Rifke! …and other anecdotes from my trip to "Applause"

I’ve had a taste of, the sound that says love… ApplauseHm. Roxie and I attended the final performance of the Encores! presentation of this 1970 Best Musical winner. It was a great afternoon. I watched the impressive natural wonder of a arctic cold front push across the Hudson River while I waited for the train. Wandered around the Times Square area with Roxeleh before the show. Had a most amusing dinner at a diner down the street from the City Center. The title of this post comes from a rather absurd moment where this woman sat next to us while we were eating. First off, as she was being handed the menu she asked the waitress what I was eating as if I wasn’t even there. Her voice was also at a volume where her entire conversation was privvy to the both of us. And let me just say hilarity ensued. The woman was in her sixties and sounded like Mae Questal with a post-nasal drip. Roxie and I burst into a quiet frenzies of hysterical laughter when the woman started talking about her Yiddish class to a random friend and went on about her classmate Rifke. “Oh my goodness, Rifke put down she was 24! Can you believe it?! Oh that Rifke!” Now those of you who are familiar with Fiddler on the Roof know that Rifke is the first recipient of “The Rumor.” But the combination of the elements led Roxie and I into hysterical fits of laughter. You had to be there, but it could possibly rival seeing Ms. Ebersole tear up the stage as the highlight of the day.

Anyway. Applause. You can see my previous post back in October about the guilty pleasure status of this score. Well. It was certainly a fun time. The show is rather poor in practically every way. Yes, I’m well aware that 20th Century Fox wouldn’t allow the musical theatre team to use any of the screenplay; yes, I’m aware that the 1970s was a different era, and contemporizing was the rage. But did no one stop to think that what they were writing was pretty much sub-par?


Christine Ebersole. Yes, everything about her is true. She is a musical theatre diva with endless energy, voice, charisma, beauty and presence. Probably a whole slew of other things wondrous as well. Margo has never been more attractive and so relatable as she was last evening. For the first time, I felt “Hurry Back” worked. In the original production, it was performed as a part voice-over (what?!) and then Bacall, in her basement keys took over live. It just felt like dead weight that didn’t go anywhere. Ebersole brought it to life with a great deal of heart and some delightfully jazz vocals. Fortunately for the comfort of all in the house, the keys for Margo were brought up 4ths and 5th, allowing Ebersole her comfort belt and tones, which sold every number; especially her powerhouse rendition of the second-rate “Welcome to the Theatre” (if the first half of the lyrics were as good as the second half, I’d consider a change). And especially for someone who missed a great deal of the rehearsal time due to influenza, she scored big time and unlike Stokes in Kismet, I was able to forgive her reliance on the prompt book.
Mario Cantone. Playing the role of the sassy gay sidekick to the diva usually lends itself to caricature; but Cantone played Duane, Margo’s dresser as a friend and confidante who also just happened to be a very funny individual. Cantone’s exercise in restraint and nuance was much appreciated by those in attendance. You knew he cared for and protected Margo; and it showed with a very warm relationship between the two characters.
– The ensemble. They danced it up; especially the boys in “But Alive” who managed to send up the camp while delivering it. (Here’s the clip from the 1973 telecast with Bacall. Outrageous. http://youtube.com/watch?v=71dRwNTN69I). They brought down the house with the title song. They even managed to work with the dreck of “She’s No Longer a Gypsy,” the bizarre “Fasten Your Seatbelts,” and “Backstage Babble.”
Kate Burton. Who can do so much with so little. What a treat. And what a waste of a role. This woman deserves to be doing anything from Phyllis in Follies to Vera in Mame.
Michael Park and Tom Hewitt. In choice supporting roles as lover and producer of the star; they take a necessary backseat to the Margo-Eve story.
– The first act. It plays much smoother. What is bad, is at least enjoyable camp and therefore more amusing to watch and hear.
– The gentleman behind us who was so excited to see Christine Ebersole we thought he was going to have a diva fit. It was priceless. Especially Roxie’s enjoyment of the entire proceeding.
– The orchestra. They sounded phenomenal. Great sound, great musical direction and a great complement to the singers.

The In-Between:

Erin Davie. A fresh-faced delight from Grey Gardens; her best scenes were opposite Ebersole. However, I don’t think she was well-directed. She was too “Little Evie” for my liking. Noah was incredibly accurate in describing her “One Hallowe’en” as “Daddy’s Girl.”
Chip Zien. He’s rather annoying. But he wasn’t terrible.
– The midsection of the title song. It was cute, but it got cloying. They removed the original mid-section of the number with a send-up of various hit musicals by replacing lines with “applause.” Here, they did an Encores! best-of run-down, setting up a small gold proscenium and people performing snippets from a slew of musicals that have been done in recent years. A few of them were amusing, but come on. Also, he glaring anachronism of using “All That Jazz” and “Beautiful Girls” in a song that takes place in early ’71 was rather irritating. (Granted Follies was a few months away, but it’s highly doubtful this chorus boy would have been singing “Beautiful Girls” at this point). The original was also quite famous for its Oh, Calcutta! moment where the boys flashed their asses to the audience; something that was also telecast on the Tony’s in 1970 ON CBS!!!! (I’m surprised they got away with it).


– The score. I’m sorry Sarah, in spite of occasionally amusing campy numbers, and one really good song (the title), this is the worst score of a Best Musical winner. Strouse and Adams have run the gamut – Bye Bye Birdie to Bring Back Birdie should say it all. The second act is particularly hideous (“One of a Kind” takes it cue from a coffee tagline; then crams too many words into too short a space and just kinda sits there awkwardly).
– The book. Jesus Christ. One of the greatest films ever. A pretty middling book. It lacks bite. It lacks character development; And it lacks a satisfying ending. In fact, the ending was a complete rushjob. Comden and Green have delivered class and wit in many of their shows; in spite of a few great one liners, they were not the people for this job. Certain characters (Karen, Buzz, etc) just lose so much in this translation.
– The second act. There is little to salvage even for a camp factor. And who the hell thought “Truman Capote’s balls” was a good idea for a lyric?
– The ending. A combination of the two previous entries. Not only was it rushed, it was unsatisfactory. All of a sudden everything was wrapped up; Eve was basically a kept woman by her producer and Margo decides to give up the theatre for marital bliss. WHAT? Well, at least that’s what came about from the terrible eleven o’clock number “Something Greater.” The hook: “There’s something greater.” I’m still not sure if it was intentional, but suddenly it feels as though the actress playing Margo is commenting on the song she’s singing… When you get the revelation that Margo wants to “be what to her man what a woman should be is something greater and finally that’s for me.” Horrible. When Encores! did Fiorello! in its first season, they revised the creaky “strikes me” line from “The Very Next Man.” Besides, someone as interesting and in love with theatre like Margo couldn’t possibly give up one for the other; but try to find a balance between the two. It’s not Bill would ever give up his directing career for her, so why would she not be the diva to her adoring public? Also, we lose the book-end effect of the flashback, where we come back to the awards and everyone gets in their parting shots (Bette Davis has what I think is the greatest exit line on film) and also the incredibly memorable final scene of poetic justice.
– Direction. I don’t think Kathleen Marshall showed up.
– Playbills. How could the City Center run out of Playbills for a 5 performance run? Most of the gallery received photocopied programs that you might get at an elementary school production. Fortunately Roxie spotted some while we were making a brief trip to the rear mezz to see Sarah and Kari. Though it felt like we were going to have to ward off the angry mob when we got back up after intermission.

Imagine if:

Arthur Laurents wrote the book, with Jule Styne and Bob Merrill providing the score. Perhaps Angela Lansbury was Margo Channing; we can keep Penny Fuller, who may be the definitive Eve; watch her on the telecast and prepare to be floored. She even, after the flashbacks, makes early Eve likable. Just throwing that out there….

Overheard while waiting for the train…. Three actors talking in Grand Central Station… “Oh my goodness, we just came from the final dress of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was embarassing. We couldn’t even stay for the third act.” Oh dear. Well, I guess I’ll find out for myself on March 12.