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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.

Jun
16

Memorable Musical Fathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jun
02

And Now It’s Tonys Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Alex Lacamoire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Win: Michael Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May
19

Beauteous Musical Books

Though it may be a cliché, it is nevertheless true that writing the book for a musical is a terribly misunderstood craft. Moreover, book writers cannot win. If the show is a success, its book is rarely mentioned as a reason why. If the show is flawed or completely fails, the blame is immediately put on the book writer. Many people think the book is just the dialogue, but there is much more to it. Dramatic structure, choices of what to musicalize, and the ability to set up a song properly all factor into the job.

The books I have chosen to discuss don’t constitute a 10-best list. Indeed, I have avoided some of the most obvious choices, shows such as Gypsy, 1776, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Hello, Dolly!, Cabaret, and Oklahoma!, all of which are largely acclaimed examples of good book writing. Instead, I have chosen 10 shows that all have detractors but which I consider successful, sometimes in spite of flaws, in part because of the quality of their books.

She Loves Me
This 1963 succes d’estime was playwright Joe Masteroff’s first attempt to write the book for a musical, and he did an unusual thing: He wrote this adaptation of Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie (also the basis for the films The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime) as a complete play, then handed the script to songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. They found the opportunities for singing to be so bounteous that the show ended up with far more music than usual. Nevertheless, Masteroff provided a strong dramatic spine, beautifully drawn characters, and generous story-driven momentum. This quiet, romantic show was overshadowed in its initial 301-performance engagement by bigger, noisier entertainments (Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl), but the years have proven its durability and appeal, thanks in part to two well-received Broadway revivals by Roundabout Theater Company in 1994 and 2016. It is, I think, and at long last, finally considered a classic musical.

My Fair Lady
You may think that this 1956 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe megahit is recognized as an example of a great book for a musical, and perhaps in one sense that’s true. However, I find that often its quality is ascribed to its source material, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, rather than to Lerner’s masterful adaptation of it. Indeed, in its last two major professional productions, on Broadway in 1993 and in the West End in 2001, English directors Howard Davies and Trevor Nunn were both allowed to put sections of Shaw’s text that Lerner had cut, including an entire character, Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s sister, Clara, back into the musical. Lerner removed Clara because the principal reason for her existence, a private tea party scene at the home of Higgins’ mother, had been transformed into a public journey to the horse races at Ascot in which Clara’s presence was dramatically superfluous. Putting her back elsewhere in the show, where she is little more than window dressing, just adds bloat. Lerner also did much more than just edit Shaw. His inspired decision to expand the play by musically dramatizing offstage events and his ability to write dialogue in expert Shavian style (Higgins’ speech about the beauty of the English language that provides the intro to “The Rain in Spain,” for example) were key to his book’s success. Here’s hoping director Bartlett Sher sticks with Lerner’s script for Lincoln Center’s 2018 revival.

Allegro
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1947 concept musical that follows a man’s life from his birth to his 35th year made money but was considered a failure because it fell short of the tremendous commercial success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel. Famously, its flawed second act, in which Dr. Joseph Taylor Jr. forsakes serving his rural hometown to work as a doctor for the wealthy in Chicago, seems to say that country life is good and city life is bad. Of course, it doesn’t actually say that; Hammerstein even goes out of the way to explicitly say the reverse in one dialogue exchange. Still, I’ve seen it leave that impression in the four full productions I’ve attended over the years. Only John Doyle’s 2014 condensed chamber version Off-Broadway managed to clearly convey Hammerstein’s message: That a good man can still lose track of himself. I don’t care, however. Hammerstein’s inventive use of a Greek chorus to both voice Joseph Jr.’s innermost thoughts and feelings and provide commentary gives the deliberately conventional story the kind of size it needs to soar emotionally, and when Joe finally wises up and heads home I never fail to be moved. Oh, the score ain’t bad either, but it’s really the wise and humane book that gets me on this one.

Anyone Can Whistle
The general wisdom on this 1964 piece of musical theatre of the absurd is that Arthur Laurents’ unwieldy, pretentious, hard-to-follow book gets in the way of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful score. Rubbish. Sondheim’s score wouldn’t even exist without Laurents’ vivid original characters and quirky story about an economically dying town and the false miracle devised to save it and its venal politicians. If Sondheim’s score is wonderful (and it is), then it is so in part because of the Laurentian creations it is dramatizing. I’ve particularly never understood the “hard-to-follow” accusations. I find it all quite clear, and if people are so confused, then why does Laurents so consistently land his abundant laughs? (I’ve seen at least six stagings and, trust me, he does.) It’s faults? It does tend to run its themes into the ground a bit before it ends; a two-act structure, not the three-act one it has, would probably have been a better idea. These days Sondheim belittles it as the smart kids in the class showing off. Personally, I think that’s part of its cheeky, subversive charm.

Annie
I saw this 1977 Thomas Meehan (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Martin Charnin (lyrics and direction) hit from standing room shortly after it opened, but I wasn’t persuaded, mostly because of my jejune disdain for musical comedy at the tender age of 23. However, in the summer of 1981 I went on tour with it to L.A. and D.C. for three months total, selling souvenirs, LPs etc. in the lobby. As a result, I got to see it many, many times (again, from standing room), and what I got was an education in good structure and proper pacing. In particular Meehan makes damn sure to have the right laugh at the right time to keep the audience consistently engaged. I still find the score rather uneven, though all the best numbers are in the right places, for which, again, Meehan is at least partially responsible. His book is a Swiss watch of comedy.

Sunday in the Park With George
Back in 1984, the naysayers for this Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical about the French painter Georges Seurat, and they were legion, whined that Act 1 was complete as a show and Act 2 was superfluous. You still hear the complaint, but not as much. It’s nonsense, of course. What the authors wanted to say about the difficulty and costs of creating art was at the heart of the second act, which is set 100 years later. The structure is theme and variations, and Lapine employs it to maximum effect. The connections among the characters in each act are meticulously planned and elegantly rendered. Is there a more cathartic moment in musical theatre than the second act climax, “Move On”? Yes, it’s a great song, but it has also been spectacularly prepared for by Lapine’s rock-solid construction.

Kiss of the Spider Woman
Terrence McNally learned a lesson in storytelling on this adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel about Molina, an effeminate gay window dresser, sharing a jail cell with Valentin, a macho straight revolutionary, in an unnamed South American country. Originally, to escape into fantasy, Molina narrated to Valentin the story of one musical movie that starred his beloved Aurora, also known as the Spider Woman. The audience couldn’t keep that story in its head for the whole show while also following the Molina-Valentin plot, John Kander and Fred Ebb couldn’t successfully unify their twin scores (one for the movie and one for the characters), and the result was chaos. It took McNally realizing that Molina should instead narrate individual scenes from many movies, relieving the audience of the need to follow twin dramatic threads, to turn the show into a success. Happily for Kander and Ebb, they didn’t have to rewrite quite as much as he did. It’s been 24 years since Spider Woman debuted on Broadway in 1993. It’s time for a revival!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart based their ingenious book for this bawdy 1962 musical on the Roman comedies of Plautus, which means that it inevitably traffics in extremely low, sometimes even vulgar humor. Stephen Sondheim’s score doesn’t dramatize the heavily plotted shenanigans; instead, it serves as a respite, giving the show moments in which to breathe but never derailing the farcical momentum. It’s also written in a more refined, almost intellectual humorous style, but the tonal mismatch isn’t a problem; instead, one complements the other. Still, at the end of the day it’s the book that makes this show work like gangbusters. The score is ornamentation, though of a very high order.

Fun Home
Playwright-performer Lisa Kron made an extremely assured debut as a book writer with this 2015 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s popular autobiographical lesbian-coming-of-age graphic novel. Kron made an audacious choice to split the leading role in three: “Small Allison,” “Medium Allison,” and “Allison,” the last in the process of writing her book. She also told the story in nonlinear fashion, mixing up events from different time periods with stunning effect. These choices gave the material richness and depth and more fully explored the maturation of her central character. Yet Kron always kept the action clear and engaging. The story is ultimately heartbreaking, but the telling of it in Kron’s inspired construction proves purgative, not depressing, just as it was for Bechdel in real life. Composer Jeanine Tesori’s score, to Kron’s lyrics, is a vital component, but in this case I think what makes the show is the way the story is told.

Assassins
I’ll go out on a limb and say that I think that John Weidman’s book for this musical about a very dark strain in the American psyche, seen by exploring the lives of the various people who assassinated (or tried to) a succession of American presidents, may be the best book ever written for a musical. Allowing the various assassins to interact with each other, the inspired metatheatricality of setting it in a cosmic shooting gallery, the compact but detailed character writing are all assets, as is using a musical revue structure rather than a more conventional plot-oriented one. Stephen Sondheim’s coruscating score works with Weidman’s book hand in glove, and the result is ferocious. The climactic scene of the assassins materializing in the Texas Book Depository to convince Lee Harvey Oswald to go through with killing John F. Kennedy is so shattering that they recorded it for both the original 1990 off-Broadway cast recording and the 2004 Broadway revival one. How often does an entire book scene get that treatment?

Bonus: The Golden Apple
Well, I was going to stop at 10, but seeing the extraordinary Encores! presentation of this 1954 John Latouche–Jerome Moross masterpiece this past weekend changed my mind. Just because it is through-sung doesn’t mean it hasn’t got a book. Resetting the story of the Greek myths of The Iliad and The Odyssey in turn-of-the-20th-century Washington state, Latouche finds consistently amusing character parallels while also managing to put the story of Ulysses and Penelope’s troubled marriage front and center with affecting clarity. The Golden Apple is a unique show told exactly as its authors wanted without bowing to any established rules, and it is never going to be embraced by everyone (as the mixed reception from critics and on chat boards showed). Still, its glorious mixture of show biz, sentiment, psychological exploration, and cultural dialectics, all told in brilliantly rhymed lyrics set to Moross’ giddy and gorgeous Americana score, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, at least for some of us.

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May
05

Betty From Brooklyn

Betty Comden was my neighbor. She moved into the apartment building across the street from me on Manhattan’s Upper West Side not too many years after it was erected in 1986. I would see her out and about in the ’hood, and it was also not unusual to spot her writing partner, Adolph Green, walking down Broadway toward her building, Tower 67, from his home in the Beresford on Central Park West. Throughout their long career, they apparently always worked at Betty’s place.

They wrote the lyrics for their last Broadway score, 1991’s The Will Rogers Follies, music by Cy Coleman, in that apartment, and I remember imagining them working on it just a stone’s throw away. I hadn’t yet met Betty when she first moved in, but I did so eventually, and although I hardly knew her well, she was always pleasant and welcoming if we bumped into each other. Once we were on the same train to the Hamptons (she had a home out there) and my husband and I (we were visiting friends) almost gave her a lift in our cab when a friend was late in picking her up (she arrived at the last minute, darn it).

My husband knew her professionally from his job as, first, associate director and then, later, director of the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. One year, during NAMT’s annual festival of new musicals, he and I were walking with Betty from one concert reading to another when I told her how excited I was that the AMC TV channel was about to show the 1964 film What a Way to Go! uncut and in widescreen format (I had only seen it pan and scan and chopped up for commercials.) It’s a star-studded comic vehicle for Shirley MacLaine as a woman who becomes increasingly wealthy as husband after husband suddenly drops dead, and Adolph and she had written the screenplay, as well as the lyrics for two songs (music by Jule Styne) for a mini-musical sequence featuring Gene Kelly as one of the husbands. Nevertheless, she fixed me with a withering glance and asked, “Why? It’s terrible!” I hadn’t liked what I had seen, but I was hoping to have a different opinion of the unaltered product. As it turned out, she was pretty much on the money, but when it came out on DVD I bought it anyway: It was by Comden, Green, and Styne!

I confess I was late to the Comden and Green party. As a teen I enjoyed their work, but I was much more enamored of the “serious” book musical and its authors, people such as Oscar Hammerstein II, Alan Jay Lerner, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim. Comden and Green were rooted in their comic-revue beginnings, even when writing book shows, and I thought that was a lesser form. Oh, I loved On the Town and liked Wonderful Town, but I chalked that up to Bernstein’s music. It took some getting over myself to realize my mistake.

Probably my first corrective was seeing A Party With Betty Comden and Adolph Green at the now long-gone Morosco Theatre in the winter of 1977, just months after arriving in NYC. It was the first Broadway revival of a show they premiered in 1958, which was inspired by the fact that though they had started on stage, they had become relegated to only performing at parties. I was enraptured by their ferocious energy, great style, and unpretentious intelligence. Their witty repartee about writing together drew this playwright-lyricist hopeful right in, and it was fascinating to hear them doing songs that I associated with other actors. Of course, I already knew their hilarious “I Get Carried Away” (from On the Town, which you can see on YouTube), but when Betty sang “If,” from the 1951 musical revue Two on the Aisle, or partnered with Adolph on the manic “Inspiration,” from 1947’s Bonanza Bound (which closed before reaching Broadway), it was clear how her performance style at times influenced her writing choices. She was also very adept with a ballad, whether it be “The Party’s Over,” from 1956’s Bells Are Ringing, or “Some Other Time,” from On the Town.

Betty’s simple, direct, clear way with a song is on most obvious display on an LP she recorded in 1963, Betty Comden Sings ‘Treasure Girl’ and ‘Chee Chee.’ Both shows were fast flops in 1928, but the former has songs by George and Ira Gershwin, while Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart scored the latter. Neither show generated any song hits, but, as I wrote in my suggested Christmas gifts column last year, “all 10 songs, five from each show, sound fresh as paint and feature melodic and inventive music married to witty lyrics filled with fun wordplay and ingenious rhymes (my favorite was Hart’s pairing of “appetite” with “wrap it tight” in “Better Be Good to Me”). Comden’s light soprano and conversational phrasing highlight their musical charm, and she mines every bit of gold from the lyrics, no doubt aided by being a wordsmith herself. Richard Lewine, a Broadway composer and successful producer of television musical specials, has arranged them splendidly for piano, bass, and guitar, and his deft musical direction and piano playing are pure pleasure.” Once again, I urge you not to miss this one.

My two favorite Comden and Green musicals are On the Town and 1978’s On the Twentieth Century, the latter featuring a wonderful operetta-spoof score by Cy Coleman. As far as songs go, I am particularly partial to some of their goofier comic pieces, usually written for supporting characters. Songs such as “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged,” from 1964’s Fade Out—Fade In, sung by Carol Burnett and Tiger Haynes doing spot-on impersonations of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson at their most irritatingly upbeat. And then there’s “Salzburg,” from Bells Are Ringing, in which a geographically challenged con man played by Eddie Lawrence (“lovely Salzburg by the sea”) tries to bilk Jean Stapleton’s telephone answering service owner out of her nest egg (“With your life savings in a little blue sock/We will have enough to keep us out of hock”) while giddily promising “We’ll live in style/Gold by the pile/Goulash for two as we barge down the Nile!” Perhaps the best of them all is “I Was a Shoo-In,” from 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping. Phyllis Newman played a Southern beauty queen who spent the whole show clad only in a towel, a tactic to keep her hotel from evicting her. The song is her account of her beauty pageant successes, and not only is it a hilarious tour de force, it probably won Newman her Tony for best featured actress in a musical (beating out Barbra Streisand for her performance in I Can Get It for You Wholesale). The OBCR, alas, is out of print and not available digitally, but you can hear Newman sing it on YouTube. I saw Newman perform the number live several times over the years, the last being in 2007 at Betty’s memorial tribute at the Majestic Theatre. Though 74, she still hit it out of the park. I always hoped someday to see Betty do it; I’m sure she would have been equally sensational.

In December of 1998 Betty attended the Richard Rodgers Award–sponsored reading of my musical Summer, based on the novel of the same name by Edith Wharton. Though we had met by then, it was only cursorily, and I don’t think she would have remembered me. She wasn’t present on my account but rather because the show’s composer was Paul Schwartz, son of Broadway giant Arthur Schwartz, whose song catalogue with Howard Dietz formed the basis of Betty and Adolph’s 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. After the reading I was talking to friends in the crowded York Theatre lobby when a woman came up to me to offer her congratulations. I was completely floored when I turned to find Betty Comden standing there. She had specifically sought me out to tell me how much she had liked the show and to offer praise to a fellow book writer and lyricist. She could easily have left without doing that. It was a classy and generous gesture from a great lady and a moment that I will always treasure.

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Apr
21

Growing Up With Jerry

Though of course I already knew some of his hit songs, I first really became aware of Jerry Herman on the evening of Wed., April 10, 1968, when, three days after turning 14, I, along with my fellow suburban Cleveland high school thespians, saw Jane Morgan as Mame at the Winter Garden Theatre. It was the third Broadway show of my young life, but the first one that hit home. Tuesday night had been the APA Phoenix Repertory Theatre production of Ionesco’s Exit the King at the Lyceum Theatre, and Wednesday afternoon was Fiddler on the Roof, at the Majestic Theatre. Dinner in between shows was at the famed Hawaii Kai, right next door to Mame. To this day I regret that I accidentally left my Fiddler program under my restaurant chair. I still have all the others from that trip.

We had balcony seats for all three shows, but both Exit and Fiddler had us in nosebleed heaven at the very, very back, and I just wasn’t able to connect with either one (both of which have subsequently become favorites). For Mame, however, we were in the front of the already much shallower Winter Garden balcony, and it felt like the musical was right in my lap. I didn’t know the source material, so the story was a surprise. I identified strongly with young Patrick, and I had my own Auntie Mame in the person of my Auntie Dot, who had been a very successful Manhattan fashion model but was now married off to an advertising man and living in the cornfields of Bloomington, Ill., with four young kids. Let’s put it this way: When I climbed the Statue of Liberty at age 5 and immediately proposed doing it again, Dot was the only adult who was game to go (my parents and grandparents overruled her). I also saw her dive fully clothed into New York’s Lake Kitchawan from a rowboat after my father bet her five bucks that she wouldn’t.

I immediately bought the OBCR LP for Mame upon returning home and played it incessantly, learning every note and word by heart. And when the film of Hello, Dolly! came out the following year, I became a fan of that as well, acquired the soundtrack, and did the same thing. I gave many a bedroom performance of both albums, milking “If He Walked Into My Life” for every ounce of torchy sentiment and doing my best to hold the last note of “Before the Parade Passes By” just as insanely long as Barbra Streisand had. I saw Dolly! with my frequent movie-going companion, my mild-mannered maternal grandmother, Molly Marsh, a working-class flower of Yorkshire, England. I will never forget Molly’s rare disapproving rejoinder to my opinionated and veddy British striver of a mother when she criticized Streisand as too strident and not pretty enough for the silver screen (even though she hadn’t seen the film). “I don’t know why you would say that Gwen,” snapped Molly. “She is a very talented girl.” As Herman would later write, my heart leaped up. Go Grandmar!

I bought the Dear World cast recording at some point and loved it as well. I remember swimming laps in gym class while belting out the title song in my head. Somehow it helped. I also picked up his first Broadway show, Milk and Honey, but though I didn’t dislike it, I didn’t warm to it in the same way, possibly because the rather quiet story of middle-aged love didn’t resonate with teenaged me.

My Herman phase was soon cut short, however, with the arrival of the OBCR of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company, in the spring of 1970. I already had a predilection for more-serious book musicals—think Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe—over musical comedies, and this was something brand new and astonishing. Sondheim quickly became God, and I started thinking of Herman as just an OK tunesmith (for years I was equally as hard on the work of his idol, Irving Berlin). The Mack & Mabel album came out when I was at college, in the fall of 1974, and though my friend John McGlinn and I pooh-poohed it to each other, it was a secret guilty pleasure that I played often in my dorm room. (I can still do a mean “Wherever He Ain’t.”)

The failure of that show apparently shook Herman’s confidence (even I was aghast when The Lieutenant, a quick flop of a rock musical about the My Lai massacre, got a Tony nod for best score while Herman was shut out in what was clearly a pointed snub), and he didn’t return to Broadway for five years. When he did, with The Grand Tour, I was finally a New Yorker and sixth row center at the Palace Theatre shortly after the opening thanks to the TKTS booth (which tells you how badly the show was selling). I’m afraid Herman, as he has since admitted in interviews, seemed less than inspired by the subject matter (S.N. Behrman’s play Jacobowsky and the Colonel, about a scrappy Polish Jew fleeing the Nazis), and I concurred with the poor notices, but I will always recall Joel Grey soldiering on and playing the show as if he was in the biggest hit in the world. I skipped the following year’s A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, an English musical revue by Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus for which Herman supplied a few new numbers at the request of director Tommy Tune to punch up the score, because it didn’t sound like my thing and I couldn’t land a free ticket.

As an out and proud gay man, I was very excited to see 1983’s La Cage aux Folles, and my ex and I ponied up for house seats, attending almost as soon as it opened. While I saluted it as a political achievement and especially appreciated the songs “I Am What I Am” and “Look Over There,” I felt that both Harvey Fierstein’s book and Herman’s score could have been written with more depth and nuance, an opinion shared by my classmates in NYU’s graduate program for writing musical theatre. To a person we were outraged when La Cage beat Sunday in the Park With George for the major awards at the 1984 Tonys.

Arthur Laurents, who directed the show, was our teacher, and he arranged for our class to see it in the fall of 1984. When he asked our opinions, we tiptoed around our dissatisfaction with polite questions phrased, for example, as “Why did you choose to do such and such?” But Arthur soon caught on and was not happy; he didn’t entirely disagree, but he believed that he had made necessary concessions to get the audience applauding a gay couple happily strolling off romantically into the sunset together. Today I am inclined to see his point; experience will do that to a person.

I missed the 1985 Broadway musical revue Jerry’s Girls, because I had seen its more modest off-Broadway incarnation in 1981 at Ted Hook’s Onstage. Four talented but largely unknown ladies (Evalyn Baron, Leigh Martin, Alex Korey, Pauletta Pearson) were replaced by three Broadway stars (Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Dorothy Loudon), a chorus, and greater production values, but the material remained essentially the same, and my theatregoing funds were, as always, limited. Besides, it was just Jerry Herman songs that I already knew. (The cast recording, by the way, is of the show’s national tour, in which Carol Channing and Andrea McArdle replaced Rivera and Loudon.)

My Herman turnaround happened in 1995, with Carol Channing’s final Broadway appearance as Dolly Gallagher Levi. I had missed Channing in the show’s 1978 revival, which only played for four months, and so had never seen it on stage. My new husband of but a single year convinced me that I should attend, and I was stunned by the brilliance of the whole thing, especially Gower Champion’s direction and staging, re-created by Lee Roy Reams under Herman’s supervision. And though at 74 Channing was too old for the role and her powers were past their peak, the outlines of the performance were still strong enough to understand what it once was. I had criminally undervalued this thing called musical comedy.

1996 brought the TV musical Mrs. Santa Claus, and if the score was perhaps minor Herman, I still found it and the show, especially Angela Lansbury in the title role, delightful. Alas, except for the studio recording of tunes intended for Miss Spectacular, a planned Las Vegas show that never happened, this was Herman’s swan song, highly frustrating for me, who was at last seeing the error of his ways. In particular, in reevaluating Herman’s oeuvre, I realized what a fine lyricist he had always been. The song ideas tended to be simpler ones, but the words were invariably well chosen for character, beautifully situated on the music, and smartly rhymed, whether sparingly or inventively. Herman was writing a different kind of musical than Sondheim was, that’s all.

Now back to La Cage. Because of the subject matter, it has always been Herman’s most important show to me, despite my cavils with the writing. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the 2003 Tony-winning revival directed by Jerry Zaks, though I still thought there were seams showing. I even went back when Robert Goulet replaced the excellent Daniel Davis as Georges, because somehow I had never seen Goulet on stage, and I found him remarkably effective and the epitome of charm. I was sorry that there was no OBCR, which would have captured the new counterpoint Herman wrote for Georges to sing during “Anne on My Arm,” which for me considerably enhanced the song.

The 2010 revival, imported from London, also won the Tony, but I didn’t care for Douglas Hodge’s highly lauded, super-aggressive British music hall take on Albin. However, when Harvey Fierstein replaced him in the role, I finally had the experience I always wanted to have with La Cage. Somehow Fierstein connected the dots in a way I’d never seen before, and all the substance I thought was missing in the writing was suddenly present. And since he could play it, it must have always been there, right? In any event, I was moved to copious tears by the end, and there I was, just 14 years old again, completely captivated by the theatrical magic of Jerry Herman.

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Apr
07

(Dis)Covering Coward

Kevin Kline opened Wednesday night on Broadway in a revival of Noël Coward’s comedy Present Laughter, so we are saluting either or both of those gentlemen this week here at BwayTunes. I have had the good fortune to see most of Kline’s stage performances, and though I will always treasure his work in his breakthrough role of Bruce Granit in On the Twentieth Century and as the Pirate King in the Public Theatre’s Central Park production of The Pirates of Penzance, one that stands out in my mind is his Captain Bluntschli in a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, produced on Broadway in 1985 by Circle in the Square. Starring opposite Glenne Headley and Raul Julia and directed by John Malkovich, Kline was electric as he showed off his formidable chops for light and physical comedy, which augurs well for what appears to be his first crack at Coward.

The idea of Kline doing Coward led me to my organizing conceit for this column. The Master made many, many recordings of his theatre songs and appeared in his share of the shows on stage, but there are also scads of performers who have interpreted his work. Quite frankly, when I want a Coward fix, I tend to go to the source, especially the two indispensable 1950s recordings of his nightclub act: Noël Coward at Las Vegas (recorded live in performance) and Noël Coward in New York (done in a studio). But rather than discuss the familiar, I’m going to consider recordings of Coward songs made by others.

I became a Coward fan at a tender age (as Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “When I was young and simple/I don’t recall the date”) when I watched the film of Blithe Spirit on TV with my mother (Gwen was a massive devotee of its star, Rex Harrison). Somehow my subsequent obsession with the serious, dramatically integrated American book musical as defined by the work of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II never affected my affection for him, even though Coward never really liked or, I think, understood that form. His lack of comfort with it was likely the reason why he never had a hit book show on Broadway (with the possible exception of his pre-R&H operetta Bitter Sweet, which opened late in 1929 and ran for about five months).

Coward’s songwriting influences remained operetta, revues, and the British music hall for his whole career, even when writing shows with a story. That’s why, for me, the standouts in his score for his last Broadway musical, 1963’s The Girl Who Came to Supper (based on Terrence Rattigan’s comedy The Sleeping Prince, which also became the film The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe) are two performance numbers, one plopped in each act with very little regard for the narrative.

In Act 1 British music hall star Tessie O’Shea stopped the show cold with a medley of four songs: “London Is a Little Bit of All Right,” “What Ho, Mrs. Brisket,” “Don’t Take Our Charlie for the Army,” and “Saturday Night at the Rose and Crown.” She was such a sensation that it brought her the Tony for best featured actress in a musical and was shown in its 11-minute entirety on The Ed Sullivan Show, which you can see on YouTube. By the way, a fifth song, “What’s the Matter With a Nice Beef Stew?,” was cut from the medley prior to Broadway, but you can still hear the chorus sing snippets of it as the number builds to its finale.

In Act 2 Florence Henderson, as an American chorus girl who falls in love with the middle-aged prince of the fictional middle-European country of Carpathia, had a tour de force when she got to recapitulate the plot of her show, The Coconut Girl, for the prince’s teenage son. She rattles through six songs while detailing Girl’s inane story; my favorite moment is when she enthusiastically sings her chorus part for “Lilies of the Valley” as a solo.

The rest of the score is pleasant enough, but for me the only song to hold a candle to these two sequences is the prince’s “I’ll Remember Her,” which closed the show. José Ferrer imbues it with the proper amount of rue and regret, and it’s proof that Coward could dramatize character in song quite effectively when he wanted to.

There aren’t, of course, a lot of full original cast recordings of Coward shows available to us, as most of his career predated the practice of making them. Nevertheless, many performances were documented in individual recordings of songs, and some choice ones include Beatrice Lillie’s rendition of “I Went to a Marvelous Party,” which she introduced in the 1938 musical revue Set to Music and can be found on A Marvelous Party With Beatrice Lillie, and Gertrude Lawrence’s “Someday I’ll Find You,” from the 1930 comedy Private Lives, which you can hear her sing on the collection Noël and Gertie in context opposite Coward in a recording done for radio of a scene from Act 1.

Coward’s 1946 musical, Pacific 1860, was written as a vehicle for Mary Martin, who starred as a 19th century opera diva in love with a British plantation owner’s son on the fictional Pacific island of Sambolo. Martin, hopelessly miscast, was very unhappy in the role, which shows on her various cuts. However, Sylvia Cecil, star of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, famous for its stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan works, sounds great in the score’s best tune, “This Is a Changing World.” Cecil reappeared in the 1950 Coward book musical Ace of Clubs, whose truncated OLCR is paired with Pacific’s on CD, but my favorite number from that is Pat Kirkwood’s delicious rendition of “Chase Me Charlie,” a song she reprised years later in the Chichester Festival’s 1994 musical revue Noël & Cole: Let’s Do It.

And then there’s Graham Payn. A famous boy soprano from South Africa, he had bit roles in Coward’s 1932 musical revue Words and Music. Years later, pursuing a career as an adult on the British musical stage, he and Coward reconnected and shortly the Master cast him in the 1945 musical revue Sigh No More, where Payn memorably introduced the ballad “Matelot,” about the singer’s love for a wandering, unfaithful sailor. Daringly, the sex of the faithful lover is never specified, though audiences of the time undoubtedly assumed the song to be about a heterosexual romance. Recorded as a 78 single, it’s not available digitally, but you can hear it on YouTube.

Payn and Coward became lovers and lifetime companions, and the Master wrote him several roles before Payn decided to retire and devote himself full time to supporting the man he loved. My favorite Payn performances, after “Matelot,” are his renditions of “Sail Away” and “I Like America,” both from Ace of Clubs, and the hilarious “Uncle Harry,” added to Pacific 1860 after it opened to rectify the critics’ complaints of a lack of laughs in the show.

The final two original cast Coward performances I’d like to salute are by Tammy Grimes and Elaine Stritch. Grimes starred in High Spirits, the 1964 musical version of my gateway Coward drug, which tells the tale of a kooky medium who inadvertently materializes the ghost of a waspish writer’s first wife. The book, music, and lyrics were by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, with Coward directing. But Grimes’ big comic set piece, “Home Sweet Heaven,” in which her character discusses all the people she socializes with in the afterlife, wasn’t landing the way it should. Coward wrote a new lyric for it, turning it into a showstopper, but he didn’t take credit. A rare instance of a song collaboration by the Master, it isn’t available digitally. The out-of-print CD goes for an inordinate amount online, but you can hear Grimes sing it, taken from a rare 45 r.p.m. single, on YouTube.

Stritch was elevated to the pantheon of musical comedy greats by her role as a lonely cruise ship hospitality director who falls in love with a younger man in 1961’s Sail Away (yes, Coward appropriated and slightly rewrote his song from Ace of Clubs to serve as the show’s title song). The musical’s rather ungenerous portrait of the American tourist may be why it only ran 167 performances on Broadway, but the OBCR and the OLCR (Stritch crossed the pond to play the show in the West End after Broadway) are lots of fun. Alas, both are unavailable digitally and out of print on CD. However, you can hear Stritch sing her fabulous 11 o’clock number, “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?,” on the OBCR of her autobiographical one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

Moving on from original cast performances, I’ll close with some of the legions of covers of Coward songs, starting with American vaudevillian Harry Noble, whom I’ve only recently discovered. His 1954 LP, World Weary: The Songs of Noël Coward, was apparently the first attempt by any artist besides the Master himself to record an all-Coward disc. He’s equally at home with satire and sentiment in these direct and well-judged renditions. I particularly like his understated version of “Imagine the Duchess’s Feelings.”

Saloon singer Bobby Short’s 1972 double LP set Bobby Short Is Mad About Noël Coward was as instrumental in acquainting me with Coward’s oeuvre as the two nightclub-act recordings mentioned above, and the incomparable Short ranges from delightfully insouciant to exuberantly wicked to achingly wry while playing a mean piano. His ability to knowingly articulate sophisticated lyrics is a joy.

When Christine Ebersole starred in a 2009 Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit as the titular ghost, she recorded some Coward songs to be played in the theatre as the audience was arriving. This led to a CD, Christine Ebersole Sings Noël Coward, on which her silvery soprano is beautifully employed in a ballad-heavy repertoire that includes a couple of lesser-known songs, “When My Ship Comes Home” and “The Dream Is Over.”

And speaking of rarities, Steve Ross’ 2012 CD Noël Coward Off the Record features nothing but and is a must-have recording for the Coward connoisseur. It grew out of a concert I saw him give at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium, and his illuminating commentary is also included. I’m partial to “We’ve Got the Country at the Corner of the Street,” intended for working-class Londoners to sing about their blitzed city at the end of World War II. It was meant for the unproduced musical Hoi Polloi, written in 1949, which got a very enjoyable belated debut earlier this season off-Broadway thanks to Musicals Tonight! The song worked very well in context, by the way.

For a change of pace try Carmen McRae’s 1958 LP Mad About the Man: Carmen McRae Sings Noël Coward. This is another recent discovery for me, and it’s revealing to hear the singer’s forthrightly American, often jazzy take on such English material. Some of Jack Fleis’ pop arrangements are a bit startling, but they prove that the songs can support a wide range of interpretation. McRae’s ebullient “A Room With a View” is one for the ages. I have a hunch that I’ll be listening to this CD repeatedly in the future.

The most surprising McRae cut is her upbeat, swingy take on “If Love Were All,” working against its inherent introspection with unexpected success. I consider this song to be the quintessential Coward tune, thanks in part to the lines “I believe that since my life began/The most I’ve had is just/A talent to amuse,” and my favorite version of it is Julie Andrews’ performance at Alan Jay Lerner’s 1986 memorial at the Shubert Theatre (I have a live tape). It was Lerner’s favorite song. Andrews can be heard doing a lovely, straightforward rendition on her 1961 LP Broadway’s Fair Julie, though the arrangement is a bit syrupy. Jazz great Helen Merrill gets sad and sultry on Merrill at Midnight, while Shirley Bassey is bold and biting on Love Songs. Judy Garland imbues it with charged vulnerability on her classic Judy at Carnegie Hall, and Barbara Cook’s understated performance on It’s Better With a Band is simple and stunning. But for the absolutely definitive take, you must go to the original: French cabaret star Ivy St. Helier, for whom it was written. You can hear her on Noël Coward: The Great Shows, which offers many early original cast performances of Coward songs. The best, however, is to watch her do it on YouTube in the 1933 British film version of Bitter Sweet. Perfectly capturing what New York Times critic Ben Brantley recently called “the quintessential French equation…sentimentality plus cynicism,” it’s pure Gallic magic.

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Mar
24

Blossom Time

Having saluted spring’s arrival last year in part with a playlist of songs about it, I needed a new angle for 2017. Suddenly the 1921 Sigmund Romberg operetta Blossom Time came to mind. A gigantic hit for the Shubert brothers that ran for 516 performances originally, then 592 in a revival that opened in 1924, just over a year after it closed (both at the Ambassador Theatre, current home to the mega-hit revival of Chicago), it gave me my theme: songs that reference particular flowers.

Then last weekend I saw Disney’s new live-action film of Beauty and the Beast, which, surprisingly, I quite liked. I love the original 1991 animated film and didn’t see any reason to do a remake. But if it was to be done, director Bill Condon has accomplished the task very well indeed, and a hit live-action musical of the proportions shaping up for Beauty will surely make it easier to continue the resuscitation of the genre.

The fine Howard Ashman–Alan Menken–Tim Rice score doesn’t have any songs that fit my theme, but the plot does hinge on a magical rose that is slowly dying. I thought, maybe just “rose” songs? There are, indeed, many of them, but the list had a certain sameness. Therefore, though roses may predominate, they are not exclusive. Without further ado, my Broadway/Hollywood bouquet.

“Overture,” from the film of My Fair Lady
I still remember being 10 years old and sitting on the aisle of the Colony Theatre in Shaker Heights, Ohio, anxiously waiting for the film version of my favorite musical to begin. Conductor André Previn led the lush orchestra in the iconic opening chords of the overture as close-ups of luscious flowers began to fill the huge screen. You could almost smell them. Of course, I thought to myself, after all, it’s about a flower girl. To this day I find the opening credit sequence thrilling. And I can’t wait for director Bartlett Sher’s revival next year at Lincoln Center.

“I Won’t Send Roses,” from Mack & Mabel
The minute I heard Jerry Herman’s 1974 character-defining solo for silent film director Mack Sennett, especially as delivered by the great Robert Preston, I knew it was a winner. Then came the touching solo reprise from Bernadette Peters as Sennett star Mabel Normand, to whom Mack sings this anti-ballad, and things got even better. Conductor-musicologist John McGlinn and I used to argue about one line in Herman’s lyric: “Just turn and go.” John thought the “just” was a pad and said that it should have been “Pack up and go.” I didn’t, and still don’t, agree. “Pack up” is too harsh for me, and the use of “just” as a colloquial intensifier is well established.

“I Always Say Hello to a Flower,” revue material
Murray Grand, who wrote this 1958 specialty number, was a frequent contributor to musical revues, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, including the New Faces series on Broadway (check out his best-known songs, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” which has a lyric by Elisse Boyd, from New Faces of 1952, and “April in Fairbanks,” from New Faces of 1956). I couldn’t track down a show to go with “Flower,” but the tune was probably intended for one and ended up recorded by a number of famous artists, among them Beatrice Lillie (hear her on YouTube) and Elisabeth Welch. Digitally, you can catch John Lithgow’s and Faith Prince’s versions. Among the blooms catalogued, sometimes in delightful double entendres, are lilacs, hollyhocks, daisies, snowballs, violets, dogwoods, gladioli, pansies, pussy willows, and, of course, roses.

“Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” from Gypsy
Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Jule Styne added a catch phrase to the American language with this hit song, which, of course, is also sung by a character named Rose. This fact caused Jerome Robbins, the show’s director-choreographer, to ask rather testily, upon first hearing it, “I don’t get it. Everything’s coming up Rose’s what?”

“(I’ll Marry) The Very Next Man,” from Fiorello!
New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s long-suffering secretary, Marie, explodes in this song of romantic frustration late in Act 2, after her clueless boss has lost his wife but still doesn’t see that Marie has been pining for him since before his marriage. The 1959 original had nothing to do with blossoms, but an attempted sarcastic joke about enduring domestic abuse in order to gain the joys of wedlock (“And if he likes me /Who cares how frequently he strikes me? /I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling /Just for the privilege of wearing his ring”) caused Harnick to revise it in 1984. The new lines: “When he proposes,/I'll have him send me tons of roses,/Sweet-scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour./Why should I settle for just one Little Flow’r?” Neat, no? He also did a less-show-specific version for Barbara Cook in 2004, returning the song to non-floral status: “I’m through with moping/Moping from all this pointless hoping/Hoping he’ll notice me and open his heart./Time now to break away and make a new start.” I like 1984 the best.

“Rose of Washington Square,” from Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, 1919 Edition
The legendary Fanny Brice introduced this famous torch song that became the title of a 1939 Alice Faye–Tyrone Power movie musical about a Ziegfeld Follies star’s unhappy marriage to a con man (shades of Brice and Nicky Arnstein?). The song also shows up in the 1967 Julie Andrews flapper film musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, sung in the background in a restaurant. Though the Rose of the title is a person and not a flower, Ballard Macdonald’s lyric (to James F. Hanley’s tune) employs floral imagery for the character: “They call me Rose of Washington Square/ I’m withering there/In basement air I’m fading.” I couldn’t find a recording of Brice, but you can hear Tammy Grimes’ version on her 1962 eponymously titled album.

“Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” from the film of Little Shop of Horrors
Levi Stubbs introduced this soulful blast of savagery, in which the man-eating plant from the cosmos, Audrey II, announces plans to take over the Earth. It brought Alan Menken and Howard Ashman an Oscar nomination in 1987 for best original song, but they lost to “Take My Breath Away,” from Top Gun. They would soon make up for that, however, winning in 1990 for “Kiss the Girl,” from The Little Mermaid, and in 1992 for the title song of Beauty and the Beast, though by then the world had lost the immensely gifted Ashman to AIDS.

“Wait,” from Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Mrs. Lovett contemplates brightening up Sweeney’s barbershop with some flowers in an attempt to divert him from his obsession with revenge against the evil Judge Turpin. Composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim makes it a struggle between gillyflowers and daisies. The former is actually an archaic name for several varieties of blossoms, including carnations, stocks, and wallflowers. “Nothing like a nice bowl of gillies” is her ultimate decision. Sondheim once singled out this song as one he would replace if a film version of Sweeney was ever made; I don’t remember his reasons, but ultimately, of course, he didn’t.

“In the Mandarin’s Orchid Garden,” from the unproduced East Is West
George and Ira Gershwin wrote this uncharacteristic slice of exotica in 1929 for an unfinished musical based on a 1918 Broadway play of the same name. It was to be sung by a “Sing-Song Girl” on one side of the stage while a ballet unfolded. It uses the metaphor of a lone buttercup growing in an orchid garden to express the sheltered girl’s unease with the outside world. In his 1959 book of collected lyrics, Ira included it and explained that it was published as a possible art song – but “only sold a few copies.” One night, however, on his first trip to Hollywood, he was at a party in Bel-Air when his hostess pulled him aside and began to recite the lyric. “How did you happen to learn it?” he asked her incredulously. It turned out that she didn’t know the music; her elocution teacher had given it to her as an exercise. Sarah Brightman, fortunately, sings it on her album Encore.

“Be Happy” and “I Never Met a Rose,” from the film The Little Prince
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe reunited after more than a decade to write this 1974 film musical based on Antoine de St. Exupéry’s classic fable. “Be Happy” does not reference flowers at all, but as the character who sings it actually is a rose, I think it qualifies for inclusion here. In her passive-aggressive way, the Rose is trying to stop the Little Prince from leaving his asteroid (and her) to go in search of learning. Donna McKechnie sang and danced the part, but her efforts were cut to ribbons on screen. Fortunately, the full vocal was included on the soundtrack LP, though the pseudo-rock dance break, eerily predictive of “The Music and the Mirror,” wasn’t. Lerner and Loewe envisioned the number as a peppy Broadway uptempo in 4/4, no doubt underlining the Rose’s vanity and insincerity, and were not happy with its reworking by director Stanley Donen (Lerner leaves him unnamed while calling him “some cinematic Bigfoot” in his memoir, The Street Where I Live).

In “I Never Met a Rose,” a middle-aged Pilot, who has crash landed in the Sahara desert, tries to cheer up the Little Prince, who as part of his interplanetary journey has been telling the Pilot of his complicated relationship with the Rose. The change in Richard Kiley’s vocal timbre is due to the Pilot’s occasional use of a megaphone, improvised from a piece of paper, in Rudy Vallee style. The effort leads him unexpectedly to a touching moment of self-discovery. The song was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, as was the film’s gorgeous title song, but both lost to, of all things, “Benji’s Theme (I Feel Love).” Lerner and Loewe, however, took home the trophy for original score.

“In My Garden of Joy,” from the film Star!
Director Robert Wise needed a tacky music hall number for this 1968 biography of the great English stage star Gertrude Lawrence, in which Gertie, still a chorus girl, gets revenge on her fellow chorines for their disapproval of her spotlight-stealing antics. Julie Andrews is a hoot in Michael Kidd’s go-for-broke staging. However, the song is not a period piece. The music department couldn’t find the right tune to satisfy Wise, so Saul Chaplin, the film’s producer and former MGM music man (not to mention Harold Prince’s father-in-law), up and wrote one, and the blossom list is long. It’s not available digitally, so you have to settle for buying the soundtrack CD.

“Under the Sunset Tree,” from Darling of the Day
In typical Yip Harburg fashion, he invents a plant for this touching evocation of late-in-life love, which has music by Jule Styne. The lyric does reference “apple blossoms,” but they are reserved for the young; older people instead watch “in the harvest time of love” as “the bold leaf turns to gold/Under the sunset tree.” If star Vincent Price can at best lightly croon it, his co-star, the incomparable Patricia Routledge, who won a Tony for her performance despite the show only running for 31 performances in 1968, more than makes up for his lack of vocal prowess. The song was written out of town to replace another soaring ballad, “That Stranger in Your Eyes,” which I can only assume was even harder for Price to negotiate. Happily, both are used in my adaptation of the musical.

“Tomorrow Mountain,” from Beggar’s Holiday
Lyricist John Latouche wrote this optimistic siren song for the disenfranchised with composer Duke Ellington as the 1946 show’s first-act closer. As with Harburg, Latouche invents his botanical subjects, referencing “cigarette trees” and “diamond bushes” among the promises of paradise. Alas, no OBCR was made of this ahead-of-its-time, racially integrated adaptation of The Beggar’s Opera, but Lena Horne blazes brightly on her cover version, which also serves as my finale.

But before I go, I’m returning to Beauty and the Beast for what feels like a fitting conclusion for a column saluting the arrival of spring. One of the film’s many pleasures is hearing some previously unused verses by Howard Ashman, written for but cut from the original. In the closing reprise of the title song, Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Potts sings this gem as the Beast transforms into a handsome prince, the staff becomes human again, and their frozen castle returns to life: “Winter turns to spring./Famine turns to feast./Nature points the way./Nothing left to say./Beauty and the beast.” It brought a tear to my eye. Here’s to you, Howard.

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Mar
10

Kander Pink

Composer John Kander celebrates his 90th birthday a week from tomorrow, and he can certainly look back on a stellar career. But these days he appears only to be looking forward. He has two new musicals in the works with collaborator Greg Pierce, and Kid Victory, his second original musical with Pierce since the death of his longtime lyricist, Fred Ebb (the first is a collection of three flavorful one-acts called The Landing), is currently playing at the Vineyard Theatre after opening to largely favorable, if occasionally perplexed, reviews. Pierce has done the book and lyrics (the original story is credited to both Pierce and Kander), and the very serious subject matter is the recovery of a gay teenage boy from abduction and sexual abuse at the hands of a much older man. I wrote about my love for this show in my recent spring preview column (“Spring Doth Let Her Colors Fly,” see below), so I will confine myself here to saying that anyone who cares about serious musical theatre should not miss it. It closes March 19, so you have 11 performances left. Go!

And speaking of serious musical theatre, I confess that it is what I enjoy the most. It’s not that I don’t like musical comedy—I have more than my share of favorites—but I ultimately prefer musicals with some substance to them. It’s a personal bias. I’ll take Fun Home over Something Rotten! every time. And Kander and Ebb certainly wrote their share in the genre: Cabaret, Zorbá, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Scottsboro Boys, The Visit—not a title there of which I’m not a fan. Nevertheless, that’s not all they wrote.

The French playwright Jean Anouilh was known for dividing his plays into two categories: “rose et noir,” or pink and black, with the two categories very roughly corresponding to comedy and tragedy. It seems to me that Kander has done much the same, especially in his work with Ebb, generally alternating one with the other. So today it’s a few of the pink musicals that I want to discuss, because I love some of them too—or at least their scores.

A Family Affair
This 1962 musical comically chronicling a Jewish wedding not only marked Kander’s Broadway debut as a composer but Harold Prince’s as a director. Prince took over out of town for Word Baker, just off his success with The Fantasticks, and while Prince didn’t make it a hit (the show only ran 65 performances), the general consensus was that he came close. The lyrics are by Kander and brothers James and William Goldman, with all three also being credited for the book. What’s immediately apparent is Kander’s confidence as a composer, traversing a wide range of styles and sometimes coming up with idiosyncratic song forms that nevertheless fit the situation perfectly (such as the groom’s last-minute fed-up rant, “What I Say Goes,” whose unfortunate mining of misogyny for comedy is a function of its time).

Notable songs include the charming introductory “Anything for You” and quirkily romantic “There’s a Room in My House,” both for the putative bride and groom (beautifully sung by Larry Kert and Rita Gardner); the comic quartet “Harmony” (confidently led by the redoubtable Bibi Osterwald as a cynical wedding consultant), which displays Kander’s gift for pastiche; and the groom’s mother’s quiet acknowledgement of mortality, “Summer Is Over” (beautifully delivered by the great actress Eileen Heckart, the original Rosemary in Picnic, in her sole Broadway musical). I was surprised years later when a cut song, the lilting “Mamie in the Afternoon,” for which I have the sheet music, showed up sung and danced libidinously by Liza Minnelli in Kander and Ebb’s score for The Act as “Arthur in the Afternoon,” retooled as a paean to the benefits of casual sex.

The United Artists OBCR of A Family Affair came out on CD from DRG in 2005, but it’s not available digitally. If you want a sample before deciding to buy the hard copy, download “There’s a Room in My House” from Harbinger Records’ invaluable collection John Kander: Hidden Treasures, 1950–2015.

Flora, the Red Menace
Thanks to Harold Prince, who produced, the team of Kander and Ebb debuted on Broadway with this 1965 musical comedy about a young girl in New York City during the Depression who wants to be a graphic artist and falls in love with a Communist. Based on Lester Atwell’s novel Love Is Just Around the Corner, it only managed an 87-performance run, but its star, Liza Minnelli, won the Tony for best actress in a musical in what was also her Broadway debut. Director George Abbott co-wrote the book with Robert Russell, and when years after hearing the LP I finally got to read it, it seemed clear why the show didn’t work: the writing was awfully formulaic and not suited to the source material, probably because the politically conservative Abbott was a bad match for it.

The RCA Victor OBCR, however, sounds like a hit show, especially whenever Minnelli is belting numbers such as “All I Need (Is One Good Break)” and “Sing Happy,” and particularly on the stunning ballad “A Quiet Thing.” Mary Louise Wilson is fun as a committed party member singing “The Flame,” while Bob Dishy shines on the political temptation that is “Sign Here.” A 1987 rewrite by David Thompson, directed by Scott Ellis, choreographed by Susan Stroman, and starring Veanne Cox, served to lift those artists out of theatrical obscurity and was generally considered an improvement over the original, though I didn’t (and don’t) agree.

The Happy Time
From the moment I heard the swirling vamp for the title song, a surging waltz that opens this 1968 musical with a book by N. Richard Nash, “suggested by the characters in stories by Robert L. Fontaine,” I was hooked by this score, the most intimate and romantic I’d yet heard from Kander and Ebb. The story of a family black sheep, a supposedly successful photographer who returns home and is the subject of his teenage nephew’s hero worship, much to the boy’s father’s dismay, it was supposedly overwhelmed by director-choreographer Gower Champion’s massive production, prominently featuring projections that dwarfed the characters and story. It ran only 286 performances; still, Robert Goulet, magnetic on the OBCR, walked off with a Tony for best actor in a musical (catch him in the title song and the nostalgic trio “A Certain Girl” on the 1968 Tony Awards on YouTube), while Michael Rupert (playing the nephew in his Broadway debut) and veteran David Wayne (the original Og in Finian’s Rainbow), as the family patriarch, both got nominations for best supporting actor.

Again, I only read the script years later (in a Samuel French acting edition), and it seemed to me that Nash’s thin writing was what doomed the piece. But then, in 2008, I saw director Michael Unger’s vest-pocket production in the smaller of Signature Theatre’s two spaces in Alexandria, Va. Somewhat revised with material from earlier drafts, it worked like a charm, with David Margulies especially memorable as the grandfather. The story is delicate, the sentimentality a danger, but there is truth at the center, and the Kander and Ebb score deftly set tone, developed character, and provided heart, with Kander excelling at suggesting the French Canadian atmosphere. How I wish it could have transferred to NYC.

Something for Everyone/Funny Lady
Kander hasn’t had an extensive Hollywood career of original projects, though in the 1980s and ’90s he wrote a few orchestral film scores, working mostly with directors Robert Benton and John Erman. His most famous movie gig, of course, is writing (with Ebb) the original songs for Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, but that’s a black musical. I’m particularly fond of his witty debut background score, redolent of Teutonic oom-pah-pah and Viennese schmaltz, for Harold Prince’s 1970 black comedy Something for Everyone. Featuring a screenplay by Hugh Wheeler based on Harry Kressing’s novel The Cook, the film was just recently released on Blu-ray DVD after decades of unavailability. Angela Lansbury stars as an impoverished countess rattling around a decaying castle in post–WWII Austria, with Michael York, two years before Cabaret, flashing great legs as a servant with dreams of nobility and wealth who beds not only the countess but also her son and daughter. It’s devilish and delicious. “To money! Without money there is nothing!”

Writing the score for a sequel to Funny Girl might have seemed like an unenviable job: How do you top Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s iconic work? But Kander and Ebb didn’t really have to try, as their new songs for 1975’s Funny Lady were interspersed with a liberal amount of period material. The two big numbers, “How Lucky Can You Get” and “Let’s Hear It for Me,” hold their own as Streisand showstoppers (though I wish the verse to the latter had been included on the soundtrack recording), but I’m most partial to the rueful ballad “Isn’t This Better,” which has Fanny Brice comparing her sedate second marriage to producer-songwriter Billy Rose with her passionate first one to Nicky Arnstein. I’m also charmed by “I Like Him/Her,” a nifty countermelody to the E.Y. Harburg–Billy Rose–Harold Arlen classic “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” in which Brice and Rose first size each other up. There are also two fun pieces of special material, “Blind Date” and “Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie,” that fit Streisand’s Brice and Ben Vereen’s Bert Robbins like a glove, though both numbers are sadly truncated on screen. The Arista CD soundtrack is unavailable digitally, but you can hear “Isn’t This Better” on the OCR of the Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes ’Round.

70, Girls, 70
I’m saving the favorite for last here. When this 1971 musical comedy, about a group of senior citizens on Manhattan’s Upper West Side who start robbing stores in order to save their retirement home from being sold out from under them, closed after only 35 performances, I became worried about being able to buy the OBCR. That’s because I had already had trouble ordering rare titles out of the Schwann catalogue at my local suburban Ohio record store, Hurst Tune Town, even though the catalogue insisted that they were available. I waited for weeks with bated breath, but it finally arrived—and I loved every note of it. The score is pure musical comedy, from Mildred Natwick, as the prim and proper Ida, and company singing of the virtues of “Home” to waitresses Lillian Hayman and Goldye Shaw confiding that “the trouble with the world today is coffee in a cardboard cup” to Tommy Breslin, the sole young ’un in the company, exhorting us to “Go Visit Your Grandmother” to Natwick’s climactic double whammy of “The Elephant Song,” asking what happens to elephants after they die, and “Yes,” an exhortation to life sung after death while sitting on a moon. The score is pure joy.

I never saw the Broadway production, but I did catch the show’s 1991 West End premiere, starring the great Dora Bryan and featuring a somewhat revised book (by David Thompson) and slightly revised score, and a 2000 York Theatre Company Musicals in Mufti concert presentation of that same version starring a great cast of veterans headed by Jane Powell, both of which worked splendidly. I find the show to be a complete, if admittedly ramshackle, delight, and I don’t understand why it isn’t done more often.

During the Thanksgiving–Christmas holiday stretch of 1976, having only moved to New York a month earlier, I was working at Macy’s as a clerk, shuttling between the stationery and picture frame departments. Who should come in looking for a frame but Fred Ebb! I waited on him, and, just as I was wrapping up the sale, I screwed up the nerve to tell him how much I liked his work. He seemed pleased to be recognized, and so I went a bit further, telling him that 70, Girls, 70, was my favorite Kander and Ebb score. He looked a bit startled, then smiled and said, “Mine too.” I think I spent the rest of my shift vibrating.

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Feb
24

Spring Doth Let Her Colors Fly

As Charlotte Rae memorably sang in Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ parody of opera singer Helen Traubel’s Las Vegas club act in Ben Bagley’s The Littlest Revue, “Spring Doth Let Her Colors Fly,” and many musical shows are soon to be upon us. The unfortunate fact is that I am not especially excited about the majority of the musicals slated to arrive in NYC this spring. That said, I hope my expectations are disproved by all of them. Here, in any case, are a few projects—about half new and half revivals—that set my heart beating at least a little faster in anticipation. As is usual for me, most are happening off- or off-off-Broadway.

The first is John Kander and Greg Pierce’s Kid Victory, off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, and actually I’ve already seen it, at a press preview this past weekend. The show didn’t open until Wednesday evening, however, too late for me to include the critical response in this piece. Myself, I thought it was wonderful. The subject matter—the recovery of a gay teenage boy in a religiously fundamentalist rural Kansas family who was held in captivity for a year by a man who sexually abused him—is disturbing, but Pierce and Kander, who share credit for the original story, treat it with clarity and compassion, and the result is compelling and moving. Their score is much more traditional in form than that of their first collaboration—a collection of three one-act musicals called The Landing—which fragmented the use of music and proved unsatisfying for some (I was a fan). Songs such as the mother’s “There Was a Boy” (delivered devastatingly by an excellent Karen Ziemba), the abuser’s “You, If Anyone” (chillingly rendered by a superb Jeffrey Denman), and the father’s climactic “Where We Are” (beautifully sung and acted by Daniel Jenkins) are seriously memorable. In the non-singing role of the teenager, Brandon Flynn is captivating and heartrending. Reaction on certain chat boards has already been mixed, and I suspect the critical response may mirror that, but I say don’t miss it.

Next is The View UpStairs, which opens off-Broadway at the Culture Project on Tuesday and tells the story of a gay fashion designer who, in 2017, buys an abandoned New Orleans property that was home in the 1970s to a glam rock gay bar in which a horrible homophobic attack happened. The show looks at 40 years of LGBT history and compares where we were to where we are. Glam rock is generally not my thing, but the cast—including Nathan Lee Graham, Frenchie Davis, Michael Longoria, Nancy Ticotin, and Randy Redd—is promising and the premise intriguing. The young author, Max Vernon, has won a Jonathan Larson grant, worked with Ars Nova (incubator of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) and Goodspeed Musicals (now that’s eclectic), and is a graduate of my alma mater, the NYU masters program for writing musicals. The equally young director, Scott Ebersold, has already amassed impressively varied credits and assisted John Doyle on his excellent re-imagination of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro at Classic Stage Company, which sadly went unrecorded. I will have seen it this past Wednesday night (again, too late to write about that here).

Beginning performances tomorrow off-Broadway is the York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti concert version of Jerry Herman’s 1969 flop Dear World, based on Jean Giradoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot and starring Tyne Daly in the role for which Angela Lansbury won a Tony. David Thompson has revised the book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Among the tasty names in the company are Alison Fraser, Ann Harada, Lenny Wolpe, Stephen Mo Hanan, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, and the director is Mufti veteran Michael Montel (who did a terrific job on my adaptation of Darling of the Day at the York not once but twice). I gather it’s sold very well, so I wouldn’t wait any longer to get a ticket. I’m a big fan of Herman’s score, and I’m seeing the show this coming Thursday afternoon.

Stephen Sondheim is having a busy spring, with three revivals, two of them off-Broadway and one on. The last, of course, would be the transfer of the highly praised Encores! fund-raiser concert version of Sunday in the Park With George, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford, which opened just last night and is only playing for 10 weeks to accommodate the film star’s schedule. Upcoming are an acclaimed London staging of Sweeney Todd that was done site-specifically in a real meat pie shop (which is being simulated here at the Barrow Street Theatre in a commercial production opening Wednesday night and featuring the English cast) and director John Doyle’s take on Pacific Overtures at Classic Stage Company, which starts previews April 5. English minimalism meets Kabuki and Noh; that should be interesting.

On Broadway I am most curious about War Paint—from Scott Frankel, Michael Korie, and Doug Wright, the authors of Grey Gardens—which details the rivalry between cosmetic giants Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden and stars Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Critics and audiences gave it a mixed reception in Chicago, where it premiered at the Goodman Theatre, but the creators say they have addressed the problems with rewrites. As the work they did on Grey Gardens in between off-Broadway and Broadway was very smart, I am hoping that history will repeat itself.

Also on Broadway is Anastasia, book by Terrence McNally and score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on the 1997 animated film. I, quite frankly, couldn’t bear the movie, but McNally has jettisoned the ridiculous subplot featuring Rasputin and his evil bat sidekick, and I’ve always thought the property a good idea for musicalization (despite George Abbott, Guy Bolton, Robert Wright and George Forrest’s failure with it as an operetta in 1965 called Anya), so I’m optimistic. Ahrens and Flaherty have reportedly done a number of new songs as well as rewrites on their film score. Critical response to the show in an engagement at Hartford Stage, where it was directed by A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’s Tony-winning Darko Tresnjak, who repeats the task for Broadway, was promising.

When I was a grad student at NYU, my professor Arthur Laurents and I got into an argument over the staging of “I Am What I Am” at the end of Act 1 of La Cage aux Folles. I felt that it was too muddy; as the music is a real song that Albin sings in the nightclub, is he actually singing his meltdown to the audience, making up perfectly crafted verses on the fly? Or is he speaking to them? And why is he declaring all this to strangers, when he’s angry at his husband and son? Arthur accused me of being too literal and “wanting to write Ibsen musicals.” He had a point, but I never knew there actually was such a thing. On March 2 Fjeldfuglen (The Mountain Bird) arrives off-off-Broadway at La MaMa E.T.C. Ibsen’s unfinished 1859 original opera libretto, “inspired by a medieval Norwegian legend of a woman discovered to be the sole survivor of the Black Death,” has been set to music by Filip Sande; the show will play three performances only in Norwegian with English supertitles. Being one-quarter Norwegian myself, how could I possibly miss such strange music?

May brings the last three projects I’m looking forward to. First, on May 2, is a one-night-only concert presentation of the 1991 flop musical Nick & Nora, with a score by Charles Strouse and Richard Maltby Jr. and a book by the above-mentioned Arthur Laurents. I worked in an unofficial capacity on the original production, learning a lot in the process. Stars Barry Bostwick and Joanna Gleason are returning, along with other members of the original cast such as Chris Sarandon, Yvette Lawrence, and Thom Sesma. Christine Pedi steps into the role of a Rose Kennedy-esque figure, created brilliantly by Debra Monk, and gets to sing the wickedly funny “People Get Hurt.” The form of the presentation will be a radio broadcast, and some cut songs (and there are many!) will also be included. While I don’t think the show ever really worked, it contained a lot of good writing and was much better than its reception indicated. No word yet on whether Faith Prince will return to her first Broadway role, the coked-out Bostonian lesbian secretary Lorraine Bixby, who ends up the murder victim. Prince was a riot in the part, especially excoriating “Men” in a great Maltby-Strouse song, so fingers crossed that she decides to do it again.

(And speaking of Maltby, I’m also excited about Sousatzka, a musical adaptation of Bernice Rubens’ novel Madame Sousatzka, the basis for the 1988 film starring Shirley MacLaine. Maltby has done the lyrics to David Shire’s music, Craig Lucas has written the book, and the powerhouse trio of Victoria Clark, Montego Glover, and Judy Kaye stars. Convicted felon Garth Drabinsky is making a producing comeback with it in Toronto as I write, with an opening slated for March 23. But it’s not part of this spring’s NYC season, alas, and if it does come to Broadway Drabinsky can’t come with it unless he wants to be arrested.)

Second is a revival of Raisin, the seldom-staged 1974 Tony winner for best musical, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama A Raisin in the Sun. It starts performances off-off-Broadway May 4 at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, where I saw a perfectly decent, no-frills production of Allegro a few years back. There are some fine songs in the Judd Woldin–Robert Brittan score, and I’ve always been curious about how the show plays, even if it has been unable to match the original drama in staying power.

Last, but most definitely not least, is Encores! long-requested concert staging, from May 4 to May 10, of John Latouche and Jerome Moross’ The Golden Apple, which I consider to be a shamefully neglected American masterpiece. Over the years I’ve seen one production and one concert version, but neither fully rose to the challenge of presenting this extraordinary work. Michael Berresse directs and Joshua Bergasse choreographs; no casting has yet been announced. With Rob Berman leading the excellent Encores! orchestra in Moross and Hershy Kay’s scintillating original charts for this through-sung musical comedy opera from 1954 (which makes it the same age as I am), perhaps the third time really will be the charm.

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Feb
10

From This Day On

In honor of Valentine’s Day the topic is romance in musical theatre. We might as well be discussing the importance of air and water to life on earth. Searching for a handle, the idea of love at first sight popped into my head. It’s certainly ubiquitous in the early days of the genre, both in operetta and musical comedy. But what about once musicals grew up?

I decided to take a look at the work of some of our major musical theatre writers in the post–Oklahoma! world. Did they make use of love at first sight? And if so, how? What follows is by no means exhaustive, but I think it nevertheless instructive.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Let’s start at the very beginning, as it were. What did Rodgers and Hammerstein do? Well, interestingly, they didn’t use the concept very much, a mere three times. It’s there in the TV musical Cinderella, memorably articulated in the song “10 Minutes Ago,” but that, of course, is a fairy tale. It is arguably one of the weaker points of South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable’s sudden, overpowering love for Liat, a young Tonkinese girl with no education who can barely communicate with him, seems awfully convenient (“Younger Than Springtime” is a gorgeous song but hardly a compelling basis for a long-term relationship). However, it is front and center in the dysfunctional coupling of Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow in Carousel, and the result is tragic. I would argue that Carousel is a pretty good argument against love at first sight.

Frank Loesser
Loesser makes use of the idea in two shows, and both treatments are memorable. In The Most Happy Fella, middle-aged vintner Tony Esposito is immediately taken with a youngish waitress he meets in a diner. Too shy to speak up, he leaves her a note and his “genuine amethyst tie pin” as a token of his feelings. But when she travels to meet him at his Napa Valley ranch, fantasy quickly runs headlong into reality, and they only make a successful marriage by starting from scratch and getting to know one another. In the satirical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, secretary Rosemary Pilkington falls hard and fast for young go-getting would-be executive J. Pierrepont Finch, though he is initially oblivious. But when she fantasizes about being “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm,” her love starts to sound awfully transactional.

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
In seven Broadway musicals, Bock and Harnick made use of the device in only two of them. In their final show, The Rothschilds, young Nathan Rothschild falls in love (“it happened in a trice”) in Act 2 with an aristocratic English woman who initially resists his advances. Both authors are on record as considering its inclusion as a subplot a mistake, a sop to the prevailing view in 1970 that a musical needed a heterosexual romantic interest to succeed commercially. Indeed, when Harnick and book writer Sherman Yellen reconceived the piece in 2015 (after Bock’s death), under the title Rothschild and Sons, the romance—along with Hannah—was eliminated. She Loves Me neatly subverted the concept. Parfumerie clerks Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash are at each other’s throats from the moment she is hired, but the real reason is their tremendous romantic attraction, which it takes the whole show for them to discover, though other characters identify it early on. And of course by that time they know each other well enough to embark upon a pretty grounded marriage.

Jerry Herman
As perhaps befits one of the sunniest of musical theatre songwriters, Herman uses love at first sight in several Broadway shows. In his first, Milk and Honey, which I just saw this past weekend in a fine concert presentation at the York Theatre, it happens late in Act 2, when the man-starved widow Clara Weiss (a part created by Molly Picon) meets Israeli widower Sol Horowitz and ends up remarried before you can say mazel tov. My immediate reaction was to hope that he isn’t a serial killer. In his second, Hello, Dolly! (heading back to Broadway this spring starring Bette Midler), lowly store clerks Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker fall for milliner Irene Molloy and her assistant, Minnie Fay, respectively, in the course of a day. Of course, the show is pure fantasy, based on Thornton Wilder’s romantic period farce The Matchmaker. In his third, Mame, the instant love is between a bohemian blueblood aunt and her young orphaned nephew and is the most persuasive bond of the three. It is not, however, romantic love. Herman’s final four Broadway book shows—Dear World, Mack and Mabel, The Grand Tour, and La Cage aux Folles—eschew the notion entirely. A sign of maturation, perhaps?

John Kander and Fred Ebb
In the course of writing 14 Broadway musicals over a period of 50 years, Kander and Ebb rarely resorted to using love at first sight. Only two shows—Zorbá and Steel Pier—traffic in it at all. In Zorbá, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ classic novel Zorbá the Greek, the two central romantic relationships both develop speedily. However, that between Zorbá and the aging prostitute Hortense seems less a product of love and more one of mutual need, while the connection between the young outsider intellectual, Nikos, and a socially ostracized unnamed Cretan widow, is both hesitant and doomed. In Steel Pier we get love at first sight on steroids: Stunt pilot Bill Kelly actually comes back from the dead to pursue his instantaneous feelings for down-on-her-luck performer Rita Racine, though David Thompson’s unwieldy original book withholds his otherworldly status from the audience for most of the show. It’s entirely unpersuasive, which is in part why Steel Pier folded after only 76 performances. In both musicals we’re a long way from Margot and the Red Shadow aching for each other.

Stephen Sondheim
Surprisingly for the musical theatre’s reigning iconoclast, there are a number of examples of variations on love at first sight in his canon, the majority of them early in his career. The most iconic is West Side Story, which is based on Romeo and Juliet, so it came with the territory. Sondheim is, of course, on record as to how uncomfortable he is with the lyrics for the two songs that most dramatize the situation: “Maria” and “Tonight.” In Gypsy Rose and Herbie combine pretty instantaneously in “Small World,” but as with Zorbá and Hortense, it feels more like a seduction of calculated self-interest than love. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, however, young noble-born Hero goes gaga at the simple sight of the prostitute Philia and explains himself in the charming “Love, I Hear,” one of the most convincing expressions of love at first sight I’ve ever heard. Of course, it helps that the source material is the Roman comedies of Plautus. In Sondheim’s very first professional musical, Saturday Night, which went unproduced for more than 40 years, the romantic leads, Gene and Helen, are attracted quickly due to both of them being con artists. And in the TV musical Evening Primrose, poet Charles, who has taken up refuge living in a department store, sleeping by day and writing at night, is immediately drawn to the lovely Ella, imprisoned there since the age of six by others who had the same idea as Charles. However, she’s the only possible romantic partner for our scribe, so maybe it’s just a case of what’s available. And it doesn’t end well.

Once Sondheim reaches his maturity with Company in 1970, however, incidences of love at first sight decrease. It happens to the juveniles in Sweeney Todd, Anthony and Joanna, but the musical is based on a melodrama and Sondheim doesn’t take their love very seriously, using them mostly for comic relief. Mary Flynn falls for Franklin Shepard the first time she meets him in Merrily We Roll Along, on the rooftop gazing at Sputnik, but all that leads to is frustration, heartache, and alcoholism. The sickly Fosca develops her Passion for Giorgio even before they meet, but the unlikeliness of it being reciprocated coupled with her needy obsessiveness is hardly a traditional take on the situation. In Bounce and Road Show, Addison Mizner is immediately entranced by the young aristocrat Hollis Bessemer, who doesn’t return the feeling until he realizes what Addison can do for him. Ultimately, it dissolves in recriminations, though the relationship does allow for one of Sondheim’s most sincere and touching love songs, “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” repurposed most effectively from a slangy and breezy evocation of heterosexual lust in Bounce.

Alan Jay Lerner
I left Lerner for last because he is unquestionably the most starry-eyed romantic of all the writers being discussed. Much to my astonishment, though, he trails Sondheim in his employment of love at first sight. There is Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s attachment to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, which is a bit of a problem for contemporary productions, as the show simply accepts the situation without explanation. My favorite Freddy was Robert Sella, in director Howard Davies’ otherwise unsatisfying 1993 Broadway revival. Rather than play the expected clear-eyed, apple-cheeked juvenile, Sella rooted his nerdy Freddie’s attraction to Eliza in the realization, caused by her behavior at Ascot, that she is just as much a social misfit as he is. He was like a suffocating man given a sudden hit of oxygen and gasping gratefully. Lise and Gerry combust predictably in An American in Paris, but if your assignment is to write a 1951 MGM film vehicle for Gene Kelly constructed around the Gershwin songbook, isn’t that awfully inevitable? In Carmelina, our titular Italian war widow complains about her inexplicable attraction to the annoyingly importuning Vittorio in “Why Him?,” which is amusing but really doesn’t help the romance. And in Lerner’s final show, Dance a Little Closer, we see a flashback in which cheesy song-and-dance man Harry Aikens implodes like a ton of bricks for a brassy American singer who subsequently reappears years later as the haughty English mistress of a diplomat who denies that she knows him. That, however, is pretty much it for love at first sight and Lerner, with one glaring exception.

That would be Brigadoon, his 1947 musical fantasy about a Scottish town that only comes to life for one day every hundred years. American Tommy Albright meets and is drawn to the lovely Fiona MacLaren, who has earlier told us in “Waitin’ for My Dearie” that she would rather be a spinster than marry the wrong man. Fiona is equally smitten, but once Tommy discovers the truth about Brigadoon, he must decide before day is out whether to commit to the feeling or not. Unsurprisingly, he can’t and must return home to his hard-shelled fiancée before realizing that Fiona is the one and only woman for him. Rushing back to Scotland, he manages to awaken the town through his love, proving that “when ye love someone deeply, anything is possible.” It’s absolutely over-the-top romantic, but when done with conviction it soars. One of the most memorable theatrical moments I’ve experienced in more than 50 years of theatregoing occurred in director Vivian Matalon’s 1980 Broadway revival: As Tommy and Fiona finished singing their song of parting, “From This Day On,” the set split in two and waves of fog rushed in as the lovers were violently separated, hands grasping for each other in vain. It was glorious. In Brigadoon the 29-year-old Lerner set himself the task of making love at first sight believable, and he succeeded. Whenever I get too cynical, I remember that.

Of course, Brigadoon is now 70 years old and seems more a tip of the hat to the operettas that preceded it than a musical theatre innovation. That said, a 2014 production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, which featured a somewhat rewritten book by Brian Hill, charmed even the New York Times’ curmudgeonly Charles Isherwood (who just left the paper this week) and proved that the show can still sway contemporary audiences. And any Broadway season that has Aladdin, Wicked, Waitress, and The Phantom of the Opera still running can hardly be said to disown love at first sight. Nevertheless, the admittedly anecdotal evidence submitted here suggests to me that the Broadway musical is at least a bit more adult than it is often given credit for being.

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