So, the new semester at The Boston Conservatory has officially begun. Now I get to see how well I'm going to be able to keep up with my posts on About.com, my reviews of the new Broadway and Off-Broadway seasons, and the inevitable mountain of papers to grade. Stay tuned.
Here are my most recent posts for About.com. They've proven very popular on the site, particularly the ones on classic musicals and musicals that changed Broadway. Let me know what you think.
Two of the shows that I cover in some detail in my musical-theater history course are On Your Toes (1936) and On the Town (1944). My students often confuse the two with each other, which is understandable, partly because of the similar titles, but also because each show represents a major step forward in the integration of purposeful dance, albeit in subtly distinct ways.
On Your Toes was a genuine attempt to bring musical-theater dance to center stage. I had an opportunity to see On Your Toes during its recent Encores! revival, and it was clear to me from seeing the show that the integration process still had a long way to go. The show features two major dance interludes. The first, the "Princess Zenobia" ballet, while impressive is fairly tangential to the plot, at least in terms of the Sheherazade-like nature of the ballet's story. And the climactic "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" is only integrated inasmuch as the lead male character, Junior, needs to keep the ballet going to avoid being shot by a gangster in the audience. But the story of the ballet is entirely separate from the plot of the show. Admittedly, the title song features dance that is very integrated, with tappers and ballet dancers squaring off in an expression of the show's central theme: the classical versus the popular.
I also had a chance to see On the Town recently at the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Whereas On Your Toes was a fascinating but creaky relic, On the Town is an exuberant joy. Of course, the right director can make a world of difference in staging a classic show, and the Barrington fortunately has John Rando, who whips up a briskly paced production full of energetic staging, smooth transitions, and neon-bright characterizations. Rando is at a significant advantage here, because On the Town is a much stronger show than On Your Toes, but On the Town is by no means fool-proof, as the last two Broadway revivals have demonstrated.
On the Town was really the first time that dance became the connective tissue that held a show together, which makes perfect sense given that the show started as a 1944 Jerome Robbins ballet called Fancy Free. On the Town features dance interludes in almost every song, and the dance is far more essential to the narrative than the dance in On Your Toes. For example, the "Imaginary Coney Island" ballet not only brings us into the mind of the show's central character, Gabey (we witness his innocence and his romantic longing), it also provides a humorous transition to the final major episode in the plot (Gabey thinks Coney Island is the playground of moneyed sophisticates. We know it ain't.)
The current Barrington production doesn't use the original Jerome Robbins On the Town choreography, as the recent Encores production of On the Town did. Because Robbins was so much a part of making the original On the Town successful, bringing in a new choreographic vision doesn't always work. (Just ask Ron Field, choreographer of the 1971 Broadway revival, and Keith Young/Joey McKneely, who worked on the 1999 revival.) Thankfully, Joshua Bergasse is more than up to the job, and fills the stage with an exhilarating array of imaginative patterns, replete with some genuinely thrilling lifts. Bergasse's only Broadway credits thus far are as a performer, but he really seems to be a choreographer worth watching out for.
Other than the chance to see a seminal show, the main attraction this production of On the Town held for me was the first-rate roster of Broadway performers in the Barrington cast. The sensational Tony Yazbeck returns to the role of Gabey, which he also played at Encores. If anything, he was even more appealing on the smaller Barrington stage. What a voice. What a dancer. What a looker. (Can we please get this amazing guy back on Broadway as soon as humanly possible?) Ably assisting Yazbek are Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as Chip and Ozzie, respectively, both of whom craft memorable, individual characterizations in parts that can easily become indistinct.
Most notable among the supporting cast was Alysha Umphress as Hildy, who puts a strong personal stamp on a role that has a long history of memorable performances from big brassy ladies (including Nancy Walker, Bernadette Peters, and Leslie Kritzer). Umphress was especially impressive in "Come up to My Place," a number whose staging was fast and fresh, without ever detracting from the comic intent of the song. Among the more mature cast members were the priceless Nancy Opel, a scenery-chewing hoot as Madame Dilly, and Tony winner Michael Rupert, who brings his forty-plus years of stage experience and a laser-sharp baritone to the relatively minor part of Pitkin W. Bridgework. (Special shout out to Boston Conservatory sophomore Jane Bernhard, making her Barrington Stage debut in the show's ensemble. Much love, doll.)
On the Town runs at the Barrington Stage through July 13th. If you're planning on going, get your tickets soon. After Ben Brantley's recent rave in the New York Times, sales are likely to be brisk. And rightly so.
The 1920s was a heady and busy time for American musical theater. Musicals were still a relatively new art form, and the rules for creating them were only just emerging. That didn't stop composers, writers and lyricists from pounding out show after show, in numbers that we are unlikely to see again. The 1927 to 1928 season saw 51 new musicals. Of course, most of them were forgettable and have since been forgotten, but one of those shows was Show Boat, which represented a turning point in the pursuit of quality craftsmanship in musical theater.
Also from that record-breaking season was Good News (music by Ray Henderson, lyrics by B.G. "Buddy" DeSylva and Lew Brown, book by DeSylva and Laurence Schwab), another of the few musicals from the 1920s to establish anything close to a lasting legacy. Good News is perhaps the quintessential example of a significant 1920s subgenre: the collegiate romp. (Two other subgenres were the Cinderella story, exemplified by Sunny and Irene, and the bootleg show, best embodied by Oh, Kay.) Good News made playful fun of the fact that colleges in the 1920s were, to a large extent, just four-year country clubs. This was, of course, just an extension of the dissolute, hedonistic lifestyle of the moneyed set in the '20s.
Of the handful of 1920s shows that have survived, few if any are performed in their original form. Even Show Boat has no official version, and seems to get rewritten and revised for every production. For its current production of Good News, the venerable Goodspeed Opera House has enlisted Jeremy Desmon (The Girl in the Frame, Pump Up The Volume) to provide a revised libretto, and the result is fizzy and fun, if at times anachronistic, at least with respect to conversational idiom. Desmon adds some snappy touches of his own, while on the whole staying true to the feel of the '20s musical: frothy and frivolous.
Good News relates the classic tale of the college quarterback who needs to pass an important astronomy exam so that he can lead his team to victory in the big game on Saturday. Local female brainiac agrees to tutor the quarterback, and the two predictably fall in love. (The 1947 film "Good News" maintains this basic plot, but is considerably rewritten.)
The original score to Good News included the hit songs "The Varsity Drag" and "The Best Things in Life Are Free." As often happens with revivals of shows from this period, the Goodspeed production includes interpolations from the rest of the Henderson/DeSylva/Brown songbook, including "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," "Button Up Your Overcoat," "You're the Cream in My Coffee" and "Keep Your Sunny Side Up." The reason it's so easy to do this is that songs from the period weren't necessarily written to be contextual within the framework of a show. They were written to be hits, and the above-listed songs without question became hits.
The Goodspeed production is directed and choreographed by Vince Pesce, and Pesce's joyous dance is one of the highlights of the show. The numbers are brisk, varied, and lively. Pesce really knows how to dress a stage and create engaging, often charming dance numbers. So, the dance is strong. Would that the same could be said for his direction, particularly in terms of the abundant comedy in the show. Pesce keeps things moving at a fast clip, and the transitions between scenes and numbers were fast and efficient. But somehow that sense of sharpness escapes Pesce when creating comic business for a scene or guiding his cast members toward an effectively timed punchline.
The cast members themselves are almost universally top-notch, including Ross Lekites as quarterback Tom Marlowe and the lovely Chelsea Morgan Stock as braniac Connie Lane. Also worth mentioning are the protean Barry Shafrin as Bobby Randall, the prototypical 98-lb. weakling, and the animated Tessa Faye as Babe O'Day, the campus sexpot. This Good News makes the astronomy professor a female, and even gives her a love interest in the football coach. Beth Glover as the professor and Mark Zimmerman as the coach make for a delightfully humorous and charming older couple.
Good News runs at the Goodspeed through June 22nd. We don't often get the chance to see this show, and even if you're not in the immediate area, it might just be worth the trip. They don't make 'em like that anymore, and yes there are good reasons for that. But every once in a while it's nice to just turn off your mind, turn on your heart, and enjoy a lovingly crafted throwback to a bygone era.
Dear Reader: My humblest apologies for my extended absence from the blogosphere. I've been caught up in teaching, and the semester has really gone into high gear. But one of the things that has been keeping me busy might be of interest to some of you. Here's the director's note from my staged reading this semester. The shows are Thursday April 4th at 8:15 pm and Saturday April 6th at 8 pm. If you're in the Boston area and are interested in attending, drop me a line. --C.C.
is the ninth in a series of staged readings that I launched in the fall of 2009
as part of my course in the history of musical theater at the Boston
Conservatory. The idea behind the series was to expose students to historically
significant but underperformed musicals as part of their overall introduction
to, and immersion in, the musical-theater form. In the past four years, we’ve
covered a wide range of important yet forgotten musicals, and along the way the
students have been able to roll up their sleeves and delve into the respective
genres that the shows represent.
are the shows from the series so far:Little Johnny Jones, Very Good Eddie, As Thousands Cheer, Allegro, Bloomer Girl, The Cradle Will Rock, Something for the Boys, A Connecticut Yankee, and now Sunny.
we performed A Connecticut Yankee in
the fall, which gave us a glimpse of Rodgers before Hammerstein, I wanted to do
something in the spring that represented Hammerstein before Rodgers. And I knew
that the best show to do that would be Sunny
(1925), Hammerstein’s first
collaboration with composer Jerome Kern, shortly before they would work
together on the ground-breaking show, Show
Boat (1927). Beyond that historic match-up of talent, Sunny also represents a significant subgenre of 1920s musical
comedy: the rags-to-riches Cinderella story.
Sunny cameto Broadway in 1925, a
time when musicals were fast, fun, and forgettable. Creators usually only labored
on these shows for a few months, and were frequently working on more than one
show at the same time. The economics of the time allowed for producers to make
a profit with as few as 100 performances, and then shows would close and make
way for the next disposable musical.
Sunny ran for 507 performances, which is astonishing, at least based on the
criteria of the day. But then, the show pretty much disappeared like most every
other musical from the 1920s, with the exception of Show Boat, Good News, and
No, No, Nanette. And even these shows
have only survivedafter major and
era of frivolous, frothy, ephemeral musicals was undeniably fun while it lasted,
particularly for fans of madcap comedy and high-toned operetta. The same week
that Sunny opened in New York,
Broadway also saw the debuts of the aforementioned No, No, Nanette , Rodgers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy, and Rudolph Friml’s The Vagabond King. These shows joined the already-running Rose-Marie
(Friml, Hammerstein), The Student Prince
(Romberg), The Cocoanuts (Irving
Berlin, writing for The Marx Brothers) and Tip-Toes
Sunny itself represents a case study of sorts that
illuminates how the typical show was cobbled together at the time. Frequently
the shows were cast before they were written, and each of the stars would typically
have his or her demands, putting the writers in the awkward position of trying
to accommodate everybody and still have a workable show.
example, the star of Sunny was the
radiant Marilyn Miller, a major stage star at the time, and a favorite of
Florenz Ziegfeld. Miller had scored a triumph five years earlier with Jerome
Kern’s Sally (1920), and had since
become Broadway’s little darling. Legend
has it that, after Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein played the score to Sunny for Miller, she replied, “Never
mind that, honey, when do I get to do my tap specialty?” (Miller’s dance
numbers were choreographed by a young vaudeville and stage performer named Fred
Astaire. Whatever happened to him?)
contract also called for her to appear in jodhpurs (aka riding pants) at some
point in the show, even before anyone involved knew what the show was going to
be about. Why? Because Miller thought she looked rather fetching in a riding
habit. The authors obliged by inserting a fun but gratuitous fox-hunt scene,
although admittedly the scene does bring about the show’s denouement.
more ridiculous, another performer in Sunny,Cliff Edwards (who many of you may know as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt
Disney’s “Pinocchio”) had a codicil in his contract guaranteeing that he would
be alone on-stage between 10:00 and 10:15 p.m. performing his ukulele
specialty. (In vaudeville, Edwards was also known as “Ukulele Ike.”) So, in the
middle of act two, apropos of nothing whatsoever, Edwards would come on stage
and sing “Paddlin’ Madeline Home,” which was written by Harry W. Woods rather
than the Sunny team. When Edwards
left the show, his bit was replaced by a harmonica specialty with Borrah
Somehow, the Sunny creators were able to fit everything together in workable,
although uninspired, plot: an English circus performer, Sunny, encounters two
American soldiers whom she befriended when she was entraining during World War
I. She has fallen in love with Tom, one of the soldiers, so she stows away on the
ocean liner that Tom and his friends are taking back home to America. When
Sunny gets caught as a stowaway, she marries Tom’s best friend Jim for American
citizenship so she won’t be deported.
And havoc ensues, as they say. In the
American version of the show, Sunny divorces Jim and ends up with Tom at the
end of the show. In other productions, she and Jim decide to stay with each
other. (Which ending will we see tonight, I wonder…)
Sunny’s greatest and lasting significance lies in having
brought about the first collaboration of Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern. What’s
more, the experienced Otto Harbach acted as a mentor to the fledgling
Hammerstein, setting the standard for mentorship that Hammerstein would
famously continue with Stephen Sondheim. In fact, Hammerstein became more than
just a mentor to Sondheim. He became a sort of surrogate father. Sondheim would
then continue the cycle with Jonathan Larsen, Jason Robert Brown and others. In
a way, we have Otto Harbach to thank for setting this vital mentorship cycle
Kern and Hammerstein would continue to
collaborate together over the years, both on full-scale Broadway productions (Sweet Adeline, The Cat and The Fiddle, Music in the Air, Very Warm for May) as
well as songs for Hollywood and the hit parade (“I Won’t Dance,” “The Last Time
I Saw Paris,” etc.).
Hearing the lyrics to the songs for Sunny, one gets the impression of a very
promising but still developing young lyricist in Oscar Hammerstein. (Of course,
Harbach and Hammerstein collaborated on the lyrics, so it’s difficult to
discern which words belong to which man.) Some of the songs feature scansion
that is slightly off. The song “D’Ye Love Me” contains a line that goes “Do you
promise to love me always?” with the emphasis on the second syllable of “always.”
(Actually the original lyric features the archaic word “alway,” which we have
changed here for the sake of clarity.)
Similarly, in “When We Get Our Divorce,”
the lyric includes the phrase “interlocutory decree” (which is simply a
temporary judgment from a court of law). The rhythm of the music has the singer
stressing the word as “in-TER-low-cue-TOR-ee,” whereas the actual pronunciation
would be more likely to be “in-ter-LOC-you-tor-ee.” There, is however, a rather
clever trick rhyme in the song, paring “testify” with “best if I,” which together with the above produces a
portrait of an ambitious artist trying new things and finding his feet in the
form that he would eventually revolutionize.
Yet, despite its flaws, Sunny is a delight. It’s all a bit silly,
but it’s really rather fun. The show also contains some of Jerome Kern’s
sprightly yet forgotten tunes, and gives us a glimpse not merely into the
carefree, madcap lifestyle of the 1920s, but also into the way in which that
lifestyle was reflected in the musicals of the time. We can also witness one of
the masters of the form cutting his teeth and moving towards a brand of musical
theater that would bring the form from mere entertainment to actual art.
In the 1920s, neither the fizzy musical
comedies nor the foppish operettas had succeeded in providing relevant, credible
drama beyond the admittedly appealing attributes of each genre. It would take
Oscar Hammerstein, a man who had received his apprenticeship in both musical
comedy and operetta, to fuse the two together and thereby create the modern,
integrated musical play.
Gee, you folks really like lists, don't you? Well, I'm more than happy to comply.
I recently posted this semester's list of the "most overrated" musicals, as selected and defended by my current crop of students in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory. Many of you commented on the selections -- some agog, some aghast -- and said that you were looking forward to their selections of the "most underrated" musicals.
As promised, here we go, with the usual caveats. Students typically discuss their choices with me before they sit down to write, and I try to steer them toward shows that lend themselves to the "underrated" treatment, and away from the shows that don't work as well. So the following list is decidedly unscientific, and heavily influenced by yours truly.
Why is it that some shows work for this paper and some don't? Well, essentially, I use this paper to give the students an opportunity to start spotting and analyzing the various innovations, techniques, devices, and other signs of a quality musical that we're exploring in the course. Of course, most of these innovations spring from our discussions of Rodgers and Hammerstein. (e.g. integrated songs, dramatically purposeful dance, extended musical scenes/sequences, effective character arcs, uses of leitmotif and the dramatic reprise, etc.) So shows that don't adhere to the R&H revolution (Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys), or shows that come later in the historical sequence and deliberately subvert the innovations (Chicago, Cabaret, Movin' Out, Contact, The Drowsy Chaperone) are much harder for the students to defend, at least at this point in the course.
That said, here are the shows that received multiple "votes":
So, what exactly do we mean here by "underrated"? Well, essentially, there are two broad categories of underrated shows: hidden gems that don't get the attention they deserve, and big blockbusters that frequently get dismissed as being too frothy, too spectacular, too...well...popular.
Ergo, Wicked, clearly this year's winner, and by quite a hefty margin. I'm sure the fact that I consider Wicked underrated myself frees my students up to express their affection for the show, an affection that is often met with derision from their peers. I frequently receive comments on my own list of the most underrated musicals, particular as to how I could possibly consider Wicked to be underrated. The comments are sometimes impolitely incredulous. "Wicked!? UNDERRATED?! [scoff] How could you possibly consider Wicked underrated!? [sneer] It's, like, the most overrated show, like, EVER!!" (Actually, I should probably add some more egregiously capitalized words here, and maybe a dozen more exclamation points, but you get the point.)
Well, when I say that Wicked is underrated, I mean exactly that. And I think the intensity of the incredulity of some of my commenters only serves to reinforce the notion that people don't give Wicked enough credit for being more than just entertaining. It's also smart. The characters are complex. Glinda and Fiyero claim to be shallow, at least at first, but Stephen Schwartz gives them complex rhymes and clever wordplay to make their eventual evolutions more credible. "Don't be offended by my frank analysis/Think of it as personality dialysis/Now that I've offered to become a pal, a sis-ter and adviser, there's nobody wiser."
Schwartz also makes liberal use of leitmotif ("Unlimited...", "I'm limited...") and includes a really effective dramatically purposeful reprise. In fact, I include the following paragraph in the directions for the underrated paper to give the students a sense of what I'm looking for:
Wicked has a number of clever musical devices that help audience members understand what the characters are feeling. One particularly effective device is the use of the dramatic reprise. In the first act, Elphaba sings a song called “I’m Not That Girl,” in which she laments that she could never gain the hand of Fiyero, the show’s main male love interest. Elphaba sings, “Don't dream too far. Don't lose sight of who you are. Don't remember that rush of joy. He could be that boy, but I'm not that girl.” Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz paints a heartbreaking picture with just a few lines, nicely evoking Elphaba’s loneliness and resignation. But the real payoff comes later, when Glinda sings a reprise of “I’m Not That Girl.” The simple device of using the same song but switching characters deftly demonstrates not only that the tables have turned for Elphaba, but for Glinda as well. Glinda sings almost the exact same refrain as Elphaba, and the reprise is only four lines long, but it nonetheless conveys both Glinda’s loss and Elphaba’s gain.
What's more, Wicked is a terrific example of a show that people can enjoy on multiple levels. If you're just looking for spectacle and screlting, the show has both in abundant supply. But if you're willing to take a closer look at the underlying message of the show, it's actually fairly savvy when it comes to social commentary. Take, for example, the sly political reference in "Popular":
Celebrated heads of state,
Or even great communicators.
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don't make me laugh.
They were popular.
Please, it's all about popular.
It's not about aptitude,
It's the way you're viewed.
So it's very shrewd to be
Very, very popular, like me.
And who was the great communicator? Why, Ronald Reagan, of course. The idiot who ruled our country for eight years, not because he was bright ("Not just because you're bright..."), but rather because he was charming and had a way of saying genuinely horrendous things in a way that was palatable to far too many people in this country. ("Romney...cough, cough...Romney...")
Is Wicked a masterpiece? Hardly. I've never really been a fan of the bland power ballad that is "As Long As You're Mine." And there are a few minor songs that don't really serve much more purpose that they would if they were simply turned into dialog. ("A Sentimental Man" and "Something Ba-a-a-a-ad") But, overall, I'm genuinely thrilled that Wicked has become the seemingly unstoppable blockbuster that it is. Think of all the kids that get turned on by musical theater because of Wicked. I'd rather see them swoon over Wicked than The Lion King, Mary Poppins, or [shudder] Spider-Man.
But, then, the current list of underrated musicals doesn't completely conform to my personal preferences. I'm not really much of a fan of In the Heights, although it has its heart in the right place and contains many elements of genuine quality. [SPOILER ALERT] I just can't quite get past the deus ex machina plot resolution. Everything works out just fine because someone wins the lottery? Really? That's the message we're giving out to people seeking upward mobility? Play the lottery? Haven't lotteries done enough damage? Preying on the poor with false hope, exhorting them to divert huge portions of their income based on infinitesimal odds? How about making the plot resolution based on someone making a decision to effect a major change in his or her life through personal initiative?
But enough of my tirades and encomiums. What do you think of this year's list, dear reader? Surprises? Omissions? I'm all ears. (Unless you use all caps and/or exclamation points. In which case, my ears shut down.)
Dear Reader: As part of my course on the history of musical theater at the Boston Conservatory, I'm currently directing a staged reading of the Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee. What follows is my director's note from the show's program. The performances are this Friday, October 12th and Saturday, October 13th, both at 8 pm. If you're in the Boston area and would like to attend, call 617-912-9222 for reservations. Admission is free, but seating is limited, so reservations are recommended. --C.C.
When the Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee first appeared in New York City in 1927, the production ran a thoroughly respectable 421 performances. The economics of putting on musicals in the 1920s allowed shows to make a profit in as little as 100 performances, so this was more than enough of a run for the show to be considered successful. However, when A Connecticut Yankee was revived in 1943, the production was only able to eke out 135 performances, this despite two new Rodgers and Hart songs: “Can’t You Do a Friend a Favor?” and “To Keep My Love Alive.”
Why was the reception for the revival so much less welcoming? It helps to recall that Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat made its maiden voyage in 1927, and that 1943 heralded the arrival of Oklahoma!, the iconic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. In 1927, A Connecticut Yankee reflected the typical show on Broadway at the time: flippant, frothy, forgettable, but nonetheless fun. Show Boat would, of course, change the course of musical theater, but it would take a good sixteen years for the innovations to fully take hold. By 1943, A Connecticut Yankee was a bit of a dinosaur, a fact made all the more apparent by Oklahoma! and the arrival of the fully integrated musical.
The irony here, of course, is that Richard Rodgers would be largely responsible for making the shows that he created with Lorenz Hart, including A Connecticut Yankee, a thing of the past. When Rodgers changed writing partners, from Hart to Hammerstein, he became part of the single most important partnership in musical-theater history, one that would reinvent the form and lay the foundation for the innovations of the future.
A Connecticut Yankee has since pretty much disappeared from the theatrical landscape, apart from a television production in the 1950s and a 2001 concert staging as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. On the one hand, it’s a shame: the score represents Richard Rodgers at his most hummably melodic, Larry Hart at his most playfully inventive, and librettist Herbert Fields at his quip-master best.
But the show’s disappearance also makes perfect sense: the book is overly jokey, the songs are only partially integrated into the story, and the script contains numerous references to “specialties,” which in this case were essentially stand-alone dances that were intended to showcase particular performers, not further the plot.
The three men who created A Connecticut Yankee all grew up in the same part of New York City, within blocks of each other, in fact. Hart and Fields were slightly older than Rodgers, but they all went to the same summer camps, where they got their first experience at putting on stage shows and writing songs. Fields, of course, was the brother of now-famed lyricist Dorothy Fields, but he was also the son of Lew Fields, a hugely successful vaudeville performer, comedian, and eventually theater manager and producer. The elder Fields would become instrumental in providing opportunities for the three young men to get their work on stage.
Very early in their association together, the trio had the idea to turn Mark Twain’s satirical novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court into a musical. In fact, the Twain estate gave them the rights free of charge, if only for a year. It would take them years to actually write the show, and by that time they were already established writers and had to pay a premium for the stage rights to the novel.
In the 1920s, the songs for musicals were very often crafted not so much to serve a dramatic purpose as to become hits. A Connecticut Yankee certainly had its share of hits, including “Thou Swell” and “My Heart Stood Still.” The latter song has quite an interesting backstory, although the story of the song’s genesis is possibly apocryphal. The story goes that Rodgers and Hart were working in London and took a side trip to Paris. During a cab ride through the city, the taxi they were riding in was nearly involved in an accident. One of the young women who were riding with them apparently remarked, “Oh, my heart stood still!” Inspiration struck, and – voilà – a hit song.
What was definitely true is that Rodgers and Hart originally wrote “My Heart Stood Still” for London theater impresario C. B. Cochran, who was sort of the British counterpart to America’s Florenz Ziegfeld. Cochran included the song in his London Pavilion Revue in 1927. When Edward, the Prince of Wales (the same Edward who would later become King Edward VII, only to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson), attended the show, he became an immediate fan of the song, and it went on to become a huge hit in Britain.
In fact, at one point, the legendary Beatrice Lillie wanted to include “My Heart Stood Still” in one of her stage shows. Both Rodgers and Hart felt that Lillie’s ironic performance style would be all wrong for the decidedly un-ironic song, so they claimed that they needed the song for the show that they were currently working on, which happened to be A Connecticut Yankee. However, in order to prevent Lillie from performing their song, they needed to purchase the rights back from C. B. Cochran, which set them back a reported $10,000 (roughly $127,000 in 2012 dollars).
The fact that Rodgers and Hart could take a song that was written for an entirely different production and insert it into A Connecticut Yankee is a fairly strong indication of how marginally integrated most of the songs in the show are. To be fair, this was 1927, and very few musical-theater practitioners were concerned about integration. (Show Boat and Oklahoma!, would change that.) And there are some genuine, albeit fledgling, attempts at integration in A Connecticut Yankee, including the show’s opening sequence, the opening of act 2, as well as a sequence introducing the audience to the court at Camelot.
But most of the remaining numbers in the show are virtually interchangeable. The secondary characters of Sir Galahad and Evelyn, his love interest, sing two songs that bear scant relation to the rest of the goings on in the show: “I Feel at Home With You” and “On a Desert Island With Thee,” although the latter gets points for at least throwing the idiomatic “thee” into the title. In fact, both numbers – and, indeed both characters – were excised from the 1955 television production of the show, without much effect to the plot.
One admittedly integrated song in the show’s score is “Thou Swell,” although the lyric is so dense it can be difficult to understand the song upon first hearing. When Hart was on his game, there were few lyricists who could surpass him in terms of verbal inventiveness (e.g. “I Wish I Were in Love Again” from Babes in Arms) and heartfelt simplicity (e.g. “My Funny Valentine” also from Babes in Arms). But Hart also displayed a strong tendency to write lyrics that were overly clever, calling attention to the wit of the lyricist rather than the plight of the character singing the song.
“Thou Swell” is arguably one of those songs. When A Connecticut Yankee was in production in 1927, many of those working on the show felt that the song’s lyric was perhaps a bit too dense and that the show might benefit from a new song in its place. But the song stayed, the audience response was very positive, and “Thou Swell” eventually made its way into the Great American Songbook, although this could be more due to Rodgers’ jaunty melody that Hart’s impenetrable lyric.
As for the Rodgers and Hart partnership, it was decidedly on the wane in 1943. In fact, while Rodgers and Hart were writing new songs for the revival of A Connecticut Yankee, Rodgers was also working with Oscar Hammerstein on Oklahoma!, the first of 9 stage shows the duo create together. Hart passed on Oklahoma!, reportedly because the rural setting didn’t really suit his writing style, but also because his famously dissolute lifestyle, including a significant dependency on and abuse of alcohol, was catching up with him. The last lyric Hart wrote was that of A Connecticut Yankee’s “To Keep My Love Alive,” a scathingly comic list song that represents Hart at his most clever, playful, and deeply sardonic.
I love the fall. I've always been the type of nerd who couldn't wait to get back to school. And now that I teach full-time, that nerd-liness continues unabated.
Of course, one of the things that I look forward to the most is teaching my musical-theater history course, and this year I had something extra exciting to look forward to. For this academic year, my course is two-semesters long. Previously, it was only one semester for my freshmen sections, although last year I did get a chance to teach two semesters to the grad students for the first time.
And more students means more work, naturally, but for you, dear reader, it also means more robust lists. Every year, I start my course by asking students to write down the three best musicals of all time. We then make a list on the board of the shows that people have voted for, and then we start a discussion about what makes good shows good.
This year, I had 75 students in total voting, and here are their choices, as well as the number of students who chose that show as one of their top three:
West Side Story 25 Les Miserables 20 Ragtime 15 Into the Woods 14 Oklahoma 12 Hair 9 The Phantom of the Opera 8 Sweeney Todd 8 Rent 5 South Pacific 5 A Chorus Line 4 Carousel 4 In the Heights 4 My Fair Lady 4 Next to Normal 4 Singin' in the Rain 4 Spring Awakening 4 Sunday in the Park with George 4 Wicked 4 Anything Goes 3 The Light in the Piazza 3 The Music Man 3 Once 3 Parade 3 Porgy and Bess 3 Show Boat 3 The Sound of Music 3 Aida 2 Cabaret 2 Chicago 2 Gypsy 2 Hairspray 2 Kiss Me Kate 2 The Lion King 2 Miss Saigon 2
So, what do we see here? Well, as always, the students' choices are partly governed by which shows are currently, or were recently, playing on Broadway and/or touring the country. The presence of West Side Story at the top of the list was no doubt influenced by the national tour, which recently ended its trans-continental traverse. The similarly high ranking of Les Miserables and Into the Woods is likely related to the number of regional and high-school productions of those shows.
Rent is ranking much lower than it has in the past. Not sure what to make of that, other than the fact that more people are getting a chance to see it regionally, and it's possible that the show seems less impressive without professionals performing the vocally challenging score.
Spring Awakening also seems to have slipped in recent years. I'm thinking this is because the show needs a very strong directorial concept to work, and even though the show has been getting a lot of regional play, it's possible that in the absence of a strong director, people are noticing that the show itself isn't really that strong.
Wicked is ranking a lot lower than it has in the past. Perhaps the Future Show Queens of America (FSQA) have finally moved beyond the whole "Wicked is Like the Fiercest Show That Ever Was" (WILFSTEW) stage and started including other shows in their general barometer of fierce-osity. (Don't get me wrong. I love Wicked. But I also love when show queens broaden their horizons beyond Elphaba worship.)
It's wonderful to see Ragtime place so highly on this list. For years, I was concerned that Ragtime would sort of fade from the national consciousness, mostly under the presumption that not many local theaters would put the show on because of the controversial subject matter as well as because of the need for large numbers of African Americans, who traditionally haven't been as involved in community and regional theater. Thankfully, that seems to be changing, which gives more people a chance to see this powerful and challenging show.
So many classic shows placed relatively strongly on this year's list, including a big thumbs-up for Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, including Oklahoma, Carousel and South Pacific. Regular readers will recall my deep and abiding esteem for the first two of these shows, and my relative disdain for the last.
Among the new shows, Next to Normal has been holding fast over the past few semesters. This will likely continue as the show continues to catch on regionally. Regular readers will also recall my ambivalence about Next to Normal: I admire the craft of the show, but have significant problems with its apparent message regarding psychiatry. One lovely new addition to the list is Once, the big winner this year at the Tony Awards -- and rightly so -- and a significant financial success, having recently recouped its investment, and continuing to perform strongly at the box office, even in the traditional post-Labor Day drop-off.
There are always a few oddballs and aberrations on the list each year. Who'd a thunk Gypsy would rank so low? And after the wonderful revival of Follies last season, you'd think the show would get more than one vote, right? Also, why are Singin' in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz even on the list? I guess I should have specified that we would be focusing on stage musicals as opposed to movie musicals. (Sure, both shows have been done on the stage, but never very well, at least IMHO.)
How about you, dear reader? What do you notice in the list year's list? Any surprises, pleasant or otherwise? Any glaring omissions, from where you sit? Any shows included here that warm the cockles of your heart? Do the choices of these FSQAs give you hope for the future, or do they make you wish ever more strongly for a musical-theater time machine? Lemme know, m'kay?
One of the great things about getting down to New York City as frequently as I do now is having the opportunity to catch revivals of obscure shows at some of the Off-Broadway non-profit theaters. We really don't get many chances to see Knickerbocker Holiday or Strike Up the Band, so it's a real treat when the York Theatre Company or Musicals Tonight trots one of them out for public airing.
Recently, I was able to see Nymph Errant at the Prospect Theater Company, as well as New Girl in Town at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Although neither production was particularly satisfying, that doesn't detract in the least from the fact that these companies are doing musical-theater fans a tremendous service by bringing these works back to New York City for the first time in 30 years and 50 years, respectively.
Nymph Errant is a Cole Porter show that to date has never played Broadway. It premiered in London in 1933, starring Gertrude Lawrence and featuring choreography by a young Agnes de Mille. The show didn't make it to New York until 1982, and the score wasn't recorded until 1989. The Prospect Theater mounted the production in question in conjunction with the New York Music Theater Festival (Nymph, NYMF - get it?). This production features a new libretto by Rob Urbinati, based on the original by Romney Brent. Most of the songs are from the original show, although there are a few interpolations from Fifty Million Frenchmen ("The Boyfriend Back Home," "Paree, What You Did to Me") and Paris ("Dizzy Baby"), as well as the title number from Red, Hot and Blue.
The plot of Nymph Errant is fairly scandalous, particularly for 1933, and concerns a young English woman who graduates from finishing school in France and, rather than heading home to her fiancé, heads off on a trans-continental trek, looking for opportunities to misbehave. It's clear that Urbinati is aiming for something madcap and deliciously naughty, but many of his jokes have the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the whole affair comes off as alternately grating and tame. The Cole Porter score has some nifty little numbers in it, particularly "You're Too Far Away" and "Experiment," but nothing with the nimble tunefulness for which he would later become rightly celebrated.
The direction and choreography by Will Pomerantz is a bit of a conundrum. Pomerantz makes some seemingly smart choices, including a modular set comprising a series of travel trunks, and a neat device in which the juvenile - played with a charming, knowing smile by Andrew Brewer - seemingly follows his ingenue throughout her travels and travails. But Pomerantz also includes some genuinely inscrutable business, including having the female chorus members strip down to their underclothes after the opening number and playing most of the rest of the show in their scanties. At the end of the show, during the inevitable wedding, the bride and groom take their vows in their underwear as well. As to what this was supposed to mean, I can only speculate. Or rather, I've tried, to no avail.
Despite Urbinati's new book and Pomerantz's directorial concept - or, perhaps, because of them - Nymph Errant never bubbles up into the frothy production that the team no doubt was aiming for. Which left in the lurch a cast of mostly talented performers, including Jennifer Blood as the titular nymph, and Tony-winner Cady Huffman in a variety of roles, not all entirely suited to her charm and talent.
Faring only slightly better on the rediscovered-works front is New Girl in Town at the Irish Repertory Theatre. The show was originally little more than a star vehicle for Gwen Verdon, and an opportunity for Bob Fosse to showcase Verdon in as many show-stopping numbers as possible. (One number, a ballet in which the Verdon character recalls her past as a prostitute, was famously cut by the producers after the number caused a scandal out of town.)
Also, New Girl in Town is a bit of an odd duck, and never really seems to find its central tone. The show is a musical adaptation of Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill. As you can imagine, a musical based on an O'Neill play is unlikely to make for a lighthearted musical comedy. (Although O'Neill's one upbeat work, Ah, Wilderness!, would become Take Me Along a few years after New Girl in Town premiered.) But New Girl in Town, at least in the slightly altered form in which the Irish Rep is performing the piece, doesn't have enough gravitas to really qualify as a musical play, along the lines of Show Boat or Carousel.
Under the direction of Charlotte Moore, this production of New Girl in Town comes off forced. There's not a genuinely believable performance to be found here, although there are certainly some top-notch performers, including Margaret Loesser Robinson as Anna, and Danielle Ferland as Marthy, a role originated by Thelma Ritter. But even Robinson and Ferland come off affected, although flashes of verisimilitude occasionally break though. In the role of Anna's suitor, Patrick Cummings seems especially artificial, though he does come off far better when he's singing. Cummings' Irish accent sounded particularly false, as did the Swedish accent of Cliff Bemis as Anna's father.
On the plus side, the production design (sets by James Morgan, costumes by China Lee, ligfhting by Mary Jo Dondlinger) features some rather effective atmospheric elements, particularly during the scenes at sea. And the score by first-time Broadway composer/lyricist Bob Merrill has tremendous melodic appeal, particularly in the lovely "Did You Close Your Eyes?," which features elements that seem to presage Merrill's finest score, that of Carnival!.
But, again, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Prospect Theater Company and the Irish Rep for giving us a chance to see these historic but mostly forgotten shows. Perversely, they've also given us the opportunity to see why the shows have been forgotten in the first place.
There are those who think, in terms of the innovations that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein brought together to create the undisputed watershed that was Oklahoma, that Carousel was even better. Stronger emotional content. More ambitious and successful integration of scene, song and dance. In general, just an overall better show. I happen to be one of these people.
Does the current Goodspeed production do Carousel justice? Click through here to find out.
But with Crazy for You, My One and Only, and now Nice Work If You Can Get It, I mean, c'mon. We're talking about the frickin' Gershwins here. Is it ever a chore to listen to "Someone to Watch Over Me" or "But Not For Me"? Assuming they're well performed, that is, and well staged. Well, Nice Work If You Can Get It, we thankfully get both.
The show is essentially a reworked version of Oh, Kay!, a 1926 Gershwin musical with a book by "Princess" show collaborators Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. The new book by Joe DiPietro, Tony winner for Memphis, is frequently clever and often uproarious, with lots of vivid characterization along the way. The show's plot reflects the typical "bootleg" show from the 1920s. A trio of bootleggers need to find a place to hide their hooch. They discover that a certain playboy never uses his Long Island mansion, so they hide their stash in the basement. Of course, the playboy shows up with his bride-to-be, and havoc ensues. Along the way, we have lots of mistaken identities and misunderstandings. DiPietro's book may have one or two too many minor characters for the audience to keep track of, but overall he balances all the songs and setups efficiently, if sometimes perfunctorily.
For the most part, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall keeps the pace brisk, although the proceedings begin to sag toward the end of act one. If Marshall's work here is not quite as thrilling as her direction and dance for the current revival of Anything Goes, it is more than serviceable, and occasionally inspired. The show starts off with a sharp and high-spirited version of "Sweet and Lowdown," introducing our playboy character. Later in the show, we get a wonderful example of purposeful dance. In order to keep the authorities from discovering the hidden alcohol in the basement, the playboy character (who's in on the game at this point) and one of the bootleggers start an infectious dance that includes arm movements that push the crowd away from the basement door. The crowd picks up on the movement, becomes distracted by the catchy nature of the dance, and voilà, we have a showstopper that also serves a dramatic function.
Beyond the humorous book and the frequently fresh staging, the other key assets of this production lie in the cast of Broadway pros in both leading and supporting roles. Kelli O'Hara as our lady bootlegger ably demonstrates here why she is one of our go-to leading ladies. She handles the comedy, the ballads, and the dance numbers with remarkable facility. Would that the same could be said for her leading man, Matthew Broderick, who's looking a bit tired of late. Sure, he has a certain languorous charm that could easily be mistaken for apathy. (Or should that be a certain apathy that could be mistaken for languorous charm?) But overall, Broderick's performance here falls somewhere between his endearing nerdiness in The Producers and his phoned-in performance in the TV movie version of The Music Man. Sometimes he's bright and playful, but other times he looks like he'd rather be someplace else.
The supporting cast includes the wonderfully hammy Michael McGrath as one of the bootleggers and the delicious Judy Kaye as a zealous prohibitionist who loosens up considerably and hilariously upon finally sampling the "Demon Rum." Also on hand is the always delightful Jennifer Laura Thompson as the playboy's intended. Thompson's first-act number, "Delishious," is a sinfully enjoyable dose of pure confection.
So, Nice Work has quite a bit going for it, particularly with respect to the cast and those wonderful Gershwin songs. If it all adds up to something that's somewhat less than memorable, at least the show provides a good time while it lasts.
I also caught the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Anything Goes again, which has similarly swapped its leading player, in this case from Sutton Foster to Stephanie J. Block. But whereas H2$ was showing considerable wear, Anything Goes was fresh and crisp and, overall, a non-stop delight. Keeping a long-running production in shape usually falls on the shoulders of the production stage manager. I'm not trying to find fault with whoever is in charge of H2$: I'm sure it's a complicated process, to say the least, trying to rein in the various parties and egos involved. But whatever the cause, and whomever is to blame, H2$ just isn't holding together. Thankfully, Anything Goes is, and I say bravo to whomever is responsible for that.
I genuinely enjoyed this Anything Goes the first time around. (Read my review.) Sutton Foster, of course, was a major asset, as she almost always is, but the show remains a delight even now that she's departed. For me, it all comes down to the sure hand and keen eye of director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who with this production solidifies her place as one of the finest directors and choreographers we currently have, particularly when it comes to interpreting classic works like The Pajama Game and Wonderful Town. (Watch for my upcoming review of Marshall's latest effort, Nice Work If You Can Get It. In short, she's still got it.)
What's remarkable about Marshall is that she has a keen eye not just for dressing a stage, but also for pacing a number. Sure, she can craft thrilling showstoppers like "Blow Gabriel Blow" and the title number, but she can also take "De-Lovely," often a throwaway number, and make it into an absolute highlight by knowing exactly when to bring in the chorus members and bring the number to the next level. She performs similar wizardry on "All Through the Night," opening the number up just when, in another production, the audience's attention might start to flag. (Yeah, I'm kind of a Kathleen Marshall fan. Ya wanna make something of it?)
But, getting back to our How to Succeed/Anything Goes comparison, another aspect the productions share is that they've seen significant turnover among their respective casts. And yet, with H2$, that's a major part of the problem. With Anything Goes, it's a huge component of why the show has stayed fresh. First, let me say what a genuine pleasure it is to see the marvelous Stephanie J. Block finally land in a production worthy of her considerable talents. (The Pirate Queen? Oy. 9 to 5? Double oy.) And she's a joy here: so much personality and individual character. She smartly resists the temptation to copy Sutton Foster in any way and brings her own brand of mischievous enthusiasm to Reno Sweeney.
Original cast member Colin Donnell was delightful as Billy Crocker, and Laura Osnes was thoroughly charming as Hope Harcourt. Thankfully, their replacements are eminently up to the task themselves. Erin Mackey makes for a lovely Hope, expressive and winsome by turns. And Bill English is endearing as Billy, although he's a dead ringer for Colin Donnell, and, I'm not exactly sure why, but somehow that feels like cheating on someone's part. One significant improvement in casting is Robert Petkoff as Sir Evelyn. Yeah, Adam Godley got a Tony nod for the role, but there was something about his stuffiness and gawkish angularity that didn't quite sit with me. Petkoff is playful and disarmingly sexy as Evelyn. It reminded me of when I cover Oklahoma! in my history course, and we talk about how the show works so much better when Jud has a sort of earthy magnetism. Same here: with Petkoff, you can see why Reno would fall for this guy.
Anything Goes is currently set to run until September. The way the show's grosses are headed, it would seem unlikely that the production will see another extension. If you have a chance, I'd say catch the show, even if you already saw it with Sutton Foster. Tastes differ of course, but if my experience is any indication, there's just as much to enjoy here the second time around.
I continue to be amazed by purists who seem to think that any changes to Porgy and Bess represent nothing less than sacrilege. Of course, it started with Stephen Sondheim's now-infamous screed in the New York Times, but it continues with various conversations I've had with people who've seen the show now that it's playing on Broadway. The orchestrations sound thin, they say. Or Norm Lewis is no Todd Duncan, they exclaim.
Well, Todd Duncan, with all due respect, is dead. And any modern production that attempted to use anywhere near the number of instruments that the original production featured wouldn't get past the budgeting stage. It would simply be too expensive. Does that mean we can't do Porgy and Bess ever again, if it can't be like it was? That we relegate George Gershwin's sensational music, Ira Gershwin's intelligent lyrics, and DuBose Heyward's compelling story to the history books?
Sorry to rant here, but this picayune niggling has sort of put a bee in my bonnet. Musical-theater aficionados have come to expect that, whenever we see a present-day production of a historic show, changes are inevitable to make the show work for modern audiences. Why is Porgy and Bess any different from any other show of that time? They all get rewritten, including Show Boat and Pal Joey. Is Porgy and Bess somehow more sacred?
From where I sit -- and where I sat, having seen the current production three times -- this new version of Porgy and Bess breathes thrilling new life into a show that, in the wrong hands, can become a creaky, listless bore. Director Diane Paulus and adapter Suzan-Lori Parks have made the drama more credible, the characters more believable. I saw the show twice at the American Repertory Theatre (read my review), and then once at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, and for me the production, which was splendid to begin with, has become even more teeming with life and emotion.
The performances in particular seem to have become richer and more nuanced as the production has had a chance to solidify. The glorious Audra McDonald is the paramount reason to see this production, and she remains stunning in her emotional intensity. Norm Lewis was out for the particular that I saw in New York, so we got understudy Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy. Well, Stampley can certainly sing the role, but he didn't have much of a presence on-stage. It made me appreciate all the more the understated yet palpable dignity that Norm Lewis brings to the role.
The supporting players appear to have developed a much richer sense of subtext, which was particularly present in the funeral scene and the hurricane segment. I got much more of a sense of the cohesiveness of the ensemble, and the emotional interactions helped these pivotal sequences build to a palpable wave of grief and communal connection. Whereas in Cambridge, I had an intellectual sense of the proceedings, in New York, I felt much more for the profound plight of these people.
There were numerous noticeable changes between the A.R.T. and Broadway versions of Porgy and Bess. The opening moment is staged somewhat differently: in Cambridge, Clara (Nikki Renée Daniels) sang "Summertime" in front of the traveler, but here she sings it as she ambles her way through the rest of the residents of Catfish Row. And this time, she wasn't holding an actual baby in her arms, but rather a theatrical representation (i.e. a doll). That was fine with me: I found the live baby in the Cambridge production to be distracting, particularly with all the cooing verbalizations that my neighboring audience members seemed compelled to share with their companions.
The major physical change in the Broadway Porgy and Bess was the set, by Riccardo Hernandez. In Cambridge, the backdrop portion of Hernandez's set was a curved wooden monolith that titled up in an otherworldly fashion when Crown (Phillip Boykin) made his dramatic reappearance in the midst of the hurricane. His Broadway set was far more literal, and for me less effective, although it did offer the opportunity to see the Catfish Row residents turn out their lights in response to Bess's pleas for sanctuary.
Having already defended the current production of Porgy and Bess, I must admit that not all of the changes were necessarily welcome or effective. Some of Suzan-Lori Parks's new dialog is a bit clunky. At one point, Mariah, the sort-of spiritual mother of the Catfish Row contingent, opens a scene by saying, "Now you girls gotta help me get ready for this here picnic," a line that smacks more of forced exposition than natural dialog. A bit later, she says to Serena, "Now, it's been a month since Robbins (Serena's husband) pass," which again doesn't exactly bear the mark of verisimilitude.
And there are times when the new book seems a tad too efficient. When Crown reemerges for the hurricane scene, it no longer makes sense why he would go back out into the storm to rescue Clara. In the original, he does it to humiliate and taunt Porgy, to show that he's more of a he-man. But in the current version this fails to come through, and we're left to wonder why such a horrible human being would perform such a seemingly selfless act.
One element that remained unfortunately unchanged were the bright, pressed, pastel Sunday clothes that the people of Catfish Row wear to the picnic at the end of Act 1. The garments (by Emilio Sosa) are gorgeous, and make for a rather stunning stage picture, but they seem awfully expensive and fancified for these supposedly indigent people.
But, quibbles aside, the central aspects of this Porgy and Bess work extremely well: the glorious Gershwin score and the sensational cast of top-notch professionals. The best scene in the entire production remains, for me, when Crown reappears at the picnic, and Bess can't seem to resist the pull of desire ("What You Want With Bess?"). Audra McDonald's visceral conjuring of the dueling forces manifesting themselves within Bess ranks among the most harrowing and profoundly moving moments I've ever experienced in theater. And her delirium scene, after Bess stumbles back from Kittiwah Island, hit me like a sucker punch all three times I saw the show.
Due to strong ticket sales, Porgy and Bess has extended the end of its run from July 8th to September 30th. The CD for Porgy and Bess will receive its release from the good folks at PS Classics on May 8th. See the show. Get the CD. And let me know what you think. Are you a purist or a pragmatist? All are certainly welcome, but I think I've made it clear where my own allegience lies.
Seventy years ago when Oklahoma! premieredon the New York stage, it singlehandedly changed musical theater forever. Well, I say “singlehandedly,” but in fact composer Richard Rodgers and librettist/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II didn’t so much innovate as bring the innovations together.
These two gentlemen had worked for decades prior to Oklahoma! to bring dramatic integrity to musical theater, and when they joined up as a team, their work became a culmination of years of experimentation, both in their own work and from the work of others.
Today, however, when some people see Oklahoma!, they often find it quaint, almost hokey, in its seemingly simple tale of a young woman and her momentous decision about who’s going to take her to the box social. People dismiss the show as old-fashioned, the songs as corny, and the creators themselves as hopelessly mired in the picturesque, and consequently of little relevance to our modern sensibilities.
What these people fail to realize is what a genuine revolution Oklahoma! represented to the development of musical theater. All you have to do is look at the typical show of the time – the early 1940s – to see how transformative Oklahoma! truly was.
And that’s why I decided that, as part of the staged-reading series for the musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory, I wanted to do Something for the Boys (1943), which was put together by legendary producer Mike Todd, who was famous for a certain kind of Broadway show. That type of show is perhaps best summarized by the famous quote that is often attributed to Todd (but is very likely apocryphal) when he supposedly walked out on Oklahoma! during the show’s intermission when the show was playing its out-of-town tryout engagement in New Haven:
“No legs, no jokes, no chance.”
This quip, whatever its actual source, pretty much sums up the appeal of most Broadway musicals prior to and concurrent with the run of Oklahoma!. The shows were typically empty-headed star vehicles with plenty of pretty girls and lots of corny topical jokes. The score often comprised a random list of songs usually only partially connected to the proceedings at hand. At the time, Broadway music and American popular music were pretty much synonymous, and show songs were often written not so much for character or context but rather to create hit records. Quite frequently, producers would throw in random novelty acts or include a song just to shine a spotlight on an up-and-coming performer (perhaps someone with whom the producer was romantically involved). Whatever dance occurred in the shows was usually mere decoration.
All of this was true of Something for the Boys, which premiered on Broadway in 1943, a mere two months before Oklahoma! hit the stage. The show had everything that was supposed to make a show a hit, at least at the time: a big-name star (Ethel Merman at the height of her box-office power), a score by one of the biggest names in the business (Cole Porter, almost twenty years into a long and successful career), and a book by two of the most reliable quipsters available at the time, brother and sister Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields. The show also had plenty of opportunities for showing off female pulchritude, and a list of random interpolated “specialty” numbers.
Plus, the show took place on and outside an Army base near San Antonio, and thus tapped into the patriotic impulses of the ticket-buying public. The show even ends with a tribute to our fighting boys:
For we’ll all be doing something for the boys While they’re doing so much for us
So, the show had everything, at least by the standards of musical theater in the early 1940s. And it certainly became a modest hit, running for just about a year, which was more than enough in the day for a show to turn a profit. But then, Something for the Boys just disappeared, as did most of the shows prior to and concurrent with Oklahoma! and its Broadway run. Why?
In a word: integration. At the start of my history course, I write that word on the board and tell students that it will essentially become the theme of the entire course. In the context of musical theater, integration essentially means the extent to which the various elements of a show – musical, lyrics, dance, etc. – serve a dramatic purpose in the larger context of the show. Integrated songs progress the plot, reveal character, or establish time and place, with many elements serving a number of or even all of these functions.
Once the critics and the theater-going public got a taste of Oklahoma! and the integrative possibilities that the show reflected, they became less and less patient with the typical Broadway show that Something for the Boys so aptly represented. So the shows that lasted, the shows that we continue to perform and attend today, are mostly the shows that caught on to the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution.
The plot for Something for the Boys is particularly emblematic of the typical show of its time: three distant cousins jointly inherit a ramshackle Texas ranch. They renovate the house and open it up to servicemen’s wives from the local Army base. A jealous rival insinuates that the place is actually a bordello, so the commanding officer declares the house off limits. All is well at the end when the Blossom Hart, the Ethel Merman character, discovers that she can pick up radio signals through the carborundum in the fillings of her teeth. Yup, her teeth. This creates a classic deus ex machina plot resolution, and all is well with the world.
To hear the score to Something for the Boys by itself, you would have no idea what the story was, which is one of the surest signs of a non-integrated show. My personal favorite in this regard is “By the Mississinewah,” a racially insensitive (by today’s standards) duet in which Blossom and her cousin Chiquita perform a non-contextual number to entertain the troops at a graduation ceremony. Now, admittedly, Rodgers and Hammerstein were certainly capable of including songs in their shows that were there for pure entertainment’s sake. (“Honey Bun” from South Pacificbeing a notable example.)
Don’t get me wrong: the songs for Something for the Boys are terrific, although none of them really became pop standards, as so many of Cole Porter’s other show songs were able to do. But one of the striking things about Something for the Boys is that you could conceivably take all of the songs out of the show, and the story would still work. As musical theater would progress, this would become less and less possible, to the point at which songs and dances have become such an essential part of the story-telling process that we have numerous examples of shows that are all-sung (Les Miserables, Once on This Island) or even all or mostly danced (Movin’ Out, Contact).
Next year, the Boston Conservatory will be putting on a production of Oklahoma!. This production of Something for the Boys is a chance for students and audience members to appreciate that show for the milestone it is.
If you're in the Boston area tonight or tomorrow night, and would like to see Something for the Boys, you can call 617-912-9144 for reservations. The shows are at 8 pm both nights in the Zack Box Theater. Admission is free, and seating is general admission.
Dear Reader: As you may know, I, your humble blogger, teach musical-theater history at The Boston Conservatory. As part of my course, I direct a series of staged readings of historically important but underperformed shows. This weekend, my graduate students are performing The Cradle Will Rock. What follows is an excerpt from the director's note in the show's program. See the poster to the right for performance details. --C.C.
When was the last time a musical made history? The point is no doubt arguable, as there have certainly been many shows over the years that have reflected history and perhaps even influenced the course of human events, as it were.
But to find a show that actually made the history books -- and not just the musical-theater history books -- you'd probably have to go back to 1937 and The Cradle Will Rock. Here's a show that was so angry, so strident, so pointed in its satiric intent that people in high places actually considered it dangerous.
Welles and Houseman, who at the time were in charge of the Federal Theater Project, chose The Cradle Will Rock -- with book music and lyrics by Marc Blitzstein -- for its 1937 season, with Houseman producing and Welles directing. Blitzstein's show is a savage satire of big business, as well as those who were all too willing to sell out to the rich and powerful, and showed no mercy in painting a broad and unflattering portrait of industrialists, the press, the clergy, medical professionals, academics, artists, and the military.
When Blitzstein was working on The Cradle Will Rock, he played the song "Nickel Under the Foot" for friend and mentor Bertolt Brecht. The song is sung by Moll, the prostitute and symbolic heart of the show, and is a heartbreaking lament on the caustic effects of poverty:
And if you're sweet, then you'll grow rotten, Your pretty heart covered over with soot.
The song also decries the actions of the supposedly upstanding people who surround Moll, and the ruthlessness with which they pursue personal gain:
Go stand on someone's neck while you're takin' Cut into somebody's throat as you put. For every dream and scheme's depending on whether All through the storm, you've kept it warm. The nickel under your foot.
Upon hearing the song, Brecht urged Blitzstein to use it as the central conceit of the show: prostitution, only not in the literal but rather the figurative sense. The stunning irony at the heart of The Cradle Will Rock is that the prostitute Moll is one of the only characters who doesn't sell out, who hasn't compromised her values, her talent, her dignity.
The Welles production was apparently going to be rather lavish, which was very in keeping with Welles' more-is-more style of directing, but which irked Blitzstein, who feared that his message might get lost amid the hoopla.
What happened next depends on which side you choose to believe. The political dynamic at the time was not unlike the one we see in Washington today, with Democrats pushing for jobs-creating spending initiatives, and Republicans pushing just as hard for spending cuts. When word came from Washington that The Cradle Will Rock would have to shut down, the official line was that Congress had put a freeze on arts spending. But it's also quite possible that even darker forces were at work: specifically the very wealthy industrialists that Blitzstein was attempting to savage in his piece were placing pressure on the government to shut down a production that might prove very embarrassing for a lot of influential people.
When Houseman, Welles, Blitzstein and the cast showed up to work one day, the theater had been padlocked and armed guards were on duty, supposedly to prevent anyone from absconding with the props and sets, which were technically government property.
Undeterred, the production staff secured another theater and a piano, and marched the entire cast and their ticket-bearing audience 20 blocks north in New York City to put on the show in their new location.
Meanwhile, Actors' Equity, the labor union representing actors, issued a ruling barring anyone from the cast from appearing on stage in this production, possibly as a result of pressure from outside forces. (The irony here is that the show essentially deals with attempts to unionize steelworkers in fictional Steeltown, USA and the powerful forces that attempt to stop the union from forming.)
At first, Blitzstein was going to perform the entire show solo, accompanying himself on the piano; since he wasn't an Equity member, the ruling didn't affect him. But as Blitzstein began to sing through the show, something magical and inspiring started to happen: the actors, one by one, began to sing and perform their parts from the audience, thus both defying the Equity edict and adhering to the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. (After all, no union member was actually appearing "on stage.")
As for the show itself, the score reflects Blitzstein at his most inventive, with haunting dissonant melodies alongside jaunty anxious anthems. Blitzstein was a serious composer who studied with such notable composers as Nadia Boulanger and Arnold Schoenberg. Although many have compared Blitzstein's compositional style to that of Kurt Weill, Blitzstein was openly critical of Weill, as well as other composers whom he felt were compromising their ambition in order to court popularity.
The characters in The Cradle Will Rock might appear to be no more than straw men and women. And, to a large extent, that's true. Blitzstein wasn't interested in portraying fully fledged humans, but rather exaggerated cartoons decrying the venality and hypocrisy that he saw around him. The show does have its tender moments, particularly those involving Moll and the sad druggist she encounters upon her arrest. And the strident, insolent, angry anthem "Joe Worker" ranks among the most powerful and effective songs in musical-theater history.
Given the modern resonance the show has, what with all this talk about the 99%, efforts on the part of certain billionaires to control the media, to influence policy, to create even more privileges for the privileged, it's really quite surprising that the show hasn't received a major New York production in almost 30 years. (Anyone out there care to remedy the situation?)
Care to discover what all the fuss was about back in 1937? Why some people felt that this show was so provocative that it had to be stopped? I'm directing a staged reading of The Cradle Will Rock this weekend at the Boston Conservatory. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 pm in the Zack Box Theater. If you'd like to attend, email me for details.
I hated history in high school. At the time, I thought this was simply because the subject didn't interest me, but I eventually came to understand that it was because my history teachers were somewhat perfunctory and uninspired in the way they presented the subject matter.
In college, I was "forced" to take a full year of world history, and wound up being rather pleasantly surprised by this rather delightful professor who related everything in the course to the art and music of the time periods in question. Want to know what Louis XIV was thinking? Take a look at some baroque architecture or listen to some Bach, he said. Interested in what the mindset was after the French Revolution? Check out a Delacroix painting or The Red and the Black.
As a result of that experience, I firmly believe in teaching history, and musical-theater history in particular, not merely as a series of dates and events, but in terms of the progression of ideas and the cultural, social, and political influences on those ideas. One of the most important themes in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory is the evolution in the portrayal of certain societal subgroups: African Americans, women, and members of the LGBT community. In researching the course syllabus, I was really struck by how many of the shows that I was hoping to cover reflected the changing attitudes toward -- and treatment of -- women, blacks, and gays, and how the shows presented in their way a sort of cultural history of each of those groups.
I was particularly struck when I came across Bloomer Girl, a show that I honestly hadn't really been familiar with prior to researching this course. But as soon as I started reading about the show, I knew I wanted to include it in the course. Bloomer Girl concerns itself with Amelia Bloomer, the inventor, naturally enough, of "bloomers," and her efforts to bring about women's suffrage in particular and women's rights in general. But the show also takes on the parallel struggle to abolish slavery and the workings of the Underground Railroad. Here was a show that addressed, dead on, two of the key themes that were emerging for my course, so two years ago when I initiated the series of staged readings that supplement my course, I knew that Bloomer Girl would be on my short list of shows that I wanted to present. But Bloomer Girl is more than just a history lesson: it's also a delightfully witty and tuneful reminder of musicals from a bygone era.
Given the personnel behind Bloomer Girl, it's really no surprise that the show would have such a strong social conscience. The show features a score by the glorious Harold Arlen, whom many people simply know as the composer of the glorious songs to the 1939 film, "The Wizard of Oz." But Arlen also created the scores to about a dozen Broadway shows, including quite a few shows with all-or-mostly-black casts, including St. Louis Woman, House of Flowers, and Jamaica.E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Arlen's lyricist for Bloomer Girl, not to mention "The Wizard of Oz," had a similar history of contributing shows with inclusive content, including lyrics for the lighthearted sardonic revue Life Begins at 8:40(which he also wrote with Arlen), book and lyrics for the scathingly funny social satireFinian's Rainbow (with Bloomer Girl librettist Fred Saidy), and book and lyrics to the outrageously bizarre but fascinating send-up of big business, Flahooley (also with Fred Saidy).
The original cast of Bloomer Girl (1944) featured Celeste Holm in the lead female role of Evalina. Holm was fresh off her star-making role as Ado Annie in Oklahoma, and Joan McCracken (the future ex-Mrs. Bob Fosse), who practically stole Bloomer Girl out from under Holm as the maid Daisy, was fresh out of Oklahoma as well. Also making the trip from Oklahoma to Cicero Falls, New York, was choreographer Agnes de Mille. The reviews and historical accounts of Bloomer Girl point to de Mille's choreography, in particular her legendary Civil War ballet, as being one of many highlights from the show, which ran an impressive 657 performances, or about 18 months.
Because we have only 4 days of rehearsal for these staged readings, my cast will, alas, not be performing the ballet, or any of the de Mille dances for that matter, but if you click on the link above, you can watch a video of the ballet, which comes from a 1956 television broadcast of Bloomer Girl, starring Barbara Cook and Keith Andes. Bloomer Girl has since all but vanished from view, save for a 2001 concert production by Encores, but the somewhat truncated cast recording serves to remind us of Arlen's eclectic score, Harburg's witty and evocative lyrics, and the dynamic performances of Holm, McCracken, and their able supporting cast.
(An interesting footnote: Bloomer Girl features a dramatically purposeful and symbolic performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin during the second act of the show. This was some six years before the Jerome Robbins ballet, "Small House of Uncle Thomas" in The King and I. As I always say to my students, there's really no such thing as an original idea. What matters is the quality of the execution.)
Bloomer Girl performances at the Boston Conservatory are December 7th and December 8th at 8 pm in the Zack Box Theater. Admission is free. Seating is on a first come-first served basis. Email me for more details.
So it's back to school for me and for my students. This semester promises to be even more zany-kooky-crazy than ever, and I couldn't be happier.
Of course, one of the things I look forward to each semester is the opportunity to utilize my new musical-theater history students to help me create more lists. As you may have noted from my recent posts, I'm kind of a nut about lists.
One of the first things I do each semester in my musical-theater history course is ask my charges to write down the three best musicals ever. The criteria: theirs. Then we use the compiled list as an opportunity to start a conversation about what makes great musicals great.
Here's a list of the shows that received multiple votes:
West Side Story 14 Sweeney Todd 12 Les Miserables 8 Gypsy 8 Into the Woods 6 Wicked 6 Company 5 A Chorus Line 4 Ragtime 4 Funny Girl 3 Next to Normal 3 The Sound of Music 3 Carousel 2 Hair 2 The Music Man 2 Oklahoma 3 Parade 2 The Phantom of the Opera 2 South Pacific 2 Sunday in the Park With George 2
And here are the shows that received one vote each:
Anything Goes, Big River, The Book of Mormon, Cabaret, Candide, Caroline or Change, Cats, Damn Yankees, Fiddler on the Roof, Glory Days, Grey Gardens, Guys and Dolls, Jesus Christ Superstar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hello Dolly, La Cage aux Folles, The Last Five Years, The Light in the Piazza, A Little Night Music, Memphis, The Pirates of Penzance, Rent, Show Boat, Singin' in the Rain, The Spitfire Grille, Songs for a New World, Spring Awakening, Starting Here Starting Now, [title of show]
The shows that I've placed in bold text are the outliers, the ones that I find interesting either because they're ranked higher or lower than usual, or because they're making their first appearance on the list. (Click here to see a sampling of lists from previous semesters.)
Funny Girl has never ranked as high as this. In fact, it usually only shows up once, if at all. The show is rarely done regionally or in high schools, so the students would likely only have been exposed to the show thus far through its marvelous movie version with what's her name. I think we can reasonably attribute the show's position on this semester's list to the upcoming revival of the show, and the attendant publicity on the casting of Lauren Ambrose and Bobby Cannavale in the leads.
I can't recall Next to Normal ranking this high before. I get the feeling that this is the last gasp for the show on this list, given that the show has closed on Broadway and the tour has wound down. Then again, the show is starting to catch on regionally, so it's possible that the show will continue to stay in the public's mind, and therefore on this list in the future.
The Book of Mormon makes its first appearance on the list, which is understandable, because it only opened last spring. I think we can attribute the fact that it didn't get multiple votes to two things: the show is sold out through the new year, and the tickets are pretty darned pricey. We're talking poor students here, after all.
It's a bit of a surprise that Rent only got one vote, as it's usually quite the sentimental favorite among my students. Plus, the show just re-opened Off Broadway, giving a new generation a chance to catch a professional version of the show. (Read my review.) Also, the show is pretty popular now among regional theaters, but that make in fact have worked against the show. Although powerful, Rent is chockablock with flaws and inconsistencies. It's possible that repeated exposure to the show has lessened its luster in the eyes of my students.
Then there are the one-offs, shows that rarely appear on the list, and probably only make an appearance when some regional theater decides to do it, and the students get a chance to appear in or see a relatively obscure show. I think this explains the presence of The Spitfire Grill, Starting Here Starting Now, and Songs for a New World. The last of these is very popular with students looking for songs to add to their rep books, so it's possible that the person who voted for Songs has never actually seen it, but only listened to the recording.
And then there's Glory Days, the one genuine WTF on this year's list. The show is a bit legendary among Broadway types, as it's the only one-performance Broadway flop in recent memory. I was scheduled to see the show the weekend after it opened (and closed), so it was the one show that season that I didn't get a chance to see. But my fellow bloggers tell me it was embarrassingly bad, and the cast recording, while revealing a certain naive charm, nonethless exhibits very little genuine craft. The subject matter - four high school buddies get together one year after graduation and discover they've grown apart - is certainly appealing to those of the incoming-freshmen mindset, but rather ridiculous to those of us of a certain age, who understand that one year out of school is hardly a prime vantage point for gaining wisdom or perspective.
Oh, well. At least no one voted for Jekyll & Hyde.
How can a show be a masterpiece if it has no official version? That's the question I always pose to my students when we cover Show Boat. There's no question that the show is historically significant. With Show Boat, librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, along with composer Jerome Kern, introduced credible drama, three-dimensional characters, ambitious musical sequences, dramatically purposeful dance, and a host of other innovations to the musical stage.
But Show Boat has changed significantly since its 1927 premiere, with every subsequent stage version and movie treatment. Songs and scenes have come and gone. Depending on the version you happen to catch, the entire second act might look completely different from that of any previous production you may have seen.
And the tinkering continues to this day with the current production at the Goodspeed Opera House, which opened this past Wednesday. The good folks at the Goodspeed set for themselves two primary challenges with this production: to find a way to make this sweeping pageant of a show work in the diminutive Opera House space, and to streamline the show to make the whole event clock in at around two and a half hours. I'm very happy to report that the Goodspeed production succeeds splendidly in its first goal, but as for hitting the mark on the second, well, the production is certainly swift and efficient, but at the expense of the human drama that's crucial to the overall effectiveness of the piece.
It's difficult to imagine that the Goodspeed has never done Show Boat before. The setting is perfect: the theater is perched on a scenic riverfront, and the building itself is a charming slice of Americana. Take a look at the photo to the right: doesn't it just look like the boat pictured above might pull up at the dock at any moment? Also, the Goodspeed auditorium looks as though it could be the actual hall from the titular show boat.
And this last point becomes one of the key elements in making Show Boat work in this compact house. The scenic design by Michael Schweikardt is both attractive and ingenious. In addition to designing a stunning set piece for the actual on-stage boat -- which places the audience on the ship rather than staring at the side of the boat, as many productions do -- Schweikardt takes full advantage of the Goodspeed auditorium, with its brass railings and horseshoe-shaped balcony, to create the illusion that the audience is actually in the hall of the show boat itself. It's simple but ingenious. I never got the sense that the show needed a bigger playing space. Not once. That's effective design. Director Rob Ruggiero shrewdly places performers throughout the hall throughout the show, and has cast members make many of their entrances and exits through the house to emphasize the atmospheric design of the show.
But whereas the design and direction make an asset out of the performance space, this script and score for this particular version of the show were somewhat less successful. The production staff have made what the press materials call "adjustments, edits, and changes," with the full knowledge and approval of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. The result is streamlined and brisk, but emotionally a bit cold. Part of this might be the breakneck pacing. Even the song tempos seem accelerated, particularly in "Make Believe" and "Why Do I Love You?" I got the impression that Ruggiero was at the back of the house with a stopwatch, watching every song and scene with an eye toward efficiency.
But the real problem seemed to be that the staff have removed too much material that develops the central relationship, between Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal. The role of Gaylord seems particularly pared down. As a result, the show hits all the important plot points, but doesn't give us time to stop and care about these people. Casting may be partly to blame here. Ben Davis as Ravenal has a terrific voice, but he doesn't have the physical countenance to give the role the larger-than-life quality it needs. Davis was never less than professional, but he wasn't dashing or charming, or full of the kind of dangerous appeal that Gaylord really needs to have to make the audience believe that Magnolia would fall for him at first sight. As Magnolia, Sarah Uriarte Berry started off a bit overly childish, but developed greater balance as the show progressed. She fared far better in act two, the events of which seem more suitable to a performer of Berry's experience.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the final tag of the show in the last paragraph]
The rest of the cast was almost universally strong. Lenny Wolpe was flat-out adorable as Captain Andy Hawks, with a delightful sense of mischief and playfulness that made him the heart and soul of the show. Karen Murphy made for one of the most imposing, but ultimately charming, Parthys I've ever seen. David Aron Damane as Joe gave a positively stirring rendition of "Old Man River." The only significant hole in the supporting cast was Lesli Margherita as Julie, whose "Can't Help Loving That Man" was marred by histrionic, Elphaba-esque vocal affectations. And her "Bill" was somewhat bizarre. I'm not sure what she was going for here, but she came off a bit more wild-eyed than the role would seem to demand. (A special shout-out to three of my favorite students, making their professional acting debut in this production: Elizabeth Ann Berg, Robert Lance Mooney, and Adam Fenton Goddu. Remember, guys and dolls: Show...Boat = Two...Words. Embrace the space!)
One change that the production staff made to the show that worked extremely well here came at the very end of the show. Depending on the version of Show Boat you may have seen previously, the show probably ended with Magnolia and Ravenal seeing each other for the first time in 20 years. Often, the final tag of the show has Magnolia and Ravenal fondly watching their now-adult daughter Kim from afar as the music swells and the curtain falls. But here, Ravenal approaches Kim, who recognizes her father, and rushes to his embrace. For me, it was the most emotionally stirring moment in a show that ideally would have provided a whole lot more.
Yesterday on Twitter, there was a lot of talk about a recent list that EW.com posted of the 13 Funniest Broadway Musicals Ever. (Although upon closer inspection the list was actually published in June. Whatever.)
Click through the link above for a slide show of the musicals that made EW's list, but here's a less labor-intensive breakdown of the winners:
1. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum 2. The Book of Mormon 3. Avenue Q 4. The Producers 5. Spamalot 6. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee 7. Little Shop of Horrors 8. The Drowsy Chaperone 9. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 10. Kiss Me Kate 11. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying 12. Hairspray 13. Urinetown
Well, lists are always suspect, specious, artificial and subject to vociferous debate. But they're also a helluva lot of fun to compile and to contemplate. So, let's start with EW's choices. Whadya think, reader? A little too heavily focused on recent shows, perhaps? Not enough historical perspective? Inevitably, one of your favorites will be missing from the list, or perhaps listed lower than you might like. My first thought was about some glaring omissions. I mean, Guys and Dolls? How could any supposedly compehensive list of the funniest shows be complete without Guys and Dolls?
But even beyond that clearly unpardonable lapse, the more I thought about it, the more some other genuinely funny shows, both recent (Xanadu, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and not-so-recent (Little Me, They're Playing Our Song, City of Angels), kept coming to mind.
Keep in mind, though, that I've ranked these particular shows not in terms of their overall quality but rather in terms of their humor content. Often, the two go hand in hand, but some of the shows here listed aren't primarily known as comedies, although they may contain a considerable amount of humor. That explains why certain magnificent shows (e.g. My Fair Lady, The Fantasticks) might not be ranked as high as some other shows that are not quite as good but are considerably more funny.
Anyway, let the kvetching begin.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
The Book of Mormon
Guys and Dolls
The Drowsy Chaperone
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Little Shop of Horrors
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
City of Angels
[title of show]
They're Playing Our Song
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
The Full Monty
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine
The Music Man
Kiss Me Kate
The Great American Trailer Park Musical
A Chorus Line
Fiddler on the Roof
Into the Woods
La Cage aux Folles
The Pajama Game
My Fair Lady
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
As Thousands Cheer
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
On the Town
Of Thee I Sing
Me and My Girl
My Favorite Year
No, No, Nanette
On the 20th Century
Once Upon a Mattress
When Pigs Fly
Annie Get Your Gun
Strike Up the Band
The Boys From Syracuse
The Pirates of Penzance
The Rocky Horror Show
Gutenberg - the Musical
High Button Shoes
A Connecticut Yankee
Pins and Needles
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
She Loves Me
A Little Night Music
The Wedding Singer
The Sound of Music
Bye Bye Birdie
Rock of Ages
Little Mary Sunshine
The Marvelous Wonderettes
Dames at Sea
The Toxic Avenger Musical
Ernest in Love
Olympus on My Mind
What's That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling
The Musical of Musicals - The Musical
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
Whoop De Doo
Evil Dead - The Musical
Honorable Mention: Forbidden Broadway - Why haven't I listed it above? Because it has so many different versions. Which one was the funniest? That's another post entirely.
Every once in a while, I see a production that reminds me of what theater can really be. I'm not talking about commercial theater. I'm talking about theater in its purest form, which, at least for me, is about connecting with people and their stories and about communicating important and challenging ideas.
But this past Saturday, I had the great pleasure of attending a show that accomplished both, putting forth a slate of real and courageous people and presenting a series of ideas that, while not new, are just as important now as they were when the show in question was first produced.
Otherwise, Pins and Needles has virtually disappeared from the theatrical landscape, apart from a few scattered productions by Off-Off-Broadway companies. I include Pins and Needles in my unit about the rise of the satirical musical show in the 1930s, but until now I've never had a chance to see it live. So, when I read a Playbill article about an upcoming production, I immediately bought a ticket. The article mentioned that the show would be performed at The Foundry, a theatrical collective in Brooklyn, and by an African-American group called FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality). The article also said that this production would comprise original material from the 1937 production, with additional material by Pulitzer-Prize winner Lynn Nottage, among others. Frankly, they had me at Pins and Needles, but the rest of the details only served to fuel my interest.
When the show started, I immediately sensed that something was amiss. The performers were...how can I put this...not polished. In fact, they were clearly rank amateurs. The production values were actually quite strong: the lighting, costumes, setting, and musicians were all thoroughly professional. But the cast was clearly not. The acting was a bit stiff, the diction was fuzzy, and some of the cast members could, frankly, barely hold a tune. At first I was confused, but then something funny started to happen. I got caught up in the raw but joyful enthusiasm of these wonderfully real people. I reminded myself that the original piece was performed by amateurs, and I found myself wondering whether the original cast was as endearing as these passionate people who proceeded to win me over and, eventually, blow me away.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll and dramaturg Melanie Joseph, the latter of whom is also the artistic producer of The Foundry Theater, have taken the original Pins and Needles and adapted it for an all-African-American ensemble. They've retained much of the original score, and a few of the sketches, and supplemented these with period songs and adapted scenes that illuminate the black experience, both of the 1930s and of today. Purists might balk at such liberal artistic license, but the original production of Pins and Needles was at all times a work in progress. Numbers came and went, as did scenes, based on topicality and the changing political landscape. So Rome, Blitzstein, Latouche and their collaborators would probably have been just fine with the idea of re-purposing their material for such a worthy effort. In fact, I think they would have been thrilled.
The whole piece came together for me during an entirely new scene toward the end of the show. Five of the performers perch themselves behind music stands and tell the stories about how they became activists. It could have been didactic and dull, but the stories, as adapted here by Sara Zatz, helped drive home the message that these weren't just performers. They were the actual people who were living out the stories that they were presenting. Apparently, FUREE started as a group of local activists from the projects around New York City, with the common goal of improving the living conditions in public housing, but the mission of the group has since expanded to include empowering the people of the projects to take ownership of their surroundings and of their lives. I found myself remarkably moved finding out about the real struggles of these enthusiastic performers. How often does theater afford you such an opportunity?
Beyond the performers, much of the material from the original Pins and Needles is just as relevant today as it was in the '30s and '40s, including sections about immigration, union busting, and Welfare. The last of these really hit home for me, as right before my New York trip, I had had a vivid discussion on the subject with my father. My dad, a staunch conservative, loves to collect and retell stories about Welfare cheats. Most recently, he told me about a woman who deliberately had an increasing number illegitimate children until she was getting $100,000 a year in public assistance. Of course, my father falls victim to the typical conservative ploy of taking one data point and making generalizations. I have no idea whether the story is true, but even if it is, every system has the potential for abuse. Does that mean we throw out the baby with the bathwater?
I really wish my father had been with me at Pins and Needles. Here were the stories of the people who don't want a handout. They want a chance. A chance to make a life of their own. As one song lyric from the show puts it, "I don't want your millions, mister. I just want my job back." Connecting with people and their stories. That's what theater is all about.
Pins and Needles has two more performances this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM. If you go, remember, these aren't AEA pros. These are real people, with a genuine and heartfelt connection to the material they so joyfully present. I hope you find it as transformative as I did.
Phew. I'm finally caught up with my blogging on this season's musicals. (And it wasn't always pretty, m'kay?) Also, I've submitted all of my grades at the Boston Conservatory, so I have a chance to go back and catch up on a few shows that I was able to see but haven't yet had the opportunity to blog about.
One show that fell between the blogging cracks for me was the delightful Encores production of Where's Charley?, which is just the sort of obscure little gem that we look to institutions like Encores to discover, dust off, and restore to its former luster. This lively little confection boasts music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by George Abbott, based on the fin de siècle farce Charley's Aunt by Brandon Thomas.
In retrospect, it's hard to imagine how such a charming show could drift into obscurity. Frank Loesser would, of course, go on to craft the scores to such notable shows as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The star of Where's Charley? was Ray Bolger, who was already a significant star of both stage and screen when the show premiered in 1948, and who won the second-ever Tony Award for best actor in a musical. The show ran for nearly 800 performances, which is about two years, but unfortunately the score was never recorded because of a musicians' strike.
The show's London production, starring Norman Wisdom, did receive a recording, but the CD is a long-out-of-print collector's item, although the recording is available in MP3 form, and on-demand through ArvivMusic. And Bolger recorded some of the songs independently, including "Make a Miracle" and "Once In Love With Amy," which are both available on this version of the Guys and Dolls cast recording.
The story to Where's Charley? isn't much to speak of. It's just one of those mistaken-identity, man-dresses-up-as-a-woman, (and-for-reasons-we-find-oh-so-droll-in-hindsight), door-slamming farces, and the plot complications are often ridiculously thin. (One woman becomes jealous of her suitor because of the picture of an attractive woman that he keeps on his piano. Oh, horror!) And the show's denouement rests upon a development that is every bit as predictable as it is flimsy.
However, Frank Loesser's score is charming, overflowing with a rich profusion of delights that hint strongly at the future genius of Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed (the latter of which I also saw, and thoroughly enjoyed, the same weekend I took in Where's Charley?). What's more, the songs clearly reflect the Rodgers & Hammerstein revolution, each serving a specific dramatic purpose within the context of the show. "My Darling, My Darling" is a lilting love song with surprisingly erudite lyrics, reflecting the education level of the characters. "Make a Miracle" is a comic list song that illustrates time and place by enumerating many of technological advances awaiting the show's late-19th-Century characters.
I wasn't quite sure of the relevance of "The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students' Conservatory Band," although with Encores shows, that's often more a function of playwright David Ives' adaptations than a reflection on the quality of the original piece. Nonetheless, the score to Where's Charley? deserves a full, modern recording. Perhaps the Loesser estate could persuade (and by "persuade" I mean "pay") Tommy Krasker over at PS Classics to give the score the deluxe treatment it deserves.
Director John Doyle coaxed sharp characterizations from his uniformly talented cast, and provided them with sprightly staging for the songs. Most notable among the cast was Rob McClure as Charley, who had a winning stage presence, a vibrant way with a punchline, and who proved himself quite adept at physical comedy. It was also quite a delight to see Howard McGillin and Rebecca Luker, two of the finest voices of my generation, paired together on-stage, although I must confess that it's become increasingly distressing that performers who are roughly my age are suddenly being relegated to the parental roles. (I guess this means my ingénue days are officially over. Sigh.)