On the Town: The January Edition

I was just thinking to myself that I couldn’t believe January is over already before my thought process segued to me wondering when I turned into my parents. But we’re already a month into 2012 and so much has been going on.

Today, incidentally, is Carol Channing’s 91st birthday. I was lucky enough to attend a preview screening of the new documentary Carol Channing: Larger than Life this summer at Tavern on the Green with SarahB, and was fortunate to receive an invite to a press screening this month. Dori Berinstein’s new film is a love letter to the Tony-winning star most famous for her roles as Lorelei Lee and Dolly Levi. Running 87 minutes, the film focuses on Carol’s extraordinary discipline and professionalism, her current project to get arts back into public schools and her  late-in-life reunion with middle school sweetheart Harry Kullijian, Channing’s third husband.

The film is highly entertaining, featuring clips from her various TV and stage appearances, with that larger than life persona out on full display. Her dedication to her career, the commitment to her public persona has endeared her to audiences for 60 years, so it was interesting to hear others talk about her, including JoAnn Worley, Lily Tomlin, Barbara Walters and Tyne Daly (to name a few). Amid the laughs, the film hints at the difficulties in her life, most notably her battle with ovarian cancer, but doesn’t delve as deep as one would hope. Still, for fans, this is  a must-see with many laughs along the way. The scenes revolving around Carol and Harry’s reunion have taken on a deeper poignancy, since Harry’s death last month and are quite moving as a result.

Celebrating under-appreciated musicals is something I do well, and enjoy engaging in conversations with other like-minded individuals through Twitter and Facebook. One of the most notable is Jennifer Ashley Tepper, who’s the Director of Promotions for Davenport Theatricals. But when she’s not at her day job, Jen is working on a variety of other projects, but none I think is as near and dear to her as If It Only Even Runs a Minute, a concert series she and collaborator Kevin Michael Murphy have been hosting for the last two years. The duo bring together a group of wonderful singers (sometimes original cast members) and offer a musical theatre history lesson, focusing on musicals that either flopped or have been forgotten with time. With each installment, the show has only grown and is fast becoming a must-see event.

This eighth installment took place in Joe’s Pub (my first time there, btw) and featured songs from shows as diverse as Lady in the Dark, Doonesbury and Bring Back Birdie. It was great to hear “Bernadette” from The Capeman (sung by Jared Weiss) and the manic “Dressing Room Shuffle” from I Sing! (sung by George Salazar and Julia Mattison), shows I confess I am not all that familiar with. Claybourne Elder reminded us that his was the best song in Road Show, with a lovely rendition of “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened.” Alli Mauzey told hilarious stories  about Cry-Baby and sang her hilarious number, “Screw Loose,” proof that all shows regardless of success or failure should be recorded. Murphy and Lucy Horton sang the spirited “Fireworks” from Do Re Mi, which begat the “shouting the title” trend that became a fun running gag. While I can’t be there to join in on the 9th installment on March 26, as I’ll be in London, I plan to be back for number 10.  (And Jen, you are not allowed to do 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue without me).

I also dropped by the City Center for their Encores! Kick-off event which featured a panel discussion led by artistic director Jack Viertel. James Lapine, Marc Bruni and Rob Berman were on hand to talk about the three shows in this season’s line-up (Merrily We Roll Along, Pipe Dream and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Much of the discussion revolved around the history of Merrily, and how it’s evolved since its disastrous debut on Broadway in 1981. Viertel mentioned that Encores! honors the wishes of living writers in how they present these shows, which is why Merrily will be seen in its La Jolla revision (with Jonathan Tunick reorchestrating the revisions to match his original charts).

Bruni talked about the challenges of bringing Pipe Dream, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s biggest flop (246 performances) to the stage today. Based on John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, the novel is about bums and prostitutes living on Cannery Row. However, Hammerstein’s libretto glossed over the grittier edges of Steinbeck’s work, much to the author’s displeasure. Another reason for the show’s difficulty was in its star casting. Originally, R&H wanted Henry Fonda for their lead, but after months of coaching realized he could not sing. They went another route, in star casting the role of Fauna, a madam, with Wagnerian opera star Helen Traubel. The role was originally envisioned to be belted, but with Traubel they took the songs up to more operatic levels. The most interesting facet of the conversation (for me anyhow) was that they were considering taking the keys down for whomever takes on Fauna. (I do have a question for anyone who might know: When Nancy Andrews replaced Traubel, did they lower the Fauna keys for her?)

Berman talked about the music for all three shows (he is conducting all of them), but focused specifically on Blondes, especially paying homage to Hugh Martin’s brilliant vocal arranging, which are some of the tightest in musical theatre. There was no word, though, on who was going to be cast as Lorelei.

Last but not least, the acclaimed revival of Follies played its final performance at the Marquis Theatre, making way for the upcoming revival of Evita. I was at the last show, along with many friends, but in spite of that wonderful last show, I find myself thinking back to two earlier viewings of the show. Both memories revolve around Carlotta. The first was in October, when I went with my friend Kevin, and in the middle of I’m Still Here realizes he is watching the First Lady of the British Musical and leans over declaring excitedly, “Oh my God, that’s Elaine Paige!” The second memory was in November, when I went to see the show with Roxie and Russ Dembin. Another wonderful performance, but Ms. Paige was in Korea for the week and Florence Lacey was on. One of the beautiful things about this production is that understudies were allowed to create their own characters, complete with their own unique costumes. Ms. Lacey was wonderful, and sang a thrilling rendition of “I’m Still Here.”

Showstopper: Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly!”

The success of Hello, Dolly! is one for the record books. Jerry Herman‘s second Broadway musical – and his first for infamous producer David Merrick – suffered a tortuous out of town experience. Originally, the show had the rather unmusical title of Dolly! A Damned Exasperating Woman. That was tossed out the window when Merrick heard Louis Armstrong’s iconic cover of the song “Hello, Dolly.” Reviews in Detroit and Washington, D.C. were disappointing, Merrick threatened firings and closings and tried to bring in other writers. However, director Gower Champion was able to bring it together for the opening night in New York. Dolly opened to unanimous raves and settled in for a 7 year run at the St. James Theatre. The musical held the record for most Tony wins (10) for almost 40 years, until The Producers came in and snatched up 12. Carol Channing hadn’t had a Broadway smash since Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which opened in 1949.

It almost wasn’t to be. Herman and librettist Michael Stewart adapted Thornton Wilder‘s The Matchmaker (already a hit play with Ruth Gordon and a film with Shirley Booth) with Ethel Merman in mind. However, following Gypsy she was no longer interested in originating any musical comedy roles and passed on the project (though she later closed the show). Channing was given the gift of a lifetime. She played the show for two years in New York and basically traveled the world with the show for the next thirty years. Her first Broadway return came in 1978, opposite Eddie Bracken. Then following an appearance in the famous red dress at Jerry Herman’s Broadway at the Hollywood Bowl, interest was renewed in yet another tour of Dolly. Channing took it out on the road and brought it back to Broadway in what was her final appearance in the role. Between the original production and her final tour, she clocked in over 5,000 performances.

Like we saw with Angela Lansbury and “Mame” a couple weeks ago, the company sings and dances a paean to the leading lady. The number even builds similarly, with parallels in the way the dance break and two pullbacks are situated in the vocal score. It was a showstopper; Mrs. Levi promised return in the stirring act one finale “Before the Parade Passes By” and here in the middle of the second act delivers it, promenading down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens in that famous red dress.

What follows is a clip of the 73 year old Channing from her farewell tour. However, to see a clip of Channing in her prime, you can click through here to see video footage of the original cast appearance at the Johnson White House in 1965. The video is black and white and silent, dubbed over with the original cast album but it’s extraordinary to see. Channing also recorded a specialty cover for the 1964 Presidential election with new lyrics called “Hello, Lyndon!”

There has never been a production of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway that hasn’t used Champion’s original staging. Like Mame, I think it’s time for a brand new Dolly with a brand new everything.


Wishing Carol Channing a speedy recovery!

It’s been reported today that the 87 year old legend has broken her femur and hip in a fall, which caused her to cancel a performance scheduled for this Thursday, marking the first time that Channing has ever missed a performance in her entire career. Channing has been the epitome of “the show must go on” professionalism, having gone on with broken ribs, post surgery and I read once she even went on in a wheel chair. (I seem to recall her recounting how the one time she threw up in decades was during an inflight showing of the film adaptation of Hello, Dolly!) Though she has gone on in the past, the doctor’s insisted this time she take some time to rest and recuperate. Hopefully, she’ll be back up on her feet in no time. Get well soon, Carol!

Carol Channing on Sesame Street

Well, I had hoped to put up the infamous Leslie Uggams “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” interpretation in honor of the first day of this wondrous month. Alas, it has been pulled from the ranks on youtube, and virtually everywhere else on the internet.

So here’s something even more bizarre: Carol mackin’ it to a snake.