“The Best of Times”

The original Broadway production of La Cage Aux Folles was a major success, winning six Tony awards and having a run of 1761 performances at the Palace Theatre. The original London production, a recreation of the NY staging, wasn’t nearly as successful, running  a mere 301 performances at the London Palladium. George Hearn was able to recreate his Tony-winning performance as Albin, as part of the Equity exchange (as a result, New York was treated to Robert Lindsay’s eventual Tony-winning star turn in Me and My Girl). The show would find eventual success in London thanks to the Menier Chocolate Factory revival that transferred to the West End in 2008.

Here is the original London company performing “The Best of Times” (slightly abridged) led by Hearn, with co-star Dennis Quilley as Georges on “A Christmas Night of a 100 Stars.” Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mother) is Jacqueline (take note of the way she claps during the song’s final section).


Ginger Rogers as Mame

While watching this clip, I realized that Angela Lansbury never transferred any of her Tony award winning performances to London’s West End. She starred in the original London production of Gypsy in 1973, but that production transferred to Broadway the following year. Sheila Hancock would be the West End’s first Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. While Lansbury was appearing on Broadway in Dear World, an Oscar winning Hollywood legend was opening in Mame in the West End: Ginger Rogers. A few years earlier, Rogers had been a Broadway replacement in Hello, Dolly!

The production ran for a little over a year at the Drury Lane Theatre. Lawrence Kasha restaged Gene Saks’ direction while Onna White recreated her own choreography. No original London cast album was made (though there are rumors that one was recorded but never released, as singing was never Rogers’ strongest suit). The show was less rapturously received in London than it was on Broadway, with many of the critics agreeing that the evening hinged on Rogers’ personality and star quality (for better or for worse). Margaret Courtenay was Vera, Burt Kwouk (from The Pink Panther films) was Ito and Julia McKenzie was Gloria Upson. Ms. Rogers was supposed to star in a French version of the show, but that fell through. She later appeared in the role again in Houston (in the round, no less) in late 1971, about the same time she toured in Coco.

This is a performance of the show’s famed title song on the Royal Variety Performance. Ginger doesn’t sing or speak a single word, but dances up a storm. She brings glamour and beauty to the part, even if it’s not quite the real thing.(Special thanks to Steven C. Cates for bringing this clip to my attention).


Here’s a short newsreel covering the pre-production and opening night, with some color film of Ginger looking quite stunning in Robert MacIntosh’s fabulous costumes.


“La Cage Aux Folles”

I’ve long been a fan of Jerry Herman’s life-affirming, full-out Broadway style that mixes sentiment, warmth and hummable melody and incisive lyrics. When I first heard that there was going to be an import of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s acclaimed production of La Cage Aux Folles, my first reaction was “It’s the new Gypsy!” The turnaround for musical revivals on Broadway is getting shorter and shorter.

Was it too soon for a revival of La Cage? I don’t think so and as it turned out, neither did the majority of the critics. The show has its detractors, but I enjoy Jerry Herman’s lively score and am apparently one of the few people who had enjoyed the 2004 revival at the Marriot Marquis (Remember the Daniel Davis debacle? I attended the first performance after he was fired). Its reception at the Menier led to an extended run on the West End. The Broadway transfer of this production ultimately took place because of the buzz surrounding Douglas Hodge’s Olivier-winning performance as Albin/Zaza.

With news that the stars would be departing, I finally bought my ticket for their last performance; I had been holding off on the production but figured it was about time. The atmosphere at the Longacre Theatre is quite playful, with a drag queen greeting (and roasting) patrons on their way into the theatre. This continues with a pre-show warmup session, surveying birthdays, anniversaries and whatnot. (There was even a particularly amusing reference to Kelsey Grammer’s marital woes). It’s one of the most ingenious strokes of the entire production because it instantly brings the audience into the world of the play.

I enjoyed the show, but with considerable reservations. While the relationships were well-explored, the staging and choreography seemed thrown together. Director Terry Johnson made some smart choices such as establishing the play as a 70s period piece and anchoring the main relationship between George and Albin with genuine emotion. However, La Cage Aux Folles, warts and all, has always been a farce from its original French incarnation onward. We gain more heart (commendable) but at the loss of many laughs. I admired the production, but will admit I had more fun as an audience member at the Marriot Marquis.

The musical staging is especially pedestrian. I understand that this stripped-down revival pushed the nightclub into seedier territory and was trying to emulate a run-down, second-rate atmosphere, but choreographer Lynne Page has neither the wit nor talent for such a task. There has got to be a way of presenting this conceit without it looking cheap and lazy. Ms. Page was also responsible for the uninspired choreography in the recently closed revival of A Little Night Music across the street, in which she all but ruined the sumptuous “Night Waltz.” The Menier Chocolate Factory continues to grow in esteem and I hope that in the future they will consider hiring stronger choreographers.

Grammer is every inch a star. His presence, panache and charm were complemented by his profound sincerity. His singing left something to be desired, but he sang “Song on the Sand” and “Look Over There” with such feeling it hardly mattered. Hodge’s Albin was a fascinating creation, to be sure, but I confess it took me a while to warm up to him. He was at his most endearing in the second when his performance was less about the camp and more about the individual behind Zaza. They had outstanding chemistry together, made especially ebullient by the occasion of their final show (when the audience rose in ovation for Hodge’s entrance, Grammer smiled warmly at his colleague and applauded him as well, prompting a visibly moved Hodge to take his entrance one more time). Hodge won the Tony for his performance, but I daresay Grammer was even more deserving of the honor.

A.J. Shively, who became overwhelmed with emotion during his big number, was outstanding as Jean-Michel, making him seem more misguided than cruel (as he seemed in the 2004 revival). It’s a joy having the sublime Christine Andreas back on Broadway as the bawdy Jacqueline. The seemingly ageless Andreas was a vision in purple and her distinct soprano is as glorious as ever. Fred Applegate and Elena Shaddow, whom I adored in last year’s revival of Fanny, were absolutely superb in their limited roles. Robin de Jesus is playing the “maid” Jacob, with a performance that seemed strangely incongruous to the rest of the ensemble.

Unlike Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, I wasn’t as appalled by Jason Carr’s reduced orchestrations this time. Then again, this is the first Menier transfer to play Broadway in a size-appropriate venue. Thankfully the PS Classics cast album captures the best of the revival and is the best aural experience for this particular production (and overlooked by the Grammy committee? I think so).

Following the performance came an instant standing ovation as flowers were distributed to the four departing cast members (Aside from Hodge and Grammer, de Jesus and Applegate are also moving onto other projects). Hodge spoke first about how much he was going to be on a plane to England that very night. He discussed his gratitude for the hospitality he had experienced in New York, adding that he hoped to return as soon as possible. He also requested that everyone involved in the backstage crew come out onstage to take part in the bow expressing his thanks to each and every member of the company. His final comment was about forging a new and close friendship with Grammer, something he said was as important as any award he had won for the role. He then turned it over to Grammer, who quipped about the year he had (with his very public divorce proceedings) and then earnestly offered his praise and thanks to the company before offering his gratitude to his family and fiancee in the house.

The revival continues at the Longacre with brand new stars Jeffrey Tambor and Harvey Fierstein. As a diehard Arrested Development fan, I’m thrilled that Mr. Tambor is back on Broadway. I am most curious to see Fierstein as Albin as I think he will bring more authenticity to Albin than anyone else who has played him. His vocal limitations notwithstanding, I think he’s going to be a glove-fit for this production.

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.


Showstopper: “Mame”

I’ve seen other video of Angela Lansbury in the short-lived revival of Mame, but nothing with such clarity. It’s stunning to see this so clearly and with close-ups on the legend as she reacts through the number. Onna White supplied the choreography. This was apparently filmed on July 24, 1983, the revival’s opening night. I was 17 days old, happily oblivious to the joy happening onstage at the Gershwin Theatre! The title song is a thrilling moment. Mame has just won over the stubborn old South family of her beloved Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside by an unexpected display of horsemanship and being the first to ever bring a live fox back from a fox hunt. What follows is one of the great showstoppers in all musical theatre: the show’s title song. It starts out low-key with a striking banjo accompaniment as the company sings her praises. At first, Lansbury has her back to the audience – breaking one of the cardinal rules of stage acting – with thrilling results. As the number builds and builds, she becomes incorporated into the song as the ensemble pays her a spirited tribute. The leading lady does not sing one word of the song, but it is a celebration of her and everything that she represents to the characters onstage and the people in the audience. It’s simple, euphoric and it never failed to rouse the audience. Enjoy:


Mary Martin in "Hello Dolly!"

There’s Carol, there’s Barbra and of course Pearlie Mae. But Mary Martin was the one who not only opened Hello, Dolly! in London but also toured with the show in Vietnam and Japan during the Vietnam War. This is incredibly rare footage of the curtain call and Martin’s specialty encore of the title song at the show’s first performance in Vietnam. The audience is made up of thousands soldiers, mostly American troops as well as some from Vietnam, Korea and New Zealand. This was taped for a 1966 television special called “Mary Martin: Hello, Dolly! Round the World,” which was a documentary about this touring production, narrated by Martin. Truth be told, I find this incredibly moving. Take a look:

Donna Murphy for Mame

The Encores! production of Anyone Can Whistle has been closed for a mere two weeks and I can’t stop thinking about Donna Murphy’s triumphant turn as Mayoress Cora Hoover-Hooper. In the last line of my assessment of the production, I speculated as to whom we’d have to talk to in order to mount a major revival of Mame showcasing Murphy.

With her performance fresh on my mind, as well as the second Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles settling in with great notices, I’ve been thinking more and more about Murphy taking on the role of that great bohemian aunt. I’m not the only one who has thought so. The other night I was talking about this with die hard “Mame-ist” SarahB, who has come up with a grassroots campaign slogan “Murphy for Mame!”

And why not? After the last La Cage revival, the Nederlanders promised to revive both Mame and Hello, Dolly! successively. I’m sure the failure of that production had something to do with putting the kibbosh on their Herman project. Both shows have only been seen in their original productions, or in replications of their original productions and it’s time to pass along both treasures to a new generation of theatre kids who think Idina Menzel is the epitome of Broadway belting (saints preserve us!)

I went into further detail last September pondering who would be the right actress for the part. When you look at our leading ladies, it’s easier to find a Dolly or a Vera, but Mame requires an alchemical element to pull off successfully – that unspeakable star quality that Lansbury brought to NY in 1966. She’s funny, sexy, larger-than-life, the belle of the ball; the ideal aunt that we all wish we could have. But she’s also got an immense heart, a fiery liberal passion and is well, a borderline alcoholic in an idealized world where that’s just part of the fun. All of this is rolled into one strikingly costumed, timeless creation of sheer theatrical joy. The shoes are not easy to fill.

Murphy is fearless, versatile and brilliant. Yes, she missed performances of Wonderful Town. However those critics are quick to harp on her attendance record even after it turned out she was seriously sick and could have permanently damaged her voice. I say, cut the lady some slack and welcome her back. This is a woman who was able to bring the Mayoress Hoover Hooper, who’s more a cartoon than character, to genuine tears while singing “A Parade in Town.”

Like the role’s originator, Angela Lansbury, Murphy is mindbogglingly versatile and there is very little she can’t do. With the right director (maybe Nicholaw? we can decide that later), we’d have a production of Mame for the 21st century. I’m convinced there is – at this moment – no other musical theatre actress who could successfully pull off one of the most iconic leading lady roles in musical theatre.

Angela Lansbury in "Dear World"

When discussing the musical theatre career of Angela Lansbury, sometimes Dear World gets lost in the shuffle amidst the more popularly received Mame, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. The musical adaptation of Jean Giradoux’s play The Madwoman of Chaillot brought Lansbury her second of four Tonys for her work in musicals.

The new musical reunited Lansbury with her Mame team, with Jerry Herman supplying the score and Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee writing the book. However, those expecting another Mame were in for a surprise. The show is a delicate story about an eccentric woman in living in Paris, fighting greedy businessmen who wish to drill for oil in her beloved neighborhood in Paris. Hopes were high for a repeat success, with Lansbury signing another two year contract and producer Alexander Cohen sparing no expense in bringing the show to life.

The play was a poetic satire that just didn’t translate well to the musical stage. There was trouble out of town as the show went through three directors (Lucia Victor, Peter Glenville and eventually Joe Layton) and negative reviews poured in. One of the major problems with both the musical and its source material was a decided lack of plot. Another reason was that the light play was being turned into a big Broadway musical.

Trouble continued during New York previews, where there were 49 of them after several opening night postponements. Finally, after critics told the production they would just review it anyway, the musical limped open to mostly negative reviews. The show managed to eke out an official run of 132 performances at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The general consensus was that the musical was of inferior quality, but that leading lady Lansbury as the Countess Aurelia was stunning.

For the most part, the score is quite incredible. However, it was done in by some huge production numbers. The act one finale “Dear World” was an attempt to cash in Jerry Herman’s blockbuster success with a title song, which was at odds with the show’s story and style. “One Person” was another similarly big, brassy way to bring the show to a close. However, Lansbury stopped the show cold with her act one waltz “I Don’t Want to Know,” stunned with the devastating “And I Was Beautiful” late in the second act and took part in one of the most impressive musical scenes written by Mr. Herman, “The Tea Party” in which Aurelia and her two closest madwomen gather to take action but get lost in their memories and delusions. When the score is light and delicate, it is more in tune with the nature of the original play.

For what its worth, a film version of The Madwoman of Chaillot was released that same year starring Lansbury’s good friend Katharine Hepburn. It too was dismissed by critics and audiences. However, Lansbury’s Tony-winning performance is still well-regarded by those who managed to see it. The score is worth checking out on the original cast album, as there is much to enjoy with Lansbury and her ensemble (her support was Jane Connell, Carmen Mathews, Kurt Peterson and Milo O’Shea). Once you hear Lansbury’s “And I Was Beautiful,” you will never forget it.

As for the failure, Lansbury assigned blame to herself saying that audiences were expecting another Mame. But given her reception in the part, it seems very clear that she was the least of the show’s troubles. The creators have continued to revise the score, with a chamber production that played at Goodspeed in 2000. There was also a late 90s workshop at Roundabout with Chita Rivera as Aurelia, and supported by Madeline Kahn. But neither of those have had any continued life. I do think that Encores! should eventually get around to presenting it in their season.

Here is some silent video footage of the original production, set to a live recording of the title song:

Original Cast Album: "Mame"

Was introduced to Bleecker Bob’s yesterday afternoon by SarahB. While down to catch the Fringe production of How Now Dow Jones, we found ourselves with some time to browse through the cast album bin ($2 special on many popular favorites). As you may recall, I am a huge fan of record shopping. Not only do I enjoy the browsing, but I am always excited at the potential of finding a forgotten gem. I picked up Ballroom, Shenandoah, Coco, and the original off-Broadway cast of Hair. Now, not only do I like to collect the records, but I also like to play them. I sound older than my 26 years, but there is just something so incredibly satisfying about the sound of the needle hitting the vinyl. So while I played through a few platters, I decided to pop on Mame, just because. What I had never done before was read the back of the sleeve. I discovered here the most amusing artist biographies I think I’ve ever read and thought I’d share:

ANGELA LANSBURY (Mame) can do anything but wrong. She can be the good girl (The Picture of Dorian Gray), the bad girl (Gaslight), villainous mother (The Manchurian Candidate) or Elizabeth Taylor’s sister (National Velvet). Those were films. On stage she has ranged Bert Lahr’s farcical playmate in Hotel Paradiso to the dramatic demands of A Taste of Honey. Her previous musical outing, Anyone Can Whistle, proved that she can handle parades and miracles. MAME proves she can handle anything. And not only sing it, dance it and act it, but wear it, too. And beautifully.

JERRY HERMAN (Music and Lyrics) is a blooming Broadway industry. With four previous scores to his credit (two revues, plus Milk and Honey and Hello, Dolly!) he has a Tony Award, a gold record, a Grammy Award, 1964 citation from Variety as both the year’s “Best Composer” and “Best Lyricist,” and from station WPAT, for the song “Shalom,” a Gaslight award (no connection with Miss Lansbury’s movie). On top fo this he was chosen one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men by the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1965. Yes, he seems to have the knack of things, all right.

JEROME LAWRENCE and ROBERT E. LEE (Authors) began on Broadway with a musical, Look Ma, I’m Dancin’, starring Nancy Walker. But then they wrote a play, called Inherit the Wind, and the success of that classic theater piece kept them thinking in dramatic terms for some time. (Having a work translated into Urdu and Serbo-Croatian and twenty-six other languages can do that). But one of their subsequent plays was a masterful comedy named Auntie Mame from PATRICK DENNIS’ brilliantly funny novel. And now, with the musical MAME, they are bringing it all back home.

SYLVIA and JOSEPH HARRIS and ROBERT FRYER and LAWRENCE CARR (Producers) are a kind of musical Quartet. Each comes to production with significant individual credits. Fryer and Carr produced the original Auntie Mame, Desk Set, Advise and Consent and Gwen Verdon’s Redhead. Sylvia Harris coproduced Make a Million and Tovarich, and her husband Joseph has conquered virtually every known aspect of theatrical business management. Together the four launched their firstborn, Sweet Charity, and resuscitated not only the old Palace Theatre but an entire New York theatrical season. And here they come again.

GENE SAKS (Director) is a reformed actor. Since his first job as director, Enter Laughing, there’s been no time for acting, enviable as his reputation was. In the short time since that smash hit there have been Nobody Loves an Albatross, Generation and Half a Sixpence. In this last he worked with ONNA WHITE, reformed dancer, who has here staged the musical numbers and dances, as she did there. Miss White had previously been applauded for her assignments in The Music Man and Irma La Douce. From the look of it, mutual success makes happy collaborators.

And so we have the Fryer, Carr, Harris, Lansbury, Lawrence, Lee, Herman, Dennis, White, Saks ensemble. Enough to make up one of Mame’s posher, more intimate parties. Cheers!