When people find out that I’m an avid theatergoer or that I know a lot about musicals, I get asked “So, what’s your favorite?” It’s not the easiest question to be asked, and the same goes for favorite book (East of Eden? To Kill a Mockingbird?) or movie (The Third Man? The Godfather?). I really don’t know and hate having to make a decision. I try whittling it down and leave myself several options as that remains more indicative of range, taste and interest. However, there are my “top three” that I use as a quick answer: The Light in the Piazza, She Loves Me and Sweeney Todd.
Piazza stems from an intensely personal experience with the show, which I saw 12 times in its original Broadway run. Sweeney Todd is one of the most brilliant and audacious ideas I’ve ever seen executed in a musical, and I got to see it on Broadway in its acclaimed 2005 revival. It’s a slightly different story with She Loves Me: I’ve never seen it live. I’ve watched the 1978 BBC-TV version and I own two versions of the libretto – the original 1963 text and 1993 revision. I have the four English language cast albums, the Viennese cast, two instrumentals plus a live recording of the 1977 Town Hall revival with Madeline Kahn and Barry Bostwick and the composer demo. A few weeks ago I picked up an original playbill at the Broadway Flea Market.
The musical, with a sublime score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick and a sharp, near-perfect libretto by Joe Masteroff, opened on Broadway in 1963. It was Harold Prince‘s first original directorial project. (He stepped into the troubled A Family Affair after the original director didn’t work out). Officially based on Miklos Laszlo‘s play Parfumerie, you might recognize the plot from the various films inspired by the same source: The Shop Around the Corner, In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail. A guy and a girl fight and bicker every time they see each other (in all but You’ve Got Mail, they’re coworkers) and unbeknownst to them they are smitten pen pals who meet through a lonely-hearts ad.
For the musical, Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey were hired to play the at-odds lovers Amalia and Georg. Julie Andrews was originally sought, but due to some filming requirements she was unavailable. She told Prince that if he could wait, she’d do it, but he was adamant about getting the show up and moved on. Rounding out the cast were Nathaniel Frey (who was also part of Prince, Bock & Harnick’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning Fiorello! four years prior), Jack Cassidy, Barbara Baxley, Ludwig Donath and Ralph Williams. Carol Haney provided the musical staging.
The jewel box of a show opened to rave reviews at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre where it ran for 302 performances and folded at a loss, overshadowed by bigger musicals that year. It was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Musical, but only took home one award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Cassidy, as the lothario). Its original London staging, which featured some changes for the British audiences, lasted 189 performances. Andrews was set to reclaim the role that was almost hers in a film adaptation opposite Dick Van Dyke. However, when film musicals started falling out of favor toward the end of the 1960s, those plans were scrapped.
In spite of its financial failure, the show remained a favorite of musical enthusiasts. The show was revived by Roundabout in 1993 in a highly acclaimed production starring Boyd Gaines (who won a Tony) and Judy Kuhn. The show was popular enough to warrant a commercial transfer, moving to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for an extended run of 354 performances. However, it once again closed in the red. The Roundabout revival crossed the pond for its first London revival earning Ruthie Henshall an Olivier. The production ran a year, but it too lost money.
So the show doesn’t guarantee coin, but it is, in my estimation, one of the most perfectly constructed musicals ever written and is hugely popular with colleges and regional theatres. I am particularly taken with the characters and how real and three-dimensional they seem, especially George and Amalia. We have a glimpse into two musical theatre characters who aren’t the juvenile and ingenue singing stock platitudes about falling in love. Instead we see two real people, lonely yet lovable, singing of their insecurities and fears and the discovery of falling in love. This charm pervades the other characters; even the cad is somewhat lovable. Out of the numerous variations of Lazslo’s play, this is my favorite (though I enjoy the Lubitsch touch on The Shop Around the Corner).
I first discovered the score in high school, borrowing the original cast CD from the library. In an unusual move for a cast album, MGM Records gave the score a 2-LP set, allowing the entire score to be preserved. This original cast album is one of my all time favorites, with definitive performances and sumptuous original orchestrations by Don Walker, whose charts expertly evoke an Eastern European sound and style. The comic numbers are genuinely funny and honest and Amalia’s ballads are among the best musical theatre material ever written for a soprano. The OBCR is one of those albums I would take with me to that proverbial desert island; one of my holiday traditions is to play the cast album every Christmas Eve (which is the night of the show’s climax). It also preserves one of the most satisfying finales in musical theatre history.
The song that first stood out to me on that first listen turned out to be the most famous song from the score: “Ice Cream.” I’ve cited it before as an example of what I call “Musical Theatre Zen” but it bears repeating that it’s one of the loveliest theatre songs ever written. Amalia, thinking she was jilted by “Dear Friend” (who is naturally Georg, who helped ruin her evening by showing up as himself and antagonizing her), is home sick from work. George comes to apologize, get her to go to work and brings her a carton of vanilla ice cream to cheer her up. Renewed and refreshed, she sets about writing another letter, but is now distracted by this new admiration for her former enemy, culminating on a joyous mock cadenza with high B natural. It came full circle for me in 2003, when I sat third row center at Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim at the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts in Peekskill, NY. Cook, then 76, sang the song and stopped her show with a flawless interpretation – and in the original key too. (This song and “Tell Me I Look Nice” which was cut out of town made Sondheim’s list of songs he wished he had written).
I’d love to see a NY revival of the musical. Even though it was last seen on Broadway in 1994, I think audiences would once again welcome the show with open arms. A current Chicago production once again brought the piece raves. It would be nice to see this charming musical brought back to Broadway for another generation. Or just for me.