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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.

Nov
10

The Bad Boy of Broadway Is Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Touche!

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Oct
27

They're Flying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oct
13

I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sep
29

Her Julieness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sep
15

A Book Report on ‘Peter Rabbit’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aug
25

One Spicy Soprano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aug
11

Give My Regards to Stephen, Remember Me to Harold Prince

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Jul
28

Scorchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jun
16

Memorable Musical Fathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jun
02

And Now It’s Tonys Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Alex Lacamoire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Michael Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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