Show Round-Up

Annie – I caught an early preview of the classic Strouse-Charnin musical at the Palace. I have a dubious history with this one; the last time I saw it onstage was 21 years ago and while I don’t remember much, I wanted Hannigan to win. Fortunately that was not the case in this new production directed by James Lapine and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Katie Finneran holds nothing back as Miss Hannigan, but the performance hadn’t quite gelled when I saw the show, and it didn’t help that her Rooster and Lily are barely there (and what’s up with Lily’s accent? Not cool, kids). Lilla Crawford has great sincerity and a clarion voice that brought down the house repeatedly, but her accent gets in the way. Merwin Foard, a reliable standby in so many recent productions, is finally onstage and a total delight as FDR. The real standout, though, is Australian baritone Anthony Warlow, whose sumptuous baritone is the 8th wonder of the world. His “Something Was Missing” stopped the show cold in act two. I was mixed on the set, though I loved the chandelier/Christmas tree effect. The choreography is, to put it mildly, terrible. Only the final number really had cohesion, and it was still a hot mess. Quibbles aside, the show is a charmer, thanks to its score and the sharp libretto by Thomas Meehan.

The Performers – I caught a late preview of this fast flop, which was entertaining but tremendously slight. There was no real conflict, mostly a non-porn couple who inexplicably question their monogamy while visiting Las Vegas for an adult film industry awards show. The play is rife with enough raunchy dialogue to make your great-grandmother’s monocle pop, but ultimately feels…tame. That said I found much to enjoy, and much to laugh at. Props to the terrific ensemble led by Alicia Silverstone, Henry Winkler and Cheyenne Jackson. However, the real star of the evening was Ari Graynor as Peeps, a dim, defensive porn star with a heart of gold. Everything she said or did went over like fireworks on the 4th of July, and a performance I am glad I had the opportunity to see. The play’s closure after 7 performances was a bit of a shock, as I’ve seen far worse enterprises run longer. While I don’t think it’s much of a play, I think the script could make for a more enjoyable film.

Giant – Edna Ferber’s novel is now a musical, in a sprawling retelling of the story of a Texas cattle baron and his decades long marriage to a Virginia socialite. This bold, ambitious piece is currently playing the Public Theater  and while it could use some tinkering and fine-tuning, it’s a thrilling experience. Michael John LaChiusa’s music is haunting and often soars. The show has a cast of 22, and an orchestra of 16 – rare for an off-Broadway production. Brian D’Arcy James is excellent as Bick Benedict, a cattle baron whose unconditional love for Texas is challenged by a changing world. Kate Baldwin is giving the the performance of a career as his wife Leslie. John Dossett provides brilliant, sympathetic support as Uncle Bawley, while Michelle Pawk brings gruff pragmatism to Bick’s older sister Luz. Katie Thompson is a find as Vashti Hake, a ranch heiress jilted by Bick who becomes one of Leslie’s closest friends. Thompson can really sing, and deserves to be a leading lady herself. The character of Jett Rink lacks definition and as written barely registers as an antagonist (played by a game P.J. Griffith). For a show set in and about Texas, the musical feels somewhat cramped on the Newman stage. A show of this scope cries out for a venue like the Vivian Beaumont.

20 years of Encores! A Gala Celebration – This 90 minute program featuring many of Broadway’s finest talents performing under the music direction of both Rob Berman and original Encores! musical director Rob Fisher. Kelli O’Hara opened with “It’s a Perfect Relationship” from Bells Are Ringing, but her highlight was a sumptuous rendition of “Lover, Come Back to Me” from The New Moon. Raul Esparza revisited “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and cut it up big time with the tongue twisting “Tchaikowsky” from Lady in the Dark. Rob McClure was charm squared leading “Once in Love with Amy” (and yes, the audience sang along!) from Where’s Charley? Joel Grey did “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, Rebecca Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Debbie Gravitte revisited their glorious “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse. Other numbers came from Finian’s Rainbow, Too Many Girls, Fanny, Anyone Can Whistle, Do Re MiJuno, Lady in the Dark, Carnival and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Of special note was a middle section of found items, including “Where Do I Go From Here?” cut from Fiorello!, thrillingly sung by Victoria Clark. The most esoteric item on the bill was the overture for Nowhere to Go But Up, a nine performance bomb from 1962. Jack Viertel had asked Jonathan Tunick about whereabouts of its “the long-lost overture” during Merrily orchestra rehearsals. Turns out Tunick had it in his apartment. The evening ended with ‘Til Tomorrow from Fiorello! (which was the very first Encores! and will be revived this January). All musical numbers used the original arrangements and orchestrations. If there was a complaint it was that the evening ended too soon.

City Center Encores! Announces 20th Season

Music: Jerry Bock
Lyrics: Sheldon Harnick
Book: Jerome Weidman & George Abbott
January 30-February 3, 2013

It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Lee Adams
Book: David Newman & Robert Benton
March 2013 (Exact dates TBA)

On Your Toes
Music Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Lorenz Hart
Book: George Abbott, Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart
(Exact dates TBA)

Also: Kelli O’Hara and Raul Esparza will star in the Encores! at 20 Gala on November 12, 2012.

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.

To Revive, or Not to Revive

South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949, swept the theatre world by storm winning every award in sight (including the Pulitzer) and when it closed in 1954 wasn’t seen in an official Broadway revival until this year, where it rinsed and repeated the original, currently remaining one of the hottest tickets in town in spite of the other shows dropping like flies around town. This leads me to think on this boring night about the olderTony-winning Best Musicals that have yet to receive a revival on the Great White Way. (For intense purposes, I’ve left out those shows from Evita onward)

Applause. It received a failed revisal at the PaperMill Playhouse in 1996. It was also presented in its original form at Encores! which, in spite of a game if ailing Christine Ebersole, only highlighted the many flaws in the project. It’s presentation at Encores! was exactly the sort of return the show can muster – a full scale revival seems highly unlikely.

Bye Bye Birdie. Instead of a revival, Broadway was treated to the four performance bomb Bring Back Birdie in 1981, which brought back Chita Rivera (which proved that she was an ultimate pro who could still deliver a superlative star turn regardless of the vehicle) and fast-forwarded the story of Albert and Rosie by twenty years, with them approaching middle age and dealing with their teenage children. The original musical is a period satire of the national craze over Elvis Presley’s drafting. The score, by Strouse and Adams, is a mix of superlative character numbers and spot-on parodies of period rock and roll. The show has been seen in every high school in the country, was presented at Encores in 2004 and even had a television remake in the mid-90s. But no Rialto berth… hmm. There lies only one problem that I can think of: who could possibly fill Chita Rivera’s admittedly daunting shoes?

Fiorello! This charming biomusical about NY’s favorite Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was a big success in 1959, tying for the Best Musical Tony with The Sound of Music and picking up a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rarity for a musical. The score was Bock and Harnick’s second Broadway entry after The Body Beautiful and put them on the map as a composing team of deft skill, craftmanship and an extraordinary ability to integrate song and scene and character (Fiddler on the Roof and especially She Loves Me further illustrate this point). This was hte first Encores! concert back in 1994, and would seem unlikely for a full-scale commercial revival; however it might prove a great entry from Roundabout (so long as they don’t reduce the orchestra or overhaul the book).

Hallelujah, Baby! Leslie Uggams starred in this concept musical about 200 years of African American history in the 1967. This Best Musical winner holds the distinction of being the show that got Jule Styne is one and only Tony award. Comden and Green did the lyrics; Arthur Laurents wrote the book and directed. The show is the second shortest running Best Musical (the winner of that dubious honor is Sondheim’s Passion), and most of the issues with the show have to do with its libretto (a time honored complaint). However it could soar with some considerable work from David Ives at Encores! with Anika Noni Rose.

A Little Night Music. One of the most enchanting Sondheim musicals, it is inexplicably the only one of his ground-breaking 70s works to not have a full-scale Broadway revival. Even Roundabout has plans to bring Merrily We Roll Along back within the next season or two. There is a London revival that is transferring to the West End for an extended run, but perhaps (and this is my hope) New York producers are waiting for the right time, the right star and all other stars to align for this show to come back. For years, there was talk of Glenn Close starring in a revival, though from what I understand that is no longer an option.

Redhead. Okay, this is one of the more obscure Best Musical winners. Many haven’t heard of it, but it was a decent-sized hit winning 8 Tonys in 1959, including two for stars Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley. The musical, which was also Bob Fosse’s Broadway directorial debut, is a murder mystery musical about a Jack-the-Ripper type stalking ladies in and around the London waxworks museum. Even from the liner notes it’s apparent that the plot is a bit convoluted and the book not exactly up to par. Even if the book isn’t up to snuff, the score is pleasant if not top tier. This show is the definition of why we have the Encores! series. Perhaps one of these days, if they can find the right personality (Mara Davi? Charlotte d’Amboise? The ‘It’ Girl?), we can see this at the City Center.

Two Gentlemen of Verona. Probably better known as the show that won Best Musical over Follies, one of those decisions that still incites passionate reactions in the most emblazoned Follies enthusiasts. The show, a rock opera adaptation of the Shakespeare play, was a transfer from the Delacorte, written by Galt McDermott. It had a hit summer revival a couple years ago in the Park, but it doesn’t seem likely for a Broadway return. Perhaps the outdoor environment suits it best?