To be honest, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in reviving How Now Dow Jones, but much to my surprise, I received a press release regarding the revised version being presented at the Fringe Festival. Then Sarah asked if I’d like to go and I said yes. The show has been rarely performed since the late 60s, so there has been little opportunity (aside from a 2002 Mufti concert) to see it.
While hardly a bomb like Here’s Where I Belong, the show is an established failure with a notoriously poor libretto done in by one of the flimsiest plots since the Princess musicals. Kate, the Dow Jones girl (who announces the progress on the stock exchange on the hour) is engaged to a man who won’t marry her until the DJIA hits 1,000 (oh, those were the days, huh?). When the girl has a one night stand with our hero, a suicidal failure named Charlie who finds his greatest success selling stocks to widows and orphans, she finds herself pregnant. In a desperate ploy to get married to avoid the scandal (after all, the musical opened in 1967), she announces the Dow has hit the millenium mark.
I know. The plot is absolutely preposterous. And believe me, Max Shulman’s original book didn’t go unscathed when the show opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1967. In fact the show was troubled from the start. The show went out on the road and it was just not working. Choreographer Gillian Lynne found herself out in the cold while Michael Bennett on his ascent to auteurism came in to fix the show. Madeline Kahn had a featured role that was written out in Boston. (Kahn would find her character written out of Promises, Promises only a year later). Tommy Tune (who was in attendance at the performance I attended) would join the cast.
The show ran 220 performances in NY, a financial and artistic failure. However, it had the good fortune to open in a dreary season and was nominated for a slew of Tonys, including Best Musical. The show would win one, and that was Best Featured Actor for Hiram Sherman (as Wingate). The song “Step to the Rear” would continue to have a life outside of the show, but other than that it was basically long forgotten.
Director Ben West has streamlined a good chunk of the libretto, cutting dialogue, characters and numbers bringing the originally 2 1/2 hour, two act musical comedy to a brisk intermissionless 80 minutes. The cast has gone from 40 to 8, and there were several songs restored, including the gorgeous “Where You Are” which was dropped in Boston. The staging and production values are simple, allowing us to look deeply into the text to see where it succeeds, and inevitably where it fails.
The show can never really work, thanks to Shulman. In spite of the flaws and some uneven casting, the result is rather entertaining. Mr. West makes a gallant effort and offers a rather entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. Much as the case with the underrated revival of Old Acquaintance, SarahB and I found ourselves quite amused, and enjoying ourselves immensely. The jokes and references are archaic and dated, the characters little more than caricatures, but there was a feeling of familiarity – almost as if watching one of those 60s sitcoms on TVLand. (Some might argue that it’s as relevant as ever given our financial chaos – not really. But I also don’t buy that argument for Finian’s Rainbow either).
Where How Now Dow Jones does not fail is in its score. The music of Elmer Bernstein is entertaining; however, it is Carolyn Leigh’s lyrics that standout above all else. Witty, intelligent and clever, Leigh creates a level of satire and sophistication that is lacking in every other department of the musical. The opening number “ABC” has fast become one of the most listened to songs on my iPod. The showstopping “Step to the Rear” has been moved from the first act to the finale, and is a fun way to send the crowd out into the streets (even if I missed the matchmaking Jewish widows leading the parade).
Two names I want you to remember: Colin Hanlon and Cristen Paige. Mr. Hanlon, late of Rent and I Love You Because, is Charlie and plays him with considerable charm, affable presence and a mega-watt smile that is poised for stardom. Ms. Paige, who has been seen in The Visit and the national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is lovely, sweet and utterly captivating as Kate, the lovelorn heroine. Paige also gets the bulk of the show’s ballads whose lyrics give us a greater glimpse into the character than any single line of dialogue.
The rest of the company was amiable enough, but none shone as bright as the two stars. The one weak note in the casting was Cori Silberman as Cynthia, a role originated by Brenda Vaccaro. Cynthia is Kate’s best friend and sidekick (though Vaccaro got nominated for a Leading Actress Tony and her costar Marlyn Mason did not) and the Dow Jones tour guide. She’s a lovably brash New York girl in search of Mr. Right (in this case, she’s looking to become a kept woman). Silberman appeared mannered, amateurish and out of her element, failing to score until “He’s Here” toward the end of the show.
Credited in the playbill is UnsungMusicalsCo, which is a non-profit production company “dedicated to the preservation of musical theatre through the presentation of infrequently performed works.” Director Ben West is the company’s Artistic Director and they are currently at work on revising Platinum, Lend an Ear and Rock ‘N Roll! The First 5,000 Years. I find the idea of the group rather exciting, as they look at the musicals anew and make an effort to fix the shows and offer musical theatre aficionados not unlike myself the opportunity to see something like How Now Dow Jones onstage. My question for Mr. West: can we expect Lolita, My Love or Prettybelle?