Random Thoughts on This and That

Thus endeth the sabbatical. After five weeks away from writing, I have returned with cool head and a keen eye and am looking forward to a new theater season and many adventures with friends old and new.

This year’s Tony Awards came and went with the requisite flash and bang. The telecast was the best I’d seen since I started watching ten years ago (and a far cry from last year’s bomb). I was glad the awards weren’t held at Radio City Music Hall. The Beacon is still a big house,  but it allowed more intimacy in the numbers, making it easier for the songs to sell to the audiences in house and at home. I also loved that each show was given about two extra minutes to perform. The breathing room made all the difference; and far better than those hackneyed and dull medleys. I had a good time and one of the main reasons was that I didn’t really care who won. I seriously didn’t; it was mostly predictable who was going home with what so it was fun just to sit back with the crew at SarahB‘s annual party. It made for a ridiculous fun night, with ample laughs and Madame Arcati’s Cucumber Sandwiches. I do hope that the American Theatre Wing and Broadway League continue to host the ceremony at the Beacon (if they refuse to use one of our own Broadway houses).

I’ve recently started using Netflix again – and my first time with the streaming option. My goodness, is this fun! A time killer, yes, but I’ve been able to catch up on some wonderful things I’ve missed along the way, like Pushing Daisies and Party Down (two woefully short-lived and wonderful series), and also catch up on some old favorites (I recently watched The Dick Van Dyke Show from pilot to series finale). The amount of titles that are streaming amaze me, particularly the older and more obscure films. It’s kinda fun to have Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Pajama Game at your finger tips. I also watched the brilliant Downton Abbey for the umpteenth time.  (And if you haven’t seen any of these, add them to your queue immediately).

We’ve got a plethora of musical revivals happening next season; and so many are tried and true classics. The biggest is the limited engagement of Follies coming in from the Kennedy Center, with most of its regional cast intact. Bernadette Peters is Sally and Jan Maxwell is Phyllis. Danny Burstein and Ron Raines will reprise their roles Buddy and Ben. West End legend Elaine Paige will be appearing on Broadway for the second time, and for the first time she is Tony eligible. Joining the cast for the Broadway run are Jayne Houdyshell (replacing Linda Lavin) and Mary Beth Peil (replacing Regine) as Hattie and Solange, respectively. I’m not entirely thrilled that the show is playing the Marriott (the theater itself is efficient, but its location and legacy are a major letdown).

Harry Connick Jr. will be playing Dr. Bruckner in the revised On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Other Broadway casting hasn’t been finalized, but David Turner – who has participated in the Vassar reading last summer – will be playing David Gamble at the Vineyard workshop this month. (I’m assuming he’ll be doing the honors at the St. James, but we’ll wait for final casting). Whether it’s David or not, I feel sorry for the man who has to fill Barbara Harris’ shoes. I’m curious to see how they’ve reconceived it, even if it eviscerates what was once a great leading lady star turn, by splitting the role in half and making one of those halves male. The show itself was something of a trippy mess, as there was a lot of LSD involved in its writing, but script aside the score is an absolute treasure.

Plus, Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis, David Alan Grier and Josh Henry will be coming to the Richard Rodgers for a revised Porgy and Bess, with a new script by Suzan-Lori Parks and direction by Diane Paulus. It will be seen first at the ART, where Ms. Paulus is artistic director, in Cambridge, MA. There’ll be duelling Jesus’ as Ken Davenport’s production of Godspell comes to the Circle in the Square, while there are talks to bring the highly acclaimed Stratford Festival’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar to Broadway in the spring.

On the play front, Tyne Daly is currently wowing audiences in Master Class at MTC (and boy do I want to see that!) The revival of the Terrence McNally play will close in August to make way for the darling of the day, Nina Arianda, to reprise her off-Broadway triumph in Venus in Fur on Broadway. (I will see either leading lady in a bus and truck of The Phonebook). Kim Cattrall is importing her London revival of Privates Lives to Toronto then Broadway, starring opposite the brilliant Paul Gross (who dominated Slings & Arrows). I’m also still curious to see how the starry revival of The Best Man will shape up.

This week I attended the CD release celebration for Kate Baldwin’s She Loves Him, her tribute to lyricist Sheldon Harnick which was recorded live at Feinstein’s at the Regency. I was so taken with the show back in March that I saw it twice (not bad for a seven show run). Over the course of four of those shows (one of which I attended), the show was recorded live and was released this week by PS Classics. Kate and Sheldon appeared for an abridged set of favorites before a champagne reception, where they happily signed CDs.  I had a chance to meet Mr. Harnick and talk to him for a couple moments about his shows, particularly She Loves Me (my favorite musical comedy) and his lyrics. The album is a pure joy from start to finish; a must-have for any serious musical theatre fan.

Finally, I was At Large Elsewhere this week as I made my second appearance as guest co-host on Stage Rush TV, which is hosted by my good friend and fellow blogger Jesse North. The ladies of The Craptacular were on last week to talk about the upcoming season and he asked if I would come on to talk about what I was looking forward to on Broadway this season, as well as Sister Act, Broadway in Bryant Park, among some other fun things. One of the life lessons learned in this week’s episode is never to bring up Sex and the City in my presence. Throughout the rest of the summer, Jess will be featuring other bloggers on his weekly episode (which is always fun to watch) so be sure to keep checking in for more hilarity and banter.

And I’ll be here, as always, to bring on the Weissman Girls.

“The Ballad of the Shape of Things”

I have been quite obsessed with this song since I heard Kate Baldwin sing it the other night at Feinstein’s to hilarious effect. The song was written for the fearless comedienne Charlotte Rae by her friend Sheldon Harnick for The Littlest Revue, which played the Phoenix Theatre in 1956. While the show lasted only 32 performances, it also boasted the talents of Joel Grey, Tammy Grimes and Larry Storch and yielded an original cast album. “The Ballad of the Shape of Things” was also later recorded by Blossom Dearie and The Kingston Trio.

Here is Rae recreating the number at a 2007 CD signing (for the reissue of her 1950s album “Songs I Taught My Mother”) at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble.


Kate Baldwin: “She Loves Him”

Picking a favorite Sheldon Harnick song is nearly impossible for me. If I tell you “Ice Cream” or “If I Were a Rich Man” give me a few seconds and I’ll start rattling off practically every other song he’s written. When picking songs for a Broadway itunes playlist, I couldn’t just pick one song and found myself placing every original cast album of his material into mix. That said, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the divine Kate Baldwin to make the selections for her utterly charming tribute to Mr. Harnick, simply titled She Loves Him, playing Feinstein’s at the Regency from March 8-12, with the 86 year old lyricist appearing as her special guest.

Out of the seventeen selections, all but four had music by the late, great Jerry Bock, Harnick’s long-time collaborator. Together they wrote some of Broadway’s best scores including Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree and my personal favorite She Loves Me, racking up a few Tony Awards and a Pulitzer. Mr. Harnick has also collaborated with Joe Raposo on the musical version of A Wonderful Life, Richard Rodgers on Rex and others. On top of all this, he contributed his own material (words and music) to many off-Broadway and Broadway revues of the 1950s. Harnick’s lyrics are among the best ever written: character specific, vibrant and literate, brimming with wit and panache.

Kate started off with a bit of a tease, making her way to the microphone with a pad and pencil. Suddenly from the piano came a familiar four note introduction to “Ice Cream.” However, instead of writing a letter to “Dear Friend,” she wrote a letter to “Dear Sheldon,” asking him to be a part of her show with a specialized “He Loves Me.” Other gems soared: “When Did I Fall in Love?” stopped this show of showstoppers,” Ilona took us on “A Trip to the Library” and “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone But You” from A Wonderful Life was just beautiful.

The Tony-nominated soprano also happens to be very pregnant with her first child and her impending motherhood informed many of the selections made throughout the evening, most affectingly in her rendition of She Loves Me’s “Will He Like Me?” With utmost subtlety and without changing a single word, the song — which is in context Amalia’s admitting her apprehensions before her first date with “Dear Friend” — was suddenly a new song entirely. I know it’s Kate’s favorite Harnick song and hers may well be the definitive rendition (all due respect to the delightful Barbara Cook, who was also in the house).

Charlotte Rae’s name came up several times throughout the evening. Like Baldwin and Harnick, Ms. Rae is also an alumnus of Northwestern University. While studying, Rae played Harnick the original cast album of Finian’s Rainbow and encouraged him to be a musical theatre writer. Two specialties he wrote for Rae were on the program, which were of particular interest as Harnick also wrote the music. The first was the clever “The Boston Beguine” from New Faces of 1952, about a sexless romp between a bachelor stenographer and a Harvard Man. (Rae opted to do Three Wishes for Jamie instead and the song put the brilliant Alice Ghostley on the map). The other is the madcap “The Ballad of the Shape of Things,” a devilishly subversive number that was the comic highlight – and a song I’ve been unable to get out of my head all day. (Incidentally, Harnick told the enraptured opening night crowd that it was one of the easiest songs he’d ever written).

Usually when I’m at a show where there is a special guest, the individual might make an appearance for a song or two. Kate brought Sheldon onstage halfway through her set to a tumultuous ovation and much to our delight incorporated him into the rest of the show, starting with a spirited “To Life!” from Fiddler. One of the great memories I’ll always treasure was the opportunity to see Sheldon bring down the house with his own “If I Were a Rich Man” (aside from being a terrific writer, he’s a terrific performer). Together, they also shared the lovely “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine,” a gentle waltz that was taken out of Fiddler during the pre-Broadway tryout. They finished with a stirring duet of “In My Own Lifetime,” a haunting anthem from The Rothschilds. For their encore they shared “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler.

The evening was directed by Diana Basmajian, Kate’s frequent collaborator who also did magnificent work on the star’s first appearance at Feinstein’s, helping to shape Kate’s vibrant patter and find the story in every song. They devised an amusing framing device with Kate finding (and in some cases facetiously stretching for) parallels between herself and Sheldon with an unbelievable combination of poise and self-effacing humor. Scott Cady served as musical director and pianist, Andrew Sherman was on woodwinds (apparently almost all of them) and John Beale was on bass; a perfect trio.

I simply cannot stress how magical this night this was; a joyous occasion that you secretly wished would never end. If anyone from PS Classics is paying attention, this must be Kate’s follow up recording to “Let’s See What Happens.” She Loves Him belongs on CD for everyone to hear. In the meanwhile, I have a ticket for the last show on Saturday night and I hope you’ve gotten your tickets as well. You don’t want to miss the best show in town.

And while I’m at it, Kate Baldwin needs to be Broadway’s next Amalia in She Loves Me. It’s been 18 years since the last revival — and we’re long overdue.

Coming Soon: Kate Baldwin & Sheldon Harnick at Feinstein’s!

Next week I’ll be making my first trip of the season to Feinstein’s at the Regency to see the delightful Kate Baldwin in a return engagement. I was there for her debut last December as she sang the songs associated with Burton Lane and Yip Harburg (also on her fabulous solo CD “Let’s See What Happens”). I last heard Kate sing at the NY Pops Sondheim Birthday Bash at Carnegie Hall back in November. Most recently, the expecting star sang as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

For Feinstein’s, the Tony-nominated soprano will be performing She Loves Him, a celebration of lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s songs. Harnick is most famous for his indelible collaboration with the late Jerry Bock, writing Fiorello!, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof and The Apple Tree (winning Tonys, a Pulitzer and ardent fans along the way. It’s no secret that I am a major Bock and Harnick fan and also hope that someone will have the foresight to produce a Broadway revival of She Loves Me starring Kate. Mr. Harnick, whose lyrics are among the finest written in musical theatre, will be Kate’s special guest for the seven shows between March 8-12. Tickets are available via the Feinstein’s website or by calling 212-339-4095 ($50.08-71.86 with a food/beverage minimum of $25). I cannot wait!