Tuesday, March 30, 2010

June Havoc (1912-2010)

The musical was named after her sister and it was about her mother. But it's impossible to forget Baby June, dancing on point to those hokey routines thought up by her mother, the formidable Madame Rose. June Havoc, the real-life counterpart to that character is probably best known to contemporary audiences through this fictionalized depiction of her in the iconic Gypsy. The musical itself - one of the greatest ever written - is "suggested" by her sister, Gypsy Rose Lee's memoirs and dubbed "A Musical Fable" by librettist Arthur Laurents because of the show's skeletal resemblance to the truth. (Laurents also wrote in his memoirs that the former ecdysiast was "allergic to the truth").

Their lives were the stuff of legend - especially of their mother's ruthless attempts to commandeer her children into show business (along with the forged birth certificates, their gypsy-like existence and even of Rose killing someone at her boarding house). If we were to compile the story from all three, we'd probably end up with Rashomon with spangles.

However, Havoc maintained successful career as an actress, comedienne, singer, dancer, author and director. In the musical, June elopes with Tulsa (in reality, his name was Bobby Reed) and the story shifts focus to Rose's attempts to turn the lesser talented Louise into a star. That's the last you see of her, though there is a vague reference in the climactic dressing room scene where Gypsy says, "June's the actress, Mother." But that's it. June was far from thrilled with the way the musical portrayed her and her mother, and it led to long-standing rift between her and her sister (They reconciled when Gypsy was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died in 1970).

Both daughters had fascinating lives. Gypsy went on to become the highest paid star of Minsky's and launched a career as a personality that resulted in books, plays, films, and her own TV show. Havoc had to work harder, struggling as a vaudevillian (and later single mother) during the Depression before a major break came on Broadway in the original cast of Pal Joey. She took herself to Hollywood where she appeared in the 1942 film version of My Sister Eileen, Hello Frisco Hello and her most notable role, Gentleman's Agreement (as Gregory Peck's Jewish secretary passing for Gentile). The time she spent as a marathon dancer led to her writing Marathon '33 a short-lived but critically acclaimed play starring Julie Harris that brought Havoc a Tony nomination for her direction. Later notable appearances on Broadway included Dinner at Eight and as the last Miss Hannigan in Annie. In the 1980s, she toured as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd and also in her own one woman show (amusingly called An Unexpected Evening with June Havoc).

Their mother, the indomitable Rose Hovick died of cancer in 1954, at which point both daughters felt they could finally write their memoirs (avoiding what would have been an inevitable lawsuit from Mama). Gypsy's was published first in 1957 and the rest on that front is history. However, Early Havoc was released in 1959, followed by More Havoc in 1980 - two books that I am seeking out myself because I am really interested to know June's side of the story. The first time I really saw Havoc was on TV in various interviews, most notably her contributions to Rick McKay's essential documentary Broadway: The Golden Age. I've always felt that Gypsy was always in "Gypsy mode -upholding a persona. Whereas June is the opposite, always genuine and warm with parts of her performing self seeping through. There was one particular moment in Life After Tomorrow in which a camera backstage after the closing of Annie captured Havoc warmly consoling a particularly distraught young girl.

Havoc spent most of her remaining years living in Connecticut. Havoc's good mental and physical health kept her active and energetic for many, many years. In 2003, an off-off Broadway house on 36th Street was dedicated to her. She was one of the last links we have to the era of vaudeville and burlesque, not to mention pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theatre). June is survived by her nephew Erik Lee Preminger. Her daughter, the former actress April Kent, died in 1998.

The following is an outtake from Broadway: The Golden Age in which Havoc talks about her audition experience with Pal Joey, most appropriate titled "That's Show Business." Enjoy.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Stage Door Johnny

The show was Noises Off. I had entered a mall contest expecting nothing. Much to my surprise, I won 2 orchestra seats for the farce during the last week of performances for its original cast. Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince and Richard Easton were headlining. The cast also included T.R. Knight and Robin Weigart before television made them household names. Oh, and the ever-reliable Edward Hibbert was on hand to droll things up a bit. The critics showered the production and its cast with lots of love and the show was a nice comic hit.

However, there was one particular cast member who managed to walk away with the show. Katie Finneran took home a Tony that year as Brooke Ashton, the slow-on-the-uptake blonde bombshell who wreaks havoc with the worst fitting contact lenses known to man.

A friend and mentor regaled me stories of waiting at the St. James stage door to meet Ginger Rogers after Hello, Dolly! and I was curious about that experience. I decided that Noises Off would be my first attempt at this long-standing theatre tradition. I made sure to bring a sharpie and eagerly waited outside the Brooks Atkinson with the friend I had brought with me. There is this ebb-and-flow sense of anticipation that arises every time the door opens. Much to our surprise, we were there the night Neil Patrick Harris was visiting backstage and that threw us for a loop.

Lo and behold, the first actor in the cast to emerge was Ms. Finneran. There weren't many of us waiting around. It was a Tuesday night and there couldn't have been more than 20 people milling around. This wasn't one of those shows where a barricade was necessary. I was standing right by the door and stepped up to her. She then greeted me with a beaming smile. Staggered by her effusive warmth (and those strikingly beautiful eyes), I told her how much I appreciated her performance and would she please sign my playbill.

Amiable and lovely, she agrees. She goes to sign with my sharpie, and lo and behold it didn't work. "Ooh, we got a clunker!" she said as she tried to make it write. It wouldn't. Then she asked around to other theatre patrons milling around if they had a pen she could borrow. They all looked at her nonplussed, as though they hadn't just seen her in the play. Then, in a moment which I shall never forget, she looks me straight in the eye with determination and says "Hang on." She then took off her backpack and knelt on the sidewalk in front of me rummaging through her things. I'm standing there not knowing what to do, somewhat panicked as this was all new to me, thinking to myself "There is a Tony-award winner kneeling on sidewalk just for me."

When her bag failed to produce an implement (this was before the current era where I literally keep 20 or more pens on my person), she turned to some suit - it might have been her agent or a producer, whatever, and asks if he has something she can use. He does. She signs for me and chats a bit more with me about the show, about what it was like to win a Tony (something that still seemed to take her breath away) and anything else I can't remember.

The only other signature I got that evening was from Peter Gallagher, the last to emerge, but the most energetic. He seemed genuinely interested in every single person hanging around, took time made eye contact and that was when my star-struck stammer finally hit, and mostly a result of absorbing the entire experience of all these actors milling about.

I don't do the stage door experience any more as after a couple years I realized it wasn't really my thing. But I fondly recall that hot July evening: all I can see is the gorgeous Katie Finneran smiling up at me from the sidewalk. I've remained a fan ever since, and am looking forward to seeing her again in Promises Promises (where she's playing another choice supporting role that will put her on the Tony radar yet again). And, oh yes, I'm still smitten.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Oscar Hammerstein II Theatre

News broke late Monday evening that Stephen Sondheim was to receive the ultimate 80th birthday gift - his own Broadway theatre. Henry Miller's Theatre, which famously reopened this fall with an infamous production of Bye Bye Birdie, will become The Stephen Sondheim (or will it be Stephen Sondheim's?) Theatre some time this summer around the time the current occupant, All About Me, closes. It's a high honor and one truly deserved by this seminal musical theatre composer and lyricist, whose musicals forever changed the landscape of musical theatre.

There are a limited number of theatres and so many theatre artists deserving of such an accolade. So it's understandable that there are a great many icons who have gone without: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Irving Berlin (though the Music Box is forever linked with his legacy), among others. But the one that comes readily to my mind as most deserving of his own theatre is Oscar Hammerstein II, whose achievement as lyricist, librettist, producer and director is significant.

Hammerstein was one of the first musical theatre writers to look at the entertainment and see the potential for a greater art form within. The landmark Show Boat took that first major step towards serious musical theatre in 1927. With composer Jerome Kern, Hammerstein fleshed out Edna Ferber's sprawling, epic novel and gave it a sense of scope and history. His fervent belief in racial tolerance was prescient: the miscegenation scene involving Julie LaVerne was unheard of in musical comedy. Most shows opened with chorines singing and dancing and mostly providing eye candy. Hammerstein opened Show Boat with a chorus of African Americans in the 1880s singing of their hardship ("while the white folk play"). It was ambitious material, the likes of which hitherto that point had been unheard of. The idea of racial tolerance was something he championed in many of his shows, particularly South Pacific.

In 1943, Richard Rodgers teamed up with Hammerstein (when Lorenz Hart declined) to adapt a flop play Green Grow the Lilacs into a musical for the Theater Guild. The result, Oklahoma! was a game changer in the way musicals were developed, written and executed. There are shows that pushed the envelope in the thirties and forties, namely Porgy and Bess, Pal Joey and Lady in the Dark, but this particular show incorporated every single element in the service of the play. There were no extraneous specialties or gags 'n gals mentality. It was even to their benefit that they had no stars in the show; the focus remained on the story. Each lyric was reflective of character and propelled the story forward and/or advanced character.

The Rodgers and Hammerstein style of musical theatre writing completely changed how musicals were created. Others emulated their style; writing for character and plot, etc. The R&H shows were overwhelming blockbusters. The duo became household names and recognizable celebrities, their songs were the heard all over the radio, their film adaptations were mint at the box office. They even branched out into producing other work, most notably Annie Get Your Gun. Hammerstein's attempt at Allegro in 1947 was considered the first try at a concept musical. The show was a failure, but is still regarded for the artistic risk taken.

It's our good fortune that Stephen Sondheim's mother should have bought a house next to the Hammerstein's farm in Doylestown, PA. Taking Sondheim under his wing, Hammerstein taught the young man almost everything he knew about theatre and writing for the theatre, as well as his insistence that Sondheim write from his own voice. Though Hammerstein died in 1960, his impact was still felt long afterward and I like to think that he would have been immensely pleased at how Sondheim raised the standard for musical theatre in the 1970s.

Sondheim now has his own theatre. Richard Rodgers received his own theatre in 1990 when the Nederlanders renamed the 46th Street Theatre, leaving Hammerstein in the dark. (The Ed Sullivan Theatre was briefly Broadway's Hammerstein's Theatre from 1927-1931, but that was named after Hammerstein's grandfather Oscar I). Even Samuel J. Friedman has a theatre (and frankly, who cares about him?)

Now that we have the option of going to the Sondheim or the Rodgers, wouldn't it be nice to say "I'm going to see *insert title* at the Hammerstein?" I don't quite know what house would be appropriate. There is a legacy attached to so many of the major musical houses (and it would have to be a major musical house, nothing less for such an artistic giant) that it's inconceivable to see the Majestic or St. James (et al) without their original names. But if they can rename the Martin Beck, the Royale, the Plymouth and the Alvin, I'm sure there is a place for Oscar.

The most ideal (and improbable, I know): should Broadway ever regain control of the Mark Hellinger Theatre on W 51st Street, the first order of business should be to rechristen the theatre after Hammerstein.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Good Thing Going

Today is Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday. Celebrations, concerts, jubilees have been underway for days and will continue through next month (if not longer). Last week it was the NY Philharmonic, next month the City Center delivers a double on the rocks with Anyone Can Whistle and a gala concert. There are major celebrations planned for Chicago, London and all around the world.

His career spans well over fifty years and his name is attached to some of the most important musicals of all time. The impact of Sondheim on the American musical theater has been well documented by practically everyone in Christendom and I won't rehash it all here. However, in honor of his birthday (which is coincidentally Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday, but we can't blame SJS for that), I would stop and take a brief moment to talk about some of my Sondheim related favorites:

Favorite show/score. Sweeney Todd. It's a tough call between this and A Little Night Music, but this masterpiece edges out every time. I can still recall the first time I watched the Grand Guignol "black operetta" (as the composer himself has termed it) late at night in my parents' house on break from school. Halfway through the first act I said aloud "I can't believe they got this to work!" and it was just pure respect and admiration from then on out. It took me two days to watch as I found myself rewinding the last 10 minutes of the first act over and over again for about two hours. The joy of discovery!

Favorite orchestrator. Jonathan Tunick, the foremost orchestrator of the last forty years and one whose genius knows few limits. From his contemporary sound in Company (whose original cast album presents the definitive arrangement and sound for the score) to capturing the essence of pastiche in Follies, the cynical romanticism Night Music, the ominously operatic in Sweeney or the brash Broadway of Merrily, the man knows how to deliver and serve the composer, the song and the production simultaneously.

Favorite Librettist. Hugh Wheeler did the honors on both A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. The former is a masterful farce, with brittle lines and fascinating characters of another era. In the latter, he helped shape the overall arc of the musical, whose touch is subtle but profound in successfully finding the balance between Christopher Bond's original play and Sondheim's near operatic score.

Favorite Director. Hal Prince. The combination of the two revolutionized the genre forever. Lapine was an excellence choice to follow-up the combination, but the impact of their three shows together doesn't come near the glory days of 1970-1981.

Favorite Song. This is the really hard one. I thought about lyric, but realized I'd need to write a book, and frankly, Sondheim is doing that himself. I don't know that I could nail it down to one particular song as it could shift regularly.

Here are a few finalists in the category: "A Little Priest," "Please Hello," "Send in the Clowns," "Liaisons," "A Weekend in the Country," "Could I Leave You?," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Another Hundred People," "Getting Married Today," "Move On," "Sunday," "Last Midnight," "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," "There Won't Be Trumpets," "How I Saved Roosevelt," "Now You Know," "I'm Still Here," and... well, you catch my drift. I'm sure in a day or so another great one I've left out will pop into my head as well.

So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim! Though you're turning 80, I hope that doesn't keep you from giving us another new show. It was far too long between Passion and Road Show, and New Yorkers hate to wait - especially for excellence.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

It Might as Well Be Spring

And so it is! The season of pastoral rebirth is upon us (don't forget to balance an egg on its other end today!). It is 70 degrees out, sunny and I even spotted a subtle glimpse of purple crocus peeking out from our front lawn. After such a maudlin winter (and those wretched snowstorms everywhere) it's always such a delight when the warmer weather returns. Though I do in fact have a love hate relationship with the season itself due to some severe grass, pollen and tree allergies, I still find much to appreciate in between the watery eyes and incessant sneezing.

Spring hasn't been lost on the musical theatre writers either. Oscar Hammerstein's chorus for Very Warm for May's "All the Things You Are" starts with the line "You are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long." (It's a killer song, one of the all time great ballads). Hammerstein also gives Lt. Cable "Younger than Springtime" in South Pacific as a starting point for a list of romantic platitudes. Rodgers and Hart wrote "Spring is Here" for I Married an Angel. Inga Swenson spent her run in Baker Street "Finding Words for Spring" while Jon Cameron Mitchell's Dickon sang "Winter's on the Wing" in The Secret Garden.

But leave it to Rodgers and Hammerstein to write a song for a character who gets spring fever in the middle of August. It's the song that often comes to mind when I find myself mired in the gloom of autumn and spring (especially when I'm out shoveling snow that comes up to my knees).

In honor of the new season, here's Louanne Hogan dubbing for Jeanne Crain in the 1945 film State Fair:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I had the good fortune of being born in a predominantly Irish family and proudly maintain dual citizenship with both the US and Ireland. However, one of the sayings about March 17 is that "everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day." Keeping in line with the festivities, here are the famed Leprechaun Brothers with their rendition of an Irish classic:

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Ides of March

"Beware the Ides of March." Well, I'm sure glad I didn't heed the soothsayer's warning. March 15 is probably most famous as the day Julius Caesar was stabbed in the Senate by his little friends (including Brutus). The date also marks the anniversary of Tsar Nicholas II's abdication, Maine's admittance into the United States and Constitution Day in Belarus. But it's also the anniversary of the Broadway opening night of My Fair Lady, as well as my brother's birthday. However this particular day is also very personal to me.

On this day ten years ago, I went to see my very first Broadway show. When I tell this story there are some who are surprised, assuming that I'd been going to the theatre since I could walk. But I'm not from a particularly theatrical family, so I had to wait. Years of asking to see things fell on the unwilling ear of my parents (who would finally get to Broadway themselves in 2008 for South Pacific). I had taken in local community, high school and regional shows but it appeared to my young mind that the allure of Broadway would forever elude me.

The opportunity finally manifested itself in high school. It was my junior year, and I had recently become involved in our theatre arts department. The advisor and director arranged for various theatrical trips during the year, and arranged to take a group of students to see a Wednesday matinee of the long-running hit Miss Saigon. I knew a couple months in advance that this was going on. It didn't matter the show. All that mattered was that something I'd always wanted to do was finally within my grasp. I made it a mission that I just had to get to Broadway.

The usual information was involved: permission slips, money for the ticket and bus fare and the unwritten permission from the teachers whose classes I'd be missing that day. All of that cleared, and I was all set to go. Then much to my personal panic, an even greater obstacle struck - sickness. It was my father - who never gets sick - who brought this one home. By Tuesday, everyone in the house except for myself was sick. I knew it was inevitable that I was next.

Wednesday morning came, and I did not feel well. Deciding that there was no way in hell I was going to miss the production, I persevered to get to that show. It was a battle of wills that I won... or at least staved until after getting home. There might have been some rosaries and a little bit of zen meditation involved, but focus was where I was at. I was ably distracted on the ride from northern Westchester into Manhattan while we watched South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut. (It was a fun ride, in spite of how I was feeling).

My teacher handed us our tickets outside the Broadway Theatre around 12:30ish. We then had some time to roam around the Times Square area with other students. I figured lunch was a bad idea, so I roamed down into Times Square where I discovered the Virgin Megastore for the first time. I made a mental note that I needed to come back this store; this time with more money. Keeping careful track of the time, we made sure to get back up to 52nd Street in time for the show.

I took in every part of the process: the mob of people lining up to get into the theatre, the organized chaos of finding our seats (we were seated in Row J & K right orchestra) and settling in for the show experience. Reading my first playbill as I placed by ripped ticket stub inside as a bookmark. (I have faithfully kept every playbill and ticket stub from every show I've seen). There I was, feeling somewhat feverish and unwell, absorbing everything I could about this experience. I was in a Broadway theatre. Hell, I was in the Broadway Theatre. There was an announcement about pagers (remember those?) and cell phones. And we were off.

I wish I could say I remembered every single detail of the show. I don't. What I can recall:

- There are a lot of chorus girls in g-strings. That means they must be promiscuous
- Our heroine, Kim. A virgin, but not for long. Decent singer. (Deedee Lynn Magno).
- I know this song. ("The Last Night of the World")
- That Will Chase sure is pretty good. (Chase was playing Chris).
- People are singing far too much. This first act is going on too long.
- Okay, first act finale. I'm curious for act two.
- The Engineer is such a fun role. How the hell was Jonathan Pryce cast in it?
- "Bui-Doi,"eh?
- The helicopter is interesting, but distracting. Good sound design, but not the best thing for a feverish teenager to experience.
- This show has a curiously structured sense of time.
- Oh, Ellen. You're the reason Kim can't have nice things...
- This isn't going to end well.
- The second act is a bit tighter, but this is still too long.
- "The American Dream" is fun. (This was before I knew what an eleven o'clock number was)
- What an abrupt final curtain.

Well, I made it. I got through that entire Wednesday matinee without getting sick, and without getting anyone else sick too. Slept on the ride back to our high school and then proceeded to a choir practice. When I got home, that's when I went to bed and stayed there. It was like a perfect storm illness as I found myself battling three separate infections simultaneously. I was out of school until the following Tuesday, when I made a feeble but grand return. I had never been that sick in my life before (or since). But, if I had to do it all over again, I would.

Ever since, I have tried to get to the theatre on or around March 15. Exactly a year after Miss Saigon, I was surprised by friends with a trip to see The Music Man revival. Others include Urinetown, Come Back Little Sheba and most recently last year's opening night performance of Blithe Spirit.

For years, the idea going to Broadway continued to thrill me. For the first four years of my theatregoing, my trips to the Broadway were few and far between; I could count the annual trips on one hand. Now that I go to the theatre with considerable regularity, I no longer quite have that sense of being awestruck (though I take note if I'm entering a house for the first time), but still sometimes smile at the idea that I'm entering a Broadway house to see a Broadway show. There is no way to put it into words, but there is nothing like it in the world.

The Ides of March may have cursed Julius Caesar, but for me it will always mark the beginning of one of the more interesting chapters of my life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"America, America"

True to form, I have been partaking in my own 31 Days of Oscar, watching Oscar nominated and winning films I own and getting into the spirit for the ceremony. This year, I also took it to the library. Titles that I have checked out so far include Tender Mercies, Irma La Douce and Friendly Persuasion (to the latter, I can only say that I actual use the phrase "Sweet mother of Jessamyn West!" to express surprise). Lots of eclectic titles to be had. However, I also realized that the libraries still carried a vast quantity of VHS copies, and aside from half.com I think the library may be the last bastion for renting this long outdated technology.

It was a little strange; I cannot remember the last time I popped anything into the VCR (I have one of those convenient combos, just because) and even might have groaned a bit when I realized I would have to rewind the tape once the film was over. But after being amused by ancient videotape logos and the old FBI warning, I settled in for the movie, America, America.

America, America was written, directed and produced by Elia Kazan and released in 1963. The film is a semi-biographical account based on the trials and tribulations through which Kazan's uncle came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. The first time I ever heard of it was while browsing through Robert Osbourne's 70 Years of the Oscar. It amazed me that I had never heard of it, considering Kazan's pedigree and the classic status of his earlier films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and East of Eden (and that in effect was trumped by his notorious association with HUAC, but that's neither here nor there in this discussion).

The three hour odyssey follows a young man named Stavros, living with his Greek family in Turkey at the height of the Armenian genocide. They are constantly in fear for their lives and are living in abject poverty. Stavros sells ice, and is generally miserable but dreams of a better future in America. After getting in trouble in his town, the family sends him to Constantinople with their entire life savings and the hope of making them money. The film follows him as he faces considerable obstacles in getting to the United States - loses everything due to naivete, is robbed by a prostitute, gets involved in a failed uprising and almost concedes his dream in order to marry comfortably.

The film is long, yes, but never boring. It actually builds momentum from scene to scene as his story becomes more and more interesting and more personal. Stavros is far from perfect, but there is something admirable in the way he wants to help his parents and bring them to America and the promise that our country meant for so many oppressed and impoverished during the 19th century. I can best describe it as an intimate epic; it's a big story but told in small, uncompromising terms. Kazan shot the film on locations with star black and white cinematography, and projected in a spare 1.66:1 ratio.

The acting isn't perfect, there is far too much looping and a couple of wooden performances (in a film of virtual unknowns), but it doesn't detract from the overall experience. With its gritty, naturalistic look, the film has considerable realism especially evidenced once Stavros goes on the road. The most notable actor in the cast is Paul Mann, whose only other film appearance was in Fiddler on the Roof as Lazar Wolf. But the film belongs equivocally to Stathis Giallelis, a 21 year old unknown picked by Kazan to play Stavros. Giallelis is present in almost every scene of the film and gives an understated, pensive performance as the idealistic, but jaded hero who perseveres through some extraordinary circumstances to get to America. He won a Golden Globe as a Best Newcomer for his appearance here, and was nominated also for the Globe for Best Actor. However, he was unable to capitalize on his overnight stardom to maintain a reputable career (the range is limited, but he is mostly effective here). His last film appearance was in 1980; he apparently left acting altogether and taught at the United Nations International School in Manhattan.

Kazan considered this the most personal and favorite of all the films he directed in his career. He is visible in every aspect of the film, even narrating over the opening credits as himself, and again over the end credits (where he actually reads out the names of everyone involved with the project). There was much trouble for Kazan to get the film made. Since it depicted the Armenian genocide in sobering terms, Turkish officials were worried about the impact the film would have on their image worldwide. He moved to Greece to finish shooting, but not without almost losing his footage to Turkish customs. The film was completed and released to considerable acclaim. The movie was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay. It won for its Art Direction.

However, the film seems to have slipped into relative obscurity. It's a far superior film to some of the other Best Picture nominees of 1963 (How the West Was Won and Cleopatra, the latter more notorious than noted), but many friends have never heard of it, let alone seen it. For whatever reason, this film isn't available on DVD in Region 1. There was a Region 2 release, but that doesn't seem to be an official release from Warner Bros. I hope there will be a reissue sooner rather than later - and not in their DVD-R archive collection. This particular film is a powerful look at the immigrant experience. As one whose grandfather came to Ellis Island in 1928, I was fascinated. If you have time, check your local library to see if they've got an old copy lying around. I think you'll be fascinated, too.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Kate Baldwin at Birdland

It's no secret that I am a fervent admirer of Kate Baldwin. From Finian's Rainbow to her solo album to her debut at Feinstein's last December, I have been impressed by the singing actress' charm, poise and quirky sense of humor. And that's to say nothing of her rangy, versatile soprano. When SarahB asked if I would be interested in seeing Kate at Birdland, it didn't take me long to say yes. I didn't care if the evening was an encore of her December show, I could listen to Baldwin sing Lane & Harburg from here to eternity.

The first time I met Kate, we were a table apart for Jonathan Tunick's Broadway Moonlighters in November '08. Over the course of the year that has transpired, Kate has achieved so many great things - a solo CD of Broadway standards, a successful cabaret debut and most notably, become a real, live Broadway star. On a personal level, none of this has changed Kate. She is exceptionally warm and gracious, easily evidenced by the time she took to talk with each and every fan following her performance Monday evening.

The program wasn't very different from her set at Feinstein's. The evening was again mostly devoted to her solo album (in short: buy it), and a lot of humorous banter between songs (including a lesson on "Googling Kate Baldwin," the audio of which she played for us). However, she did add some new material, most notably bringing down the house with a spirited rendition of "The Rhythm of Life" from Sweet Charity, assisted by Devin Richards, James Stovall and Bernard Dotson, who led "The Begat" in Finian's Rainbow. She also scintillated with Comden, Green & Bernstein's "I Can Cook Too" from On the Town and was especially beguiling with "Will He Like Me?" from Bock & Harnick's She Loves Me.

I consider the musical She Loves Me to be in my top three shows of all time (you can try and guess the others). It's an utterly perfect jewel of a musical comedy, with score that is so intricately integrated with its book. The two lead characters are two of my favorites (I consider Georg the musical theatre character with whom I most connect). Kate played Amalia Balish and sing the showstopping "Ice Cream" a couple years ago in a production at Huntington a couple of years ago. After hearing Kate's sublime delivery of that one ballad, I think it's time NY had another production of the show. So if anyone wants to pass on the word to Jack Viertel and the Encores! crowd: they have an ideal show for the Summer Stars series, on the one condition that they cast Kate.

Meanwhile, Kate is heading to Washington DC later in the month for a Library of Congress concert of Harold Arlen's revue Life Begins at 8:40 (with lyrics from Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin), which will subsequently receive a cast album from PS Classics. Then in May, she is hopping the pond to make her London debut in the world premiere of Harold Prince/Susan Stroman's latest collaboration Paradise Found at the Menier Chocolate Factory, with a cast that includes Tony-winners Mandy Patinkin, Shuler Hensley, John Cullum and Judy Kaye.

We had a chance to talk briefly about the new musical, which uses the music of Johann Strauss with new lyrics from Ellen Fitzhugh (and a book by Richard Nelson) to tell a sweeping romantic story of fin de siècle Vienna. As it stands now, the plan is to transfer the production to Broadway. The way that Kate describes it, the project sounds quite intriguing, plus she'll have ample opportunity to do a lot of legitimate singing. (To the operetta haters currently groaning, this is NOT going to be a retread of The Great Waltz, mark my words). I only hope that Kate will soon be back on Broadway where she truly belongs sooner rather than later.

Oh - by the way, here's "Googling Kate Baldwin":

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Best Original Song Oscar Goes Broadway

Tonight is Oscar night. I had to miss last year's ceremony as I was in the process of boarding a plane to visit my newborn nephew in the Philippines. Well, I'll be back at the television, with my usual assortment of ballots and pens. The phone will be silenced and anyone who gets between me and the television should brace him or herself for flying objects. (Those who have watched with me before know what I mean).

The Oscar for Best Original Song has been given since 1934 (when "The Continental" won) and has been awarded to Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Jule Styne, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg, Stephen Sondheim, Alan Menken, David Shire, Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz, to name just a few. It used to be that the custom at the ceremony was to present the Best Song nominees with big names performing them, but not those who originally sang them. More recently, the composers or singers who introduced the songs performed the songs in a simple setting, usually solo. Here are a few of the telecast performances, with a decidedly Broadway feel:

Mitzi Gaynor, Georgy Girl. The song "Georgy Girl" was originally performed by The Seekers, in what would be their biggest and most notable pop hit. The song had music from Tom Livingston and lyrics by none other than Tony Award winning actor (and Harry Potter book on tape voice) Jim Dale. Gaynor seized the moment and brought down the house with her spirited delivery of the song. This performance went over so well that it inspired TV executives to give Mitzi her own TV specials, which scored big ratings in the late 60s and early 70s. Georgy Girl made a star out of Lynn Redgrave and was so popular it was a Broadway musical in 1970 - folding after four disastrous performances.

Angela Lansbury, Thoroughly Modern Millie. It just so happened that Lansbury was in LA with Mame when the 40th Annual Academy Awards were handed out in 1968. Along with some of the chorus boys from her show, the star took the opportunity and ran with it, in what was considered by many to be her unofficial screen test for the film version of Mame (which eventually bombed with Lucille Ball).

Richard White, Paige O'Hara & Jerry Orbach, Beauty and the Beast. The three voices from the animated film perform their songs live and in costume ("Belle" & "Be Our Guest"). I wonder if this is where Disney got their idea to put the brilliant animated film on stage. Angela Lansbury later sang "Beauty and the Beast" with Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson on the telecast (the only song listed here that actually took home the award).

Robin Williams, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. This animated film from the hit Comedy Central series surprised critics and audiences alike with its tongue-in-cheek and highly irreverent musical score supplied by Marc Shaiman and Trey Parker. (One that even Stephen Sondheim greatly enjoyed). There are many amusing moments spoofing various stage and screen musicals, but it was this song "Blame Canada" that nominated for the Oscar, and presented on the telecast in full Broadway mode.

Catherine Zeta-Jones & Queen Latifah, Chicago. John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote this song specifically for the film adaptation, which was sung over the closing credits by Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger. Claiming stage fright, Zellweger opted out of singing live on the telecast and their costar Latifah stepped in for the event. It doesn't really have much of a production number (Zeta-Jones was duequality, but they throw in appropriately lithe dancers around.

Finally, this isn't related to the Best Song Oscar, but I'd say it was the greatest production number I've seen from any Academy Awards telecast. It's only the second half of the twelve minute tribute to Irving Berlin featuring Bernadette Peters and Peter Allen (I posted it in its entirety last September, part one was taken down) but it's worth sharing again, particularly for that voracious audience response (they applaud for the last 40 seconds of the song!). This is from the 1982 telecast. Enjoy:

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Many of the great musical theatre hits of the Golden Age of Broadway found their way to the silver screen, big stars, big voices and big everything (especially with the introduction of widescreen in the 1950s). However, it was less likely that you would find the stage stars who helped to make the show a big hit recreating their roles on screen. There were some notable exceptions: Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, Yul Brynner in The King and I and Robert Preston in The Music Man (to name a few). But for the most part, Hollywood wanted to bank on their bigger, more established stars.

Kiss Me, Kate opened on Broadway at the tail end of 1948, and was smash hit for composer Cole Porter, whose style up to that point had been considered passé. The musical was a farcical romp, using Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew as inspiration. Sam and Bella Spewack wrote the book, framing the Shakespeare play as a show-within-a-show during a Baltimore tryout. The two larger than life stars of the musical have more in common with their characters as they battle it out backstage, onstage and in the dressing room rehearsal during this world premiere performance. The leading lady's first line: "You bastard!" And they were off!

The show starred Alfred Drake, Patricia Morison, Harold Lang and Lisa Kirk. It opened to unanimous raves in late 1948, running for 1077 performances. Kiss Me Kate would win the first-ever Tony award given for Best Musical. Drake found the greatest stage success of the four, winning a 1954 Tony for his star turn in Kismet and numerous operetta, musical and Shakespearean performances (most notably as Claudius in Richard Burton's Hamlet in 1964). Morison, who will turn 95 this month, made only one more appearance on Broadway as a replacement Anna in The King and I. The cast made an original cast album for Columbia records in 1949, and reunited in 1959 to record a stereo cast album for Capitol.

Though Drake and Morison found indelible success with the project, when MGM got around to making the film version they signed two of their leading musical contract players: Howard Keel (who would also take Drake's role in the movie version of Kismet) and the recently deceased Kathryn Grayson to play the roles. MGM, as is their wont, played around with the script and score. The stage libretto and Porter's risque lyrics were toned down considerably. The famed "Another Openin', Another Show" was reduced to underscoring. A rather bad prologue was invented with Fred and Lilli meeting with a fictional Cole Porter. To top it off, the musical was filmed for 3-D, and as a result the performers constantly throw things at the camera throughout.

I have loved Kiss Me Kate ever since I saw this bowdlerized film version. Then the show opened in an acclaimed Tony-winning revival in 1999 starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie. I listened to the revival cast album ad nauseam until I saw that production on January 9, 2001. It was my third Broadway show, but the first that gave me that transportive feeling that can be best described as walking on air. The London production was taped for TV and DVD with Brent Barrett and Rachel York. They're fun, but it's got nothing on the superlative original NY cast (though Michael Berresse repeated his showstopping turn as Bill Calhoun).

Getting back to my initial thought, there were many musical theatre performers who didn't get to recreate their acclaimed turns on film. Since television musicals were quite the ratings boon in the 50s, there were many occasions when a star would make a live appearance in his or her hit show. Ethel Merman performed with Frank Sinatra in Anything Goes, Rosalind Russell recreated Wonderful Town and most famously Mary Martin was Peter Pan. The trend continues well into the 60s and 70s, but most of those productions are mostly notable for their camp value (Lee Remick as Lola in Damn Yankees, Jose Ferrer and an unbelievably awful George Chakiris in Kismet, and a ridiculous It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman).

In 1958, the Hallmark Hall of Fame presented an abridged version of Kiss Me Kate (almost all musicals adapted for TV were cut down significantly) reuniting Drake and Morison. Bill Hayes and Julie Wilson were the younger lovers. Jack Klugman and Harvey Lembeck played the gangsters. The telecast was one of the earliest uses of long-form videotape and was aired in color. I've never seen the color video, and wonder if it still exists. But a black and white tape has survived and that has since been shown on PBS in recent years. I nominate that the powers-that-be bring it to DVD. (And for my money, Patricia Morison may be the most beautiful woman who ever appeared anywhere).

Here's Alfred Drake and Patricia Morison singing "Wunderbar" from that Hallmark telecast:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Our Heroines

This week I saw God of Carnage starring Janet McTeer and have started reading Dorothy L. Sayers' Strong Poison, a mystery which introduced the literary world to Harriet Vane (most famously played by Harriet Walter on the BBC). So what better way to spend a Friday evening than recalling the two ladies in their acclaimed run of Mary Stuart from last season? (And PBS, where was Great Performances when we needed you to air this gem?)

First up are some of the favorite scenes:

And here are the ladies being interviewed during a Vanity Fair photo shoot:

After seeing both this production and the import of Hamlet last year, I will gladly see anything the Donmar Warehouse wants to bring to NY.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Art of Co-Existence, or the Parenting Fail Revisited

Had the powers-that-be not bungled the whole idea of a "Best Replacement Tony" a few years back, I would readily nominate the new cast of God of Carnage, who started performances last night. The mere fact that I want to shower them with such accolades after merely one paid public performance should be enough evidence of how thrilling this new quartet works in Yasmina Reza's study of good intentions gone awry.

The play has been running for a year, opening to rave reviews with a cast of stars who turned the play into a sell-out event, breaking house records and winning Tonys, etc. I saw the show last May, just before the awards hoopla ensued, and had a ridiculously good time from my seat in the rear mezzanine. (Thanks to KariG, we were in the front row). I hadn't planned on taking in the show a second time, sometimes once can be enough.

However, when it was announced that original London star Janet McTeer would be reprising her role of Veronica (Veronique in the French-set London production), I was suddenly interested in a revisit. I'd fallen in love with this imperious talent during her acclaimed run of Mary Stuart opposite the estimable Harriet Walter last season, and am willing to hear her read the phone book. I had rumors that she was coming into the NY production, and was curious to see what her performance was like. McTeer was preferred by many friends who saw both the original London and Broadway companies. I was also intrigued at how she would fit into this Americanized version of Reza's play. Rounding out the company was Dylan Baker as Alan, Lucy Liu as his wife Annette and Jeff Daniels (the production's original Alan) as Veronica's husband Michael (originally played by James Gandolfini).

Watching the play this time around, I was most taken with how playwright Reza keeps the actors (mainly Alan and Annette) in the living room for the play's 90 minutes. This is especially more of a challenge as the play progresses, rum is served and verbal and physical assaults ensue. The couples have gathered because their sons were involved in a playground scuffle and hope to settle the incident in a civil manner, avoiding law suits and insurance claims.

McTeer dominates the stage. She is a natural presence; a living, breathing creature who unravels in front of her husband, two strangers and the entire house at the Jacobs Theatre. Her performance is simply tremendous, and I will admit a slight preference over Harden's (whom I loved). She is so fascinating to watch in performance, it's almost impossible to take your eyes away from her. I've rarely seen an actress who can be simultaneously gut-busting hilarious and tragic, and on top of it, McTeer makes it look so effortless.

Liu is making an auspicious Broadway debut as Annette; it was a delight watching her progress from an apologetic, sickly simp to a drunken Martha-in-training. Hers was the most surprising and unexpected performance, and I only hope she considers frequenting the NY theatre scene more often. She is especially memorable in her drunken monologue where she discovers her long-dormant confidence and unleashes her fury with $80 worth of imported tulips (seated in the front row, we got splashed - Kari even got a glass stone in her lap!).

Onto the men - Alan is a tailor made role for Baker: stringent, bored, clearly inconvenienced to be dealing with Michael and Veronica, as well as his own wife. Jeff Daniels was another curiosity - having played Alan so successfully, how would he transition into the other role? Quite brilliantly. It's a testament to his versatility as an actor he can portray the two antithetical leading men in the same production without so much as blinking an eye. There is nothing in his Michael that even remotely suggests his disconnected, sardonic performance as Alan.

Putting all four together in that savagely blood red living room, it becomes something of a volatile game of doubles tennis. The two couples are innately juxtaposed, but things get interesting as allegiances shift among the quartet, exposing unpleasant truths about both marriages - which only provides more ammunition for the onslaught. Nothing amuses me more than watching characters shattering false illusions about themselves while completely falling from grace (and it is Veronica who has the farthest to fall, as she grasps onto notions of morality and humanity dismissed by the other three).

The play is still fiercely funny from start to finish, much of that credit is due to Tony-winning director Matthew Warchus (who hit two home runs last season with Carnage and, more impressively, the revival of The Norman Conquests). If you haven't seen the play, yet, by all means, run! If you have, rest assured that the production is in excellent hands and worthy of a second glance.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Walking Among My Yesterdays... "Carousel"

I was first exposed to Carousel through its 1956 film adaptation back in middle school. I was on a major Rodgers and Hammerstein kick from having seen the special Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies, a two hour retrospective on A&E hosted by Shirley Jones. I liked the film well enough, but truth be told I've only seen it once in the last ten years since I did the show at my high school. Reading the stage libretto and hearing the entire stage score and orchestrations throughout the rehearsal and performance periods, I realized that the show was darker, more substantial and ultimately more effective in its stage incarnation.

We felt inordinately proud of our production. As a cast we were very much aware of the show's legacy and the difficulties in performing the material (especially in a high school setting). It marked the second time I ever appeared onstage in a musical. I was a sailor in the first act and Enoch Snow, Jr in the second. Even though I had really wanted to be Enoch Sr. (I sang "Geraniums in the Winder" for my audition... anyone? anyone?), I took a great deal of pride in what I did onstage in this show. It was the one and only time I completely costumed my own character, without any assistance (borrowing heavily from my father's wardrobe).

It was quite possibly the most fun I ever had rehearsing a show. I had previously worked on a production of Funny Girl where I played about nine different characters in the course of the evening, with multiple quick changes. However, playing in the ensemble of Carousel was much more rewarding. I've always enjoyed the chance to get my legit on, and the score provides so many opportunities (and it was the first time I ever hit a tenor A in my life) and had the chance to do some physical comedy (as Enoch Jr).

Even after performing the show, I had never seen Carousel from an audience perspective. So I pounced on the news that there would be a concert at Carnegie Hall starring Hugh Jackman in his New York musical theater debut. The concert was months and months away, almost a year if I recall it correctly, so I kept on the lookout for ticket information. When it came time for tickets to go on sale, I set my alarm and spent about an hour on the phone getting busy signals from the Carnegie Hall box office. Eventually I got through and got the seats. The concert was June 6, 2002 and it also be my first time inside the legendary venue.

The day of the concert, I got up and the skies were cloudy and threatening. As soon as I left the house, a downpour like none other started to fall and didn't let up until the next day. Two high school friends (also in the show, one was our Nettie, the other our Heavenly Friend) went with me and we enjoyed an adventurous - if wet - day in Manhattan. I stopped at the Virgin Megastore, as per my old custom, and picked up a few cast recordings. We then dined at the TGIFridays in Times Square before we made the trek up to Carnegie Hall.

Now if we had been functioning like real adults instead of fresh-faced college kids, we would have taken the subway and/or been fully prepared for the inclement weather. But no, so we walked and walked in the rain - and in what was a first, I walked directly into the side of a moving cab. Amazingly enough, I wasn't hurt. But oh, did we laugh.

Settling into our seats, the house was buzz with excitement. Carousel was last seen in NY in the acclaimed Tony-winning 1994 revival at Lincoln Center. The cast they had gathered together with Jackman was nothing short of exceptional. Audra McDonald, who won her first Tony as Carrie in the previous revival, was graduating into the role of Julie. Lauren Ward was Carrie, Jason Danieley was Enoch, Norbert Leo Butz was Jigger, Judy Kaye played Nettie. But it didn't stop there: Blythe Danner was Mrs. Mullin, Philip Bosco was the Starkeeper and original Billy Bigelow John Raitt made a brief appearance to introduce the concert; his entrance brought down the house with a lengthy ovation.

Directed by Walter Bobbie, the conceit of the evening was to really showcase the music and lyrics of Richard Rodgers, as well as the orchestrations of Don Walker and dance arrangements of the brilliant Trude Rittmann. Bobbie and John Weidman adapted the book for concert, similar to Encores, only it was even more spare in terms of scenery and costume than anything you find at City Center. There was absolutely no scenery, and very subtle but effective costume coordination by John Lee Beatty. Leonard Slatkin directed the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the principals were assisted by the Concert Chorale of New York.

I doubt you could ask for more perfect casting, particularly in the two leads. With McDonald and Jackman, the chemistry was palpable and the famed bench scene was not only superbly sung and acted, it was also incredibly sexy. When the two kissed at the end of it, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. McDonald's crystalline soprano was perfect for Julie, with heavenly renditions of "If I Loved You" and "What's the Use of Wond'rin'." The two leads were ably supported by the others, particularly Kaye, who was and is ideal casting as Cousin Nettie, who brought a great sense of fun to "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and a stirring warmth to "You'll Never Walk Alone."

The evening, though, belonged to Jackman. He was more than ideal, and was probably as close to perfection as one could get for the part. At the time, he was only starting to make a name for himself in Hollywood but had previously scored raves for his portrayal of Curly in Susan Stroman and Trevor Nunn's West End reincarnation of Oklahoma!

His "Soliloquy" was so impassioned, so thrilling, it brought sporadic bursts of applause mid-song. A year and a half later he would carry The Boy From Oz in one of the great male star turns in recent memory. But his Tony-winning performance as Peter Allen pales in comparison. He sang the role with gusto, and delved deeply into Billy's psychology, giving a performance that was ready for a Broadway opening. There was talk of him starring in a second film version of the property. I don't know if that is still in the cards, but it would be wondrous to have the star revisit the property, especially for those who weren't lucky enough to be there that night. It was one of the greatest musical theatre performances I've ever seen in my life.

The finale brought the sold out house at Carnegie Hall to its feet almost instantly, in a warm ovation. That ovation increased as Mr. Raitt returned to the stage where he proceeded to embrace Jackman, in a spontaneous display of mutual admiration. Though Mr. Raitt didn't sing a note that evening, just his mere presence made the evening that more perfect. I don't know for certain but I believe it was one of his last public appearances in NY.

My friends and I hoped that there would be a recording of the evening, and were so generous in starting applause that we wondered if we'd be able to hear ourselves if there was one. But unfortunately, the powers that be hadn't the foresight to consider such an enterprise. Three years later when the powers-that-be put together the South Pacific concert, they made it available on CD and DVD and even aired the presentation on PBS. I'd like to think this was in part to missing the boat the first time around. For as much fun as that South Pacific concert was - it wasn't nearly as special nor as memorable as Carousel.

Numerous albums of Carousel have been made throughout the years, but there is no complete recording of the score, in its original orchestration and with all of Trude Rittman's brilliant dance arrangements intact. Even when we performed the show, the musical directors made some splices and edits within the dance music of the score: which includes a rarely performed "Hornpipe" for the sailors in the first act, as well as the famed twelve minute ballet in the second. There have been recordings of South Pacific, The King and I and even the recent studio recording of Allegro which give us the score in its entirety. I would like to think that Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest score might be given its due sooner rather than later.

The rain was still coming down in torrents when we left Carnegie. We had even considered stagedooring it (with mostly soccer moms in attendance, a precursor to what was to come during his Broadway runs), but we were informed by one of the stage door attendants that the cast was going to be sitting down to dinner before emerging. We decided the show had already been enough and walked through the rain all the way down to Grand Central (why none us thought about taking the subway or a taxi, I'll never know) but we maintain great memories of that experience, and I for one couldn't get that score of my head for days, as I nursed my inevitable cold. But dammit, it was worth it!