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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.

Jan
19

My Favorite Recordings of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan
05

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

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

Diegetic Songs

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

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

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

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

In-the-Beginning Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Songs That Change Course

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Songs That Are Also Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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Dec
15

I Still Don’t Remember Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dec
01

Steve and Lynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nov
10

The Bad Boy of Broadway Is Back

Given the chance to pick my own topic this week, it was an easy decision to decide to write about one of my favorite artists: the lyricist, musical theatre book writer, opera librettist, poet, sometime composer, radio scribe, nonfiction author, filmmaker, occasional actor, and openly gay cultural pot stirrer known as John Latouche. Why? Because the first biography of this still largely unknown but nevertheless crucial American artist was just published on Nov. 2: The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work, by Howard Pollack. What’s more, Latouche’s 103rd birthday—he was born on Nov. 13, 1914—falls on this coming Monday. It’s time for Touche—as his friends called him—to have his day again. The bad boy of Broadway is back.

Pollack—a Brooklyn-born-and-raised professor of music at the University of Houston and the award-winning biographer of Marc Blitzstein, George Gershwin, and Aaron Copland, among others—became interested in Latouche because he kept popping up in Blitzstein’s and Copland’s lives in important and intriguing ways. He phoned me out of the blue in early 2012 because I had created a musical revue, Taking a Chance on Love: The Lyrics and Life of John Latouche, for the York Theatre Company in winter of 2000. He wanted to know if I had kept my research. I had, and I shared it with him, acquiring along the way a cherished new friend. So it’s probably true that I can’t be completely objective about his book. However, as my fierce devotion to Latouche predates our acquaintance and remains as strong as ever, I think you can rest assured that if I thought the work wasn’t up to snuff, I wouldn’t be writing this column. The biography is a must read for anyone interested in either the history of the American musical or the story of what it was like to be openly gay in New York City in the first half of the 20th century.

Today Latouche is probably best known as one of the lyricists for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Other credits that still have some recognition are his lyrics, to Vernon Duke’s music, for the hit 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky, which starred Ethel Waters and featured Latouche’s most famous song, “Taking a Chance on Love”; his libretto for composer Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe, which made a star of Beverly Sills and is one of the few 20th century American operas to enter the standard repertoire; and his book and lyrics, to Jerome Moross’ score, for 1954’s through-sung musical The Golden Apple, a critical hit but a box office flop that reset The Iliad and The Odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Washington state and served as a launching pad for Kaye Ballard, who played Helen of Troy, the character who sings Latouche’s second most famous song, “Lazy Afternoon.” The fact that Encores! produced excellent concert versions of Cabin and Apple in the last two years no doubt has helped a bit with their name recognition.

When York Theatre Company’s artistic director, James Morgan, asked me to create a musical revue about Latouche, I knew little about him beyond the above paragraph, though I had written an article in 1995 about The Golden Apple for the Goodspeed Opera House’s Show Music magazine and contributed the liner notes for BMG Classics’ 1997 CD issue of the show’s RCA Victor OBCR. What I discovered through my research, including reading some of his private journals in the small Latouche collection at Columbia University’s Butler Library (he attended Columbia for two years) and going through much material deposited for copyright at the Library of Congress, was startling.

Although he died young, in 1956 at age 41, due to a sudden heart attack, he had contributed book and/or lyrics to more than 25 musicals, many of them trying to push the boundaries of commercial theatre in fascinating ways. He had written scads of wickedly naughty cabaret ditties; contributed songs and scripts for two of the first surrealist motion pictures, Hans Richter’s Dreams That Money Can Buy and 8 X 8 (as well as acting in Dreams); had his own film production company that produced a critically acclaimed animated short, “The Peppermint Tree,” based on a children’s book he had written, narrated and sung by Carol Channing; and achieved national recognition in 1939 with his patriotic cantata “Ballad for Americans” (music by Earl Robinson), saluting a multicultural America, performed by Paul Robeson and chorus on the radio to great popular success. Indeed, when Latouche died, “Ballad for Americans” was the first credit cited in virtually all his obituaries.

Latouche was famous for running an artistic salon in his penthouse on the Upper East Side. Friends such as Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, Jane and Paul Bowles (whom he introduced), Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Gore Vidal (they were such close friends that Latouche had his own bedroom at Vidal’s home on the Hudson River), Virgil Thomson, Libby Holman, Katherine Dunham, Frank O’Hara, Jack Kerouac, Lena Horne, Man Ray, Jean Paul Sartre, John Cage, Dawn Powell, Charlotte Rae, Ned Rorem, George Balanchine, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Ben Bagley, and Carol Channing would discuss the problems of the world, the vicissitudes of the show business, and the future of art.

Openly gay virtually from his arrival in NYC at the age of 18, Latouche wrote with great candor in his journals about his romantic and sexual life, including a four-year unhappy marriage to an American heiress from Connecticut, Theodora “Teddy” Griffis, herself a lesbian. His advocacy for progressive political causes and his hatred of racism (he grew up a working-class Southern boy in Richmond, Va.), along with his defiant sexuality, no doubt led him to be named in the infamous “Red Channels” report and blacklisted as a Communist (though he never actually was, according to Vidal, as the party didn’t accept gay people).

I was especially taken with the quality of his lyrics. Song after song at the Library of Congress dazzled me with wit, craft, feeling, ingenious rhyming, precise character definition, and general theatrical assurance. I had never before encountered such a wealth of unknown work written at such an almost unbelievably high level—and I haven’t since. How could someone this good, this prolific, and this brave, artistically, politically, and personally, have descended into such obscurity?

One reason is that after his death, his alcoholic and physically abusive younger brother, Louis, swept in and took all his belongings, including the files of his work, from his life partner, poet, lyricist, book writer, and opera librettist Kenward Elmslie, who, of course, had no rights to anything under the law in 1956. Straight and decidedly homophobic, Louis apparently discarded whatever he couldn’t sell. In any event, only a few fragments remained when I journeyed to Richmond to interview two surviving female cousins in the summer of 1999.

Another reason is that so few of Latouche’s shows were recorded. Two early hits, Cabin in the Sky and Banjo Eyes, both written with Vernon Duke, predated the practice of making Broadway cast recordings, and though Ethel Waters did record some of her numbers for Cabin, Banjo Eyes star Eddie Cantor, who quarreled with Latouche so much over his material that the lyricist quit the show pre-Broadway in Boston, did not. Shows such as 1946’s Beggar’s Holiday, an interracial contemporary version of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, written with Duke Ellington, and 1948’s Ballet Ballads, three one-act “dance cantatas” with music by Jerome Moross, were critically praised but too adventurous for commercial success and so didn’t generate OBCRs, a practice then still in its infancy.

1955’s The Vamp, a musical comedy vehicle for Carol Channing loosely based on the story of silent film star Theda Bara, with music by an African-American jazz saxophonist named James Mundy, received a raft of positive reviews on the road but bombed with the Broadway critics, depriving the world of a thoroughly delightful score. Richard Maltby Jr. saw the show pre-Broadway while a college student at Yale and says that though it had problems there was a great deal to admire in the production and he has always remembered it. Kenward Elmslie says that Channing’s misguided insistence on changes intended to better highlight her rather than serve the show—and she had clout both as star and wife of one of the producers—retooled a potential hit into a flop. Despite the show’s failure, Channing was one of only three Tony nominees for best actress in a musical that season; she and Nancy Walker, nominated for the revue Phoenix ’55, lost to Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees.

So, before you settle in to read all about Touche, here are some suggestions for recordings of his work to help you get better acquainted.

Sing for Your Supper – This 1939 musical revue, produced on Broadway by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, had a slightly longer version of “Ballad for Americans,” under the title “Ballade of Uncle Sam,” as its finale. Paul Robeson’s iconic rendition is the one to have, though the cantata would also be recorded through the years by Bing Crosby, Odetta, and Brock Peters, among others.

Cabin in the Sky – Ethel Waters recorded four songs from the show during its run, including three she performed on stage—the title song, “Taking a Chance on Love,” and “Love Turned the Light Out,” and one that she didn’t, “Honey in the Honeycomb.” They’re a must. The 1964 off-Broadway revival got a cast recording, and if the performances are uneven, the cuts and interpolations to the score unhelpful, and the orchestrations far too reduced, it’s worth it just to hear (most of) the score. Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 film adaptation jettisoned the bulk of the Broadway score, adding new tunes by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, but you do get Lena Horne singing “Honey in the Honeycomb.”

Ballet Ballads – “Willie the Weeper,” the second of the evening’s three ballads, about the tribulations of a cocaine addict, was recorded in its entirety as played at the Hot Springs Music Festival in 2000 and released by Naxos on a compilation CD simply titled Jerome Moross. It’s not available digitally, but you can get the CD at Amazon.

The Golden Apple – The single LP OBCR had to leave off nearly 90 minutes of music, but its CD release is indispensable as a document of the splendid original performances. The world can finally hear the full show thanks to the recent two-CD cast recording of Lyric Stage’s 2014 production, recorded live in performance in, of all places, Irving, Texas. You really need them both.

The Littlest Revue – Latouche and Elmslie co-wrote the cheeky sketch and lyric, to John Strauss’ music, for the opening number for this Ben Bagley–produced 1956 off-Broadway revue, called “Backers’ Audition,” delivered by the show’s six-person cast, which included Charlotte Rae, Tammy Grimes, and Joel Grey. Also, Latouche and Vernon Duke’s sly satiric medieval ballade “Summer Is a-Comin’ In,” written for the 1941 bomb The Lady Comes Across, gets rescued by the divine Rae, with some new verses added by Latouche. And speaking of Rae, check out her 1955 solo album Songs I Taught My Mother, on which she first sang “Summer” and introduced another Latouche–Strauss collaboration, the hilarious “Nail in the Horseshoe,” written for Rae’s club act, about a vulgar socialite who loves the opera for all the wrong reasons. (Strauss, by the way, was Rae’s husband at the time.) Eddie Korbich, who received an Obie Award for his performance in my Latouche revue, regularly brought the house down doing this number in drag.

Candide – There are so many recordings to choose from, but do make sure you have at least one that includes the original Latouche lyric for “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” which was first restored by director Harold Prince for his 1974 revisal, as well as the “Auto-da-Fe” sequence, unrecorded on the nevertheless exquisite 1956 OBCR starring Barbara Cook. Bernstein conducted the “final revised version, 1989” with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and there you can hear Adolph Green in Latouche’s restored song about Dr. Pangloss’ syphilis, “Ringaroundarosie.”

The Ballad of Baby Doe – The brilliant original and complete recording of New York City Opera’s 1959 production, starring Beverly Sills, Walter Cassell, and Frances Bible, can only be found on CD, but three arias from it are available digitally on Beverly Sills and Friends and The Art of Beverly Sills, if you want to start out with just a taste.

Taking a Chance on Love: The Lyrics and Life of John Latouche – The OCR of my revue is not available digitally, alas, as Original Cast Records’ owner, Bruce Yeko, won’t even reply to my requests to release it that way (though he has digitally released many other titles on his label). It is, I believe, the most comprehensive collection of Latouche material available—30 songs from 10 shows, plus cabaret songs and special material, including 18 songs never recorded at the time of its release—and I immodestly think it’s a pretty good recording too, thanks to a four-person dynamite cast: Terry Burrell, Jerry Dixon, Donna English, and Eddie Korbich. You can buy the CD at Amazon.com.

Windflowers: The Songs of Jerome Moross – This tribute show at Joe’s Pub was performed concurrently with the run of Taking a Chance on Love in winter of 2000. Offering a fine cast—Alice Ripley, Richard Muenz, Jessica Molaskey, Philip Chaffin, and Jenny Giering—and superb musical direction from Eric Stern, it preserves three Latouche-Moross songs from The Golden Apple and five from Ballet Ballads, including the rarity “Come Live With Me,” written for “Riding Hood Revisited,” a fourth ballet ballad done in the style of a fractured fairy tale that was left out of the original Broadway production but included in a 1961 off-Broadway revival. As Into the Woods would do nearly 40 years later, it features a pretty pushy Red.

Take Love Easy: The Lyrics of John Latouche – Film composer Richard Rodney Bennett recorded this jazz-inflected LP in 1984 for Audiophile Records, then added four additional cuts for its CD release in 2001. It contains a number of rarities, including “You Took Me by Surprise,” from The Lady Comes Across, “A Nickel to My Name” from Banjo Eyes, three songs from Beggar’s Holiday—“I’ve Got Me,” “Take Love Easy,” and the cut song “She Makes Me Believe She’s Mine” (though when it was in the show it was “He”)—and the lovely ballad “The Next Time I Care (I’ll Be Careful),” from the 1945 operetta Polonaise, with a score derived from the music of Chopin. This tune, however, has music by film composer Bronislaw Kaper, who was on hand to adapt the Chopin music but wrote a few originals as well. There are also three pop songs: “All of a Sudden It’s You” (music by Rudolf Goehr), “Day Dream” (music by Billy Strayhorn), and “Strange” (music by Marvin Fisher). The last two were both hits, the first covered by such artists as Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis, the second debuted by Nat King Cole.

And speaking of pop songs, unlike most of his fellow Broadway lyricists, Latouche wrote a fair share of them, no doubt in pursuit of cash, which he always needed. However, his biggest success was probably a pop song he took his name off of: “Racing With the Moon,” a giant hit in 1941 for bandleader crooner Vaughn Monroe. A manuscript at the Library of Congress lists Latouche as co-lyricist, but the published sheet music replaces his name with “Pauline Pope.”

There are also some choice covers of his songs from musicals. Lena Horne recorded a swinging version of “Tomorrow Mountain,” the first-act closer in Beggar’s Holiday, on her 1957 album Stormy Weather, as well as “Take Love Easy” and “He Makes Me Believe He’s Mine,” on Lena Horne Sings: The MGM Singles, a compilation of recordings she made in 1947 and 1948. Diahann Carroll included a jubilant rendition of “Do What You Wanna Do,” from Cabin in the Sky, on her 1961 LP Fun Life. And, of course, everybody from Barbra Streisand to Eartha Kitt to Tony Bennett to Brian Stokes Mitchell to Mabel Mercer to Marlene Dietrich has had a go at “Lazy Afternoon.”

To Touche!

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Oct
27

They're Flying

In honor of Laura Benanti, an actress who is musical theatre royalty yet also regularly performs in plays, appearing on Broadway in Steve Martin’s new comedy, Meteor Shower, which starts previews this coming Wednesday, we are looking at songs that reference celestial bodies. And what lyricist hasn’t used the stars, the moon, the sun, the clouds, the birds, etc. for poetic effect? For example, in Paint Your Wagon’s “They Call the Wind Maria” Lerner and Loewe’s titular element “blows the stars around and sends the clouds a-flyin’.” In the title song to The Sound of Music, Oscar Hammerstein II famously wrote about that “lark who is learning to pray” (though I have always wondered if he didn’t really mean “prey”). In Annie Get Your Gun, our sharpshooting heroine has “the sun in the morning and the moon at night.”

That way lies madness, so I decided to insist on songs that are actually about or involve a flying object. And just to complicate matters, I also chose to try to vary the objects as much as possible. I think it makes for an intriguing list of 20 songs.

“I’m Flying,” from Peter Pan
How could I not begin with this wonderful Mark Charlap–Carolyn Leigh song that ends Act 1 on an incredible high? Peter blows fairy dust on the Darling children, all think lovely thoughts, and off they go into the night to Neverland as Nana barks below. It’s so magical, and the amazed and delighted looks on the faces of children in the audience are so beautiful, that it always makes me cry. I firmly believe that this moment has instilled a lifetime theatergoing habit in legions of young’uns.

“Tiny,” from 3hree
In 1999 Harold Prince directed this triptych of one-act musicals to inaugurate the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. This charming song by Robert Lindsey Nassif comes from the evening’s closing piece, The Flight of the Lawnchair Man. A young Christopher Fitzgerald, at the start of his career, plays regular guy Jerry, from Passaic, N.J., who attaches 400 helium-filled balloons to his lawnchair and is soon floating above the Garden State. “Tiny” describes what he sees.

“Look Where I Am,” from Man in the Moon
This Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick tune pits the wonder of a child against the comic agitation of a group of crooks. The show in question is a children’s musical written for Bil & Cora Baird’s Marionettes, which played for 22 performances at the Biltmore Theatre in 1963, opening two weeks before She Loves Me. Another hero named Jerry believes that there is a man in the moon, and the boy has been trying to reach him by sending signals from his homemade crystal radio set. Jerry’s steadfast belief powers a beam that lifts him through space to the moon, unknowingly followed by the bumbling group, who are on the lam from the police. It’s an awfully roundabout beam, however, as Jerry seems to go by everything from Mercury and Venus to Neptune and Saturn before reaching his destination. Stage Door Records has just brought this long-out-of-print LP, which includes both dialogue and five Bock and Harnick songs, to CD only in a limited release of 500 copies.

“You’re a Child,” from the film The Little Prince
Antoine de St. Exupéry’s titular lad leaves his own asteroid in a search for wisdom, thanks to a passing flock of birds who throw him a line. The Little Prince visits several other asteroids in this Alan Jay Lerner–Frederick Loewe song from their 1974 film adaptation of the fable, where he meets a general, an historian, a king, and a business man, none of whom prove particularly helpful, before landing on Earth in the Sahara Desert and losing the birds.

“Doomed, Doomed, Doomed,” from The Golden Apple
In Act 2 of John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ 1954 masterwork, Ulysses and his men, having dispatched Helen out of Troy and back to her hometown of Angel’s Roost, go on an all-night celebratory spree in the big city of Rhododendron. In this song they encounter a lady scientist who is working on building a rocket ship to get mankind off the Earth before it becomes unlivable due to climate change and pestilences. A soldier named Doc offers to test fly it, and the damn thing works! Alas, the scientist has forgotten to devise a way to bring it back, so Doc is, to coin a phrase, lost in the stars.

“The Best Christmas of All,” from the TV film Mrs. Santa Claus
Angela Lansbury and Charles Durning played the first couple of the North Pole in this 1996 TV musical. This Jerry Herman finale has Santa inviting his Mrs. to join him in distributing presents for the first time ever, and they sing together while being pulled through the sky by Dasher et al.

“Pow! Bam! Zonk!,” from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman
The Man of Steel flies about in this Charles Strouse–Lee Adams song as he battles the villainous Flying Lings, a Chinese acrobatic troupe that has tried to destroy him because people who can see Superman fly aren’t interested in watching acrobats. I first saw this 1966 musical in a vest-pocket production in a tiny theatre in Cleveland in 1971. The actor playing Superman swooped down the center aisle hanging from a bar in the ceiling embedded in a track. Very ingenious.

“Do It Again,” from the film Thoroughly Modern Millie
And speaking of acrobats, Carol Channing’s adventurous millionairess Muzzy Van Hossmere joins a troupe on stage for her rendition of this standard by George Gershwin and B.G. “Buddy” DeSylva (written for the 1922 Broadway play The French Doll) after being shot out of a cannon positioned in a theatre box. Channing, or at least her double, spends much of the number airborne.

“Faster Than Sound,” from High Spirits
Tammy Grimes flew all about the stage of the Alvin (now Neil Simon) Theatre as her character, the ghostly Elvira Condimine, tried to lure her surviving husband, Charles, to his death, so that he could join her in the afterlife. Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s musical adaptation of the Noël Coward classic Blithe Spirit was directed by the Master himself on Broadway in 1964. While the CD of the OBCR is long out of print and goes for big bucks on Amazon, you can hear Phyllis Lynd’s fun rendition of this sprightly number on her album When I Fall in Love.

“Icarus,” “Migratory V,” and “Pegasus,” from Myths and Hymns
Adam Guettel’s 1996 spiritually questing song cycle provides a mother lode of three numbers featuring celestial bodies. The first is Guettel’s propulsive account of the Icarus legend, in which an overambitious son uses wings made of feathers and wax to fly too close to the sun in an attempt to outdo his father, ending in catastrophe. The second is a simple contemplation of prayer using a migratory flock of birds as a metaphor, beautifully sung by Theresa McCarthy. The last has a lyric by Ellen Fitzhugh and is a comic scene in which the hero Bellerophon and his flying horse, Pegasus, argue over whose fault it is that Pegasus threw him in midair. The real culprit is a gadfly sent to bite the horse by Zeus, who is displeased with Bellerophon’s hubris. Audra McDonald is a lot of fun as the fly. I saw this show in two of its stage incarnations: a 1998 version without a plot produced by the Public Theater, retitled Saturn Returns: A Concert and directed by Tina Landau, and a 2012 reimagining by director Elizabeth Lucas for the Prospect Theater Company that superimposed an elaborate story about a religious family torn apart by contemporary issues, which I reviewed for Backstage. Neither succeeded as a piece of theatre, but as a collection of art songs the work is remarkable.

“Yes,” from 70, Girls, 70
Mildred Natwick sang this John Kander and Fred Ebb paean to life while perched upon a crescent moon at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1971. Her character, Ida, the ringleader of a band of seniors who turn to crime to save their old folks home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, came back from the dead just to warble it. I love this score and thoroughly enjoyed the somewhat rewritten show in its 1991 London production starring the great Dora Bryan, as well as a York Theatre Company concert rendition starring Jane Powell in 2000. But, oh, how I wish I could have caught the original, which expired after only one month. In 1976, just before Christmas, I sold a picture frame at Macy’s to Fred Ebb, and I managed to stammer that this was my favorite of his scores. He smiled at me and replied, “Me too!”

“Leave the World Behind,” from Steel Pier
Here’s another Kander and Ebb tune from another Kander and Ebb flop, a 1997 show about a rigged dance marathon that I did see and didn’t like nearly as much as 70, Girls, 70. Our heroine, Rita, played by Karen Ziemba, needs to leave her controlling husband and break free into a new life, hence all the imagery in the song. A Busby Berkeley–esque number staged by Susan Stroman that featured chorus people dancing on the wings of an old propeller plane as it soars through the air carrying Rita and her marathon partner, a handsome pilot with a secret, it’s intended as a dream she is having during a 15-minute sleep break in the competition. It rather head-scratchingly opened Act 2 and felt like a stage wait, but considered out of dramatic context it certainly had its charms given the talent of the folks creating it.

“Over the Moon,” from Rent
Let’s face it: I am not and never will be a Renthead, though I certainly recognize Jonathan Larson’s talent. Still, how could I not include Idina Menzel playing a lesbian performance artist angry at corporate greed and soullessness? This is her act, at the end of which she and a cow jump over the moon while the audience is asked to moo. I confess to never being sure whether it was supposed to be good performance art or a satire of the genre. But that’s probably why I’m not a Renthead.

“Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” from the film Mary Poppins
Of course, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins flies via umbrella in this 1964 film classic, but alas she doesn’t sing while doing so. The touching final Sherman Brothers song, however, is pure gold as it dramatizes the reconstitution of a happy Banks family. Mary’s job is done, and the wind has changed.

“American Eagles/With My Head in the Clouds,” from This Is the Army
Irving Berlin’s 1942 bouncy paean to World War II bombardiers is a bit bloodthirsty (“More bombers to attack with/More bombers still the skies are black with/Eagles, American eagles”), but then we were fighting the Nazis, who had already done quite a number on London with their bombers during the Blitz. And the second half gets suitably sentimental as Berlin reveals that the only thing the pilots are thinking of while dropping all those bombs is the little woman back home.

“Giants in the Sky,” from Into the Woods
Well, nobody is flying in this 1987 Stephen Sondheim song, but Jack does go up the beanstalk into the sky, where he most certainly discovers a world of giants. And a giant in the sky definitely qualifies as an unusual celestial body, no?

“Take Flight and Finale,” from Take Flight
I first encountered this musical, which intercuts the stories of the Orville and Wilbur Wright, Amelia Earhart, and Charles Lindbergh, in an early workshop when it had lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire and was essentially a dramatic song cycle, and I was completely enchanted by this celebration of the human need to achieve the impossible. However, it was decided that dialogue was called for, and so first Marsha Norman and then John Weidman was brought in to write a book. I missed the show’s first full production, in 2007 at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, which produced this recording, but I caught a significantly revised version at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 2010, where I was once again enchanted. Critics were mixed, however, and the show never came in to NYC. All versions ended with the Wright brothers’ first successful flight on a North Carolina beach, something I found extraordinarily moving both times. In London this recapitulated the opening prologue/title song, though that was cut in Princeton in order to get to the story more quickly. In any event, it’s here because I think it’s a score everyone should know (even though some of the best numbers were written for Princeton and can’t be heard here).

“Our Time,” from Merrily We Roll Along
This soaring Sondheim song of youthful hope and ambition has nothing whatsoever do with celestial bodies in its content. However, it is sung on a rooftop by characters who have gathered to catch a glimpse of Russia’s newly launched first satellite, Sputnik. It’s not only a great moment in musical theatre; it’s also a great finale to the show, and now to this column as well.

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Oct
13

I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling

OK, so we are saluting the autumnal season by looking at songs in which the character falls, stumbles, trips etc. This, of course, can be literal, an actual physical event, or metaphorical, as in a decision that leads to negative consequences of some sort. Here are 21 songs from 20 shows, arranged more or less in the order that they came to mind.

“Stumbling,” from the film Thoroughly Modern Millie
Zez Confrey’s 1922 novelty piano solo wasn’t written for the 1967 film but is used in it when Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore must dance to make an ornery elevator function. That background cut is not on the movie soundtrack, but you can hear the tune in the overture, the fourth melody out of five. Confrey, by the way, is also the composer of the more famous “Kitten on the Keys.”

“Someone Woke Up,” from Do I Hear a Waltz?
Thirtysomething single gal Leona Samish arrives in Venice and is suitably ecstatic in this 1965 Richard Rodgers–Stephen Sondheim opening number. During the song she manages to fall into a canal while backing up to take a picture. When Katharine Hepburn played the part in the 1955 film Summertime, based on Arthur Laurents’ 1952 hit play The Time of the Cuckoo, which is also the musical’s basis, she did it on location in Venice and ended up with an eye infection from polluted water that hounded her the rest of her days.

“Cheese Nips,” from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
In the first of three descents into madness on this list, Sylvia, the sophisticated urban wife of philanthropist Eliot Rosewater, doesn’t take to their move from New York City to rural Indiana, where he plans to work to help the downtrodden lower classes. Sylvia throws a party at which the locals reject caviar, brie, and champagne for Cheese Nips and Coca Cola, and it sends her into a mental institution. This unsuccessful 1979 off-Broadway musical, based on Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, marked the first collaboration of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and the excellent OCR of Encores’s 2016 concert version makes the show sound like a hit.

“Epiphany,” from Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet Street lurches into insanity and serial killing when his attempt to murder the vicious Judge Turpin, who unjustly imprisoned him in order to rape his wife and acquire his daughter, is accidentally foiled. Len Cariou was seriously scary breaking the fourth wall with this in 1979. Initially, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim ended it with unresolved wavering chords, indicating the character’s instability, but the aria was so powerful that it demanded an applause button, which was pushed during previews.

“Loveland,” from Follies
Sondheim’s 1971 Irving Berlin–style paean to romantic illusions marks the moment when reality comes apart and James Goldman’s four unhappy leading characters turn on each other and the younger ghosts shadowing them at a reunion of ex-performers. As the drab stage of a decaying theatre suddenly explodes with color and excess, our four leads look on dazedly before staggering off stage. Then they reappear individually in a surreal sequence in which they work out their personal “follies” in a succession of showbiz numbers.

“Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun,” from Miss Liberty
Speaking of Irving Berlin, Mary McCarty—who 22 years later would bring down the house with “Who’s That Woman?” in Follies—played Maisie Dell, a wisecracking journalist, in Berlin’s 1949 musical about the search for the woman who served as the model for the Statue of Liberty (who’s that woman indeed!). When in Act 2 Maisie loses her guy, the man conducting the search, to the leading lady, who is erroneously labeled the model, she sings this saucy tribute to being single. The show had a book by the distinguished American playwright Robert E. Sherwood and direction by another distinguished American playwright, Moss Hart, but the critics weren’t impressed, and it limped along for a nine-month run due to a large advance sale. Berlin’s score, however, has its charms.

“Fallin’,” from They’re Playing Our Song
Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Carole Bayer Sager (lyrics) wrote the songs for this Neil Simon comedy about Vernon and Sonia, a neurotic composer and lyricist who get romantically involved. Based on Hamlisch and Sager’s real-life romance, it was a big hit in 1979, though more a play with songs than a full-fledged musical. This, the first song in the show, is Vernon and Sonia’s initial collaboration, and they argue over whether the lyric (exemplified by “Why do I always take a fall/When I fall in love?”) is good enough for the tune (she doesn’t think it is; he does). Sager’s career writing pop lyrics was undoubtedly considered a plus for this show. However, in his posthumously published 1986 history, The American Musical Theatre: A Celebration, Alan Jay Lerner, who had wanted to write with Hamlisch, lamented the composer’s choice to work with “the singing aspirin” instead of a more theatrically savvy collaborator.

“The Fall,” from Queen of the Mist
Michael John LaChiusa’s 2011 off-Broadway musical about Anna Edson Taylor, who at age 63 in 1901 became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live, was particularly notable for Mary Testa’s blazing performance in the lead. Apparently, Anna always refused to discuss what it was like to go over the falls, which is why her attempt to cash in monetarily on the achievement never took off, and she died alone and penniless. In the show’s mystical finale, however, she finally sings from beyond the grave about what the experience felt like. I think that the reason that the indomitable Anna wouldn’t describe her feelings is because she secretly thought she would die in the attempt. You can check out my Backstage review if you want to know more.

“Bonds,” from The Rothschilds
In this Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick song, the sons of the late Mayer Rothschild scheme to get Prince Metternich to lift restrictions on Jews by selling bonds at a lower price than his peace bonds, betting their fortune in the process. The bond market does indeed take a tumble, and the sons not only succeed but also receive a guarantee that all state bonds will henceforth be handled by the House of Rothschild. In his mixed Sunday review in the New York Times, critic Walter Kerr singled out this number as a problem, carping that “bonds don’t dance, dollars don’t sing.” But then, of course, Kerr wanted the show to be more of a musical comedy. Harnick may have agreed, for he cut the number from his 2015 revisal of this 1970 musical, retitled Rothschild & Sons and produced by the York Theatre Company off-Broadway. Me, I like the song and find it both clever and effective.

“Tripping the Light Fantastic,” from Wish You Were Here
Sung by the denizens of Camp Kare-Free, a summer oasis for young adults in the Catskills, this 1952 Harold Rome song is really about dancing. Still, “tripping” is in the title, and there’s a short but spirited dance section during which somebody must have tripped at one time or another.

“Being Good,” from Hallelujah, Baby!
In this Arthur Laurents (book)–Jule Styne (music)–Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics) 1968 Tony-winning best musical about black America’s struggle for civil rights, heroine Georgina stays in her 20s as she progresses through the first seven decades of the 20th century. In this Act 1 closer a luminous Leslie Uggams screws her courage to the sticking place as she voices the familiar sentiment that blacks must do everything twice as well as whites to be successful: “Being good isn’t good enough/…When I fly/I must fly extra high/…And if I fall/That’s the way it’s gotta be./There’s no other way for me./Being good just won’t be good enough/I’ll be the best or nothing at all.”

“Lazy Afternoon,” from The Golden Apple
Kaye Ballard set the stage sizzling in 1954 with this John Latouche–Jerome Moross standard from their reimagining of The Iliad and The Odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Washington State. In it, bored rural housewife Helen seduces lubricious traveling salesman Paris, convincing him to spirit her off to the big city. He most definitely falls into her clutches, and her virtuous status tumbles as well.

“No Thank You,” from War Paint
In Act 2 of this currently running musical about the rivalry between cosmetic giants Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, the titans reject advice to democratize their brands by creating an inexpensive line to appeal to teenagers and by sponsoring TV quiz shows. Their haughty dismissals are directly responsible for their brands’ success nosediving as Max Factor and Revlon take off by cornering the new baby boomer market. Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole turn in bravura performances, and the Michael Korie–Scott Frankel score is impeccably crafted and offers numerous pleasures. Though Doug Wright’s book doesn’t always generate sufficient dramatic tension, due in part to the fact that in real life the two ladies never met, the show is intelligent, intriguing, and well worth a visit before it closes at the end of the year.

“Something Bad Is Happening/More Racquetball,” from Falsettos
As Dr. Charlotte sings about the mysterious appearance of a deadly cancer affecting gay men, lovers Whizzer and Marvin compete at racquetball. Suddenly young, handsome, vital Whizzer collapses on the court. William Finn and James Lapine’s landmark 1992 musical received a stunning revival last season on Broadway, and you can see it on Fri., Oct. 27, on PBS Channel 13 at 9 pm. Don’t miss it!

“Love Me Tomorrow,” from Cabin in the Sky
In Act 2 reformed sinner Li’l Joe resists the advances of his former mistress, Georgia Brown, as he has promised his wife, Petunia, to turn over a new leaf. Joe tells Georgia to “love me tomorrow but leave me alone today,” which isn’t exactly a firm no, and when Petunia catches them together, she assumes that Joe has fallen, even though he hasn’t quite. It’s a crime that the dazzling 2016 concert production at Encores! wasn’t recorded; you’ll have to settle for the OCR of the show’s 1964 off-Broadway revival, which is, I think, the only commercial recording of this John Latouche–Vernon Duke comic duet.

“Many a New Day,” from Oklahoma!
In this Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II charm song, feisty farm lass Laurey pretends to her girlfriends not to be upset about a spat with her regular beau, cowboy Curly. I include it because the dance section features a character named “the girl who falls down,” a specialty created by choreographer Agnes de Mille for the incandescent Joan McCracken at the start of her brief but memorable career. For more about McCracken, Bob Fosse’s second wife, who starred on Broadway in Comden and Green’s Billion Dollar Baby and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet and can be seen on screen in MGM’s 1947 remake of Good News leading “The Varsity Drag,” read Lisa Jo Sagolla’s excellent biography The Girl Who Fell Down.

“The Only One” and “I Never Knew,” from Far From Heaven
This 2013 adaptation of Todd Haymes’ 2002 Douglas Sirk–inspired melodrama has a book by Richard Greenberg, lyrics by Michael Korie, and music by Scott Frankel. Though it faltered by being too faithful to its source material, the score has many fine songs, with these two among the best. In “The Only One,” unhappy 1950s suburban Connecticut housewife Cathy Whitaker asks her African-American gardener, for whom she has unacknowledged feelings, what it is like being a black man in a white community. He responds by taking her to a bar frequented by African Americans, where she asks him to dance. A nosy neighbor sees them, and Cathy’s social status takes a precipitous dive as Act 1 ends. In “I Never Knew,” Cathy’s closeted gay husband tells her that his attempt at reparative therapy is over because he has met a man he wants to be with, and their storybook marriage crumbles to bits. Kelli O’Hara, Isaiah Johnson, and Steven Pasquale are all superb.

“The Twenty Dollar Bill,” from Caroline, or Change
In Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s groundbreaking 2004 musical drama, eight-year-old Noah Gellman, growing up Jewish on Lake Charles, La., has a tendency to leave things in his pockets. As a result, his mother has announced that Caroline Thibodeaux, the family’s African-American maid, can keep any spare change she finds there when doing the laundry. Unfortunately, Noah forgets a 20-dollar bill, Hanukah gelt from his grandparents, and, indeed, the struggling Caroline, a single mother with three kids to feed, keeps it. A furious Noah blurts out something racially hateful, Caroline responds with equal cruelty, and their tentative friendship is irreparably hurt. Both stumble badly.

“Imagining You,” from Birds of Paradise
This 1987 off-Broadway musical began life as a 1983 master’s thesis project in the NYU graduate program for writing musicals under the title of Amateurs. Authors Winnie Holzman (book and lyrics) and David Evans (book and music) were mentored by Arthur Laurents, who also directed. The musical is a gloss on Chekhov’s The Seagull, reset in an amateur theatre troupe on Long Island. “Imagining You” closed Act 1, with the eight-person cast positioned across the length of the Promenade Theatre stage. Each character has unrequited feelings for one of the other characters, which means that all eight have made a misstep. Laurents had lighting designer Jules Fisher highlight the mismatched lovers in succession in a sweeping gesture coordinated with the music as the act ended. It was very touching, one of the most effective act closers I’ve seen in all my days of theatergoing. Alas, the book has problems, but the score is a honey, and the cast— Mary Beth Peil, Donna Murphy, J.K. Simmons, Barbara Walsh, Crista Moore, Todd Graff, Andrew Hill Newman, and John Cunningham—was to die for. Holzman, of course, went on to write a little show called Wicked.

“The Ballad of Guiteau,” from Assassins
President James Garfield’s assassin, a delusional, relentlessly optimistic gadfly who killed Garfield because he wasn’t appointed ambassador to France, sings a poem of his own devising, “I Am Going to the Lordy,” to the Balladeer in this Stephen Sondheim song as he repeatedly mounts and dismounts the steps of a gallows. The button, of course, is his hanging, complete with the requisite sound effects. Though director Joe Mantello’s 2004 Broadway revival was, for me, the show’s definitive production, Jonathan Hadary, in its 1990 world premiere off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, remains an indelible Guiteau. And as no fall could be more final than this one, I’ll end here.

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Sep
29

Her Julieness

There are many actors whom I admire, and a smaller subset whose presence in a film, play, or musical guarantees my attention, interest, and probable attendance. Julie Andrews, however, is in a class by herself. She is the one performer I would go anywhere to see in anything.

She has been part of my life since I was four years old, when I discovered the original Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady and played it incessantly, memorizing every word and note. At the tender age of nine I was incensed when she was passed over for the film version in favor of Audrey Hepburn, even though up to that point I had yet to see her perform, whether on stage or screen. Of course, it helped that my mother felt the same way about producer Jack Warner’s boneheaded casting decision, and that my grandparents had often spoken about seeing her as Eliza and how wonderful she was, but still.

In early September of 1964, just after I started the sixth grade at Gilles-Sweet Elementary School in Fairview Park, Ohio, I came home from class one afternoon to find a note from my mother telling me to meet her and my six-month-old baby brother at the playground of a local park. She had a surprise for me. It turned out to be the soundtrack LP of Mary Poppins. The record rarely left the turntable on the family hi-fi. Frustratingly, it was about seven months before I could see the film. It was only playing in an exclusive first run in downtown Cleveland, and my parents said I had to wait until it went into wide release and came closer to us, in the western suburbs. Once it did, Mom and Dad went to see it first. They attended on March 11, 1965, and I know the date because my mother went into labor with my little sister during the movie but refused to leave until she had seen the whole thing.

Shortly after that we went as a family, and I was pretty much in heaven watching it. As we left, I remember my mother looking down at me searchingly and asking what I had thought. Not only was I a Julie Andrews fan; I had read every Mary Poppins book that my local library had multiple times. Trying to be a mature 11-year-old, I replied, “I loved it. Of course, you know it’s not the books.”

During my Easter break from school my mother, my grandmother, and I traveled by bus to Chicago to visit her sister, my Auntie Dot, and her family, leaving my father at home with the two little ones and my older brother. Dot et al lived in an apartment just a little north of the Loop, and The Sound of Music, which had just been released in March, was playing in one of the big downtown movie palaces. My mother, being a devout Christian Scientist and no fan of the Catholic Church, didn’t want to go see a musical about nuns. I, however, made myself sufficiently intolerable, and so we went. To her great surprise, my mother adored the movie and was soon telling everyone she knew to go see it. I did too, and the one-two punch of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music in so short a time turned me into a fan for life.

I was first in line to see Thoroughly Modern Millie and Star! when they opened, and though neither film was up to the level of her first two, I enjoyed both and thought (and still think) that Julie was great in them. I was not allowed to see The Americanization of Emily, Torn Curtain, and Hawaii, as they were deemed “too adult” for me. Indeed, the combination of her decision to make those films and her divorce from Tony Walton soured my very conservative English parents on Julie Andrews, at least for a time, which of course only fueled my fandom.

I remember watching with dismay as Julie’s film career crashed and burned after Star! and Darling Lili. In particular, I couldn’t understand how she could inspire such loathing in some people, who accused her of being too sugary, all sweetness and light. Why couldn’t they see that it was her asperity and tartness—her sass—that made Poppins and Music work, cutting against the properties’ diabetes-inducing tendencies? I longed to see her attempt meatier parts in more-adult properties, and eventually she did, though that metamorphosis took a while.

Her Emmy-winning musical variety series, The Julie Andrews Hour, ran for 22 episodes in the 1972-73 TV season. I was a sophomore at Northwestern University then, and I waged a weekly fight for TV custody in the student lounge in my dorm, Bobst Hall. Alas, I was usually outnumbered, so I missed many episodes, which is why I was so thrilled a few years back when I managed to acquire the entire series (minus one episode) on DVD. The original source was someone who had videotaped a rebroadcast of the series in Pensacola, Fla. Though sometimes uneven, especially when trying to be hip and contemporary (no one should have ever asked Julie Andrews to sing Blood, Sweat, and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”), the highs far outweigh the lows, the guest stars are fab (for just one example, Angela Lansbury discusses Dear World and sings “I Don’t Want to Know”), and Julie is in great voice singing a large amount of material you’ve never heard her do anywhere else. It’s a crime that the show hasn’t been released commercially in any form in all these years.

Becoming an adult living in New York City and working in the theatre didn’t alter my childhood devotion to her Julieness, a term I coined at some point that acknowledged her singularity in my life. I had been in the city for only about two-and-a-half years when I first saw her perform live. It was at the dress rehearsal for a tribute to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe at the Winter Garden Theatre in May of 1979. I was an unpaid production assistant, too unimportant to be offered a free ticket to what was, admittedly, a pricey, sold-out benefit. But I was allowed to watch the rehearsal between work assignments, which is what I was doing when suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw two button-bedecked high-top shoes. I looked up and saw her. She brightly asked me where “Alan” was, and gob-smacked little me showed her by stammering and pointing to him. Shortly after that she did her set, which was a Lerner and Loewe medley from her concert act. They wanted her to do it without a hand mike, but her orchestrations were quite thick. She was pleasant but firm, and she got her hand mike. Of course I was beside myself watching her, and yet at the same time it didn’t really satisfy my craving, which was to see her on stage in a new musical creating a role.

For that I had to wait 14 long years, when the Stephen Sondheim revue Putting It Together opened off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in March of 1993. Though the run was virtually sold out before the show opened, I somehow managed to see it three times. The revue with a wisp of plot didn’t really work as an entity, but it afforded Julie the opportunity to act bracingly adult material with depth and subtlety, even savagery when called for. She was brilliant, and to this day one of the things I most treasure is my copy of the show’s B-roll video, made for the press. It preserves much of her performance, and I like to astonish younger friends with it. They generally have no idea she could do that.

Memorable moments with her Julieness dot my adult life. Certainly one was seeing Blake Edwards’ diamond-hard satire of Hollywood, S.O.B., at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard (I was touring that summer of 1981 with Annie, selling merchandise in the lobby of the Pantages Theatre). The theatre was the perfect place to see the film, and Julie’s sendup of herself was priceless. Another was the first evening showing of Victor/Victoria at NYC’s Ziegfeld Theatre on that huge screen. The sold-out show was filled with musical theatre folk, who roared their delight throughout. I’ll never forget the volcanic eruption that followed “Le Jazz Hot.” The Julie we all loved was back!

Victor/Victoria on stage was another one. The hubby and I flew to Chicago in the summer of 1995 to see it prior to Broadway with my Aunt Dot. Though the stage adaptation had its flaws, Julie was magic, a great star and actress. The hubby and I subsequently attended the show’s first preview on Broadway. As Julie stepped on stage for the first time, after an ovation but before she could utter a word, a male voice rang out in the Marquis Theatre, “Welcome home!” Normally, such behavior would incense me, but it just seemed right. My throat caught and my eyes moistened.

A particularly memorable year was 1986, when she delivered two sterling dramatic performances on screen in Blake Edwards’ That’s Life and Andrei Konchalovsky’s Duet for One. The former is almost a home movie, shot at the Malibu house she and hubby Edwards shared with a brood of kids of varying ages. Julie plays a matriarch doing her best to keep her family together during her self-obsessed architect husband’s mid-life crisis (Jack Lemmon played the role) while awaiting a possible throat cancer diagnosis, about which she has told no one and which could threaten her career as a singer. The latter is an adaptation of Tom Kempinski’s Broadway play about a virtuoso concert violinist who is suddenly stricken with multiple sclerosis. Julie is raw and riveting in it, opposite Alan Bates as her philandering husband, Rupert Everett as her star pupil, a young Liam Neeson as a strapping lower-class junk collector with whom she has an affair, and Max von Sydow as the psychiatrist she sees to try to cope with her depression and an attempted suicide. Julie received Golden Globe nominations for both roles in the same year, one for best actress in a comedy and the other for best actress in a drama. Her dramatic range was finally, incontrovertibly demonstrated.

I came to her performances in The Boy Friend, Cinderella, and Camelot late, as they happened when I was very young and we didn’t have those LPs at home, but eventually I treasured them all, especially the kinescope of Cinderella, finally available on DVD. I also love Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, a show my mother didn’t allow me to watch at age 8 because it was past my bedtime. You can see the whole special on Vimeo. I’m extremely fond of two early recordings she made in the 1950s with orchestrator Irwin Kostal: Julie Andrews, on which she sings songs from the Great American Songbook, and The Lass With the Delicate Air, where the repertoire is English folk songs she loved as a child. The former, alas, is only available digitally in combination with the latter on a collection titled To a Wild Rose. If you get that version, disentangle the tracks. Each works best as its own album.

And then there is her CD Here I’ll Stay: The Words of Alan Jay Lerner, the last non- show recording she released before the devastating loss of her singing voice due to botched throat surgery for nodes on her vocal cords. Her deep affinity for Lerner’s work is blazingly clear, and I have a personal connection to the disc. She sings the original, full-length verse to Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s “Take Care of This House,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s a verse that I discovered while reconstructing the show for a 1992 production. It existed only in Bernstein’s pencil sketch, and to this date I believe that hers is its only recording. I like knowing that I had a hand in that.

The loss of her singing voice, of course, permanently altered her career, but she forged on, employing what her My Fair Lady director Moss Hart once called “that terrible English strength that makes you wonder how they lost India.” Most recently, her children’s TV series on Netflix, Julie’s Greenroom, was a delight, an excellent introduction for kids to the performing arts that adults can also enjoy. She co-produced, co-wrote, and performed in it, surrounded by a boyish sidekick, a class full of muppets, and some great guest stars from the world of New York theatre. Go Julie!

I’ll end with a tantalizing what if. Julie was supposed to star in the screen version of Joe Masteroff, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick’s musical She Loves Me. The project was scuttled by MGM after Star! and other blockbuster musicals tanked at the box office at the end of the 1960s. She was to have been teamed once again with Dick Van Dyke, Blake Edwards would have adapted and directed, and surely we would have had a classic. Alas, it was not to be. However, on YouTube you can hear Julie sing Amalia Balash’s touching Act 1 closer, “Dear Friend,” recorded in advance as a 45 rpm record to promote the project, as well as, from the flip side, her gender-reversed rendition of the title song, “He Loves Me.” Ah, what might have been. If I close my eyes tightly enough, I can almost watch it. And, yes, she’s brilliant.

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Sep
15

A Book Report on ‘Peter Rabbit’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aug
25

One Spicy Soprano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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