If you're into stargazing--and who isn't?--the only place to be this weekend is at the York Theatre Company. For the third and final entry in its current Musicals in Mufti series, the company is offering five sold-out performances of the 1971 Kander & Ebb cult musical 70, Girls, 70 in a semi-staged concert version starring a gaggle of musical divas: Jane Powell, Jane Connell, Marilyn Cooper, Helen Gallagher, Mimi Hines, and Charlotte Rae.
"This is such a wonderful show," Powell enthused during an interview on Wednesday. "I'd never heard the score before--and I never heard the song I was just rehearsing, "The Elephant Song," until yesterday! The script is sort of a no-brainer, but it's so funny, and everybody in the cast is great. Rehearsing for such a short period of time is an interesting way to do things...I've never seen this kind of a concert performance, so I really didn't know how it worked, with just four days of rehearsal. Fortunately, the Kander & Ebb songs are so good and so descriptive that you almost don't need a lot of staging."
Says Jane Connell, "You know what's fun about this? I do so many musicals, and I'm often the oldest member of the cast. When I make jokes about not being able to stand up quickly or to bend my knees, the kids go 'Awww.' But here, we're all so old. It's hysterical! We look at each other: 'Atrial fibrillation? Yeah!' It's great to work with my contemporaries. That's an unusual situation in the theater."
70, Girls, 70 is based on the 1960 British film Make Mine Mink and its antecedent, Peter Coke's 1958 London stage comedy, Breath of Spring. In the musical, a group of senior citizens living in a seedy Manhattan hotel form a Robin Hood-esque fur-theft ring (!!), using their ill-gotten gains to spruce up their digs and to provide safe harbor for other poor seniors. One of the show's most intriguing aspects is that the plot described above was originally presented as a show within a show, punctuated by several musical numbers (e.g., "Broadway, My Street," "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup") in which the actors step out of character and, more or less, play themselves as performers in a Broadway. This conceit was apparently dropped for a London staging of the show in the early '90s, with a revised book that will also be used for the York production. But, on Broadway in 1971, the blurring of the line between life and art was carried to such an extent that Dorothea Freitag--the composer of the show's dance music--appeared on stage as the piano-playing character Lorraine, a role that will be filled by Janet Aycock at the York.
Though 70, Girls, 70 opened to largely negative reviews in 1971 and failed to find an audience, it has long held a special place in the hearts of many musical theater buffs. If the score hasn't yielded any standards on the level of those that emerged from Kander & Ebb's Cabaret or Chicago, it's still a complete delight. While the musical's original book was credited to Ebb and Norman L. Martin, the initial adaptation was penned by the great Joe Masteroff (librettist of Cabaret and She Loves Me). The result? Well, Ken Mandelbaum, in his notes for the CD issue of the original cast album, maintains that 70, Girls, 70 "may rank as the most enjoyable Broadway musical to ever last just thirty-five performances."
Not surprisingly, the fact that such a starry cast has been assembled for the York's concert revival has prompted speculation that, following its brief run, 70, Girls, 70 might receive a fully staged, open-ended production with the same company in a larger venue. "Who knows," says Jim Morgan, artistic director of the York, "maybe this will be the Chicago of Off-Broadway and will move immediately to somewhere wonderful. With this cast, why wouldn't it?"
Amen to that! Even a less-than-exhaustive list of these stars' credits is awe-inspiring. Jane Connell, who created the role of Agnes Gooch in the original Broadway production of Mame and subsequently reprised it in the 1974 film version, also starred in Once Upon A Mattress in London and, more recently, in Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy For You on Broadway. Helen Gallagher's career on the Main Stem has included the lead in Hazel Flagg as well as co-starring turns in Pal Joey, Make a Wish, Sweet Charity, and No, No, Nanette. Marilyn Cooper played Rosalia in the original cast of West Side Story before going on to I Can Get it For You Wholesale and, quite famously, Woman of the Year. Mimi Hines, who headlined for many years in clubs and on television with her former husband, Phil Ford, triumphed on Broadway when she replaced Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Charlotte Rae, known to millions as Mrs. Garrett on the long-running TV series The Facts of Life, is also a Broadway veteran, having appeared in L'il Abner and Three Wishes for Jamie. And Jane Powell had already been the triple-threat star of such M-G-M musicals as Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers before she bowled over New York audiences as Debbie Reynolds' successor in Irene in 1974.
Neither are the men appearing in 70, Girls, 70 to be sneezed at. Musical theater stalwarts George S. Irving (Bells Are Ringing, Irene, and On Your Toes), Robert Fitch (the original Rooster in Annie), and Don Percassi (the original Al in A Chorus Line) are among the gentlemen featured. The show is directed by Michael Leeds, with musical direction by Patrick Vaccariello.
Though Jane Connell and Marilyn Cooper have continued to work steadily in theater, some of their 70, Girls, 70 cohorts are less often seen on stage. "I do a lot of benefits for AIDS," says Charlotte Rae, "but my last show was The Solid Gold Cadillac in Kansas City, about three and a half years ago. I sang a couple of songs in it, which was kind of wonderful. Other than that, I've been doing voice-overs for cartoons and film. I live in L.A., but I've gotten so many calls lately that I'm beginning to think that I need a little place here in New York. This is where it's really happening." Says Mimi Hines: "I live in Las Vegas, the home of entertainment--but where's the entertainment? It's not like New York."
How was such a stellar company assembled for 70, Girls, 70? Concert presentations of classic and also-ran musicals have become all the rage over the past several years, and they frequently benefit from the presence of major stars because the concerts' brief rehearsal and performance schedules require limited commitments of time. In the case of 70, Girls, 70, there's the added factor that such fine roles for older performers don't present themselves every day. What all of this means to those who are lucky enough to gain admission to the York this weekend is that they will get to enjoy truly legendary stars in a terrific, lesser-known Kander & Ebb show at the amazing price of $25 per ticket.
It will be fascinating to see what contemporary audiences make of this 30-year-old gem, especially since the plot parallels to another revival--Noël Coward's Waiting in the Wings, currently running on Broadway--are rather striking. "70, Girls, 70 opened on Broadway right after Follies and No, No Nanette," notes Mimi Hines, "so I guess it was number three on people's lists back then. But I think the time is ripe for it right now. There are so many retired people in the world today, with the baby boomers growing older as we speak. The show is very au courant."
The socko final number of 70, Girls, 70 is "Yes," a joyous paean to life, which will be sung this weekend by Jane Powell in the central role of Ida. "I have difficulty getting through that song," Powell admits, "because it just kind of hits home." Says Jane Connell: "We're all at that stage, in our 70s, when we're starting to lose friends. It's a double-edged sword, because it makes you aware of your own mortality. But it also makes you realize that you should live every moment as fully as you can."