“Chronicle of a Closing Night” Revisited

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I’ve been collecting Playbills for years. Not only for the shows I’ve seen, but also ones that I’ve picked up at the Broadway Flea Market or in various shops. It started initially with some of my favorite flops, but has expanded to include almost anything I can get my hands on. Last week, I was flipping through my Playbill for the original Broadway production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one I picked up randomly for a spell-check, when I came across a fascinating feature article by Colette Dowling chronicling the closing of the musical Illya Darling, a 1967 screen-to-stage adaptation of the hit 1960 film Never on Sunday.

Illya Darling was mostly eviscerated by the critics, with raves only for its Greek star Melina Mercouri, who was reprising her star-making, Oscar-nominated performance as a care-free, empowered prostitute (It’s about an insufferable American tourist who tries unsuccessfully to reform her in a sort of reverse take on the Pygmalion myth). 1967-68 was not a particularly strong season for Broadway musicals; at 320 performances, Illya was the longest running Best Musical Tony nominee of the season. The show lasted as long as it did because of a strong advance and the magnetic presence of Mercouri. However, business had dropped off precipitously during the Christmas holiday prompting a provisional one-week closing notice in January.

The article starts off by discussing the final week of the run. Mercouri, Orson Bean and three other principal players proposed taking Equity minimum to stay open, but the producer (Kermit Bloomgarden, who is never actually mentioned by name) said no. When the provisional notice wasn’t rescinded as of Thursday, the cast realized their show was closing in two days. Next to the notice was a typed thank you note from the producer, information regarding unemployment insurance and a request for donations for the closing night party.

Ms. Dowling was allowed backstage access during this final performance. She shadowed Mercouri throughout the performance, but also saw much of the behavior that goes on behind the scenes at a musical. Star Mercouri is weary and emotionally exhausted. The stagehands are noisy. The assistant stage manager pisses off the production stage manager by stealing his photo of Melina and having it personalized. The most unsettling incident: a cocky stagehand grabs Mercouri just prior to an entrance and kisses her to impress his friends, refusing to let go of her. Mercouri, who briefly flirts with rage, laughs it off and barely makes it onstage in time.

There is an unusual political aspect associated with Illya Darling. The infamous Greek military junta took place just ten days after Mercouri’s Broadway opening. It made her the most prominent exile, as well as a vocal opponent of the junta. Her property and assets were seized. When her Greek citizenship was revoked by Minister of the Interior Stylianos Pattakos, Ms. Mercouri famously declared “I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr. Pattakos was born a fascist and will die a fascist.” So great was her power and presence in the anti-junta movement, she was later the target of a failed assassination attempt after Illya had closed.

Before the performance started, Mercouri told Dowling, “Never on Sunday changed my life twice. With the film I became known. And with the play… I lost everything I owned.” There were other Greek actors in the cast, with Titos Vandis and Despo also reprising roles from the film. Many of these cast members are unable to return to their homes and there is a sense of national pride among them. The song “Never on Sunday” – which is sung in Greek – so stops the show at this closing, the audience demands two encores. Everyone on stage is in tears; Melina has stop to collect her breath during the extensive ovation.

One of the most surprising aspects of this article is its length. At 3000 words, the piece seems more like something you might find in New York Magazine rather than Playbill, or at least Playbill as we know it today. Dowling has an exquisite eye for detail, a captivating style and doesn’t shy away from less-flattering aspects of show business (the final section on the closing night party reads like a wake). There are quite a few photos shadowing Ms. Mercouri around the backstage area of the Mark Hellinger Theatre. While we often get to hear about legendary opening nights, it’s so interesting to see a piece about a closing, especially for a show that was little-loved and is mostly forgotten today.

As a result of the article, I decided to pull the Illya Darling Playbill from my collection. The feature article is a piece by Bob Hope recalling his stage career, with anecdotes about the Ziegfeld Follies and Jimmy Durante. In my copy of Pacific Overtures, there is a wonderful interview with Katharine Hepburn, who was then poised to return to Broadway in A Matter of Gravity.  Now, by interview, I don’t mean just a  printed Q&A. The author (Bernard Carrugher) takes his conversation with Ms. Hepburn and develops it into a fully-formed 1500 word piece.  This is just the tip of the iceberg. I could – and did – get lost in these for hours.

The time I spent with my collection led me to wonder: is there a way to create a digital archive of the articles and features from vintage Playbills? There are so many wonderful pieces filled with the minutest of details. I know I’d love access to all of these, with years and years of features, interviews, appraisals, mail-in columns, and occasional fits of whimsy just waiting to be rediscovered. The Playbill Vault is already a wonderful resource, but each entry is limited to the “The Show” portion of the Playbill. These articles are a treasure trove worth exploring.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – The Original Broadway Cast Recording

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One of my prized possessions is a copy of the 4-LP original Broadway cast album of Edward Albee’s masterpiece Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  It’s a handsomely packaged boxed set, with 4 LPs and a special booklet containing essays and commentary by Albee, Harold Clurman and Walter Kerr. The records are in mint condition and there’s not a crease in the booklet; this album was clearly cared for by a serious collector.

I’ll never forget the first experience of hearing this cast album for the first time. I was just going to sample a few minutes before going about my day. I had a night shift at Barnes and Noble later in the evening, and had some things I wanted to take care of before I went to work. Well, 160 minutes later, I found myself lying on my sofa as Hagen said the play’s final lines, utterly spent (both of us). I also came to realize that good plays make for great listening; and while not as common as musical cast albums, some performances were recorded including Richard Burton’s Hamlet, Luv, The Subject Was Roses, etc. It rarely happens these days, but I would have gladly purchased a recording of August: Osage County, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and the revivals of Mary Stuart and The Norman Conquests (to name just a few).

The original performances are all strong. Arthur Hill’s George seems mild-mannered, but there’s unsettling emotion always simmering beneath the surface. George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon are expertly cast as the secondary couple, arrogant, ambitious Nick and flighty, repressed Honey. However, it is Uta Hagen’s Martha, the stuff of acting legend, who dominates the proceedings. Ms. Hagen, only manages not only to live up to the myth, but she surpasses all expectations. Boorish, loud, caustic and cutting, hers is a mammoth, animalistic performance. However, the showier moments are layered with limitless depth. Martha’s innate brashness serves to make her quieter moments in the third act, as she is laid emotionally bare, all the more arresting and heartbreaking.

I have seen the acclaimed 1966 film adaptation numerous times, and have made it a point to catch the two recent Broadway revivals. I’ve enjoyed all these incarnations, but I find that I always go back to this original cast. It’s amazes me that an aural capture of a play could be so thrilling; with every clink of glass and chime helping to bring Albee’s text to life in one’s own home. Kudos to Goddard Lieberson, known for producing some of the finest musical cast albums of all time, for recording the play unexpurgated and with such vivid attention to detail. Kudos, too, to Masterworks Broadway, for making this great play available for the first time since its original release. It is essential listening for anyone with a vested interest in drama.  On second thought, it’s essential listening for anyone with a vested interest in the English language. Every performing arts college and library in the country would be mad not to add this piece of history to their collections.

An Open Letter to Emma Thompson

Dear Ms. Thompson,

This past week, I had the unmitigated pleasure of witnessing you make your New York stage debut in the exciting New York Philharmonic concert of Sweeney Todd. I have long been an admirer of your work, ever since I first saw the 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing in high school. Not long afterward, I fell head-over-heels for your Oscar-winning Margaret Schlegel in Howards Endwhich I stumbled upon on Bravo one weekend, back when that station had a more artistic bent.

In the years since, I have come to admire your work as an actress, writer, humanitarian and activist. Your appearances at awards ceremonies and on talk shows show us a smart, genuine Brit with unfailing wit. You seem like you’d make a great friend as well as the best kind of drinking buddy, but that’s another matter entirely. As someone with a vested interest in musical theatre, I also became aware of your presence in the smash-hit West End revival of Me and My Girl opposite Robert Lindsay, which I acquired immediately and have enjoyed many, many times. (I have also watched a charming video of you singing and tap dancing on a giant LP).

I had seen the acclaimed London revival of Sweeney Todd only two years ago, so I wasn’t entirely bowled over by the NY Philharmonic’s initial announcement. However, when it was later announced that you were going to play Mrs. Lovett, the concert immediately jumped to the top of my must-see list, so much so that I made the early decision to see it twice.

One thing that was certain from the two performances I attended was the great love and affection pouring across the footlights in both directions. For someone who hasn’t appeared in a musical in 27 years, you seemed quite at home and at ease in the role. Mrs. Lovett is nothing if not daunting, with unforgiving musical and dramatic demands, and it was delightful to hear how you used your voice to your best advantage through some of the score’s most difficult passages. I laughed in the most unexpected places, the result of your manic energy, wit, and side-splitting physical comedy. However, you were also very careful to make Mrs. Lovett a real individual, someone who has starved, suffered and been down on her luck. I was mesmerized by you from start to finish.

While I enjoyed myself immensely, I had some quibbles with the production. If I were casting, I would have had Mr. Terfel and Mr. Quast switch roles, and would have cast Mr. Johnson as Tobias. I also missed the organ prelude and certain elements of the book and score (I never realized how much I missed the line “How many bells are there?” until it was gone!) However, it was a thrill to hear Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements so expertly played by the Philharmonic, I could hardly contain my excitement. I was so pleased at what you were able to accomplish with such limited rehearsal time that a few minor problems ultimately don’t matter. For a NY debut, I don’t think it could get more memorable than this.

I do hope that the rapturous reception of your appearance with the Philharmonic will entice you to return to the New York stage, and sooner rather than later. Play, musical, Broadway, off-Broadway; whatever you chose, it would certainly be a welcome experience. Personally, I would love to see you tackle the role of Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. I think you have the right comic sensibility, depth and voice to play her.  You and Mr. Sondheim suit each other quite well.

Please come back to us soon. In the meanwhile, I look forward to revisiting your performance on the Live from Lincoln Center broadcast.

Warmest regards,

~Kevin D. Daly
Theatre Aficionado (at Large)

‘Robert and Elizabeth’ – An Appreciation

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I have a soft spot for depictions of romance between historical figures. There is usually a greater antagonizing force that heightens their intimacy significantly and also captures me on an intellectual level. These couples tend to not only share physical attraction, but they also respect and admire each other’s intelligence, wit, and talent. I doubt I would like 1776 as much were it not for the scenes between John and Abigail Adams, which anchor a great musical with humanity. Another show that comes to mind is the lovely British musical Robert and Elizabeth, which tells the story of how famed poets Elizabeth Moulton Barrett and Robert Browning came to be married.

Elizabeth Moulton-Barrett lived in seclusion in her sick room at her father’s London home with her eight siblings, her maid Wilson, and her dog Flush. The exact nature of what was wrong with her remains something of a mystery, but she had a life-long history of poor health, which has also been linked to the accidental drowning of her beloved older brother. She was prone to illness, weak, and often unable to sit up or stand.

Her father, Edward Moulton-Barrett was a manipulative tyrant who ruled his nine children with a puritanical fervor, forbidding any of them from getting married or even having contact with potential suitors with the threat of disinheritance. Elizabeth, the eldest and father’s favorite, was gaining notoriety as a poet. Poet-playwright Robert Browning, impressed by her writing, began a written correspondence with her.

Not wanting to disobey her father, Elizabeth tried to dissuade Browning from seeing her. However, Browning’s persistence paid off; he was granted permission to call and she was won over by his charm and sincerity. During their courtship, Elizabeth also showed improvement in her health. In direct defiance of her father, Robert and Elizabeth eloped and moved to Italy, where they remained happily married until Elizabeth’s death. Her father stayed true to his word and they remained permanently estranged.

Playwright Rudolph Besier turned their story into The Barretts of Wimpole Street, which opened in London in 1930 and became an instant hit. Katharine Cornell played Elizabeth in the original Broadway production, and the role became one of her signatures, with numerous tours, two Broadway revivals, and a 1956 telecast. MGM released a starry film version with Norma Shearer, Fredric March and Charles Laughton in 1934, and later a remake in 1957.

Robert and Elizabeth, as the musical adaptation would eventually be called, had an unusual gestation. American lawyer/songwriter (yes) Fred G. Moritt wrote an adaptation called The Third Kiss. Unable to drum up interest with Broadway producers, he sought other venues. A film company was interested, but only if the product was tested onstage first. British producer Martin Landau was brought in, and while I haven’t yet been able to ascertain how it happened, Landau opted to create a brand new musical entirely. Ronald Millar wrote the book and lyrics, while Ron Grainer (famous for the Dr. Who theme) wrote the music. Moritt was given the credit “from an original idea by.”

Millar’s book effectively adapts Besier’s play, and his lyrics are quite good if occasionally stilted (I tend to make allowances for specific period pieces). He includes many clever references to their poetry, most notably the haunting song “Escape Me Never,” which is built on Browning’s poem “Life in a Love.” But he also gives the many characters very distinct characterization in their songs. Grainer’s music is lush and soaring; unashamedly romantic, but never obvious or cheap. His gift for melody is enterprising and occasionally surprising, particularly in the more upbeat numbers for the secondary characters. The singing requirements are considerable: legit voices, arias, duets, trios, includes sextet, septet, octet (the jaunty “The Family Moulton Barrett”), and even a nonet (the wistful “The Girls That Boys Dream About”), as well as a couple of full company numbers. 

Keith Michell, who had achieved great success in the original London and Broadway companies of Irma La Douce played the dashing Browning. Coloratura soprano June Bronhill, who had great success in bel canto opera, the original Australian company of The Sound of Music, and famously The Merry Widow, was Elizabeth. John Clements played Edward Moulton-Barrett. The production opened on October 20, 1964 at the Lyric Theatre. While old-fashioned in its style and sensibility, Robert and Elizabeth clicked with audiences and proved a major success for Bronhill. An original London cast album was recorded by HMV. The show ran 948 performances, closing on February 4, 1967, though it failed to break even due to its high running costs.

There were plans to bring the show, with Bronhill and Michell reprising their roles, to New York, but litigation halted that. The most commonly mentioned reason is a rights issues with the estate of playwright Besier. However, there was also litigation by Moritt, who was interested in protecting his original un-produced property (which at this point, no one wanted). Moritt’s suit wasn’t settled until 1969. Instead, Bronhill took the show to her native Australia in 1966 for a seven month run opposite Denis Quilley. Ultimately, neither Robert and Elizabeth nor Bronhill ever came to Broadway.

Singing-wise, the role of Elizabeth has a higher placement than most musical theatre soprano roles, with lots of money notes above the staff. Her want song, “The World Outside,” finishes on a high A, and each consecutive solo goes higher and higher. The second act opens with Elizabeth’s “Soliloquy,” an operatic aria comprised of major motifs from the want song and the major love duet “I Know Now,” providing the dynamic shift in Elizabeth’s arc (as well as a breathtaking high C). Her eleven o’clock moment is a brief, but show-stopping defiance of her father called “Woman and Man,” which ends on a shock-tactic D above C (which some think is higher than it actually is because the note comes as a total surprise).

Bronhill sings the material with taste, elegance, and a warm intensity; her technique is impeccable and her diction is flawless (you can make out precisely what she’s singing on a fast arpeggiated chord to high B in “Woman and Man”); one of the greatest soprano performances in cast album history. I can find no evidence that Bronhill had a matinee alternate, meaning she sang the hell out of this role 8 times a week for over a year and a half.

Productions of the show have been few and far between. Steve Arlen starred in a Chicago production at the Forum Theatre in 1974. There was a production starring Sally Ann Howes and Jeremy Brett that played Guildford, UK and Toronto, Canada in 1976-77. This was rumored to be a pre-Broadway tour, but nothing more ever came of it. In fact, the closest the musical has come to Broadway was a 1982 production at the Paper Mill Playhouse, which received mixed reviews. In 1987, the musical was revived as part of the Chichester Festival, resulting in a second cast album. This second recording is more complete than the original, containing music that isn’t even in the vocal score or libretto, but the singing – especially Gaynor Miles’ Elizabeth – is lacking.

I would love to see Robert and Elizabeth on stage, but there are several factors that work against my wish fulfillment. The cast is immense: Robert, Elizabeth, her father, her eight siblings, a maid, a cousin, a secondary love interest, and a cocker spaniel, to boot. All totaled, the show requires a cast of at least 40. Plus, there are opulent Victorian set and costume requirements. Also, the musical was seen as old-fashioned in 1964; it would probably be seen as a relic by most of today’s theatergoers. In the meanwhile, I’ll continue to cherish the gorgeous original London cast recording.

Finally, here is “I Know Know” performed by Michell and Bronhill on his 1971 BBC special Presenting Keith Mitchell:

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The Year of Living Cinematically

Another year of movie watching gone! The same rules for my list like every year: each film was watched in its entirety and an asterisk indicates a film watched for the first time. Interestingly, I haven’t seen a single film released this calendar year. I can’t recall the last time that happened.

*The Star (1952) 1/5
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) 1/6
*Sleepwalk with Me (2012) 1/11
*Pitch Perfect (2012) 1/11
*The Sessions (2012) 1/11
*Mrs. Brown (1997) 1/16
Mrs. Miniver (1942) 1/17
*The First Wives Club (1996) 1/19
A Shot in the Dark (1964) 1/19
*Oh! What a Lovely War! (1969) 1/19
The Quiet Man (1952) 1/23
Blithe Spirit (1945) 1/24
Lili (1953) 1/24
His Girl Friday (1940) 1/25
Sunset Boulevard (1950) 1/26
Hope and Glory (1987) 1/27
The Apartment (1960) 1/29
*Romance on the High Seas (1948) 1/30
When Harry Met Sally (1989) 1/31
Cabaret (1972) 1/31
*The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) 2/2
Victor/Victoria (1982) 2/9
*Song of Norway (1970) 2/10
The Princess Bride (1987) 2/27
Moonstruck (1987) 2/28
*The Three Faces of Eve (1957) 3/3
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) 3/6
Pat and Mike  (1952) 3/8
Light in the Piazza (1962) 3/16
*The Iron Petticoat (1958) 3/16
*Kinky Boots (2005) 3/18
*Easter Parade (1948) 4/1
Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)  4/13
Wives and Lovers (1963) 5/24
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012) 5/25
High Noon (1952) 6/1
Young Frankenstein (1974) 7/27
Leave Her to Heaven (1945) 7/27
*Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) 7/28
*The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) 7/29
If…. (1969) 7/30
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) 7/31
*Rashomon (1950) 8/1
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) 8/1
Shane (1953) 9/29
A Letter to Three Wives (1949) 10/14
Babette’s Feast (1987) 10/16
From Here to Eternity (1953) 10/18
Gone with the Wind (1939) 10/18
Halloween (1978) 10/31
Elf (2003) 12/13
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) 12/14
The Lion in Winter (1968) 12/16
The Bishop’s Wife (1947) 12/17
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) 12/18
Psycho (1960) 12/23
Mary Poppins (1964) 12/25
*Far from Heaven (2002) 12/29
Top Hat (1935) 12/30

The Egregiously Overlooked

While I have seen my fair share of theatre in 2013, work and life managed to get in the way of my blogging. These are three productions that meant a great deal to me, and I felt compelled in these waning days of December (now that work is on the back-burner for a spell) to write about them.

She Loves Me (6/23/13, Caramoor). One of the most charming musicals ever written turned 50 this year. Ideally, this landmark event would have meant a full-scale Broadway revival, but instead it was the classy Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah who did the honors. The celebrated concert venue, which I had never been to before, presented a semi-staged concert of the original ’63 version, with an ideal cast, glorious musicianship and charm to spare. Joe Masteroff’s libretto is a model of economy, taste and charm, and Bock and Harnick’s score is tops – particular the string of second act showstoppers that I call the “eleven o’clock stretch.” Santino Fontana and Alexandra Silber, whom I had seen previously this year in the Collegiate Chorale’s classy concert of the ludicrous Song of Norway, were ideally cast.  Silber brings extraordinary intelligence to her acting, which complements and informs her lovely singing. Fontana should top any and all casting lists if a Broadway revival of this show were to happen; his performance was practically perfect.  The twosome were assisted by all-stars: John Cullum, Ryan Silverman, Brad Oscar, and Jonathan Freeman (reprising his Tony-nominated turn as the droll waiter), to name a few. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s played Don Walker’s delectable period arrangements. It was heaven on earth for 2 1/2 hours. I hope we can expect future delights at Caramoor.

The Assembled Parties (7/23/13, Friedman Theatre). Richard Greenberg’s strong, compelling play about an affluent Jewish family on decline left me with much to contemplate and several performances to savor. We were introduced to a troubled family with many secrets, led by the kind, open-hearted Julie (an astonishing Jessica Hecht) in the first act. Act two fast forwards 20 years with the many family members since deceased, and the matriarch approaching death. Nothing particularly earth-shattering or flashy happens over the course of the play, but the characters are compelling, and Greenberg leaves many questions raised by the first act left unanswered in the second – which adds to the complexity of the family and its members. One of the most striking aspects of the play was the relationship between Julie and her lovably gruff sister-in-law Faye (Tony-winning Judith Light). It feels rare in a contemporary play to see two female characters who share a deep loving bond and genuinely enjoy each other’s company – without feeling cloying, overly sentimental or saccharine.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (7.25 & 8.23.13, Golden Theatre). Hilarious, unexpectedly moving and surprising, this Christopher Durang play contained many delectable references and parallels to Chekhov, but was its own play, brought to life in a vibrant production. I saw this Tony winner twice. The first time with Sigourney Weaver and the second time with her replacement Julie White. Camps have been divided on the two portrayals of narcissistic movie star Masha, and the two performances couldn’t possibly have been more different. I liked both quite a bit. Weaver played her with a madcap Durang-ian sensibility, but grounded her affectingly in the final minutes of the play. White was more naturalistic throughout, with some killer line deliveries. David Hyde Pierce was exceptional as droll, peace-keeping Vanya, who tored the house down with his nostalgia-tinged Chekhovian meltdown in Act Two. Billy Magnussen was fearless as Masha’s dim boy-toy Spike, a would-be actor who is simultaneously endearing and repellent. Shalita Grant stole every scene as pseudo-psychic cleaning lady Cassandra.

However, the best performance in the play and quite possibly of my theatergoing year, was Kristine Nielsen as Sonia, the frumpy, self-pitying adopted sister who is prone to mood swings. Nielsen’s uproarious Maggie Smith impression would have been worth the price of admission were it not for her stunning phone call in the second act. After having spent most of the evening leaving us  from laughter, Nielsen brought about pin-drop silence as she took a phone call from a would-be suitor asking her on a date. We held our collective breath as Sonia awkwardly stumbled through the call; reluctant but eager, trying to say the right thing and working up the courage to say yes, when it would be so characteristic of her to say no. I wish Vanya had been open-ended; I would have been in and out of the Golden many, many more times.

‘The Sound of Music Live’

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How do you solve a problem like Maria, that chipper almost-nun turned nanny who saves a broken family and outwits the Nazis? Not only is she based on an actual person, but she’s a star turn requiring killer vocals and unlimited amounts of charm and pluck. If these demands weren’t enough, anyone who plays her must live in the shadow of two indelible portrayals: Julie Andrews in the film, and to a lesser extent, Mary Martin in the original stage production. It’s a tough gig that invites comparisons and stirs up quite a lot of nostalgic emotion. NBC took a huge risk last night, dedicating its entire primetime slot to a live performance of the original stage version of the show (book by Lindsay & Crouse). Billed as The Sound of Music Live!, the telecast did have a major problem with Maria. While it wasn’t quite a success, it was definitely worth the effort.

Some history: the musical wouldn’t exist without Mary Martin, the Texas gal turned beloved Broadway icon. She owned the rights to the story and approached Rodgers and Hammerstein to supply a few songs for a play, and they in turn offered to make it a musical. The Sound of Music premiered in 1959 (ten years after the trio experienced a major hit with South Pacific). Incidentally, the show has never been much of a critical favorite, with both the original production and film receiving mixed notices. But it didn’t matter, the show has belonged to the audience since its first performance.

Martin played Maria to standing room crowds for almost two years. She never missed a performance, not even when she filmed her iconic Peter Pan in 1960. That Martin, 45 going on 46 and already a grandmother, was probably too old to play a young postulant didn’t register with critics and audiences. Mary Martin radiated perpetual youthfulness, charm and love from the stage, and that star quality was enough to make the crowds suspend their disbelief. She was surrounded by great talent, including Theodore Bikel as the Captain, and most notably the dignified, Tony-winning dramatic soprano Patricia Neway as the Reverend Mother (Neway was actually six years younger than Mary). The show was the biggest hit of the season and won the Best Musical Tony over Gypsy (in a tie with Fiorello!). Martin received her third Tony as Maria, besting Ethel Merman’s iconic Rose. Florence Henderson headlined the national tour. Meanwhile, in London, the musical opened without an established star and became the longest running show in West End history. The show itself had become the attraction.

For the 1965 film, screenwriter Ernest Lehman smoothed out the narrative and added some conflict to the relationship between Maria and the kids, and also found better placement for some of the songs. Two sophisticated songs for Max and Elsa were dropped. One of Lehman’s more curious choices was to make Elsa a Baroness, stripping her of her political opinions and CEO status, while setting her up as a romantic villain, which was not how she was portrayed in the original production. Rodgers added two new songs (“I Have Confidence” and “Something Good”) to help flesh out Maria. Because of its overwhelming popularity, this film has become what most people expect when they see the musical onstage. The 1981 London revival starring Petula Clark was the first to incorporate material from the film, and other productions have followed suit, including the 1998 Broadway and 2006 London revivals.

As for NBC’s mixed bag telecast, the easiest and most obvious target for criticism is Carrie Underwood, as the entire event was built around her. Ms. Underwood, an American Idol alum and country star, has a great voice, but is severely lacking in acting ability. As I watched the show, I noticed the dichotomy between her singing and speaking. She became increasingly relaxed in her singing, but displayed a jarring disconnect with the dialogue. She just seemed to say words, without registering any emotion or feeling. At first I thought Ms. Underwood was a poor choice for Maria, but as the evening progressed I started to think Maria was a poor choice for Ms. Underwood. She probably would have been better served by Annie Get Your Gun, or some similar show that would play to her strengths and personality.

Ultimately, what Underwood needed was strong direction and she didn’t get that from either Rob Ashford or Beth McCarthy-Miller. Ashford has been assigned many classic musicals but has a perilous tendency to not trust the material. His choreography is quite often all style and very little substance. Case in point: the teenagers in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” doing a spirited polka through a wooden hillside. I suppose I should just be grateful he didn’t have nuns hitch kicking around the abbey for no reason. What was presented on TV was merely blocking, with far too many intrusive commercial breaks. Issues with pacing and timing were rampant, even marring those scenes dominated by the Broadway stalwarts.

Audra McDonald’s Abbess was very good and her “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” was the musical apex of the evening, but while she had the grace she lacked the gravitas, and only felt like an authentic Mother Superior in her scenes alone with Underwood. All other times, she felt more like the popular nun as opposed to the head nun. The best performance of the night came from Laura Benanti as Elsa. In many ways, the character is far more fascinating in her politicized role onstage, representing those who chose ambivalent appeasement while Hitler took power. Benanti looked like a million dollars, sang like a dream, and her realization that the relationship was over during the last line of “No Way to Stop It” was the finest piece of acting of the night. (It’s also worth noting that Ms. Benanti was social media’s favorite: her name trended *worldwide* on Twitter for five hours). The cast album is worth getting just for these two ladies.

My quibbles aside, I was glad to see a three hour musical presented live on network television. I want to see more presentations like this. I applaud the risk, which seems to have paid off for NBC in press and especially in the ratings. While it ultimately fell short of expectations, it’s certainly worth another try. And I hope whatever it is, it stars Laura Benanti.

‘Matilda’ – Original Broadway Cast Recording

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When asked if I thought there would be a Broadway cast recording of Matilda, my response was “Don’t hold your breath.” Not that I didn’t want one; I believe all musicals deserve to be recorded. However, British imports – especially those retaining original West End cast members – rarely get recorded anymore. There was a time when this wasn’t the case, with shows as diverse as Irma La Douce, Oliver!, and Les Miserables getting a new recording on this side of the pond. However, during the last 25 years we’ve seen The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia, Mary Poppins and Billy Elliot come to NY and not get a new recording. So it took me by pleasant surprise when it was announced that Broadway Records and Yellow Sound Label were going to record the Broadway cast.

The Broadway production of Matilda was met with great critical acclaim when it opened in April 2013, and as of this writing I have seen the show four times at the Shubert Theatre. It’s translated well, though quite a bit of the show’s innate Britishness has been softened for American audiences. For me, it’s just slightly less special here than it was in the West End. I’m glad that Bertie Carvel and Lauren Ward were able to repeat their brilliant performances in NY, but I found myself not quite as moved as I was at the Cambridge Theatre. The two West End Matildas I saw gave special performances, with one giving the greatest child performance I’ve ever seen. The original supporting players were also a bit more distinctive; more shades and less outrageous cartoon. I also feel that the revisions composer-lyricist Tim Minchin made to his lyrics, with the exception of those for “Bruce,” diminish his work (eg: “Charlotte Bronte – do not wantee” is a poor substitute for “Harry Potter? What a rotter!”). That said, I still think Matilda is one of the best and brightest musicals of the past few years.

Almost exactly two years after receiving the original Stratford cast recording (*not* London, for the record), I received the jazzed up original Broadway cast recording of Matilda, which was recorded just prior to the departure of Carvel and Ward, who’d been with the show since its world premiere. It’s interesting to compare and contrast their performances on each album, especially to hear how Carvel’s voice has grown more feminine and more distinctive. However, the Stratford recording remains essential if only for Carvel’s hidden track performing Trunchbull’s entire second act diatribe. Ward’s Miss Honey is a performance that feels more lived in, not unlike some of the performances on the 1959 London cast recording of My Fair Lady.

The Broadway cast album boasts punched up orchestrations and vocal arranging (some delicious new harmonies), as well as the first recordings of the new Overture (more of a Prelude, really), “The Chokey Chant,” and “Chalk Writing.” The three bonus tracks include the first three parts of Matilda’s story, though I think the album would be stronger if these underscored monologues were included in their appropriate place in the score, as they build to “I’m Here” in the second act. A deluxe edition containing a cut song performed by Chris Hoch, as well as a quartet version of “Naughty” featuring all four Tony-honored Matildas, is available on iTunes.

I can’t say the new Broadway album is better than the Stratford recording, because I think both are worth having. I just wish there had been an original London cast recording.

Laura Benanti: ‘In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention’

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I get the feeling that if you were to go back in time and tell 11 year old Laura Benanti that she would one day be one of Broadway’s most beloved stars, she would’ve thought you were out of your mind. At least, this is the impression I get when I hear Benanti talk about her Old Soul childhood on her essential new album In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention (Amazon, iTunes), a live recording of her cabaret at 54 Below released by Broadway Records.

In between her eclectic song choices, which range from Golden Age Broadway to Harry Chapin, Benanti interjects endearing, self-deprecating anecdotes about learning to sing entire Sondheim scores as a pre-pubescent, dressing up as Fosca from Passion for Halloween and crying on the school bus because none of her classmates knew who Rosemary Clooney was. (She pays homage – and bids adieu – to these formative years with an irresistible rendition of  “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” from Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi). I sense that Benanti herself is still somewhat surprised that the awkward, unpopular girl with the frizzy hair and love of classic movies grew up to be a glamorous Tony-winning leading lady.

My first encounter with Benanti came with the 2007 City Center production of Gypsy. Frankly, I had no idea what to expect, as I was surprised by her casting. However, my jaw dropped in admiration as I watched her transform from awkward Louise into Gypsy Rose Lee during “The Strip.” I went back to see the show three times on Broadway (opening night, post-Tony performance and closing), and it became quite clear to me that Benanti was the heart and soul of that production. I doubt I will ever see a better Louise as long as I live.

With her shimmering soprano, Benanti is clearly at home with classic musical theatre repertoire (“I’m Old Fashioned,” “My Time of Day”), but she is also utterly compelling on contemporary and original material, including two of her own original songs. A tribute to 54th Street comes by way of the modified “On the Street Where I Lived” followed immediately by a mash-up of Ellie Goulding’s “Starry-Eyed” and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games.” She closes her set by revisiting “Unusual Way” from Nine, which she dedicates to Chita Rivera (who taught her how to take a bow) and offers “Model Behavior,” her dazzling showstopper from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, as an encore.

Benanti was assisted by Todd Almond, who served as the evening’s musical director, arranger, pianist, scene partner, back-up singer and accordionist. Almond is also a composer, and he joins Benanti on his “Tilly’s Aria/Frank and Tilly Make Love”, which is immediately followed by Benanti’s rendition of his “Spring is Coming.” His is a voice I want to (and expect will) hear more of in the near future. Also, his arrangements are superb; fitting the atmosphere of each song perfectly.

Some of the best moments on the album are the spontaneous, off-the-cuff interactions she has with the audience (most notably a chance encounter with a gynecologist). It’s clear that Benanti is much more interested in the human connection than with sticking to her script. The star is so at ease in the venue that her performance is all the more charming and humorous, making it one of the best of the Live at 54 Below albums so far.

While Benanti’s recent ventures into TV haven’t been successful (something she discusses on the album – though Go On definitely deserved a renewal), she always comes home to NY as she did with this show, this album and the upcoming Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella. I can’t wait until she is back on Broadway headlining a musical, but in the meantime I’ve got this delightful album to keep me company.