Ajax Login/Register

Menu


erik_blog's picture
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.

Oct
12

One Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags :
Artists

Sep
28

Lenny and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags :
Artists

Sep
14

Making Use of Mother Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags :
Artists

Aug
31

A Hymn to Him

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags :
Artists

Jun
08

Not Just Another Tony Year

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

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

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

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

And now, without further ado…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Katrina Lenk
Should Win: Lauren Ambrose

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: David Yazbek
Should Win: David Yazbek

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

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

Will Win: Jamshied Sharifi
Should Win: Jamshied Sharifi

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

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

Will Win: Tina Fey
Should Win: Itamar Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags :
Artists

May
25

Some Compleat Complete Recordings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags :
Artists

May
11

He’s a Waldorf Salad!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags :
Artists

Apr
27

Favorites by Decade – The 1990s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags :
Artists

Apr
13

Me and R&H

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags :
Artists

Mar
30

Comedy Songs Tonight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags :
Artists