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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.

Feb
08

Isn’t It a Pity You’re a Seal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan
25

Favorites by Decade – The 1970s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Jan
11

Toujours la Soupe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dec
07

There’s Something About a War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Nov
23

Favorites by Decade – The 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Nov
09

Twixt Twelve and Twenty

This week’s topic is teenagers in musicals, in salute of next week’s Broadway opening of The Prom, about an adolescent girl in small-town Indiana who is forbidden to bring her girlfriend to the titular event. And a quick look at the shows currently on the Great White Way proves that The Prom’s teenagers have plenty of company: Aladdin, Dear Evan Hansen, Frozen, Mean Girls, The Book of Mormon, and Wicked feature a plethora of leading or supporting adolescent characters. Ti Moune’s age in Once on This Island isn’t specified, but Hailey Kilgore, who plays her, was 18 when the revival opened nearly a year ago (though LaChanze, who originated the role in 1990, was 28 at the time). And then there are the kids in School of Rock, who are poised on the puberty precipice, with several members of the original cast even admitting before opening to being, gasp, 13.

I confess that to me, practically doddering at 64, it has started to seem as if Broadway is becoming more juvenile-oriented than ever before. So I decided to make a list of teenage musical theatre characters I find memorable, to see if my assumption is accurate. It was surprisingly easy, so I fear I was just being a curmudgeon. I have winnowed the list to a mere 15, while avoiding the most obvious shows, such as West Side Story, Bye Bye Birdie, Hairspray, and Spring Awakening.

Liesel von Trapp in The Sound of Music
This is hardly avoiding the obvious, but I just had to start with one of musical theatre’s iconic teenagers. I mean, she even gets a Rodgers and Hammerstein song about being one, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Lauri Peters, who originated the role in 1959, was 26 at the time, but period TV footage shows that she looked the part. Charmian Carr, who played Liesel in the 1965 blockbuster movie version, was only 22 when she filmed it. However, despite giving a fine performance, she has always come off to me on screen as 16 going on 30. I think it’s the very ’60s hair they gave her.

Jack Kelly in Newsies
Jeremy Jordan, currently back on Broadway in the new play American Son, leapt from obscurity thanks to his work as Jack Kelly, a brash 17-year-old newsboy in 1899 New York City in this hit Alan Menken–Jack Feldman–Harvey Fierstein tuner based on the flop 1992 Disney film. When I reviewed the show’s 2011 pre-Broadway engagement at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse for Backstage, I said: “The ebullient Jeremy Jordan is giving a breakout star performance as Jack. You know it when you see it, and I saw it.” It’s always nice when history proves you right.

Ottilie in House of Flowers
In Truman Capote’s slender tale of dueling whorehouse madams on an unspecified Caribbean island, 16-year-old Ottilie works for Madame Fleur until she falls for the hunky Royal, a mountain boy new to the city. Even though the show only managed 165 performances in the 1954-1955 season, the role put 19-year-old Diahann Carroll on the map, and with such gorgeous Capote–Harold Arlen songs to sing as “A Sleepin’ Bee” and “I Never Has Seen Snow,” it’s no wonder. Carroll had one more out of town, the plangent “Don’t Like Goodbyes,” but star Pearl Bailey got jealous and appropriated it for Madame Fleur. Didn’t stop Diahann, though, now did it?

Richard Miller in Take Me Along
Robert Morse was 28 and well known on Broadway when he played Richard Miller, teenage son of small-town newspaper editor Nat Miller, in this 1959 musicalization by Bob Merrill (songs) and Joseph Stein and Robert Russell (book) of Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, 1933’s Ah, Wilderness!. The character is a thinly veiled O’Neill self-portrait, and Morse’s rendition of “I Would Die,” Richard’s fervent declaration of love for his neighbor’s daughter, Muriel Macomber, is as funny as his performance of “Nine O’Clock,” a song of tremulous romantic anticipation, is touching.

Medium Alison in Fun Home
In Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s 2013 musical based on Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, the leading role is split into three: Small Alison, Medium Alison, and Alison. Medium Alison is 19 and in the process of coming out of the closet as a lesbian in her freshman year at Ohio’s Oberlin College. Her discovery of sex is wonderfully documented in the song “Changing My Major,” which in this case would be to Joan, her new girlfriend. It’s to Kron’s credit that all three Alisons are memorable, and the interplay among them in her masterful mixing of chronology is one of the show’s great strengths.

Wang San in Flower Drum Song
The thoroughly Americanized younger son of Chinese immigrant Wang Chi Yang isn’t a big role in this 1958 Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein II–Joseph Fields musical adaptation of C.Y. Lee’s gently comic novel, but 15-year-old Patrick Adiarte, then billed as Pat, made it stand out, both with his brashly athletic dancing and his confident way with then-contemporary teenage American slang. He didn’t get his own song, but Adiarte comes through loud and clear when Wang San and his friends sing a reprise of “The Other Generation,” which in its first iteration is sung by grownups who are trashing the younger set. He repeated the role in the musical’s 1961 film adaptation and is a winning screen presence, which he had also been as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn in the 1956 film version of The King and I.

Lili in Carnival
In 1961 Anna Maria Alberghetti was 24 when she made her one and only Broadway appearance playing the orphaned waif Lili, who joins a tatty traveling European circus to work as an apprentice. The character’s age is never specified, but the plot turns on our belief that she is so innocent that she doesn’t understand that the performing puppets she comes to love are being manipulated by the brooding, unhappy puppeteer who loves her from afar and frightens her up close. The circus impresario calls her “child” when he first meets her, though she is clearly a post-pubescent one. Michael Stewart adapted Helen Deutsch’s screenplay for the 1953 MGM film Lili, which starred Leslie Caron, and was based on Paul Gallico’s short story “The Seven Souls of Clement O’Reilly.” Bob Merrill wrote some wonderful songs for her to sing, including the delicate “Mira,” the soaring “Yes, My Heart,” and the enchanting “Love Makes the World Go Round.”

Evan Goldman in 13
Technically, Evan Goldman is not a teenager in this original 2008 musical by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Dan Elish and Robert Horn (book). He is “just about to turn 13,” as he sings in Brown’s dynamic scene-setting opening number, “13/Becoming a Man.” But as the whole show is about how kids negotiate turning into teenagers, and he does turn 13 before it ends, I think he qualifies. I thought 13 had equal parts wit, wisdom, and heart and was distressed at its middling notices and short run of only 105 performances. Graham Phillips commanded the stage like a seasoned pro as Evan, who is seriously upset that he is being uprooted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Appleton, Ind., due to his parents’ divorce. The rest of the cast, which included Ariana Grande in a small role, were every bit as good.

Alexandra “Zan” Giddens in Regina
Zan is the shy, sheltered daughter of one of the great anti-heroines of all time, the grasping, greedy Regina Giddens, whom the world first met in Lillian Hellman’s ironclad 1939 melodrama, The Little Foxes. Marc Blitzstein’s operatic version, which I think deepens the material, debuted on Broadway in 1949 with Zan played by Priscilla Gillette, who would go on to star in Cole Porter’s Out of This World and John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ The Golden Apple. Both the play and the opera turn on the transformation of Zan from insecurity to confidence. Her long-overdue confrontation with her mother, “All in One Day,” is short but shattering, mixing music and dialogue to great effect, making for a stirring conclusion.

The Artful Dodger in Oliver!
I saw director Carol Reed’s brilliant 1968 film version of Lionel Bart’s 1960 musical based on Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist at a Manhattan cinema the week I turned 15. I left exhilarated by the film and with a serious crush on Jack Wild, who played the thieving Artful Dodger and was also 15 when he filmed the picture. Indeed, I had an erotically charged view of his relationship with the younger Oliver that I’m sure nobody intended, not Reed, Bart, Wild, or Dickens. Charmingly roguish and effortlessly musical, Wild was so good that he got an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. At the time I already had a crush on Davy Jones of the pop band the Monkees, who had played the Artful Dodger on Broadway in 1963, though I didn’t know that, and was 21 when I first encountered him in 1966 on TV. I guess I had a type: Cockney, cute, and rough around the edges.

Katrin in I Remember Mama
This 1979 Richard Rodgers–Martin Charnin–Thomas Meehan musical based on Kathryn Forbes’ stories about a valiant Norwegian mother with a large brood of children (and John Van Druten’s 1944 dramatization of them) had a troubled out-of-town tryout during which director-lyricist Charnin was fired. (He sent a telegram to the company that read, in part, “There are no more fjords in my future.”) Originally, Mama’s eldest, Katrin, was split into Younger Katrin and Older Katrin, who as a successful writer narrates the story in flashback from adulthood. New director Cy Feuer combined the roles and hired Maureen Silliman, who at 29 was nevertheless able to convincingly pass for Katrin’s younger version. I didn’t think the musical worked well on Broadway, despite some lovely songs and a terrific title role performance by Liv Ullmann, but I remember being immediately arrested by Silliman’s emotional lucidity and understated command. Ten years later she would create a role in my first professionally produced musical, A Fine and Private Place, at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn., and she was just as good and a joy to work with. She continues to act steadily today in theatres across the country and NYC. Alas, she is not on the studio recording of I Remember Mama, which wasn’t made until 1985, six years after Rodgers’ death. Ann Morrison, the original Mary in Merrily We Roll Along, does a fine job narrating, singing the title song, and leading her brothers and sisters in “Mama Always Makes It Better.” Still, I remember Silliman.

Luke in Kid Victory
Actor Brandon Flynn had a very difficult assignment in this off-Broadway musical by John Kander and Greg Pierce: His character, 17-year-old Luke, who is the lead, never sang. That’s because Luke, who is gay but closeted, is only just starting to recover from an 11-month ordeal of being kidnapped, held in confinement, and sexually abused by a much older man who initially befriended him. His well-meaning family and neighbors, all born again Christians in a small Kansas town, don’t make his recovery any easier, wanting him to act as if it never happened and get on with his life. Flynn began in serious head-down mode and charted Luke’s almost imperceptible progress with great sensitivity and focused gravity. And he is a strong presence on the OCR as well, without singing a note. That said, the notes that are sung, by people such as Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jenkins as Luke’s parents and Jeffrey Denman as his kidnapper, are impressive in this superb and unusual score. I thought Kid Victory was the best new musical of the 2016-2017 season.

Evangeline Edwards in Nymph Errant
When Gertrude Lawrence played the role of an English girl graduating from a European finishing school, which would make Evangeline 16 or possibly 17 at most, Lawrence was 35. And perhaps that was a good thing for this 1933 musicalization by Romney Brent (book) and Cole Porter (songs) of James Laver’s scandalous hit 1932 novel, because Evangeline is on a quest across Europe to lose her virginity. Disappointingly, she keeps failing, despite what seem robust opportunities. Porter always said that this was his best score, but possibly he did that simply because the show, a hit in the West End, never came to Broadway. Lawrence, however, did record five numbers from it: “Experiment,” “It’s Bad for Me,” “How Could We Be Wrong,” “The Physician,” and the title tune, and each is a honey. You can hear them on Gertrude Lawrence: Star. A star-studded 1989 recording of the full score, made live in concert at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, has never made it to digital download, but you can find used CD copies for reasonable prices on Amazon.com.

Arpad Laszlo in She Loves Me
Book writer Joe Masteroff describes Arpad, a delivery boy for a parfumerie in an unnamed European city in the early 1930s, as “15 or 16.” He has one standout solo, “Try Me,” in which he tries to persuade his boss to promote him from delivery boy to clerk. I encountered She Loves Me while at college and soon knew virtually the entire Jerry Bock–Sheldon Harnick score by heart. Though by that point I had ceased acting and was focusing on writing musicals, I, for whatever reason, desperately wanted to play Arpad. And Northwestern University’s theatre department did produce She Loves Me, but in 1976, the year after I graduated. I was still living in Evanston, working at McDonald’s to earn enough money to move to Manhattan. I had friends in the cast and, so, of course I caught the show. But it was torture not to be up there doing it. It really is a fun part that offers an opportunity to shine, as both Ralph Williams, in the 1963 original production, and Nicholas Barasch, in Roundabout’s superlative 2016 revival, discovered. Watching Barasch, I realized that a part of me still wanted to be up there in his place, but I fear that ship has sailed.

Bonus: Dolores “Lolita” Haze in Lolita, My Love
I was going to leave this column evenhanded, seven lads and seven lasses, but I have been spending a great deal of time with Dolores Haze recently, and I just couldn’t leave her out. I have been editing together a script for this 1971 Alan Jay Lerner–John Barry adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel from voluminous papers donated by the Lerner estate to the Library of Congress. No fewer than six complete scripts exist, two of them written after the show closed in its out-of-town tryout in Boston. Lerner and Barry continued revising the show for four months, hoping to bring another production to Broadway the following year (Mike Nichols had agreed to direct), before Barry decided to quit the project. As a result, Lolita, My Love never had a fixed text, and I think much of Lerner’s book rewrites post-Boston are better than what came before, no doubt informed by seeing what wasn’t working in performance. In any event, I have drawn from all six scripts to create one that is still all by Lerner, and what will be performed from Feb. 22 to March 3 in the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti concert series will contain both book and musical material never before seen in performance anywhere. In Nabokov’s novel Lolita is age 12 at the beginning; Lerner and Barry, having compressed the time period over which the story takes place, start her at 14. But in both she is still the same cheerful, gum-chewing American girl who is cynical about most things, especially adults, and more aware of her nascent sexuality than she lets on. I look forward to meeting her in person at the York this winter, and I hope audiences do too. The Lerner-Barry score is absolutely top drawer. As a taste, here is a YouTube link to Denise Nickerson’s rendition of “Saturday,” a song in which Lolita meets European literary professor Humbert Humbert for the first time and thoroughly bewitches him. In it she explains that while she would love for him to tutor her in French, with which she is struggling in school, she can’t possibly study on her day off.

 

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Oct
27

Threnodies for the Season

For my Halloween column I decided to take my hubby’s suggestion to select a list of songs from musicals sung by characters who are dead. But before doing so, I want to say something about a show I just saw that, entirely coincidentally, fits my theme like a glove.

Currently running at the York Theatre Company is a terrific new musical called Midnight at the Never Get. Now, admittedly, I’ve worked a lot at the York, and I am about to do so again as the editor for the script of Lolita, My Love in the upcoming Mufti series celebrating Alan Jay Lerner’s centenary. But as artistic director Jim Morgan knows, my affection for him and his theatre company doesn’t extend to praising shows that I don’t think deserve it. This one does, very much.

It fits this column because, as the musical is set in the afterlife, all 13 of its songs are sung by dead people. Two, to be precise: performer Trevor Copeland and songwriter-accompanist Arthur Brightman. As lovers in 1963 Greenwich Village, they have an act at a gay bar called the Never Get in which Trevor sings Arthur’s songs about male same-sex relationships with the pronouns unchanged, quite a daring thing for the times. Mark Sonnenblick’s imaginative book chronicles Trevor and Arthur’s love affair and what the times they live in do to it (and them) with great affection and piercing understanding. His insinuatingly melodic songs are all written with uncommon craft and discipline in the style of the Great American Songbook, and every one is a keeper. All are actual songs for Trevor’s act, and Sam Bolen (who also co-conceived the musical) delivers them beautifully in a tour de force performance, virtually never leaving the stage for the show’s intermissionless 90-minute duration. (This week’s free song download is the demo track for the sardonic “Wallace Falls,” in which Trevor sings of his experiences growing up gay in rural America.)

The run ends Nov. 4, so see it while you have the chance. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here is the rave review from the New York Times. Get yourself to the Never Get. You’ll be glad you did.

Plug over. Now here are 13 other songs sung by dead characters, each by different songwriters.

“When You’re an Addams,” from The Addams Family
Andrew Lippa’s catchy opening number for this 2010 musical, based on Charles Addams’ classic cartoon characters, has the sepulchral family singing about its ghoulish proclivities backed up by a chorus line of ghostly ancestors, who popped in and out of the action all night to very little effect. In my less-than-impressed Backstage review I called it “one of the flimsiest excuses for a chorus since Captain Jim romanced Rose Marie.” Still, they’re dead and they sing.

“If I Loved You (reprise),” from Carousel
With a few simple word and tense changes, Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers devastatingly limn Billy Bigelow’s realization of all that he has lost when he killed himself rather than face the consequences of participating in a botched robbery attempt. He sings this reprise late in Act 2 directly after his widow, Julie Jordan Bigelow, has by accident momentarily been allowed to glimpse his ghost. For me, it’s one of the most intensely moving moments in all of musical theatre.

“Oh! Ain’t That Sweet,” from Thou Shalt Not
This David Thompson (book)–Harry Connick Jr. (songs)–Susan Stroman (conception, direction, and choreography) 2001 musicalization of Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin reset the story of adultery that leads to murder in mid–20th century New Orleans. It rather spectacularly didn’t work, but some of Connick’s songs were attractive, if too pop-oriented to function dramatically. Variety critic Charles Isherwood singled this one out, saying that as the ghost of Camille, the murdered husband, Norbert Leo Butz “raises the roof with a Sinatra-style toe-tapper, ‘Oh! Ain’t That Sweet!,’ in which he smoothly insinuates his ghostly presence between the desperately disturbed Laurent and Therese.” The short-lived show was Butz’s Broadway breakthrough, earning him Drama Desk and Tony noms for best featured actor in a musical, but alas the OBCR isn’t available digitally. You can, however, hear Connick on the song on Harry on Broadway: Act 1.

“Home Sweet Heaven,” from High Spirits
Tammy Grimes, as the accidentally summoned ghost of author Charles Condimine’s first wife, Elvira, made this deliciously witty list song detailing her life in heaven into an Act 2 showstopper in Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray’s1964 musical adaptation of Noël Coward’s classic 1941 comedy, Blithe Spirit. The lyric, however, is not by Gray and Martin but by the Master himself. He wrote it during the show’s out-of-town tryout when Martin and Gray’s version wasn’t working well enough, but he declined to take credit (he was already directing the musical), instead just slipping it under Grimes’ hotel door. The OBCR is, alas, not available digitally, but Steve Ross does a splendid job with it on his CD Most of Ev’ry Day.

“Come to My Garden,” from The Secret Garden
A sickly, wheelchair-bound boy named Colin living in 1911 England is given encouragement to rejoin the world by the spirit of his dead mother, Lily, in Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s 1991 musical version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel. It must be good to play a ghost, because, as with Norbert Leo Butz’s Camille, Lily put a young and radiant Rebecca Luker on the Broadway map, leading to her starring role as Magnolia in Harold Prince’s production of Show Boat three years later.

“Tevye’s Dream,” from Fiddler on the Roof
Sholom Alecheim’s iconic Jewish-Russian milkman must convince his mercenary wife, Golde, to allow their eldest daughter to marry the penniless Motel Kamzoil, a tailor, rather than the rich butcher Lazar Wolf. So he invents this elaborate dream in which Golde’s Grandmother Tzeitel, for whom the daughter is named, comes all the way from the other world to deliver a deadly warning should her great-grandchild marry the wrong man. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick outdid themselves on this one, while Jerome Robbins’ hilariously scary staging couldn’t be bettered. It’s a hoot.

“What Would I Do?,” from Falsettos
Male lovers Marvin and Whizzer share this final parting duet, sung just after Whizzer has died from AIDS at the very beginning of the epidemic. William Finn wrote it for his and James Lapine’s 1990 one-act musical Falsettoland, a sequel to their 1981 musical March of the Falsettos, which told how Marvin and Whizzer first got together. The two were combined into one show on Broadway in 1992, and Finn won a Tony for his score. Whether you go with Michael Rupert and Stephen Bogardus, who created the roles, or Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in the splendid 2016 Broadway revival, you can’t go wrong. It gets me every time, especially “Once I was told that good men get better with age/We’re just gonna skip that stage” and the shatteringly simple question, “What would I do if you had not been my friend?”

“Sincerely, Me,” from Dear Evan Hansen
In this surprisingly comic trio by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, two teenage boys in effect summon the ghost of a troubled classmate who committed suicide as they try to create an email trail of correspondence between one of them and the dead boy in order to convince the boy’s grieving family that their severely antisocial son had a friend. What begins as a seemingly harmless attempt to help ends up causing untold pain for all involved in book writer Stephen Levenson’s entirely original story. The 2017 Tony winner for best musical is still regularly selling out at the Music Box Theatre.

“Our Mornings/That Thing,” from Giant
Michael John LaChiusa wrote this arresting eight-minute sequence that opens Act 2 of his and book writer Sybille Pearson’s 2012 adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel about a Texas ranching family. In it family patriarch Bick Benedict has a colloquy with the ghost of his older sister, Luz, telling her of his disappointment with his too-refined teenage son and preference for his wild daughter, named for the equally rugged sister. When, at the end, Luz, who is loving but ultimately not a positive influence, urges her brother to “Keep me alive/Look back/I’m here,” inverting a song from Act 1 called “Look Back/Look Ahead” in which Bick’s uncle challenges him to conquer his paralyzing grief over Luz’s death, things get very unsettling. Brian d’Arcy James and Michele Pawk are spot on.

“Jesus Christ Superstar,” from Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus’ treacherous disciple Judas comes back from the dead with his own backup choir to taunt his former leader during his crucifixion, accusing him of getting too self-important and thus being the architect of his own demise. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock opera has never been more effectively rendered than in its original record release, where Murray Head is the one doing the screaming. However, you can also check out Ben Vereen’s take on the 1971 OBCR. It’s the third ghost role in this list that brought an actor stardom, in this case leading to Vereen’s Tony-winning role as the Leading Player in Pippin a year later.

“Fear No More,” from The Frogs
Here is a rare example of Stephen Sondheim setting someone else’s lyric (he also set playwright George Furth’s lyric for the song “Hollywood and Vine” in Furth’s 1971 Broadway comedy Twigs). In this case the lyric is by William Shakespeare (putting Furth in very good company), and Shakespeare also sings it to the Greek god of drama and wine, Dionysus, who has journeyed to Hades to bring back George Bernard Shaw to speak to the world and help it to solve its problems. After hearing it, Dionysus changes his mind and takes Shakespeare instead. Sondheim wrote “Fear No More” for the show’s second production, in 1975 at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (the first was a production in the swimming pool at Yale in 1974). In 2004 Nathan Lane expanded Burt Shevelove’s original book, based on Aristophanes’ comedy, and starred in a Broadway production at Lincoln Center directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman with additional Sondheim songs. The critics were mixed, but I liked it a great deal and found Michael Siberry quite touching as the Bard.

“Song of Hareford,” from Me and My Girl
In the middle of Act 2 of this 1937 English musical romp by Noel Gay (music) and Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose (book and lyrics), Maria, Duchess of Dene, and her ancestors remind the long-lost heir to the family title and fortune, a Cockney from London named Bill Snibson, of his noblesse oblige. The ancestors step out of their portraits and prove to be highly proficient at choral singing and tap dancing. The show took until 1986 to reach Broadway, with a revised book by Stephen Fry, where it played for 1,420 performances and won Tonys for Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett as Bill and his Cockney ladylove, Sally Smith. However, it is the great Jane Connell, who was Tony nominated for her work as best featured actress in a musical, who triumphantly leads this number.

“We’ll Never Tell Them,” from Oh What a Lovely War
English director Joan Littlewood’s highly subversive satirical musical revue surveyed the hypocrisy, futility, and carnage of World War I through song parodies of the day sung (and often created) by the very soldiers who fought it. This was the haunting finale, in which the war dead sang ironically about their experience to the tune of Jerome Kern’s “They Didn’t Believe Me,” a big hit song in 1917. It wasn’t until the 1984 publication of Robert Kimball’s The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter that it was revealed that Porter was the author of the parody lyric. The revue played Broadway for three-and-a-half months in 1964, but no OBCR was recorded, and the London OCR is out of print on CD, but you can hear the lyric on a recording called The Great War (remembered in songs and poems). If you can, check out director Richard Attenborough’s extraordinary 1969 film version. It’s available on DVD and can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video, and the way Attenborough filmed this finale is a stunner.

 

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Oct
12

One Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sep
28

Lenny and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sep
14

Making Use of Mother Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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