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There’s Something About a War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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