On the Town: May Edition

When I was a senior in high school, I had the great pleasure of playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill in our spring production of My Fair Lady. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the school’s performing arts center. It was a thrilling experience for the principal cast; an experience we still recall with each other fondly. It seemed to us that no expense was spared to make the production as thrilling as possible, including fully realized sets, costumes and the presence of the entire licensed orchestration in the pit (including harp!). Much was made of this weekend in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Walter Panas High School’s performing arts center, and I have to say it was a special experience to see these kids take on this American classic with such brio.

Kudos to Jim Filippelli, who has been directing shows at the school since 1978, and without whom the Panas Players wouldn’t be what it is today. At intermission, the normally unflappable Mr. Filippelli was stunned by the senior class’ announcement that they were going to petition the Lakeland School Board to put his name on the school’s performing arts center. I can’t think of a greater honor for the man who made that building a reality, and for the man who makes sure that these kids put on two musical productions each year and insists that any student who wants to be involved is involved.

SarahB was officially endorsed by The Best Man and part of her responsibilities included seeing the show currently in revival at the Schoenfeld Theatre. I was quite fortunate enough to attend with her, and see Gore Vidal’s staggering play in this volatile election year. The most amazing thing about the play, and something I’ve heard from many people, is how relevant this text – written in 1960 – is today. James Earl Jones seems to be having the time of his life as the old school ailing former President, Angela Lansbury gives a master class in how to steal a scene with nothing but a bottle of Coke and a newspaper. Candice Bergen offers a fascinating portrait of a candidate’s wife who is uncomfortable with the entire process (and gets one of the best lines), while Kerry Butler  plays a Southern tart who’ll do anything to help her husband get elected. Angela Lansbury proves once again she’s one of our treasures with the rather small role as party dowager (and manages to steal a scene with nothing but a bottle of Coke and newspaper). Leave it to Gore Vidal to have a conclusion that is simultaneously inspiring and cynical. (Also, sending my best wishes to the always-excellent Michael McKean for a speedy recovery).

I find I’ve been listening to one new score more than any others. One Man, Two Guvnors. I loved the play when I saw it in April but didn’t expect to fall for the music. The skiffle band which plays a set before and during the show consists of entirely new songs, all of which were written by Grant Olding (who also functions as the lead singer in the UK production, and is featured on the original cast album of the score. It’s tuneful, entertaining with some clever lyrics. Mr. Olding is a Tony-nominee for Best Score Written for the Theatre. The general consensus is that Newsies will win because it’s an Alan Menken Disney hit and a musical. However, with apologies to Mr. Menken and Mr. Feldman, I think Mr. Olding takes the cake this season.

Picked up Maureen Stapleton’s biography at the Strand and devoured it. A Hell of a Life was published in 1995 and offers the Tony, Oscar and Emmy winning star’s usual candor and straight talk. She’s ferociously funny, salty and compelling. Her observations of the Actors Studio are fascinating, including the scene she did with Marilyn Monroe in the mid-50s. When she won her Oscar she famously quipped in her thank yous, “…and to everyone I ever met in my life.”  When she won her second Tony for The Gingerbread Lady, she was asked how it felt to win her reply was, “What the hell, it’s better than getting hit with a wet fish.” Those are just some of the choice one-liners that appear throughout. Pulling no punches, Stapleton (who died in 2006)  openly talks about her successes and failures with equal abandon. When not filling us in on fun anecdotes from her storied stage and screen career, she is also not afraid to talk of her alcoholism, failed marriages and the insecurities and problems that plagued her life. A hell of a life, indeed.

Quote of the Day: Showstopper

At the world premiere in New Haven, the audience eruption following “The Rain in Spain” stopped the show dead, as they say. The hysteria continued unabated, [Rex] Harrison and [Robert] Coote sitting in frozen astonishment: nothing like this ever happened in drawing room comedy! Finally Miss Andrews – who at twenty already knew her around – grabbed her colleagues by the elbows (the number ended with them all collapsed on the couch), dragged them down to the apron, and led them in a bow. And the rest, as they say, is history. (At future performances, Mr. Harrison controlled all bows).

-Steven Suskin discussing My Fair Lady in his essential Opening Night on Broadway, which looks at what the major critics had to say about all musicals of the Golden Age

Julie Andrews in "My Fair Lady"

Collection of videos from various TV appearances, and a couple of interviews. Most of the performances appear to be from Ed Sullivan. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Andrews perform “Just You Wait” and “Show Me” (twice, one with full costume and set, the other on Ed Sullivan). Two brief interviews at the end of the second part. The first is from around the time of the London opening in 1958, the second from Oscar night when an audacious reporter asked Julie in the press room if her win for Mary Poppins was because Audrey Hepburn was dubbed in the film version of My Fair Lady that same year.

Quote of the Day: Julie Andrews Edition

The Mark Hellinger Theater on West 51st Street was originally built by Thomas W. Lamb in the 1930s as a movie palace for Warner Bros. Herman Levin, our producer, took a gamble when he chose the venue as a home for My Fair Lady, since, before our occupation, it had been a bit of a white elephant and was situated a few blocks uptown from the main Broadway area. But it was a beautiful theater, especially the front interior of the building, the lobby being exquisite and ideally matching the elegance of our show. Though a little shallow backstage, it was one of the largest and best equipped of the New York theaters, and it had a seating capacity of eighteen hundred people.

Much later, in 1970, the Nederlanders purchased it, but after a string of flops, they leased and eventually sold it to the Times Square Church in 1989. Various parties have tried to reclaim the building as a legitimate theater in the years since, but to no avail – which is truly a shame, since Broadway must and should preserve every great theater it can.

– Julie Andrews in her memoir Home, now available in paperback.

Wouldn’t Hugh Be Loverly?

Okay, so that probably goes down as the worst blog title I’ve yet to post. Sue me. But anyway, there was a brief piece in Variety about Oscar-winner Emma Thompson in Variety talking about her current and upcoming projects. First up, she’s got a movie out called Last Chance Harvey in which she stars opposite Dustin Hoffman (earning a Golden Globe nomination in the process). But for those theatre fans out there, she is currently starting work on the screenplay for a remake of My Fair Lady for which they’ve apparently already signed Keira Knightley (blurgh) to play Eliza Doolittle. However, Thompson’s first choice to play Henry Higgins is none other than her old Cambridge classmate Hugh Laurie, who turned in a delightfully understatedly droll supporting turn as Mr. Palmer in Thompson’s exceptional adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. His casting would at least makes this (unnecessary) remake interesting. Seriously, though folks, there should be a full-scale revival of the musical with Kelli O’Hara before any film is brought to theatres. Just my $.02. Your thoughts folks?

The article also states that Thompson is poised to film a sequel to her successful Nanny McPhee, a witty adaptation of Christiana Brand’s Nurse Matilda books (again written by Thompson – is there anything this woman cannot do?) If you haven’t seen this film, get thee to a video store. It draws immediate comparisons to Mary Poppins, but provides an enjoyably fresh take on British children’s literature. Plus, it’s got fantastic supporting turns from Colin Firth, Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton and Miss Angela Lansbury as Aunt Adelaide, sporting a false nose and finding herself thrust into the middle of chaos during a nuptual food fight gone horribly wrong.

And though Sarah is poised to respectfully disagree with me here, I would really love to see her play Desiree Armfeldt in a revival of A Little Night Music (with Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt, perhaps?)

Emma Thompson to write "My Fair Lady" film remake

From Wenn.com:

‘British actress Emma Thompson has been commissioned to pen a screenplay for a My Fair Lady remake.

The Howards End star won an Oscar for adapting Sense + Sensibility for the big screen and now she’s tackling George Bernard Shaw‘s Pygmalion musical.

But she admits the less-sweet version of the Audrey Hepburn movie musical won’t be completed anytime soon.

She tells Parade magazine, “I’m a Luddite, and I write longhand with an old fountain pen.”

That said, Thompson is the only person to have won Academy Awards for both acting and screenwriting.’

This venture has gotten somewhat interesting, wouldn’t you agree? While the 1964 film adaptation was a colossal success, winning 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, it appears that many feel the film does not hold up well today. Suffice it to say, given the titles that have been remade recently, I wouldn’t have thought a classic musical would be considered. The film is a bit long, but has plenty of charms (even if I feel that Rex Harrison is phoning it in compared to his performances on the original Broadway and London cast albums), but I miss many of the elements of the stage musical, including the orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and especially the exuberant dance arrangements of Trude Rittman. Now, let’s see if they can cast actors who sing well. Thompson is well-established as a writer of exorbitant wit, humanity and charm: the aforementioned Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility and Nanny McPhee come readily to mind. I’m suddenly very curious to know what comes of this project. Meanwhile, I’m very excited to see Thompson in Brideshead Revisited this summer (Emma Thompson in a British period film? Perhaps it’s time for a Howards End/The Remains of the Day marathon). Now if someone could only get her in a stage production of Night Music, I think I’d be all set 😉

My Fair Kelli

This weekend’s issue of Parade magazine features an article by Kevin Sessums about the darling of the NY stage, Ms. Kelli O’Hara. It’s becoming quite clear that O’Hara is on her way to musical theatre stardom with her Tony nominated turns in The Light in the Piazza, The Pajama Game, and currently the smash-hit Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific. Well, aside from being delightful, charming and gracious, the actress discusses future prospects, such as her desire to be a mother and well, let me just quote the article here:

“But the buzz is that producers are competing to put together a full-fledged production of My Fair Lady centered around her recreating yet another iconic role: Eliza Doolittle.”

Out of many of the classic musical theatre roles, I feel that Eliza is the pitch-perfect role for this versatile singing actress. She already played the part last year to considerable acclaim in concert with the NY Philharmonic, and would be most ideal in a full-scale revival – moreso than other current soprano on the boards. I would go so far as to think that this could be the show that potentially nets her the coveted Tony award she so richly deserves. (Her Tony experience is starting to remind me of Kate Winslet at the Oscars – stellar performance, but just not her year).
The last time My Fair Lady, one of the sturdiest pillars of the Golden Age canon, was revived on Broadway was fifteen years ago in a Weissler-produced production at the Virginia (now August Wilson) that starred Richard Chamberlain and Melissa Errico and closed after 165 performances.

I feel that the musical should be given its due – the 50th anniversary came and went without much fanfare and from what I understand, NY producers are wary of the Cameron Mackintosh production due to its incredible size and expense. Frankly, I would prefer that the show be given the respect it deserves, with a full-scale revival utlitizing the original orchestrations by my friend and yours, Robert Russell Bennett. (Which our friends at Lincoln Center could do…) Also, I don’t like when people feel the need to tamper with the book. Take for instance the recent Mackintosh revival that played in London for two years and on tour in the US. The original climax of act one is when Higgins unexpectedly dances Eliza into the arms of Zoltan Karpathy, the ultimate gamble, as Karpathy’s expertise will prove whether or not Higgins and Pickering succeeded. (Case in point, your act finale leaves the audience hanging as to what will happen in order to bring them back for the second half). It is not when she leaves for the ball – in fact, it’s rather anticlimactic to have her go to the ball, break for interval, then come back for a ball scene. It would make more sense just to cut the “Embassy Waltz” than bastardize Lerner’s near-perfect libretto. And in my Dismounting the soap-box…

Now kids, who would you like to see in a revival opposite O’Hara? We’ve got a Higgins, Pickering, Freddy, Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins to fill. Aaaaaand go…