Sunday, January 31, 2010

January Wrap-Up

I can't really say it's been an exemplary month in the world of my theatre-going. There were two trips: Ragtime at the beginning and Tyne Daly at Feinstein's in the middle. The month saw its usual amounts of closings. Ragtime, Finian's Rainbow, Superior Donuts, Altar Boyz and some other limited engagements ended their runs. It's a bit tough to look on and see the critically acclaimed work fall short of the financial mark while underwhelming mediocrities walk away with the golden egg. However, like every other year there is always the promise of spring, and there are some high profile productions slated to open in the coming months.

I'll be back at the Regency for Betty Buckley's new show For the Love of Broadway next weekend, followed the next day by the Encores! revival of Fanny. I'm particularly excited for both: the former marks the first time I will have ever seen Ms. Buckley live in performance, the latter possesses a score that I have long admired.

The original Broadway production of Fanny was a big hit in 1954, running 888 performances and establishing David Merrick as a producer to be reckoned with. The show was based on Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of plays which were also popular films in the 1930s.

In an attempt to repeat the success of South Pacific, Merrick went out of his way to bring as many folks on board. Initially Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were on board, but they passed on the project. Rodgers and Hammerstein were approached, but they were at the point where they were producers of their own work and supposedly Rodgers disliked Merrick. Merrick was able to snag from the South Pacific team director and co-librettist Joshua Logan, singers Ezio Pinza and William Tabbert, scenic and lighting designer Jo Mielziner as well as the Majestic Theatre. At one point they even considered casting Mary Martin in the title role.

Unable to enlist Rodgers and Hammerstein, Merrick hired composer-lyricist Harold Rome. Rome has been known mostly for his revues and a light musical comedy Wish You Were Here. This would prove to be one of his most ambitious scores, often finding itself reaching operatic heights. Walter Slezak (who would win a Tony for his performance) and 20 year old future TV icon Florence Henderson (as Fanny) rounded out the cast. The show opened to positive reviews; there were some issues with the book. But the show proved an audience favorite with its story of young lovers separated; he goes off to sea, and she stays in Marseilles unmarried and pregnant. She marries a kindly older widower because he loves her, and because she knows he will provide her and her child. Melodrama and legit singing ensue. A cast recording was released by RCA. (I'll go into greater detail on the music when I report on the Encores! production).

Logan and Rome collaborated on the 1961 film adaptation. In a move that would be replicated by the later musical Irma La Douce, the songs were dropped from the feature, and the musical themes adapted as underscoring. The non-musical drama starred Leslie Caron in the title role, Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Horst Buchholz. The film was a critical and financial success, garnering five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

2010 brings about numerous birthday celebrations for Stephen Sondheim. Encores! will closed out its season with a rare NYC revival of his beloved cult bomb Anyone Can Whistle with Sutton Foster and (as rumor has it) Harriet Harris as Cora Hoover Hooper. Final word on casting is pending. There will be galas from the NY Philharmonic, Ravinia Festival, City Center, Roundabout's Broadway run of Sondheim on Sondheim (much better than the alleged original title iSondheim) and many others. And of course, the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music continues to play at the Walter Kerr Theatre. So your options are ample.

I did see A Little Night Music starring the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones and sublime Angela Lansbury. The musical has been long overdue for a Broadway revival. However, this production stumbles from its initial concept. Going for Chekhov off the bat, director Trevor Nunn misses the balance between the light and dark that makes the show a substantial, touching comedy. While I gather this production benefitted from the intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is not conducive to plant a production built for a 150 seat theatre into the 990 seat Walter Kerr. The set is ugly, the costumes are drab, the orchestration anemic. I am loathe to place blame on the actors, as the problems with the production all stem from his misguided directorial vision for the musical.

Casting is uneven. Erin Davie is a bit of a mess, playing Charlotte as a victim with far too many tears. Aaron Lazar fares better. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Ramona Mallory are projecting a bit too broadly, with Mallory the worse of the two. Leigh Ann Larkin's accent jumps through three countries in as many scenes. She sings well enough, but there is no directive for "The Miller's Son" making it stand out more than usual. Alexander Hanson is the epitome of elegance and panache as the aging lawyer Fredrik Egerman.

Catherine Zeta-Jones brings star quality and an eagerness to the role of Desiree Armfeldt. However, in doing so she tends to lose some of the poignancy. There is a tendency for her to oversell her songs, as though trying to prove something. Her performance is far too mannered and comes into some semblance of humanism far too late. She's gives an adequate performance, but it lacks the spark that has long made the role such a dynamite success for other actors (Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons, and Judi Dench to name a few). Angela Lansbury outdoes her Tony-winning performance in Blithe Spirit with a delicious, understated performance as the disapproving, observant Madame Armfeldt. In the eleventh hour, her character has a reveal so moving I was convinced that the legendary actress is destined for a record sixth Tony. If the rest of the production lived up to her stunning performance, I would say it was worth the ridiculously high ticket price they are asking.

What this revival points out to me is that no matter the production - the book and lyrics of Hugh Wheeler and Sondheim, respectively, can survive even the most inept handling of the material. This revival would have been better served with the Lincoln Center team- Bartlett Sher, Cathy Zuber and Christopher Akerlind - exploring and fine-tuning every nuance and color waiting to be revisited within this glorious musical.

Vocal Selections from "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue"

While I have the vocal score in my possession, I do not have this gem which must be some sort of collector's item. I find it amusing that a show that played seven performances and folded without a cast album would publish vocal selections, especially since Mr. Bernstein went on to recycle elements of his score into future works. (Bernstein and Lerner made the arrangement with Music of the Times Publishing in November 1974 to publish their collaborative effort). I'm assuming there aren't many copies of this available, though I did locate several in the NYPL catalogue. Unfortunately if you're looking to perform the "Duet for One," that 26 page behemoth has been left out. But there are other hits from the show you can sing around the piano in your living room: "Bright and Black" - "Pity the Poor" - "The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March" - "The Red, White, and Blues" - "Take Care of This House" - "Seena" - "We Must Have a Ball."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ernest in Love

I'll never forget the first time I heard Ernest in Love, the musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast album CD had just been released by DRG in 2003, and I was familiar with the play from high school and college readings so I was curious to see how it fared on disc. Aside from its overture and two songs, most of it didn't stick and I didn't listen to the recording again for some time.

However, once word came that the Irish Repertory Theatre was going to revive the obscurity, I made it a goal to head down to catch a performance. As my Irish luck would have it, I received an invitation from the group itself to cover it. (Add to it, Charlotte Moore, director of the production and Artistic Director of the organization handed me my tickets!) I admit I was excited too because I was bringing Ms. Roxie along with me, Anglophile, Earnest enthusiast and all-around musical theatre fan.

The musical, written by Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell, was originally an hour long TV musical called Who's Earnest? which aired on the US Steel Hour in 1957. The expanded version of the show opened off-Broadway in 1960 to positive reviews but closed after 103 performances. (In contrast, The Fantasticks opened off-Broadway the night before... just saying). An original cast album was made, and the show has been available for licensing so it hasn't fallen completely off the radar.

The major problem with Ernest in Love is that it's a completely unnecessary musical. There are some songs which are quite good, and others which are quite dull. More importantly, none of the songs has anything to add to one of the most important comic plays of the last hundreds years or so. Pockriss came from the world of pop music with one hit song "Catch a Falling Star" and Croswell was in advertising jingles. Their work is admirable, if nothing that really stands out. The duo would later reunite for the 1963 musical Tovarich (which I admit, I listen to more than Ernest) which won Vivien Leigh a Tony award, but whose offstage drama was more memorable than the show itself.

The Irish Rep is presenting a most charming, elegant production of the show (now playing through February 14) with a cast headlined by Tony nominee Beth Fowler as the imperious Lady Bracknell. Things got off to a it of a shaky start with a sung overture a la Night Music featuring some excessive "swayography," but once the actual play was up and running, things settled in rather nicely for a warm, enjoyable evening.

Song-and-dance man Noah Racey was a little out of place as Jack Worthing, but managed to overcome his stiffness in the second act. Ian Holcomb is appropriately infuriating as the foppish Algernon Montcrief, who both resembles and channels Wilde himself in his flamboyantly arch characterization. Fowler's arch Lady Bracknell (always the crowdpleaser) uses the character's stoicism to great comic effect, and soars with a near showstopping rendition of "A Handbag is Not a Proper Mother" (and yes, she had an excellent delivery of "A handbag?"). Annika Boras was absolute perfection as Gwendolyn; while Katie Fabel scored major laughs as Cecily, though her singing voice didn't seem quite up to the demands of her major song ("A Wicked Man").

Moore's direction is strong, making great use of the venue. I have never been inside the Irish Repertory Theatre before, but it's a beautiful space perfect for chamber musicals, much like this one. In a larger space, the show couldn't and mostly likely wouldn't work as well as it does here. The sets and costumes are charming, even if Algernon's robe is a trifle too Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for a period musical. The orchestration consisting of piano, harp and string sits off stage right, is perfection; complementing both the material onstage as well as the performance space.

There aren't many folks out there clamoring for a production of Ernest in Love, so it's fortuitous that the Irish Rep has given theatre fans (especially cult musical enthusiasts like myself) the opportunity to see a full-scale production. However, don't be surprised if you find yourself anticipating the book scenes during the musical numbers - the best of the evening still belongs to Mr. Wilde.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's Enough to Make a Fellow Fall in Love

Here's a press shot of Patricia Routledge in her Tony-winning performance as Alice Challice in the failed Jule Styne-Yip Harburg musical Darling of the Day. The show lasted 31 performances at the George Abbott Theater (now the site of the Michelangelo Hotel) in 1968. In spite of the musical's fast failure (which lost an astronomical $750,000), there are many merits within the show and score; friends and fellow bloggers know that I have long championed a revival.

Alice Challice is something of an unsung heroine of the musical theatre. She's warm, vibrant, vivacious and pragmatic - a young widow living quietly in Putney who refuses to conform to the loneliness of widowhood. Endeavoring to get married, she uses a marriage broker to establish a correspondence with a nobleman artist's valet. The role calls for a sensible, yet fun-loving comic soprano, "youngish," whose material runs the gamut from tender ballads to raucous music hall numbers. There aren't too many theatre fans familiar with Alice, but if they were it's likely they would fall madly in love with her.

The show, which was a troubled vehicle for Vincent Price (!), failed rather miserably. It was based on Arnold Bennett's comic novel Buried Alive about a shy British artist (Price) who switches identities with his dead valet "get out of the world alive" In doing so, he also takes up the deceased's association with the Widow Challice, with whom he falls in love. An expectedly convoluted farce ensues where he paints under his pseudonym and is found out by snobbish art dealers, when all hell breaks loose.

Out of town reception was rather bleak, with critical pans in Toronto and Boston (in the latter city, Peter Filichia said it was one of the worst musicals he had ever seen, but much improved when he saw it in NY). There was a lack of steady direction, with four directors, two choreographers and five bookwriters. (Nunnally Johnson removed his name prior to opening night leaving the libretto without a credit). In spite of all this trouble the musical actually received a surprising amount of positive reviews. The only full-out pan was the estimable New York Times. Clive Barnes opted out of reviewing the show for the paper and it went to second stringer Dan Sullivan instead, who filed his wholly negative assessment. Barnes himself actually visited the show shortly thereafter and looked on it favorably. The Times also had Walter Kerr in the show's corner, offering his Sunday column as a valentine to her many abilities. Kerr gave the leading lady one of my favorite pull-quotes of all time: "If you don't catch her act now, you'll someday want to kill yourself." (He immediately added "I'll help you.")

Lying in the rubble of the show was Routledge's Tony win (an award she shared with Leslie Uggams of Hallelujah, Baby!) is the show's original cast album, which is a charming delight and showcases two major assets - Routledge and the elegant and vibrant score by Styne and Harburg (Styne considered this his "Lerner & Loewe" score and his second favorite of his own musicals behind Gypsy). The show has been rather well-received recently in a couple of engagements at Mufti, which saw revisions made to the book and score in an attempt to refurbish the vehicle. Those revisions were supervised by Erik Haagensen, playwright and Backstage critic, who also made an attempt to fix Routledge's other failed Broadway musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1990s.

There was a shoddy live recording made of the show's opening night performance which plays like a raucous hit. The audience lapped up the stars, doling out entrance applause for the two above the title, as well as character actress Brenda Forbes. The most vociferous reactions were reserved for Routledge, who stopped the show with her first number "It's Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love, as well as her reflective "That Something Extra Special" towards the end of the first act. The actress all but reduced the theatre to rubble with her eleven o'clock number "Not on Your Nellie." During her ovation for the latter (which lasted a full minute), she can be heard very faintly asking incredulously "Is this all for me?" then after a beat pleading the audience "Ladies and gentlemen, if you please." The audience took this as a cue to give one more cheer before allowing the company to the continue.

As I sit here writing, I realize that the musical opened on this day forty-two years ago. It's a show that isn't licensed for stock/amateur performances and has had very few revivals, the RCA cast album has been out of print for many years, but has resurfaced recently via ArkivMusic. The show remains off the beaten path, a lost gem that has brought me a great deal of joy.

Should Encores! (as I want to hear those vibrant orchestrations from Ralph Burns) take up the show, there is only one person in my estimation who should play Alice Challice (and I have Ken Mandelbaum's agreement on this front) and that is Victoria Clark. What strikes me the most about this particular press shot is the uncanny resemblance between Clark and Routledge, as they share a similar voice type, sensibility and the honor of the Best Actress in a Musical Tony. By extension, I think David Hyde Pierce is ideal for the artist. Then I'd toss in Gavin Lee for the music hall numbers, and Edward Hibbert and Judy Kaye as the noblesse-oblige for good measure.

Darling of the Day
is a gem just aching for rediscovery.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Barn Dance

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a rather small-scale film that came out of nowhere in 1954 to become one of the biggest hits of the year. Produced by MGM, the musical found its budget cut and studio bound as the musical unit decided to put its money into lavish film versions of Brigadoon and Rose Marie. Filmed on the soundstage with painted backdrops and a shoestring budget, filming wrapped in 48 days, the suits convinced they had a solid B picture on their hands. What they really had was an unstoppable blockbuster.

Based on Stephen Vincent Benét's short story "The Sobbin Women," itself an update of Plutarch's story of the Sabine (Sabine, Sobbin', get it?) women in Lives of Romulus, the story deals with seven backwoods brothers in Oregon who take an interest in getting a wife. When eldest Adam hurriedly marries feisty but warm Milly, he inspires the others to get their own wives - by kidnapping their lady friends and holding them at their remote cabin until the winter thaw.

Howard Keel and Jane Powell were signed on for the leads. Gene De Paul supplied the music, Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics. The film was directed by Stanley Donen, who'd gained clout for his co-direction of On the Town and Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly. Michael Kidd, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of Guys and Dolls and Can-Can, and also supplied dancing for the MGM hit The Band Wagon, was signed on to provide musical staging. Kidd's choreography on this picture would prove to be some of the most noted of his film career, particularly the Barn Dance during the first half of the picture.

After Milly has cleaned up the men, and taught them how to politely and properly court a girl, they show up at a Barn Raising and there is a dance off between the six remaining brothers and the suitors of their prospective lady friends. (The other six brothers were played by Jeff Richards (professional baseball player), Russ Tamblyn (acrobat), Matt Mattox, Jacques d'Amboise, Marc Platt and Tommy Rall (all dancers). The brides were all professional dancers, the notable standout being young Julie Newmeyer, who change her last name to Newmar and find great success as Catwoman on the 60s Batman series. Kidd's dancing is legendary. Here is the result:

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers-Barn Dance -

The film became a sleeper hit of the year, outgrossing both Rose Marie and Brigadoon. It ended up a leading contender at the Academy Awards, surprising the studio when it was nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay and, of all things, Best Picture. It won for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.

The property has maintained its popularity over the years - a stage version was commissioned in the late 70s with Lawrence Kashka and David Landay supplemented the score with some new numbers. Powell and Keel reprised their roles for this initial tour, but when the show moved to Broadway Debby Boone and David-James Carroll were in the leads. The musical was a noted flop on Broadway, lasting a mere 5 performances at the Alvin Theatre in 1982. A London company in 1985 was met with considerably more success, and even produced a cast album of the stage score. The stage version was overhauled in 2005 and is currently licensed. The film also inspired a TV series that ran on CBS from 1982-83.

London audiences were quite taken with the stage adaptation, and it has already received a West End revival. This past August, during the broadcast of the famed Proms, conductor Jon Wilson wanted to present some lighter music for audiences from American film musicals. In performing "The Barn Dance," he find himself at an arduous task for MGM threw out orchestrations for their films once recording was completed. Wilson reconstructed Conrad Salinger's original orchestrations by piecing together short scores and parts, and even drawing aurally from the film soundtrack. Here is their performance from August 3, 2009:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Tovah: Out of Her Mind"

Tovah Feldshuh, last seen on Broadway in Irena's Vow, has a touring show that she has done in concert and cabaret venues. Her musical theatre experience is well documented. She starred in the shortlived Sarava in 1979 (where she sounded exactly like Joan Diener - it's uncanny) and a few years back in the Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Hello, Dolly! Here's Tovah living up to her title.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

John Wayne loved Noel Coward?

Dick Cavett in today's NY Times recalls a conversation with John Wayne on the set of The Shootist, the Duke's final film in which the rugged star of war films and westerns talks about his love of Noel Coward's work:

Wayne: Wasn’t he great?

Me (Cavett): Who?

Wayne: Coward.

Me [startled, realizing now that the tune was Noel Coward’s “Someday I'll Find You”]: Yes.

Wayne: I’ve always loved his stuff. Remember the scene in “Private Lives” when they realize they still love each other?

Me: Yes, and did you know there’s a recording of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence doing that scene?

Wayne: Gee, I gotta get that. I guess I’ve read most of his plays.

Me [still not convinced there isn't a ventriloquist in the room]: I’ll send you the record.

Wayne: Well, thank ya. I like the line [he switched to quite passable upper-class British], “You’re looking very lovely you know, in this damned moonlight.”

Me: I did a show with Coward and, as he introduced them, “My dearest friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.”

Wayne: I sure would love to have seen them in “Design for Living.” [Mentally I reach again for the smelling salts.] And, damn, I’d love to see that show of yours.

Me: I’ll see that you do. [Jesus! Did I? Oh, I hope so.]

Wayne: That’d be awful nice of ya.

Me: Did you ever think of doing one of his plays?

Wayne: Yeah, but it never got past the thought stage. I guess they figured that maybe spurs and “Blithe Spirit” wouldn’t go together. Can’t you see the critics? “Wayne should go back to killing Indians, not Noel Coward.”

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tyne Daly: "The Second Time Around"

Early in her set at Feinstein's at the Regency, Tyne Daly takes a moment to reflect on the puns that have been made on her name in various songs and quotes, etc. She insists there isn't one she hasn't heard - and dared the audience to try and stump her. She uses this moment as a thematic stepping stone for her latest cabaret act, "The Second Time Around" as the actress has been brought back to the venue by popular demand. It exemplifies her wit and somewhat quirky sense of humor and self. Ms. Daly then proceeds to offer a master class in lyric interpretation, imparting sincerity into every single word and phrase she speaks and sings.

I've known of Tyne for many years - my first exposure being, of all things, her role as Clint Eastwood's partner in The Enforcer, the third of the Dirty Harry features. She is probably best known for her TV work, but she is also a Tony-winner for her performance as Rose in the 1989 revival of Gypsy. My first opportunity seeing Ms. Daly onstage was two months ago in the fantastic off-Broadway production of Love, Loss and What I Wore at the West Side Theatre. (It is here that I admit that unfortunately, no we are not related).

Daly, sophisticated and real, charming and genuine, winsome and wizened, starts her evening with "The Hostess with the Mostes'" from Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, a song she first sang in the 1995 with new lyrics specially written for the occasion (even a nod to the Berlin estate for having a sense of humor). She apologizes in advance for a missed lyric, or a note sung off-key. She needn't have worried - the actress is so at ease in cabaret that if you'd think she'd been doing this sort of gig all her life. And while her voice is not quite her strongest asset as a performer, she sounds better here than I have ever heard her before.

The focus of the evening becomes our conceptions of time, as Ms. Daly uses her song set to explore her (and our) conceptions and obsessions with time - how one moment it can be suspended, then suddenly speed up. She ruminated on how life is in warp speed, and the events and incidents that can impact our lives (which makes for a lovely parallel with the concept behind Love Loss and What I Wore). One moment she's reliving her high school dream to be a cheerleader, the next she's wondering when her grandson got to be thirteen years old (and have his heart broken by Hannah in the 7th grade) and ruminating on heartbreak, joy, love, sorrow, etc.

While sitting at my table in Feinstein's it dawned on me halfway through the performance that I had forgotten that there was anyone else in the room. On more than one occasion I felt as though Tyne was singing to me and me alone, heightening the intimacy of an already intimate venue, whose 10th anniversary she was also celebrating ("Where else in NY can you hear two Rudy Vallee songs in a row?" she deadpans).

The selections are electic, ranging from the popular to obscure. She sings popular standards, a cheerleading rally, a devastatingly simple tribute to her mother with the 13th century folk ballad "O Waly, Waly." She recalled her dream of being a cheerleader with a real obscurity - "Betty Co-Ed," which contains "one of the worst puns in history." She was exceptionally memorable with Bessie Smith's blues classic "Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair, a song juxtaposed with "That's Him Over There" co-written by Marilyn Bergman.

For her grandson, she offers "Sonny Boy" combined with a fabulous rendition of Bill Withers' classic "Ain't No Sunshine." She also paid homage to the "second girls," those musical theatre sidekicks that get the laughs but not the guy. Her "Adelaide's Lament" was a comic highlight; it's the first time I've ever seen Adelaide portrayed as a real girl who happens to be ditzy - and not the comic cartoon that we're used to. She also combined "Ooh, My Feet!" from The Most Happy Fella and "I Can Cook Too" from On the Town in dedication to the wait staff.

An example of her seamless segues, she talked about all the French references to food in the latter song, and it brought about her revelation that she has an imaginary friend (or rather alter ego), who dreams of being a French chanteuse a la Piaf. Tyne delivered - in flawless French - a stunning, understated rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard "Stardust' which culminated in a piano solo with shades of Debussy by pianist John McDaniel (The Rosie O'Donnell Show).

But just when you thought she couldn't take it further, she espouses her alter-ego's desire to revive Jerry Herman's Dear World, a short-lived musical adaptation of The Madwoman of Chaillot. Ms. Daly brings her cabaret to a shattering climax with a medley of "Each Tomorrow Morning/And I Was Beautiful" and "I Don't Want to Know," creating a carefully constructed and delineated character to the proceedings. If there are any risk-taking producers with chutzpah or the folks from Encores! out there reading this, you do not want to pass up that opportunity. The even was capped off with her encore (Tyne saved herself a trip to and from the kitchen) with Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy."

Kudos to musical director and occasional harmonist John McD, who guided the band and supported the star with considerable poise. The orchestra, as Tyne loving called them, consisted of Tom Hubbard on bass, Ray Marchica on percussion, Rick Heckman on woodwinds and Peter Sachon on cello. I couldn't imagine a better group or better arrangements to accompany the star. Tyne Daly is every inch a star, and she radiates the confidence and grace that comes from being one. But she is also a reflection of maternal dignity and warmth. The combination is a knockout.

"The Second Time Around" is playing at Feinstein's until January 30. Her show runs Tuesday through Thursday at 8:30PM and Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a second how at 11:00PM. There is a $60 cover ($75 premium seating) and a $40 food/drink minimum. Also, Feinstein's is introducing a new policy with select seats going for a $40 cover no food/drink minimum (subject to availability).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land)" - 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue opened May 4, 1976 on Broadway at the former Mark Hellinger Theatre following a tumultuous out of town period in both Philadelphia and Washington DC. The musical, starring Ken Howard, Patricia Routledge and Gilbert Price, was met with critical derision and subsequently closed four days later, after a total of 13 previews and 7 performances in NY.

The show was the first and only collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner. In spite of the tepid response by both audiences and critics, this particular song caught the audience's attention in the middle of the second act. Patricia Routledge starred as First Ladies from 1800-1900; in this particular song she was both outgoing Julia Grant and incoming Lucy Hayes at the 1877 inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes. The comic soprano delineated the two characters with the flip of a trick, double-sided wig and change in voice. The nine minute tour-de-force received thunderous applause, and even some lengthy mid-show standing ovations; an incredible feat considering the show's reception.

This is from the Broadway opening night performance, at which the audience cheered for a full minute and eight seconds (the ovation has been trimmed on this particular recording). It's remarkable to hear the audience, which up until this point had been mostly polite in its applause, come alive in this one song. There is a slow build to total euphoria which is almost as fascinating to hear as the actual performance.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Opera en el Mercado

Much like that exuberant display of The Sound of Music in the Antwerp Station in Belgium last year, an opera company in Valencia went guerrilla theatre on an unsuspecting group at the largest covered market in Europe. This took place about two months ago and it took that long for it to come to my attention. Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, a new opera center in Valencia, sent some of their singers out to promote their season. The opera singers were disguised as employees, and burst into song for the crowd. Fragments of Verdi's La Traviata were sung culminating in that perennial favorite "Brindisi," with the singers handing out glasses of champagne to and dancing with the amused bystanders. It's not as polished as some of the other videos of this ilk, but it's hard not to be charmed by the joy being shared by this group of strangers.

Truth be told, I'd actually look forward to food shopping if I had Renee Fleming selling me a canteloupe. Enjoy:

Friday, January 15, 2010

I'm with Coco

Lots of brouhaha over the late night talk shows this week (talk of a sequel to The Late Shift? yikes!) and I might as well declare myself Team Conan. I've been a fan since '98, when my older brother introduced me to The Late Night 5th anniversary special. For years, I've found his humor smart, offbeat and strangely endearing. My brothers and I were excited to see him take on The Tonight Show, and looked forward to seeing the new direction the show would take with Conan's sensibility over the next few years. One of those insufferable yet banal life choices was whether to watch Conan or Craig Ferguson, as I am a big fan of both. Having Conan on the Tonight Show made it easier - one right after the other. It's also amazing to look at the executives who seem to be acting as if they'd never worked in television before. This has to be one of the biggest PR nightmares in recent TV memory. Now with Jay returning to his old timeslot and Conan leaving NBC (and Jimmy Kimmel pwning Leno like it was nobody's business last evening) it will be interesting to see how this unending drama plays out.

Back in 2001, the producers of the Broadway revival of The Music Man were looking for a replacement for star Craig Bierko. While Will & Grace star Eric McCormack assumed the role for his summer hiatus, one of the original choices they approached was Conan O'Brien. The soon to be former Tonight Show host is a fan of the musical; he famously used it as an inspiration for the classic "Marge & the Monorail" episode of The Simpsons from back in that series' early years. (It also featured a Harold Hill crowd-rouser type song called, simply, "Monorail!"). The talk show host was very much interested, but due to his TV commitments they just couldn't work around the scheduling.

I hope Conan is back on TV - and soon. I also hope he moves back to NY, as I think this city is more his groove. For a trip down memory lane, here is his opening number from the 2006 Emmy telecast to the famed "Trouble" from that aforementioned Meredith Willson classic. Enjoy:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

West Side Story - 1980 Revival clips

The current revival of West Side Story will enter its second year on Broadway, but there's still memories of the 1980 revival that played for 333 performances. The revival starred Ken Marshall (quite possibly the best sung Tony I've ever heard) and Tony-nominated leading ladies Josie de Guzman and Debbie Allen, recreating the Jerome Robbins' staging.

First up, the cast visits with Tom Brokaw on "The Today Show" for "Tonight" and "I Feel Pretty":

The Today Show continues with Debbie Allen leading the girls in a spirited "America":

The cast performs "Quintet" onstage at the Met for a TV special called "Gala of Stars." (Note: Brent Barrett is one of the Jets). The audio and video gets out of sync, but it's rather well sung. Then Leonard Bernstein and Beverly Sills join the cast for a curtain call.

Jerry the Nipper

somehow this always happens
Originally uploaded by karigee
One of the simple joys in my life is making today's birthday girl crack up at inappropriate times during the taking of photographs, whether we're classing up Feinstein's (see right) or on a historical day trip (see below). If you're not blessed to have a witty Harriet Walter-worshiping, Cary Grant loving, bibliophile crowned "Queen Hot Dog" in your life then you don't know the fun you're missing. Equal parts no-nonsense librarian and madcap heiress, you never know where the laughs are going to come from, but believe me there is never a shortage when you're on the town with this crazy kat.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Some Interesting Off-Off Broadway Statistics

This information came across my desk this evening and I felt compelled to share. I don't venture Off-Off Broadway as much as I would like, but I do feel I need to pay more attention to what's happening in theatre outside of the Broadway realm. Here goes...

The New York Innovative Theatre Foundation presents the findings of “Demographic Study of Off-Off-Broadway Practitioners”. The study, conducted during September 2007 through February 2009, recorded and analyzed the specific population characteristics of the artists working in New York’s Off-Off-Broadway theatre sector.

Some of the highlights include:
• 85% of the OOB population holds a college degree. This is 58% higher than the national average.
• 86% voted in the 2004 presidential election. This is 22% higher than the national average of 64%.
• 68% of respondents are age 21-40
• 53% of respondents are female
• Income level of Off-Off-Broadway artists is near the national average, and slightly below the NY state average
• 91% of respondents live in New York City

“These reports help to shed light on the Off-Off-Broadway community and the significant contributions it makes to New York City’s cultural environment,” says Shay Gines, Executive Director, New York Innovative Theatre Foundation. “The demographics report in particular looks at the individual artists that make up the community and shows them to be highly educated voters who are involved in civic and community activities.

It provides measured data to back up funding requests in this sector. It allows us to identify and leverage our strengths when negotiating for resources or advocating for the needs of this important arts community. It is proof that an investment in the Off-Off-Broadway community is an investment in NYC.”

Ben Hodges, Editor in Chief, Theatre World publications comments, “As an archivist and a theatre historian, I understand the importance of this kind of study. It is immediately useful as well as historically significant. It simultaneously elucidates the value of the Off-Off-Broadway community while creating an historical record for posterity of Off-Off-Broadway.“

Monday, January 11, 2010

From One Rose to Another...

Tony-winning Tyne Daly sings "Each Tomorrow Morning/And I Was Beautiful" from Dear World for Tony-winning Angela Lansbury, from the 1996 Angela Lansbury - A Tribute, a star-studded benefit presented by AmFar in association with BC/EFA. Enjoy:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Crazy For You" - The Original Broadway Cast

Back in November, Encores! presented a rare revival of the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. In effect, the experience was more like a history lesson to musical aficionados and scholars as the book and construction don't quite hold up to the more sophisticated standards that have come our way. When there was an attempt to revive the show in the late 80s/early 90s, it became clear to the powers that be that the original show couldn't work in an politically era of Broadway. That's when Crazy for You was born.

The new musical was loosely based on the basic plot outline of the original: rich NYC playboy goes west, falls in love with local girl. Hijinks ensue. However, Ken Ludwig wrote a brand new story with new characters and situations, using five songs from the Girl Crazy score and interpolating thirteen other Gershwin songs. The new show was something of a backstage musical farce, with the young playboy putting on a Ziegfeld-esque show in the middle-of-nowhere Deadrock, Nevada just to impress that town's only girl. Direction was provided by Mike Ockrent, the British director who had similarly resuscitated Me and My Girl in the mid 80s and the choreography was supplied by newcomer Susan Stroman. The show would mark Stroman's first significant Broadway achievement and launched her career as one of the most important choreographers of the decade.

Starring as the two lovers were Harry Groener and Jodi Benson. The original Broadway cast also included the late, great Bruce Adler, Beth Leavel, Michelle Pawk, John Hillner, Jane Connell, Jessica Molaskey, Casey Nicholaw, and Stephen Temperley (who would go on to write Souvenir). After 10 previews, the show opened at the Shubert Theatre to rave reviews, with a particularly ecstatic Frank Rich proclaiming that Broadway had reached out and snatched the musical back from the British. The musical comedy won three Tonys: Best Musical, Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long) and Best Choreography. The show ran 1,622 performances on Broadway; a London company starring Ruthie Henshall opened a year later and ran for almost three years. A PaperMill Playhouse production recreated the Broadway staging, even featuring original cast members and was aired on PBS Great Performances.

I first saw Crazy for You at my high school when I was 14 years old. It was the school's spring musical, and I was completely blown away. The script was funny, the music and lyrics were from the Gershwins and utterly sublime (my first real introduction to their work). It was enough to get me involved with the high school's drama club, where I spent two glorious years. I also wore out a videotape of the PaperMill telecast. Our senior year, the high school took a trip (a field trip down memory lane, really) to see the show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. Once again, they were recreating much of the original staging (and there were cast members from the PaperMill staging, too). The show starred Shonn Wiley and Meredith Patterson, who would both go onto starring in various Broadway roles and also get married along the way.

For what it's worth, Stroman may have made a lot of waves with her direction and choreography of The Producers, but I don't think she's ever topped her breakthrough work in Crazy For You.

First up: Act One Finale. Ethel Merman became a star in Girl Crazy because of her delivery of "I Got Rhythm" late in that show's first act. For Crazy for You, Stroman turns the number into a raucous, jubilant celebration lasting eight minutes. It's a tap-heavy show (and this number especially), but it also exemplifies what would become her trademark: the use of props as part of the dance. Here is a rare video (found thanks to Robert Bullen of Confessions of a Chicago Theatre Addict) of the original Broadway cast performing "I Got Rhythm" onstage at the Shubert:

When the plot of Crazy For You is all wrapped up, and the inevitable happy ending is upon us, Stroman goes all out for a very Astaire-Rogers moment with the lovers rising while showgirls in folly girl headdresses appear. But wait - Stroman isn't finished. There's still the choreographed curtain call, with another boisterous reprise of "I Got Rhythm" (with all those tappers doing all those wings) leading to a company bow. Again, taped at the Shubert Theatre on 44th Street, here is the original cast. And yes, that's Beth Leavel singing first.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Andrew Lloyd Webber Love Trio

I can't say I'm the biggest fan of the Andrew Lloyd Webber (some might recall my anecdote about being elbowed awake for snoring during Cats) but when PBS aired My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies back in 1999 (that long ago already?!) I was very much taken with the "Andrew Lloyd Webber Love Trio," taking three of the Lord's ballads and putting them together. Audra McDonald sang "Love Changes Everything" from Aspects of Love, Marin Mazzie sang "Unexpected Song" from Song & Dance and Judy Kuhn delivered "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar before the three finished together in a showstopping counterpoint.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Kate Baldwin at Feinstein's

One of the great gifts of the holiday season was the chance to see Kate Baldwin's debut at Feinstein's back on December 13. The evening was a chance to celebrate her solo CD debut, "Let's See What Happens," one of the finest solo recordings released in the last couple of years. Her husband, actor Graham Rowat, made the following video of her evening, capturing her humor, elegance and of course, that stunning singing voice. For those of who weren't able to be there that night, here's a glimpse into that glorious evening. You can still catch Kate in Finian's Rainbow at the St. James Theatre until January 17, it's a performance you don't want to miss. In the meanwhile, enjoy:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

"Stars and the Moon"

It's a song that I've heard often enough, whether on solo CDs or live in performance or even in acting classes. And it's a song I've grown to despise as a result of all of those encounters. It doesn't help that I'm not particularly sold on the show it's from either. However, when traveling with Kari, Roxie and Sarah two months ago to Val-Kill and New Paltz, this rendition of that song popped on the iPod and I found myself rather impressed. Here is Betty Buckley singing "Stars and the Moon" from Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World. This time, the song had the credence of someone who made it seem as though she actually lived every word. I haven't changed my mind on the song itself, but whenever Buckles is singing it, I will gladly listen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"I wish you the Cort Theatre in February!"

The revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge is only one week into previews for its limited engagement at the Cort Theatre and already there is a second tenant lined up for the venue on 48th Street for the spring. The revival of August Wilson's Fences starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis will open at the theatre on April 26.

The Cort Theatre hasn't exactly been the most desirable house in the history of Broadway, it's located on the "wrong" side of the street, seemingly out of the way from the rest of the major houses (on 48th Street, next to Sam Ash, near the Fox News Building). The medium sized theatre contains 1100 seats and is ideal for both plays and smaller musicals. However, even though it's not as far from the vicinity of Times Square as the Virginia, Neil Simon or Gershwin, it still manages to feel remote. During the 50s, the show housed popular Tony-winning successes like The Diary of Anne Frank and Sunrise at Campobello. The longest run at the theatre was the Stephen Schwartz-Doug Henning musical The Magic Show, which ran 1,920 performance in the mid-to-late '70s.

However, most shows that play at the Shubert owned and operated theatre have had a tendency to not do well (Radio Golf, Bobbi Boland, A Year with Frog and Toad, Barefoot in the Park revival, The Little Dog Laughed, On Golden Pond revival, Hollywood Arms, Marlene, Kat and the Kings - and this just a selection from the last ten years). However, non-profit transfers (The 39 Steps and The Heiress) and limited engagements (You're Welcome America and The Blue Room) have found success there.

The first half of 2010 will keep the real estate occupied with two star-studded events - Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johannson for 16 weeks in the Arthur Miller revival, and Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the August Wilson. Perhaps the key to successfully housing the theatre is to maintain the movie star engagements that have been the great financial successes of the season to date (A Steady Rain and Hamlet).

Cubby Bernstein
, the memorable wunderkind producer behind the Xanadu Tony campaign cursed someone over the phone with the quote in the title of this post. However, after You're Welcome America and A View from a Bridge, the Cort Theatre in February may be a blessing after all.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Brief Encounter at "Ragtime"

It's a New Year and to get things going, I made Ragtime my very first theatre trip of 2010. I had bought a ticket for this particular performance thinking it was going to be the final one, as announced last Monday. However due to a spike in ticket sales, the cast was given a one week reprieve, and ticket sales have gone up significantly since the notice was posting. A case of too little too late, perhaps, but it was nice to see a frenzy at the Neil Simon box office, and a sold out mezzanine.

The show itself is sublime, as I've previously mentioned. I'm very much in love with this particular production of the musical and am sad to see it go. So were those folks who sat next to me at this particular performance. To my right was a gentleman with his college-age son. The father had seen and loved the original and found himself overwhelmed by the impact of this particular performance. He expressed bewilderment at the negative reviews for the show from the major critics. His son was looking for a show to see this coming week (the production's last) and seems have chosen to partake in this show's lottery (and I wish him good luck, as it looks to be the hottest ticket in town for the next few days).

However, it is the woman seated to my left whom I'll never forget. We didn't say anything before the show started, and not even when the lights came up for intermission. However, throughout the show there had been some vociferous responses from the audience. The lights dimming brought on an explosion of applause, and when the curtain rose on that tableau vivant of the entire cast, the house gave an ovation similar to that of the first preview, lasting approximately 30 seconds.

It was toward the end of intermission when James Moore, the musical director and conductor emerged to cheers, bravos and a mini standing ovation by those in the mezzanine wondering who was being applauded by the orchestra. The lady turned to me and asked what all the excitement was about; why the audience reactions were so heightened. I explained to her that many of the folks were fans of the show who had bought tickets thinking it was the closing performance. She said "But it isn't today, right? I thought they moved it to next Sunday."

I said yes and also mentioned that there were people in attendance who were ardent admirers and most likely repeat visitors who had purchased tickets thinking it was the last performance (and admitted that I was one of those people). She looked at me with this expression of wonder and said to me, "I'm 81 and I started going to the theatre when I was 16, and I have never seen an audience react like this." I did a double take, as the patrician and elegant lady looked closer to 61 than 81. When I told her that she didn't look her age, she quipped, "There's good lighting in here."

When the show was over and we were all getting ourselves together to leave, she turned to me and asked, "When did this show start?" I told her the dates of the first preview and opening night. She paused and shook her head slightly and said "What a shame. Such a good show, and to see all those wonderful people working so hard now out of a job."

The lady also spoke of how it's not something her generation is used to; that they were raised on musicals were lighter in tone and in subject matter, such as Oklahoma! or Brigadoon. She said that to her Ragtime wasn't a musical, but more of an operetta. The lady qualified her answer by telling me that it didn't mean she didn't like the production - she in fact loved it. She elaborated further:

"But we didn't handle these subjects with as much honesty then as this show does now, so for my generation it's a bitter pill to take. I would like to have seen other sides of the story: I'm of Italian descent and my family faced similar unwelcome when they arrived in this country. This is how it happened and that can be hard to accept. What a beautiful, beautiful production."

Having someone with 65 years of Broadway history behind her, and admittedly little time to talk I asked her what her very first show was.

She responded, "My cousin was enlisted in the military and fighting in WWII. While he was away, his father (my father's brother) died so when he came home on furlough my father wanted to do something nice for him, so he bought the two of tickets to see Oklahoma! and, oh it was such a night!"

Me: "Original cast?"

She: "Oh, yes! Alfred Drake and Celeste Holm!"

Needless to say, I was enraptured with her. I asked her the next question: "In 65 years of theatregoing, what was your all-time favorite?"

She smiled very broadly at me and said, as she put her hand over her heart, "I've loved so many... but I really loved My Fair Lady - and the original cast on that one too." The last part was added on with bragging rights - rights very much deserved. I observed that the theatre was just around the corner (the former Mark Hellinger) and she said, "You have a better memory for that sort of thing than I do, young man. But I've got this large drawer filled with every playbill." She paused, and smiled wistfully. Then she looked at me, still smiling, and said, "I've had a very good life."

She and her daughter stopped to collect themselves in another row and we said our goodbyes. I took the opportunity to thank her for her recollections and tell her how genuinely happy I was to meet her. She thanked me for the conversation and wished me well as we went our separate ways. I never got her name, and while I would have loved to put the name with the piece I think part of the magic of my experience is in its anonymity. Talking with this woman was as much of a highpoint as was the show onstage. I hope when I'm 81, that I'm still as vibrant and excited a theatregoer as she is.