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Threnodies for the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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