City Center Encores! Announces 21st Season

Little Me
Music: Cy Coleman
Lyrics: Carolyn Leigh
Book: Neil Simon
Starring: Christian Borle
February 5-9, 2014

The Most Happy Fella
Music, Lyrics & Book: Frank Loesser
Starring: Shuler Hensley
April 2-6, 2014

Irma La Douce
Music: Marguerite Monnot
English Book & Lyrics: Julian More, David Heneker & Monty Norman
May 7-11, 2014

Reconsidering Irma La Douce

A couple of weeks back, I introduced myself to Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of Irma La Douce, starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. For the most part, it’s an amusing movie but it suffers due to its overlong running time. But more importantly, I started thinking about the original musical from which the film came. Irma, in a situation parallel to Harold Rome’s Fanny, had all of its musical numbers removed for its film version. The musical themes heard on the Broadway stage were adapted as underscoring (Andre Previn, who won the Oscar for it) and there was no singing and dancing, except an homage to the first act’s major showstopper “Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc” with MacLaine kicking up her heels on top of a pool table.

The show’s origins are unusual: it is the most successful musical comedy ever to originate in France. With music by Marguerite Monnot (Piaf’s best friend and favorite songwriter) and book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort, Irma La Douce (which translated means “Irma the Sweet’) opened in Paris in 1956 to wide acclaim and popular success, running for four years. In a move that foreshadowed the journey of Les Mis some twenty-five years later, the show was optioned by British producers.

Plotwise, it was a rather innocent, albeit farcical adult fairy tale of a Parisian prostitute living near the Place Pigalle, who is the most popular girl on the block. A young law student (cop in the film) falls in love with her, becomes her pimp and is so jealous at the thought of other men being with her, he creates an alternate identity and becomes her sole customer. When Irma feelings for this new “customer” start to threaten the initial relationship, the pimp kills off the alter ego only to be sent to Devil’s Island for murder. And there’s also a baby. Oh, it’s ridiculous, but it’s ridiculous fun. With enough charm, the show works quite well. The score matches that sense of fun, with some dynamite musical numbers, especially for Irma who shines with “Dis-Donc” and the title song in the second act.

The English translation of the script and songs was done by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. Directed by the famed Peter Brook, the new version of the show opened at the Lyric Theatre in London where it was a tremendous success. The cast was led by Elizabeth Seal, who had previously scored a triumph as Gladys in the London company of The Pajama Game, Keith Michell as the lover and Clive Revill playing several roles, but is mainly the bartender and confidante to the lead characters (and also the show’s narrator). The show ran for 1,518 performances.

Then David Merrick got involved. Merrick is probably best known as the Abominable Showman for his ruthless (if admittedly effective) marketing schemes and especially for his blockbusters like Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street. However, he was also known for importing London successes, including such diverse shows as Stop the World I Want to Get Off! and Marat/Sade, among many others. Irma La Douce was another of his imports.

The three London stars made the trip across the pond. Among the supporting cast were the perennial George S. Irving, a pre-Munsters Fred Gwynne, Elliot Gould and Stuart Damon. (Virginia Vestoff, later to find success in Man with a Load of Mischief and especially 1776, was Seal’s standby). New dance music was arranged by John Kander for Onna White’s choregraphy. Robert Ginzler supplemented Andre Popp’s orchestrations to accommodate changes made for the show’s NY berth.

The show was a hit. Critics and audiences raved and the money poured out. Even before the show opened in NY, it was announced that Billy Wilder was to direct Jack Lemmon in the film version. Elizabeth Seal was the toast of Broadway, winning the show’s sole Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, besting Julie Andrews in Camelot, Carol Channing in Show Girl and Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi. (The show was nominated for six others). Irma closed after 524 performances, a solid respectable hit.

Michell later headlined productions of Man of La Mancha and La Cage Aux Folles and is familiar from his recurring role as Dennis Stanton on Murder She Wrote. Revill opened Oliver! on Broadway for Merrick, and later took on the title role in Sherry! He was also the voice of the Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back. However, Seal’s career never quite took off. She made one more appearance on Broadway in the Cicely Tyson revival of The Corn is Green. She’s done some BBC radio appearances, notably taking on Solange la Fitt in a concert of Follies. Her most recent film credit was a bit part in Lara Croft Tomb Raider in 2003.

The musical itself held international appeal. Hookers with a heart of gold seem to be a popular draw in musical theatre and many international cast albums were recorded. However, the musical hasn’t received many major revivals. As it turns out there was some disagreement between the French and English estates involved with the property making professional English language productions almost impossible to pull off. But there is good news: I attended the first NY revival of the show was presented by Musicals Tonight in October ’08 which showed that Irma still has some life left in her. I can only hope that now we might see more productions of the show, perhaps at Encores! But then again it might be too small a show for the City Center: the cast is comparatively small and the show’s original orchestration is a producer’s dream: nine pieces (with some considerable prominence given to the xylophone).

There is a London release of the OLC through Sepia, and that particular recording is a slightly more intimate affair with more dialogue (including the entire “There is Only One Paris for That” musical sequence) but I have a greater affinity for the Broadway cast album, especially since it contains that sparkling, infectious overture – one of my absolute favorites. If you’ve never heard Irma La Douce, pick this one up, I don’t think you’ll be at all disappointed. The question now comes down to this: who could play Irma?

The pictures interspersed throughout the post are from the November 14, 1960 issue of Life Magazine entitled “Sweet Irma in a Wicked World.”

Getting Out of Town

I should be packing right now, but I figured there’s enough time for an entry here. I have some vacation time to use up before the end of the month and I haven’t been anywhere since I headed down for my first time in Brooklyn back in May, so I’ve decided to go away for the weekend. I’m heading out of town to New Paltz, NY, where I lived for about five years – oh and also went to college. They are putting on their annual musical production, which happens to be Company, musical directed by one of the greatest teachers and friends I have, Stephen Kitsakos, who is the resident musical theatre professor on campus. So as I catch up with a few old friends in the theatre department there (where I must disclaim, I was not a major, but a minor – all the perks; and none of, for lack of a better word, drama), I will give the campus the old once around and look up reviews of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Darling of the Day in the campus library. They have this incredible collection of all NY theatre reviews dating from the 20s to the mid-90s. If there are any you’d like me to look up, let me know.

On Saturday, some of my oldest friends from college, people I met in September 2001 and have loved ever since, will be coming up and together we’re hitting up the Headless Horseman haunted hayride and corn maze up on Rte. 9W (which is incidentally the number 1 Halloween attraction in America). I last went here, with these very same people in October ’01, in what chalked itself up to a random, hilarious, adrenaline fueled, starry night. Then on Sunday, we will have lunch at the Bistro on Main Street in New Paltz (If you’re ever in town, GO!) and then return home to recall the sobering mundane that is Monday.

Before I wrap up, I went to see Irma La Douce, being presented by Musicals Tonight! this evening at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre at 76th Street & Broadway. Musicals Tonight! is a non-for-profit theatre company with a goal to present musicals that have been lost in the shuffle, or that Encores! hasn’t quite gotten around to just yet. They also present At This Performance concerts which showcase the understudies and standbys from current Broadway shows, giving them a chance to go on and sing a song from their show and from their repertoire. Tickets are only $20 for each production (and let’s face it, how often will you find theatre at those prices these days?) This was the first time I had ever gone to one of their shows, and let me tell it’s a lot of fun. First of all, I was supposed to be the guest of Sarah, but due to an overload at work, I had to fly it solo. (Boo economy!) Anyway, I showed up, thinking there was going to be a box office, in order to pick up tickets. I go up three flights in this building, where I have no clue as to where I am or where I’m supposed to go. I just sort of stood staring until I encountered one of the actors from the cast who told me to wait for Mel. Turns out it was none other Mel Miller, the producer of Musicals Tonight, who with succinct timing walked right into the hallway on the cue of his name. Mel was delightful and personable and pretty much also a walking encyclopedia of theatre knowledge. I was assigned a seat on my program, which was to serve as my ticket. There was something about the whole experience that harkened to the MGM musicals where you just put up a show and bring people in, whether it be a barn in the country or a black box theatre in the Upper West Side.

Irma La Douce, written by Marguerite Monnot (Piaf’s favorite songwriter) and Alexandre Breffort, opened in Paris in 1955 where it was a gigantic hit. Director Peter Brook got a production up and running in London in 1958, starring Elisabeth Seal, Keith Michell and Clive Revill. The production, adapted from the French by Julian More, David Heneker & Monty Norman, was a colossal success running for several years in the West End. David Merrick imported the show and its three stars for a Broadway run in 1960. The show was a hit in NY as well, earning seven Tony nominations including Best Musical. It won only one award: Best Actress in a Musical for Elisabeth Seal, who bested Julie Andrews in Camelot, Nancy Walker in Do Re Mi and Carol Channing in Show Girl.

(Side note: two leading ladies that season weren’t because of the Tony committee’s rigid rules on billing. The four ladies mentioned here were considered leading because they were over the title in their billing on opening night. In the Featured Actress in a Musical category, you found Chita Rivera as Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie and Tammy Grimes as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Grimes won for her performance, a singing, dancing star vehicle – only then did producers move her billing to above the title (with the economical ramifications of refunds in case of a star’s absence). It’s interesting to note that there were four leading performances given Tonys that year. Richard Burton won Leading Actor for Camelot. Dick Van Dyke won Featured Actor for Bye Bye Birdie. If one can tolerate speculation, wouldn’t it have been interesting to see how things could have been different had Tammy and Chita been considered leads?)

But I digress…

The show ran for 524 performances in NY and has not been revived in the city since it closed on New Year’s Eve 1961. Apparently there was some legal issues between various factions in France and Britain over performance rights, etc, which effectively barred professional productions from being revived. Hopefully this run at Musicals Tonight serves as a springboard for this charmer’s return. A film adaptation directed by Billy Wilder was released in 1963 starring Shirley MacLaine as Irma and Jack Lemmon as Nestor. Wilder cut the songs and made it as a nonmusical comedy. The irony is that both stars had considerable musical experience. (Youtube Irma La Douce and you can see that MacLaine actually included the title song in her one woman show in medley with “If My Friends Could See Me Now”). The further irony (and this one really makes me laugh), is that Andre Previn won an Oscar for Best Adapted Score as he implemented Monnot’s music as underscoring for the work, not unlike what Josh Logan did to Fanny only a couple years prior.

The musical presents the farcical, tongue in cheek story of a naive law student named Nestor who falls in love with a, poule named Irma. In order to keep Irma for himself, he must become her mec (read: pimp) in order to maintain their dignity in the Milieu. He takes on the guise of Monsieur Oscar, a rich older man who demands he be Irma’s one client. (It’s a bit of a stretch of the suspension of disbelief, but its charming and Gallic). Taking on jobs to cover the expenses and becoming exhausted from the double life he’s leading, Nestor becomes hilariously jealous of his own alter ego and kills him, which leads to his arrest, trial and deportation to Devil’s Island. But this is a musical comedy, and as Bob, the narrator and owner of the bar where much of the action takes place, says in his opening, it’s suitable for the children.

The score is a lot of fun. Understatement, yes. It’s a bouncy, frollicking score that screams Paris, especially that fantastical Paris we like to think about (one of the lyrics even says “If you want ‘La Vie en Rose,’ there is only one Paris for that”), especially as we’re watching a musical that takes a tongue in cheek look at the seedier underground of Parisian life. Irma La Douce features only the actress playing the title character, the rest of the cast are all men, filling various roles as mecs, prisoners, jurors, even penguins. Utterly tuneful and hummable, you have Irma’s showstopping first act production number “Dis-Donc” (try and get that one out of your head, I dare you) and her stirring rendition of the title song, which is a variation on a waltz motif heard in various sections of the score throughout the evening that is brought to a stunning release as it modulates higher each phrase. Nestor has the comic act one solo “Wreck of a Mec” and the beautiful “From a Prison Cell.” Other highlights include “She’s Got the Lot,” the ten minute scene involving the escape from Devil’s Island “There is Only One Paris for That” (that’s where the penguins come in), “But” the penultimate number where Nestor tries to prove he is alive (hilarious look at police corruption and wonderful play on logic) and the last number, the solemn “Christmas Child” which is such a perfect pastiche of a Christmas hymn, you’ll swear you’ve heard it before. (Get your hands on the original Broadway cast album if you haven’t already, it’s an absolute delight – with one of my favorite overtures on record).

Musicals Tonight! dispenses with the orchestra, the elaborate sets and staging and gives a very rudimentary but professional look at the musicals they present. In that very grassroots [title of show] chairs and a piano vein. Miller starts the evening (his role of producer extends itself into box office and house management capacities) by giving us contextual trivia about the year in which the musical opened. He then he hands the show over to the pianist and performers. The actors rehearse for two weeks (which makes it a staged concert by Equity stipulations that require actors hold prompt books), then run for two weeks at their theatre. It was a return to that college black box sort of experience, a minimalist production in a small theatre being putting for pennies, but giving their all just the same. It was an absolute pleasure to see the musical and more importantly to hear the book. Now I did notice during the title song, when Vanessa Lemonides, a charming and radiant Irma (who belts the hell out of “Irma La Douce”), was sitting downstage, that there were big red slashes made to the script, so I am curious as to how much the musical was pared down for the venue. Wade McCollum is Nestor/Oscar, who’s got a great knack for physical comedy (a highlight was a scene in which he “killed’ his alter ego – very Pat Routledge in “Duet for One” – I liked that). John Alban Coughlan is Bob, providing a charming visage as narrator and getting one of the best asides in the entire show: “Who did you expect, Maurice Chevalier?” The rest of the men were quite stellar, though I think the choreography could have been stronger, especially since some of the dancers, especially ensemble member Jason Wise, who is making his NY debut here, are capable of doing a lot more. (That kid can move). But all in all, I can’t complain. It was a fun, professional evening that gave me the opportunity of seeing this musical for the first time and that about cancels out any quibbles I could possibly have with the production. The cast is made up of many newcomers to the business, some fresh out of dramatic school. It crossed my mind more than once that I hoped I would be seeing more of these fresh faces in the NY scene.

As I said, this was my first time at Musicals Tonight! – and it certainly won’t be my last. Their next show is Tovarich in a couple of weeks. Who’s in?