On the Town: February Edition

The end of February is upon us, which means that my trip to London is only a few weeks away. The month of February was a busy one for everyone it seems, but I spent some of my time prepping for my flight and making arrangements to see friends old and new, as well as arrange to see some shows on the West End, including Matilda. It should be an exciting time, to say the least.

The Oscars are out of the way this year, and overall I’d say it was a rather weak year. The Artist failed to charm me as it has so many others (though I think it was crying out to be a 30s Astaire-Rogers type musical than a parody of 20s silents). I liked The Descendants very much (I have yet to be disappointed by Alexander Payne). I admired The Help, but mostly because of Viola Davis’ staggering performance. The Iron Lady was dreadful: the messy script, shoddy direction and lack of point made it a dull, superficial slog. Though Meryl won the Academy Award in a surprise upset, you’d be much better off watching The Hours or The Deer Hunter; or anything else she’s ever done. War Horse made me want to invest in glue, while I was greatly charmed by Midnight in Paris. 

That said, I am bored with “awards season” in Hollywood. It’s about as tacky and contrived as the relentless string of Republican debates. They keep stretching it out, and adding more “prominence” to guild awards that are nice but not nearly worth the time spent fretting over them. Time will tell, as it always does, what is really long-lasting. Also, the telecast was just bland. The only bits I enjoyed were the Christopher Guest team’s The Wizard of Oz focus group sketch, as well as Emma Stone’s presentation. Ms. Stone was one of the only people who seemed like a human being on that stage Sunday night. Classiest speech of the night goes to Best Supporting Actor winner Christopher Plummer, whose performance in Beginners is warm, winning and quite deserving of our attention. Special kudos to his leading man, Ewan McGregor, who is constantly overlooked by awards bodies in spite of consistent excellence. Oh, and finally, Drive was excellent.

Carrie is back for another night at the prom. However, I made a full day of it. I visited with my good friend Chris Lavin, who works in the wardrobe department of Mary Poppins for a pre-show dinner/catch-up, then found myself making my to the Lucille Lortel for the first time. I don’t often go south of 42nd Street, so it took Tyler Martins and I a little bit of effort to find where we were supposed to go. There were several Twitter friends at the show this particular night, and we decided to head up to Midtown for a post-show drink.

Getting off the subway at 42nd Street, we deliberated in the cold night air as to where we should go. The usual names were bandied about until Joe Allen came into play. Emily Sigal and I both thought the place to be a perfect place to go given what the majority had just seen. Lo and behold, Tyler got a picture of my playbill with the original window card on the Joe Allen flop wall. So we started heading North on 7th Avenue, but soon Tyler and I realized that the gang wasn’t with us. Turning around we saw them talking to a young man in a business suit. We went back to see what was going on.

As it turned out the young gentleman, who was extraordinarily ebullient and even had braces on his teeth, was lost. He was trying to get to Pulse, but couldn’t seem to find where he needed to go. Well, as a group we decided we’d help him out. None of us seemed to know where he needed to go, but out came the smart phones and in an unexpectedly cheery sense of adventure, we set out to find where he needed to go. After some time we got him to where he wanted to go. He offered to bring us in and by us a round, but there was one among us who was not yet of age, so we regretfully declined. But, our man Flint, three or four sheets to the wind, I might add, insisted on hugging us all. We made our way to Joe Allen where we laughed about this occurrence until the place closed down. Only in New York…

The other night I went to see the revival of Death of a Salesman currently in previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, which was an intense cathartic experience that I think I need to see again before I can justify writing about it. However, two things about this revival that fascinated me: the production uses the original set design of Jo Mielziner and the original music score by Alex North. The former is truly extraordinary, and it’s not as if director Mike Nichols is trying to replicate the original: all other elements of scenography are new. It was as if a new family had moved into the house. As for the North score, it is played live in the theatre by a small band off stage right, with a mournful, bluesy quality that subtly punctuates various scenes throughout. Get tickets and go. And go again.

And finally, it was announced that Stephen Sondheim was collaborating with David Ives on a new musical. That’s a Leap Day Miracle, however, I do take exception to something His Majesty said to a London paper regarding a dearth of plays in NY. He’s either just being cranky or not paying attention, but there have been plays popping up on and off-Broadway quite a bit this year. Just this Broadway season alone we’ve had Chinglish, Stickfly, Venus in Fur, Other Desert Cities, Seminar and can anticipate Clybourne Park, The Lyons, One Man Two Guvnors, Peter and the Starcatcher, and more in the coming weeks. And that’s not even counting the plethora of play revivals.

The Broadway Thriller

Does anyone remember the Broadway thriller? It was a popular genre around the middle of the 20th century, with entries that were both good and bad. Audiences would be thrust into a situation that was as terse and tense as the most popular Hitchcock film. One of the most popular was the British import Angel Street, which famously ran on Broadway for 1295 performances, about a woman in a fog-bound Victorian London being driven to madness in her own home. It’s best remembered from its Oscar winning adaptation Gaslight, which was also the play’s original title (and was the second major film adaptation in four years).


In 1966, Lee Remick starred in one of my favorites: Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark, about a blind woman who is terrorized by drug smugglers. She is unknowingly in possession of a doll that is filled with heroin and they torment her viciously. However, the woman uses her strengths and instincts to put up a valiant fight. In the Broadway production and in its subsequent film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn, as the story progressed to its climax, the lights in the theatre were brought down to the lowest legal allowances, allowing the audience to further understand the protagonist’s plight. I was rewatching the film recently and there is one really, really BIG scare toward the end of the film. Even though I’ve seen it before, it still got me!


London is currently seeing a revival of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap about an author who is desperate for another hit and considers murdering another writer to steal his play. The original production was a Broadway blockbuster. The show ran for four years on Broadway, with featured star Marian Seldes appearing in every single performance. A 1982 film adaptation followed.This was slightly different as it mixed elements of dark comedy with the suspense and plot twists.


There have been others, of course. Kind Lady, Sleuth, Dial M for Murder and The Bad Seed are some others that have played on the audience’s fears. (On the other end of the spectrum there was Children! Children! starring Gwen Verdon in her only non-musical outing on Broadway. That one opened and closed the same night). But it seems that nowadays that there isn’t much place for suspense on Broadway. I’d like to think this isn’t the case, but have there been any successful plays in recent memory that have also been notable thrillers? A revival of Wait Until Dark bombed in 1998 due to the miscasting of Quentin Tarantino as the main villain. Angel Street was last seen on Broadway in a 1976 revival. But perhaps the London Deathtrap may transfer to NY? I personally wouldn’t mind having the bejesus scared out of me at a Broadway show. How about you?

The Time Machine

My buddy Steve is asking folks about the original casts they would have liked seeing on his site. (Be sure to drop over to vote in his poll!) This was originally going to be a post on his comments, but after a while I realized it would be obscene to post this, so I moved it here:

It seems every so often there is a show or a production that entices me to wonder what it was like to be in the house. When I talk to older theatregoers I always ask them about their first show and their favorite show (depending on the time we have). I’ve never been anything but fascinated by the responses I get. And I find I’m always saying, “Gosh, I would have loved seeing that!” So I made what I call my “Time Machine” list. Whenever there’s a new one I just add it to this mental list. It’s ever growing, because the more I read and the more I learn the more fascinated I become. There are countless shows that come to mind as something I would have liked seeing – and almost all of them are original casts.

Even now, I tend to have a preference for original stars. There have been a couple of times where I’ve let some shows pass me by because I wasn’t really interested in the new cast members. If original cast members return for the close, it usually sparks up on my radar again. Case in point: David Cromer in Our Town (which I saw last night, more on that later) and Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur in Hairspray (I went the day before the show closed). So if there’s a chance to see the originals, yeah I’m there. Are there productions where I would have preferred seeing the originals? Yes: Proof and The Producers. But here’s a short list of some of those shows that were on the boards before I was born that I would love to have seen:

Follies – Of the original Sondheim-Prince collaborations this is the one I’d want to see most, in fact I’d love it if City Opera were able to bring this production back to life in its repertory (they already have Prince’s Sweeney Todd, which along with Pacific Overtures has been preserved for posterity. I’ve watched those brief video highlights from the dress rehearsal which only makes me want to see it more. It is the sort of production that would be unthinkable today and fiscally impossible. It seems that Prince never expected to make money off of this show – and he didn’t. The show closed after 522 performances, losing its entire investment. But oh those costumes, the scenery and the staging. Michael Bennett’s “Who’s That Woman?” is considered by many to be the greatest production number. Ever. That original cast is well-remembered and likely never to be forgotten.

Gypsy – Merman. Lansbury. Daly. It’s one of the of best musicals of all time. Ethel Merman with Jerome Robbins’ original staging (and a smash like none other)? I’d probably be agreeing with Walter Kerr’s assessment that it’s “The best damned musical I’ve seen in years.” The part was tailor made to her talents. Criticisms from the creators be damned, it’s Ethel Merman in her last original role on Broadway belting it like no other and being challenged like she had never been before. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I like to think Lansbury was the best from the evidence I’ve seen – balls-to-the-wall, riveting and simultaneously gutteral and alluring. Daly is a superb actress and her cast album doesn’t give her performance its due. I’ve seen a bit on youtube, but I would love to have been in the St. James when she bent over and attacked the stage during “Rose’s Turn.”

Mame – Angela Lansbury is required viewing. SarahB and I would take the time machine all the way to Hotel Paradiso in 1957 to Prettybelle in Boston in 1971. But this is the one out of all of them I want to have been there for. Lansbury ir in her Tony winning, take the town by storm tour de force performance? That score, that staging and choreography – and all of New York falling at Lansbury’s gold lame pajama pants. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for Lansbury, and forever changed her career and her life (and is the first of her five Tony wins). The cast album remains a desert island selection, but boy I would have loved seeing her with my other favorite Bea Arthur.

My Fair Lady – Lerner and Loewe besting Rodgers and Hammerstein at their own formula? (Well, I suppose it’s debatable, but don’t tell my musical professors that). The musical adaptation of Pygmalion is one of my personal favorites – I played Freddy Eynsford-Hill in my high school production and am quite proud of what I did when I was 17 (and would love the chance to do it again). It’s a shimmering score – Lerner and Loewe’s true triumph. The book is Lerner’s best; none of the shows he wrote before or after ever had a book this strong (of course, he had Shaw to thank there). From the first strains of that overture to the finale, it’s an utter masterpiece. Add to the formula Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, Robert Coote & Stanley Holloway and I’m done.

She Loves Me – When asked my favorite musicals, I usually give three answers: The Light in the Piazza, Sweeney Todd and this charmer. I saw Piazza on its opening night and have seen various tapes of Sweeney over the years (and was there for its 2005 revival). But I have never had the chance to see this one. It’s original cast album is a sparkling jewel from start to finish. It’s my favorite Bock & Harnick show, with some of their best character numbers which perfectly complement Joe Masteroff’s lovely libretto. Start to finish, nothing but pure love. I listen to this cast album ever New Year and the finale gets me ever time. Barbara Cook’s “Ice Cream” will never be topped.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – One of these is not like the other. It’s of course obvious that I would place this one on my list. The show is a notorious flop with an absolute mess of a book but a stunner of a score. Patricia Routledge, a Tony winner for Darling of the Day (we’ll have already stopped there on the way), gets a mid-show standing ovation for “Duet for One.” I mean, how fascinating is that? She stirs up a bored crowd into a manic frenzy over nine minutes of stage time. Then Routledge leaves the stage until the finale and the audience, though titillated, is already sad to see her go.

South Pacific – If I had to choose one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, this would be the one. Yes, it’s my personal favorite of all of them and the revival is fresh in my memory. But can you imagine being there when it was a critical and cultural phenomenon? Four years since WWII ended, folks are still quite well aware of the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, etc and there is still a lot of mourning and remembering. This show opens at the Majestic with that cast – still the only production in the history of the Tony Awards to sweep all four acting categories. Sure, I’ve seen Juanita Hall in the film and Mary Martin in the archival tape of the London production, but it doesn’t beat actually being there.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – I loved the 2005 revival, which I saw twice and of course have seen the Oscar-winning film adaptation. But it wasn’t until I got my hands on the original cast album (you read that right) that I realized what a stunning production the original was. Uta Hagen leads the charge as the definitive Martha; vulgar, hilarious and devastating. The show was revived in 1976 with Colleen Dewhurst, and since I’m a huge fan of hers, I would have like seeing her spin.

Some runners-up: Show Boat (1927), Coco, A Streetcar Named Desire (I’d take in the original with Tandy, national tour with Hagen, the 1973 revival with both Rosemary Harris and Lois Nettleton), Auntie Mame, Inherit the Wind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie, The Apple Tree, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, High Spirits, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Ballroom, Nine, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Call Me Madam, Candide, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kismet, Allegro, Love Life, The West Side Waltz, Carnival, Illya Darling, A Chorus Line, The Music Man, Carnival in Flanders, 1776, A Little Night Music, Grand Hotel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Mary Mary, West Side Story, Bells Are Ringing, Fiddler on the Roof, and…