The fabulous film, stage, and TV star Ann Miller died last week, and I've been thinking about her a lot. I was thrilled to meet and speak with her on several occasions over the past few years, ever since her triumph in the Paper Mill Playhouse's 1998 production of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman musical Follies.
Miller was deeply loved by her colleagues. When I interviewed Debbie Reynolds in July 2000, she had this to say of her fellow M-G-M musical star and longtime friend: "She's a scream. She's Auntie Mame brought back. Ann has such vitality and she loves everyone. She sings like Merman, and she dances like...herself! A wonderful talent and a wonderful human being." When I called Reynolds earlier this week for further comment in the wake of Miller's death, she remarked that her pal "could knock 'em dead vocally as well as outdance everybody. She was just a terrific lady with a real zest for life."
Harvey Evans, who appeared with Miller in a 1971 television version of the Off-Broadway musical Dames at Sea, shared a story about the production of that program. "We had pre-recorded all of the songs," Evans recalled, "but when it came time for Annie to sing her big torch song on top of the piano, something happened to the pre-record. It just wouldn't work, so they asked her if she could sing it live as they were taping. She didn't have to do it, but she agreed, and she saved them tremendous amounts of money." Evans went on to remark that "because of the nature of her talent, which was mainly tap dancing, Annie became sort of a camp figure and the butt of a lot of jokes. What everybody tends to forget is what a great trouper she was."
For her powerhouse rendition of the Sondheim classic "I'm Still Here" in Paper Mill's Follies, Miller received the kind of reviews that most performers can only dream of. Billy Hartung, who played Young Buddy in the show (and who may be seen dancing in the film version of Chicago), has fond memories of the star: "The younger people in the show, who could only know M-G-M from tapes, had so many questions about what it was like to be involved in all of that. Ann was always willing to answer; it was like a living history lesson every day. I thought that was so generous of her, especially since she was a woman who was always looking ahead to the next project. She didn't just want to be remembered for her movies. That's why I think Follies was so exciting for her. She certainly was a breed apart and it was a real treat to be given the opportunity to work with her."
One of Miller's co-stars in Follies was Broadway veteran Kaye Ballard, who's currently appearing in a production of Nunsense in Washington, D.C. The two women were close for years and Ballard was only too happy to talk about Miller when I reached her by phone this week. "I adored Ann," she said, "and I felt so privileged to work with her because she represented a whole era of entertainment that I worshipped. She was the most gracious person, just wonderful to everyone. You know, she named her wigs; they all had names like Jane and Alice. 'I'll wear Alice tonight!' she'd say. She was adorable."
Ballard also remarked of Miller that "one of the heartbreaks of her life was that she didn't get to do Follies in New York." After the Paper Mill production received rapturous reviews, there was talk that it would transfer to Broadway with Roger Berlind as lead producer, but that never came about for reasons that are still unclear. Miller herself subscribed to reports that the transfer was scotched by the wife of librettist James Goldman, who was in the midst of striking a package deal for the Roundabout Theatre Company to present its own Broadway production of Follies and a revival of Goldman's The Lion in Winter.
"It's such a mystery," said Miller of the situation when I spoke with her on the phone shortly after Follies had closed at Paper Mill and word had come that the production would not be moving to Broadway. "Why did she do it? I was told off the record that the Roundabout Theatre people might be interested in doing the show but I don't know whether that's true or not. I didn't have the lead in our production; I was just a featured player. But I thought it was one of the most brilliant shows I've seen in a long time. Something just isn't kosher here. I'm absolutely devastated over it, and so is the whole company. I think somebody oughtta smoke that woman out and make her tell the truth about what's really bugging her." (When I called Mrs. Goldman at the time to set the record straight, she declined to comment. The Roundabout did, in fact, go on to present both The Lion in Winter and Follies on Broadway; both productions received largely negative notices.)
Over the years, Miller became famous for the many malaprops and daffy statements that were attributed to her, correctly or not. One story that's been making the rounds recently has her responding to someone's question as to whether or not she'd be working on Passover with "Oh no, honey, I don't do game shows!" And people love to relate what Miller supposedly said years ago when she heard that there was going to be a new Broadway musical called Ari. The 1971 tuner was based on Leon Uris's Exodus, but Miller didn't know that and assumed something else from the title. "I'm gonna audition for Ari," she's rumored to have declared, "because I wanna play Jackie O!"
In a Turner Classic Movies interview by Robert Osborne that has recently been rebroadcast, Miller admitted that she was widely perceived as "wacky" because of some of her remarks. "Actually, I'm not wacky," she told Osborne. "I'm very serious. I know what I want and I won't settle for anything else."
In tribute to the late, great Miller, I'd like to leave you with two audio clips from my interviews with her. The first took place at 890 Broadway rehearsal studios at an open rehearsal for Follies and includes her comments on Stephen Sondheim; the second is from a phone conversation held just after it was reported that no Broadway transfer was in store for the Paper Mill production of the show. The sound quality of these clips is quite poor but I thought TheaterMania visitors might still enjoy hearing them; to do so, click here, then wait a few moments for the clips to download and begin playing.
I first saw Our Sinatra in 1999 during its debut engagement in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. Since then, the show has been running off and on (mostly on) at various venues; but I didn't catch up with it again until last week, when I saw it at Birdland.
I'm delighted to report that the show is in great shape. Its two current male stars, Tony DeSare and Adam James, have Sinatra's vocal style down pat and are appealing as all get-out. But the real revelation here is Hilary Kole. A co-creator of the revue (with Eric Comstock and Christopher Gines), Kole has been in it since the Algonquin engagement, but she has grown tremendously as an artist over the intervening years. To be frank, her performance at the Algonquin made no great impression on me; but now Kole is a knockout in terms of both talent and looks. Her voice is sexy and malleable, her phrasing is superb, and she's so gorgeous that at least two gay men in the audience really flipped over her.
Our Sinatra is a wonderfully well put together show that embraces dozens of the singer's greatest hits, from "I Fall in Love Too Easily" to "One for My Baby" to "Summer Wind" to "New York, New York," etc., etc. You really should catch it -- and, considering the talent and charisma of the Birdland company, now's an excellent time to do so.
I'VE HEARD THAT SONG BEFORE...
One of the things I loved most about The Musical of Musicals, the hilarious show that recently closed at the York Theatre after a critically acclaimed, extended run, is the way the show's creators gave it to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
As you've probably heard, TMOM presented an age-old story -- a damsel who can't afford to pay the rent to her evil landlord is saved from ruin by her heroic beau -- as five separate mini-musicals written in the styles of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander & Ebb. What really amused me was that, while four of the segments got their laughs through clever imitation of the writing styles of the various composers and lyricists, the Lloyd Webber sequence was all about how he purportedly steals melodies from others. (At one point in the show, someone asked a stand-in for the composer if he had really written a certain tune himself. He responded with his own question, "Do you know opera?" Told "no," he replied: "Then, yes, I wrote it myself!")
Fairly or not, plagiarism is a charge that sticks to ALW like Crazy Glue. In 1997, he was sued by Ray Repp, a little-known composer of religious music, for allegedly having copied the melody of "The Phantom of the Opera" from a Repp song called "Till You." The judge ruled against Repp but the evidence presented on behalf of the plaintiff -- including a song called "Tell My People," which sounded remarkably like Lloyd Webber's later composition "On This Night of a Thousand Stars" from Evita -- might have convinced a jury if one had been present for the trial. (For more on this, including a comparison of the Phantom song and "Till You" through sheet music and audio clips, click here.)
Many more Lloyd Webber tunes have often been cited as owing much to the work of other composers. Most famously, the first few measures of "The Music of The Night" (also from The Phantom of the Opera) sound like the first few measures of "Come to Me, Bend to Me" from Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon -- and the ensuing few bars of the song call to mind a tenor solo that comes toward the end of Act I of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West.
Of course, the degree to which one considers Lloyd Webber a tune borrower has much to do with the breadth of one's musical knowledge. If you can get your hands on a recording of Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony (a.k.a., the "Symphony of a Thousand"), you may be astonished at what you'll hear towards the end of the first movement, when the brass blares out a theme that is note-for-note the same as the first two measures of "Love Changes Everything" from ALW's Aspects of Love. (The melody in question may be heard 19 minutes and 9 seconds into the symphony as recorded for Deutsche Grammophon by Rafael Kubelik with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.)
Is that example not obscure enough for you? Well, I'll never forget how I almost pitched out of my chair last year during a performance of the City Center Encores! production of Richard Rodgers' No Strings. An oddly familiar melody suddenly turned up in one of the dance sequences, and it took me an hour or so to realize that it's the tune repeatedly heard in "With One Look" from Webber's Sunset Boulevard (when Norma Desmond sings "I can make your sad heart sing," "Silent music starts to play," etc.) Shocking!
I'm not going to accuse Lloyd Webber of willfully and intentionally stealing these melodies. It's possible that he heard them all at various times, filed them away in his subconscious, and then replicated them without realizing what he was doing. It's also conceivable that he never heard the original melodies -- especially the more obscure ones -- and coincidentally happened to write the same combination of notes and rhythms that others had previously put to music paper. We'll probably never know the whole truth but, at any rate, The Musical of Musicals proved once again that ALW has a very bad rep in this regard.