Backstage at ‘The Sound of Music’

Sometimes the show behind the show is as fascinating as the one onstage. Many people don’t really know how much work goes into one single Broadway performance – or the amount of people employed by each particular show, particularly behind the scenes. Jamie DeRoy and Rick McKay made this documentary in 1999, one year into The Sound of Music revival’s run at the Martin Beck Theater. Gaining considerable access, the cameras were allowed into the dressing rooms, the wings, the lobby and in and around the various areas of the performance space. DeRoy talks to actors, stagehands, the wardrobe supervisor, the sound team and even the child wrangler giving one a truly inside look at the goings on of show folk. The production stage manager talks about how the job of the backstage team is to make the audience unaware that there is anyone except the actors in the vicinity of the stage. One of the more interesting elements is seeing departing star Rebecca Luker talk about her upcoming departure from the show, while simultaneously meeting her fresh-faced nineteen year old understudy Laura Benanti (in her Broadway debut) talk about the thrill of replacing the veteran star in the role of Maria.




Julie Andrews’ Kennedy Center Honor

The first time I watched the Kennedy Center Honors was in December 2001. I’d heard of the prestigious honor but had never actually tuned into the telecast. When it was announced that Julie Andrews would be an honoree, I decided it was about time I checked out the evening, hosted by Walter Cronkite. It’s an evening of career testimonials with some sort of performance in recognition of the honoree’s achievements, and usually there is at least one representative from the world of theatre. Other honorees that particular year included Van Cliburn, Quincy Jones, Jack Nicholson and Luciano Pavarotti.

Andrews’ tribute was presented by her best friend Carol Burnett who spoke lovingly of the star, her career and even sang a few bars of Sondheim’s “Old Friend” (the camera cut to Andrews mouthing the lyrics with her). The retrospective included clips of Andrews as a child prodigy, singing for the royal family as well as clips from her various Broadway and film musicals including My Fair Lady, Camelot, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and Victor/Victoria. One correction to Ms. Burnett’s anecdote: Julie Andrews thanked Jack L. Warner at the Golden Globes. She was less cheeky in her Oscar acceptance speech.


The performance portion was tremendous. Patrick Wilson sang “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady, Kristin Chenoweth amped up the coloratura for “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins and then Robert Goulet sang “If Ever I Would Leave You” to his former Camelot co-star. Audra McDonald sang a pristine “I Could Have Danced All Night” while Jeremy Irons sang “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” The segment’s finale was provided by Rebecca Luker singing “The Sound of Music,” who was joined by the others as well as a chorus for the obligatory big finish. The clip here is missing the second half of Audra’s song and the first part of “The Sound of Music” but it is still a remarkable musical theatre medley.


At the end of the evening, Renee Fleming delivered a stunning rendition of “Take Care of This House” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in remembrance of the recent 9/11 attacks. My VHS has long since gone missing so I’ve not had the chance to revisit this particular performance since I discovered the lost Bernstein-Lerner score. If anybody might have it, I would love to see it again!

"Kitty’s Kisses"

There was this musical about three years ago that came to Broadway by way of Canada. It was about a middle age recluse who listened to his favorite cast album as it came to life in his own living room. It won a few Tonys, was a decent hit and endeared co-librettist/star Bob Martin to the theatre world. The show was The Drowsy Chaperone, which glibly spoofed 20s musicals of a certain ilk, namely the light romantic musical comedy.

The first time I popped on the cast album of Kitty’s Kisses from PS Classics, I was immediately reminded of Chaperone, seeing the character archetypes and plot contrivances popular in the pre-Show Boat musical that are reflected on and spoofed in the later show. Kitty’s Kisses ran for 170 performances, not bad for a show of the era, back when it took a couple of months if not weeks to recoup. Though a success, it wasn’t a blockbuster like No No Nanette or Good News, and like many other likable period shows, fell by the wayside. Some of the songs by Con Conrad and Gus Kahn became hits (the liner notes mention that Queen Marie of Romania was particularly fond of the title song), but the show has been mostly forgotten, except as a footnote in musical theatre history books.

One of my biggest issues with The Drowsy Chaperone was its initial conceit, a point exemplified by the obscurity of Kitty’s Kisses. There was no such thing as an original Broadway cast album during the decade. It wasn’t until the 1930s that record producers started to experiment in preserving musical theatre scores. It seems a minor sticking issue, but it’s what’s kept Chaperone at bay for me. Though, I took less issue with the London production which adapted the show for the West End (the original London cast album predates the original Broadway cast album by quite a few years). My main beef – the Chaperone is pastiche. It’s sometimes amusing, but it’s mostly mediocre, coming off as a rehash of a rehash of a rehash (and truth be told, I hope and pray there is a moratorium on new 20s musical comedy spoofs).

But now we get a sample of the real thing, and what a superb treat it is. Kitty’s Kisses was a success in NY, then it went to London where it was merged with the Rodgers and Hart musical The Girl Friend (that’s something you don’t hear every day…). It was a charmer that got lost in the shuffle, and was eventually shelved in a New Jersey warehouse where it would have continued to languish were it not for Tommy Krasker. He stumbled upon the material while cataloging the Warner Bros music archive in the mid-80s and it is through his persistence that the restoration was done, with painstaking research and commitment as well as the blessing of Donald Kahn, Gus’ son (to whom the album is posthumously dedicated). Now after 23 years of hard work, he has given us an unexpected surprise this fall: an official cast recording of Kitty’s Kisses, billed as “The Bright New Summer Musical Delight.”

Rebecca Luker lends her shimming soprano to the title role, the innocent ingenue who finds herself at the center of the ridiculous period farce going on around her. The big scandal – Kitty poses as a married woman to get a hotel room and is mistaken for another married woman. Hijinks, mistaken identities and your usual machinations propel the plot (of which there is admittedly very little). But as was often the case, the script was an excuse for gags and light musical entertainment. The score is light, engaging and often delightfully clever with Kahn’s lyrics beautifully complemented by Conrad’s period sound. There are many studio recordings of scores that feel like a textbook document of a musical, rather than a vibrant cast album. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt such joy and warmth from hearing a “lost” score.

The effervescent Kate Baldwin is the free-spirited Lulu, getting things off to a fresh start with the opener “Walking the Track.” Victoria Clark is an absolute riot as grand dame opera singing dowager Mrs. Dennison, who shares the duet “I Don’t Want Him” with Luker. The “Him” in that number happens to be played by Danny Burstein, while Malcolm Gets plays his brother. Andrea Burns and Christopher Fitzgerald take on the specialty material, originally created for vaudeville duo Ruth Warren and William Wayne. Phil Chaffin is Robert Mason, Kitty’s stoic love interest. Jim Stanek makes a brief appearance as the train conductor leading “Choo Choo Love.”

The album was not only produced by Mr. Krasker, but he has supplied a concise, informative essay on the show, its fall into obscurity and its restoration and resurrection. The show’s synopsis is provided by Robert Edridge-Waks. Orchestration was provided by Sam Davis, who also conducted the recording. The CD booklet also contains various production photos and images of newspaper clippings as well as the program from the Newark tryout.

According to the Krasker, the material for the finale ultimo was never recovered. The show ended on Broadway with a song called “Steppin’ on the Blues,” (with additional music by Will Davidson) and I can only assume that the song itself is also lost. The powers behind the album have created a brand new finale ultimo for the show using the composing duo’s Oscar-winning song “The Continental” from the 1934 film The Gay Divorcee. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the score, but it’s a cute way of wrapping things up.

This is the third in a line of score restorations for the label; they released Vincent Youman’s Through the Years in 2001 and Kay Swift’s Fine and Dandy in 2004. I cannot stress how wonderful it is that the folks at PS Classics have taken the time to painstaking refurbish a show like Kitty’s Kisses. In the late 1980s and 1990s, John McGlinn was pretty much the go-to archivist with an emphasis on the works of Jerome Kern, while John Mauceri took care of the Gershwin canon. Those albums, however, were intent on restoring the works of major composers. However, the audience for show music sadly appears to be shrinking and shrinking, so less recordings like these are less likely to be made. John Yap make a series of full studio cast albums of entire vocal scores, but given the economy has left them sitting on the shelf (including the full album of One Touch of Venus made with Melissa Errico). It’s unfortunate, as each of these recording provides musical theatre fans with a further link to the history of the genre. I only hope it’s not another five years until PS Classics releases its fourth restoration.

Rebecca Luker: "I’ll Tell the Man in the Street"

I first encountered Rebecca Luker in the 2000 revival of The Music Man where she played Marian the Librarian opposite Craig Bierko’s Harold Hill. I thought she was merely capable until ‘My White Knight’ when she bowled my friends and I over, and stopped the show in one of the biggest ovations of many that evening. In 2002 she made an appearance with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops for a centennial celebration of Richard Rodgers. The concert showcased Rodgers’ collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart, and was aired in two parts on PBS. Here is Luker singing my favorite rendition of “I’ll Tell the Man on the Street” from I Married an Angel (lyric by Hart).

Practically Perfect in Every Way

It was a long time coming, but I finally took in the Broadway production of Mary Poppins currently ensconced in the beautifully restored New Amsterdam Theatre. I was a huge fan of the 1964 Oscar-winning film, which is the first film I can remember watching. For years, I anticipated a stage adaptation and it came to fruition in 2004 when the show opened in London starring Laura Michelle Kelly as the titular nanny and Gavin Lee as Bert, the jack-of-all-trades busker.

The show opened in the fall of 2006 at the New Amsterdam Theatre (home to The Lion King for nine years) and is the current cashcow at Disney Theatrical’s flagship theatre. The show opened with Gavin Lee crossing the pond to make an auspicious Broadway debut and American Ashley Brown as Mary. Daniel Jenkins and Rebecca Luker were cast as Mr. and Mrs. Banks. Cass Morgan was the Bird Woman and Ruth Gottschall was Miss Andrew.

I don’t know how I let the show escape my grasp, especially given my incredible excitement over its gestation, and excitement at the new material (after some initial reticence) by the British composing team of Stiles and Drewe. It’s been widely publicized, but bears repeating, that author P.L. Travers was less than thrilled with the blockbuster film adaptation. She approved of the casting of Julie Andrews, but little else. It took Cameron Mackintosh to convince her just before her death to give him the stage rights, one of the stipulations was that all Brits had to work on the stage piece, which meant that the Sherman brothers, who won two Oscars for their work on the film, wouldn’t be involved. (Even though they had worked on the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that premiered only a couple years prior). Disney and Mackintosh came together to collaborate, bringing the best of both worlds together. My first exposure to the show and Laura Michelle Kelly’s spectacular performance was through a live television performance from the British “Children in Need” telethon, very similar to what Jerry Lewis accomplishes on this side of the pond, but bringing in big West End musicals to perform. They presented the brand new “Practically Perfect” and segued into the reconceived “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and I was completely won over. Upon hearing the original London cast album, of which I literally burned several copies and just passed them out to everyone I encountered in my theatre department, I was hooked. In an ideal world, I would be in England seeing this production.

After almost two years with the show, Brown and Lee departed the NY company, taking a rest before they take up the first national tour this winter. Kelly’s London replacement Scarlett Strallen and Australian performer Adam Fiorentino stepped into the leads. By the time I got there, the show had been closed in London after three years and the Broadway production had just passed 900 performances. But, better late than never. Strallen possesses a lovely lyric soprano and bears an uncanny resemblance to Maggie Gyllenhaal. She doesn’t quite capture the steely yet affectionate quality of the role’s originator, but she finds humor and in her poised china doll smile, reveling in every moment she’s onstage. Fiorentino is nothing short of charming and matches Strallen note for note.

Much to my delight, Tony-nominees Jenkins and Luker are still with the show, as well as Gottschall. The last time I saw both Luker and Gottschall was in the recent revival of The Music Man, and had enjoyed both immensely. As for the show itself, I loved it. While not the perfect stage adaptation of the story and score that I would like, there is ample wit and heart in the book to keep the adults entertained. I have long considered myself a fan of British children’s literature, where authors revel in dark humor with the children ultimately learning something valuable by its end. Mary Poppins is no exception. In the original books, which take place in 30s London, Mary is a rather unattractive, stern vain creature who, over the course of several volumes, comes and goes from Cherry Tree Lane as she is needed. Mary is a catalyst who helps to make and sustain the Banks family as a functioning family, while looking after Jane and Michael, as well as the younger twins John and Barbara (yep, there are four Banks children in the original story). There was also a lot of commentary about class and status, which is prevalent in many Anglo-centric enterprises (from Howards End to Atonement to Keeping Up Appearances to Upstairs, Downstairs, etc).

Out of the Disney shows presented on Broadway, The Lion King generally remains the number one (with its Best Musical Tony and decade plus run). However, in spite of its great spectacle and stunning scenography it’s ultimately an emotionally vapid spectacle with very little pay-off in its script and score but compensates in its staging. For me, this show possesses great heart, especially in what is ultimately the most fascinating and complicated relationship in the play: that between Mr and Mrs. Banks. Rebecca Luker has grown immeasurably as an actress becoming the emotional anchor for the piece, creating a warm, multi-dimensional woman out of what is an underwritten but mostly fascinating role. She is lucky enough to be matched by Jenkins’ superb work as the emotionally repressed, work and class obsessed patriarch who has the greatest character arc. These two give the adults something to appreciate in what is generally considered kids’ fare. Jane Carr and Mark Price score big laughs as the put upon wait staff. The kids are cute without being cloying and Gottschall scores huge laughs as the nanny from hell, Miss Andrew.

Richard Eyre and choreographer Matthew Bourne provide the lucid and witty staging. Bourne and his co-choreographer Stephen Mear bring a great deal of ballet to the choreography (particularly Nelius and the “Jolly Holliday” sequence), however the high point is the tap/stomp reconception of “Step in Time” complete with Bert tap dancing upside down from the proscenium. The eye-popping elevator set by Bob Crowley complemented the action without overwhelming it. Crowley’s costumes recall the indelible images of the film, mostly for Mary and has provided colorful new looks for practically everyone else.

In my years of theatregoing I guess I’m supposed to have developed a hard cynical edge especially when it comes to theatre aimed more towards children. But rarely does a screen to stage show express such originality while paying considerable homage to its source than this one. The creative team wonderfully melds the original and new material interpolating certain numbers into scenes where they make more sense (ie “Practically Perfect” as an am/want song for Mary, pushing “Spoonful of Sugar” later on). By the curtain call, the audience was entranced. I was sitting among many adults who were also as swept up in the play, moreso than the kids I thought. There is one change to the piece that is a vast improvement on the film. Onscreen, Mary and Mrs. Banks never speak a single word to each other. Onstage, they have fleshed out a more accurate portrayal of how a nanny and matriarch would interact in a household of such stature during the Edwardian period. Also, in lieu of being busy with suffrage work, Mrs. Banks is a stay at home mother who has given up an acting career for family.

In spite of a few imperfections here and there (certain scenes could have used a bit more tightening, and the first scene could use a little work), it’s a fantastic show in fantastic shape. As Mary flew directly over me at the curtain of the show, I couldn’t but smile broadly. Was I waxing nostalgic for me not so recent yet not so distant youth? Or was I swept up in a moment of pure theatre…? Well, can’t it both?

On a side note, this marked my first time ever in the New Amsterdam Theatre, which was paintstakingly restored in the mid-90s by Disney (who holds a 99 year lease on the building). They’ve done a beautiful job of restoring the intricate design of the interior, but in particular is the lower level lounge, which when they first started renovations was completely submerged. There is a great deal of history in and around the New Amsterdam that having a look around is completely obligatory for anyone who goes to that theatre. However, it must be said that the Mark Hellinger Theatre is still the most impressive theatre interior I’ve ever seen.