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Ken Bloom

Producer & Historian

Ken Bloom is a leading authority on American popular song and musical theatre. His books American Song, Hollywood Song, and Tin Pan Alley are seminal works, documenting over 300,000 songs.

His Broadway: An Encyclopedic Guide to the History, People and Places of Times Square was named one of the top reference books of the year by The New York Times and has recently come out in an updated third edition. His Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, written with Frank Vlastnik, won the American Library Association’s prestigious George Freedley Memorial Award.

Bloom's newest book, Show and Tell: The New Book of Broadway Anecdotes, was released by Oxford University Press earlier this fall.

In addition to his work as a writer, Bloom has served as on-air talent for outlets as diverse as Sirius Satellite Radio, WKCR-FM, NPR, and the CBC. And as president of the 33-year-old Harbinger Records, which he co-founded with Bill Rudman, Ken has produced more than fifty albums, including the Grammy-nominated Maxine Sullivan Sings Great Songs of the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler.


Everything I Know I Learned from Musical Theatre

It’s back-to-school time and our fearless leader, Andy, has given us the subject “Teaching.” Instead of giving you, our faithful readers, a list of musical theatre’s teaching songs like “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific and everyone’s favorite, “Every Little Girl Can Teach Me” from Theodore & Company, I’ve decided to explore musicals that actually taught things. From historical figures and events to the way we should lead our lives.

Let’s start with the facts of history. Now, of course, none of these musicals were written as lessons, and there’s usually a love story set against the historical events they depict. Nevertheless they still can introduce audiences to the general events upon which they are set.

The two shows that are most like actual history lessons (though amazingly entertaining) are Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 and Lin Manuel-Miranda’s current mega-hit Hamilton. But these two shows don’t only deal in the facts but they also dramatize their stories through the experiences and emotions of their characters.

Other shows offer us more traditional musical theatre stories that are set against historical events that show the effects of history on the lives of its characters. I’d put South Pacific at the top of this list. It’s difficult today to realize the true impact of this story when it was first produced. Everyone in the US knew someone who had served during World War II, and they knew its horrors. Against the fun of “Honey Bun” and the romance of “This Nearly Was Mine” was the reality of these men and woman dying for their country. In fact, Lt. Cable is killed when on a mission. Everyone talks about “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” (which is an important lesson song), but the overall arc of South Pacific is an important history lesson on its own.

Other historically-set shows that illuminate the time in which take place are The Rothschilds, Fiddler on the Roof, and Juno, to name a few. The historic events that unfold during these shows are not just a background.  They actually drive the narratives. Meyer Rothschild and family as well as the residents of Anatevka have to deal with the anti-Semitism of their times. In Juno, as in Sean O’Casey’s original play, the characters are coping with “The Troubles” of the Irish rebellion, its horrors, and its effect on the family.

Of course, not all historically-based musicals are quite as serious as those above. Politics are a dicey subject for musicals, but Bock and Harnick’s Fiorello! views the New York of the time with seriousness and humor, qualities that they also inject into  their Fiddler. More lighthearted but still carrying a potent message are the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing and Let ‘em Eat Cake.

Show Boat is set against a background that seems always current. But Show Boat doesn’t wield a hammer in getting its points across. “Ol’ Man River” is no less impactful or have less depth of feeling because it lets its audience infer what life is really like on the Mississippi for a segment of the population. And Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy has a serious subject, the American Revolution, but treats it ever-so-amusingly in the “Battle of Murray Hill” where Mrs. Murray and her girls distract the British high command with feminine wiles so that the Yankees can move their troops into place. The fact that this is based on a true story only makes it all the more delightful.

There are, of course, shows that really wield a hammer. Especially those of Marc Blitzstein (see Juno above). His The Cradle Will Rock itself became of of political and sociological interest when the government tried to shut it down and the intrepid theatre company grabbed the piano, wheeled it with the cast to another theatre where they performed the show. And there was another mark of defiance, Actors Equity would not let them perform their show on the stage so the actors placed themselves among the audience members in the orchestra section. Oh, and have a listen to No for an Answer for even more intense politics.

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Barbara Cook

There were four great female stars of the American Musical Theatre: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Gwen Verdon, and Barbara Cook. All had their unique appeal. Merman’s voice and bravado was her primary asset but she could also display vulnerability when necessary. Mary Martin had an all-American homespun character with a terrific voice and a sly sexiness that served her well in her earliest roles. Gwen Verdon also had that vulnerable quality and lots of personality. She was a good actress and singer and had what none of the other three had, a remarkable dancing ability. It would be fair to say she was the greatest dancer in Broadway history. Parenthetically, it’s interesting that these four women as well as gentlemen stars of Broadway such as John Raitt, Alfred Drake, and Richard Kiley never had much of a film or television career.

Now we come back to Barbara Cook. Of course, her voice was resplendent and she could interpret a song brilliantly. And in her earliest years she, also had a sexy quality matched with a fully developed backbone (witness The Music Man and The Gay Life) and also a softness (She Loves Me, anyone?) that made her irresistible to audiences. I interviewed her for NPR and asked her how she got a non-singing role in Jules’s Feiffer’s play Little Murders. She responded, “What did you think I was doing in all those shows between songs?” She was right, of course, though she only appeared in three plays on the Rialto. And once she had weighed out of ingénue roles she recreated herself as a cabaret, concert and recording star.

While theatergoers and Broadway aficionados knew the work of Barbara Cook she was still relatively unknown. But when she started singing in clubs, concert halls, recordings, and television, her fame grew wider. And the arrangements of longtime musical partner Wally Harper fitted her perfectly and helping in defining her style to a wide audience. You can hear the evolution of their partnership with albums like It’s Better With a Band and Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall.

How many Broadway singers from the 1970s on have achieved as a great a success out in the musical world at large as Barbara Cook. Jerry Orbach was widely known for his work on Law & Order but not for his singing talents. In fact, his sole solo recording was made up of songs written for Off-Broadway. Perhaps Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone who both have also had successful television careers in addition to their Broadway and concert work.

But Barbara Cook stands alone as a Broadway singer who reached a wide, general audience after her Broadway career had concluded. And even if she only had a Broadway musical theatre career or only had a career singing off the stage she still would be celebrated as a great singer.

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Princely Firsts

The first new musical production of the new season is Prince of Broadway, the musical revue that celebrates Harold Prince’s impressive Broadway career as both a producer and director. He’s justly celebrated for such breakthrough musicals as West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and the remarkable run of hits by Stephen Sondheim.

But one aspect of his career has gone largely unnoticed. Hal Prince was a protégé of the great George Abbott. One of Abbott’s many achievements was in recognizing new talents and giving them a break on Broadway. Abbott directed many of Prince’s early producing credits and the idea of giving talented newcomers a chance was carried forward by Prince.

Let’s take a look at just the first few years of Hal Prince’s Broadway productions.

The Pajama Game (1954) was the team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ first Broadway musical. It was also Bob Fosse’s first choreographic job on Broadway.

Then came Damn Yankees (1955), which gave Gwen Verdon her first leading role on Broadway after she made a smash hit as a principal dancer in Can-Can.

Verdon’s next Broadway musical was New Girl in Town (1957) and for the first time Broadway heard a score by up and coming songwriter Bob Merrill.

West Side Story (1957) was Prince’s next show. That show gave a chance to Broadway neophyte Stephen Sondheim making his debut as a lyricist of a Broadway musical.

Next up on Prince’s roster was Fiorello! (1959) for which Jerome Weidman wrote his first libretto for Broadway and which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Quite a debut!

A Family Affair (1962) wasn’t a success but it let another genius of the musical theatre get his Broadway musical start: composer John Kander. The show was also William Goldman’s first  Broadway libretto. And even Prince had a first with the show. He made his Broadway directorial debut with A Family Affair.

That same year, Prince produced the raucous farce, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962). With that hit came Burt Shevelove’s Broadway debut as a librettist. It was also Tony Walton’s first scenic design for a musical. And we shouldn’t forget that A Funny Thing was the first Broadway show for which Stephen Sondheim’s penned both music and lyrics.

That raucous musical comedy was followed by its exact opposite, the sweet and tender She Loves Me (1963). Joe Masteroff saw his first musical libretto produced. It was also Patricia Zipprodt’s first Broadway costume assignment for a musical. And the wonderful Daniel Massey enjoyed his first musical performance on Broadway.

We could go on and on but you get the idea. Harold Prince not only gave many, many artists their first chances to work on the Broadway musical but all these talents went on to have remarkable careers. And a lot of their later successes were also in Harold Prince shows, for he’s nothing if not faithful to the many talents he’s nurtured.

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So Hot

Boy, is this ever timely. New York has been especially hot and humid. Given Andy’s instructions to write about heat-centric songs one automatically thinks of Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” (originally delivered by Ethel Waters in As Thousands Cheer) and Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” (from Kiss Me, Kate).

But I’m interested in the hottest songs in Broadway history that reflect the heat between two people. That’s right, the heat that threatens to result in a conflagration that can only be quenched by vigorously rubbing two bodies together.

Back in the Pleistocene Era of Broadway, songwriters Gus Cobb and Will D. Edwards burned up the Flo Ziegfeld production of A Parisian Model giving Anna Held the song “I Just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave.” It was shocking!! Really! (To hear what it sounded like take a listen over one YouTube.) But today, when anything goes both on Broadway and off and language (and nudity) can be very specific, it’s still the suggestive songs that have the most sexual heat.

Think of a classic from The Golden Apple. Kaye Ballard, who was quite shapely back in 1954 when she vamped Jerome Moross and John Latouche’s “Lazy Afternoon.” The song is subtly sexual. You wouldn’t have known it if you saw the recent Encores concert version of the show, but this song of seduction is mighty powerful. In fact, a friend who saw the original told me it was the hottest Broadway song he ever saw.

Lyricist Carolyn Leigh was a mighty earthy gal herself. And when she teamed up with Cy Coleman to write Little Me she let herself be as provocative as Broadway could get in the early ‘60s. Swen Swenson was one hot guy (do you know the “Whip Dance” from Destry Rides Again?). And he let the multiply-married Belle Poitrine know who was boss when he sang “I’ve Got Your Number.”

Now here’s one of the sexiest numbers in the Broadway canon but you may not believe me. It’s Harold Karr and Matt Dubey’s “A Newfangled Tango” from the Ethel Merman vehicle Happy Hunting. Lena Horne made an especially seductive cover of the song. So, give it a listen.

The dancers who clung to each other in “A Newfangled Tango” had nothing on the sultry Bernice Massi when she sang “The Friendliest Thing” in What Makes Sammy Run?. Ervin Drake’s terrific score expanded on the Pal Joey anti-hero theme. In this song there’s no doubt about what Bernice requires of Steve Lawrence’s title character.

Speaking of merging whether tangoing or just being extremely friendly, nothing tops Sammy Davis’ “Too Close for Comfort.” Sammy played the title character in Mr. Wonderful and Jerry Bock, Larry Holofcener, George David Weiss’ song sneaks up on you. (The original cast recording of this isn’t available digitally, but you can listen to Davis’ performing it on his album Sammy Davis Jr. Belts the Best of Broadway.)

Funny that in many of these songs it’s the female who ensnares the man. And here’s another one. Cathryn Damon makes herself very clear when she urges Bob Dishy to succumb to his urges when she implores him to “Express Yourself.” John Kander and Fred Ebb were specialists in sexy songs. Think of “Arthur in the Afternoon” in The Act.  Well, this song from Flora, the Red Menace put audiences’ libidos in a whirl.

And here’s another wanton woman. Rachel York invites the man, a detective, to play “Lost and Found” in City of Angels. And I believe that composer Cy Coleman and lyricist David Zippel intended for her character to have the detective implement a full body search. A full body search.

So, that’s my take on the red hot songs of Broadway. Stay cool!!

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Top 10 Musical Theater Dads

Father’s Day is upon us and so we turn to the font of all knowledge, the musical theater. Here’s a highly subjective list of the top ten musical theater dads. It’s not easy but we winnowed down a list that included the dad in Next to Normal, Captain Andy in Show Boat, Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Mr. MacAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Jasmine’s dad in Aladdin, “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story, Jerry Cohan in George M!, Baron Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Meyer Rothschild in The Rothschilds, Mr. Darling in Peter Pan… well, we could go on and on.

So, after all that here’s the Top Ten Musical Theater dads.

The number one dad in all musicals is Tevye, the milkman in Fiddler on the Roof. Although he’s browbeaten by his wife Golde he mostly calls the shots or at least he thinks he does. Tevye’s a great father because he’s aware enough to know that one has to keep up with progress, and there’s a balance of the new and the old traditions. But uppermost in his mind is the happiness of his daughters.

Here’s another favorite musical comedy character who stands up to his wife when enough is enough. Once his patience is at the breaking point he intones the immortal line, “I has spoken!” Of course, that’s Pappy Yokum proud father of Abner Yokum of Dogpatch, U.S.A. Li’l Abner is one of most farcical of all musical comedies, and it also  actually makes a warning against the military industrial complex. Yes, it does! And Johnny Mercer and Gene dePaul’s score is one of the brightest of the 1950s.

Like Tevye, Carousel’s Billy Bigelow also wants the best for his daughter, but he doesn’t quite know how to go about it. He’s not the brightest guy, but his love for his daughter is the real thing. And though he’s lost his life through an incredibly bad decision, he’s allowed to return to Earth for one day to see his daughter all grown-up and graduating from high school. But when his emotions get the best of him he can’t handle it and he invisibly slaps his daughter. Though Billy is actually a spirit she feels the slap, but it doesn’t hurt as much as surprise her for she interprets the slap as a kiss. She somehow understands the truthfulness of emotion behind the slap.

Gregory Jbara played “Dad” in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot. He’s a great dad and an interesting character because he recognizes his son’s talents and steadfastly stands with him no matter how the society at large sees a boy who only wants to dance. Dad’s the one who takes Billy to dance class and allows him to begin to make the future that means the most to him.

Our next father of the year is someone who is not actually the father of the child but a father who vows to forgive and forget past infidelities and take the high road. We’re talking about Tony Esposito, the title character of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. Tony’s marriage doesn’t start out well. He runs into a waitress and falls in love with her. They haven’t even known each other long enough for her to recognize him when next they meet. Because Tony, decades older than the waitress Rosabella, proposes by mail and, thinking that she’ll reject him if she sees his real photo encloses the photo of his young, handsome foreman, Joey. When Roseabella shows up and discovers the deception she takes solace in Joey’s arms. Joey is the wandering type and decides to follow his dreams. That would be fine except now Rosabella is pregnant with Joey’s baby. But Tony steps up and announces to all that he’s the father and saves Rosabella from shame. That selfless decision makes Rosabella fall in love with Tony.

Here’s a famous musical with not one but two fathers, The Fantasticks. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt give the characters two terrific songs, “Never Say No” and “Plant a Radish” and never in any other musical has a philosophy of raising children been so expertly and humorously explained. Huckabee and Bellomy control the shots while their kids are happily unaware.

Another pair of fathers who stubbornly stand their ground proud of their son and who they are. We’re talking about Georges and Albin, the gay proprietors of the nightclub, La Cage Aux Folles. Though Georges is the biological father Albin has taken an equal role in raising their son Jean-Michel. The drama (and comedy) begins when Jean-Michel announces he’s engaged to the daughter of the head of the anti-gay, ultra-conservative "Tradition, Family and Morality Party." The whole thing’s a farce but in the best Jerry Herman tradition it’s the depth of feelings that give the show its soul. Here’s a show that should be compulsory viewing by every rightwing conservative.

And speaking of a gay parent there’s Marvin and his son Jason in William Finn’s March of the Falsettos.  Marvin is having his own problems with his younger partner, Whizzer as well as trying to be a good father to his son. Jason’s worried that he might grow up to be gay. Through many trials and tribulations, many of which don’t lead to happiness all around, Marvin can finally embrace Jason. And Jason, to his relief finds himself with a newfound appreciation for the curves of the female sex. The show finishes with Marvin telling Jason that he loves him and no matter what happens in the future, he’ll always love and support him.

 Well, that’s our top ten greatest musical theater fathers. They may come from different backgrounds and have different ideas about raising their children, but what it all gets down to is that fathers and their offspring have a strong bond. And if everyone can learn to understand each other happiness can result.

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Tony Predictions 2017

Andy asked Erik and me to come up with some Tony Award predictions. Well, to be honest I haven’t seen all the nominees but why should that stop me from having opinions. I hear lots and lots of criticisms from friends who haven’t seen the shows and don’t know what they’re talking about. And perhaps my taste isn’t the most reliable.

My friend Harry and I saw Les Miz in London right after it transferred from the Barbican, and we knew it was rubbish. Oh, and Marcia Lewis invited me to the dress rehearsal when the revival of Chicago moved to the Richard Rodgers Theatre. I hadn’t seen it at Encores but I knew that no Broadway audience would accept a revival with Victoria’s Secret–inspired costumes, no sets, the orchestra on stage, little fealty to the original concept, and “Fosse-inspired” choreography. It would be a stretch for it to run more than a week.

Got the idea? Of course, ever since those two slight miscalculations, I’ve a perfect record.

Ahem. So, here are my predictions for the upcoming Tony Awards. Gulp!

BEST MUSICAL: Apparently it’s a horse race between Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away. I haven’t seen the latter show but… well, see above. Even Hansen is a very good, intelligent, emotional show. And, as I wrote in my last column here on BwayTunes, it has an excellent book. And I’m a big fan of Pasek and Paul’s work. Their score for A Christmas Story was equally good. That was one of the best musicals of the decade so far.

Come From Away certainly has its supporters. Some of my friends were very affected by the story while others felt manipulated. Both shows are doing extremely well at the box office. And some know-it-alls think that the out-of-town Tony voters want to vote for shows that they think will do well at the box offices of their theatres. Certainly, Come From Away fits the bill with simpler production values. But without the sliding panels and its very busy projections Evan Hansen could be staged for the same smaller budget.

So, all in all, I think that Evan Hansen will take home the Tony.

P.S. I think A Bronx Tale should have been nominated. Not the flashiest musical on the block but it didn’t played it straight without pandering to the audience. Its casting, script, direction, book, and production values were all top-drawer. A well-made audience pleaser that might have been a little old-fashioned for the nominators but certainly not for the enthusiastic audiences that have made it a success.

BEST PLAY: Again, I haven’t seen all the plays but from what I hear the race is between Oslo and A Doll’s House Part 2. I saw both of these plays and both their directing and acting were exemplary. Oslo’s three-hour running time raced by because of the above-mentioned production values and the entertaining and intelligent script by J.T. Rogers, but there wasn’t an overarching message or take-away to the script. It was sort of a staged Wikipedia article (I thought the same of War Paint.)


Playwright Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 also contains beautifully rendered performances from the cast of four and excellent directing that seems effortless (not easy to pull off especially since it’s all talk, albeit brilliant talk). Most people know the basics of Ibsen’s original, but this play turns our suppositions upside down. The play gives each of its beautifully realized characters their own moments that perfectly illustrate and deepen the original play. Though it runs a mere 90 minutes or so (and wouldn’t it be great if more plays did that?) it packs a real wallop and gives the audience the satisfaction one seeks when confronted with an intelligent, entertaining, and emotional evening in the theatre.

A Doll’s House, Part 2 will and should win the Tony. But it’s a tough call.


BEST ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Here’s another nail-biter. Ben Platt has the title character in Evan Hansen, and he gives a remarkably nuanced performance, which is rare in a musical even one as complex at this. And most impressively, while his character goes on its journey, Platt doesn’t give the ending away with his performance. And he’s basically an unknown, so his performance was a surprise to hard-boiled theatergoers. Plus, he actually cries during one of his numbers!

Andy Karl is always a favorite of audiences even though he seems to be saddled with shows that don’t live up to his impressive talents (think Rocky). And the fact that he’s finally in a successful show makes him a theatre community favorite. Groundhog Day certainly makes him earn his paycheck, and he does so seemingly without effort. And you’ve seen a lot of actors telegraph the audience that they’re working really, really hard for the people out in front. Karl’s constantly running around, down, over and up in a super-charged performance. He’s handsome, sings wonderfully, really connects with the audience, and absolutely has the entire show on his shoulders. But the show doesn’t have much depth beyond its imaginative staging and glib score. Still, his performance shines. And, he suffered an accident early on and, in the best show biz tradition, continued on in wearing a knee brace. So, he deservedly gets extra points for his show-must-go-on spirit.

The best races are those that are the tightest. I think Ben Platt with squeak by to win the Tony.

BEST ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL seems to be Bette Midler’s to lose. Some have carped on her singing and the Midlerisms in her performance. But that’s what musical comedy is about: making the role fit your strengths. Speaking of Hello, Dolly! when the estimable Phyllis Diller took over the role on Broadway she played it straight. But audiences came to see Phyllis Diller on stage with the role of Dolly secondary. So, Diller’s reception was not what she expected. But at one performance something screwed up on stage and Diller let loose with her patented laugh that sounded like a hyena braying and the audience went crazy. She was smart enough to get the point and from then on she gave the audience what they wanted, the Phyllis Diller characters’ interpretation of Dolly.

BEST FEATURED ACTOR IN A MUSICAL: Gavin Creel will win this. A lot of voters are impressed with his evolution from an energetic, attractive ingénue to a mature performer who knows how to build a character and get both laughs and sympathy from the audience. Andrew Rannells was very effective in a difficult role in Falsettos, and his performance was also a great leap from his previous work in The Book of Mormon. But the revival was not a financial success and closed too long ago. Meanwhile, Dolly! is a current smash and that adds lots of votes to the ballots.

BEST FEATURED ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL: That Dolly! momentum should carry Kate Baldwin to a Tony. Besides, she’s developed a multi-layered performance and her singing is delightful. Lots of people fell in love with Jennifer Simard’s sweetly comic performance as Ernestina in Dolly! but she wasn’t nominated. I guess the role just wasn’t large enough. Still, it’s great to give her a shout out for her wonderful work.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Like the Best Musical category it’s between Come From Away and Dear Evan Hansen. The former is a little too simplistic like the score from Once was. But it can be affecting. Dear Evan Hansen deserves the award for its multi-layered, intelligent, and emotional score. It’s also rare for a modern musical to not have songs that 1) Are declarative rather than illustrative and 2) Work to compliment the libretto and fill in emotions that are best served musically. Oh, also the score is smart and every word scans correctly and the rhymes are true. It’s a pet peeve of mine, but most shows today do not have craft or more than the simplest emotions.

DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL might go the veteran revivalist Jerry Zaks since Dolly! is such a smash. Audiences and Tony voters sometimes think that directing a musical comedy is easy. But it isn’t. I saw early previews of both the revivals of Guys and Dolls and A Funny Thing that were directed by Jerry Zaks. And neither show seemed destined to be a success. By opening night each show was working perfectly and gave the audience exactly what they came to see with a bit of unexpected emotion wending through the laughs. Michael Greif deserves a lot of credit for the emotional balancing act in Evan Hansen. It wasn’t easy to get just the right tone in a story that could have been preachy instead of being a downer or an uplifting life lesson that was easy to take by the audience. He did a masterful job. Zaks might get swept along in the Dolly! tsunami that will certainly come. But Grief has earned a Tony and should win.

Well, that’s the major awards for musicals (and Best Play). The costumes, sets, and lighting will deservedly go to Dolly! Denis Jones has a shot at winning Best Choreography for Holiday Inn even though it was a failure. As far as Orchestrations go, Larry Hochman’s fine work on Dolly! retains a lot of the Philip J. Lang’s work on the original as well as Peter Howard’s fantastic and unheralded work on the original’s Dance and Incidental Music that deserved its own special Tony at the time. So, Larry won’t win. Alex Lacamoire provided a rich, emotional orchestration for Evan Hansen and certainly deserves to win.

So, come June 11th see if my predictions come true or if my previous track record proves once again that my crystal ball (souvenir from the musical Big) needs a tune up!

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Top Ten Books for Musicals

Wow! This is a really tough one. In fact, it’s impossible. But here’s my list of more than ten libretti – some from the far past, some from mid-century and some from today. All of which keep the audience involved and have humor, drama, and realistic characters. Beyond that these shows’ songs and scripts compliment each other perfectly, making a beautiful whole.

First on my list is Show Boat. Yes, it’s ungainly especially at the end when the passage of time has to be sped up to the then-present. Edna Ferber’s book is huge and making the many episodes and characters into a three-hour show is a bitch.  But along the way, Oscar Hammerstein showed how a musical could be perfectly integrated and speak to larger societal issues. Heck, Hammerstein even makes the Mississippi River a character in the show. In the right hands it might just be the most emotional musical ever written. And Hammerstein also deserves credit for the second place musical:

Carousel. Of course, it’s difficult to separate the book from the score they’re so perfectly integrated. But each element, while seemingly simple, speaks to great emotions. And the characters are true and complicated even if sometimes our political correctness demands all edges be sanded down to make us comfortable. But it’s Hammerstein’s point to keep the edges and, like in all his musicals, develop characters that are flawed but have the power to be redeemed.

Speaking of redemption, Gypsy has the most powerful punch; in it a character finds herself stripped bare and acknowledging her own truth and coming to acceptance. It’s often cited as the greatest musical libretto of all time and that may be true. Women who have played the title role like Merman, Lansbury, and others make it look easy, but it’s an incredibly difficult part to do well. A gorgon who reveals the insecurities and needs she has inside.

In the above musicals characters come to a realization and either actually change or consider change and reject it. My Fair Lady probably has the most impressive about-faces in the theatre. Eliza Doolittle is literally changed from a “guttersnipe” into a presentable upper-class woman. But the teacher also changes, and Henry Higgins finds his own humanity, and even though at the end of the show he asks Eliza to fetch his slippers, the audience knows that he has come to terms with himself also.

Prejudices are also overturned in Guys and Dolls, perhaps the second runner-up in the best libretto race. Sister Sarah is prejudiced against gambler Sky Masterson, but each is open enough to slowly see the humanity and even insecurities of each other (even if a few rums help to loosen pre-determined prejudices). This show has abundant humor, true emotions, and leaves the audience in a state of bliss. Come to think of it, Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey’s book for The Music Man has a lot in common with Guys and Dolls. A gambler/conman loosens up a prim Salvation Army girl/librarian.

And for pure humor with no pretension of greater good, no message, characters that don’t change essentially our vote goes to On the Twentieth Century. Especially the original production, which under the direction of genius Harold Prince, roared down the tracks in a barrage of humor. Hand it to the great Betty Comden and Adolph Green for scribing a hilarious farce. And speaking of Betty and Adolph their other scripts for On the Town and Wonderful Town and Bells Are Ringing, etc., etc. are also hilarious, realistic (true!), and emotional.

Before we get to some shows that are currently playing here’s our vote for the most unusual great script – 1776.  Really – a  musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Strong characters, real drama, important issues like slavery, and something no other musical has had in such abundance: suspense. Yes, we already know the outcome but if it’s a really good production we actually have our doubts as the pages on the calendar on the wall slip away.

Now I’m may be an old curmudgeon but there are three terrific libretti currently on Broadway.

Translating the novel Wicked for the musical theatre was, like Show Boat, a humongous task, and Winnie Holzman did yeoman’s work distilling the immense plot into a clear, entertaining musical that still carried a powerful message for the audience. And, if you don’t mind my saying so, it’s one of the few musicals in which the book is better than the score…which is rare.

The Book of Mormon seems to have nothing on its mind but to make us laugh. Yes, it can be somewhat scatological and religiously impertinent and though it’s completely in the South Park mode with plenty of subversive, and often raunchy humor, its greatest accomplishment is its underlying heart, which carries a real emotional punch. To the audience’s surprise they actually care for characters that they thought were only caricatures.

Dear Evan Hansen is the most recent great book of a musical. When was the last time you saw a show and really and truly couldn’t figure out how the heck the authors were going to wrap up the story? That they do so with such skill, logic and audience satisfaction is an admirable thing. And they have a wonderful score, production, and strong cast to carry the remarkable story forward.

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Betty Comden

During the 1950s and ‘60s the preeminent lyricist-librettists-screenwriters of the musical theatre were Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Their film scripts include what is considered by many to be the greatest film musical, Singin’ in the Rain. They were also responsible for other MGM blockbusters such as On the Town, The Band Wagon, It’s Always Fair Weather, and Good News., and many more MGM blockbusters.

And their Broadway output as authors and lyricists is just as impressive. From their debut with 1944’s On the Town to their last show, The Will Rogers Follies, in 1991, their output is unsurpassed. Wonderful Town, Peter Pan, Bells Are Ringing, Hallelujah, Baby!, Applause, and On the Twentieth Century are just some of the great musicals they wrote. And they wrote with the best songwriters, primarily Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, and Cy Coleman.

Comden and Green met every day in Betty’s apartment whether they had something to work on or not. They also made time to appear on Broadway and in regional theatres in their two-person career retrospective, A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

And their shows spawned many a hit song. Think of “New York, New York,” “If,” “Just in Time,” “The Party’s Over,” “Make Someone Happy,” “Comes Once in a Lifetime,” and “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough.”

But they weren’t hit writers per se. They wrote for characters and situations. Which is why the songs that weren’t played on the Hit Parade were every bit as good as their better-known songs.

Their output was marked by humor and heart and that’s why their shows and their songs will be sung and revived for generations to come.

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Jerry Herman

The Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart musical smash hit Hello, Dolly! is opening at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway and that got us thinking about Jerry’s shows and why they have such lasting appeal:

  1. Jerry is in love with the main characters in his shows. There’s no snark or condescension in his treatment of his characters. They’re human like the rest of us; usually looking for their place in the world, which includes finding love and giving love, too. Think of such songs are “I Will Follow You” in Milk and Honey, “If He Walked into My Life” in Mame, and “Ribbons Down My Back” in Hello, Dolly!
  2. He writes humorous songs better than anyone else. One of the musical theatre’s funniest songs is “It Takes a Woman” in Dolly. And not only is every line really funny but it perfectly sums up the character of Horace Vandergelder. “Chin Up Ladies” in Milk and Honey is another example of Jerry’s fondness for his characters  expressed in a funny way.
  3. Jerry’s characters may have obstacles in their search for fulfillment but they have an unswerving optimism and belief that everything will work out in the end. The most iconic of these is when Mame sings, “It’s Today.” There’s a story behind that song that perfectly describes Jerry’s upbringing. One day the young Jerry came home from school only to find the house festively decorated. He asked his mother what was the occasion and she answered, “It’s today!!” That was a remarkably important moment in Jerry’s life and one he never forgot. In fact, throughout his life, Jerry has lived by that philosophy.
  4. The “villains” in Jerry’s shows are treated with bemusement. One thing Jerry has never tolerated with his friends is an overly developed self-importance. From Vandergelder to the Connecticut Uptons in Mame to the homophobic in-laws in La Cage Aux Folles, they’re all treated with an understanding and they all get their comeuppance in hilarious ways.
  5. Jerry is as fine a lyricist as any of the Broadway greats but he never draws attention to either the hard work behind the easy, conversational lyrics or flights of tortured, showoff rhymes that celebrate
  6. The characters in a Herman show have real doubts and insecurities. And much of the drama of his shows comes with insecurities. “If He Walked Into My Life,” “Hymn to Hymie” in Milk and Honey, and “I Don’t Want to Know” in Dear World perfectly illustrates human needs.
  7. His shows are known for their big title songs and splashy set pieces but the things that make these shows classics is the emotion behind the characters. Yes, “Before the Parade Passes By” is both an anthem for Dolly that evolves into a grand production number but it’s songs like “Ribbons Down My Back” that give the shows their heart. And it’s that heart and love of humanity flaws and all that make Jerry’s shows unique in musical theatre history.
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Kevin Kline

Kevin Kline has returned to Broadway in a production of Present Laughter at the St. James Theatre, the same theatre in which he became a star. The show was On the Twentieth Century, and its great artistic success was not a sure thing.

Its star Madeline Kahn was having personal problems, and so right after the opening, she was fired and, in the best tradition of 42nd Street, the understudy moved into the lead role and she herself became a star. Judy Kaye had been in shows before, but this one allowed her to capitalize on all her talents, and she was hailed by audiences and critics alike. Now don’t get us wrong, many people who saw Kahn’s performance preferred her to Judy Kaye. But it was the offstage difficulties that made her continuing in the role impossible.

So, Twentieth Century had not one but two “discoveries,” and with Broadway veterans John Cullum and Imogene Coca to round out the leads, what could have been a disaster became a hot ticket. And the entire cast was ably supported by a superior score by Cy Coleman and Comden and Green as well as fast-paced direction by Harold Prince and one of the greatest and most stylish of all Broadway sets designed by Robert Wagner at the peak of his many talents.

And now, many years later, with successful films and stage appearances behind him, Kevin Kline has proven he’s the real thing and his bravura performance in Present Laughter proves just how  perfectly he balances the verbal and physical demands of Noel Coward’s perfect farce.

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