She Loves Me – Menier Chocolate Factory

“My kingdom for a revival of She Loves Me!” is a thing I once tweeted. I fell in love with the original Broadway cast recording in high school, but it would be years before I would get to see it onstage. That chance arrived in 2013, when Ted Sterling presented a 50th anniversary concert at Caramoor. Cut to 2016. Exactly four years to the day after sending out this desperate missive, I was at the fourth preview of an enchanting revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory (and the second major production I’d seen this year).

She Loves Me is the ultimate charm show: a perfect confection of musical comedy writing that is romantic without being sentimental, witty without being self-aware, and heartwarming without being cloying. Based on the Miklós László play Parfumerie (source material for the films The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail), it’s about two coworkers are carrying on a profound correspondence by letter, not knowing that they work together — and loathe each other. Bock and Harnick’s score is one of the greatest in musical theatre. The songs are so character specific and integral to the plot that they don’t work as well without the context of Joe Masteroff’s expert libretto. The show is also blessed with one of the strongest second acts of a musical ever, with what I call The 11:00 Stretch from “Vanilla Ice Cream” to “Twelve Days to Christmas.”

She Loves Me has never become a household title, though it remains a cult favorite. Its original production was eclipsed by flashy blockbusters like Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl, running only nine months in spite of good notices and direction by Harold Prince. Every subsequent high-profile production has either been a financial failure or a limited engagement at a non-profit theatre.

My hat is off to director Matthew White, who pitches his production at a perfect pace. First and foremost, he trusts the material (even if saddled with the mostly-inferior 1993 revisions). He emphasizes the humanity of these characters, with profoundly funny and moving results. Secondly, his focus never strays far from the economic and political uncertainty of 1930s Europe. Finally, he uses the space with such economy and invention that it becomes impossible to resist the show’s intoxicating charms.

Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen play the feuding co-workers and would-be lovers. These two don’t just bicker, they hurl insults at each other like grenades. Their chemistry is sublime; combusting with euphoria in the one-two punch of “Vanilla Ice Cream” and “She Loves Me” in the second act. Umbers is immensely likable as the bookish and shy clerk, bringing out colors in the text that I’d never noticed before. Strallen, blessed with a lovely soprano, gives what feels like a close approximation of what Julie Andrews might have done with the part.

Katherine Kingsley is quite simply the best Ilona I’ve ever seen, combining expert comic timing with pathos. Kingsley’s real-life husband Dominic Tighe plays her Kodaly, the likable cad. They have a playfulness that most paired in the roles don’t have, and Tighe’s “Grand Knowing You” is an absolute riot. Alistair Brookshaw puts a new spin on weary, reliable Sipos, whose neuroses over job security wreak havoc on Georg’s life. Cory English plays the haughty head waiter with a mix of droll comedy and surprising warmth. Callum Howells is an endearing Arpad (and has the most charming Welsh accent) and Les Dennis (Mr. Maraczek) is particularly moving in his “Days Gone By” reprise. A favorite among the game ensemble: Aimee Hodnett. Ms. Hodnett’s nosy shop customer lived for the workplace drama at Maraczek’s, and I lived for the grace notes she was adding on the periphery.

Jason Carr’s new orchestrations sound better than the synth-heavy charts used in 1993. MTI should consider licensing his treatment for school, amateur and chamber productions. Catherine Jayes leads the band and conducts the show with sensitivity and depth. Paul Farnsworth’s jewel box of a set effectively uses four small turntables for transitions in and out of the shop. Farnsworth’s costumes are even better: his attention to period and character is beyond reproach.

She Loves Me runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory through March 4. No word yet on whether or not there will be a West End transfer. To the powers that be, I can only say: Don’t let it end, dear friends.

Bock and Harnick

While reading about the death of composer Jerry Bock this morning, I was simultaneously listening to show music on shuffle. I kept reading through the numerous obituaries and tributes online and suddenly one of his songs would pop up (both with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and without). From “The Sabbath Prayer” to “When Did I Fall in Love?” to “Three Letters” to “Pleasure and Privilege” to “Gorgeous,” etc and so forth; it seemed almost like clockwork that every three or four songs there was someone singing a song written by Mr. Bock.

Bock and Harnick wrote what I consider my favorite musical comedy, She Loves Me, which I only talked about at length only a couple weeks ago. While both men have written many different scores with different people, it is their collaboration for which both will be remembered. When I put together my playlists for itunes, I go through every album of mine and pick the songs I want to hear repeatedly. There are some albums where I find I can’t pick just one, so I put the whole thing into the mix. I didn’t realize it at the time, but today while listening to my music and reading various obituaries and tributes to the composer, I realized that I had put every single original cast album of Bock and Harnick musicals into my “Broadway Favorites” playlist.

It seems so strange to be seeing these names coming up so often in obituaries over the last two weeks. First, the death of Tom Bosley brought Fiorello! back into the forefront as fans – and Bosley’s friend and colleague Henry Winkler – fondly recalled the star’s Tony-winning performance in the show. Then just ten days ago, 98 year Joseph Stein, the librettist of Fiddler on the Roof passed away. I’ve been listening to the Bock and Harnick shows over the last couple of weeks as a result, so I was surprised when I heard the news this morning. Mr. Harnick survives his collaborators.

Fiddler is their ultimate legacy, with world-wide universal appeal and constant revivals, and a beautiful, klezmer-kissed score whose selections live on in the world of the show and also at various weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals. However, for as much as I love that show I am astounded by the entire output of these two men. Every one of their scores is worth hearing again and again, for the craftsmanship and the heart.

Over the course of the day, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on all of their shows and overall contribution to musical theatre. Together, Bock and Harnick were among the best of the best. Their scores were always written with the motivations of plot and character first and foremost. When She Loves Me was playing out of town, Jack Cassidy was hitting a home run in the second act with his farewell number “My American Drugstore.” You’d think that would be the end of it. But Bock and Harnick, along with librettist Joe Masteroff and director Harold Prince, felt that it wasn’t right for that moment. Instead, they wrote a more personal character-based number called “Grand Knowing You” which did ultimately serve the character of Kodaly – and it still brought down the house. Cassidy would win the production’s sole Tony award.

What’s interesting to me is that while it’s easy to identify a Bock and Harnick show, each one has its own distinctive voice. The Apple Tree, in a way, best exemplifies my point: the show is made up of three separate (if thematically linked) musicals- “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Lady and the Tiger” and “Passionella.” Bock and Harnick, along with orchestrator Eddie Sauter, gave each act its own sound. Fiorello! and Tenderloin, both New York musicals, evoke their respective eras (1910-20s, 1890s respectively) without sounding too much alike. While Tenderloin failed, and contained the same creative team as the Pulitzer Prize winning Fiorello!, it isn’t without merit (“Artificial Flowers” is a delight and I esp. love the way-of-the-world act one finale “How the Money Changes Hands”).

Another line that has been running through my head all day comes from a more recent musical, [title of show]. In the number “Nine People’s Favorite Thing,” the characters sing “When Bock and Harnick were writing Tenderloin, they were taking a risk to write a show about whores.” They were right. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick may not have revolutionized the musical in the way that Sondheim or Kander and Ebb did with concept shows, but together they were masters of the art, with an undeniable gift for melody, wit and panache.

Their collaboration came to an end during The Rothschilds with a massive falling out over the firing of the original director for Michael Kidd. The duo made amends, but only collaborated one more time – for “Topsy Turvy” which was interpolated into the 2004 revival of Fiddler (replacing “The Rumor”). I have to admit, I do sometimes wonder what sort of charming musicals we’ve missed out on as a result of their rift, but I am most grateful for the high quality of their output.

The team hadn’t written a musical in 40 years, but even in that the decades that have followed, they’re still known mostly for their 13 year collaboration. Somewhere in the world right now, Tevye is having a conversation with God. She Loves Me has never been a major commercial success on Broadway, but it’s a beloved favorite of many and is performed with great frequency (and should come back to Broadway sooner than later). Broadway has seen revivals of these two shows, as well as The Apple Tree. The first musical presented by City Center Encores! was Fiorello! They are immense talents, and for me, the world is a little less cheery today that Bock’s musical voice, with its seemingly unending range, has been silenced.

I’ll tell you one thing – those original cast albums will never leave my playlist.

“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.