If They Only Had a Brain

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

That’s what I’d like to say to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Warner Bros, who are respectively planning new stage and screen adaptations of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. Webber is preparing a new London production for 2011 starring Michael Crawford as the Wizard and a BBC contest winner as Dorothy. He and lyricist Tim Rice (instead of the previously announced Glenn Slater) will be interpolating five new songs alongside the Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg classics. Jeremy Sams is directing and supplying a brand new book for what is being billed as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s New Production of The Wizard of Oz.

Details have recently emerged in Variety about the upcoming production, which Sams promises to be different from the film. The new songs include a new opening number as well as “an old-fashioned 11 o’clock number for Glinda and a major second-act opener for the Wicked Witch and her Winkies.”  Ideally, I think Webber and Rice – whose last musical theatre collaboration was Evita – should just write a brand new show. I don’t think that Webber has had as strong a collaborator since. He goes on to say, “the closer you get to the original the more you’re faced with the question of, why are you doing this? Why not just give audiences the DVD?”

If they had guts they’d go back to L. Frank Baum’s original stories and come up with something entirely new and original. It would be interesting to see the team write a brand new show from the ground up. While it’s not a very strong show, The Wiz takes points for being its own adaptation and separate from that of the film. There will be a built-in audience for the show, but does it require new material? No. I can’t imagine that anything that Webber and Rice would write would match the quality of the brilliant original score. Personally, I would choose the DVD.

There are two stage versions of the film available for amateur/stock production from Tams-Witmark: the 1942 St. Louis Muny version and the 1988 Royal Shakespeare Company revision. The former has a simpler structure and requires less in terms of scenography (though the Wizard takes Dorothy back to Kansas on his rocket ship). The latter more closely follows the 1939 screenplay, and is a bit more of a spectacle. Both contain the film’s score, though the Muny edition contains a song I’ve never heard called “Evening Star.”

Incidentally, ten years ago this week I played the Cowardly Lion in my high school’s production of the RSC adaptation. The show is performed in two acts, with dialogue padded out a bit and some scenes extended. Most of the songs are given their original verses left unused in the film, while “If I Were King of the Forest” is given the button is doesn’t have in the film. “The Jitterbug,” famously cut from the film, is back in as the closest thing there is to an eleven o’clock number. Much of Herbert Stothart’s underscoring is reused. There is something to the recognition factor: it was the highest selling production in my high school’s history, all performances were sold to 125% capacity. Even after breaking the fire code, the box office was still forced to turn people away at the door.

Even more staggering to me was yesterday’s report from Deadline that Warner Bros was in talks with Robert Zemeckis to direct a remake of the original film using the original script. Remakes tend to suffer as a rule, but those that are slavishly like the original tend to be the worst (shot-by-shot remake of Psycho anyone?). Zemeckis’ reps are now saying the director is not going to be involved in the project, which is the best news of the day. The best action, I think, would be to just scrap the project altogether. Again, I’d rather just pop in the DVD of the original.

Our international obsession with The Wizard of Oz continues. Last year, there were sold out screenings of the film to celebrate its 70th anniversary. New DVD releases and a Blu-ray edition followed, only five years following the most recent special edition DVD. The songs, the lines and images are a part of our lexicon and abound in pop culture references. Gregory Maguire’s revisionist look at the story became the best-selling novel and musical theatre phenomenon Wicked. While the musical rakes in millions upon millions each week to sold out houses worldwide, Dreamworks is planning its film adaptation.

The animated feature Dorothy of Oz (based on Roger S. Baum’s book) with Lea Michele voicing the title character, is scheduled for a 2012 release. Meanwhile two other Oz related films are in the works. Disney’s Oz: The Great and Powerful is slated to be directed by Sam Raimi and tentatively star Robert Downey Jr as the Wizard in a prequel. Meanwhile Drew Barrymore has signed onto Surrender Dorothy, about Dorothy great-great granddaughter who is forced to take on the Wicked Witch.

But is that too much Oz on the marketplace, and will Oz over-saturate the market? That remains to be seen, but it is something that has crossed my mind. The original Baum books are extraordinary, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve been adapted over the years, from the 1903 musical version to the present. But to Webber and Warners, I say leave well enough alone.

It’s Enough to Make a Fellow Fall in Love

Here’s a press shot of Patricia Routledge in her Tony-winning performance as Alice Challice in the failed Jule Styne-Yip Harburg musical Darling of the Day. The show lasted 31 performances at the George Abbott Theater (now the site of the Michelangelo Hotel) in 1968. In spite of the musical’s fast failure (which lost an astronomical $750,000), there are many merits within the show and score; friends and fellow bloggers know that I have long championed a revival.

Alice Challice is something of an unsung heroine of the musical theatre. She’s warm, vibrant, vivacious and pragmatic – a young widow living quietly in Putney who refuses to conform to the loneliness of widowhood. Endeavoring to get married, she uses a marriage broker to establish a correspondence with a nobleman artist’s valet. The role calls for a sensible, yet fun-loving comic soprano, “youngish,” whose material runs the gamut from tender ballads to raucous music hall numbers. There aren’t too many theatre fans familiar with Alice, but if they were it’s likely they would fall madly in love with her.

The show, which was a troubled vehicle for Vincent Price (!), failed rather miserably. It was based on Arnold Bennett’s comic novel Buried Alive about a shy British artist (Price) who switches identities with his dead valet “get out of the world alive” In doing so, he also takes up the deceased’s association with the Widow Challice, with whom he falls in love. An expectedly convoluted farce ensues where he paints under his pseudonym and is found out by snobbish art dealers, when all hell breaks loose.

Out of town reception was rather bleak, with critical pans in Toronto and Boston (in the latter city, Peter Filichia said it was one of the worst musicals he had ever seen, but much improved when he saw it in NY). There was a lack of steady direction, with four directors, two choreographers and five bookwriters. (Nunnally Johnson removed his name prior to opening night leaving the libretto without a credit). In spite of all this trouble the musical actually received a surprising amount of positive reviews. The only full-out pan was the estimable New York Times. Clive Barnes opted out of reviewing the show for the paper and it went to second stringer Dan Sullivan instead, who filed his wholly negative assessment. Barnes himself actually visited the show shortly thereafter and looked on it favorably. The Times also had Walter Kerr in the show’s corner, offering his Sunday column as a valentine to her many abilities. Kerr gave the leading lady one of my favorite pull-quotes of all time: “If you don’t catch her act now, you’ll someday want to kill yourself.” (He immediately added “I’ll help you.”)

Lying in the rubble of the show was Routledge’s Tony win (an award she shared with Leslie Uggams of Hallelujah, Baby!) is the show’s original cast album, which is a charming delight and showcases two major assets – Routledge and the elegant and vibrant score by Styne and Harburg (Styne considered this his “Lerner & Loewe” score and his second favorite of his own musicals behind Gypsy). The show has been rather well-received recently in a couple of engagements at Mufti, which saw revisions made to the book and score in an attempt to refurbish the vehicle. Those revisions were supervised by Erik Haagensen, playwright and Backstage critic, who also made an attempt to fix Routledge’s other failed Broadway musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1990s.

There was a shoddy live recording made of the show’s opening night performance which plays like a raucous hit. The audience lapped up the stars, doling out entrance applause for the two above the title, as well as character actress Brenda Forbes. The most vociferous reactions were reserved for Routledge, who stopped the show with her first number “It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love, as well as her reflective “That Something Extra Special” towards the end of the first act. The actress all but reduced the theatre to rubble with her eleven o’clock number “Not on Your Nellie.” During her ovation for the latter (which lasted a full minute), she can be heard very faintly asking incredulously “Is this all for me?” then after a beat pleading the audience “Ladies and gentlemen, if you please.” The audience took this as a cue to give one more cheer before allowing the company to the continue.

As I sit here writing, I realize that the musical opened on this day forty-two years ago. It’s a show that isn’t licensed for stock/amateur performances and has had very few revivals, the RCA cast album has been out of print for many years, but has resurfaced recently via ArkivMusic. The show remains off the beaten path, a lost gem that has brought me a great deal of joy.

Should Encores! (as I want to hear those vibrant orchestrations from Ralph Burns) take up the show, there is only one person in my estimation who should play Alice Challice (and I have Ken Mandelbaum’s agreement on this front) and that is Victoria Clark. What strikes me the most about this particular press shot is the uncanny resemblance between Clark and Routledge, as they share a similar voice type, sensibility and the honor of the Best Actress in a Musical Tony. By extension, I think David Hyde Pierce is ideal for the artist. Then I’d toss in Gavin Lee for the music hall numbers, and Edward Hibbert and Judy Kaye as the noblesse-oblige for good measure.

Darling of the Day is a gem just aching for rediscovery.

Let’s give the waltz a chance.
Let’s dance, and let’s see what happens.
Let us carouse while Strauss caresses the strings.
Even the shy may fly on musical wings.
They say music can do the most unusual things.
Let’s take a step or two or three, and let’s see what happens.
Let us pretend, my friend, it’s only a spree.
And if a great adventure happens to happen,
Won’t we be happy it happened to you and me?

Happy 2010, Everybody!

Kate Baldwin to Croon Lane & Harburg Favorites

The effersvescent Kate Baldwin will be heading into the recording studio today to start work on her very first solo album. Baldwin, who recently starred in the well-received Encores! revival of Finian’s Rainbow, will celebrate the music of Burton Lane and the lyrics of Yip Harburg, consisting of songs they wrote together and separately. A track list is pending, but hopes are high for an early fall release.

According to the article at Playbill, Baldwin will be collaborating with Jason Robert Brown, Sam Davis, Joel Fram, Joshua Rosenblum, Georgia Stitt and Joseph Thalken, all supplying arrangements. Rob Berman, musical director for Encores!, will serve in the same capacity on the record. Tommy Krasker will produce the album for PS Classics.

I never got around to talking about Finian’s last March, but there was one of those supreme moments of joy when Kate sang the first phrase of “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?” The vibrancy of her vocal tone is innervating, like the sudden warmth of a hearth on a cold winter’s evening. She found considerable depth and yearning in the familiar standard that I felt that I was hearing the song for the very first time. Playing opposite the legendary Jim Norton and the charismatic Cheyenne Jackson, she was the epitome of loveliness as Sharon, a role that the actress has found herself revisiting quite a bit in her career.

Baldwin been seen on Broadway in The Full Monty, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Wonderful Town, She’s amassed a great deal of regional credits, starring in Huntington’s She Loves Me, PaperMill’s Hello, Dolly! as Irene and Guys and Dolls as Sarah Brown, Katharine in the NJ Shakespeare’s Henry V, various engagements of White Christmas Off-Broadway, she performed in Bush is Bad, and has also sung from the Sondheim catalogue on several occasions, including Opening Doors at Carnegie Hall and at Wall to Wall Sondheim for the master’s 75th birthday.

Finian’s Rainbow starts previews this August at the St. James Theatre in the first Broadway revival of the musical in 49 years. For me, there is one reason and one reason alone for this production: to give this gracious and lovely leading lady the Broadway stardom for which she is so inevitably destined.

On this day in 1968…

Darling of the Day opened at the George Abbott Theatre in New York City. The musical by Jule Styne and Yip Harburg was based on the Arnold Bennett novel Buried Alive, a decidedly Anglophilic romp in which a nobleman artist assumes the identity of his deceased manservant “to get out of the world alive.” In doing so, he also takes up the deceased’s correspondence with a widow from Putney, named Alice Challice. Anyway, a convoluted farce ensues where he paints under his pseudonym and is found out by snobbish art dealers. This leads to a courtroom climax that brings about a conclusion with a decidedly Gilbert & Sullivan-esque flair.
The show’s creative process was less than happy. Darling of the Day went through various directors (4), choreographers (2), book writers (5) and titles (2) and the show opening in NY without a credited librettist (a death knell for a musical; Nunnally Johnson insisted his name be taken off the show). The revolving door also included Peter Wood, S.N. Behrman, Albert Marre, Stephen Vinaver (who was hired and fired twice) and Peter Gennaro among others. In spite of the mess created by such a tumultuous tryout period, the show managed to allow the effervescent Patricia Routledge to shine in the role of the spirited widow. The cast album is a marvel for the strength of Styne’s music and the cleverness of Harburg’s lyrics, with Routledge getting the best of the material. Every one of her numbers in the show is worth hearing: “It’s Enough to Make a Lady Fall in Love,” “A Gentleman’s Gentleman,” the devastatingly beautiful waltz “Let’s See What Happens,” a lost gem of a ballad “That Extra Something Special,” and her rousing piece d’resistance, her eleven o’clocker “Not on Your Nellie.”
Routledge stole the show from the non-singing Vincent Price and won the show’s general acclaim. Darling couldn’t withstand the initial critical drubbing it received and shuttered after 32 performances. The show would (fortunately for all) record a cast album; Routledge would win the Tony award for Best Actress in a Musical, tying with Leslie Uggams who appeared in Jule Styne’s hit-flop/flop-hit Hallelujah, Baby! (Talk about book trouble).

As per Walter Kerr: [Routledge gives] “the most spectacular, most scrumptious, most embraceable musical comedy debut since Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence came to this country … I understand there are some insane people going around this town saying that they didn’t care all that much for Darling of the Day. I’d stay away from them if I were you. I warn you: if you don’t catch her act now, you’ll someday want to kill yourself.”

Talk about a notice.

The original cast album is now woefully out of print, though it was issued on CD by RCA Victor in the late 1990s. There are copies available used on amazon and also through Arkiv Music (a CD-R with reproductions of original liner notes). The show plays on record as a hit, as many flops scores do. (I forgot to mention that Ralph Burns was the orchestrator). There is also a rare recording of the opening night performance, muddied and poor quality, but you’d never believe the show was a disaster from the way the audience responds, particularly to Routledge. (Her ovation for “Not on Your Nellie” went on so long, she had to plead with the audience to let the show continue).

And now, my new favorite flop is 40 years old. It’s not often revived; though there were recent attempts at revisions, including the version presented at Musicals in Mufti a few year’s back (featuring Rebecca Luker). If we’re lucky, Encores! will present this delightful obscurity as part of their series starring Victoria Clark as Alice.

Of course, an ideal season would also include the long forgotten A Time for Singing and Donnybrook! (How about it, Encores?)