“And Eve Was Weak”

I suppose you can make a case that Carrie is the greatest musical flop in history. I’ll let you decide what I mean by “greatest.” The adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, with a book by Lawrence D. Cohen and score by Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford, was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England in early 1988. A story of the high school outcast with the crazy religious fanatic mother from hell and telekinetic powers was a popular bestseller and a Oscar-nominated horror film starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

The musical proved to be far less than successful. Reviews were mixed in England, and the show was plagued by considerable technological problems. Yet the show continued to Broadway only two months later where it closed after 5 performances amidst some of the most scathing pans known to theatre. Ken Mandelbaum even called his essential book on flop musicals Not Since Carrie (and I implore to you read it if you haven’t; it’s fascinating, informative and entertaining). The score is something of a legend, and has an ardent group of fans. For more of the dish, read Mandelbaum’s book, you can read about the horror story that was the musical’s tenure on Broadway.

While I don’t care for much of the show (not available on cast album, but there is a sound system recording of the Broadway run that has made it’s way to seemingly everyone), the numbers for Carrie and her mother are actually quite arresting, their duets and Margaret’s solos especially. If the rest of the score had been half as good as these numbers, Carrie’s fate might not have been worse than death.

Linzi Hateley was cast as the title character and with her youthfulness and large belt voice managed she emerged mostly  unscathed from the entire ordeal, even winning a Theatre World Award. More curious: Barbara Cook was cast as Margaret White, in her first book musical appearance since the fast failure of The Grass Harp in 1971. After part of the set  nearly decapitated her, Ms. Cook made the decision not to continue with the production after Stratford. For NY, Betty Buckley (also the gym teacher from the film version) was cast. I can’t think of more of a divergence in styles, from Cook’s soprano to Buckley’s fiery belt, but that’s the way it was.

Here is a glimpse into both performing “And Eve Was Weak,” the first number where we really get to see Margaret White go off the deep end.

Barbara Cook


Betty Buckley (excerpt)


Pretty soon New York will revisit this darker chapter in its history, when MCC Theatre revives the notorious Carrie in a revised version that will address the issues that made it an embarrassing and high profile failure in the 80s. Tickets are hard to come by, and it is one of the more anticipated offerings of the winter, with performances starting January 31. Marin Mazzie and Molly Ranson, who did a reading a couple years ago, will star. It’ll be interesting to see if Carrie has a better time at the prom the second time around.

Seth deconstructs “Glitter and Be Gay”

The original production of Candide is the stuff of legend: mixed reviews and a 73 performance failure. A comic operetta adaptation of Voltaire’s satire, the critics praised Leonard Bernstein’s lively score, but found Lillian Hellman’s libretto far too serious. (Hellman has banned any production using her original text). However, the score (with brilliant lyrics from Richard Wilbur as well as Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Hellman and Bernstein himself) has lived on thanks to its original cast album, recorded by Goddard Lieberson for Columbia.

The operetta has had an incredible afterlife, with two Broadway revivals and countless mountings by opera companies world wide. (Most recently, Mary Zimmerman’s new production has played Chicago and Washington, D.C. and from what I’ve heard it could also come to New York). The score’s two most famous pieces are its acclaimed overture, orchestrated by Bernstein himself and the aria “Glitter and Be Gay” for leading lady Cunegonde. The role of Cunegonde is without a doubt one of, if not, the most challenging soprano roles in musical theatre, requiring an agile coloratura who can sing ridiculously florid passages, hit 21 high Cs (to say nothing of the Dbs and Ebs) and also be funny. Eight times a week. “Glitter and Be Gay” is her showcase, which has been a showstopper since first introduced in the original production by Barbara Cook.

(Other renditions I’ve heard: Mary Costa, Madeline Kahn, Renee Fleming, Maureen Brennan, Erie Mills, June Anderson, Kristin Chenoweth, Harolyn Blackwell, Maureen McGovern, Dawn Upshaw, Christiane Noll, Roberta Peters,  Diana Damrau, Sumi Jo and Natalie Dessay. I find the aria that fascinating and like to hear each rendition. Natalie Dessay’s impressed me most, technically, with interpolated F6. I find Kahn’s riotous rendition is the funniest. But I think Cook’s original is my favorite).

Seth Rudetsky, for Masterworks Broadway, analyzes Cook’s original rendition. Cook was not an opera singer but Bernstein allegedly wrote “Glitter and Be Gay” after she sang an aria from Madame Butterfly for her audition. On opening night, Bernstein came into her dressing room at the Martin Beck and offered his congratulations. Then he added, “Oh, and Maria Callas is out front.” Cook responded with sarcastic thanks, to which Bernstein countered, “Relax. She’d kill for your Eb’s.”



A Decade in Review

As we approach the end of 2010 as well as the first decade of the 21st century (There’s no such thing as Year 0 in our calendar), I’ve been looking back on the ten years of theatregoing I have had and have compiled a list of some favorite moments:

January 9, 2001 – It was my third Broadway show, but the sublime revival of Kiss Me Kate was the first show in NY that made me feel as though I were ten feet in the air. Stylish, elegant and irrepressibly funny, I went with my high school AP English classes (one section was reading The Taming of the Shrew). Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie (whom I adored from the original cast recordings of Ragtime), the revival (at the Martin Beck). I can remember every detail. We gathered after school, caught a train and headed right to TKTS (my first time at the booth) then dinner at TGI Fridays. I sat with my favorite English teacher, Fran Schulz, and we just laughed and laughed. We were breathless by intermission and practically needed oxygen by the end of act two. It’s become the standard by which I judge all musical comedy revivals. The London company was preserved for PBS telecast and DVD, but that incarnation doesn’t live up to my memories of this enchanted evening.

July 9, 2002 – Noises Off! I didn’t think I’d see the revival, which had recently won a Tony Award for featured actress Katie Finneran. However, while roaming the local mall on school break with a friend, I saw there was a contest for free tickets to the production. For the hell of it, I just put my name on the piece of paper and tossed it into this vat of thousands of slips. You can imagine my surprise when I got a phone call telling me how to arrange my free tickets. Knowing that the revival’s original cast would be departing, I arranged for the final week of their run. I’m glad I did; it was one of the most hilarious productions I’ve ever seen. It was my first time seeing Patti LuPone, Faith Prince, Richard Easton and T.R. Knight onstage. On top of it, it was also the first time I stage-doored a production and as a result I fell in love with Katie Finneran, who showed me great personal kindness and graciousness in a brief moment. Noises Off was the funniest production I’d seen until The Norman Conquests in 2009.

November 27, 2003 – Barbara Cook Sings Mostly Sondheim. I’ve long been a huge admirer but had never seen her perform live. Then I received word that she’d be in my very town while I was on Thanksgiving break. I had the CD of the 2001 Carnegie Hall concert, which featured Malcolm Gets. However, in Peekskill, it was just Barbara and her three man band. I sat in third row center and just basked in the performance. Her nuance with the lyrics, her warmth and humor, the depth of her feeling as she delved into the lyrics. The pinnacle, though, was hearing Cook sing “Ice Cream” her trademark number from She Loves Me. In the original key, no less. Chalk that one up to musical theatre zen.

May 27, 2004. I’ve talked about this day before, as it remains one of the most important of my life. Without the final performance of Gypsy with Bernadette, I wouldn’t have such marvelous friends like Noah and SarahB (and the extended family as a result). It was my first time at a Broadway closing (I’ve now done 14) and it was the first time I ever went backstage at a Broadway house. It was also the first time I saw Bernadette onstage, and in spite of what you see in print these days, her performance was well received by critics and audiences alike. And she should have won the damn Tony.

April 18, 2005. My first opening night. The Light in the Piazza at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. (To date I have done 7 opening nights). It was the start of an obsession with a superlative musical, which I ended up seeing 12 times throughout its run. There have been many other important theatregoing experiences of my life, but none that have been this magical. Victoria Clark’s performance as Margaret Johnson was one for the ages, and Kelli O’Hara was equally sublime as her daughter. Adam Guettel’s score was one of the best of the decade and it’s a shame we haven’t yet heard anything new from this brilliant composer/lyricist.

December 4, 2007 – August: Osage County opening night at the Imperial. I’d never gotten more dressed up or cared more about my appearance than this particular opening, as I was a guest of Noah. Because of the union strike, the opening had been delayed and by my great good fortune I was allowed to attend. It was a lot of fun standing in the lobby with Sarah, Kari and Sally people watching people as the stars made their entrance into the lobby. But what was even more amusing was the fact that there were celebrities who were there because they just had tickets for that performance – and celebrities who brought celebrity friends as plus-ones. But nothing prepared me for the searing power of Tracy Letts’ play with a dynamite cast including Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed. After the second act, I was in need of air. Saw this three and a half hour play 7 times.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007. My first post-Tony performance. We were in attendance after Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson won Tonys for their brilliant work on Grey Gardens. I had seen and loved the show earlier in its Broadway run, but the audience at this show made it something to behold. The applause at the top of the show threw the actresses off of the pre-recorded track (charmingly saved by Wilson) and Ebersole received the only second act standing ovation I’ve ever seen upon her entrance as Little Edie just before stopping the show with “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.”

March 27, 2008 & April 4, 2008. Two glorious revivals of American musical classics opened: Gypsy at the St. James Theatre, South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont. I was in attendance for both and just adored both productions. I’m of the school that loved both Bernadette and Patti, so comparisons are a moot point there. However, this second revival was aided considerably by the sublime Tony-winning performances of Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines. Over at Lincoln Center, Bart Sher directed what is probably the best production of a musical I’ve ever seen. Superbly cast, thrillingly sung and acted – and that orchestra of 30. I couldn’t ask for a better week at the theatre (interspersed between the two were favorite flops Juno and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue/A White House Cantata).

May 11, 2008. Two-fold. Brunch at Joe Allen’s and No No Nanette at City Center Encores. Each in itself was an event worth rejoicing, but the combination made it a day for the ages. It was the first gathering of the Bloggers Who Brunch (as I like to call our gatherings). At that point, I had only been blogging for seven months and it was the first time I was aware that there were other people whom I didn’t know that were reading what I had to write! It was the start of many wonderful friendships that I continue to cherish wholeheartedly. The afternoon was spent SarahB in my first visit to the TLC before we took in the fabulous production of Nanette, which is still the best of the best when it comes to the Encores productions I’ve seen – and the only one I think deserved a Broadway transfer. The performances were all top-drawer (esp. Sandy Duncan and Beth Leavel), the choreography was sublime as were the costumes and orchestrations and… well everything. The evening ended at Seppi’s afterward with many of the folks from brunch, all of us smiling and singing “I Want to Be Happy” until the wee hours.

March 15, 2009. I had seen Angela Lansbury make her Broadway return in Terrence McNally’s Deuce opposite Marian Seldes and I would see her sublime portrait of Madame Armfeldt in the revival of A Little Night Music. But there was something extra-special about her Tony-winning performance as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. I never would have imagined Lansbury would have such a Broadway renaissance, but am so grateful to have been here to witness it. As Arcati, Lansbury was an utter delight and continued to become even more entertaining as the run progressed. She nailed every laugh, gesture and indignant expression. And watching her improvise her spirit dance around the Condomine living room was worth the price of admission. This opening night was like something out of a 50s movie: tie and tails, elegant evening gowns and a party at Sardi’s. We maintained our own mad-cap party of sorts on the street and gleefully applauded the Liz Ashley as she got into her car (“I’m not in the show!”)

May 16 & July 26, 2009 – The Norman Conquests. I had been out of the country for the birth of my nephew when the announcements and the marquee went up and was a little surprised to see the play’s logo at Circle in the Square upon my return. I confess, I knew very little about Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of plays. But on a whim, I decided to take in a Saturday marathon of all three. It would become one of the most personally satisfying theatrical experiences of my life. A brilliant ensemble, impeccable direction by Matthew Warchus made these plays the funniest dramas or the saddest comedies I’ve ever seen. I was aching with laughter. I loved it so much, I had to be there for the final marathon which only cemented its place in my estimation. The ensemble was brilliant, but Stephen Mangan’s turn as Norman remains a personal favorite of all time.

September 18, 2009. I only knew of The Royal Family from its place in theatrical lore, but was excited to see the play at Manhattan Theatre Club. Sarah and I attended this early preview and were in awe. Jan Maxwell owned the stage as Julie Cavendish, in a sublime study in comedy. I also just adored Rosemary Harris as the aging matriarch, whose eleven o’clock moment took my breath away both times I saw the show. But more than the production itself, it was the way it made me feel – I loved the Cavendish dynasty and reveled in their love of all things theatre and would have loved to have been a member of the extended family.

December 12, 2010 – The final performance of The Scottsboro Boys. The performance was brilliant, as I knew it would be. However, it was the audience that surprised me this time. Before the show started, the audience gave composer John Kander a spontaneous full-house standing ovation – a gesture I’ve never seen in my ten years of theatregoing. At the curtain call, Kander toasted the late Fred Ebb, librettist David Thompson toasted the real-life Scottsboro Boys and director/choreographer Susan Stroman toasted the entire audience.

Every trip to the theatre is a memory for me, some good and some bad. (The Philanthropist, Bye Bye Birdie, The Ritz, Next Fall… but why dwell on the negative?) So here’s to the next decade and all the wonderful theatre it will bring.

“It’s Better with a Band”

Of all the albums Barbara Cook has released over the years, her second Carnegie Hall recording “It’s Better with a Band” from 1980 ranks as my personal favorite. I’ve own and enjoy all of them, and have had the opportunity to see the star in her Mostly Sondheim concert. But there’s something about this particular live set from that one night only concert that’s just perfection. From her voice, her deep understanding of a lyric and her warm Southern personality, the Tony-winning soprano has long been one of my favorite performers.

When Broadway roles started to become scarce in the early 70s, Cook turned to the concert stage and reinvented herself becoming one of the most acclaimed cabaret artists working today. She returned to Broadway this year in Sondheim on Sondheim, but the star  – who turns 83 today – is still in demand for her intimate, warm solo engagements. Her first appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1975 was a major return for Cook, who sang many of her signature songs from her various musicals and its accompanying live album was a huge success. It would be five years before she would return to the venue.

Cook’s set was eclectic, combining old standards with contemporary favorites, show music with original showcases, such as the sharp “The Ingenue” (“And movie roles you live to play/They give to Shirley Jones to do”) and the title song. Her longtime accompanist Wally Harper did the sublime musical arrangements and led the orchestra from the piano.  Cook is in stunning voice throughout, from the opening  (Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano”) to her plaintive final encore (Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All”) singing in that lovely soprano that was her trademark. She sings a lush “Lullaby in Ragtime,” gives Jerry Herman’s “Marianne” from the short-lived The Grand Tour a second chance and gets her jazz on with a spirited “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Cook also sings an astounding 10 minute medley of Leonard Bernstein with material from Mass, West Side Story and On the Town. And for those who only know “Sing” from its countless renditions on Sesame Street will be delighted to hear Cook sing it here, with her trademark “Sing a Song with Me” (in both French and English!). It’s an album I would bring to the proverbial desert island.

To promote the album’s release, Cook made several appearances around the world. These clips are from a 1980 concert televised on PBS. The first is Cook giving a revisionist look at “Them There Eyes,” the jazz favorite accompanied by a tuba and banjo (she also busts out an instrument of her own). The tubist is Sam Pilafian.


The second is an original piece, sort of the eleven o’clock piece of her set. Written by Harper, with lyrics by David Zippel, the song is a tribute to the instruments of the orchestra and builds to a thrilling climax, complete with coloratura flourishes.


Happy Birthday, Barbara!

“She Loves Me”: An Appreciation

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.

Seth Rudetsky Deconstructs Barbara Cook

When it comes to certain Golden Age musicals, I find that there are titles that are more likely to raise the eyebrow of your fellow enthusiasts than others. One of the titles that I love and take some flack for is Meredith Willson’s The Music Man. I’ve heard enough people scoff at it, calling it corny and old-fashioned. Some have suggested that its sacrilege to enjoy the show that trumped West Side Story for Best Musical. The show itself, about a con man who brings music and change to a small town in 1912 Iowa, was something of an unexpected surprise smash.

Willson was known as a bandleader and musical director for “The Big Show,” a popular radio program hosted by Tallulah Bankhead. He was also a two time Oscar nominee for his musical scoring of the classics The Great Dictator and The Little Foxes. He worked for eight years on numerous drafts of The Music Man, loosely basing the show on upbringing in Mason City, Iowa and people he knew in his life. With the encouragement of Frank Loesser, Willson created this unique, one-of-a-kind musical comedy that makes ample use of marching band techniques, contrafactum and counterpoint. The show opened in late 1957 and took critics and audiences by storm, winning five Tonys and racking up 1,375 performances.

The 2000 revival with Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker is where I cemented my appreciation for the show and score. I had seen the fun feature film (exceptional for its preservation of Robert Preston’s Tony-winning star turn) but never realized what a joyous show it was until March 15, 2001 when I was taken by friends to the Neil Simon Theatre as an surprise graduation gift.

There is one song in the stage show that didn’t make the cut in the 1962 film (we won’t discuss that awful 2003 TV remake with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth here – I’m saving that for a rainy day). “My White Knight,” a plaintive ballad sung by Marian in the middle of the first act expressing her deepest romantic longings, was replaced by the more upbeat “Being in Love.” In an unusual move, Willson only contributed half a song – “My White Knight’s” bridge remained intact. The second song is nice, but it doesn’t capture the essence of Marian’s MO quite as well (in fact it seems to portray as man-mad).

I’ve never quite felt that “My White Knight” is as well known as it should be. It makes for an arrested stage moment – the up-to-now priggish and uppity librarian, who hints at her wants in “Goodnight My Someone” finally opens up to the audience and in turn wins their affection. It’s simple, yet soaring. The night I saw the revival, Rebecca Luker brought the show to a crashing halt with the song’s final high Ab that seemed to go on forever.

However, the song was introduced to Tony-winning effect in the original Broadway production by Barbara Cook, who is currently back on Broadway in Sondheim on Sondheim. For as much as I enjoy Luker’s rendition, and that revival experience, the original cast album cannot be beaten. Preston has never been bettered, it’s a charming representation of the score (and sounds pristine – unusual for Capital Records) and Cook is absolutely radiant in what was her only Broadway blockbuster. For an interesting alternative, I suggest listening to her 1975 Carnegie Hall album, where she sings a very different version of the song that is mostly comic patter which segues into the familiar ballad.

Here Seth Rudetsky (who generally would like less soprano and more riffing, but we’ll agree to disagree) confesses unending admiration for Barbara while deconstructing her rendition of the song from the original cast recording:

Tony Awards Tribute to Robert Preston

The theatre world lost one of its brightest stars in 1987 when two-time Tony winner Robert Preston died of lung cancer. Preston, a character actor who worked steadily in mostly B-pictures was turned into a major star when he originated the part of Harold Hill in The Music Man, leading the 39 year old actor onto a new career path as musical theatre leading man. Not bad for a person who’d never sung before in his life.

The year of his death, the Tony Awards brought two of his leading ladies, Barbara Cook (The Music Man, 1957) and Bernadette Peters (Mack and Mabel, 1974) onstage in a tribute to their leading man, followed by a rendition of “76 Trombones” led by a chorus and an enormous marching band. Incidentally, Angela Lansbury, the host for the evening, costarred with Preston in the 1960 film adaptation of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.

Kenward Elmslie Remembers "The Grass Harp"

The show lasted seven performances in New York in 1971, but The Grass Harp has developed a cult following among musical theatre aficionados thanks to its sublime cast album. The musical, based on Truman Capote’s novel, had music by Claibe Richardson and book and lyrics by Kenward Elmslie. It marked Barbara Cook’s final appearance (to date) in a book musical on Broadway. The show also featured Karen Morrow, one of Broadway’s greatest belters, whose dynamite 15 minute “The Babylove Miracle Show” stopped the show. Carol Brice, Russ Thacker (Walter Bobbie his standby), Max Showalter and Ruth Ford rounded out the principals.

Critics weren’t very kind and the advance wasn’t enough so the show shuttered quickly. Several years later the cast album came out which (as is the case with many flop musicals) has kept the piece alive. It was also the final Broadway musical to have an entirely acoustic sound. But with such powerhouses like Barbara Cook, Karen Morrow (who Jerry Herman has said can sing the hell out of anything) and opera singer Carol Brice, who needs a mike?

Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this lovely score. Barbara Cook’s “Chain of Love” is achingly beautiful and worth the price of the album alone.

From US OperaWeb’s 2002 piece “Kenward Elmslie’s World,” Elmslie looks back on some memories of the show:

I Remember first meeting Truman Capote in Boston. A play of his based on his novella, The Grass Harp, was trying out pre-Broadway. I was with my significant other/mentor John Latouche, whose lyrics I idolized. Truman’s high-pitched, nasal voice and weirdo effeminacy terrified me. He complained vociferously about Cecil Beaton’s tree, which upstaged the performers and sabotaged his play.

I Remember working with Claibe Richardson, composer, on a musical adapted from The Madwoman of Chaillot; Richard Barr, producer; star, Lotte Lenya. Only it turned out we didn’t have the ‘rights.’ Several years work down the drain.

I Remember suggesting The Grass Harp, Truman’s novella (not his play) as a project to get us going again. I remember tackling some songs to see if it was right for us. It was. So we played them for Truman. He loved what we had done, counseled us to make it our own and gave us the rights, no hitch.

I Remember its first production, Trinity Square, Providence. My survival mantra I owe to the poet Frank O’Hara: Go on nerve and don’t look back. Ah. Opening night’s a marathon disaster, three-and-a-half hours long. The critics panned the daylights out of our fledgling. Elaine Stritch, a crowd-pleaser as Babylove, was consistently crocked and nightly gave Claibe near-heart failure – erratic tempi and pitch.

I Remember Kermit Bloomgarten, the prestigious Broadway producer, optioned our musical for Broadway. But to raise the huge sum of $250,000 (in 1971 – peanuts compared to now) he needed a star. I remember Claibe on piano. We shared the vocals, got to audition for Gwen Verdon and Julie Harris. An incredible pleasure after backers’ auditions — solemn guys in business suits, a no response situation. If they reacted positively the property might prove pricey. I remember going to Brazil with Claibe to nab a star. We tracked down Mary Martin at her isolated finca. She turned us down charmingly. Show-biz shrewd, she knew she needed to play both Dollyheart and Babylove to fulfill her fans’ expectations.

I Remember Ann Arbor where The Grass Harp tried out, pre-Broadway, in a theater so brand-new, flies secreted in cinder blocks, kamakazi-style, dive-bombed open singers’ mouths, which made singing extremely hazardous. The Detroit critics panned the living daylights out of our perennial fledgling. Richard Barr gallantly refused to close the show out of town.

I Remember the first matinee at the Martin Beck Theater, post-New York Times mixed notice. Small audience. Inhibited, cowed response. A dire contrast to the week of previews when audience response kept building. I remember Truman’s fixed advice: ‘Mike it.’ The Grass Harp was surely the last unamplified musical to hit Broadway. I remember the final performance, the seventh. The audience went wild. Laughs, showstopper after showstopper, endless bravos and curtain calls.

I Remember a recording studio in Cologne, Germany. Claibe and I were early. Our mission: bring back orchestral tracks for an original cast album. Only the harpist was there, hailed from Alabama. She had once played for Barbara Cook in a Broadway pit. I remember hours went by and the assembled orchestra – willowy violinists from the Cologne Philharmonic, protean Afro-American jazz guys – this group wasn’t together – when Karen Morrow, who’d played Babylove in the Broadway show and wanted to spend Thanksgiving in Europe with Claibe and me, stepped to the mike and did Babylove proud. Galvanized, the orchestra kicked in and we finished three days of sessions in the nick of…

I Remember bringing back our Grass Harp tapes. U.S. Customs: ‘Anything of value to declare?’ ‘Heck no. Just some dumb old reel-to-reels.’

I Remember we assembled the cast in a dinky New York City studio. The engineers weren’t used to ‘real’ voices – Carol Brice, Barbara Cook. They took away their booster gizmos. I remember when the album came out, listeners, including some critics, couldn’t figure out why on earth the show had flopped on Broadway.

I Remember attending a revival at a college in Manhattan. To my dismay sitting next to me was John Simon, acerb New York drama critic. The enemy! He nudged me mid-song, ‘If There’s Love Enough.’ ‘Great song,’ he whispered.

I Remember the director of a book-in-hand production at the York Theater, New York City, asking me if I had any old, unrevised scripts tucked away. He found the published acting version lacking. I dug through a morass of scripts and to my horror I realized that I had cut, cut, cut the dialogue mercilessly. The book is always the culprit when musicals fail. Everybody liked our songs. Go with the songs. I put back whole pages of dialogue, wantonly savaged. A show reborn. A fresh start.

Will Barbara Cook star in iSondheim?

The pre-Broadway production of this technologically based Sondheim revue by James Lapine was scrapped this past summer due to a lack of capital. Now it seems that Roundabout is considering it as a part of its season next year, as per Michael Riedel in today’s NY Post. The big rumor seems to be that Barbara Cook will headline. Cook has made several appearances on Broadway in her one-woman concerts/cabarets over the years, but has not starred in a musical since The Grass Harp folded in 1971. Riedel also mentions that Cook and Elaine Stritch were being sought, while disclosing the tidbit that the two legends do not get along. He cites an insider who knows both stars: if you put them in the same rehearsal hall, “no one would come out alive.” Stritch joined Cook onstage for her Metropolitan debut, duetting on “The Grass is Always Greener” from Woman of the Year, but Stritch’s work was left off the CD issue of that evening, with nary a mention of her participation.

While I’m not thrilled about the prospect of yet Sondheim revue (have we not exhausted that yet with Side by Side by Sondheim, You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow (A Stephen Sondheim Evening), Putting it Together and Marry Me a Little?), I will jump at the opportunity to see Cook back on a Broadway stage.

The article also discusses some interesting offstage drama regarding Irena’s Vow. I will be reporting on my experiences with Tovah Feldhuh at the Walter Kerr Theatre in the near future.