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Erik Haagensen

Playwright-Lyricist and Arts Journalist

Erik’s musicals seen Off-Broadway, regionally, and internationally include A Fine and Private Place (from Peter S. Beagle’s novel), the Obie-winning musical revue Taking a Chance on Love: The Lyrics and Life of John Latouche, the Richard Rodgers Award–winning Summer (from Edith Wharton’s novel), and a revised version of Jule Styne, E.Y. Harburg, and Nunnally Johnson’s Darling of the Day. For Indiana University, Erik reconstructed Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s original draft of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, directing a student production that was also presented at the Kennedy Center.

Erik was the final theatre editor and head critic for Back Stage, where he worked in various capacities for 13 years. He has also written for American Theatre, The Sondheim Review, Show Music Magazine, and more.

Apr
22

From Stage to Screen

When Andy told me to pick a topic that involves the relationship between stage and screen, I knew pretty quickly that I would write about some of my favorite film adaptations of stage musicals. That’s because growing up in suburban Cleveland, I got to see very little theatre. My love of musical theatre may have been born after seeing the national tour of Camelot at age eight, but it was nourished through cast recordings and movies based on Broadway shows. Here are 14 film adaptations that for one reason or another float my boat, in chronological order.

Show Boat (1936)
James Whale’s black-and-white film version of this 1927 Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II masterpiece was completely unavailable when I was growing up. Oh, I could see MGM’s 1951 color remake on TV occasionally, and when it was broadcast my parents and I would usually watch it, as they were big fans of its star, soprano Kathryn Grayson. My mother would always torture me by saying that the 1936 version was infinitely superior, particularly due to the performance of Paul Robeson. She saw it in its original release, when she was a mere 14 years old. I wouldn’t get a chance to see for myself until years later, long after she was gone. If I remember correctly, I caught it at the Regency Theatre, a house that only showed old films, just a block from my Upper West Side home. As Hammerstein did the screenplay, it was more faithful to the original than MGM’s, and there were also a few new songs written with Kern for it, none of which were in the remake. Mom was right, both about it being a much better version and about Robeson. It was, alas, too late to tell her. There was never a soundtrack recording released, but you can hear stars Irene Dunne (who played Magnolia on Broadway in the original production) and Allan Jones duet on one of those new songs, the lovely “I Have the Room Above Her,” on Irene Dunne Sings Kern and Other Rarities.

The King and I (1956)
By the time I saw this film in a cinema, in its 1966 re-release at age 12, I had long since memorized the score from the soundtrack LP. So I was very surprised when “My Lord and Master,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” were not included, as they were all on the soundtrack album. They hadn’t been there when I saw the movie on TV, but I assumed they had been cut to make room for commercials. Despite my disappointment, the blazing star performances of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (with a vital vocal assist from Marni Nixon that I wouldn’t find out about for years) and strong story swept me away. I think it’s one of only two Rodgers and Hammerstein film adaptations that work as well as their stage equivalents, perhaps in part because it is based on a screenplay (1946’s Anna and the King of Siam) and is set in a palace, allowing it to be shot in a studio and more successfully maintain a consistent level of stylized reality. If only they could find the lost footage of “Shall I Tell You…?” and insert it back into the film, it might be an almost perfect movie.

West Side Story (1961)
Book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim have over the years been vocal about their dislike of this film adaptation, but I think they should’ve considered themselves lucky to have such a fine translation of their work. The opening prologue plunges us immediately into a world where music, dance, and rhythm are the natural language of the film. Directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins employ elaborate studio sets that artfully recall reality while moving it forward a notch. Robbins rethinks his choreography for the screen brilliantly, capturing the essence of his stage work as he mixes it with more realistic actions and movements, making it seem at home on film. The directors elicit strong performances from their four leading actors, two of whom won Oscars. Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Irwin Kostal, and Sid Ramin treat Leonard Bernstein’s stunning music with painstaking love and care. Making “America” a battle between the male and female Sharks is an improvement (and returns the song to the way it was originally written), while the dramatic re-placements of “Cool,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and “I Feel Pretty” allow for an unbroken rising line of dramatic tension necessitated by the absence of an intermission. Admittedly, the dubbing of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer is a drawback, but hardly enough of one to scuttle the overall effect. It’s a brilliant film. I only hope that Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake can rise to the same heights.

The Music Man (1962)
This film succeeds by emphasizing its stage origins at every turn, right down to fading out the lights at the ends of scenes, which perhaps is no surprise, as its director, Morton Da Costa, also helmed it on stage. It’s a dangerous choice, but it works here. Da Costa makes the chorus of small-town Iowans a virtual leading character, gleefully embracing their presentational manner to the point that, during the establishing song “Iowa Stubborn,” he includes a shot of star Robert Preston sitting on his salesman’s trunk while watching the company as if he were an audience. The approach suits the proudly old-fashioned material, trumpeting its virtues as a square, corny, retrograde musical comedy and making it seem almost mythical. Heretic that I am, I prefer “Being in Love” to “My White Knight”; I think it makes Marian the Librarian a little more self-aware and a little less romantically overbearing. And the finale, in which the kids and townspeople instantly morph into a snazzy marching band and audience, is transformational, something that could only be done on screen. It’s the visual equivalent of the proud mother crying, “That’s my Barney!” when the ragtag band begins to play for the first time using the think system, and it lifts the proceedings to a new level. It, of course, plays under the credits, and whenever they roll, a tear always rolls down my cheek as well.

My Fair Lady (1964)
Alan Jay Lerner is on record as saying that none of the film adaptations of his stage work—all of which he was involved with as screenwriter and/or producer—were as good as the original. And, indeed, he won his two screenwriting Oscars for the original film musicals An American in Paris and Gigi, so perhaps his feelings are understandable. Nevertheless, I think director George Cukor gave him an elegant, sophisticated, and emotionally resonant film with My Fair Lady. Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway artfully recalibrate their stage performances for the screen, and the supporting cast—from Wilfrid Hyde-White to Gladys Cooper to Jeremy Brett—is unimpeachable. Audrey Hepburn does very fine work as Eliza Doolittle despite being mostly dubbed in the songs by Marni Nixon, who matches Hepburn’s acting choices admirably if not her vocal quality. No, Hepburn is not Julie Andrews, but casting Andrews was never in the cards. The stylization of the Ascot sequence is just right, as is the section when we see Covent Garden come to life in a series of frozen images that then suddenly burst into movement. I’ve seen My Fair Lady on stage many times in a variety of productions, including 1976’s Broadway edition that reproduced director Moss Hart’s original production, but the only one I’ve seen that equaled the film is the current Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher. There’s a reason the movie won the 1965 best picture Oscar: It’s very, very good.

The Sound of Music (1965)
This is the other R&H film adaptation noted above, and I think it actually improves on the stage version. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay scrapes off much of the operetta sugaring of Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse’s book, while his repurposing of the songs “My Favorite Things” and “The Lonely Goatherd” uses them to better dramatic effect than on stage. The addition of “I Have Confidence,” a much-needed character-establishing song for Maria, is also a plus, though, alas, exchanging “An Ordinary Couple” for the equally bland “Something Good” is largely a wash. Making Baroness Schrader responsible for Maria’s choice to go back to the abbey adds an important scene to the story. Director Robert Wise’s thrilling opening sequence makes the location photography a crucial part of the mise en scène while also setting up the musical language of the film. Cutting the two comedy songs for Max and the Baroness is also wise. Characters on screen need greater permission to sing than they do on stage, and these are too peripheral to merit song time. Indeed, they register more strongly by not singing. Julie Andrews anchors it all with a mesmerizing star performance. Oscar Hammerstein II died, of course, before the film was made, but I have to think that upon its release he was smiling happily somewhere.

Camelot (1967)
Director Joshua Logan’s film version of Lerner and Loewe’s final Broadway show doesn’t get much love from film critics and cineastes, but I’m happy to stand up for it. I wonder if its bad reputation doesn’t stem in part from the fact that for many years you could only see it in a horribly butchered version that sacrificed cohesion for length. I saw the uncut roadshow release only once in a theatre, and it wasn’t before the film’s release on videocassette sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s that I was able to see it again. For his screenplay, Lerner actually returned to his first draft of the stage musical, which underwent a torturous out-of-town tryout during which a great deal was cut in an effort to lighten this tale of a bold attempt at civilization that founders on the rocks of adultery and betrayal. In particular, Lerner chose to tell the film in flashback, beginning with a scene of King Arthur and his troops awaiting the coming of dawn and war with Sir Lancelot. He had contemplated doing this on stage, in an effort to marry the lighter first act with the darker second, but the first act was playing so well that he didn’t have the nerve. (For later stage revivals, however, he incorporated it.) On screen Lerner finally successfully negotiates the story’s shift in tone. While Logan’s direction is sometimes heavy-handed, the film is bolstered by Vanessa Redgrave’s mercurial, sensuous, and stunningly beautiful Guenevere, while Franco Nero is a suitably dashing, quietly romantic Lancelot, finding unexpected depth in the character, especially in his speech about being a “fanatic.” Richard Harris is an uneven King Arthur, a bit too self-conscious in his quest for charm, but he’s still a great actor who has his share of fine dramatic moments. For me, the flaws in presentation are more than outweighed by the considerable improvement in the telling of the story. It reminds me that initial instincts are often to be trusted.

Oliver! (1968)
Sir Carol Reed’s direction is what most distinguishes this film of Lionel Bart’s 1960 London stage hit based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In particular, he imposes subtext and dramatic action on a score that largely lacked them in the theatre. Character interaction and dramatic context are always present during the musical sequences, even huge production numbers like “Consider Yourself,” keeping the audience interested in songs that on stage relied merely on live performance energy. Reed’s use of “Oom-Pah-Pah” is an example. Originally a pure performance number, on screen it becomes a diversionary tactic by Nancy, in which she distracts her abusive lover, Bill Sykes, allowing her to steal Oliver away from him and take the boy to freedom. Reed also removes Sykes’ only song, “My Name” (though it is used as underscoring), allowing his nephew, actor Oliver Reed, to give a gritty, menacing, dangerous performance as a man much too evil to be able to participate in the musical universe of the score. The film is filled with fine acting and singing, splashy choreography, and expensive sets, but it’s Reed’s attention to character detail and storytelling that makes it all work. Shockingly, the film soundtrack CD seems to be out of print and has never been made available digitally, but you can buy used copies on Amazon.com.

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
This is as unlikely a musical film as you might encounter, a star-studded, savagely satiric, defiantly surreal movie derived from Joan Littlewood’s plucky, bare-bones, experimental fringe stage revue. What both share is a fierce anti-war sentiment that is dramatized through song parodies created and sung by the soldiers who were coolly slaughtered without purpose in World War I. First-time film director Richard Attenborough finds imaginative visual equivalents for the show’s Brechtian stage presentation, and his use of a single British family that loses numerous sons to the conflict provides a narrative thread that holds the revue’s disparate pieces together, something the numerous star cameos also do. The movie’s final image, a helicopter shot that keeps pulling back and back, never stopping, as the women of the Smith family become tiny moving dots of white in a sea of white crosses planted in a verdant green field as a male chorus sings “Oh, We’ll Never Tell Them,” a parody of Jerome Kern and Herbert Reynold’s 1914 hit romantic ballad “They’ll Never Believe Me,” is simply one of the most powerful moments I have ever witnessed on the big screen. It’s just not the same at home on DVD, but you certainly will get the idea. The richly sung and orchestrated soundtrack LP never even made the leap to CD, but you can stream the movie on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

The Boy Friend (1971)
I was a freshman in college when Ken Russell’s rambunctious, flamboyantly huge adaptation of Sandy Wilson’s delicate satire of 1920s musicals arrived on screen, and at the time I hated it. I thought Russell was treating the material with condescension and contempt, because rather than simply telling the story, he instead focused on a seedy provincial theatre production of the show, giving us only excerpts from The Boy Friend surrounded by the shoddy backstage shenanigans of the company producing it and the wild big-screen fantasies of those actors, all hoping that the presence of a Hollywood producer in the audience will whisk them off to film stardom. Of course, I didn’t know I was seeing a cut version of Russell’s vision (it ran unaltered in England), but I don’t think that would have changed my mind. It took time and maturation for me to understand that a straightforward adaptation would have landed with a sorry squish in 1971. I finally saw the uncut version years later in a revival house, and I watched with an unwavering smile, finally able to see Russell’s affection for the property while being impressed by his reinvention of it to satirize the tropes of 1930s film musicals. No, it wasn’t The Boy Friend, but it was a lovely salute to what that show was that searched for a way for contemporary audiences to be entertained by it. For me, it found that way, and I’ve been a fan ever since. My only complaint is the unbilled cameo by Glenda Jackson as the star who breaks an ankle, allowing poor unrehearsed Twiggy to go on as understudy. Jackson is very funny, but the role should have been played by Julie Andrews. I gather they asked, but she demurred. What a pity. (Unfortunately, the film soundtrack, as with Oh! What a Lovely War, remains locked in vinyl.)

Cabaret (1972)
Bob Fosse’s film version of this superb Joe Masteroff–John Kander–Fred Ebb–Harold Prince musical was, to put it simply, a shock. Because I owned the soundtrack LP, I knew going in that all of the character numbers had been cut. Every song was diegetic, a performance number. Also, the subplot about the ill-fated middle-aged romance between German Fraulein Schneider and Jewish Herr Schultz had been cut, replaced by a different one of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories that featured younger characters. I had seen and loved the Broadway version, so I was extremely skeptical, and yet Fosse’s take on the material was mesmerizing. I was just as bowled over by his film as I had been by the stage piece. They were just, well, different, that’s all. I think that Cabaret is probably the single best film on this list. However, it was of no use in solving the problem of audiences accepting characters singing non-realistically on film. Audiences had always been uneasy with book musicals on screen, and the rock revolution was only exacerbating the problem. It would soon lead to the near-extinction of the genre for a period of 30 years.

1776 (1972)
What a disappointment this movie was! Original Broadway director Peter H. Hunt made his film debut with it, and most of his actors had played the show on Broadway, many of them in the original cast. Perhaps that’s why it felt so stodgy and choppy. Another reason was the amount of material cut to make the film shorter, including the wonderful song for the conservatives in Congress, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men.” I thought the best thing about it was the chance to experience Howard Da Silva’s Benjamin Franklin, a performance that hadn’t been preserved on the OBCR because the actor suffered a heart attack during final Broadway previews. Reviews weren’t good, and the film flopped pretty quickly. Cut to 1992, when a laser disc “restoration” was announced. It turned out that Hunt had shot the entire Broadway show, but producer Jack L. Warner, spooked by the increasing unpopularity of film musicals, had slashed 39 minutes out of the film before releasing it and insisted that the cut material be destroyed. Fortunately, some folks didn’t comply. The laser disc used a variety of sources, some of them faded work prints, but the original was pieced back together except for one single missing shot. Then a complete negative of what Hunt had intended to release, 12 minutes shorter than the laser disc print, was discovered. Hunt’s vision is an entirely different film. With his shooting rhythms intact, you can appreciate his use of panning shots and deep focus, reminiscent of Citizen Kane, that make the film feel vibrantly alive even though it mostly takes place in one room. The cuts to Peter Stone’s script had been the most harmful of all, robbing the characters and their political arguments of complexity. I actually prefer the 180-minute laser disc cut to the 168-minute Hunt original release cut, but the differences are small and both are terrific films. This movie improves every time I watch it. I’m so glad that somebody ignored Jack L. Warner. (Alas, this is the third soundtrack LP on this list never to have made it to CD.)

Chicago (2002)
In the 30 years after 1776 there were, of course, some attempts to adapt a Broadway book musical to the screen. However, films such as Annie, A Little Night Music, A Chorus Line, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas didn’t do much to help the cause. Nor really did Hair or Grease, though they got better reviews and Grease was actually a hit. Director-choreographer Rob Marshall started to put an end to the drought with his delightful 1999 TV remake of Annie for Disney. I saw it in a special screening at the New Amsterdam Theatre, and it looked just fine on the big screen, though the need to keep it to 90 minutes meant that the original had to be seriously abridged. Then Marshall delivered Chicago, and everything changed. He and screenwriter Bill Condon didn’t have the nerve to just let characters sing, but the device they used of having all the musical numbers be fantasies in Roxie’s head worked well for the material, and Marshall, who grew up loving the book musical film adaptations of the 1950s and ’60s, knew in his bones how they functioned. While I do miss a few of the songs that Marshall cut, especially, “My Own Best Friend” and “Class,” Chicago is a first-rate film, delivering its story and characters with punch, wit, and flair. I liked it at once, but when I saw how he filmed “The Cell Block Tango,” I was convinced he was the real deal.

Into the Woods (2014)
Even Marshall had a learning curve, which is the only way I can explain how he mucked up his next film musical adaptation, 2009’s Nine. The less said about it, the better, but it made me very nervous about what he would do to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s much-loved fairy tale show. Of course, with Lapine doing his own screenplay, there appeared to be hope. I settled into my seat at New York’s Ziegfeld Theatre with fingers crossed, and they were quickly disengaged. Here was a full-out book show, with no attempt to apologize for characters singing about their thoughts and feelings. The cast was uniformly strong, with Meryl Streep for my money the best Witch ever seen. I even felt that Lapine and Marshall had improved on the original, simplifying the sometimes-overcomplicated storytelling neatly. The only song I missed was “No More,” but I could understand its absence due to the loss of the character of the Mysterious Man narrator, and I actually preferred having the Baker narrate the story. Marshall’s Into the Woods has become my favorite iteration of the material. His next film was the 2018 sequel Mary Poppins Returns for Disney, a wonderful film shot through with love for the original. Even Vincente Minnelli made Yolanda and the Thief, so I won’t hold Nine against Marshall. I’m just so glad that we have him.

Well, it seems that after a five-year run BwayTunes is closing shop. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Having just turned 65, I’m nevertheless nowhere near ready to retire. I don’t know what’s next, but whatever it is, I’m certain it will have something to do with the two most glorious words in the English language: musical theatre.

 

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Apr
05

Putting the God in Goddard

Is it just a coincidence that Goddard Lieberson’s first name contains the appellation of a deity? He certainly was the Creator of the original cast recording, as opposed to the original cast album, because he was one of the two men who developed the 33 1/3 rpm long-playing LP format for Columbia Records. Prior to the LP, cast recordings were issued as a series of records, each of which could only contain about three-and-a-half minutes worth of music per side, packaged like a photo album with multiple pages, except here each disc had its own page, i.e., sleeve. Listening to the 1943 OBCR of Oklahoma! would have required the listener to get up 12 times, six to put a record on and six to flip it over. With the LP, that was reduced to a single interruption, allowing for a much stronger sense of dramatic continuity.

The first OBCR released as an LP was the Lieberson-produced Kiss Me, Kate, in 1949, featuring what is probably Cole Porter’s most popular score. The show was Porter’s first attempt to write in the Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated book musical structure, and that gamble paid off handsomely. Lieberson would go on across the next 26 years to oversee more classic OBCRs than any other record producer of his era, a list that includes such iconic titles as Kismet, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, Bells Are Ringing, West Side Story, Gypsy, Camelot, Bye Bye Birdie, Cabaret, Mame, Sweet Charity, A Little Night Music, and A Chorus Line. He was also finely attuned to translating the theatrical experience into recording terms, frequently making changes in how the score was presented in the theatre that helped to convey aurally what was missing visually.

That desire, however, to re-create the sensation of experiencing a musical in the theatre while telling the story clearly and compellingly, clashed with another desire: to have hit radio singles of the songs. In service of this purpose, Lieberson hated to include dialogue on a recording, and he was notorious for cutting it to a bare minimum. True, he let us hear Patricia Morison’s Lili Vanessi say, “Snowdrops, and pansies, and rosemary—my wedding bouquet. Oh, he didn’t forget” before launching into “So in Love,” but I still find it hard to forgive him for robbing us of the Third Cockney’s “Where are you bound for this spring, Eliza? Biarritz?” in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and especially Julie Andrews’ Guenevere noting sarcastically, “And I suppose the autumn leaves fall into neat little piles” in the title song of Camelot. Instead, the underscoring just plays out while you wonder what’s happening.

But we are here to worship Goddard, not to blame him, and he indeed left the world an extraordinary legacy. I have chosen to focus on recordings with which I believe he saved an important score from vanishing into obscurity. He was not afraid to preserve flops when he thought the work merited it, usually scores of rather challenging material, and he also made a point of making a series of studio recordings of important scores that had gone undocumented prior to the popularization of cast recordings. Here are 10 Lieberson recordings to which I think the world owes considerable thanks.

Street Scene (1947)
This is the only recording on this list that Lieberson made prior to the advent of the LP. It’s telling that when I got my CD down from the shelf, I discovered that it was still in its shrink-wrap and carrying a Tower Records price tag of $12.99. As an LP I listened to it a lot, despite the muddy sound of the fake-stereo LP reissue I had and some consonant-corrupting operatic singing of a couple of the principals, because the Kurt Weill–Langston Hughes score, however truncated, was fascinating and haunting. But by the time it got to CD, I had supplanted it with several full-length recordings, the first being a bootleg audio of an excellent 1982 Equity Library Theatre production and then recordings of a 1989 English National Opera production and conductor John Mauceri’s 1991 complete studio recording (sadly out of print). Lieberson was only able to record 53 minutes worth of the nearly 150-minute show, but Weill thanked him personally in the original liner notes for his “comprehensive recording” that “allowed me to work out a sort of continuity so that, in listening to this recorded performance, we can follow the action and the emotional ups-and-downs of this play about life in a street of New York,” even though “important parts of the score…had to be omitted.” Listening to the CD for the first time, the poor sound has happily been rectified, and the performances spark like only those of an original cast that has performed the show on stage can. And would we have had any subsequent recordings without it? Even two well-received New York City Opera productions, from 1959 and 1979, failed to get waxed. Though the show got good notices in 1947, it was too serious and operatic for general audiences and expired after only four months. It’s Lieberson’s recording that kept Street Scene alive.

Out of This World (1950)
This much-anticipated Cole Porter musical, his follow-up to Kiss Me, Kate, also ran only four months, but it didn’t get the good reviews that Street Scene did. The Dwight Taylor–Reginald Lawrence book, based on the Amphitryon legend about the Greek god Jupiter coming to earth to seduce a mortal woman, was a mess, and the show was faulted for being too revue-like, an old-fashioned, pre-Oklahoma! musical comedy. However, some people, including the show’s co-producer, Saint Subber, who had also co-produced Kate, thought it Porter’s finest score. I discovered it in college when it was reissued on Columbia’s Special Products Series and was utterly delighted with it. Lieberson’s OBCR didn’t keep the show alive to prove a success later, but it did allow this fabulous Porter effort to live on until Encores! did a concert version during its second season in 1995. There’s a delightful recording of that as well, which includes two songs cut originally, the lovely “You Don’t Remind Me” and “From This Moment On,” which found its way into the film version of Kate and became a standard.

Pal Joey (1951)
Lieberson recorded this 1940 hit by John O’Hara (book), Lorenz Hart (lyrics), and Richard Rodgers (music) with a studio cast that included the hot new dancer Harold Lang and original star Vivienne Segal, re-creating her role as Chicago socialite Vera Simpson. Though the show had been a success at the box office, running just shy of a year and spawning a national tour, a number of the critics thought the story, about a low-life, thoroughly amoral hoofer named Joey Evans trying to sleep his way to success, was too distasteful for a musical. Lieberson’s dynamic LP showcased the brilliant Rodgers and Hart score and got people to reconsider the musical itself, inspiring a 1952 Broadway revival co-produced by composer Jule Styne that was a huge success, running 540 performances, a record at the time for a musical revival. Pal Joey went on to become a hit film starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak and be revived three more times on Broadway, most recently by the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2009. However, most versions have had a rewritten script, in which the adaptors attempt to redeem Joey before the final curtain. This is completely wrongheaded. The whole point of the show is that he learns absolutely nothing from his mistakes. If any rewrites need to be done at all, they should attempt to more successfully merge the gangster subplot, which is strictly old school musical comedy, with the adult main story, which is totally dramatically integrated, character-driven book musical material.

Porgy and Bess (1951)
This was the first “complete” recording of DuBose Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera, and it proved a revelation. (It is, alas, out of print on CD, though available from third parties on Amazon.com, and unreleased digitally.) The original production received mixed reviews and managed a Broadway run of only three-and-a-half months. It spawned a sort of cast recording in 1940, when members of the Broadway cast were reassembled to record highlights for Decca Records, though that contained choices such as Todd Duncan, the original Porgy, singing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which, of course, was Sportin’ Life’s song. In 1942, producer Cheryl Crawford made the show a Broadway hit by turning the recitative into spoken dialogue, turning it into a book musical rather than an opera. It was Lieberson and conductor Lehman Engel who rescued the piece, recording the version that originally opened on Broadway intact. However, that had nearly an hour’s worth of cuts from what had opened out of town. George Gershwin made those cuts, but he wasn’t necessarily happy about doing so. This recording was rereleased on Odyssey, a Columbia subsidiary, in 1968, and I bought it in the mid-1970s. However, I never got to know it too well, because in 1976 a complete recording of the uncut opera came out conducted by Lorin Maazel of the Cleveland Orchestra, so I listened to that instead. Then, that same year, the Houston Grand Opera staged a production of the uncut version, which was also recorded. I saw that sensational production on Broadway, and the OBCR has been my go-to version ever since. Listening to Lieberson’s recording now, I am struck by the sensitive and theatrical performances under Engel’s faultless, finely tuned musical direction, particularly impressive for a studio recording of pickup performers. In 1952 an international tour of Porgy and Bess went out that restored many though not all of the recitatives, undoubtedly sparked by Lieberson’s recording. Without it, Porgy and Bess might have remained a musical, and we would have lost the greatest American opera ever written.

The Most Happy Fella (1956)
Frank Loesser called his musical adaptation of Sidney Howard’s play They Knew What They Wanted “a musical with a lot of music,” but others insisted that it was an opera due the score’s musical complexity and the script’s almost total lack of dialogue. As opera was a dirty word on Broadway at the time, we’ll probably never know for sure how Loesser really saw his work. When I started collecting Broadway cast recordings, only a one-LP set of excerpts from this recording was available. I liked the songs well enough, but the recording felt very fragmentary, with little theatrical heft, so I didn’t listen to it all that much. I knew of the three-LP nearly complete recording’s existence, but it was long out of print and I couldn’t find one anywhere, not even in a library. I finally heard the full work when I connected with John McGlinn at the end of my freshman year at Northwestern. The day we met, at interviews for positions on Northwestern’s student musical revue, the WAA-MU Show, he took me back to his apartment and played me the whole thing. I was floored by it and desperately wanted my own copy, which I finally found at Chicago’s legendary Rose Records. It was Lieberson’s decision to record the full score, even though that three-LP set was highly unlikely to make a profit. If he hadn’t done it, who knows if the show would ever have been revived on Broadway? I’m beyond grateful to him, even if I’m also annoyed that he didn’t record the one dialogue-only scene, a comic set piece in which ranch hand Herman flirts with ex-waitress Cleo while teaching her how to paste labels on shipping boxes. I bet Shorty Long and Susan Johnson killed it every time.

Candide (1956)
My best friend in high school, Bill Sisson, introduced me to this Leonard Bernstein score (lyrics mostly by Richard Wilbur) for Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of Voltaire’s “schoolboy jape” skewering mindless optimism. It was so classically influenced that it took me a while to assimilate it, but I eventually did, and the OBCR remains a desert-island disc for me. It ran for only two months on Broadway, after opening to mixed reviews, but Lieberson recorded it anyway, allowing the glorious score its due. People kept trying to fix the thing because of the score, and for my money it was only the 1973 Hugh Wheeler–Stephen Sondheim–Harold Prince revisal that did the trick theatrically. That version was recorded in its entirety, and I do enjoy listening to it, but nothing is as good as the original OBCR, particularly due to the splendid Barbara Cook’s matchless acting and singing as Cunegonde. Today the show is a staple of the repertoire, even if in various versions, and it’s all thanks to Lieberson. And bless him for including Max Adrian’s indelibly cynical line reading of “Well, they all believe what they’re screaming. We’ll see” during the “Quartet Finale” the ends Act 1. Though, admittedly, that cut was not likely to get stand-alone radio play.

Regina (1958)
Marc Blitzstein’s vibrant adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s 1939 melodrama The Little Foxes debuted on Broadway in 1949 and played for 56 performances, not bad for an opera but hardly a commercial success. New York City Opera revived it to acclaim in 1953 and then again in 1958, after Lieberson had become president of Columbia Records. While his name is not on the recording as producer (no one’s is; the credit is merely “Recorded under the auspices of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Inc.”), as president he would have green-lit the project, and, especially due to his longstanding friendship with Blitzstein (which dated back to the 1930s, when both were trying to make their marks as composers), I can’t believe that Lieberson wasn’t seriously involved with the making of this highly theatrical complete three-LP recording. Alas, it documents a seriously cut version of the score (with most of the cuts having been made at the urging of Hellman, who had mixed feelings about seeing her work musicalized), but it is vital to any musical theatre collection just for its brilliant performances and dramatic integrity. In 1992, conductor John Mauceri and his then-student Tommy Krasker restored Blitzstein’s original vision and produced it for the Scottish Opera. That two-CD release is out of print, but copies can be found on Amazon.com. You really need both.

Juno (1959)
Blitzstein’s final Broadway work was this adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s drama Juno and the Paycock, which had a book by Joseph Stein. Ironically, it was done as a commercial book musical, when the material might better have lent itself to an opera. In any event, book and score failed to mesh, and the show closed at the Winter Garden Theatre after a mere 16 performances. Nevertheless, Lieberson recorded it, though it quickly went out of print. I still remember my boundless joy at finding the LP in a cutout record bin at a Zayre’s convenience store in suburban Ohio for a mere 49 cents, one Sunday afternoon in 1970 after church. My mother was utterly mystified as I babbled excitedly from the back seat of our car about Blitzstein, star Shirley Booth, choreographer Agnes de Mille, and the LPs extreme rarity. There have been several attempts to fix the show in the intervening years, once again due to the lure of a great score, all of which I have either seen or heard. All had charms but none worked completely, though I think the best was done by Geraldine Fitzgerald, who also starred, and Richard Maltby Jr. for the Long Wharf Theatre in 1976. It was retitled Daarlin’ Juno and contained additional lyrics by Maltby, and I only know it thanks to a live bootleg recording. I think Maltby should reacquire the rights and take one more stab at it.

On the Town (1960)
Lieberson’s collaborations with Leonard Bernstein on Candide and West Side Story led to this long-overdue documentation of Bernstein’s debut Broadway musical from 1944. It’s a studio recording, and yet it isn’t, as four of the original six principals—Nancy Walker, Cris Alexander, and book writers–lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green—were reassembled for it. Daringly, Lieberson included the music for four hefty ballets in full, and I recall being gob-smacked by how exciting they were when I first heard them (as a teenager I was not much of a fan of extended dance music on cast recordings). As On the Town’s acclaimed 1949 MGM film version had jettisoned most of Bernstein’s music in favor of new, and decidedly inferior, songs by Comden, Green, and MGM house composer Roger Edens, Lieberson’s recording was a crucial rescue mission. It has led to three Broadway revivals, though only the last one, in 2014, really clicked. The terrific cast recording of that revival is the most complete and has become my favorite to listen to, but Lieberson’s remains indelible due the inclusion of those original cast performances and Bernstein’s conducting of the ballets. Without it, MGM’s movie might have remained the last word on the property.

Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
I became obsessed with this absurdist fable by Arthur Laurents (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) about conformity and sanity after reading the published script at the age of 15 at my local library. It was my introduction to the work of both men, though it took me two years to hunt down a copy of the out-of-print OBCR. I finally was able to buy it from the local Columbia Records distributor, who had a sample copy of every Columbia release sitting in his garage. The lady clerk at Hurst’s Tune Town took pity on me and put me in touch with him after numerous unsuccessful attempts to order it through the Schwann Catalogue, which still listed it as in print. The musical received violently mixed notices and closed after only nine performances, but Lieberson knew it was an important score and documented it anyway. While it has never made it into the hit column, the show has a devoted cult following and is produced a fair amount. I’ve seen it on stage six times, thrice in concert versions. Never would’ve happened without good ol’ Goddard, by god.

Bonus: Brigadoon (1958)
I just couldn’t write about Goddard Lieberson without including this studio recording of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s first Broadway hit. While it didn’t prevent a great score from being lost (the 1947 OBCR has never been out of print), it did present it more or less in full for the first time, and with a theatricality that the truncated OBCR, which only runs 33 minutes, lacks. Then-married Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones make an ideal romantic couple, and for my money no one has ever delivered a better Meg Brockie than the incomparable Susan Johnson, who on this disc became the first person to record Meg’s Act 1 saucy paean to inadvertent promiscuity, “The Love of My Life.” Lieberson even included all the dialogue in “Heather on the Hill” and “From This Day On,” perhaps because the song hits from the score were already well established, and he didn’t have to worry about radio airplay. There have been some pretty good recordings since, most recently the 2017 Encores! production starring Kelli O’Hara, Patrick Wilson, and Stephanie J. Block, but I still favor Lieberson and Lehman Engel’s landmark effort.

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Mar
22

What Is the Stars?

This week I am allowed to select my own topic, and my choice comes out of recent experience. I just finished watching 11 performances of Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry’s 1971 musical Lolita, My Love, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, in a book-in-hand concert staging presented as part of the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti series honoring Lerner’s centenary. I saw all 11 shows because I edited together the script that was used, taking it from six different scripts in the Lerner archives at the Library of Congress. Thanks to the extraordinary direction of Emily Maltby and the sterling work from a phenomenally talented and extremely hardworking company of 13 actors, I was very proud of what was on the York stage and happy to see how well audiences responded to it.

Central to the production’s success was the stunning performance of Robert Sella as Nabokov’s anti-hero, the pedophilic literature professor from Switzerland known as Humbert Humbert, fiction’s most famous unreliable narrator. The character virtually never leaves the stage, as the whole musical takes place in a psychiatrist’s office in which Humbert is being examined by Dr. June Ray as to the state of his sanity. Lolita, My Love had 27 musical numbers, 16 songs and 11 reprises, and Humbert was involved in 24 of them and sang in 16. It’s a mammoth part of extreme psychological complexity that calls for nothing short of a tour de force star performance, and I watched Robby deliver exactly that at every show. I was in awe of him each time.

I started thinking about the idea of “star” performances. I suppose the term means different things to different people, but I realized that for me it means a performance that galvanizes me, whether emotionally, intellectually, or simply in terms of sheer show biz. It leaps across the footlights, grabs me by the throat, and won’t let go. It can be delivered by an actual star, one whose name above the title guarantees ticket sales, but it can also come from an actor who is not at all famous. It often happens in a leading role, but it can also come in a brief appearance. I’ve been fortunate to experience quite a few star turns in my nearly 60 years of theatergoing. Here are 10 of them, in alphabetical order.

Marilyn Cooper in Woman of the Year
Thanks to the magic of the alphabet we begin with possibly the briefest star turn I’ve ever seen. Late in Act 2, famous TV news personality Tess Harding visits with her ex-husband and his second wife to find the secret of their marital success, because her second marriage is on the rocks. Cooper played the wife, Jan, sharing a breakfast scene in her kitchen with the musical’s star, Lauren Bacall, as Tess, and joining with her in a hilarious John Kander and Fred Ebb duet, “The Grass Is Always Greener.” Cooper’s deadly deadpan and Swiss watch comic timing landed consistent belly laughs, and her shlubby housewife in a smatte was a brilliant caricature with just the right amount of honesty simmering underneath. She stole the musical right out from under Bacall and wound up with 1981 Tony and Drama Desk awards for best performance by a featured actress in a musical. Not bad for a mere 13 minutes on stage.

Joel Grey in George M!
Because my high school group visiting from Cleveland saw this bio musical about George M. Cohan at a Wednesday matinee a mere two weeks before it closed in April 1969, we had great center orchestra seats at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. (Usually we were stuck up in the rear balcony.) I already knew Joel Grey from the OBCR of Cabaret, but I was unprepared for his magnetic triple-threat performance, acting, singing, and dancing as the Man Who Owned Broadway with command and élan to spare. It seemed as if director-choreographer Joe Layton’s whirlwind production never stopped moving, the Cohan songs were seriously infectious (even the ones I didn’t know), and 15-year-old me was totally bowled over, especially by the first-act closer, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which put a big old lump in my throat. When the national tour came to Cleveland not long after, I rushed to see the show again. Grey was as great as ever, but I couldn’t help noticing that Michael Stewart and Fran Pascal’s book was a bit thinner than I had thought, too much of an excuse for songs and not enough of a character study. It was an early lesson in developing a more discerning critical eye. Still, nothing can tarnish the glory of that afternoon at the Palace and Grey’s phenomenal performance.

Katharine Hepburn in Coco
Alan Jay Lerner crafted this 1969 musical about French couturier Coco Chanel’s post–World War II comeback specifically for Katharine Hepburn, who at the time was at the height of her international film stardom. In particular, the script’s in-your-face feminism fit the pugnacious Hepburn’s public image like a glove. She responded with an incandescent, incantatory performance that riveted the audience at Cleveland’s Music Hall (the show was on national tour after Broadway) like I have seldom seen since. Hepburn wasn’t much of a singer, but she could put a song across with gusto and switch seamlessly from steel to sentiment in the blink of an eye. She knew she was in a star vehicle and played it to the hilt, delivering unforgettable show biz panache with wit and flair. Brava! (You can see her in the show’s final scene and song, “Always Mademoiselle,” filmed for the 1970 Tony Awards, on YouTube.)

Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz
As my husband was the casting director for this 2003 bio musical about Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen, I first encountered Hugh Jackman’s electrifying performance in a small rehearsal studio on 42nd Street during a workshop presentation. The room couldn’t cramp the size and power of Jackman’s overwhelming theatricality, and it was quite clear that something very special was happening. Playwright Martin Sherman’s book was much richer and more political before Broadway, where it underwent an incompetent bris during previews, and as a gay man I was as moved as I was entertained. On Broadway the show featured flash over substance, but Jackman’s work only got better, drilling into the heart of this driven song-and-dance man and infused with a joy of performance that radiated throughout the Imperial Theatre like a thousand suns. It was a privilege to experience it.

Michael Jeter in Grand Hotel
It takes a singular talent to give a star performance while playing a nebbish, but that’s what Michael Jeter did as the dying bookkeeper Otto Kringelein, who has come to Berlin’s Grand Hotel for one fling before expiring, in search of a taste of the high life he has never known. Jeter delivered Kringelein’s shyness and sweetness at high wattage, and though it is a supporting character part, you couldn’t look away from the actor whenever he was on stage. Songwriters Robert Wright and George Forrest, with a little help from director-choreographer Tommy Tune, came up with the showstopping “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” in which the Jewish Kringelein and the elegant German Baron Felix von Gaigern celebrate their newly made and most unlikely friendship. Jeter’s impossibly frenetic, loose-limbed dancing effortlessly captured the moment’s potent mix of giddy joy and poignant incipient loss. When he hurtles over the bar, crashing out of reality and into momentary nirvana in limbo, I always choke up, and you can watch Jeter and Brent Barrett perform the number on the 1990 Tony Awards on YouTube.

Eartha Kitt in Timbuktu!
Playing Shaleem-La-Lume, wife of wives to the crooked Wazir of Timbuktu, Eartha Kitt was an elemental force of nature, and the brilliant Geoffrey Holder, who directed, choreographed, and designed the costumes, built this 1978 all-black revisal of Kismet around her. Whether entering triumphantly aloft on the shoulder of one of her cadre of muscle-bound bodyguards or smoldering her way through a suggestive recipe for a sweet, Kitt was mesmerizingly sexy, saucy, and salacious. With a simple flash of her eyes she could bring down the house. My ex-husband served as assistant to producer and book writer Luther Davis, so I saw the show many times, and Kitt always gave her all. No, it wasn’t about much of anything, except perhaps the glorification of a magnificent African culture, but it was beautiful to look at, lovely to hear, and fun. A good friend who taught musical theatre performance at the University of New Hampshire called it “children’s theatre for adults,” which struck me as astute and apt. Despite mixed notices it ran for eight months and spawned a successful national tour headed by Kitt, but there was no recording. Still, you can see Kitt make her entrance and sing her establishing song, “In the Beginning, Woman,” one of several new numbers added to the score by Robert Wright and George Forrest, on YouTube, as well as her formula for “Rahadlakum,” also on YouTube.

Donna Murphy in Birds of Paradise
If ever there was an ensemble musical, it’s Winnie Holzman and David Evans’ 1987 off-Broadway piece about a group of amateur performers staging a musical version of Chekhov’s The Sea Gull under the direction of an out-of-work Broadway actor. The show had a powerhouse cast of mostly soon-to-break-out actors all doing excellent work, and yet what I recall most vividly is Donna Murphy’s comically concentrated, ironically named Hope, “a thirty-ish depressed feminist.” Murphy was an absolute hoot clad in masculine wear chosen to hide her femininity while drooping fiercely about the stage as she pined for the musical’s author, Homer, who was in love with his leading lady, who was in love with the director, who…you get the idea. Her only solo was a deliberately bad song, “Diva,” from a musical rip off of My Fair Lady that the troupe had originally intended to do, and it didn’t make the cast album. But just listen to her delivery of lines such as “To what end?” in the opening number (when she’s asked if she is going to warm up her voice before performing) and the surprised glee that she gives “Me too!” after another character sings “And I need lingerie” in the title song, as well as her fierce refusal to name her beloved in the same song. It was my first time seeing her on a stage, and afterward I remember remarking to numerous friends, “Donna Murphy! Who is she?”

Tonya Pinkins in Caroline, or Change
Playwright-lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori don’t much care whether you like their titular character, an increasingly bitter and angry African-American maid for an upper-class Jewish family struggling to keep her family afloat in 1963 New Orleans, but they do want you to understand her. Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2003, Tonya Pinkins provided this complex, psychologically layered show with a rock-solid center of gravity, one that still held when the musical moved to the larger confines of Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theatre in 2004. If Caroline’s gruffness causes her to be less than articulate at times, Pinkins’ visceral emotional transparency communicated volumes about her roiling, often contradictory feelings. Her delivery of Caroline’s climactic soliloquy, “Lot’s Wife,” in which she tries to murder any hope left in her after she has cruelly lashed out at her employer’s child in anger, begging God, “Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me,” was quite simply one of the most heartbreaking moments of musical theatre I have ever witnessed, one that Pinkins elevated into transcendent art.

Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman
I think this 1993 musical adaptation of Manuel Puig’s classic novel is my favorite Kander and Ebb musical, most likely to due to its bold mix of sexuality and politics. Of course, Terrence McNally’s taut book and Harold Prince’s inspired staging helped too. Playing a beloved and glamorous South American screen icon named Aurora, Rivera was asked to project an image rather than create a fully dimensional character, and she did so with high style, exploiting her own persona ruthlessly. Her presence haunted the musical all night, and she was particularly seductive and sensitive in Aurora’s final deathly pas de deux with Molina, the gay prison inmate who sacrifices his life to protect his cell partner, a heterosexual political revolutionary with whom Molina has fallen in love. I saw Vanessa Williams, Carol Lawrence, and Maria Conchita Alonso in the part as well, and all had plenty to recommend them, but none of them ruled that stage like Rivera.

David Rounds in Herringbone
This audacious one-man musical by Tom Cone (book), Ellen Fitzhugh (lyrics), and Skip Kennon (music) ran off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons for a mere 46 performances in the summer of 1982. It tells the story of a young boy in 1929 who becomes possessed by the ghost of a dead midget (they used that word then) entertainer named Chicken and rockets to stardom in vaudeville. David Rounds played all of the characters, who included the boy’s greedy but mystified parents and assorted people they all meet along the way. Rounds gave a kaleidoscopic, virtuosic performance in which you were never once unsure who was talking while displaying musical comedy chops of the highest level in his singing and dancing. His emotions ran the gamut from childlike innocence to adult debauchery and everything in between with crystalline clarity. Alas, it was to be his last role. We lost him to the plague of AIDS in December 1983. It’s a crime that no one recorded him in the role, but at least the show got a much needed waxing in 2012 when a production starring B.D. Wong was recorded for CD release live and in full at Dixon Place. I saw Wong do the show in 2007 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and he was very good, but he wasn’t as good as David Rounds. Nobody could be.

 

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Mar
08

Just a Cole Porter Song

I became a Cole Porter aficionado while still a teenager in high school. My gateway drug was the OBCR of Kiss Me, Kate, and soon I was also regularly listening to Can-Can, Silk Stockings, and the soundtrack of High Society. While I was in college, Columbia Records reissued the OBCR of Porter’s 1950 flop Out of This World in its Special Products Series, and for a time that took over as my favorite Porter score. Also during college, the scores for The Pirate and Les Girls were rereleased by MGM as part of the Silver Screen Soundtrack Series, and I also managed to acquire a copy of the out-of-print soundtrack to the TV special Aladdin by trading my studio recording of White House Inn for it with one of my teachers.

The above scores have one thing in common beside their author: They are all written for book musicals, in which the songs dramatize action and character in furtherance of storytelling, and, at first, though I knew Porter started writing musicals in 1929, I thought he belonged to the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe. Indeed, I even produced, directed, and performed in a musical revue, RH, LL, & Cole, in the summer of 1973, equating the songwriters with each other.

However, during college I discovered the OCR of the Ben Bagley revue The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, and my eyes were opened. The integrated book musical was not Porter’s natural state. Most of his career had been spent writing for jerrybuilt musical comedies in which the songs, the dances, the production values, and particularly the stars were all more important than plot and character. I also found an interview with Porter in the 1950s in which he was asked what was the most important development in musical theatre in his lifetime, and he answered, “Rodgers and Hammerstein.” I remember getting the distinct sense from reading that interview that Porter said it with some regret. He knew he had to write book musicals going forward, but he really preferred the older form.

Surprisingly, considering that I was devoted to book shows, this knowledge didn’t turn me off but spurred me into wanting to find as many pre–Kiss Me, Kate Porter songs as I could. I bought the OCR of the 1962 off-Broadway revival of Anything Goes, which became a favorite. Porter’s own demos for Jubilee came out during my college years, and I listened to them over and over. There was also a Bagley album released called Unpublished Cole Porter that dovetailed with the publication of a songbook of the same name containing some of the songs on the LP. I bought both, of course. Ultimately, Bagley released five LPs of older Porter material in his Revisited Series, and I grabbed them greedily.

Finally, the 1975 Peter Bogdanovich jukebox musical film At Long Last Love was another Porter milestone for me during college, despite its failure with critics and audiences. In its first-run engagement in Chicago, it kept losing songs and getting shorter with each week of the run. Restored and released on Blu-ray DVD in 2013, I think it’s better than its reputation, though hardly without flaws. It’s worth it just to see Madeline Kahn and Eileen Brennan exercise their musical-theatre chops on screen.

All of this is a way of saying that this column will be devoted not to Porter shows, but to Porter songs. The Indiana native could be self-deprecating about his work: “Have I the right hunch/Or have I the wrong?/Will it be Bach I shall hear/Or just a Cole Porter song?” he wrote in the lyric of  “At Long Last Love.” Philistine that I am, I’ll take Porter over Bach any day. Here is a playlist of a dozen favorite rarities.

“Please Don’t Monkey With Broadway,” from the film Broadway Melody of 1940
Fred Astaire and George Murphy introduced this jaunty paean to the Great White Way. The lyric includes such fun things as “Close those Village honky-tonks/Suppress cheering in the Bronx” and “Move Grant’s tomb to Union Square/And put Brooklyn anywhere.” Patti LuPone sang it, with slight alterations to the lyric, as the opening number of her 2017 show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Don’t Monkey With Broadway.

“Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” from the West End play O Mistress Mine
I don’t remember how Porter was inveigled to produce this triste ballad for a play in London, but he was, crafting it for French operetta star Yvonne Printemps, whose original performance you can hear on Cole Porter in London, Vol. 1. More recently the song was interpolated for Laura Osnes to sing as Hope Harcourt in Roundabout’s 2011 revisal of Anything Goes.

“Kate the Great,” cut from Anything Goes
Ethel Merman refused to sing this enthusiastic tribute to the sexual voraciousness of Russian Empress Catherine II because of the line “she made the maid who made the room.” Merman insisted that she couldn’t say that in front of her mother. John McGlinn preserved it for posterity on his 1989 studio recording, for which the show’s original orchestrator, Hans Spialek, finally did an orchestration 55 years after Anything Goes opened, just a few months before he died. Kim Criswell stands in for Merman.

“We Shall Never Be Younger,” cut from Kiss Me, Kate
Written for Lilli Vanessi to sing about her ex-husband, this song apparently never even made it into rehearsals. I’ve never heard the music for the verse, in which Lilli says that she was too “worldly-wise” to try to stop her husband’s adultery, but I love the ache of mortality in the resigned chorus. Bobby Short performing at the Café Carlyle swings the song on the 1999 CD You’re the Top: Love Songs of Cole Porter, but for a more romantic approach listen to Jack and Sally Jenkins, playing Cole and Linda Porter, in a 1974 musical produced in Atlanta, RSVP: The Cole Porters. Porter reused the music for the release verbatim in the song “No Lover” from Out of This World.

“Tale of the Oyster,” from Fifty Million Frenchmen
Originally a party song called “The Scampi” that Porter wrote to amuse his friends while living in Venice, it got rewritten to become less “inside” and added to Frenchmen for comedian Helen Broderick. Kay McClelland does a good job on Evans Haile’s studio recording, but the definitive version is Kaye Ballard’s on Ben Bagley’s Cole Porter Revisited, whose out-of-print CD can be found at premium prices on Amazon. Stevie Holland gives a good account of the original version in her cabaret act Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter.

“You Don’t Know Paree,” from Fifty Million Frenchmen
This knowing ballad makes the distinction between Paris and Paree one of romantic disillusionment. Howard McGillin does very nicely by it on Haile’s studio recording, but Bobby Short is positively thrilling in his rendition on Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter. “Paree will still be laughing after every one of us disappears/But don’t forget her laughter is the laughter that hides the tears.”

“Red, Hot, and Blue,” from Red, Hot, and Blue
Porter’s favorite star, Ethel Merman, introduced the title song for this 1936 musical. Playing a character named “Nails” O’Reilly Duquesne, a wealthy young widow who used to be a manicurist and whose passion is the rehabilitation of ex-convicts, she expresses her preference for popular music over classical in the show’s finale. Only Merman could make this rhyme work: “I’m for the guy that eee-ludes/Bach sonatas and Chopin preee-ludes.”

“Who Said Gay Paree?,” cut from Can-Can
Yet another Porter song about Paree, this was intended for Peter Cookson as Judge Aristide Forestier to sing after the sober judge has broken up with La Môme Pistache, who runs a Montmartre dance hall in which the titular dance is performed. Robert Kimball’s The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter says it was never used, but Wikipedia claims that the song opened Act 2 but was cut before Broadway. If so, it was no doubt replaced by “It’s All Right With Me,” which performs the same function of romantic disillusionment and was indeed written on the road. I like both songs, but “Who Said Gay Paree?” has a particular ache to it that gets me every time, and I especially admire the internal rhyme in the release: “I thought our love, so brightly begun/Would burn through eternity.” You can hear Porter himself sing it on a demo recording.

“Solomon,” from Nymph Errant
Evangeline Edwards is an English girl recently graduated from a Swiss finishing school who is on a quest to lose her virginity. That quest lands her in a Turkish harem in Act 2, and it’s there that a fellow wife sings this lament about the lack of faithfulness of King Solomon’s wives. Elisabeth Welch got to preserve her original London cast performance in 1933 (the show is the only one Porter wrote directly for the West End, where it was a vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence), which can be found on Cole Porter in London, Vol. 1. I got to see Welch do the song 53 years later in Elisabeth Welch: Time to Start Living off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, a show that was recorded live a few months later at London’s Donmar Warehouse under the title Elisabeth Welch in Concert. The lady was sensational.

“Dream Dancing,” from the film You’ll Never Get Rich
I became enamored of this long-lined ballad when I found it in a used sheet music bin during college, and I often stumbled my way through it on piano in our dorm basement. Fred Astaire should have sung it on screen, and perhaps he did at one point, but not in the released film; there he just dances to it. It should have become a standard but somehow never did, even though Ella Fitzgerald used it as the title of a 1978 all-Porter LP. Tony Bennett waxed a version with Bill Evans at the piano on 1976’s Together Again. Most recently, jazz artist Gabrielle Stravelli released it as a single in 2015.

“The Kling-Kling Bird on the Divi-Divi Tree,” from Jubilee
I don’t remember how, but I became aware of this unusual Porter song title early on in my Portermania, and I was very frustrated that I couldn’t find a recording of it. Then in 1973 Columbia Records put out an LP simply called Cole, which included author demos for the 1935 musical. I was, shall we say, jubilant when I finally heard this witty warning against indecorous foreign sexual entanglements. “That damned oiseau/Would begin to crow/In a voice just a bit off-key” indeed.

“Why Don’t We Try Staying Home,” cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen
Robert Kimball’s liner notes for 1971’s Bobby Short Loves Cole Porter list this song as being “unpublished” and don’t link it to a Porter score, as they do for the 21 other songs on the two-LP set. However, his 1983 Porter lyrics tome has the song being written for Frenchmen but cut during rehearsals, so I guess he did additional research in the intervening years. In the song a jet-setting couple contemplate changing their ways by embracing quiet domesticity. It makes a mellow ending for Short’s indispensible recording, so I thought I’d use it for the same purpose on this playlist.

Bonus: Ben Bagley’s Unpublished Cole Porter (or Cole Porter Revisited Vol. II)
This 1972 LP was crucial in beginning the process of changing my understanding of what kind of musical theatre writer Porter was most comfortable being. The original LP carried the subtitle “Soon to be produced as a major Broadway musical,” but Bagley was never able to raise the money, as he says in his notes for its 1991 rerelease (with four additional tracks to fill out the CD). It consists mostly of risqué comedy songs that went unrecorded because they would never have been allowed radio broadcast. Whether it’s Alice Playten being delightfully naughty on “After All, I’m Only a Schoolgirl,” “If You Like Les Belles Poitrines,” and “Pets,” Carmen Alvarez offering faux-wide-eyed innocence on “Humble Hollywood Executive,” or the great Karen Morrow belting the hell out of “Kate the Great,” there’s a delight on virtually every track. You can find used copies of the CD for exorbitant prices on Amazon, but I hope Bruce Kimmel, who has been gradually rereleasing the Bagley Revisited Series on CD on his Kritzerland label, does this one sooner rather than later. I gather Kimmel deplores digital downloads, which is why he only issues CDs in numerically limited releases. I fear that battle has already been lost, but at least he’s putting the material back out there, so here’s to him!

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Feb
22

Favorites by Decade – The 1940s

How do I pick just five favorite Broadway musicals from the 1940s? Four slots are immediately taken by the four Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations. That leaves only one other show, a selection I simply couldn’t make. I chose three other shows, for a list of seven, with a whole host of worthy titles, among them Pal Joey, Lady in the Dark, Carmen Jones, Bloomer Girl, Street Scene, Finian’s Rainbow, Brigadoon, Kiss Me, Kate, and Regina, left by the wayside.

So far for each of these “favorites by decade” columns I have also chosen five off-Broadway shows. However, off-Broadway really didn’t exist in the 1940s, so that wasn’t an option. Instead, what I have done is to pick five Broadway shows that exhibit an adventurous off-Broadway sensibility and also lack a complete recording, though bits and pieces of each have been preserved. All five deserve a complete recording, but I’m not holding my breath.

Here’s my list, once again in chronological order of opening.

Cabin in the Sky (Opened Oct. 25, 1940, at the Martin Beck Theatre)
This is the first of three shows with lyrics by John Latouche that are part of my off-Broadway shows on Broadway list, and it’s also the best-known title in that category, due to Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 film adaptation. The film is quite faithful to book writer Lynn Root’s original story, but much of the glorious Latouche–Vernon Duke score is dropped, some of it replaced by songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg (who turned the project down when it was headed for Broadway because it lacked social significance – I guess MGM paid better). The story, about a loving, religious wife trying to save her equally loving wastrel husband from ending up in Hell, isn’t the sturdiest or the most racially enlightened today, but it was progressive for its time, and the show’s book and score are surprisingly integrated for a pre-Oklahoma! musical. Star Ethel Waters recorded several of the songs with the Martin Beck Theatre orchestra, and there is an OCR of a poorly received 1964 off-Broadway production that tampers with the score too much (both cuts and interpolations) but is the only place to hear most of it. Encores! did a decent concert version in 2016, fitted out with fine new orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick (the originals being lost) and a strong cast featuring LaChanze, Norm Lewis, and Chuck Cooper, which should have been recorded but wasn’t. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t professionally recorded.

No for an Answer (Opened Jan. 5, 1941, at the Mecca Temple)
This show actually did play off-Broadway, in the building that is now New York City Center, for three performances only on successive Sunday nights, on a bare stage and to piano accompaniment. It was Marc Blitzstein’s follow-up to The Cradle Will Rock (which will shortly be directed by John Doyle for Classic Stage Company), and it, too, was a piece of agitprop musical theatre about labor vs. capital. This time, however, Blitzstein attempted to write real characters rather than satirical types to engage the audience emotionally as well as politically. A short OCR of excerpts was made, and they are tantalizing, but it’s impossible to gauge the full show by listening to them. Unlike in Cradle, whose hero, labor organizer Larry Foreman, is successful in his battle with the oppressive boss Mister Mister, Answer’s hero, labor organizer Joe Kyriakos, is killed, and his Diogenes Social Club is burned to the ground. A one-night 1960 concert version conducted by Leonard Bernstein didn’t go over well, which is not surprising considering the political climate of the time. American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco did the show’s first full production in 2001, 60 years after it was written, but there was, as with Cabin at Encores!, no professional recording. If No for an Answer is known at all today, it is for the fact that a 19-year-old Carol Channing made her New York stage debut in it as a nightclub entertainer singing the wickedly funny “Fraught.” (In 1955 Charlotte Rae recorded an even better version of “Fraught” than Channing’s on her album Songs I Taught My Mother.) Considering that we are now in a new Gilded Age, perhaps someone should take a look at No for an Answer. Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez direct?

Oklahoma! (Opened March 31, 1943, at the St. James Theatre)
What is there left to say about the initial collaboration of Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers? I’ve been a fan of the show since I first encountered it at 15 in my high school’s production in 1969. It wasn’t the first dramatically integrated book musical, but it is the one that caused that form to be almost universally adopted on Broadway. And it is still relevant today, with two recent experimental productions succeeding with critics and audiences alike. Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, directed a same-sex version in Portland last summer, and Daniel Fish’s immersive production featuring a folk-band arrangement of the score and a dark take on America’s colonization of the West is coming to Broadway this spring at the Circle in the Square Theatre after successful runs at Bard College and St. Ann’s Warehouse.

On the Town (Opened Dec. 28, 1944, at the Adelphi Theatre)
Twenty-five years ago I wrote a cover story for the Goodspeed Opera House’s Show Music magazine celebrating On the Town’s 50th anniversary. As I think the recent 2014 Broadway revival proved, this musical about three sailors on 24-hour leave in NYC during World War II, which marked the Broadway debuts of composer Leonard Bernstein, book writers–lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and choreographer Jerome Robbins, remains fresh and vital to this day. Here’s some of what I had to say about it in 1994 (which you won’t find on the internet, as Show Music was never online): “What is perhaps On the Town’s most important asset is its open, casually adult, almost celebratory attitude about sex. Both the men and the women are happily and unashamedly on the prowl. In wartime, of course, such behavior was common. Young men, often still in their teens, were facing death. They wanted to taste a little of life before dying. And many young women thought they deserved to and were happy to oblige. By focusing on this phenomenon of contemporary culture, On the Town brought a heretofore unseen innocent, yet frank, acknowledgment of the truth about contemporary sexual behavior to the Broadway musical, minus the vaudeville sniggering and operetta sugaring which had up to then held sway.” I wouldn’t be on a desert island without it.

Carousel (Opened April 19, 1945, at the Majestic Theatre)
This is my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and I count the 1994 Lincoln Center production, which director Nicholas Hytner based on his 1993 production for England’s Royal National Theatre, as one of the highest highlights of my theatregoing life. I can’t understand why Angel Records hasn’t made the OBCR available digitally, but you can buy the CD on Amazon. Even if the production did cut “The Highest Judge of All,” the recording is a must if only for preserving the sensational Carrie Pipperidge of Audra McDonald (then Audra Ann). That said, there is, for me, no definitive recording of Carousel. Even the good ones are compromised, whether by cuts, miscasting, bad new orchestrations etc. That’s why I was so hopeful that producer Scott Rudin’s recent Broadway revival might finally give us a complete and completely satisfying recording. Alas, the less said the better about director Jack O’Brien’s production, filled with fathomless cuts and afraid to address the subject matter of domestic abuse head on. It’s probably more successful as a recording than it was on stage, but I’ve yet to listen to it. One day, when the disappointment subsides, I’ll get around to it.

Annie Get Your Gun (Opened May 16, 1946, at the Imperial Theatre)
As with Oklahoma!, I first encountered this musical while a student in high school. A neighboring Catholic high school rented our auditorium for its production. I was stunned by how many of Irving Berlin’s great songs I already knew, and I found the Herbert and Dorothy Fields book to be funny and breezy while eminently satisfying on a storytelling level. Somehow the hubby and I have nine different recordings of the score, but my favorite is the 1966 Lincoln Center revival starring Ethel Merman and Bruce Yarnell, probably because it contains both Merman, for whom the show was written, of course, and “An Old-Fashioned Wedding,” a great contrapuntal number that is the last new Berlin song to be heard on the New York stage. For all the brouhaha about “I’m an Indian Too” being offensive today and the non-feminist ending, where Annie lets Frank win a shooting match, the show, with tweaks, still worked as late as 2015, when Megan Hilty and Andy Karl headlined a benefit concert gala for Encores! Good is good, I guess.

Beggar’s Holiday (Opened Dec. 26, 1946, at the Broadway Theatre)
The first time John Latouche had a book credit on Broadway was for this then-contemporary adaptation of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Duke Ellington supplied the music for Latouche’s lyrics, though Ellington amanuensis Billy Strayhorn was also heavily involved in the creation of the score. The show had a tumultuous out-of-town tryout tour, with George Abbott being brought in to replace John Houseman as director. Abbott’s reputation as Mr. Broadway made him a somewhat odd choice to direct such an experimental piece, but he is on record as saying that of all the shows he tried to fix out of town, this is the one that could and should have worked, if only he’d had a bit more time and money. It is historic for featuring the first interracial kiss in a Broadway musical, shared by Alfred Drake as Macheath and Mildred Joanne Smith as Lucy Lockit, which, according to Latouche’s surviving partner, Kenward Elmslie, discomfited audiences no end, resulting in nightly walkouts. There is no OBCR, as the musical only ran for three months, but you can hear Lena Horne sing “Tomorrow Mountain” on Stormy Weather and “Take Love Easy” on Lena Horne Sings (The MGM Singles). More recently, Sheri Bauer-Mayorga’s CD On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks covers that song. Man of La Mancha book writer Dale Wasserman did a misguided rewrite that resulted in an unfortunate OCR that is marred by poor performances and badly revised lyrics (by Wasserman). But I think this show could work in a smart rewrite, and I hope someone eventually manages to do one.

Allegro (Opened Oct. 10, 1947, at the Majestic Theatre)
In theatrical folklore Allegro is said to be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first flop, but technically that’s not the case. It recouped in its nearly yearlong run, but it wasn’t the unalloyed critical and commercial triumph that Oklahoma! and Carousel were. Hammerstein initially wanted to tell a man’s life from birth to death but settled with stopping at 35. I’ve been fascinated by it since I read the script and heard the OBCR while still in high school, and I have managed to see six productions of it in my theatergoing lifetime. I’m very drawn to its use of a commenting Greek chorus and the clear overtones of Our Town, and despite its flaws, particularly in Act 2, I love it wholeheartedly. The cast recording is very truncated but necessary to hear the performances, especially Lisa Kirk’s definitive “The Gentleman Is a Dope.” However, the complete studio recording released in 2008 by Masterworks Broadway beautifully conveys how the show works and is a must for any lover of musical theatre.

Ballet Ballads (Opened May 9, 1948, at Maxine Elliot’s Theatre)
John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ collection of three “dance cantatas” is probably the first musical to move from off-Broadway to Broadway, though it only played in Broadway theatres. It opened at Maxine Elliot’s Theatre for a one-week run as a production of the Experimental Theatre, Inc., which was headed by producer Cheryl Crawford and functioned under a special contract with Equity that allowed for much lower pay for actors, the equivalent of what would become an off-Broadway contract. The critical response was so favorable that commercial producer Alfred de Liagre moved it immediately to the Music Box Theatre on a Broadway contract. Critics raved again, but the show only ran for two months. In a fusion of dance and singing, it told the stories of “Susanna and the Elders” (a Biblical tale), “Willie the Weeper” (about a drug addict), and “The Eccentricities of Davy Crockett” (the life of the eponymous “king of the wild frontier”). A fourth ballad, “Riding Hood Revisited,” was not performed initially but was done in a 1961 off-Broadway revival. Digitally, you can hear songs from Ballet Ballads on Windflowers: The Songs of Jerome Moross. “Willie the Weeper” was recorded in its entirety for the Naxos CD American Classics: Jerome Moross, and on the OCR of my John Latouche revue, Taking a Chance on Love: The Lyrics and Life of John Latouche, you can hear a good deal of material from “Willie” and “Davy Crockett” (a CD that I swear will be available digitally before 2019 is out). There is also a complete live recording made by Moross in 1950 of the show’s Los Angeles premiere that has a young Marni Nixon in the cast, but you have to know someone to get that. The scores for all four sections have recently been restored and published, and I hope some enterprising dance or theatre company will try this timeless show out.

Love Life (Opened Oct. 7, 1948, at the 46th Street Theatre)
The sole collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill is the fifth of my off-Broadway on Broadway shows. Perhaps the first concept musical (some will argue that’s Allegro), it looked at the institution of marriage across 150 years of American history. Its protagonists, Sam and Susan Cooper, start out married and happy in a rural setting in 1791 and end up divorced and miserable in what was then the present-day Manhattan of 1948. In between the scenes of their life are comment songs presented in the style of a vaudeville. The brilliantly eclectic score never got an OBCR due to a recording strike, even though the show ran a whole season on Broadway. A recent production in Germany used a new critically edited version of the score created by the Kurt Weill Foundation. So what is Encores! waiting for? Kurt Weill on Broadway: Thomas Hampson offers four songs—the sweeping opener, “Who Is Samuel Cooper?”; the main love ballad, “Here I’ll Stay”; the nostalgic duet “I Remember It Well” (Lerner reused the idea in Gigi), and the dramatic aria “This Is the Life”—and employs the show orchestrations. Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill has Weill’s widow in an uncharacteristically bubbly mood on the Act 1 production number “Green-Up Time.” Kerry-Anne Kutz: Songs From Berlin to Broadway has a medley of two comment songs, “Economics” and “Love Song,” plus Susan’s torchy Act 2 lament “Is It Him or Is It Me?” And the OBCR of LoveMusik has a truncated version of the show’s climactic minstrel sequence, “The Illusion Minstrel Show,” performed as “The Illusion Wedding Show.” And there’s a lot more out there on a variety of recordings if you are diligent about looking. But you shouldn’t have to look. We need a complete recording!

South Pacific (Opened April 7, 1949, at the Majestic Theatre)
It took director Bartlett Sher’s 2008 production for Lincoln Center Theatre to convince me that South Pacific was a first-rate musical, but convince me it did. Kelli O’Hara and Paulo Szot were outstanding as Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, and Sher surrounded them with an equally superb company of actors. The double whammy of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and “This Nearly Was Mine” leaves me in helpless tears whenever I watch my DVD of the live PBS broadcast, and O’Hara’s delivery of the word “colored” in the last scene of Act 1 never fails to pierce my heart. Rodgers and Hammerstein were not afraid of presenting the dark side of America, but they always leavened it with hope. While there a number of fine recordings of this score, it’s always O’Hara and Szot that I want to hear.

Lost in the Stars (Opened Oct. 30, 1949, at the Music Box Theatre)
If you read me regularly, you probably have noticed that I do tear up in the theatre a fair amount. But rarely have I been as destroyed as I was by Michael V. Smartt’s delivery of the title song of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s musical tragedy, based on Alan Paton’s book Cry, the Beloved Country, about apartheid South Africa. Director Arvin Brown’s masterful 1986 production for Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre left me shuddering with uncontrollable sobs at the Act 1 curtain, when Rev. Stephen Kumalo sings “Lost in the Stars,” in which he tells his young nephew that he believes he has lost his faith, due to the fact that his only son has murdered a white man. The lights came up for intermission, but I couldn’t stop for quite a while after they did. Lost in the Stars is a hard show to pull off successfully (every other production I’ve seen hasn’t really worked), but if you do, it’s a killer.

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Feb
08

Isn’t It a Pity You’re a Seal?

Unusual love songs shouldn’t really be all that unusual. After all, any good lyricist will look to avoid clichés and try to find a way to write about this basic human need that is somehow fresh. A theatrical lyricist generally mines situation and character in order to arrive at an approach that doesn’t seem threadbare and sentimental. Here are 15 examples of what I would call unusual love songs.

“Me and My Town,” from Anyone Can Whistle
Venal Mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper is a narcissist par excellence in this absurdist Stephen Sondheim–Arthur Laurents musical, and in her introductory song we learn just how much love she needs from her constituents—and it’s a hell of a lot. Indeed, she even has four omnipresent backup boys to support her song and dance (both literal and figurative) who serve as a physical manifestation of the adoration she requires. I wonder if a set of backup boys might not bolster our current president just a tad. Or is that what Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway do?

“I Believe in You,” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Cora needs the love of legions, but J. Pierpont Finch, a very ambitious window washer who longs to succeed in the cutthroat arena of corporate big business, only requires an audience of one: himself. In this cheeky Frank Loesser ballad, what would be conventional when sung to a lover becomes hilariously unusual when sung by Finch to his own face in a men’s room mirror while shaving. Robert Morse’s delight with himself lit up the stage like a supernova, and the corporate men plotting against him while also shaving (Loesser employed kazoos to marvelous effect) added slyly to the joke. The scene is not as successful in the film adaptation, though, because Michele Lee, as the secretary Rosemary, Finch’s love interest, was allowed to introduce the song earlier in the picture as a conventional ballad sung to him. It means that Finch is echoing Rosemary’s sentiments rather than expressing his own, which changes everything.

“My Friends,” from Sweeney Todd
In this hypnotic Stephen Sondheim song, the demon barber of Fleet Street is reunited with his cherished razors by the amoral pie maker Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who has saved them for him in case he ever returned from prison. Sweeney expresses not only his love for the instruments but also his love of revenge, as he plans to cut the throat of Judge Turpin with them, the man who railroaded him to prison and took over the lives of his wife and daughter. Mrs. Lovett has a counterpoint in which we learn of her twisted passion for the barber. It’s certainly not your average love song.

“Dear, Sweet Sewing Machine,” cut from Fiddler on the Roof
Here is another ode to a physical object, but in this case a much more benign one. Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel, marries Motel, the poor tailor she loves, at the end of Act 1. Songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wanted to revisit Tzeitel and Motel in Act 2, who now have a young baby and are celebrating the arrival of a machine that will allow Motel to increase his business significantly, making their family situation more stable. The song is a charmer and always went over well in backers’ auditions, but in the theatre audiences weren’t stirred. The reason is that Motel and Tzeitel’s story resolves with their marriage. Theatregoers simply weren’t interested in following them further. You can hear Bock and Harnick themselves sing it on Harbinger Records’ Sheldon Harnick: Hidden Treasures (1949-2013).

“I Won’t Send Roses,” from Mack and Mabel
Silent film director Mack Sennett warns his much younger star, Mabel Normand, not to fall in love with him in this classic Jerry Herman ballad. The lovely tune is as romantic as anything Herman ever wrote, but the lyric works against it. (“I won’t send roses/Or hold the door./I won’t remember/which dress you wore.”) Nevertheless, the subtext suggests that Mack is open to love with Mabel, especially in the turnaround at the end. (“And so while there’s a fighting chance/Just turn and go./I won’t send roses/And roses suit you so.) Mabel then has an immediately following solo reprise in which she discounts Mack’s advice, ending with “And though I know I may be left/Out on a limb,/So who needs roses/That didn’t come from him?” The show bombed due to storytelling problems, but when you listen to Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, they are in a hit.

“In This Wide, Wide World,” from Gigi
Here is another self-deprecating love song. When Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe adapted their 1958 hit film into a Broadway stage musical in 1973, they musicalized a moment for Gigi that on screen had been done in dialogue. Gigi has turned down the chance to become Gaston’s mistress, but she is unhappy without him. On screen she summons him to her apartment, comes out of her room to greet him, and simply says, “Gaston, I have been thinking. I would rather be miserable with you than without you,” after which she smiles and returns to her room. On stage she accepts a telephone call from him that she has prompted (the telephone is newly installed and represents Gigi’s adulthood) and sings to him of how ill-suited she is to be his mistress (“In this wide, wide world/Must be oh so many girls better for you than I”) but ends with the same declaration. The music is from a song written for Eliza Doolittle to sing in My Fair Lady, “There’s a Thing Called Love,” which was never used.

“Is Anybody There?,” from 1776
John Adams articulates his vision of America in this climactic Sherman Edwards song, and the whole thing is shot through with his love of a country he is still striving to create. Edwards took much of the lyric directly from Adams’ own prose writing, and William Daniels’ impassioned delivery of it never fails to move me, whether listening to the OBCR or watching the excellent film version. “I see Americans/All Americans/Free forevermore!,” cries Adams at the song’s climax. If only that had happened. I love how the song ends quietly, dropping back into dialogue and eschewing applause.

“To Make Us Proud,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
In the line quoted above, Adams, of course, is referring to America’s original sin: slavery. Alan Jay Lerner and Leonard Bernstein wrote a whole musical for America’s Bicentennial in 1976 that called out that original sin and challenged audiences to rise above racial prejudice. Originally the musical was a play within a play, in which actors are rehearsing a musical about America. The lead was the white actor playing all the presidents depicted in the musical, and he has a running argument with the black actor playing a free servant in the White House about the history of race in America. In this climactic song, the white actor says, “Oh, God! How I long to be proud! To be proud!.... That’s all I have been trying to find the whole time. Nothing more than that.... I want to be proud! And to be able to feel it! And believe it! And live it! And say it!.....” Then he begins singing, “To burn with pride/And not with shame/Each time I hear/My country’s name” and ultimately ending with “Let rage be fearless/And faith be loud/This land needs love/To make us proud.” It’s a song about wanting to be able to love America without reservation, and it is alas far too applicable today. You can hear it, though not in its original dramatic context, on the politically deracinated A White House Cantata.

“Windflowers,” from The Golden Apple
In turn-of-the-20th-century Washington State, a chastened Helen has returned home to the small town of Angel’s Roost from the neighboring big city of Troy with her much older husband, Menelaus, after causing a scandal by running off with the handsome young salesman Paris. However, Penelope’s wandering warrior husband, Odysseus, and his men have remained in the big city to celebrate their retrieval of Helen. In this John Latouche–Jerome Moross song, Penelope recalls the early days of their love but comes to the realization that her husband will always stray from her in his quest for adventure, “And I know there’ll be no growing old for me and for him/No, never, never, not for me and him!,” she sings with a mixture of anger, resignation, and, yes, love. It’s a complicated emotional place for a love song, and I love it for that.

“And What If We Had Loved Like That,” from Baby
Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire peppered their score for this musical about three couples having a baby with terrific straightforward love songs, from the buoyant “Two People in Love” to the tender “With You” and the earnest “I Chose Right.” This one, however, is, like “Windflowers,” a questioning song, sung by middle-aged couple Arlene and Alan, who have had their marriage threatened when, just after their last child has left the nest, Arlene accidentally gets pregnant. Alan wants the baby; Arlene doesn’t. In this song they question the careful, safe choices they have made with their lives, both regretting putting parenthood ahead of passion. However, in so doing, they decide that they could do it differently this time, and end up recommitting to each other. Certainly not your usual love song.

“When I Look in Your Eyes,” from the film Doctor Dolittle
This attractive Leslie Bricusse tune is probably about as conventional as a love song can get (“In your eyes I see the deepness of the sea/I see the deepness of the love/The love I feel you feel for me”). The published sheet music has the last couplet as “Those eyes, so wise, so warm, so real/How I love the world your eyes reveal.” On screen, however, Rex Harrison, as the titular veterinarian who can talk to the animals, gently intones instead: “Those eyes, so wise, so warm, so real/Isn’t it a pity you’re a seal?” Then he tosses his Sophie, whom he has healed with his medicine, back into the sea and freedom. ’Nuff said. Alas, the film soundtrack isn’t available digitally, but you can hear Phillip Schofield sing both last lines on the OCR of the London stage adaptation.

“I Don’t Want to Know,” from Dear World
The Countess Aurelia of Paris, France, sings of her passionate desire to avoid looking at the reality of what a foul place the world has become in Jerry Herman’s fevered ode to avoidance. The countess is in love with her illusions, her chosen memories, and she does not want them spoiled by truth. But because she is played by Angela Lansbury, you just know she will rise to the occasion and pull her head out of the sand in order to right things just in the nick of time. We all have and need our escapes, but I’m hard-pressed to think of other songs so nakedly, fervently in love with fooling oneself.

“Razzle Dazzle,” from Chicago
Crooked lawyer Billy Flynn displays his love of the con in this John Kander–Fred Ebb ode to the power of show business to obscure truth. Unlike Aurelia, however, he is not passionate in his need for lies. What he revels in is the sense of power he gets from lying, as well as the spotlight that shines on him when he does it and the money he makes from it. He is, I suppose, somewhat akin to the narcissists who began this column, but the depth of his cynicism surpasses that of either Cora Hoover Hooper or J. Pierpont Finch. And brutally cynical love songs aren’t exactly a dime a dozen.

“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” from My Fair Lady
A master class in musical theatre acting is going on eight times a week at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre when Harry Hadden-Paton steps up to the plate and takes on this iconic Lerner and Loewe song. It’s hard to know whether this is an actual love song or not, because it’s hard to know if Henry Higgins understands what love is. (Given the very fine if quite different performances of Diana Rigg and Rosemary Harris as Higgins’ mother, the production seems to suggest he may never have known love at all.) But Eliza Doolittle has definitely gotten under his skin, so I would ultimately say that this is one of the most indirect love songs ever written. Hadden-Paton shows us a man who comes to realize that he will lose Eliza if he doesn’t change but is helpless to stop himself. It’s extremely moving, and Laura Benanti’s Eliza is feistier and more self-possessed than Lauren Ambrose’s slowly emerging Eliza, with each being valid and wonderful. Danny Burstein, stepping in for Norbert Leo Butz, is a neat and nifty Alfie Doolittle. Don’t miss them!

“Answer Me,” from The Band’s Visit
David Yazbeck and Itamar Moses’ musical about an Egyptian military band that ends up in a tiny Israeli backwater town by accident is all about the need for love and connection, even if those subjects are rarely if ever explicitly discussed by its characters. This climactic ensemble number expressing the human need to be heard and seen is devastating in its simplicity. It is, in a way, a love song to humanity itself, and I can’t think of a better way to finish a column about unusual love songs than with “Answer Me.”

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Jan
25

Favorites by Decade – The 1970s

So now it’s my five favorite Broadway musicals of the 1970s? That’s easy: the five collaborations of director Harold Prince and composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. They also get a sixth title included, as I am once again also choosing five off-Broadway tuners. Unlike for the recent 1950s column, though, I don’t have a lot of shows that I regret having to leave off the list. Perhaps The Rothschilds, On the Twentieth Century, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and Annie—and certainly Chicago—but that’s about it.

The 1970s are the decade in which I moved to NYC to live (in October 1976), so I have actually seen all 10 of these shows, eight of them in the original production (on Broadway, on National Tour, or in the West End) and two in revival (one of which was directed by its original director and included cast members from its original production). To echo Spencer Tracy’s assessment of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, for me musicals in the 1970s didn’t have much meat on them, but what there was was cherce.

Company (Opened April 26, 1970, at the Alvin Theatre)
I had just turned 16 when I brought this OBCR home, put it on the turntable in my bedroom, closed the door, and sat down to listen. By the time it was over, my world had shifted. Any interest I had in pop music—and I did listen to artists such as the Four Seasons, Simon and Garfunkel, the Dave Clark Five, Petula Clark, the Turtles, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees—vanished, because none of it was remotely as interesting as this now-seminal Sondheim score. I saw the national tour at Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre while home from college for Thanksgiving vacation in 1971. It featured George Chakiris as Bobby and Elaine Stritch as Joanne, and though I was disappointed that there was no moving elevator, I hung on every word and note. With Company, the mature Stephen Sondheim emerged full blown, and musical theatre would never be the same again.

Follies (Opened April 4, 1971, at the Winter Garden Theatre)
Harold Prince once told me, as he has told others across the years, that this mordant musical about mortality is his favorite of all the shows he produced and/or directed. It certainly killed me that I couldn’t get to New York to see it. Alas, there was no national tour, just a one-off engagement in L.A. I played the OBCR to death, but the truncations and omissions were maddening. I did see an amateur production in Cleveland directed by Fran Soeder, with Eric Stern on piano leading the onstage band, which I thought was terrific for what it was (I wouldn’t actually meet these fellow Ohioans until moving to NYC). One of the bootleg recordings I most treasure is the complete audiotape made through the sound system of the Winter Garden. I’ve seen numerous revivals, but nothing can compare with that tape, augmented by the color film footage, both silent and with sound, that exists of Prince and Michael Bennett’s stunning, heartbreaking production. Between the two, I’ve almost convinced myself that I was there.

Dr. Selavy’s Magic Theatre (Opened Nov. 23, 1972, at the Mercer Arts Center)
I bought the LP for this show because playwright Arthur Miller vouched for it in the liner notes, calling it “wild, wooley [sic], and wonderful.” At the time I had no idea who Richard Foreman, who conceived, staged, and designed it, was, nor had I heard of lyricist Tom Hendry (who went on to a long theatrical career in Canada) or composer Stanley Silverman. (Silverman would subsequently write Up From Paradise with Miller, the musical version of the great playwright’s The Creation of the World and Other Business.) Silverman’s eclectic pastiche score was engaging enough, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what the show was about. However, when I saw a 1984 revival, again under Foreman’s aegis and even featuring a few original cast members, at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, this surreal meditation on the world as a madhouse popped perfectly. Of course, by then I had seen Foreman’s Rhoda in Potatoland (so much string!), as well as his revival of The Threepenny Opera at Lincoln Center, so I knew a bit of what to expect. The great Broadway set designer Oliver Smith was a co-producer. The show’s hit off-Broadway run came to an abrupt close after four months when its rickety theatre, the Mercer Arts Center, suddenly collapsed (fortunately not during a performance).

A Little Night Music (Opened Feb. 25, 1973, at the Shubert Theatre)
As a big Lerner and Loewe fan, I was very excited to hear that Prince and Sondheim were doing a romantic musical, and I was not disappointed by this elegant adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. I saw the national tour twice at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre with a cast that included Jean Simmons, Margaret Hamilton, George Lee Andrews, Ed Evanko, and Stephen Lehew. Yes, it was their most conventional show to date, but when the conventions are such sturdy ones, who cares? When I worked with Andrews a few years later on Starting Here, Starting Now (see below), I was shocked to realize just how young he was when he played the middle-aged Fredrik Egerman. He was terrific, by the way (in both shows). He’s also terrific singing his big Act 2 solo (he played the servant Frid on Broadway), “Silly People,” on Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. The song was cut in Boston, but Andrews got to sing it on the Shubert Theatre stage for this one-night tribute concert not long after Night Music opened on Broadway.

Candide (Opened Dec. 11, 1973, at the Chelsea Theater Center/Brooklyn Academy of Music)
In his memoir Contradictions, Harold Prince says, “I loved working on Candide in Brooklyn and I hated bringing it to Broadway.” He was talking about the freedom of nonprofit theatre versus the pressures of the commercial variety, but that’s why I include the show here as an off-Broadway musical and not a Broadway one. Because it had an entirely new book by Hugh Wheeler and featured major changes to the score by Leonard Bernstein and a variety of lyricists (including new lyrics by Sondheim for this production), including a completely new, more intimate orchestration, I think the revisions sufficient to call it a practically new show. It’s a rare instance of a Broadway flop being turned into a hit (73 performances versus 740 performances), and it is the only version of this frequently revised musical that I have ever seen fire on all cylinders. I wish I had seen it at BAM (the hubby did), but I did catch it on Broadway on its closing weekend and was thoroughly entranced.

A Chorus Line (Opened May 21, 1975, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Newman Theater)
I include conceiver, choreographer, and director Michael Bennett’s mega Broadway smash here as an off-Broadway show because off-Broadway is in its DNA. Producer Joseph Papp of the Public Theater gave Bennett the option to develop the musical, both in writing and in performance, in a long workshop rehearsal process that would never have been possible in the commercial world of Broadway. The Marvin Hamlisch–Ed Kleban score throbs with theatrical vitality and smarts, and the recent well-received Encores! staging seems to have quieted the voices claiming that the show is an unrevivable period piece, which began thanks to the lackluster 2006 Broadway revival. I first saw the show at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in August 1976, just a few weeks after its July 22 opening there. To say it was thrilling would be an understatement.

Pacific Overtures (Opened Jan. 11, 1976, at the Winter Garden Theatre)
That said, I was not happy when A Chorus Line beat Pacific Overtures for the best musical Tony. That’s because this fourth Sondheim-Prince collaboration about the opening of Japan to the West by American Commodore Matthew Perry was simply the most astounding musical I had seen to date in my 22 years on the planet. My best friend and I were in the Winter Garden Theatre at the first preview, the evening of Dec. 31, 1975, and the memories are indelible, especially Perry’s ship folding open and rushing menacingly downstage at the audience like a giant piece of origami. Designers Boris Aronson (sets), Florence Klotz (costumes), and Tharon Musser (lights) were on fire for this one. John Weidman’s book was spare and sharp (with a little help from Hugh Wheeler), and Sondheim’s amazingly varied score somehow expressed the sounds of Eastern music in Western ways without a trace of kitsch. My hubby was in the audience that night too, though we would not even meet for another 17 years. I don’t believe in definitive superlatives and ultimate favorites, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a more important night in the theatre for me than seeing Pacific Overtures.

Starting Here, Starting Now (Opened March 7, 1977, at Barbarann’s Theatre Restaurant)
This endlessly entertaining off-Broadway musical revue by Richard Maltby Jr. (lyrics and direction) and David Shire (music) closes with three young people staring hopefully out at the audience and into the future as they sing, “Whatever my fortune, I’ll carry the torch of a new life comin’/What manner of thing will it be?/Who knows? Who cares?/Just bring my world to me.” And that’s just how I felt as I sold tickets to the show as its box office treasurer. I got the gig a mere three months after moving to NYC. I met a crucial mentor and lifelong friend, Maltby, because of it, and it provided my entry into the world of the professional theatre. When I first heard the songs during rehearsals, I was stunned by their unfailing high quality, because I had never heard of the songwriting team. How could a body of work like this exist without my knowing about it? My new life was indeed just beginning, and it couldn’t have had a happier kickoff.

I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road (Opened May 16, 1978, at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/Anspacher Theater)
I was already a fan of book writer–lyricist Gretchen Cryer and composer Nancy Ford’s work when this feminist manifesto opened at the Public Theater, thanks to their scores for Now Is the Time for All Good Men and The Last Sweet Days of Isaac. The reviews, however, were almost unanimously not good and made the musical sound like arid agitprop, so I didn’t race to see it. Nevertheless, it found its audience and was so successful at the box office that it transferred to off-Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre for what turned out to be a run of 1,165 performances. I finally caught up with it when Cryer, who also created the show’s leading role of a middle-of-the-road pop singer who is hitting 40 and wants to reinvent herself as an edgier, more authentic artist, returned to the part in the spring of 1980. I knew her slightly, because her young son, Jonny, volunteered under me at Equity Library Theatre, where I was theatre manager, helping to usher, work the concession stand, take tickets, and stuff like that. (Yes, he’s now Jon Cryer.) To my surprise I was bowled over by the show, thoroughly taken with its stinging rebuke of misogyny and consumerism. It worked just as well in 2011, again starring Cryer, when the York Theatre Company produced it in its Mufti Concert Series. Some critiques, it seems, are eternal.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Opened March 1, 1979, at the Uris Theatre)
I caught the second preview of this Sondheim-Prince-Wheeler masterpiece at the Feb. 7, 1979, Wednesday matinee, because I couldn’t go to the first performance on Tuesday night due to my job at ELT (we had a production of Eric Bentley’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde running). At the time I was collaborating with the above-mentioned Fran Soeder and Eric Stern on a musical version of O. Henry’s short story “The Last Leaf,” and because Fran was serving as Harold Prince’s directing assistant on Sweeney, I knew about the mad barber, his bloody murders, and the comic ode to cannibalism he shared with the demented Mrs. Lovett, but much of the audience didn’t. The stunned surprise that greeted “A Little Priest” as it dawned on people that yes, indeed, they were going there, remains forever burned into my brain. Watching the tour de force performances of Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou, I knew I was witnessing an iconic moment in theatre history. I also remember Fran expressing his concern during rehearsals that a gorgeous song written for a supporting character might get cut due to time considerations. Fortunately, “Not While I’m Around” was very present and beautifully accounted for by Ken Jennings. As the ’70s ended I was a mere 25, and the future seemed limitless and full of promise, particularly when a musical such as Sweeney Todd could succeed commercially on Broadway. All in all, it wasn’t such a bad time to be young.

 

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Jan
11

Toujours la Soupe

The year-end holidays, from Thanksgiving to Hanukah to Christmas to Kwanzaa to New Year’s, are all intimately connected with food. So we are starting off the new year with a look at musical theatre songs that have an epicurean inclination. In salute to 2019, here are 19 of my choosing.

“Food for Thought,” from Magdalena
Robert Wright and George Forrest collaborated with the famed Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos on this short-lived (88 performances) 1948 musical, set in Colombia and France in 1912, about the striking workers of an emerald mine owned by a Columbian bon vivant who lives in Paris and the rocky romance between the workers’ secular leader and a terribly religious village girl named Maria. Opera star Dorothy Sarnoff played Madame Teresa, the owner of Paris’ Little Black Mouse Café, and she introduced this witty if retrograde instruction to women to keep their husbands sexually faithful by feeding them well. “A pinch of this/A pinch of that/And he’ll pinch this/And he’ll pinch that,” she advises, loudly proclaiming, “Toujours la soupe!” Judy Kaye does quite well with it in this recording of a 1987 concert production done at Alice Tully Hall under the baton of Evans Haile, who spearheaded the piece’s reconstruction. I was there, and so was lucky enough to hear, as a bonus, original star John Raitt sing the title song a mere 39 years later. That, alas, is not on the recording, but at least it finally documented this fascinating, adventurous score.

“Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love,” from the film Be Yourself!
Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice duetted on this 1930 Jesse Greer (music), Billy Rose (lyrics), and Henry H. Tobias (lyrics) tune with Warner Bros. regular Robert Armstrong, who three years later would gain great fame as the hard-charging impresario in King Kong. Food and sex are again intertwined (“The coffee is steamin’/Oh, boy, what I’m dreamin’”), and the message is just as retrograde (“Our life has been so nice and chummy/Right from the start/When I won his tummy/I won his heart”), but Brice’s indefatigable charm, all popping eyes and comic accents, comes through. You can see the number on YouTube, and Brice’s recording of it is available on Fanny Brice Sings.

“Some Girls Can Bake a Pie,” from Of Thee I Sing
John P. Wintergreen is running for president of the United States in 1932 on a “love” platform, and his unnamed political party has promised that he will marry the winner of a national beauty pageant. Wintergreen, however, has fallen for his secretary, Mary Turner, and he dramatically breaks his promise at the end of Act 1 of this three-act musical by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskin (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (music and lyrics). The reason? Mary “can really make corn muffins,” and the beauty contest winner, Diana Devereaux, “the most beautiful blossom in all the Southland,” can’t. Well, naturally, and Larry Kert is most persuasive in this 1987 concert version that was done at BAM under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

“What Baking Can Do,” from Waitress
Pop singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles scored a major hit in her first time out on the Great White Way with the score for this 2016 adaptation of director-writer Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie film. In this song our heroine, a diner waitress named Jenna, tells us how she uses the pleasure she gets from baking as a way to escape the unhappiness of her marriage to an abusive man, just as her mother did before her. Star Jesse Mueller does an uncanny replication of Bareilles’ quirky, air-filled singing style, which makes sense for Jenna, though when other characters employ the same musical language and style, it does make you wonder if that is the only way Bareilles can write.

“Bread,” from The Baker’s Wife
When this 1976 musical by Joseph Stein (book) and Stephen Schwartz (music and lyrics) folded on the road prior to Broadway, Bruce Yeko of Original Cast Records swooped in and waxed a cast recording anyway. To save money, though, only the numbers for the three principals were included, which means that this extravagant paean by the villagers of a small French town to their new baker and his principal product was not on it. (Yeko did subsequently record “Bread” on a separately issued 45 with piano-only accompaniment.) However, in 1989 English director Trevor Nunn reworked the show with its authors as a vehicle for his then-wife, Sharon Lee Hill, and though it only managed 56 performances in the West End, it was nominated for an Olivier Award for “musical of the year.” For London Schwartz added a number of songs for the villagers in an attempt to dramatize the populace as a character in the story. He also added “Plain and Simple” for the older baker to sing to his young bride, in which he uses a recipe for bread to espouse his philosophy of life. The show is hampered by a too-slender story, but nevertheless this is my favorite Schwartz score, bar none.

“Rahadlakum,” from Kismet
This is another song in which a recipe is used as a metaphor, in this case for sexual gratification. Indeed, Wright and Forrest’s lyric is so suggestive that the verse, in which the members of an Arabic Wazir’s harem minister to the needs of an itinerant poet while discussing the nature of virtue, was shot by MGM for its 1955 film adaptation of this 1953 hit show but cut before the movie’s release, most likely due to the objections of the Production Code. (It survives on the Blu-ray DVD in a black-and-white work print as an extra.) The music, of course, is by Alexander Borodin as adapted by Wright and Forrest. Joan Diener, as the Wazir’s head wife, who has her eye on the poet, introduced it with considerable slink, and Dolores Gray insinuated plenty on screen. However, the innuendo champion is definitely Eartha Kitt, who turned the song into a showstopper in 1978’s Timbuktu, which reset the tale in northern Africa and featured an all-black cast. Though the show ran for a little over seven months and had a national tour, there was no cast album. Fortunately, you can see what Kitt did with it in two versions on YouTube, one shot live in performance and another, tamer version performed on TV. “Constantly stirring with a long wooden spoon.” You bet.

“I Write, You Read (‘Fair Trade’ reprise),” from I Remember Mama
Here is another use of recipes. Martin Charnin and Richard Rodgers wrote a completely unnecessary song for a supporting character just so they could have this quite useful reprise. In “Fair Trade,” novelist Dame Sybil Fitzgibbons communes with her fans as they kvell over her while singing, “She writes, we read.” In the reprise, Mama gets Dame Sybil to read her daughter’s stories by offering to write down secret Norwegian recipes in exchange for her attention. It’s fun, but does the elaborate setup really pay off well enough?

“The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March,” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
President Thomas Jefferson throws a White House luncheon at which he introduces delicacies from foreign lands in this catchy Alan Jay Lerner–Leonard Bernstein number. Though an OBCR was never recorded in 1976, conductor John McGlinn did wax this tune, using the original Sid Ramin–Hershy Kay orchestration, with Davis Gaines making the introductions through a light Southern accent. I love the internal rhyme of “bouillabaisse” and “President.” Recorded for a 1993 CD titled Broadway Showstoppers, today it can be found as part of the collection called Leonard Bernstein 100 Years.

“Cheese Nips,” from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
This 1979 off-Broadway musical was the first collaboration of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and while it was not successful, it did make people sit up and take notice. In this song rich Manhattan socialite Sylvia Rosewater has trouble dealing with her husband’s decision to uproot them to rural Indiana. In effect, she goes crackers serving the crackers. Brynn O’Malley is the one losing it on the OCR of the fine 2016 Encores! Off-Center concert presentation. The show is still flawed, but the recording is a honey.

“Honey in the Honeycomb,” from Cabin in the Sky
In the first of two songs with lyrics by John Latouche, sexy siren Georgia Brown struts her stuff as she revels in having lured Little Joe Jackson away from his highly religious wife, Petunia, in this 1940 Broadway hit. In this case, once again, food stands in for sex, as Vernon Duke’s music makes abundantly clear. I’m partial to “there’s stuffin’ in a squab.” Lena Horne got the song in Vincente Minnelli’s 1943 film adaptation, but star Ethel Waters, repeating as Petunia, who didn’t sing this on stage, made sure she got a reprise.

“Tomorrow Mountain,” from Beggar’s Holiday
Latouche employs a bevy of surreal imagery to describe paradise in this catchy up-tempo tune by Duke Ellington from their 1946 then-contemporary reimagining of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (also the basis for The Threepenny Opera). There is a “scotch and soda fountain” and “cigarette trees,” along with this out-there quatrain: “Pigs trot around already roasted/Won’t you have a slice of ham?/Marshmallows bloom, already toasted/And the clouds are made of marmalade and jam.” The interior rhyme in that last line is decidedly tasty. No OBCR was recorded, as the show only ran for three months, but Lena Horne took this tune to the bank on her 1957 album Stormy Weather.

“The Candy Man,” from the film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Is candy food? It offers empty calories, I know, but we eat it, so I say that it is. And here are four songs about it, starting with Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s monster 1971 hit, which Sammy Davis Jr. popularized (it’s included on his album Mr. Bojangles). Ironically, it is sung in the movie by a relatively unknown actor, Aubrey Woods, who in a small supporting part is actually playing a confectioner.

“Toot Sweets,” from the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
“A bonbon to blow on at last has been found!” trumpet Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes as inventor Caracatus Potts and candy heiress Truly Scrumptious in the 1971 film musical based on Roald Dahl’s children’s classic. Shockingly, the soundtrack CD is out of print and isn’t available digitally, but you can hear Michael Ball and Emma Williams toot their edible flutes on the cast recording of the 2002 London stage adaptation.

“Penny Candy,” one from New Faces of 1952 and one from No for an Answer
In the first, a revue song by June Carroll (lyric) and Arthur Siegel (music), a “jaded” rich woman nostalgically remembers “when I was a little girl poor and plain” and thought a piece of penny candy was the fanciest treat imaginable. Carroll herself introduced it on Broadway. Marc Blitzstein also wrote a song called “Penny Candy,” in which a con man tells a rich woman how his life has been ruined by his addiction to the stuff. It’s from his 1941 musical play No for an Answer, which had to wait until 2001 to get a full stage production, at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. William Sharp sings it on Marc Blitzstein: Zipperfly & Other Songs.

“Make an Omelette,” from Something Rotten!
Nick Bottom is a Renaissance playwright who is so jealous of the success of William Shakespeare that he goes to a soothsayer to find out the name of Shakespeare’s next hit. The soothsayer mishears Hamlet as Omelette, and so Nick writes this tune for his musical about the egg dish while arguing with his collaborator brother about not writing from the heart. There are actually many more plot complications, but I haven’t got room for them all. Let’s just say that this 2015 musical by Karey Kirkpatrick (book, music, and lyrics), Wayne Kirkpatrick (music and lyrics), and John O’Farrell (book) was exponentially silly.

“Pink Fish,” from Big Apple Country
Alan Menken made an early splash with this 1976 piece of special material he wrote for a cabaret revue. In it, an astonished would-be actor from Texas first encounters bagels and lox. You can hear Sammy Goldstein’s exuberant rendition on his album So Far It’s Wonderful. Even better, you can see Menken tell the story behind the song’s creation and perform it himself on the late, lamented PBS TV show “Theater Talk,” in a clip on YouTube.

“Sara Lee,” from And the World Goes ’Round
I don’t know who first sang this piece of special material by John Kander and Fred Ebb, written at the beginning of their long collaboration, though I know that one of its first interpreters was Kaye Ballard, who sang it on TV on “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall” around 1962. A paean to the popular commercial bakery brand known especially for its pound cake, the song finally found a home in a show in 1991 in the off-Broadway revue And the World Goes ’Round, which introduced the world to the talents of director Scott Ellis and choreographer Susan Stroman. That, however, didn’t stop Liza Minnelli from including the song in her 1992 show Liza Live From Radio City Music Hall.

“I’d Order Love,” from First Date
This is the only song in my list that doesn’t explicitly name-check a foodstuff. Instead, it uses the way we talk about food (“delicious,” “well-seasoned,” “rare,” “spicy” “steaming,” “hot,” “juicy,” you get the idea) to fantasize about love. I didn’t see this 2013 Broadway musical with a score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, but I gather it all took place in a restaurant on a first date between a couple played by Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez. This song, however, was sung by Blake Hammond as their waiter. It sort of brings the column full circle, from food as love to love as food.

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Dec
07

There’s Something About a War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Nov
23

Favorites by Decade – The 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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