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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.

Jun
08

Not Just Another Tony Year

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

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

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

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

And now, without further ado…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Katrina Lenk
Should Win: Lauren Ambrose

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: David Yazbek
Should Win: David Yazbek

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

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

Will Win: Jamshied Sharifi
Should Win: Jamshied Sharifi

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

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

Will Win: Tina Fey
Should Win: Itamar Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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May
25

Some Compleat Complete Recordings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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May
11

He’s a Waldorf Salad!

The songs of Irving Berlin have never not been a part of my consciousness, probably dating back to in utero, as my mother had a penchant for bursting into popular song, whether at home or out in public, at the slightest provocation. However, when I was born on April 7, 1954, Berlin was only a dozen years away from the end of his 59-year songwriting career (56 of them spent on Broadway). His last original full-length score for a Broadway musical, Mr. President, opened in 1962, the same year in which I saw the national tour of Camelot and at age 8 decided upon a career in musical theatre. His last new songs for Broadway were “Who Needs the Birds and Bees?” and “Old-Fashioned Wedding,” written for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun, though only “Wedding” made it to New York City, with “Birds and Bees” getting cut during the show’s out-of-town tryout in Toronto. Though I was 12 by then and starting to follow the Broadway season, I somehow wasn’t aware of that revival when it was happening (nor did I see its now-lost TV broadcast), though its original cast recording quickly became a favorite of mine. To this day I vividly remember the frisson of excitement it gave me to listen to a first-rate new Berlin tune. All of this is by way of saying that I spent my youth longing for a new Irving Berlin musical, but though he lived to the age of 101, dying in 1989, I never got one. I was born too late.

In 1924 composer Jerome Kern was asked by a reporter what Irving Berlin’s place was in American music, and his reply is always the first thing that comes to my mind about the songwriter: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” Musically completely untutored (Victor Herbert advised him against learning music theory on the grounds that it might “cramp your style”), Berlin was fond of saying that there are only six tunes in the world, and yet he wrote over 1,500 songs in the course of his lifetime and certainly seemed to have more standards in his oeuvre than anyone else. And it’s as a songwriter that he resonates with me, not a dramatist. He never cottoned to the integrated book musical, preferring the plotless revues or ramshackle musical comedies of the teens, twenties, and thirties and resenting narratives that “got in the way” of his songs. Indeed, he initially turned down Annie Get Your Gun, ultimately his greatest theatrical success, because its plot was primary. Nevertheless, even the great Berlin couldn’t stand in the way of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, and his subsequent Broadway shows—Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam, and Mr. President—all attempted, with varying degrees of success, to be story- and character-driven.

Ironically, it was problems creating a workable story and characters that ultimately scuttled what was conceived of by Berlin as his great swan song, an MGM movie musical called Say It With Music. Titled for a hit tune from Berlin’s Music Box Revue of 1921, it was intended to be the mother of all songbook catalogue musicals, a genre Berlin was adept at, having already had Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and White Christmas, all of which are named for Berlin standards and had scores that mixed his older tunes with a few new ones. In 1963 Berlin sold legendary MGM producer Arthur Freed on the property via a clutch of new songs he had written and walked away with a deal for $1 million. However, then someone had to cobble together a suitable script around the songs, and a number of high-profile scribes—Arthur Laurents, Leonard Gershe, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, George Wells, and, finally, Blake Edwards—were stumped by the task. (I recently had the chance to read Comden and Green’s version, which interweaves three love stories taking place in different years—1913, 1925, and 1966—“carrying out the thesis that no matter how the times change, human relationships and the need for love remain the same.” Alas, it’s not their finest hour.) Along the way such stars as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Sophia Loren, Ann Margaret, Brigitte Bardot, and Fred Astaire were attached to the project at various times. The film was at last slated to start filming in September 1969, produced by Freed, written and directed by Edwards, and starring Andrews, but rapidly changing popular tastes coupled with the financial collapse of MGM ended those plans. So much for my new Berlin musical. The lyrics for 12 new songs can be found in Robert Kimball’s The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin, but to my knowledge no one has ever recorded them. I sure wish somebody would.

Here is a list of the Irving Berlin tunes that mean the most to me and why.

“White Christmas,” from the film Holiday Inn
I don’t remember a Christmas without this Berlin classic, and watching White Christmas, the 1954 color remake of the 1942 black-and-white Holiday Inn, on TV was an annual family ritual. Whenever I hear it, I think of the brightly colored bubble lights on our tree.

“Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from Yip Yip Yaphank
My father would belt this tune to raise his two errant sons from their slumbers. “Ya gotta get up” on the notes of reveille comes as natural to me as breathing. Here’s Berlin himself singing it in the film version of This Is the Army.

“Easter Parade,” from As Thousands Cheer
My mother’s family lived in Manhattan, and we always visited from Ohio for Thanksgiving and Easter. Watching the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue was another ritual, and of course we always sang along. To this day it seems wrong to me when Judy Garland sings the sex-reversed lyric to Fred Astaire in Easter Parade. Bing Crosby sings the original in Holiday Inn.

“The Old Man,” “What Can You Do With a General?,” and “Gee! I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” from White Christmas
My dad was a lieutenant in England’s Royal Navy during World War II, and though he was very self-effacing about his service, he loved these three military-themed numbers, though we substituted “navy” for “army” when singing the last one. To this day I think of him when I hear them and mist up.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a pop song
I remember my mother singing this to me when I was very small, often when it was time to get a move on and go somewhere. I think it was the first piece of ragtime music I knew, and I adored it. Here’s the Mighty Merman joyfully blasting as only Ethel can.

“Heat Wave,” from As Thousands Cheer
Another of my mom’s favorites, as she hated the heat, which could get fierce in an Ohio summer. I also remember being entranced by “she certainly can can-can,” one of the first pieces of lyric wordplay that I noticed. And here’s the lady who introduced it, the great Ethel Waters.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business,” from Annie Get Your Gun
One more song I don’t ever remember not knowing, it was chosen as the theme song of our Stagecrafters group in high school, the lyric prominently displayed full-time on our bulletin board in the hallway. I sang it for years before I knew what “turkey” really meant.

“Supper Time,” from As Thousands Cheer
I think I first heard this on the radio as a boy, though I don’t remember who sang it. I was struck by the starkness of its content. Later, when I started to pay attention to such things, I was surprised that it came from Berlin’s pen. It’s another Ethel Waters number.

“The Secret Service,” from Mr. President
By the time I became a serious musical theatre person this LP was long out of print. However, I eventually tracked down a copy, excited to finally hear a full Berlin score I didn’t know. Alas, I was largely disappointed, except for this comedy song in which Anita Gillette’s frisky first daughter complains about her Secret Service protection screwing up her love life. I clung to it as proof that Berlin hadn’t lost his touch. (I also rather liked Nanette Fabray’s manic “They Love Me,” but that was about it.)

“Better Luck Next Time,” from Easter Parade
When I was in college MGM records released a Silver Screen Soundtrack Series of “double features,” pairing the soundtracks of two MGM film musicals on one LP. I bought the Easter Parade one primarily for its partner, Cole Porter’s The Pirate, a film and score I did not know at all at the time. But though I had seen the Berlin picture, I hadn’t much noticed this gorgeous ballad that Garland delivers to Mike the bartender with muted melancholy. I played it over and over.

“Always,” cut from The Cocoanuts
I have to confess that I’m on George S. Kaufman’s side on this one; he removed “Always” from this 1925 Marx Brothers musical because he hated sentimentality. He told Berlin that if he would change the title to “Thursday,” he would believe it, and the song could stay. I thought that was very funny (and true), and then I discovered lyricist Howard Dietz’s parody, written in the style of Lorenz Hart: “I’ll be loving you/Always/With a love that’s true/Always/With a love as grand/As Paul Whiteman’s band/And ’twill weigh as much as Paul weighs/Always/In saloons and drab/Hallways/You’re the one I’ll grab/Always/See how I dispense/Rhymes that are immense/But do they make sense?/Not always.” Who wouldn’t love that? For Berlin’s original, try Kelli O’Hara’s take on her CD Always (though if you want to have some fun, plug in “Thursday” in your head).

“Let’s Go West Again,” cut from Annie Get Your Gun
Again during college an LP came out, this one from a scrappy homemade company dubbed Sound/Stage Recordings and labeled “a limited edition for the Judy Garland fan club.” That’s because it contained the unreleased soundtrack for Garland’s version of Annie Get Your Gun, a film she was fired from during shooting. It included this wistful ballad, which I later learned was written for but never used in the stage show (the notes for the album claimed that it had been composed expressly for Garland). It was exciting hearing a “new” Berlin tune, and I’ve always been partial to it. Garland’s replacement, Betty Hutton, also recorded and shot the number, but it was cut from the film before release. She did it well enough (check it out on YouTube), but Garland’s is the gold standard.

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Apr
27

Favorites by Decade – The 1990s

When I heard about BwayTunes editor Andy Propst’s idea for a recurring feature naming my five favorite musicals of a given decade, starting with the 1990s, I blanched a bit. I wondered if would even be able to name five. As it turned out, I wound up with 10, five from Broadway and five from off-Broadway. So I’m thinking of it as two sets of five in different categories, and they are listed alphabetically, the categories alternating with each title.

Though there is humor in all of them, sometimes a great deal, it’s no surprise that only one of them is an out-and-out musical comedy. After all, I have a predilection for serious, story- and character-driven musicals. I also know that some well-liked, important titles—from Rent to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with a lot in between——didn’t make the cut, but what can I say? They just didn’t float my boat the way these 10 shows did.

Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk
I was electrified by George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover’s 1996 sui generis, sort of musical revue that looked at elements of American history through the lens of the black experience while using tap dance in new, more emotionally expressive ways. Glover, of course, is a force of nature, and the other young male dancers joining him met his high bar. Ann Duquesnay—who, along with Daryl Waters and Zane Mark wrote the music, to lyrics by poet Reg. E. Gaines—was a radiant embodiment of womanhood amidst all that testosterone. Gaines also contributed some poems (delivered authoritatively by Jeffrey Wright) and is credited with the book, but the musical began rehearsals essentially without a script and was an extremely collaborative affair. Upon the occasion of the show’s transfer from the Public Theater to Broadway, Wolfe told The New York Times: “The piece is about all migrations. It’s about physical, cultural, emotional migrations. It’s about that American phenomenon of figuring out who you are in a new place.” Jeremy Gerard in Variety summed it up this way: “For all its seriousness of intent, ‘Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk’ is a joyful, energizing evening, a pure pleasure.” I couldn’t agree more.

Assassins
I saw this Stephen Sondheim–John Weidman revue-like musical about presidential assassins, successful and un, during the first week of its 1990-91 off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons by arriving very early on a cold December evening and being first on the waiting list for cancellations. The whole run was sold out to the theatre’s subscribers even before the first preview. When, in its opening moment, William Parry’s shooting gallery proprietor sang to Terrence Mann’s unhappy Leon Czolgosz, “Hey, pal, feelin’ blue?/C’mere and kill a president,” I barked out the only laugh in the house. This gimlet-eyed exploration of the dark underbelly of the American dream, told with a mix of caustic black humor and searing emotional pain, was just my cup of tea. The production failed to transfer to Broadway, either due to mixed reviews or the effect of opening during the Persian Gulf War or both, but the show still went on to become a classic, thanks in part to director Joe Mantello’s stunning Tony-winning 2004 Broadway revival. Back in 1990, I went out for dinner afterward with cast member Eddie Korbich, with whom I had previously worked on a show of my own (and who would win an Obie for his performance in my John Latouche musical revue, Taking a Chance on Love, 10 years later). Considering the dicey subject matter, he was anxious to know what I thought. He told me about how Sondheim had brought “Flag Song” in to rehearsal, an alternative opening number that stressed the creators’ patriotic motives in writing the show. After hearing it, Sondheim, Weidman, and director Jerry Zaks all agreed that it was too defensive and apologetic, and nixed it. I said to Eddie, “You have nothing to apologize for. It’s a great show!”

Falsettos
This 1992 Broadway fusing of two off-Broadway one-act musicals, 1981’s March of the Falsettos and 1990’s Falsettoland, was actually inspired by a wonderful regional theatre production that first paired the two at Hartford Stage in 1991, directed by Graciela Daniele. Original director and book co-author, James Lapine, had intended to stage them together in 1990 but decided against it after watching them in rehearsal. Thanks to a Frank Rich rave for the Hartford production in The New York Times, Lapine and songwriter William Finn returned to work, along with most of their original cast, rewriting, sharpening, and tightening the whole thing into a seamless piece, with Daniele’s inventive work providing a blueprint. The story of gay and Jewish New Yorker Marvin, who has an ex-wife, a male lover, and a young son and wants them all to be “a tight-knit family,” resonated with me like virtually no other musical I knew, probably because I was a gay New Yorker and had never seen someone like me in a musical. Lapine’s extraordinary 2016 Broadway revival of the show proved it to be a timeless work, and it was both eye opening and moving to see a new generation of young people understanding for the first time how harrowing it was at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in NYC. Alas, the 1992 production went unrecorded, because both one-acts had released OCRs, which meant that the rewrites went undocumented until the 2016 production issued an OBCR (and was shown on PBS as well). You really need both in your collection.

First Lady Suite
Back in December of 1991, Playwrights Horizons produced Four Short Operas: Break, Agnes, Eulogy for Mister Hamm, and Lucky Nurse, and I heard via the grapevine that it was absolutely not to be missed. Alas, it was a quick run, a mere 14 performances, and I didn’t get there. There was no recording, so I had no way of assessing whether the grapevine had been right. Therefore, in 1993, when the same director, Kirsten Sanderson, and writer, Michael John LaChiusa, were announced as the creative team behind First Lady Suite at the Public Theater, I made sure to be there. This elegant fantasia about the lives and concerns of Jacqueline Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, and Eleanor Roosevelt was my first encounter with LaChiusa’s wonderfully original and expressive voice, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The top-notch cast included Maureen Moore as Jackie; Carolann Page as Eleanor; Carol Woods as Eleanor’s girl crush, reporter Lorena Hickock; and the great Alice Playten as Mamie. I can still vividly recall Playten bouncing around as a tipsy Mamie in her White House bed while singing “Where’s Mamie?,” about her relationship with the press. It was a great comic performance, for which she won an Obie. Alas, there was no OCR, despite pretty good reviews. Fortunately, PS Classics recorded the Blank Theatre Company’s production in L.A. in 2002, for which LaChiusa contributed a new prelude.

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Not that director Harold Prince hasn’t done some good work on Broadway since this 1993 musical version of Manuel Puig’s popular novel (I was especially fond of 2007’s Lovemusik, about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya), but I tend to think of this Terrence McNally (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) musical as the last of Prince’s innovative, landmark works in a line that starts with Cabaret and continues through his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim. Its conceptual daring, dark subject matter (homophobia, torture, fascism), and blazing metatheaticality combined to potent effect for me. Its success (904 performances and seven Tony Awards, including best musical, book, score, actor, and actress) must have been that much sweeter due to its ignominious beginnings in a workshop production in Purchase, NY, by a company called New Musicals, where it was hopelessly muddled and ineffective. By ditching the idea of parallel narratives (the main story of a macho straight revolutionary and a feminine gay window dresser sharing a prison cell and the story of a favorite movie musical that the gay guy is narrating to his cellmate) in favor of excerpts from several films and casting Chita Rivera as Aurora, the movie star of all of them, clarity was achieved. Prince lost the Tony for direction to Des McAnuff for The Who’s Tommy. I seem to remember throwing things. Why doesn’t someone revive this beautiful show?! Roundabout? Lincoln Center? It’s time.

Hello Again
On Dec. 30, 1993, a mere four days after First Lady Suite closed, Michael John LaChiusa went into previews at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre with this musical adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, which chronicles a series of interlocking sexual encounters. The powerhouse cast included Judith Blazer, Carolee Carmello, John Dossett, Malcolm Gets, John Cameron Mitchell, Donna Murphy, Michael Park, and Michele Pawk, and the twist was that each coupling took place in a different decade. LaChiusa made excellent use of pastiche music to set specific eras without diluting his own voice, and the result was riveting, especially in director-choreographer Graciela Daniele’s haunting staging. Recently, a film version was released, with LaChiusa writing a new sequence for Audra McDonald in the role of the Actress, transformed on screen into a pop diva of song. Director Tom Gustafson and screenwriter Cory Krueckeberg worked hard to find cinematic equivalents for the original’s juicy theatricality, and the soundtrack, just released by Broadway Records, includes fine performances by the likes of McDonald, Cheyenne Jackson, Martha Plimpton, and T.R. Knight, but the screen is not this show’s natural habitat. The movie is definitely worth seeing, but make sure you check out the 1993 OCR to get the full measure of this musical. I think it will be clear why the one-two punch of it and First Lady Suite put LaChiusa squarely on the map to stay a quarter of a century ago. The uncompromising career that has followed has given us many riches and is one that I find particularly admirable.

Passion
Many couples have their song, or their dance, or their café. For my husband, Joe, and I, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion is our show. When we attended the first preview on Thursday, March 24, 1994, we had only been dating for about two months. The morning of that day Joe had been in southern Ohio, where his mother was having heart surgery. When she awakened afterward and saw him in her hospital room, her immediate response was “What are you doing here? You have tickets to see the new Sondheim show tonight!” She sent him scurrying to the airport, and he came straight from there to the theatre, arriving in the nick of time. Perhaps this predisposed us to like Passion, but we both did and still do, though we recognized that the story of a plain, hysteric spinster virtually stalking a handsome soldier in search of love wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I went back at least once during previews, and it was very interesting to see the work Lapine and Sondheim had done, all in the service of stopping inappropriate laughter at various points. They succeeded, and the show won the Tony for best musical that season, beating out Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I heard a lot of griping in the theatre community by people who didn’t like Passion, but when it was a choice between Disney and Sondheim, they went with art over commerce. Though the OBCR, and especially Donna Murphy’s Fosca, are indispensable, you should also check out the London cast recording, which includes Giorgio’s impassioned outburst “No One Has Ever Loved Me.” Lapine cut it on Broadway, because he didn’t believe that Giorgio would say such things to the regimental doctor. I don’t agree, and I also think that Michael Ball does a splendid job with it. However, John Doyle’s anemic 2013 revival for Classic Stage Company, which I reviewed for Backstage, did the show no favors. So, you see, it is possible for me not to like Passion.

Jolson & Co.
The hubby and I also have a connection with this 1999 musical biography of Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson). He was its casting director, and I delivered its script to actor Nancy Anderson backstage at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn., the night before her audition. She booked the role(s) of all the women in Jolson’s life, including Ruby Keeler and Mae West, and her chameleonic virtuosity put her on the map in NYC in her off-Broadway debut. Stephen Mo Hanan, who played Jolson, and Jay Berkow, who directed, co-wrote the taught script that takes as its central device a 1946 radio interview that Jolson gave to Barry Gray. The score is made up of songs that Jolson sang in his long career, but they are often used in ingenious dramatic ways, especially a tour de force rendition of “Mammy” at the end of Act 1. Jolson has just been left by Keeler, his third wife, and he sits in his dressing room, hurting and humiliated, applying black face makeup. A link is made to the loss of his mother when he was only 8 years old when he looks in the mirror and asks, “Hello, Asa, think they’ll know it’s you?” For Jolson, a staunch advocate of black culture, black face was not a racial insult. Rather, it was a way to hide his real self from audiences, allowing the swaggering entertainer to emerge and do things that the repressed Asa never would. Hanan was sensational in the part, and an excellent Robert Ari rounded out the company playing all the men in Jolson’s life. The New York Times gave the show a strong review that ultimately led to a commercial off-Broadway transfer in 2002, where, alas, it only lasted for three months. The OCR is not available digitally, but you can find copies on Amazon.com for regular prices.

Ragtime
There are some works that you just love so much that you don’t want to see them adapted into other forms. E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel about American society at the turn of the 20th century was just such a book for me. I thought any musicalization would inevitably diminish it, as director Milos Forman’s flawed film version did in 1981. And, indeed, book writer Terrence McNally and songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty did compress, discard, and alter significantly to create their 1998 musical. However, what the musical lacks in detail and complexity it makes up for in sheer emotional power. That said, my favorite numbers in this altogether terrific score are a couple of the quiet ones: “Gliding,” an immigrant Jewish father’s attempt to distract his little girl from the ugliness and precariousness of life, and “Our Children,” a duet of growing attraction between a WASP matriarch and the same immigrant, now a successful film director, as they watch their offspring playing together on a beach in Atlantic City. I still sometimes wish it didn’t end with Coalhouse Walker’s ringing anthem of protest, “Make Them Hear You,” because in the novel Coalhouse believes he has failed in his attempt at justice and that his men will not carry on his work once he is gone. Still, that wouldn’t be the right ending for McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty’s musical, and Doctorow liked it, so who am I to complain?

Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi
A couple of columns ago, writing about Irish-flavored musicals, I mentioned my affection for the show My Vaudeville Man, by Jeff Hochhauser (book and lyrics) and Bob Johnston (music and lyrics). Now the talented team gets a repeat. This wacky musical comedy posits a relationship between a Jewish rabbi who wants to be a cowboy and the vampy silent screen star who, in real life, was a good Jewish girl from Cincinnati named Theodosia Goodman. She wants nothing more than to marry a nice rabbi and settle down. They are set up by the rabbi’s spunky sister but must overcome his sermon denouncing Theda Bara’s moral depravity, which the rabbi gives to impress Theodosia, before they can wed. Johnston and Hochhauser have an utterly original sense of off-kilter comedy that is on full display in this show. I first encountered it at the Cohoes Music Hall in 1989 in a promising but flawed state, went to Chicago to see how the rewrites worked in its 1992 production (a commercial run enhanced by the well-known New York producers known as the Dodgers), and watched it sail confidently into port in a further revised 1993 version produced by the Jewish Repertory Theatre in its then-home on the Upper East Side (again enhanced by the Dodgers). I couldn’t get enough of numbers like Theodosia’s sprightly introductory complaint that “There Are So Many Things That a Vampire Can’t Do,” the hilarious and sexy “Bolt of Love,” in which the rabbi and the star spy each other for the first time in shul and lightning strikes (you can see students from Western Michigan University Theatre performing it on YouTube), and the uproarious satire of the soullessness of Hollywood producers in an Act 2 opener called “Another Rabbit Outta the Hat.” A still-unknown Janine LaManna was an enchanting Theda in NYC. The New York Times gave the show a good review, but it wasn’t enough for the Dodgers to move it to a commercial run. The York Theatre Company produced a Mufti concert presentation in 2005 that proved a real crowd pleaser. Alas, there is no commercial recording, though bootlegs do abound and a demo is out there floating around. Samuel French licenses the show for production, and it does occasionally get done. However, despite hoary conventional wisdom, cream does not always rise to the top in the theatre world, and Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi was most definitely the cream.

 

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Apr
13

Me and R&H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Mar
30

Comedy Songs Tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mar
16

Eire’s Musical Fare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mar
02

Revueing the Situation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Feb
16

Doing Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Feb
02

‘Love’-less Love Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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