Well, that’s interesting…

“Since Bobby also played Younger Brother in the recent Ragtime revival, we talked about its untimely closing. The devastating thing he said was that the producers were willing to keep the show running (!), but the theatre made them leave because they had another show that wanted to come in. So, Ragtime had to close to make way for The Orphan’s Home Cycle to open at the Neil Simon…but then it wound up going to another theatre! So, now, the Neil Simon is empty. Wah! The other sad news is, there is no full cast album. But, the good news is there’s going to be a Flaherty/Ahrens compilation CD coming out, and the new cast of Ragtime is going to record four songs for it!”

– Seth Rudetsky recalling his interview with Ragtime and Yank! star Bobby Steggert in his Onstage & Backstage Column, 2/15/10

Mitzi Gaynor to Make NY Debut in May

It seems unbelievable that Mitzi Gaynor has never played the Big Apple, but finally after decades of television, film and touring, the South Pacific star is excited to make her New York performance debut. The star will bring her one woman show Razzle Dazzle: My Life Behind the Sequins in an intimate setting like Feinstein’s to get up close and personal with her fans. In her show, Ms. Gaynor will bring her incomparable brand of showmanship to the stage in a glittering multimedia one woman tour-de-force of music and memories from her show-stopping life and career.

Gaynor says “over the years I’d been asked to play New York on numerous occasions but the stars never quite aligned. That’s why I was thrilled when Michael Feinstein asked me to bring my show to his club and said I could have the Regency’s Ballroom so I’d have more room to play. I really can’t wait to be there. There’s no city in the world like New York.”

It’s interesting that Mitzi has never played Broadway, yet has done so many great roles in tour and in stock. I, for one, think she would have been a fantastic replacement in the original production of Mame (among many other shows). But it’s better late than never. I’m going to be with there with a certain Elsa-in-crime. And whenever Miss Mitzi is onstage, it’s bound to be an event.

Gaynor will play five engagements at Feinstein’s at the Regency from May 18 to May 22. Tickets are available online or via phone (212-339-4095) and mention the code MG101 for complimentary presale seating upgrade.

‘A Little Night Music’ goes to Paris

Here is a brief video clip containing scenes from the production of A Little Night Music that is playing a strictly limited engagement this week at the Théâtre du Châtelet. This marks the Paris debut of the Sondheim-Wheeler classic, which is also currently a sell-out in a new Broadway revival (by way of London). Gretta Sacchi is Desiree; Leslie Caron her mother Madame Armfeldt. It’s a full-scale production with sets, costumes, 31 piece orchestra and it’s being performed in English. The theatre’s youtube channel has a lot of other clips, including interviews with the cast and clips from other productions they have done.

Our very own KariG is currently in Paris and will be seeing this production tomorrow evening; looking forward to what she has to say about it (she’s a tough cookie on this one – it’s her favorite musical).

"Shall We Dance?"

It took me until I was in high school to learn that the Gershwins had written a classic song with this very title, but for me whenever I hear those three words, I always think of The King and I. My introduction to the piece came in early 1995 when I saw the Oscar-winning film adaptation. Up until that point I had no idea Rodgers and Hammerstein did anything other than The Sound of Music and South Pacific. But as a result of this discovery, I started to take special notice of Rodgers & Hammerstein; that same year The Sound of Movies documentary aired on A&E and read Ethan Mordden’s comprehensive coffee table book Rodgers & Hammerstein ad nauseam. It could be argued that that was the creation of this encyclopedic monster known as me.

Looking back, I was staying with a friend for a weekend off school, and our classmate and friend lived next door to him and brought the film with her. She had picked it up, and with little resistance we decided we’d watch too. There we were, three 12 year olds watching The King and I in my friend’s living room. (Once an old soul, always an old soul…)

It was my introduction to Deborah Kerr. I was watching the film and thought, “Who is this gorgeous redhead and how have I never heard of her before?” Checking out the box, I made special note of her name and proceeded to watch as many of her films as possible. I had already seen Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments, and found I liked him much better here. Little did I realize at this time just how iconic his performance was. (Brynner played the role 4, 525 times; he appeared as the King onstage, onscreen and in a short-lived TV series. He won two Tonys and an Oscar for his performance). I enjoyed the score, the story and impressive CinemaScope and Deluxe color (such vibrant art direction, costumes and cinematography, it was such a feast for the eyes). There was Rita Moreno as a doomed Burmese “present” and the little kid from All Mine to Give (Rex Thompson) as Anna’s son.

When the film aired on the Family Channel, I popped in a cassette and wore that out. The TV print was lackluster; color was unimpressive and a few shots had been snipped out for whatever reason. But it was still The King and I. I upgraded to the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection VHS and purchased the soundtrack LP (and have since upgraded to the comprehensive 2-disc DVD and the special edition CD). I have ten recordings of the score, but this particular one though not the most complete, always remains my sentimental favorite.

The film is easily the best of all Rodgers and Hammerstein stage to screen adaptations, with an explicit attention to capturing the magic of the stage show. Though I miss the soliloquy “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and “I Have Dreamed,” the cinematic treatment is resplendent. Kerr, who had no musical experience, worked diligently with the young singer who was going to dub her voice. That person was Marni Nixon, who would go onto a successful career in Hollywood voicing many soprano heroines. The combination of Kerr and Nixon is the best vocal dubbing of any screen actress on film; so successful they were reunited a year later on An Affair to Remember.

But it was “Shall We Dance?” where I really became enraptured. We were all so blown away that one of us reached for the remote as soon as the film was over and watched the musical number over and over again. Throughout the plot Anna and the King have been at odds with one another, with their West vs. East culture clash. However, in Hammerstein’s treatment of the story (based on a heavily fictionalized myth of Anna Leonowens) there is a great deal of chemistry between the pair, which culminates in this particular moment. The back and forth, and the success of their mission to impress the British emissary (and thus save Siam from becoming a protectorate of the Empire) comes to a head as they discuss the idea of a man dancing with a woman (who is not her husband).

In a musical where the two main characters never share anything explicitly romantic, the simple act of dancing a polka with one another becomes, in effect, a consummation of their unspoken feelings for one another. The King becomes playful and flirtatious, they reach a sort of understanding between the two and never is that attraction stronger than the moment when he places his hand on her waist to literally sweep her off her feet. Whenever I’ve seen this live in performance, it has never failed to receive applause. (I used to sell the number to people by saying, “It’s the sex.”) Take unspoken emotions, add subtext, music and dance, and you transcend all.

When I was in college, I was a TA for the American Musical Theatre course for several years. One of the things I enjoyed was when the professor allowed me to either guest lecture in his stead, or to choose various clips for discussion. I was given the choice of eleven o’clock numbers, and I made sure to include this among the three clips (the other two were Bernadette’s “Rose’s Turn” and the 1992 Guys and Dolls “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat”). I still recall that Shall We Dance?” seemed to generate the most responses by the students in the classroom. And if I ever teach a musical theatre class again, you can bet that I’m going to include this clip.

In the meanwhile, here’s “Shall We Dance?”


Leave it to Sesame Street and their brilliant writers to come up with this gem. While perusing the Youtube for the clip above, I came across this one. Here’s Monsterpiece Theater and host Alistair Cookie presenting The King and I, starring Grover:

"Ditties for an Opening Night"

I enjoy perusing my Playbills and usually there are some fun features… But sometimes they are not so good…

From the opening night Playbill of the flop musical Jimmy, by Maureen Cannon:

“Who’s with whom?” and “What’s she wearing?”
Seems the order of the day
While the actors wait, despairing
Of the audience’s caring
Just a bit – a flop? a hit? – about the play!

There was a young usher named Marge
Who said to herself, by and large,
As she led the elite
In the dark to each seat
“From where I squint, the play’s a mirage!”

The theatre’s sweet magic
Turns sour, or tragic,
Each time that I sit down to find
My legs and knees poking
Whoever, not joking,
Glares round to see who sits behind!

When is it that
A flower hat
Infuriates, enrages?
When, blooming, it’s
On her who sits
‘Tween me and where the stage is!

Granted, two-on-the-aisle
May be chic and in style,
But I’ve suffered, and more than a little,
Playing jack-in-the-box
To latecomers (a pox
On ’em all!) Give me two-in-the-middle!!!

Sardi Party:

Opinions are plain
And not murky:
The playwright’s new brain-
Child’s a turkey!

For the Love of Buckley

I would know that belt anywhere. Its distinctive timbre and resonance is the trademark of a voice that has wowed audiences with its agility for over forty years. Its possessor has always been noted for her ability to sing seemingly unattainable high notes with considerable ease. But up until last Saturday night, I had never had the privilege of seeing Betty Buckley live in performance. I’ve heard such great things from SarahB and Kari over the past few years, as they turn Betty’s annual gigs at Feinstein’s into the event of the season. One year they went twice in the same evening when the Tony-winning legend was performing two different shows. Much to my delight, the ladies asked me to tag along this year, as Betty returned with a brand new show of all material she had never sung before in public titled For the Love of Broadway.

The venue has fast become one of my favorite places to be in the last couple of months, with memorable evenings spent hearing Kate Baldwin and Tyne Daly. Last Saturday night I hit a trifecta with Ms. Buckley, who was once again working with her trio led by her long-time musical director Kenny Werner. Buckley’s new show is all Broadway music (as most people never want to hear her sing anything else), with an eclectic range from standards to cult favorites to a few contemporary numbers thrown into the mix. Aside from a brand new specialty written for her by John McDaniel and Erik Kornfield called, fittingly, “Belting”, I had heard almost every other song she sang before.

A magnanimous presence, she took the stage and launched into a medley of Rodgers and Hart tunes. It was clear to me instantly why my friends have been raving so rapturously. Betty picks up the microphone and immediately radiates warmth. She goes out of her way to include everyone in the venue including those on her periphery, like a hostess making sure every one of her guests is comfortable. Then she lets the music take over. Her patter was spare and concise – she was there to sing and did she ever. The song takes over her body, whether she is dancing along during an instrumental break or she is holding the microphone away from her to rip into a high note.

Betty loves jazz, and alluded tongue in cheek to those folks who want her to sing Broadway and only Broadway. Her response was the aforementioned specialty “When I Belt” which incorporated that full-throttled voice, with references to the many songs that have become her trademarks – and even a nod to that famed Cats gesture. But she got the last laugh as her entire evening was infused with jazz arrangements by Werner (who plays piano; the other two players were Billy Drewes on reeds/percussion and Tony Marino on bass). So she’s giving us Broadway, but on her terms. Now that’s a star.

I fell under her spell the moment she locked eyes with me during this opening set. The song was “This Can’t Be Love” and the lyric was “But still I love to look in your eyes.” I was sitting to her left right by the stage area, and she stood there and just gazed down with a big smile. I was hers for the next hour.

She jumped from Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein singing a combination of “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I. There were many similar combinations from Golden Age shows. Here she paired “Bewitched” from Pal Joey with “Hey There” from The Pajama Game. While she sang the former, I couldn’t help but wonder why she didn’t play the role in the recent revival. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of anyone putting Come to Me, Bend to Me from Brigadoon with “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, but there it was in seamless combination.

However, there were some contemporary pieces tossed in for good measure. She did quite well by “I’ve Been Here Before” from Closer Than Ever, but it was her funny and sincere rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from Avenue Q that stood out.

She paid homage to Elaine Stritch with the eleven o’clock number from the forgotten Goldilocks, “I Never Know When to Say When,” an introspective bluesy ballad that allowed Buckley to channel many Stritchisms (and also to celebrate Stritch’s recent 85th birthday). For a novelty, she brought up an audience member to be Clark Kent to her Sydney in “You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. The night I attended, she chose her pal Michael Buckley (no relation), an online personality, whose eagerness to ham it up distracted from the set rather than contributed to it. On a side note, her younger brother Norman Buckley, a Hollywood director, was on hand and she deservedly gushed over his achievements.

The dramatic apex of the set appears in “If You Go Away” from Jacques Brel, with a heart-tugging reading that could well be definitive. It was the culmination of the lyrical color she had provided in her interpretations all evening – there was something warm but hard-edge. When she sings one of these songs, she will rip your heart out with her uncompromising honesty, but avoids becoming either overly sentimental or maudlin in doing so. It’s the balance that she finds that transforms Betty into a cabaret superstar.

The last number in the set was “Home” from The Wiz, which was unexpectedly moving. I don’t think that I had ever paid attention to the lyric, or perhaps I have never heard a rendition that highlighted the words quite like hers. For an encore she dipped into West Side Story for an understated rendition of “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. On her way out to sing it, she clutched our Sarah on the top of her head with affection. It was a sight beyond compare; a diva so much in love with her audience.

Betty’s For the Love of Broadway runs until February 27 at Feinstein’s at the Regency. After that, I can only hope her next stop will be Broadway. Strike that, I hope the next stop is the recording studio because she needs to lay down these tracks as soon as possible. Then Broadway. (How about it, Betty Lynn?)

A Mini Play for Today

At rise: “A Weekend in the Country” is playing in the house. Kevin is looking out living room window at the snow, pausing briefly on his way to the iPod.

Enter left, his Mother, listening attentively.

M: Is that “George in the Park”?
K: No, it’s A Little Night Music.
M: Oh, the one about the barber.
K: Well, at least you’re somewhere in the ballpark.

And scene.

"Fanny" at Encores

There’s good reason that Ezio Pinza and Walter Slezak received the star-billing for Fanny when the musical opened on Broadway in late 1954. Though the show was named after its ingenue, and her character is most important to the entire dramatic thrust of the evening, the play belongs to two older men Cesar and Panisse, lifelong friends whose bonds of bickering friendship are further tied together by the function of this girl in their lives. A couple of codgers (as Kari called them), the wisdom and experience of the two men provides some beautiful and poignant contrast to the naive passion of the young lovers. It is the quieter moments provided by these characters where the musical reaches its emotional heights.

The two men have lived across the street from one another for year; Cesar owns and operates a popular cafe, Panisse runs a successful store. They play cards together, they drink, they bicker, etc. The widower Cesar lives in the cafe with his son Marius, who longs to escape and explore the world by sea (much to his father’s disapproval). The recently widowed Panisse finds himself stepping out of his mourning clothes three months following his wife’s death, looking to remarry to avoid the loneliness, compounded by the inability he and his wife had to produce an heir. Enter Fanny, a charming waif who sells fresh shellfish for her mother, Honorine. Fanny loves Marius; Marius loves Fanny but not enough to shake off the call of the sea and Panisse is smitten with Fanny. Complications arise when Fanny is impregnated by Marius, and in light of Marius running off to sea marries Panisse.

The new musical, which opened on Broadway in late 1954, was the offspring of producer David Merrick, who was looking to establish theatrical clout (after four misses). The idea was to recreate the success of South Pacific, and was hoping to enlist Rodgers and Hammerstein to write the score (and from what I understand they were very much interested in doing so). However, Rodgers was opposed to Merrick, and refused to relegate their above the title billing as producers to the novice. Merrick was; however, able to acquire Joshua Logan, who had directed and co-written South Pacific. Original stars Pinza and William Tabbert were also hired. (Mary Martin was considered but went to Peter Pan instead). Twenty year old Florence Henderson would play the title character; Austrian character actor Slezak was Panisse and walked home with that year’s Best Actor in a Musical Tony.

The score was unlike anything Rome had ever been called upon to write. He was known mostly for his politically conscious revues, such as the popular Pins and Needles and the light musical comedy hit Wish You Were Here. Here he attempted his first musical play with considerable success; there are several musical scenes, intelligent use of the reprise and of course, those soaring, romantic leitmotifs. He would write other ambitious scores (The Zulu and the Zayda and the four hour Japanese language Scarlett, the first musical of Gone with the Wind), but none were as romantic or operatic as Fanny. However, the show has fallen into relative obscurity in the last half century, with revivals few and far between. It doesn’t help matters that Steven Suskin’s liner notes in the CD release of the now out of print cast album make frequent reference to all of the show’s inherent flaws.

was selected for the 50th production in the City Center Encores! series, with direction by Marc Bruni and musical direction by Rob Berman. Having known the score, and admiring its range and depth for many years, I was very excited for that opportunity to see and hear the score in a live performance setting. Much to my surprise, I found myself finding the libretto in better shape than I had been led to believe. The script glosses over some character aspects (the victim of condensing six hours of film to 2 1/2 hours onstage) and the lyrics sometimes fail to live up to the lush underlying melodies, but I’ll be damned if this Encores! wasn’t one of their more charming efforts.

George Hearn and Fred Applegate headlined as Cesar and Panisse, respectively. Hearn’s voice has lost some of the power it once had, but was a welcome presence in his first Encores appearance. If he relied more on his prompt script than the actors, he still managed to convey the necessary emotions and nailed plenty of his laughs. He delivered warmly in “Welcome Home” and the understated “Love is a Very Light Thing.” It was Applegate who walked away with the evening, charming, warm, funny; his Panisse was again the heart and soul of the piece and with impressive delivery of his character’s many honest introspective numbers, particularly the charming “Panisse & Son,” the lilting “Never Too Late for Love” and the heartfelt toast “To My Wife.”

Elena Shaddow was in fine voice as Fanny, but she was much stronger in her scenes in the second act after Fanny’s maturation into adulthood. The evening’s surprise was James Snyder. Known mostly for his pop/rock music career, and his Broadway turn in Cry-Baby, Snyder displayed a legitimate tenor of such range and emotional expression that the actor should seriously second guess ever looking back into the rock territory. Priscilla Lopez, last minute replacement for ailing Rondi Reed, was a game Honorine. Michael McCormick, David Patrick Kelly and Jack Doyle were onhand to fill amusing secondary character roles. Ted Sutherland has one of the best singing voices I’ve ever heard on a child actor, but wasn’t as perfect in his line readings.

This was one of the first Encores! presentations to keep all action in the downstage area, and I think that worked to the show’s advantage (especially after missteps with an elevated upstage area in On the Town and Juno). Kudos to director Bruni for his seamless staging; it’s easy to scoff at a show so unapologetically romantic as this one. There are a couple of moments that seem jerry-rigged into the show, particularly the act one belly dance “Shika Shika,” but Bruni paid attention to make those moments part of the dramatic throughline. Roxie pointed out that the Cirque Francais, which I’ve seen dismissed by many, was interpreted in the sense of a dream ballet. The circus, late in the second act, reflects the emotional turmoil of Fanny, as she is pitted between two men, one affluent and affable, the other young and virile (and a sailor).

Berman caressed every one of the score’s nuances from the exceptional Encores orchestra (31 players!) with his usual flair. The trend is to look at the Encores! productions for Broadway transfers, which isn’t entirely fair, as many of the shows presented are supposed to be titles that are considered lost, forgotten or unrevivable. However, in this case, a transfer would be lovely but unlikely – and that’s okay. However, I do wish that the powers that be could raise the funds to record this particular cast, since the original (while lovely) doesn’t contain all the material, and ends with “Be Kind to Your Parents,” a charm song from the middle of the second act that doesn’t come close to reflecting the subtle but effective finale ultimo.

The Encores! season will conclude in April with a presentation of Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ 1964 flop Anyone Can Whistle to celebrate Sondheim’s 80th birthday.