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Twixt Twelve and Twenty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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