Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Leftovers

- Donna Lynne Champlin has taken it upon herself to release a solo CD on a shoestring budget of $1,000. When she broke her ankle in September she found herself with six weeks to spare and got to work. The CD is now out, and the Sweeney Todd star celebrated with a release party performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre last evening. I was supposed to be there until asthma got in the way; however, I've went ahead and purchased a copy of the CD, for which I have to confess I'm very excited. DLC has been blogging the experience from the beginning, with considerable humor and blunt honesty. Anyone interested in how a recording is made will find her blog an educational tool, as she gets into warts and bolts of what goes into every aspect of both creative and business aspects. I always applaud a grassroots effort and am looking forward to hearing the new disc.

- A Little Night Music has returned to Broadway for the first time since the original production closed in 1974. The revival is yet another in a long line of transfers from the West End, specifically the Menier Chocolate Factory. Naturally, I was at the first preview. I won't go into too much detail about performances and such, as it's in its first week and there is work to be done (though I think a certain someone might be getting Tony #6...). There were some issues with the orchestra. Namely there were points where I couldn't hear it from my vantage point far house left, and during dance sequences found the shoes and dresses hitting the stage louder than the band. It reminded me of the ballet scene from the film version of Amadeus where the dancers continue after the music has been cut. Between this orchestration and that for the Menier Sunday in the Park with George it's becoming quite clear that Jason Carr hates the French horn.

One other quibble - Madame Armfeldt would NEVER allow a formal dinner at her house to be held as a picnic on her lawn. It would be far too gauche for someone of her status, especially considering that in the first scene of the second act she is mortified at the prospect of guests finding them "squatting on the ground like bohemians." It's completely incongruous to the character - it's Madame Armfeldt's house and she wouldn't allow it. Period. But oh, that book and score. So sublime, and always so lovely to see it onstage.

- While I blogged at length about the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music, I neglected to mention that another iconic 1959 musical celebrated its golden anniversary this month. Only one week after the final Rodgers and Hammerstein musical opened at the Lunt-Fontanne, Bock & Harnick's Fiorello! opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. The musical about Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was a big hit, running 795 performances, winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Star Tom Bosley won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical as the charismatic "Little Flower." And for the only time in Tony history, there was a tie in the Best Musical category with The Sound of Music and Fiorello! sharing the honors.

It's interesting to note that as far as musical theatre is concerned, both fall short of a third nominee that came up empty handed at the Tonys in 1960, Gypsy - which is the most artistically successful of the three. SOM got the smash hit film version, but that improves on the muddled stage libretto but brings in audiences based on their experiences with Julie Andrews. Fiorello! contains a beautiful score, but is perhaps too topical for today's audiences who consider LaGuardia an airport and a high school. It was the first-ever musical staged by City Center Encores! but seems unlikely for a Broadway revival unless one of the non-profits were to do it.

- Oleanna and Superior Donuts have announced their closing notices. Both are productions worth seeing. The former doesn't surprise me as much, the subject matter is difficult and that in itself would make it a hard sell. However, I would have expected Donuts to remain open through the Tonys. I highly recommend seeing both before they close on January 3, especially the latter for the breakthrough performance of Jon Michael Hill. You will one day want to be able to say you saw him when. Other shows haven't posted notices but seem to be having some trouble. That Bye Bye Birdie is succeeding where Ragtime and Finian's Rainbow are struggling suggests to me that perhaps there is no God. Or at least serves as a reminder that life is far from fair.

- Yet another Thanksgiving has come and gone. Stopping briefly to be reflective, I find myself looking back on the year and the reasons for which I am thankful. I'm thankful for my general good health, shelter overhead and food. (Cue "We Gather Together...") But getting past the obvious I'm grateful for every opportunity I have had to see and experience theatre. (Yes, even the bad...) I'm also so fortunate to have such a group of eclectic and diverse friends. I'm especially grateful that I get to go to the theatre with these folks, and consider so many of them personal friends. To think it all started because I decided to blog on this site; I am sincerely humbled that you even care what I think let alone that you read what I write. Also, I must mention the new friends who I have met through Twitter and Facebook, one of the most positive aspects of new media and social networking. I look forward to continuing the fun times and conversation with all of you.

"What once was a sumptuous feast is figs..."

A Little Night Music, then (1973 Original Broadway production):


A Little Night Music, now (2009 Broadway revival):

"Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain"

Whether tackling a mega musical or a mega ego, Forbidden Broadway has been a staple of the Broadway scene for almost three decades. The small off-Broadway revue has thrived on poking fun at NY theatre with their inventive costumes, wittily knowing lyrics and this general sense of tongue-in-cheek fun. While the show has closed up shop (for now) earlier this year, its legacy continues with the release of the new book Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain by FB's creator Gerard Alessandrini, assisted by Michael Portantiere. Together, they have assembled this coffee table sized book which details the history of the franchise, offering brief analysis and selections from some of the parody lyrics and scenes he has written over the years.

It's most fascinating to look back at the show's humble origins. Alessandrini was a waiter and maitre d' at Avery Fisher Hall in the early 80s while Richard Burton was reviving Camelot at Lincoln Center. From word of mouth on how drunk the actor was onstage (and off), he wrote "I Wonder What the King is Drinking Tonight." With his friends Nora Maye Lyng and pianist Pete Blue, the show was first performed at open mic night at Palsson's in 1981. It gradually grew into a steadier gig, with four actors, a piano and that mylar curtain. Alessandrini also relays how a ruthless evisceration of Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year ("I'm One of the Girls Who Sings Like a Boy") brought the show to the attention of Rex Reed, and by extension the entire NY theatre community. Alessandrini is at his best when discussing the early history of the show. He does offer some running commentary throughout the book, but he doesn't nearly go as in depth as one would like.

More interesting than his recollections is the opportunity to see his lyrics in print. There have been enough lyrics, updates and revisions to warrant a two-volume tome, but here you get the best of the best. It's especially nice to see some of those that were never recorded (i.e. Woman of the Year). As someone who grew up on the recordings alone, it's interesting to note that the lyrics in print do not necessarily correlate with those on disc. (I'm also grateful that three of my favorite parodies are reprinted here: "I Couldn't Hit the Note," "Super-Frantic-Hyperactive-Self-Indulgent-Mandy," and one of the most brilliant, "Gagtime.") However, the some of the interesting contributions to the book come from FB alumni, including Broadway staples Ron Bohmer, Dan Reichard, Brad Oscar, Barbara Walsh, Dee Hoty, Bryan Batt and Christine Pedi. These actors offer their perspective and fond memories of what it was like to be involved with the show and to work with Alessandrini.

There are a great deal of pictures throughout, most notably in a tribute to the late Alvin Colt, the Broadway costume designer whose visual gags were sometimes just as funny, if not funnier than the parody at hand. There's also a Hall of Fame of sorts showing the various celebrities who had come to see the show over the years (who knew Myrna Loy was a fan?) However, not all is perfect. There is a major issue I have with the book and one that makes me feel a little bit too much like a cranky old schoolmarm. But there are copious amounts of typographical errors, both in the commentary and in the lyrics. I stopped counting well into the double digits; it proved to be an overwhelming distraction for me as I read. For a book that retails at $24.99, I just think there should be some consideration given to proofreading by the publishing house.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An Amuse Bouche for Today

Does anyone not like The Muppets? No doubt most have seen these by now, but I couldn't help but share. First up: the Muppets "Bohemian Rhapsody"



For an encore - Beeker does "Ode to Joy."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Girl Crazy" at Encores!

I'm always grateful for Encores! and have made an effort to see everything they do from here on out regardless of whether or not I'm really interested in seeing it. Truth be told, while I have always enjoyed the 1992 revisal Crazy for You, I have never been that enamored with its predecessor Girl Crazy. The show opened on Broadway in 1930, and made stars out of both Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers (remember them?). The admittedly politically incorrect script is ripe with exceptionally weak humor, things that were most likely barely passable back when it opened. However, the book emulated many other popular musicals of the era - the script was an excuse to get from one number to the next. When someone got the idea to revive the show, they took a look at the material and realized it wouldn't fly. That's when Ken Ludwig, Mike Ockrent and Susan Stroman came on board and the end result was the 1992 "new" Gershwin show.

So if you're going to present a weak musical that calls for star power to carry it, it's in your best interest to find tried and true musical comedy performers. Across the board, with one notable exception, the cast fell far short in successfully delivering the material. As a result, this production was only particularly interesting as a textbook example of early musical comedy. While the score is known for its standards ("Embraceable You," "But Not For Me," and the energetic "I Got Rhythm"), it's not the Gershwin's best.

Real-life couple and TV stars Chris Diamantopoulous and Becki Newton were the top lining stars (of whom I admittedly had never heard) and weren't quite up to the challenge. Granted Encores allows for five days of rehearsal, and the actors are required to carry scripts, but the lack of chemistry between the two was blatant. He fared better than she; he had a better way with a melody but she was lost at sea in what felt like a community theatre calibre performance. Marc Kudisch made little impression, but perhaps its because his song "Treat Me Rough" is rather awkward. Ana Gasteyer seemed uncomfortable as Frisco Kate, the Merman part, she can sing the hell out of anything but was so mechanical. She mimicked the famed 16 bar note that made Merman a star, but it felt more like a robotic chore than musical expression.

The lone bright spot: Wayne Knight. The former Seinfeld star was the only person onstage who really understood his material and the only one who looked like he was having any real fun. His engaging manner was the only performance that really reached out across the footlights into the audience. His reprise of "But Not For Me" complete with impressions of Rudy Vallee, Jimmy Durante and others brought down the house. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, whose Encores! production of Finian's Rainbow has settled in at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, fails to create a cohesive ensemble, and his choreography was surprisingly dull.

However, as is the case with many obscure Encores! entries, the evening belongs to the music. The orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett were given superlative treatment by musical director Rob Fisher. Musically, the real highpoints were the overture (heard on the My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies telecast and soundtrack), entr'acte (which involved a trumpet solo by Fisher) and the swinging exit music. That original orchestra pit had Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa among its players. And on opening night, George Gershwin himself conducted.

Roxie and I couldn't help but follow the loose connections between Girl Crazy and its successor Crazy for You. Character names, songs and a western motif found their way into the later show though it was turned into a tap-happy backstager with some of Susan Stroman's finest musical staging. Added to the mix at the City Center was the delightful Mylinda Hull who was in the PaperMill Playhouse production of Crazy for You, a recreation of the completely Broadway staging and telecast on PBS, who was on board here as a daffy receptionist. The musical comedy has a come a long way, as evidenced by these related libretti. The earlier show is flimsy and thin, while the later show has followed the conventions that have been established through the Golden Age and beyond, with sophistication and propulsion of plot, character and comedy.

Now my question: when will we see a first class revival of Crazy for You?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Five Minutes, Mr. Welles"

"What is your favorite film of all time?" (Spoilers ahead)

Not the easiest question to answer. When I'm asked, an immediate list pops up in my head and from Vertigo to Gone with the Wind and The Godfather. However, I've found that when asked that question there is one particular film that always pops into my head: Carol Reed's 1949 The Third Man starring Joseph Cotten. A certain Mr. Orson Welles took part in the film, providing the unique character called Harry Lime, who makes one of the most famous entrances in film history. Cotten, who is drunk, is calling out to an unseen figure in a dark doorway after midnight in Cold War Vienna, only to have a disgruntled neighbor throw open the shutters revealing his best friend, who was supposed to be dead, standing there with a casual smirk on his face. All underscored by Anton Karas' famed zither.

I love the film; from beginning to end. Whenever it's on I find myself stopping what I'm doing to watch it, and even upgraded from the first Criterion DVD release to their second more comprehensive 2-disc edition. It's doubtful that Joseph Cotten was ever better (okay, Shadow of a Doubt perhaps...) as the rather innocent Holly Martins, a hack alcoholic writer who arrives in Vienna to join his best friend, only to discover he had died. Alida Valli played the woman in both their lives. Trevor Howard is the droll British MP officer who is out for the truth about Lime. The way the film is staged and shot, with Robert Krasker's brilliant Oscar-winning cinematography, combined with the story and characters always manages to strike the right chord with me. The film was co-produced by David O. Selznick and British-based Alexander Korda, giving the film the unique distinction of being on both the AFI and BFI's top 100 movies list, clocking in at #1 on the latter.

Welles was notoriously difficult on the set, often evading crew members and avoiding shooting on his own whims. When he refused to film in the Vienna sewers, only working in soundstages in London. Numerous doubles were used in location long shots, including the assistant director. In a scene where his hands were needed for an important show involving a sewer grate, Welles was nowhere to be found and director Reed's hands were used instead. However, Welles greatest contribution to the entire film was in a scene toward the climax of the film on a ferris wheel for which he wrote his famous "cuckoo clock" monologue.

Actor Vincent D'Onofrio first played Orson Welles in a brief cameo appearance in Tim Burton's biopic Ed Wood, though his voiced was dubbed by another actor. The actor later wrote and starred in this short film called Five Minutes, Mr. Welles, a tongue-in-cheek film noir homage to the famed auteur relayed the (fictionalized) moments leading up to the filming of his most famous scene in The Third Man. It unfolds rather like a small two person one-act play, with Janine Theriault playing his personal assistant. Have a look:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Flop Revival

There was incredible excitement around some blogs and message boards yesterday because there was a private industry workshop reading of the legendary 1988 failure Carrie. It's the show so well known for its failure that it even inspired the title of a book on the subject of failed musicals (the essential Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum). Fans of flops shows have reveled in the bootleg audio and video recordings, marveling at what is good - there are some good moments, especially for Betty Buckley - and howling at some of the campiest material this side of Whoop-Up. (This is the show that featured "Out for Blood" with the lyric "It's a simple little gig, You help me kill a pig"). The buzz that the show was being revisited was intense - almost as though the show were a cult hit, rather than cult flop.

As I looked around various sites this afternoon, I couldn't help but notice that there are several high profile flops other than Carrie that are being given another look this season. Glory Days, the only musical in over twenty years to close on opening night, is getting a cast album (no matter the quality, I feel every show should get a recording. It's a piece of history). However, on top of the album there will be a reunion concert later this month at the Signature Theatre in VA where the piece originated before its misguided transfer to Broadway in May 2008.

Last season's early failure, A Tale of Two Cities, also refuses to quit. The show is the long-runner of the ones I mention here, clocking in at a whopping 60 performances. The show has already been resuscitated in concert form in England, where producers preserved it. The concert will air on PBS Thanksgiving Day, with plans for a DVD and "International Cast Recording."

It was also announced that Enter Laughing: The Musical last season's off-Broadway revival of the failed musical So Long, 174th Street is poised to return to Broadway. Based on the book by Carl Reiner and its subsequent play by Joseph Stein, the show ran for 16 performances at the Harkness Theatre (a hitless Broadway house on 62nd and Broadway razed in 1977). The musical was a surprise success for the York Theatre Company last season, garnering some strong reviews and enough audience buzz to warrant a several extensions and a return engagement. The star of that production, Josh Grisetti, who was poised to make his Broadway debut this week in the ill-fated revival of Neil Simon's Broadway Bound, is being sought after by the producer to reprise his Theatre World Award winning performance.

This April, to celebrate Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday, Encores! is giving us the better known Anyone Can Whistle, which packed it in after 9 performances in 1964. The score offers some gems even if it can't get past Arthur Laurents' silly libretto. It's due to Sondheim's later success that the show is given its attention, but perhaps works best as an album or a concert. There have been revisions made to the script by Laurents, but nothing appears to have come from those regional productions. It's not unusual for Encores! to present failed musicals: Allegro, Out of this World, St. Louis Woman, Tenderloin, House of Flowers, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 70 Girls 70 and Juno were all critical and/or financial flops in their original productions. If nothing else, the show should be praised for bringing Angela Lansbury to Broadway - Jerry Herman happened to see the show during its brief run, and the rest is history.

You know me, I love my flops and I love the opportunities to see them. However, it's unusual that so many failures are being given such high profile treatment. Usually, it was left to Musicals in Mufti to revisit a show like Henry Sweet Henry or Carmelina, often bringing in the creators or similar scholars to help fix the shows. Perhaps next season, Encores! will finally give me Darling of the Day with David Hyde Pierce and Victoria Clark, or the Bernstein estate will be nice enough to let me resuscitate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I'd also enjoy seeing Donnybrook, A Time for Singing, Dear World, Prettybelle, Lolita My Love...

Here's my question to you: what failed musical would you like to see revived/workshopped/recorded?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Well, the soundtrack album cover gets a two.


While the purist in me has some obvious quibbles with the chopping away at the score, I am still intrigued and very much looking forward to the film adaptation of Maury Yeston's Nine. The movie musical, directed by Rob Marshall, is slated for release on Christmas Day. The soundtrack will be coming out a couple weeks earlier on December 15. From video clips and stills, the film - for whatever it's worth - is bound to have some striking visuals, so I have to express my disappointment at the album cover, which I assume will also be representative of the film's poster art. The image looks cheap, like something you would expect on the "You sing" karaoke edition of the score. It doesn't live up to the expectations of class and beauty that are stock in trade with Nine on both stage and screen.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mary Martin sings "The Sound of Music"

A fan put together this video and posted it on YouTube, I don't normally go for such things except that it features a rare recording of Miss Martin live in performance singing the iconic title song, accompanied by some great production shots. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Reverend Mother Played Poker

That was just one of the many anecdotal gems I heard yesterday afternoon during the 50th anniversary celebration of The Sound of Music at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. Bringing together authors, original cast and family members, the event was more an affectionate reunion than anything else, and proved to be an unexpectedly moving experience.

Arriving at the bookstore about an hour early, I spent my time observing the fans lined up with wrist bands and their memorabilia. They had among them original gatefold LP releases and Playbills, as well as copies of the new cast album CD, and The Sound of Music pop-up book. Looking through the glass doors to the performance area, I caught sight of Theodore Bikel rehearsing with a guitar. I couldn't hear him singing, but was mesmerized at the mere sight of him.

It was a surreal moment: exactly fifty years ago to the date - and on the same day of the week, no less - this man was costarring opposite Mary Martin in what would prove to be the final, and most popular, Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I'm sure everyone involved at the time had hoped they would have a hit show, but I doubt they knew the cultural phenomenon that was to come with its success and the subsequent blockbuster film adaptation in 1965.

Joined by my very own Elsa, as well as Byrne, the three of us took our seats second row center and watched for about thirty minutes as original cast members greeted one another while the original cast album played on the overhead speakers. Mary Rodgers Guettel, daughter of Richard and Anna Crouse, widow of Russel, greeted fans and friends from their seats over on the right. Actors who hadn't seen one another years were rekindling and reconnecting. It was particularly heartwarming to see such genuine affection, much like you would find in for a high school class reunion. We discovered who these folks were in Ted Chapin's introduction, we ended up sitting behind four of the original nuns.

Chapin invoked the old chestnut of "starting at the very beginning," and to kick off the festivities Finian's Rainbow star Kate Baldwin was on hand to sing the legendary title song with her usual resplendence and grace. Baldwin herself once played Maria in a production with St. Louis MUNY in 2005, involving "82 children and a raccoon."

Laurence Maslon, author of The Sound of Music Companion and The South Pacific Companion, was the evening's moderator and introduced us to Maria's grandson, Sam von Trapp, who is the vice president of special projects at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont and to Bert Fink, senior vice president for communications at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, who had contributed liner notes to the cast album reissue and wrote the new pop-up book.

Mr. von Trapp talked briefly about growing up with his famed grandmother, and how after seeing the film once when he was around six or seven, was pretty much kept away from the material. It wasn't until he was in his twenties and in South America when people asked him excitedly if he was related to La Novicia Rebelde (The Rebel Novice, the Latin American title for the film) that his family's story was so impactful. At that point he started to understand that there was something substantial going on, and on his return home asked "What's up with this musical?" Mr. von Trapp only briefly touched on his grandmother, who died when he was fifteen.

Mr. Fink talked a bit about the real story of the Trapp Family Singers and their plight, and comparing and contrasting the history and myth behind their escape from Nazi controlled Austria. If you weren't in attendance yesterday, much of what he said is laid out within his superb liner notes. There are considerable differences between the idealized Maria, and her much stronger and the actual, no-nonsense historical figure. Fink quoted Theodore Bikel, who once referred to her as "a tyrannical saint." Fink went onto describe the real Maria as someone "who knew when she was right" and as a "figure who held the family together."

Then Mr. Maslon introduced the original Rolf and Liesl - Brian Davies and Lauri Peters. Davies also appeared on Broadway as the original Hero in Forum and in James Joyce's The Dead. Maslon said he had an incredibly difficult time tracking down Peters, only to discover that she had taught in his building at NYU. Peters had some minor success as an actress following The Sound of Music, most notably as James Stewart and Maureen O'Hara's eldest child in Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, but has spent much of her adult life teaching and writing about the Meisner acting technique.

The duo fondly recalled their time together, with Davies admitting that he was too young at the time to realize what the musical was saying to audiences all too familiar with the horrors of WWII. Quite the raconteur, Davies reminisced how "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" was staged for an elaborate set only to discover it didn't fit inside in the theatre in New Haven. In the interim while the set was being adapted, choreographer Joe Layton hastily restaged the number around a bench. Layton found he liked it better this way and kept it as is.

Peter, who exudes a charming youthfulness, was asked about what it was like to be nominated for a Tony Award. She confessed that when she learned of her nomination she hadn't an idea what a Tony was, and also how she shared the nomination (Best Featured Actress in a Musical) with the other six von Trapp children including the boys. She recalled "Miss Martin" as a professional who set the tone for the entire company, but felt that the term "professional" was slighting the star's personality. Peters classified Martin as "warm, funny, kind, genuine" but also stressed "the work and the audience were what mattered most." There was "no hanky-panky" and no "upstaging" on Martin's watch.

Both actors agreed it was a "great introduction to professional behavior in the theatre." However, Davies did tell an amusing anecdote from an incident that took place nine months into the show's run. As Rolf, one of his props was his bicycle and on one night where he wasn't paying particular attention, Davies sent the bike rolling directly into the orchestra. After the curtain call, he received the notification "Could you please come to Miss Martin's dressing room?" Expecting the worst, he was brought inside where the star immediately proceeded to tell him about the night she cartwheeled right off the stage into the pit during "A Wonderful Guy" during the original run of South Pacific, in an effort to dilute the younger actor's embarrassment.

Then it was time for Theodore Bikel, the original Captain von Trapp. Bikel has had an extensive career in film, television and theatre, with an Emmy Award, and nominations for both the Oscar and Tony. On his introduction, the 85 year old star told the audience that Davies and Peters should sing "I am sixty going on seventy." Bikel, who was an established folk singer as well as an actor, talked of his audition for the show, in which he sang some numbers by Frank Loesser. He had also brought his guitar with him. While Bikel was accompanying himself on a traditional folk song, Martin turned to Rodgers and said "We don't have to look much further, do we?"

Bikel, a remarkable storyteller, told the crowd that eleven days before the New York opening, Rodgers & Hammerstein still felt that the second act needed another number and collaborated - for what was to be the last time - on the song "Edelweiss." ("A genuine Austrian folk song," he quipped). It struck Bikel as moving and appropriate that the final word Mr. Hammerstein ever wrote for the theatre was "forever."

When asked for insight into the show's success and universal appeal with audiences, Bikel talked about the show's innocence. He said that the musical has "an aura of reality surrounded by myth and people love that." He further mused, "How can you go wrong in a show with children and nuns?" He also told of Zsa Zsa Gabor's backstage visit post-show, and how she tearily told him how this story of a family escaping over the mountains was the story of her own life. Bikel reminded her that she had married a well-to-do Turkish gentleman and emigrated to the US without much turmoil.

Mr. Bikel was then asked to compare himself with the character of Captain von Trapp. He said that there weren't many similarities since as a child in Vienna, he didn't travel in aristocratic circles. Bikel, who is Jewish, became a refugee because he had no choice and had to uproot himself from his homeland and culture in order to survive. The same didn't apply for the Captain. He did have the choice to collaborate with the Third Reich, but didn't because he thought they were barbarians. He further expounded that up until that point Nazism hadn't been seen dramatized onstage, let alone in musicals. The creative team slowly softened the edges during tryouts. Swastikas were removed, Nazi uniforms were made more nondescript and the "Heil Hitler" became a simple "Heil." He said he was a Broadway musical novice and didn't want to ruffle any feathers, but did offer the criticism that the original production was "Holocaust lite."

In the most moving and unforgettable moment of the evening, Mr. Maslon asked Mr. Bikel if he would close the event with a performance of "Edelweiss." Mr. Bikel sat down with a guitar (which he said he borrowed from Peter Yarrow) at the microphone and offered two tender refrains of the touching ballad, sounding remarkably the same as he did when he first sang it.

Afterwards, as folks lined up to get their CDs and books signed by the dais, I took the occasion to ask the "nuns" in front of us about Patricia Neway, as I am a huge admirer of her work, and had addressed some interesting claims regarding her whereabouts this past summer. I was pleased to hear Ms. Neway is still alive and living in Vermont. The former opera singer, who turned 90 this past September, was widowed last November and is confined to a wheelchair because of arthritis, but is still quite sharp.

I wish there had been more of a discussion with these ladies, whose vivid memories of the experience of putting on the original show were observational and insightful. Sarah snapped this great photo of them. The one on the right is Bernice Saunders, who was also an alumni of the original Broadway cast of South Pacific. I know two of the other three ladies are Ceil Delli and Mimi Vondra, (and if anyone knows the name of the third, please send me an email). They told us what it was like backstage: the nun's chorus shared a large dressing room. There was a schism between the serious classical singers and the chorines. The Broadway group called themselves "The Musical Comedy Club" and were often found in their half of the dressing room playing poker during the long periods they were offstage. Ms. Neway was also running a game in her dressing room.

Walking back through midtown, I stopped in the middle of Times Square as I listened to the original cast on my iPod. I had just met some of these very voices that first brought this historic musical to life. I paused and looked at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Fifty years ago there were limousines pulling up with the great celebrities and Broadway aristocrats. On this mild evening, there was darkness. The Little Mermaid, the theatre's most previous tenant, had taken down its marquee. I resisted the brief urge to go over and write "The Sound of Music was here." Instead of committing vandalism, I came home trying to wrap my head around the sort of experience I had that afternoon. Theodore Bikel was right in his observation regarding the final word Hammerstein wrote, and taking it a step further, The Sound of Music is "forever."

Monday, November 16, 2009

"The Sound of Music" original cast television appearances

I'm still reeling from attending the 50th anniversary celebration at Lincoln Center, but before I wrap my head around all that I experienced today, I thought I'd continue The Sound of Music festivities with some choice videos of the original cast.

First up are the Tony-nominated von Trapp children (all seven in Best Featured Actress in a Musical...take that, Billy Elliot) appear on an episode of "What's My Line? during the summer of 1960:



Tony-winner Patricia Neway (not Frances Breeze) and The Sound of Music nuns (including some glorious ladies I met today) perform "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" on Ed Sullivan's Christmas special on December 20, 1959:



And now for a real rarity, Mary Martin accepts her Best Actress in a Musical Tony for show on April 24, 1960 in the Astor Hotel ballroom. The Tony Awards telecast was a simple banquet affair with no major production numbers and an emphasis on the awards being given out. Eddie Albert was the master of ceremonies and the evening's sole entertainment was provided by Meyer Davis and his Orchestra:

"The Sound of Music" 50th Anniversary


Due to the overwhelming success of the film adaptation of The Sound of Music, the original stage production often gets lost in the shuffle. The soundtrack is infinitely more popular. Julie Andrews is still a cultural icon and likely to remain so for generations to come. Not to mention the film is still one of the most successful of all time, having broken countless records on its initial release in 1965. And I must confess, the film adaptation is one of the few cinematic adaptations that is an improvement on the original stage source. The show originally opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on November 16, 1959 and in celebration of the Golden Anniversary, Masterworks Broadway has reissued the original cast album.

The Sound of Music, which was inspired by the story of Maria von Trapp and her family's escape from Nazi occupation in Austria, starred three-time Tony winner Mary Martin. Vincent J. Donehue, the musical's director, had seen the German films based on the Trapp story and thought they would make a good stage vehicle for Martin, as opposed to a proposed Paramount film starring Audrey Hepburn. They brought on Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who had written the smash hit Life with Father and the libretto for the hit Irving Berlin-Ethel Merman vehicle Call Me Madam, to adapt the story for stage. The original idea was to create a play with music, using actual pieces sung by the family. Things changed when Martin approached Rodgers and Hammerstein, the men behind her greatest stage triumph South Pacific, to write a special song for her. They balked at that idea, insisting that would only write a full scale musical.

When the show opened, it was met with mixed notices. While the score was pleasant, the story and libretto weren't up to the usual standard of the R&H canon. Their reputation for musical theatre had been to advance the artform, and this was seen by many critics as a step backward. (It was also the only show where Hammerstein didn't have a direct hand in the libretto, so one can speculate if that might have contributed to the leaden book). For some critics, the presence of seven children, happy singing nuns and bad boy Nazis in a swirl of lederhosen and strudel proved far too treacly and reeked of moldy operetta. However, the critics did little to quell the audience response to the show. It had an advance of $2 million, and would run for 1,443 performances on Broadway and for 2,385 performances in the record-breaking original London engagement. It was to be the final Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, as Oscar Hammerstein died on August 23, 1960 from cancer.

At the 1960 Tonys, Martin famously bested Merman (then appearing in Gypsy) for Best Actress. (The Merm's equally famous response "Well, you can't buck a nun.") Opera singer Patricia Neway won Best Featured Actress, Oliver Smith won for his Scenic Design and Frederick Dvonch won for his Conducting and Musical Direction. In an unprecedented twist, the show tied for the Best Musical Tony with the Pulitzer Prize winning Fiorello! (Gypsy, arguably the best musical ever written, went home empty-handed that night). The original cast album was released by Columbia records, and proved to be a best-seller. I have the original LP release and it's one of those lavish gatefolds that opens up with pictures and text.

While I have had a long love affair with the film version, when it comes to actually listening to the score I tend to play the original cast album more often. Martin, who at 46 was far too old to play a postulant, was nevertheless a charmer. While her singing won't erase your memories of Andrews' crisp soprano, the cast album performance exudes that warmth and star quality that made her popular with audiences for years. Martin herself said that her voice never recovered from years of belting Annie Get Your Gun and her instrument, rather fragile to begin with went into decline over the rest of her career. Others I know have issue with her performance on this album, but for me it's Jennie where things really started to become noticably problematic. I feel her performance can be summed up in one fraction of a second: her giggle at the end of "Do-Re-Mi." That giggle sums up the personality that was Mary Martin - charming, warm and playful; the embodiment of the star presence that made her an audience favorite for thirty years.

It's also interesting to compare the stage score with its film counterpart. "My Favorite Things" is originally sung by Maria and the Reverend Mother (Patricia Neway) in the scene before Maria leaves for the von Trapp home. "The Lonely Goatherd" was sung to quell the children's fears during the thunderstorm. Max and Elsa (Kurt Kaznar and Marion Marlowe) had two dynamite numbers onstage: the droll "How Can Love Survive?" in the first act and the unusually catchy "No Way to Stop It" to start the second. The supporting cast on the album is superlative.
Neway's Mother Abbess is my favorite on record, delivering a stirring, dignified rendition of "Climb Ev'ry Mountain." Actor/folk singer Theodore Bikel offers a tender rendition of "Edelweiss," the last song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. The only dud in the entire score, and one of the worst songs ever written by R&H, is the lugubrious "An Ordinary Couple" which was replaced with "Something Good" for the movie. The original cast album was also produced by the master, Goddard Lieberson and boasts the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and the choral arrangements of Trude Rittman.

The album was previously remastered and reissued in 1998. The original material remains the same, though the album itself is now packaged in an environmentally friendly cardboard sleeve. However, there are new bonus tracks with this new release. The most substantial is the highly amusing "From Switzerland: The Family Pratt," which features Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett in their 1962 TV spoof of the musical (Sony should get that whole special out on CD). There is also a cut from the live 2005 Austrian cast album performance of "Edelweiss," which was the first time the show was ever staged in the country (the Austrians have long harbored an aversion to the von Trapp story). Finally there is unexpected curio: Tommy Korberg, who was The Russian on the concept album and in the original London production of Chess, singing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" in Swedish.

There are also brand new liner notes by Bert Fink, Senior Vice President for Communications at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, offering a concise and informative essay on the show's history as well as some background on the bonus material. The usual production photos are dispersed throughout, but this time there are also some new shots from the actual recording session (Nov. 22, 1959 at Columbia's 30th Street Studios), including Bikel with the kids during a break, and Martin embracing the kids during a take. There is also a picture of a very soulful Neway recording her aria. For those who already have this album on disc, I only suggest upgrading for the purists among you who want the new tracks and notes. However, if you don't own this cast album, I can't recommend it enough. It'll never supplant the beloved soundtrack for many of you, but it does offer a warm and inviting alternate reading of a long beloved score.

In the spirit of the 50th anniversary, Simon and Schuster has also released a Classic Collectible Pop-Up book of The Sound of Music, adapted by Mr. Fink, with illustrations by Dan Andreasan and paper engineering by Bruce Foster. Adapted from the Lindsay and Crouse libretto, Fink has streamlined the script into an engaging storybook text, with many of the score's most well known lyrics incorporated into the book. I am rather impressed with how each page creates such an intricate three dimensional image based on the show, and further smaller surprises in the smaller flip-out sections of the book. I never thought I'd ever find myself reading a children's pop-up book, but I'm most amused that I have. It's not suitable for children under three years, so I'm going to have to wait a couple years before I can let the Baby Jack get his hands on it.

Note: Today is the show's 50th anniversary, and there is going to be a celebration at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble at 66th and Broadway this afternoon with guest appearances by original cast members Theodore Bikel, Lauri Peters and Brian Davies. Mary Rodgers, Anna Crouse (daughter of Russel) and Maria von Trapp's grandson Sam von Trapp will be special guests at the event. Also present will be R&H, Inc. president Ted Chapin and Lawrence Maslon, author of The Sound of Music Companion. Broadway starlet Kate Baldwin will be on hand to sing the famed title song, and Mr. Bikel will reprise "Edelweiss." The event starts at 5PM, and will be followed by a CD and book signing.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Simpler Yet Still Sublime: "Ragtime"


Some might feel it is too soon for a revival of Ragtime, but there is no time like the present for this exhilarating, moving epic musical based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. The show is well known for its opulent original production, a history pageant that spared no expense in becoming a theatrical event. That production lingers in the hearts and minds of many theatre-goers for its superb original cast, and the Tony-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. It also is remembered for the less than stellar reception it received the first time around, finding itself in competition with the critical darling The Lion King across the street, losing the Best Musical Tony and closing when Garth Drabinsky's Livent collapsed after 834 performances and a financial loss.

Imported from the Kennedy Center, this production strips away the physical extravagance that some felt overwhelmed the first production, finding at its heart the story of three diverse families whose lives somehow intersect during the post-Gilded Age. More faithful to the source material than the film adaptation, the musical Ragtime opens with one of the most extraordinary pieces of expository writing known to musical theatre. In nine minutes, we are introduced to every major character, every theme and every thread of plot which we are to follow for the next two and a half hours.

An archetype family of affluent WASPS living in Westchester find themselves rattled from their suburban complacency by the discovery of an abandoned African American baby in their garden. The family's lives are forever changed by this moment, by taking in the young woman and exposing themselves to much of the unjustices and darker underbelly of the American dream (as experienced by the immigrant Tateh, who also becomes intertwined in their lives in the second act). Doctorow's original novel finds these fictional characters encountering many historical figures such as Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington. Those characters are also supplanted into the musical, where they serve as observers and commentators on the main fragments of the plot.

Comparisons with the original production are inevitable, especially given it's been less than ten years since the original closed at the (now) Hilton Theatre. However, director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in removing the opulence turns this large musical into an actor driven piece. It's not as drastic as the family band version of Sweeney Todd from a few seasons back, but it places further emphasis on the characters, who are less stately and more realized in this production. Rather than overwhelming the audience in its history, Dodge focuses on the human connections providing great emotional intensity in her stage visuals.

Quentin Earl Darrington plays Coalhouse with an unaffected earnestness that is tragically contrasted by his grief-stricken vigilantism in the second act. Stephanie Umoh has the the inenviable task of filling Audra McDonald's Tony award winning shoes as the ill-fated Sarah, but if she doesn't make you forget her predecessor, she certainly rises to the occasion. Ron Bohmer finds considerable dimension in Father, a man aware of change around him but so grounded in his fastidious manner he can't accept or adapt to it. Even more pleasantly surprising is his ability to make his character sympathetic. Rob Petkoff exudes considerable warmth and charm as the immigrant turned filmmaker Tateh. Bobby Steggert proves exceptional as Mother's Younger Brother, simmering with angst and finding himself through activism, and later joining Coalhouse in his quest for justice.

The emotional core of the entire musical is to be found in Christiane Noll's layered, multifaceted portrayal of Mother. The character with the most overwhelming arc, Mother emerges from docile housewife to an independent woman aware of herself and her responsibility in the world. Noll, known mostly as the woman who wasn't Linda Eder in the original Jekyll & Hyde, comes into her own with a star making turn that is sure to be the talk of the spring's awards season. She finds humor and pathos in the most subtle nuances of her performance, enhanced by the singing actress' sumptuous soprano.

The intimacy of Dodge's staging is further enhanced by the three-tier set by Derek McLane. Utilizing set pieces and lighting, the stage becomes a Ford factory, the house in New Rochelle, the Tempo Club in Harlem, Atlantic City and the Morgan Library, among other locales. The skeletal abstract nature of the design creates some striking tableau vivants, particularly those seen at the very top of the show and during "New Music." Supporting actors are often found on a tier of the set, observing the story going on below and is ultimately a spare and effective use of the space. Santo Loquasto, costume designer of the original production, repeats the honor here. The lighting design is by Donald Holder, whose work here is the most atmospheric aspect of the scenography.

I have had the privilege of seeing this musical twice already, once on its first preview and again the other evening (where I found myself behind Ben Brantley). It's no secret among friends and fellow bloggers that this was the musical production I've been looking forward to the most this season. One of the most powerful scores of the last twenty years, Flaherty's music runs the gamut of period styles including cakewalks, rags, marches as well as soaring anthems and lingering ballads. Ahrens' lyrics are among her best. One of the strengths of this revival is its retention of William David Brohns Tony-winning original 28 piece orchestration, complemented by exceptional singing. The only severe flaw I tend to find with the show is that it tends to wear its heart and ambition on its sleeve far more than it should, and Terrence McNally's libretto, while an exceptional example of adapting a novel for musical theatre, fails to match the elegance of the score.

If the current revival at the Neil Simon Theatre is in every capacity less stately than the original production, it's a stirring, overwhelmingly emotional event. Already, I am aching for the opportunity to see the show again, as I don't know if I've ever been so moved by a musical production. I saw the original production of The Light in the Piazza a whopping twelve times, and that's my personal record and I wouldn't be surprised if this enthusing, affirming revival smashes that record. I can only hope that this time, Ragtime is welcomed to Broadway with the open arms it deserved the first time around.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Love, Loss and What I Wore"

Truth be told, had I not been invited to see it I probably wouldn't have seen Love Loss and What I Wore. I'm not really the target demographic for this production, currently playing off-Broadway at the West Side Theatre/Downstairs. From what I've read, it didn't seem to be the sort of show that would appeal to me. However, I am very glad that I found myself seated in the theatre for last Sunday evening's performance. The play, written by Nora and Delia Ephron based on the book by Ilene Beckerman, features a rotating cast of five actresses recalling the various memories triggered by various articles of clothing and accessories, under the direction of Karen Carpenter.

I know very little about maternity clothes, shopping for bras and prom dresses or the frustrations stemming from a purse or shoes, so I wondered if would fully appreciate the situations and stories being relayed. Leaving the play, I was stunned at my own preconceived notions. The play was both hilarious and touching, but I also found great appreciation at the daily rituals and indignities women have to endure in Western society when it comes to their appearance. I'm usually done clothes shopping within a half hour; the only thing I ever bother trying on is pants. So I am stunned to hear that women find themselves facing hours upon hours of shopping in order to find clothes and accessories that are just right.

The play is performed as a staged reading, so there is a certain casualness to the proceedings that only heightens the intimacy between the actors and the audience, with many audience members expressing themselves vocally from their seats (the mere mention of Eileen Fisher got one of the biggest reactions of the night). The stories and monologues feel more like you are attended a party, picking up fragments and anecdotes as you work your way through the room. This is further intimated by the simplistic staging: the ladies remain seated on stools, with scripts on stands for the duration, smartly decked out in all black attire (a color choice given its due praise in the play).

Kudos to the Ephrons and Carpenter for shaping an evening that is often funny and often moving, but without becoming unnecessarily maudlin or overly sentimental. So many of the subjects touched on in Love, Loss are not unfamiliar and have often been beaten to death by the Lifetime and Hallmark networks. However, the proceedings are kept smart, savvy and the familiarity of the stories breeds universality rather than cliche.

Mary Louise Wilson serves as a sort of narrative base for the evening. She relays the life of a singular woman through cardboard drawings of the individuals wardrobe, essaying memories of childhood, love, lust, family, failed marriages, motherhood, and getting older with a certain casualness. She also got one of the biggest laughs instructing the audience on how to draw oneself (they include an insert in the Playbill so you can do it yourself, and they post them on a bulletin board in the lobby). Wilson

The other four actresses portray a wide variety of characters. Mary Birdsong brought her unique comic sensibility to her different women, but shone especially as a woman languishing in a loveless relationship for eight years. She and Lisa Joyce have one of the more affecting bits of stage business as they tell two seemingly separate stories simultaneously, only to gobsmack the audience with a twist that ties the two together seamlessly. Jane Lynch, who is well known for her comedic skills from her various film and TV appearances has the opportunity here to display her depth and range as she recounts one woman's battle with breast cancer in the most moving segment of the evening.

And on top of all this, there's Tyne Daly. The Tony-winning actress is simply sublime delivering a comic monologue about purses, and how they become a reflection of the individual but she's also endearingly saucy as a southern woman recounting her romance with man in prison. Daly (sadly, no relation) is as warm and effusive onstage as you would hope her to be. On top of it, she makes it all look so innately easy. As much as I loved all the ladies, I found myself looking forward to all the moments directly involving her. However, there was a sense of camaraderie between the actresses. When one was working, the others were watching her; listening and genuinely appreciating what the other was saying.

A new cast is taking over this coming week, but pay that no mind. Part of the novelty behind this simple staging is that so many acclaimed actresses will have the opportunity to step in over the next few months. The show has been such a success that is has already extended itself into March. Kristin Chenoweth, Rhea Perlman, Debra Monk, Michele Lee and Capathia Jenkins are just a handful of the actresses who will be rotating in and out of the show over the next couple of months. (You can check out the cast rotation on the show's website).

Since I didn't know what to expect, I wanted to make sure that I brought someone with me who I feel would feel a connection to the material. When Roxie proved unavailable, I turned to a good friend of mine. A savvy thirtysomething with whom I used to work. I didn't expect or know that the Jane Lynch monologue about breast cancer would hit as home as it did. But it matched detail for detail, save for the type of cancer. She had what she later referred to as a "moment" there, and it proved a very personal moment for the both of us as I considered how I fortunate I was to have this particular person in my life. She already has plans on bringing her mother and sister back to see the show.

After the show, I was talking to the show's exceptional associate general manager, fellow blogger Jodi Schoenbrun-Carter. She, my friend and I were espousing the virtues of Love, Loss and What I Wore and she casually mentioned her husband retaining a particular item of clothing. For the example, she said "an old flannel shirt." Suddenly, as though a light switch was turned on, I remembered that I actually keep a worn, XL flannel shirt in my old bedroom closet at my parents' house. I acquired this shirt in ninth grade, and often wore it as a jacket, and used it for a production of The Wizard of Oz I appeared in my senior year. I've never worn it since that show, but because of its personal importance I've held onto it. Hang alongside that shirt, are my Boy Scout uniform, college graduation gown, and a vintage 1970s Nino Cerruti sports jacket (total non-sequitur - my oldest brother bought the exact same jacket - same size, color, etc. around the same time). So gents, if you find yourselves wary of seeing the show, just remember - you can substitute purses, heeled shoes and maternity clothes with briefcases, fishing boots and tuxedos and you'll find that you can start culling up memories of your own.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Glimpse at "Ragtime"

The revival opens this Sunday at the Neil Simon...

Collegiate Chorale presents "A Jubilant Song" Gala on 12/1

The Collegiate Chorale, led by Maestro James Bagwell in his inaugural concert as The Chorale's newly appointed Music Director, presents A JUBILANT SONG, a celebration of the organization's remarkable history of exceptional conductors, noteworthy commissions and premieres, and multi-faceted choral programming on December 1, 2009 at 7pm at Carnegie Hall. Tickets are $25-$125 and are available through CarnegieCharge at 212-247-7800, at the Carnegie Hall Box Office, or online at www.carnegiehall.org. For more information, visit www.collegiatechorale.org.

As the new Music Director, Mr. Bagwell will give tribute to his predecessors and usher in a new era of The Collegiate Chorale. Tony® Award winner Roger Rees will host the evening. A JUBILANT SONG will feature Salvatore Licitra, tenor (who debuted at Carnegie Hall with The Collegiate Chorale in 2003 in Verdi's La forza del destino); Jenny Lin, piano; Erin Morley, soprano; Emily Pulley, soprano; Anita Johnson, soprano; Krysty Swann, mizzo-soprano; Vale Rideout, tenor; Robert Mack, tenor; Daniel Mobbs, bass-baritone; Kalif Omari Jones, boy soprano; and the American Symphony Orchestra. A benefit dinner with Mr. Bagwell and the artists at Carnegie Hall's Rohatyn Room will follow the concert.

"Before coming on board with The Chorale, one of the things which attracted me the most was its rich history of musical and programming diversity, going all the way back to the ideals of founder Robert Shaw and continuing steadily through the tenures of all subsequent Music Directors, particularly the late Robert Bass - and so I wanted this first concert under my baton to capture the essence of that diversity. We will perform works from Gabrieli to Dello Joio, and from Kopylov to Bernstein and Lerner. The programming will include Verdi and Meyerbeer arias, the beloved Beethoven Choral Fantasy, a couple of exquisite a cappella choral pieces, and musical theater excerpts from Bernstein and Lerner's A White House Cantata. Many of the works we will perform hearken back to earlier concerts, including the Kopylov Heavenly Light, which was on The Chorale's very first public program in 1942," said James Bagwell, music director of The Collegiate Chorale.

The evening's program follows:
Beethoven, Choral Fantasy; Gabrieli, In ecclesiis; Kopylov, Heavenly Light (part of the first public program presented by The Collegiate Chorale on March 8, 1942); Dello Joio, A Jubilant Song; Shaw/Parker, Set Down Servant; Meyerbeer, O Beau Pays, from Les Huguenots; selected arias from Verdi's Un ballo in maschera; and La forza del destino; excerpts from Bernstein and Lerner's A White House Cantata (which received its New York Premiere in March 2008 by The Collegiate Chorale); and the Brindisi from La Traviata.

The Collegiate Chorale, among New York's foremost vocal ensembles, has added to the richness of the city's cultural fabric for more than 65 years. Founded in 1941 by the legendary conductor Robert Shaw, The Chorale achieved national and international prominence under the leadership of Robert Bass. The Chorale has established a preeminent reputation for its interpretations of the traditional choral repertoire, vocal works by American composers, and rarely heard operas-in-concert, as well as commissions and premieres of new works by today's most exciting creative artists. In the summer of 2009, The Chorale performed for the fourth season at Switzerland's Verbier Music Festival. In July 2008, The Chorale toured with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Kitty's Kisses"

There was this musical about three years ago that came to Broadway by way of Canada. It was about a middle age recluse who listened to his favorite cast album as it came to life in his own living room. It won a few Tonys, was a decent hit and endeared co-librettist/star Bob Martin to the theatre world. The show was The Drowsy Chaperone, which glibly spoofed 20s musicals of a certain ilk, namely the light romantic musical comedy.

The first time I popped on the cast album of Kitty's Kisses from PS Classics, I was immediately reminded of Chaperone, seeing the character archetypes and plot contrivances popular in the pre-Show Boat musical that are reflected on and spoofed in the later show. Kitty's Kisses ran for 170 performances, not bad for a show of the era, back when it took a couple of months if not weeks to recoup. Though a success, it wasn't a blockbuster like No No Nanette or Good News, and like many other likable period shows, fell by the wayside. Some of the songs by Con Conrad and Gus Kahn became hits (the liner notes mention that Queen Marie of Romania was particularly fond of the title song), but the show has been mostly forgotten, except as a footnote in musical theatre history books.

One of my biggest issues with The Drowsy Chaperone was its initial conceit, a point exemplified by the obscurity of Kitty's Kisses. There was no such thing as an original Broadway cast album during the decade. It wasn't until the 1930s that record producers started to experiment in preserving musical theatre scores. It seems a minor sticking issue, but it's what's kept Chaperone at bay for me. Though, I took less issue with the London production which adapted the show for the West End (the original London cast album predates the original Broadway cast album by quite a few years). My main beef - the Chaperone is pastiche. It's sometimes amusing, but it's mostly mediocre, coming off as a rehash of a rehash of a rehash (and truth be told, I hope and pray there is a moratorium on new 20s musical comedy spoofs).

But now we get a sample of the real thing, and what a superb treat it is. Kitty's Kisses was a success in NY, then it went to London where it was merged with the Rodgers and Hart musical The Girl Friend (that's something you don't hear every day...). It was a charmer that got lost in the shuffle, and was eventually shelved in a New Jersey warehouse where it would have continued to languish were it not for Tommy Krasker. He stumbled upon the material while cataloging the Warner Bros music archive in the mid-80s and it is through his persistence that the restoration was done, with painstaking research and commitment as well as the blessing of Donald Kahn, Gus' son (to whom the album is posthumously dedicated). Now after 23 years of hard work, he has given us an unexpected surprise this fall: an official cast recording of Kitty's Kisses, billed as "The Bright New Summer Musical Delight."

Rebecca Luker lends her shimming soprano to the title role, the innocent ingenue who finds herself at the center of the ridiculous period farce going on around her. The big scandal - Kitty poses as a married woman to get a hotel room and is mistaken for another married woman. Hijinks, mistaken identities and your usual machinations propel the plot (of which there is admittedly very little). But as was often the case, the script was an excuse for gags and light musical entertainment. The score is light, engaging and often delightfully clever with Kahn's lyrics beautifully complemented by Conrad's period sound. There are many studio recordings of scores that feel like a textbook document of a musical, rather than a vibrant cast album. I can't remember the last time I've felt such joy and warmth from hearing a "lost" score.

The effervescent Kate Baldwin is the free-spirited Lulu, getting things off to a fresh start with the opener "Walking the Track." Victoria Clark is an absolute riot as grand dame opera singing dowager Mrs. Dennison, who shares the duet "I Don't Want Him" with Luker. The "Him" in that number happens to be played by Danny Burstein, while Malcolm Gets plays his brother. Andrea Burns and Christopher Fitzgerald take on the specialty material, originally created for vaudeville duo Ruth Warren and William Wayne. Phil Chaffin is Robert Mason, Kitty's stoic love interest. Jim Stanek makes a brief appearance as the train conductor leading "Choo Choo Love."

The album was not only produced by Mr. Krasker, but he has supplied a concise, informative essay on the show, its fall into obscurity and its restoration and resurrection. The show's synopsis is provided by Robert Edridge-Waks. Orchestration was provided by Sam Davis, who also conducted the recording. The CD booklet also contains various production photos and images of newspaper clippings as well as the program from the Newark tryout.

According to the Krasker, the material for the finale ultimo was never recovered. The show ended on Broadway with a song called "Steppin' on the Blues," (with additional music by Will Davidson) and I can only assume that the song itself is also lost. The powers behind the album have created a brand new finale ultimo for the show using the composing duo's Oscar-winning song "The Continental" from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee. It doesn't quite gel with the rest of the score, but it's a cute way of wrapping things up.

This is the third in a line of score restorations for the label; they released Vincent Youman's Through the Years in 2001 and Kay Swift's Fine and Dandy in 2004. I cannot stress how wonderful it is that the folks at PS Classics have taken the time to painstaking refurbish a show like Kitty's Kisses. In the late 1980s and 1990s, John McGlinn was pretty much the go-to archivist with an emphasis on the works of Jerome Kern, while John Mauceri took care of the Gershwin canon. Those albums, however, were intent on restoring the works of major composers. However, the audience for show music sadly appears to be shrinking and shrinking, so less recordings like these are less likely to be made. John Yap make a series of full studio cast albums of entire vocal scores, but given the economy has left them sitting on the shelf (including the full album of One Touch of Venus made with Melissa Errico). It's unfortunate, as each of these recording provides musical theatre fans with a further link to the history of the genre. I only hope it's not another five years until PS Classics releases its fourth restoration.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Julie Andrews in "My Fair Lady"

Collection of videos from various TV appearances, and a couple of interviews. Most of the performances appear to be from Ed Sullivan. It's the first time I've ever seen Andrews perform "Just You Wait" and "Show Me" (twice, one with full costume and set, the other on Ed Sullivan). Two brief interviews at the end of the second part. The first is from around the time of the London opening in 1958, the second from Oscar night when an audacious reporter asked Julie in the press room if her win for Mary Poppins was because Audrey Hepburn was dubbed in the film version of My Fair Lady that same year.




Monday, November 9, 2009

"The Huge Medley"

One of my current favorite recordings is "Sibling Revelry" with Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway in concert. Unfortunately it is out of print (DRG, get it back out there!) but if you can get your hands on it, it is an epic win. The two sisters are so innately different as performers, but when they sing together it blends brilliantly. Ann's timbre is a bit darker, and lends itself to jazzier renditions, while Liz's clarion belt is the stuff of Broadway dreams. However, both have extensive ranges and both possess exceptional soprano registers, which you'll hear in this video. This was what they refer to as "The Huge Medley," filmed at a performance of "Sibling Revelry" on the 2007 R-Family cruise. Special thanks to my pal Robbie for finding part 2. Enjoy:




Kelli O'Hara sings "God Bless America"

It made the Broadway press circuit late Wednesday afternoon that South Pacific star Kelli O'Hara would be singing "God Bless America" at the seventh inning stretch of World Series Game 6. As I am a big Yankee fan, I was excited that I would be seeing one of my favorite Broadway talents performing. However, the seventh inning stretch came and went over the course of a long commercial break. The dips at Fox decided that it was more important to see a commercial for DJ Hero instead. Turns out they don't like to air the segment, and only did for the first game, where a decidedly mediocre singer from West Point did the honors. (The games aired on the YES Network always air the segment).

After 9/11, the Yankees have supplanted "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with "God Bless America," a tradition that has remained in place. For most regular games at Yankee Stadium, they play an abbreviated version of Kate Smith's rendition. However, for special games such as opening day, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan would sing the song. But he got in trouble a couple weeks ago for making a bad anti-Semitic joke and the Yankees were having none of that, so they canceled his booking for the rest of the 2009 season.

I checked Twitter trending topics to discover folks at the game saying things such as "Best rendition ever heard at the Stadium," and other rave reviews for the stunning soprano. Least of which, the Yankees won the Series that evening. Now, better late than never is a clip of O'Hara singing "God Bless America," taken by someone in the stands at the stadium that evening (so there are some non-Kelli O'Haras singing, but I do enjoy the one person who says "Ooh, what a voice!" midsong).

Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Forbidden Broadway" on the Page

Forbidden Broadway is now in book form! And they are celebrating the release with several different parties:

NOVEMBER 23 AT BIRDLAND

In celebration of the release of Forbidden Broadway, the first portion of Jim Caruso’s Cast Party at Birdland on Monday, November 23rd will be dedicated to the Forbidden Broadway musical. This show-tunes themed open mic night will include performances by Gerard Alessandrini, Nora Mae Lyng, pianist David Caldwell, and more. Books will be available for purchase at the event, and Alessandrini will be signing copies.

Monday, November 23
9:30 PM
Jim Caruso's Cast Party
Birdland
315 West 44th Street
212.581.3080
$10 Cover + $10 food/drink minimum

DECEMBER 7 AT MERKIN CONCERT HALL

Merkin Concert Hall presents an evening with Gerard Alessandrini, the comic genius behind Forbidden Broadway. Hosted by Sean Hartley, the evening includes interviews with Mr. Alessandrini and performances by Forbidden Broadway veterans James Donegan, Donna English, Gina Kreiezmar, Nora Mae Lyng, Jeanne Montano, and Bill Selby along with surprise guests. The concert is followed by a book signing with Mr. Alessandrini. Books will be available for purchase at the event alongside the author signing.

Monday, December 7, 2009
8:00 PM
Broadway Close Up: Gerard Alessandrini, Creator of Forbidden Broadway
Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center
129 West 67th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam)
New York, NY 10023
Single tickets: $40
Tickets at 212 501 3330 or www.kaufman-center.org

JANUARY 12 AT BARNES AND NOBLE

Michael Portantiere hosts a book signing with Gerard Alessandrini, creator of Forbidden Broadway. Alessandrini and other cast members will also perform songs from the show. Afterward, the audience will have the opportunity to ask questions in a Q&A. Books will be available for purchase at the event. This event is free and open to the public.

Tuesday January 12, 2010
7:30 PM
Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Triangle
1972 Broadway
New York, NY 10023
Free & open to the public.

ABOUT THE BOOK:
Forbidden Broadway: Behind the Mylar Curtain (Applause Theater and Cinema Books), written by Gerard Alessandrini with Michael Portantiere, is a hilarious, loving, no-holds-barred chronicle of the revue that has enthralled and delighted audiences in New York City, Los Angeles, London, and all around the world for three decades, spoofing shows from Les Misérables to Wicked and stars from Ethel Merman to Hugh Jackman. This journey through the creation and history of Forbidden Broadway offers a dazzling, whimsical inside glimpse at the evolution of the show in its 20 incarnations to date, with zany parodies, hilarious lyrics and behind-the-scenes stories—and there’s no better person to tell the tale than the creator/writer/director of Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr. Alessandrini is best known for creating, writing and directing all the editions of Forbidden Broadway and Forbidden Hollywood in New York, Los Angeles, London, and around the world. Also a member of the original cast of Forbidden Broadway, he is the recipient of an Obie Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, two Lucille Lortel Awards and six Drama Desk Awards for Forbidden Broadway as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Drama League. In 2006 he received a special Tony Award Honor for Excellence in Theater.

Friday, November 6, 2009

From Switzerland: The Family Pratt

Little did Julie Andrews know in 1962 that in three years she would take on the iconic leading role in the blockbuster film adaptation of The Sound of Music. On the telecast of the Emmy-winning special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall, with best friend Carol Burnett, the ladies spoofed the smash hit musical, which was still running on Broadway and in London (as well as the national tour with Florence Henderson, and countless international productions). The sketch, called "From Switzerland: The Pratt Family" was co-written by Mike Nichols and Ken Welch. The audio track has been included on the new 50th anniversary edition of the original Broadway cast recording. Enjoy:

Two Pictures

Two musical productions that most excite me this season are The Addams Family and the revival of Ragtime. Here is the first glimpse of the former in Vanity Fair. Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane star as Morticia and Gomez. Jackie Hoffman is Grandmama, Kevin Chamberlin is Uncle Fester, Zachary James is Lurch, Krysta Rodriguez is Wednesday and Adam Riegler (Cubby Bernstein) is Pugsley. Not pictured are Terrence Mann, Carolee Carmello and Wesley Taylor. The new musical has its world premiere in Chicago on November 13, and starts preview performances at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne on March 4.


Then there's the revival of Ragtime. I've already seen it once, and am going back again next week. The show opens at the Neil Simon Theatre on 11/15. Acclaimed photographer Joan Marcus was in taking new press shots of the Broadway company, and this striking image is one of my favorite stage pictures of the evening - the tableau of the entire company seen as the curtain rises.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Play Changed My Life?

Is there a play that changed my life? The American Theatre Wing wants to know, and as I look through the contest entries, I figured I would chime in. However, there is a 350 word limit to the entries and I am long winded, so I will post it here in lieu of disqualification.

I honestly don't know if I could look through the list and pick one in particular that stands out as the "one." My experience with live theatre didn't even start with theatre itself. It started with film musicals and branched outwards from there. As a child I wore out a VHS of Mary Poppins and recall the annual viewings of The Sound of Music on television (though I was always sent to bed, incrementally seeing more and more each year - I didn't know there was a wedding until I was 10!) It was always striking to me seeing Julie Andrews as a stoic brunette Edwardian one day, and a blonde tomboyish novice the next. Plus, I was affected by the music in each property.

As a young child, it was these films and others (such as The Wizard of Oz, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Brigadoon) that first introduced me to music theatre and the idea of a song as an extension of the storytelling. This awareness was further promulgated with ample exposure to AMC, when it used to be the "American Movie Classics" channel with Bob Dorian and Nick Clooney (oh those were the days...) plus, there was also my father's vested interest in the film adaptations of The Sound of Music and South Pacific.

Now, I've always been observant and curious. Ever since I can remember, when I became interested in something I went out of my way to learn and study about it, whether it was my fascination with tornados when I was 7, the Kennedy administration when I was 8, or the Tudor/Elizabethan era when I was 9. Watching The Sound of Movies on A&E back in 1995 triggered a similar reaction. I delved into the R&H movies, and read everything I could. There was a particularly incredibly coffee table book by Ethan Mordden simply titled Rodgers & Hammerstein that offered detailed history, analysis, photos, and was just a beautiful history of the composing team which is sadly out of print. It was through this book that I really started to understand that these films (with the exception of State Fair) had originally been created for Broadway. I guess you could say the rest is history...

Looking at the milestones in my theatregoing life there are several moments that come to mind: The first time I ever entered a theatre. I couldn't even begin to tell you where it was, nor what I was there for. Concert? Play? Madrigal Pageant? But that is beside the point. Lingering in my mind is this indescribable feeling of entering the space. It was in the tradition of those late 19th/early 20th century palaces. There was this aura about the decor, the way the lights illuminated the space, that non-descript smell that is both simultaneously musty and clean. Add to that the anticipation that something was about to happen, plus the excitement that I was missing school to be there (I recall Sr. Benedict, my first grade teacher being there). There was something gothic and foreign about the space itself that resonated with me. I was awestruck - and it is a feeling I can recall every time I enter a theatre. For some reason it was especially vivid to me (and probably why I mention it) when I visited the Mark Hellinger Theatre last week.

And there are other moments: The first time I ever auditioned for a show - in the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts in Peekskill (dodged a bullet on that production of The Sound of Music, let me tell you...). The first cast album I ever owned - the lavish gatefold LP of original London cast of My Fair Lady. My first trip to see a Broadway show (Miss Saigon). My first ever onstage save in my high school production of My Fair Lady (one of these days, I'll bring up those fond memories - maybe even some embarrassing video!) Also, my first time visiting the stage door of a major show (Noises Off!i). My first closing performance (Bernadette's Gypsy; which also constituted my first backstage tour of a theatre). My first opening night (The Light in the Piazza). The 2006 Tony Awards dress rehearsal. When I see Love Loss and What I Wore on Sunday night, I will continue to add to this list.

You see, I would love to pick one and say "This is it!" But it is near impossible for me to choose "the play" as each and every live theatrical event I have seen has in one way or another informed my sensibility. I could pick some favorites, and highlight the extraordinary visceral reactions I've had, but if I name one I start finding myself listing everything. Even the extraordinary failures have educated me on how to be a discerning audience member. Every single time I enter a theatre it counts as a stop along the way. Live theatre for me provides a catharsis impossible to find elsewhere, and there is nothing more intimate and personal than feeling that communication between yourself and the story onstage. I'm grateful for what I've had, and look forward to what's to come.