When My One and Only had its out-of-town tryout in Boston back in 1983, word got around town rather quickly that the show wasn't working. Avant-garde opera director Peter Sellars was originally hired to helm the show, but the result was, by all accounts, a pretentious mess. What's more, star Tommy Tune wasn't happy with Sellars' vision of a Brechtian satire, preferring something more light and entertaining. So Sellars was fired just days before the show was set to open in Boston, and librettist Peter Stone and director Mike Nichols came in to doctor the show.
The producers were going to close the show down, but Stone and Nichols asked for ten days to rewrite. Meanwhile, the cast continued to perform the show, while it was under revision, to a somewhat confused Boston audience. At one point, act one had been completely rewritten, but they were still performing the show with the original second act, and the two bore little if any relation to each other. Tommy Tune famously came out at the end of each of these transitional performances and make a curtain speech to the effect of, "Yeah, we know it's confusing, but, hey, wasn't the dancing great?" I paraphrase, of course.
My One and Only made it to Broadway and played a respectable 767 performances, or a little less than two years. Not a smash-hit run, to be sure, but certainly more than anyone in one of those in-between (not to mention full-price) Boston performances might have predicted. The show won Tony Awards for best actor (Tune himself), best featured actor (Charles "Honi" Coles), and best choreography (Tune and Thommie Walsh).
Alas, I did not get to see My One and Only during its now-legendary Boston tryout. I was but a poor college student, and the horrific word-of-mouth was more than enough to keep me away. Opportunities to see the show since its Broadway run have been few, but fortunately our good friends at The Goodspeed Opera House saw fit to dust the show off and give it a good airing.
My One and Only was a prime example of a "songbook" show, what we would now call "jukebox" musical. Although when you're discussing the like of George Gerswhin and Ira Gershwin, somehow "songbook" seems more respectful, but also historically accurate, since the term "jukebox" didn't really kick in until the 1940s. Whenever I discuss the Gershwins in my musical-theater history course, I usually ask students to name the show that certain Gershwin songs were from. They're rarely able to do so, although to be fair, I'm not so sure I'd do so well myself. And why? Because the songs are more important the the shows.
In the 1920s, musicals weren't written to stand the test of time, and they didn't, for the most part. They were meant to play for a few months, make a profit, and maybe produce a few hit songs. Funny Face certainly produced its share of hits, four of which are included in My One and Only, including "He Loves and She Loves," "S Wonderful," and the respective title songs for each show. The creators of My One and Only also interpolated other Gershwin songs, including "How Long Has This Been Going On?," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and "Kickin' the Clouds Away."
The resulting show, at least based on the Goodspeed production, clearly reflects the hurried nature of the show's construction. Peter Stone was one of the most successful and admired librettists musical theater has ever had, but here his work shows the strain of trying to shape the book around an existing set of songs and characters. The people here become mere tropes - a Lindbergh-like flyboy, a female English-Channel swimmer, a Russian impresario, a foul-mouthed female mechanic - which I guess is pretty faithful to how they would have been portrayed in an actual Gershwin musical, but I would have preferred something a bit more nuanced and three-dimensional. But, hey, great songs, huh?
The Goodspeed production is rather complex technically, with multiple set pieces flying in and out, and elaborate digital projections, but the overall visual feel of the show was washed out and diffuse. Fortunately the production has two major assets: Tony Yazbek in the Tommy Tune role and choreographer Kelli Barclay. Yazbek, whom I have seen in numerous productions, including A Chorus Line, Gypsy, and On the Town, is quite simply the consummate performer. He's an incredibly agile dancer and a fine singer, but he also brings a very credible and appealing quality to the characters that he plays. It certainly doesn't hurt the he's easy on the eyes, but fortunately this man has the talent to back up his looks.
Barclay's work here features some of the most raucous and joyous dance currently appearing on the eastern seaboard. When Yazbek is on-stage, particularly in combination with Barclay's energetic and plentiful tap choreography, the show is a joy. When the book kicks in, it tends to grind to a halt. The finale in particular is quite an uplifting and joyous affair, in which Barclay pays tribute to the original choreography (thankfully preserved on the Broadway's Lost Treasures DVD), but Barclay thankfully provides her own individual touches.
My One and Only runs until June 25th at the Goodspeed. If you want to see one of the best performers currently working execute some of the best dance you're likely too see all summer, you might want to head on down to East Haddam, CT.