bowing to any established rules, and it is never going to be embraced by everyone (as the mixed reception from critics and on chat boards showed). Still, its glorious mixture of show biz, sentiment, psychological exploration, and cultural dialectics, all told in brilliantly rhymed lyrics set to Moross’ giddy and gorgeous Americana score, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, at least for some of us.

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May
05

Betty From Brooklyn

Betty Comden was my neighbor. She moved into the apartment building across the street from me on Manhattan’s Upper West Side not too many years after it was erected in 1986. I would see her out and about in the ’hood, and it was also not unusual to spot her writing partner, Adolph Green, walking down Broadway toward her building, Tower 67, from his home in the Beresford on Central Park West. Throughout their long career, they apparently always worked at Betty’s place.

They wrote the lyrics for their last Broadway score, 1991’s The Will Rogers Follies, music by Cy Coleman, in that apartment, and I remember imagining them working on it just a stone’s throw away. I hadn’t yet met Betty when she first moved in, but I did so eventually, and although I hardly knew her well, she was always pleasant and welcoming if we bumped into each other. Once we were on the same train to the Hamptons (she had a home out there) and my husband and I (we were visiting friends) almost gave her a lift in our cab when a friend was late in picking her up (she arrived at the last minute, darn it).

My husband knew her professionally from his job as, first, associate director and then, later, director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. One year, during NAMT’s annual festival of new musicals, he and I were walking with Betty from one concert reading to another when I told her how excited I was that the AMC TV channel was about to show the 1964 film What a Way to Go! uncut and in widescreen format (I had only seen it pan and scan and chopped up for commercials.) It’s a star-studded comic vehicle for Shirley MacLaine as a woman who becomes increasingly wealthy as husband after husband suddenly drops dead, and Adolph and she had written the screenplay, as well as the lyrics for two songs (music by Jule Styne) for a mini-musical sequence featuring Gene Kelly as one of the husbands. Nevertheless, she fixed me with a withering glance and asked, “Why? It’s terrible!” I hadn’t liked what I had seen, but I was hoping to have a different opinion of the unaltered product. As it turned out, she was pretty much on the money, but when it came out on DVD I bought it anyway: It was by Comden, Green, and Styne!

I confess I was late to the Comden and Green party. As a teen I enjoyed their work, but I was much more enamored of the “serious” book musical and its authors, people such as Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. Comden and Green were rooted in their comic-revue beginnings, even when writing book shows, and I thought that was a lesser form. Oh, I loved On the Town and liked Wonderful Town, but I chalked that up to Bernstein’s music. It took some getting over myself to realize my mistake.

Probably my first corrective was seeing A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green at the now long-gone Morosco Theatre in the winter of 1977, just months after arriving in NYC. It was the first Broadway revival of a show they premiered in 1958, which was inspired by the fact that though they had started on stage, they had become relegated to only performing at parties. I was enraptured by their ferocious energy, great style, and unpretentious intelligence. Their witty repartee about writing together drew this playwright-lyricist hopeful right in, and it was fascinating to hear them doing songs that I associated with other actors. Of course, I already knew their hilarious “I Get Carried Away” (from On the Town, which you can see on YouTube), but when Betty sang “If,” from the 1951 musical revue Two on the Aisle, or partnered with Adolph on the manic “Inspiration,” from 1947’s Bonanza Bound (which closed before reaching Broadway), it was clear how her performance style at times influenced her writing choices. She was also very adept with a ballad, whether it be “The Party’s Over,” from 1956’s Bells Are Ringing, or “Some Other Time,” from On the Town.

Betty’s simple, direct, clear way with a song is on most obvious display on an LP she recorded in 1963, Betty Comden Sings ‘Treasure Girl’ and ‘Chee Chee.’ Both shows were fast flops in 1928, but the former has songs by George and Ira Gershwin, while Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart scored the latter. Neither show generated any song hits, but, as I wrote in my suggested Christmas gifts column last year, “all 10 songs, five from each show, sound fresh as paint and feature melodic and inventive music married to witty lyrics filled with fun wordplay and ingenious rhymes (my favorite was Hart’s pairing of “appetite” with “wrap it tight” in “Better Be Good to Me”). Comden’s light soprano and conversational phrasing highlight their musical charm, and she mines every bit of gold from the lyrics, no doubt aided by being a wordsmith herself. Richard Lewine, a Broadway composer and successful producer of television musical specials, has arranged them splendidly for piano, bass, and guitar, and his deft musical direction and piano playing are pure pleasure.” Once again, I urge you not to miss this one.

My two favorite Comden and Green musicals are On the Town and 1978’s On the Twentieth Century, the latter featuring a wonderful operetta-spoof score by Cy Coleman. As far as songs go, I am particularly partial to some of their goofier comic pieces, usually written for supporting characters. Songs such as “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged,” from 1964’s Fade Out—Fade In, sung by Carol Burnett and Tiger Haynes doing spot-on impersonations of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at their most irritatingly upbeat. And then there’s “Salzburg,” from Bells Are Ringing, in which a geographically challenged con man played by Eddie Lawrence (“lovely Salzburg by the sea”) tries to bilk Jean Stapleton’s telephone answering service owner out of her nest egg (“With your life savings in a little blue sock/We will have enough to keep us out of hock”) while giddily promising “We’ll live in style/Gold by the pile/Goulash for two as we barge down the Nile!” Perhaps the best of them all is “I Was a Shoo-In,” from 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping. Phyllis Newman played a Southern beauty queen who spent the whole show clad only in a towel, a tactic to keep her hotel from evicting her. The song is her account of her beauty pageant successes, and not only is it a hilarious tour de force, it probably won Newman her Tony for best featured actress in a musical (beating out Barbra Streisand for her performance in I Can Get It for You Wholesale). The OBCR, alas, is out of print and not available digitally, but you can hear Newman sing it on YouTube. I saw Newman perform the number live several times over the years, the last being in 2007 at Betty’s memorial tribute at the Majestic Theatre. Though 74, she still hit it out of the park. I always hoped someday to see Betty do it; I’m sure she would have been equally sensational.

In December of 1998 Betty attended the Richard Rodgers Award–sponsored reading of my musical Summer, based on the novel of the same name by Edith Wharton. Though we had met by then, it was only cursorily, and I don’t think she would have remembered me. She wasn’t present on my account but rather because the show’s composer was Paul Schwartz, son of Broadway giant Arthur Schwartz, whose song catalogue with Howard Dietz formed the basis of Betty and Adolph’s 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. After the reading I was talking to friends in the crowded York Theatre lobby when a woman came up to me to offer her congratulations. I was completely floored when I turned to find Betty Comden standing there. She had specifically sought me out to tell me how much she had liked the show and to offer praise to a fellow book writer and lyricist. She could easily have left without doing that. It was a classy and generous gesture from a great lady and a moment that I will always treasure.

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Apr
21

Growing Up With Jerry

Though of course I already knew some of his hit songs, I first really became aware of Jerry Herman on the evening of Wed., April 10, 1968, when, three days after turning 14, I, along with my fellow suburban Cleveland high school thespians, saw Jane Morgan as Mame at the Winter Garden Theatre. It was the third Broadway show of my young life, but the first one that hit home. Tuesday night had been the APA Phoenix Repertory Theatre production of Ionesco’s Exit the King at the Lyceum Theatre, and Wednesday afternoon was Fiddler on the Roof, at the Majestic Theatre. Dinner in between shows was at the famed Hawaii Kai, right next door to Mame. To this day I regret that I accidentally left my Fiddler program under my restaurant chair. I still have all the others from that trip.

We had balcony seats for all three shows, but both Exit and Fiddler had us in nosebleed heaven at the very, very back, and I just wasn’t able to connect with either one (both of which have subsequently become favorites). For Mame, however, we were in the front of the already much shallower Winter Garden balcony, and it felt like the musical was right in my lap. I didn’t know the source material, so the story was a surprise. I identified strongly with young Patrick, and I had my own Auntie Mame in the person of my Auntie Dot, who had been a very successful Manhattan fashion model but was now married off to an advertising man and living in the cornfields of Bloomington, Ill., with four young kids. Let’s put it this way: When I climbed the Statue of Liberty at age 5 and immediately proposed doing it again, Dot was the only adult who was game to go (my parents and grandparents overruled her). I also saw her dive fully clothed into New York’s Lake Kitchawan from a rowboat after my father bet her five bucks that she wouldn’t.

I immediately bought the OBCR LP for Mame upon returning home and played it incessantly, learning every note and word by heart. And when the film of Hello, Dolly! came out the following year, I became a fan of that as well, acquired the soundtrack, and did the same thing. I gave many a bedroom performance of both albums, milking “If He Walked Into My Life” for every ounce of torchy sentiment and doing my best to hold the last note of “Before the Parade Passes By” just as insanely long as Barbra Streisand had. I saw Dolly! with my frequent movie-going companion, my mild-mannered maternal grandmother, Molly Marsh, a working-class flower of Yorkshire, England. I will never forget Molly’s rare disapproving rejoinder to my opinionated and veddy British striver of a mother when she criticized Streisand as too strident and not pretty enough for the silver screen (even though she hadn’t seen the film). “I don’t know why you would say that Gwen,” snapped Molly. “She is a very talented girl.” As Herman would later write, my heart leaped up. Go Grandmar!

I bought the Dear World cast recording at some point and loved it as well. I remember swimming laps in gym class while belting out the title song in my head. Somehow it helped. I also picked up his first Broadway show, Milk and Honey, but though I didn’t dislike it, I didn’t warm to it in the same way, possibly because the rather quiet story of middle-aged love didn’t resonate with teenaged me.

My Herman phase was soon cut short, however, with the arrival of the OBCR of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, in the spring of 1970. I already had a predilection for more-serious book musicals—think Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe—over musical comedies, and this was something brand new and astonishing. Sondheim quickly became God, and I started thinking of Herman as just an OK tunesmith (for years I was equally as hard on the work of his idol, Irving Berlin). The Mack & Mabel album came out when I was at college, in the fall of 1974, and though my friend John McGlinn and I pooh-poohed it to each other, it was a secret guilty pleasure that I played often in my dorm room. (I can still do a mean “Wherever He Ain’t.”)

The failure of that show apparently shook Herman’s confidence (even I was aghast when The Lieutenant, a quick flop of a rock musical about the My Lai massacre, got a Tony nod for best score while Herman was shut out in what was clearly a pointed snub), and he didn’t return to Broadway for five years. When he did, with The Grand Tour, I was finally a New Yorker and sixth row center at the Palace Theatre shortly after the opening thanks to the TKTS booth (which tells you how badly the show was selling). I’m afraid Herman, as he has since admitted in interviews, seemed less than inspired by the subject matter (S.N. Behrman’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel, about a scrappy Polish Jew fleeing the Nazis), and I concurred with the poor notices, but I will always recall Joel Grey soldiering on and playing the show as if he was in the biggest hit in the world. I skipped the following year’s A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, an English musical revue by Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus for which Herman supplied a few new numbers at the request of director Tommy Tune to punch up the score, because it didn’t sound like my thing and I couldn’t land a free ticket.

As an out and proud gay man, I was very excited to see 1983’s La Cage aux Folles, and my ex and I ponied up for house seats, attending almost as soon as it opened. While I saluted it as a political achievement and especially appreciated the songs “I Am What I Am” and “Look Over There,” I felt that both Harvey Fierstein’s book and Herman’s score could have been written with more depth and nuance, an opinion shared by my classmates in NYU’s graduate program for writing musical theatre. To a person we were outraged when La Cage beat Sunday in the Park With George for the major awards at the 1984 Tonys.

Arthur Laurents, who directed the show, was our teacher, and he arranged for our class to see it in the fall of 1984. When he asked our opinions, we tiptoed around our dissatisfaction with polite questions phrased, for example, as “Why did you choose to do such and such?” But Arthur soon caught on and was not happy; he didn’t entirely disagree, but he believed that he had made necessary concessions to get the audience applauding a gay couple happily strolling off romantically into the sunset together. Today I am inclined to see his point; experience will do that to a person.

I missed the 1985 Broadway musical revue Jerry’s Girls, because I had seen its more modest off-Broadway incarnation in 1981 at Ted Hook’s Onstage. Four talented but largely unknown ladies (Evalyn Baron, Leigh Martin, Alex Korey, Pauletta Pearson) were replaced by three Broadway stars (Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Dorothy Loudon), a chorus, and greater production values, but the material remained essentially the same, and my theatregoing funds were, as always, limited. Besides, it was just Jerry Herman songs that I already knew. (The cast recording, by the way, is of the show’s national tour, in which Carol Channing and Andrea McArdle replaced Rivera and Loudon.)

My Herman turnaround happened in 1995, with Carol Channing’s final Broadway appearance as Dolly Gallagher Levi. I had missed Channing in the show’s 1978 revival, which only played for four months, and so had never seen it on stage. My new husband of but a single year convinced me that I should attend, and I was stunned by the brilliance of the whole thing, especially Gower Champion’s direction and staging, re-created by Lee Roy Reams under Herman’s supervision. And though at 74 Channing was too old for the role and her powers were past their peak, the outlines of the performance were still strong enough to understand what it once was. I had criminally undervalued this thing called musical comedy.

1996 brought the TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus, and if the score was perhaps minor Herman, I still found it and the show, especially Angela Lansbury in the title role, delightful. Alas, except for the studio recording of tunes intended for Miss Spectacular, a planned Las Vegas show that never happened, this was Herman’s swan song, highly frustrating for me, who was at last seeing the error of his ways. In particular, in reevaluating Herman’s oeuvre, I realized what a fine lyricist he had always been. The song ideas tended to be simpler ones, but the words were invariably well chosen for character, beautifully situated on the music, and smartly rhymed, whether sparingly or inventively. Herman was writing a different kind of musical than Sondheim was, that’s all.

Now back to La Cage. Because of the subject matter, it has always been Herman’s most important show to me, despite my cavils with the writing. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the 2003 Tony-winning revival directed by Jerry Zaks, though I still thought there were seams showing. I even went back when Robert Goulet replaced the excellent Daniel Davis as Georges, because somehow I had never seen Goulet on stage, and I found him remarkably effective and the epitome of charm. I was sorry that there was no OBCR, which would have captured the new counterpoint Herman wrote for Georges to sing during “Anne on My Arm,” which for me considerably enhanced the song.

The 2010 revival, imported from London, also won the Tony, but I didn’t care for Douglas Hodge’s highly lauded, super-aggressive British music hall take on Albin. However, when Harvey Fierstein replaced him in the role, I finally had the experience I always wanted to have with La Cage. Somehow Fierstein connected the dots in a way I’d never seen before, and all the substance I thought was missing in the writing was suddenly present. And since he could play it, it must have always been there, right? In any event, I was moved to copious tears by the end, and there I was, just 14 years old again, completely captivated by the theatrical magic of Jerry Herman.

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Apr
07

(Dis)Covering Coward

Kevin Kline opened Wednesday night on Broadway in a revival of Noël Coward’s comedy Present Laughter, so we are saluting either or both of those gentlemen this week here at BwayTunes. I have had the good fortune to see most of Kline’s stage performances, and though I will always treasure his work in his breakthrough role of Bruce Granit in On the Twentieth Century and as the Pirate King in the Public Theatre’s Central Park production of The Pirates of Penzance, one that stands out in my mind is his Captain Bluntschli in a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, produced on Broadway in 1985 by Circle in the Square. Starring opposite Glenne Headley and Raul Julia and directed by John Malkovich, Kline was electric as he showed off his formidable chops for light and physical comedy, which augurs well for what appears to be his first crack at Coward.

The idea of Kline doing Coward led me to my organizing conceit for this column. The Master made many, many recordings of his theatre songs and appeared in his share of the shows on stage, but there are also scads of performers who have interpreted his work. Quite frankly, when I want a Coward fix, I tend to go to the source, especially the two indispensable 1950s recordings of his nightclub act: Noël Coward at Las Vegas (recorded live in performance) and Noël Coward in New York (done in a studio). But rather than discuss the familiar, I’m going to consider recordings of Coward songs made by others.

I became a Coward fan at a tender age (as Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “When I was young and simple/I don’t recall the date”) when I watched the film of Blithe Spirit on TV with my mother (Gwen was a massive devotee of its star, Rex Harrison). Somehow my subsequent obsession with the serious, dramatically integrated American book musical as defined by the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II never affected my affection for him, even though Coward never really liked or, I think, understood that form. His lack of comfort with it was likely the reason why he never had a hit book show on Broadway (with the possible exception of his pre-R&H operetta Bitter Sweet, which opened late in 1929 and ran for about five months).

Coward’s songwriting influences remained operetta, revues, and the British music hall for his whole career, even when writing shows with a story. That’s why, for me, the standouts in his score for his last Broadway musical, 1963’s The Girl Who Came to Supper (based on Terrence Rattigan’s comedy The Sleeping Prince, which also became the film The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe) are two performance numbers, one plopped in each act with very little regard for the narrative.

In Act 1 British music hall star Tessie O’Shea stopped the show cold with a medley of four songs: “London Is a Little Bit of All Right,” “What Ho, Mrs. Brisket,” “Don’t Take Our Charlie for the Army,” and “Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown.” She was such a sensation that it brought her the Tony for best featured actress in a musical and was shown in its 11-minute entirety on The Ed Sullivan Show, which you can see on YouTube. By the way, a fifth song, “What’s the Matter With a Nice Beef Stew?,” was cut from the medley prior to Broadway, but you can still hear the chorus sing snippets of it as the number builds to its finale.

In Act 2 Florence Henderson, as an American chorus girl who falls in love with the middle-aged prince of the fictional middle-European country of Carpathia, had a tour de force when she got to recapitulate the plot of her show, The Coconut Girl, for the prince’s teenage son. She rattles through six songs while detailing Girl’s inane story; my favorite moment is when she enthusiastically sings her chorus part for “Lilies of the Valley” as a solo.

The rest of the score is pleasant enough, but for me the only song to hold a candle to these two sequences is the prince’s “I’ll Remember Her,” which closed the show. José Ferrer imbues it with the proper amount of rue and regret, and it’s proof that Coward could dramatize character in song quite effectively when he wanted to.

There aren’t, of course, a lot of full original cast recordings of Coward shows available to us, as most of his career predated the practice of making them. Nevertheless, many performances were documented in individual recordings of songs, and some choice ones include Beatrice Lillie’s rendition of “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” which she introduced in the 1938 musical revue Set to Music and can be found on A Marvelous Party With Beatrice Lillie, and Gertrude Lawrence’s “Someday I’ll Find You,” from the 1930 comedy Private Lives, which you can hear her sing on the collection Noël and Gertie in context opposite Coward in a recording done for radio of a scene from Act 1.

Coward’s 1946 musical, Pacific 1860, was written as a vehicle for Mary Martin, who starred as a 19th century opera diva in love with a British plantation owner’s son on the fictional Pacific island of Sambolo. Martin, hopelessly miscast, was very unhappy in the role, which shows on her various cuts. However, Sylvia Cecil, star of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, famous for its stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan works, sounds great in the score’s best tune, “This Is a Changing World.” Cecil reappeared in the 1950 Coward book musical Ace of Clubs, whose truncated OLCR is paired with Pacific’s on CD, but my favorite number from that is Pat Kirkwood’s delicious rendition of “Chase Me Charlie,” a song she reprised years later in the Chichester Festival’s 1994 musical revue Noël & Cole: Let’s Do It.

And then there’s Graham Payn. A famous boy soprano from South Africa, he had bit roles in Coward’s 1932 musical revue Words and Music. Years later, pursuing a career as an adult on the British musical stage, he and Coward reconnected and shortly the Master cast him in the 1945 musical revue Sigh No More, where Payn memorably introduced the ballad “Matelot,” about the singer’s love for a wandering, unfaithful sailor. Daringly, the sex of the faithful lover is never specified, though audiences of the time undoubtedly assumed the song to be about a heterosexual romance. Recorded as a 78 single, it’s not available digitally, but you can hear it on YouTube.

Payn and Coward became lovers and lifetime companions, and the Master wrote him several roles before Payn decided to retire and devote himself full time to supporting the man he loved. My favorite Payn performances, after “Matelot,” are his renditions of “Sail Away” and “I Like America,” both from Ace of Clubs, and the hilarious “Uncle Harry,” added to Pacific 1860 after it opened to rectify the critics’ complaints of a lack of laughs in the show.

The final two original cast Coward performances I’d like to salute are by Tammy Grimes and Elaine Stritch. Grimes starred in High Spirits, the 1964 musical version of my gateway Coward drug, which tells the tale of a kooky medium who inadvertently materializes the ghost of a waspish writer’s first wife. The book, music, and lyrics were by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, with Coward directing. But Grimes’ big comic set piece, “Home Sweet Heaven,” in which her character discusses all the people she socializes with in the afterlife, wasn’t landing the way it should. Coward wrote a new lyric for it, turning it into a showstopper, but he didn’t take credit. A rare instance of a song collaboration by the Master, it isn’t available digitally. The out-of-print CD goes for an inordinate amount online, but you can hear Grimes sing it, taken from a rare 45 r.p.m. single, on YouTube.

Stritch was elevated to the pantheon of musical comedy greats by her role as a lonely cruise ship hospitality director who falls in love with a younger man in 1961’s Sail Away (yes, Coward appropriated and slightly rewrote his song from Ace of Clubs to serve as the show’s title song). The musical’s rather ungenerous portrait of the American tourist may be why it only ran 167 performances on Broadway, but the OBCR and the OLCR (Stritch crossed the pond to play the show in the West End after Broadway) are lots of fun. Alas, both are unavailable digitally and out of print on CD. However, you can hear Stritch sing her fabulous 11 o’clock number, “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?,” on the OBCR of her autobiographical one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

Moving on from original cast performances, I’ll close with some of the legions of covers of Coward songs, starting with American vaudevillian Harry Noble, whom I’ve only recently discovered. His 1954 LP, World Weary: The Songs of Noël Coward, was apparently the first attempt by any artist besides the Master himself to record an all-Coward disc. He’s equally at home with satire and sentiment in these direct and well-judged renditions. I particularly like his understated version of “Imagine the Duchess’s Feelings.”

Saloon singer Bobby Short’s 1972 double LP set Bobby Short Is Mad About Noël Coward was as instrumental in acquainting me with Coward’s oeuvre as the two nightclub-act recordings mentioned above, and the incomparable Short ranges from delightfully insouciant to exuberantly wicked to achingly wry while playing a mean piano. His ability to knowingly articulate sophisticated lyrics is a joy.

When Christine Ebersole starred in a 2009 Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit as the titular ghost, she recorded some Coward songs to be played in the theatre as the audience was arriving. This led to a CD, Christine Ebersole Sings Noël Coward, on which her silvery soprano is beautifully employed in a ballad-heavy repertoire that includes a couple of lesser-known songs, “When My Ship Comes Home” and “The Dream Is Over.”

And speaking of rarities, Steve Ross’ 2012 CD Noël Coward Off the Record features nothing but and is a must-have recording for the Coward connoisseur. It grew out of a concert I saw him give at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium, and his illuminating commentary is also included. I’m partial to “We’ve Got the Country at the Corner of the Street,” intended for working-class Londoners to sing about their blitzed city at the end of World War II. It was meant for the unproduced musical Hoi Polloi, written in 1949, which got a very enjoyable belated debut earlier this season off-Broadway thanks to Musicals Tonight! The song worked very well in context, by the way.

For a change of pace try Carmen McRae’s 1958 LP Mad About the Man: Carmen McRae Sings Noël Coward. This is another recent discovery for me, and it’s revealing to hear the singer’s forthrightly American, often jazzy take on such English material. Some of Jack Fleis’ pop arrangements are a bit startling, but they prove that the songs can support a wide range of interpretation. McRae’s ebullient “A Room With a View” is one for the ages. I have a hunch that I’ll be listening to this CD repeatedly in the future.

The most surprising McRae cut is her upbeat, swingy take on “If Love Were All,” working against its inherent introspection with unexpected success. I consider this song to be the quintessential Coward tune, thanks in part to the lines “I believe that since my life began/The most I’ve had is just/A talent to amuse,” and my favorite version of it is Julie Andrews’ performance at Alan Jay Lerner’s 1986 memorial at the Shubert Theatre (I have a live tape). It was Lerner’s favorite song. Andrews can be heard doing a lovely, straightforward rendition on her 1961 LP Broadway’s Fair Julie, though the arrangement is a bit syrupy. Jazz great Helen Merrill gets sad and sultry on Merrill at Midnight, while Shirley Bassey is bold and biting on Love Songs. Judy Garland imbues it with charged vulnerability on her classic Judy at Carnegie Hall, and Barbara Cook’s understated performance on It’s Better With a Band is simple and stunning. But for the absolutely definitive take, you must go to the original: French cabaret star Ivy St. Helier, for whom it was written. You can hear her on Noël Coward: The Great Shows, which offers many early original cast performances of Coward songs. The best, however, is to watch her do it on YouTube in the 1933 British film version of Bitter Sweet. Perfectly capturing what New York Times critic Ben Brantley recently called “the quintessential French equation…sentimentality plus cynicism,” it’s pure Gallic magic.

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