27 August 2009


I'm fairly excited (if skeptical) about the upcomming revival of RAGTIME. I want to hold off extenstive commenting on it for the moment, but I will share their new print design, which is awesome.

22 August 2009

The NIGHT MUSIC that almost was

A while back I began to play "Who's going to be who in the A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC REVIVAL?"

Well, according to Michael Reidel in the NY Post (an unconfirmed source who nonetheless doesn't often go to press with mere whimsy) not only is it looking increasingly likely that Angela freakin' Lansbury going to be Mme. Armfeldt, but Catherine Zeta Jones (Douglas) will star as the fading flower Desiree. CZJ did have a reasonably extensive musical theater career in the West End prior to becoming a movie star/Michael Douglas' wife/T Mobile's biotch, so I am not all that upset the role may go to her over one of Broadway's leading ladies. And if Angela Lansbury is in it, most things are right with the world.

In light of this casting news, I thought I'd share a story about the NIGHT MUSIC that almost was. This came to me directly from none other than Harold Prince. (I wrote him a letter saying "I want to meet you." He met with me. Real nice.) Here, with some artistic license (as in, I'm trying to recount I conversation I had 3 years ago), is the story.

ME: So I Just got back from working at Barring Stage Company for the summer.
MR PRINCE: Oh, what did they do?
ME: Typical summer stock stuff. The Human Comedy, Wonder of the World, and Ring Round the Moon.
MR PRINCE: That's not typical at all. [ed. He's right.] That's most unusual. You know, A Little Night Music was almost based on Ring Round the Moon.
ME: That's funny. Because I was thinking it would make a great musical, but when I told my roommate he said, "What would they sing about, how they're not in A Little Night Music"?
MR PRINCE (sagely): That's funny.
ME: So what happened?
MR PRINCE: We knew we wanted to do a romantic comedy, and we wanted people running through lots of doors. [ed. The only production of NIGHT MUSIC I've seen had no doors.] So we looked at Ring Round the Moon and Smiles of a Summer Night. I wrote Jean Anouilh about procuring the rights for Ring..., and he kept avoiding me. But I kept at it. Finally he said he was interested and told me to meet him, so Steve [ed. as in Sondheim] and I flew out to Paris to meet him only to find out he had just left the country. I didn't appreciate being jerked around, so we went with the Bergman film.
ME: Fascinating.
MR PRINCE: Anything else you want to ask me?
ME: Yeah. Why did you do all those musicals with Larry Grossman?

[ed. Yes, I am the dumb/smart ass who asked the esteemed Hal Prince why he wrote so many flop musicals in the 80s with the same guy. For the record, the answer, in short, was that he really likes "Mama, a Rainbow".]

In the end, I think the world of theater is a better place because Jean Anouilh was kind of a dick. Ring Round the Moon is fun because it requires its male lead to play twins. Madcap hilarity ensues. But there's a lot more philosophy about economics and less romance. And the show would've been all about Len Cariou with no real equivalent to Desiree. There is an old lady in a wheelchair though (played by Carole Shelly at BSC, who would make a fine Armfeldt, should the Lansbury rumors be too good to be true).

20 August 2009


Immediately prior to leaving my friend's apartment to see FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST, we came--er, stumbled--upon this picture:
from when cast members went to a launch party at Vlada. I'm still not sure if the above boys were actually in the show I saw, but the point is, I saw this picture with the understanding that it related to the show I was about to see, and said "ohhh, this is going to be so trashy!"

Trashy, in this context, was a good thing. After all, FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST is a new musical in the NYC Fringe about a bathhouse in the 1970s. If what I saw at the Cherry Lane, was more camp than trash, silly rather than seedy, it was always likable and often winning.

FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST concerns the sexually repressed Charlie (played by Ben Knox who also pulled a Meredith Wilson, penning book, music and lyrics), his sexually frustrated wife (an appealing Kristy Cates), their two children (son aspires to be a lady, daughter aspires to be a tramp), a lascivious and homophobic priest (Marty Thomas) and a pair of down on their luck bath house operators. All of these characters are drawn--in equal measure by Knox's writing, the wildly enthusiastic cast and director Holly-Anne Ruggiero--in broad deliberate strokes, as if in a melodrama. No one ends up tied to train tracks, but if they were, I wouldn't have been phased. Such broad playing really pays off in numbers like the deliciously decadent, Kander/Ebb-esque "Get What You Want" and the surprisingly musically accomplished trio "Daddy's Left Us". But for a show that seems so eager to "go there", it frequently stops short, aiming for naughty while settling for something brash but easy.

Special attention should be given to the designers, particularly the glossy, functional and clean faux tile-walled set by Michael P. Kramer and the spot on, if-she-was-on-a-tight-budget-it-didn't-show, costumes by Emily Deangelis.

3 performances remain, so check out their website for show dates/times and ticket information.

19 August 2009


After my last post, I continued hunting for Bock and Harnick on YouTube and came across a most remarkable discovery: A TV movie version of SHE LOVES ME. Made in Jolly 'Ol England in 1978 and featuring TV/West End names of the day, this decidedly low budget affair nonetheless presents a charming production of Bock & Harnick's endearing RomCom.

SHE LOVES ME is based on Mikos Lazlos's THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, a Hungarian play about two bickering co-workers unaware that they have been writing love letters to each other for months as anonymous pen pals. The play had already inspired a Jimmy Stewart movie and the Judy Garland vehicle, IN THE GOOD OL' SUMMERTIME prior to being adapted for the Broadway stage and inspired YOU'VE GOT MAIL years later. The Broadway musical featured, in additon to Bock and Harnick's score, a book by their future FIDDLER librettist Joseph Stein, Hal Prince's debut as a Broadway director, Babara Cook, and Jack Cassidy who won a Tony playing the smarmy Kodaly.

Sheldon Harnick's lyrics are consistently smart, witty and well structured. Much has been said about "Vanilla Ice Cream" (if you don't know it, it's at the end of part 8, but you should let it come up in context for full effect), but I've also long been partial to the charming story song "A Trip to the Library" and the nervous patter of "Tonight at Eight." Jerry Bock's versatile and layered music was always a notch more complicated than that of his peers (see Herman, Jerry and Styne, Jule) while remaining accessible and memorable. He had a particularly knack for giving a sense of momentum and musical largess to comedy numbers (see the aforementioned "Library" and "Eight") that exist in the same musical dialect as his soaring ballads. These are songs actors love to sing and singers love to act.

Despite an abundance of excellent material, the show has never been a real smash--partially because it opened and an intimate chamber musical in a season that included HELLO, DOLLY! and FUNNY GIRL, partially because of some peculiarities in the writing. We see almost none of Amelia and Georg's animosity before we learn they are "Dear Friends". Throughout, the pacing spits and starts, giving EVERYONE a song, but not always making said song seem urgent at THAT moment in the show. (There is a certain casual, "day in the life" charm to be found there, something unique in our opportunity to settle in with these characters for a time. But there's everything to indicate we are in a traditional musical comedy, and nothing to indicate we are dealing with a horse of a slightly different color.) And though Jerry Bock's rich and evocative score finds much inspiration in the 1930s Budapest locale, I don't know if people are, or ever were, all that entranced by the allure of 1930s Budapest, especially when only seen through dim interiors. If we're going to spend all of our time inside, why not set the show in New York City and give the characters names we can pronounce?

Nonetheless, it's not every day you get the chance to see a decent, well sung, production of SHE LOVES ME, so the movie is well worth one's time. Cutting only "Days Gone By" (and it's reprise), this movie is faithful in word and spirit to Bock/Harnick/Stein/Prince's creation. The video quality is poor (cleary taped on TV and saved for 15 years before uploading), and the audio doesn't always sync up with the picutre. But the music is well executed and the performances spot on, with Gemma Craven as an endearing Amalia, Robin Ellis a charming if aloof Georg, Diane Langton a frothy Ilona, and debonair David Kernan as Kodaly.

There are 11 parts, each about 10 minutes long, the first of which is embedded below. Luckily, the uploader divided the videos into logical segments, so it's quite easy to watch a few a day until you have completed the movie (as I did).


14 August 2009

The Very Next Man

I always love finding good performances of Bock and Harnick (my favorite Golden Era songwriters) tunes on YouTube. Finding videos of FIORELLO!, TENDERLOIN and ROTHCHILDS is not always easy/possible, but this morning I did discover a charming rendition of "The Very Next Man" (one of my favorite songs of theirs) by a Katie Karel. I believe this is a production at Stephen's College and the production values are quite nice. The staging may be a bit busy/on the nose, but I give anyone doing a production of FIORELLO! mad props.

By the way, the less offensive alternate to the original "and if he likes me/what does it matter if he strikes me" lyric begins at 2m35s

And, because I'm feeling generous (and because it is SO thrilling), you can listen to/download Patricia Wilson from the Original Cast Recording here Oh why has she not been in more?

13 August 2009

Decent Writing in Unexpected Places

Here is a clip from the highly entertaining and infectious (it's been with me for 20 years) opening number to the Cannon Movie Tales version of THE FROG PRINCE. (In the Mid-80s Cannon released a series of made-for-tv/video-movie-musicals. There were filmed in Eastern Europe with great haste and economy). Not the place one would expect to look for examples of good theater writing (and, to be fair, it ain't SWEENEY TODD), but I was surprised, in looking at it again recently, how well it achieves its purpose, even if it is by uncredited writers.

The story of THE FROG PRINCE is, when you think of it, pretty thin. Spoiled princess meets frog, makes deal with frog, kisses frog. So how does one expand it to a nearly 2 hour long movie? Especially when the main conflict is your protagonist's selfishness? Well, you can start off by making the princess sympathetic and lonely, with an evil half-sister (played by, if you can believe it, Helen Hunt) who schemes to keep the princess away from the frog. So it becomes less a story about faith, trust and selflessness and more about finding friends in unexpected places. So how to start the story? With the young princess (Zora, played by Aileen Quinn, Hollywood's ANNIE) waking up, eager to face the day. With a--perhaps not by coincidence--Annie-like optimism Zora sings of her certainty that today will be her lucky day: "Today will be my lucky day, my lucky day I know. The trumpets and the fanfare and the banners tell me so..." Trumpets and fanfare. These trumpets not only establish that we are one a "once upon a time" fairy-tale land, but we soon find out they sound whenever the king has an important announcement to make. If they had just been part of an establishing shot, we might not notice, but the opening of the song brings them to our attention. Zora continues through two verses, feeding and singing to her fish and likening herself to a butterfly while playing with a butterfly mobile in her room (she's not afraid of wild life). You imagine she is this warm--and warmly received--throughout the castle. Then, at the bridge, we learn a crucial fact--she is lonely, with ONLY her toys and fish as friends. Then she reveals a secret: she wished upon a star that she would have friends. And she thinks it's going to work (which is why she's so damn happy). She is certain her wish will come true because, in addition to that wish she made, she has her lucky golden ball. That's why that damn ball--the ball upon which the entire story hinges--is so important. If she looses that, she looses all hope of ever having a friend. And now, but 3 minutes into the movie, we are armed with a protagonist we care about and a sense of where the movie will take us. And, we just heard a really catchy, happy, tune. So to whoever wrote this song, good work. And, from what I hear, they may need your help at FIRST WIVES CLUB...

11 August 2009

2 Essentials

There are two (2) things every musical needs.

Strike that.

There are two (2) things every musical SHOULD have.


There are two (2) things every musical OF NOTE should have:
1. An evocative “world of the play”.
2. A FANTASTIC score.

The above are interrelated: The world of the play inspires something extraordinary from the composer; the music imbues the play with ambiance and texture that is felt in the bones, regardless of (or in addition to) the design elements (if there are any). Though they support each other, I do think its worth to explore each essential independently.

The World of the Play
To me, this is just as—if not more—important than the story. When Rogers and Hammerstein adapted LILIOM into CAROUSEL they relocated the action from Budapest to late 19th Century New England. Perhaps the shift was a little arbitrary, but it is an evocative world visually and musically, one where few other musicals take place. To this day, production stills from even the lowest budget productions are instantly recognizable because the world is so vivid and distinct. For a more current example: From it’s fledgling days as FEELING ELECTRIC to its present Broadway triumph, NEXT TO NORMAL has more or less told the same story with the same—excellent—score. What changed between Second Stage and Broadway? The world of the play. The jokey-winks that had felt out of place off-Broadway were taken out as the creators decided to take their characters—and the world of the play—more seriously. And what a fascinating and subtly described world it is—often a fairly realistic contemporary family drama but one that frequently delves into more “conceptual” worlds, with characters commenting on action in limbo and lines between reality and delusion intentionally and masterfully blurred. And this is a world that NEEDS the music to exist; there is no way any designer could adequately create this world without Tom Kitt’s score.

This may seem like an obvious statement. And no one denies that good music is a crucial element of a good musical. But FANTASTIC music is exciting. I don’t think one needs to walk out of the theater humming the tunes, but one should walk out of the theater wanting to BUY the tunes (if they haven’t already). There is certainly justified criticism to be made about IN THE HEIGHTS, but the world of the play is so appealing, especially as manifested in the ear-to-ear-grin-inducing score. When I saw IN THE HEIGHTS I bought the cast recording at the theater and carried it around with me for weeks forcing anyone even remotely willing to listen. And I told everyone to see it. That same season I saw A CATERED AFFAIR. Like HEIGHTS it dealt with working class New Yorkers struggling with small decisions with almost epic repercussions for the central characters (HEIGHTS had the question of how to pay—and what to sacrifice—for an education, AFFAIR had its wedding). And AFFAIR had a wonderfully strong book with finely etched characters and given fine portrayals by a superb cast. Well directed, beautifully designed, frequently moving. What did I talk about to my friends after the show? I mentioned that someone proposed to his girlfriend onstage, and how much I loved Leslie Kritzer’s high-waisted dresses. The music, though lovely, didn’t demand attention, and, as a result, didn’t get any.

So perhaps I should once again amend my initial statement.

There are three (3) things every musical of note should have:
1. An evocative “world of the play”
2. A FANTASTIC score
3. Someone to expect and insist on 1 and 2.

06 August 2009

"Just Close Already"

I have just found out that 2 charming gentlemen I have had the pleasure of working with over the years will join the cast of Broadway's MAMMA MIA in September, and for the first time in a long time--maybe ever--I began to seriously consider buying tickets to MAMMA MIA. At the very least I was thankful it existed. Not because it is the culmination of a lifetime of theatrical hopes and dreams for either gentleman, but it's certainly a good gig, and they deserve above production contracts and health weeks.

And then I thought back to the number of times I've heard someone say--or said myself a show (MAMMA MIA or otherwise) should "just close already."

And I realized that's an incredibly stupid thing to say. Why would anyone who is at least tangentially related to the theatrical community want a show to close? I am embarrassed by my past cynicism for a number of reasons:

1) The "HEIDI Principle"--You know, that scene in THE HEIDI CHRONICLES? Where Heidi gives that speech to the society ladies describing some catty women she overhears in a gym locker room? The "Women, Where Are We Going" speech ending "I thought the point was that we were all in this together." The New York theater community prides itself--and is heralded--on being welcoming, like "a big family" so why would any of us (bloggers, non-working actors, award winning composers) wish death upon another show? We don't have to like everything, hell, we don't have to like anything and can tear it apart to shreds, but we should always be happy to see it running, if only because it means people are working, people like us (and, possibly, someday, including us).

2) Think About Who We're Mad At--Though it may be a joke, to say "why doesn't it just close already" is to express anger--not bemusement--that the show is a long-running success. But no one in the history of theater has ever thought that meant it was good, just that people are willing to pay lots of money to see it. Lots of people. And lots of money. Lots of their money, that they could choose to spend on Yankees tickets, or, perhaps a trip to Paris or Branson. And though, as forward thinking artists, we all wish there is more of a market for the NEXT TO NORMALs out there (and those struggling to get off the ground), the fact of the matter is, we can't dictate what people "should" want to see. And I am willing to bet that just as much--if not more--money has been lost trying to custom tailor shows to MAMMA MIA's audience than NEXT TO NORMAL's. (Which do you think lost more money, HOT FEET or [title of show]?) Just because a show is frothy, silly, and, in some eyes, tacky and vapid doesn't mean the creators and producers didn't take a risk in mounting it as a Broadway production.

3) No News Is Good News: If you want a show gone (who knows, maybe you're a writer or producer with a property that could ONLY go in the Winter Garden, and you've been waiting 15 years to get it up), don't bring it up. At a panel I witnessed this summer, Jefferey Sellers talked about how important it was to keep theater "in the conversation". If you TRULY don't think it's worth your time, don't talk about it. And don't think about it. Will that make it close faster? No. But if you don't care, does it matter?