WHO'S NEXT?

David Shiner, as he appearedin Seussical
David Shiner, as he appeared
in Seussical
Seussical continues to struggle to stay afloat on Broadway until April, when Rosie O'Donnell will again step into the Cat in the Hat role. The latest desperate scheme of the producers, Barry & Fran Weissler, goes into effect on Thursday as Cathy Rigby takes over that same role from a departing David Shiner. (And, yes, Cathy has been informed about Rosie's spring re-awakening.) Also, MTV's Aaron Carter is warming up to replace Anthony Blair Hall as the show's principal kid.

These changes have left no joy in Whoville, but a certain amount of terror. Quite understandably, the survivors of the cast can't help wondering Who will be the next to go. Apparently, originating a role on Broadway doesn't have the cachet (or the security) it used to have and ought to have; as one disgruntled cast member groused, "This is the Year of the Snake, and the Weisslers are celebrating." According to this informant, the producers have been less than kind in affecting the Seussical cast changes. They do not call the actor in and inform him that he's out; rather, the actor reads about it in the newspaper or on the internet.

Shiner has been twice dragged across the coals. When he was originally asked to take a vacation so that Rosie could come in and goose the box office, he obliged. When he was asked a second time, he declined and was told that, if he didn't leave, the show would have to close! His response was that the producers would have to buy him out of his contract, so some settlement was arrived at--apparently, with difficulty. Shiner's going-away party on Sunday evening is said to have gone totally unnoticed by Mrs. and Mrs. W.

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A RAGTIME RE-MATCH

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the score of Seussical and the far more successful Ragtime, have progressed to another hit, it is fervently hoped. On Monday, a reading was done at Lincoln Center of their latest collaboration, A Man of No Importance, based on an underseen 1994 film that was cheered and championed by the critics. Albert Finney, who seems destined to win an Oscar for his role as Erin Brockovich's boss, played (in the movie) a middle-aged Dublin bus conductor who, while directing a little-theater production of Oscar Wilde's Salome, is forced to investigate his repressed sexual feelings for the leading lady--and the handsome young bus driver he works with.

For the musical, Flaherty & Ahrens have re-teamed with Terrence McNally, who wrote the Ragtime book. Allan Corduner (a.k.a. Topsy-Turvy's Arthur Sullivan and the noble first-class steward in the Broadway musical Titanic) had the title role in the reading. Jim Dale, Judy Kaye, Sally Murphy, and Will Chase dispatched the parts that Michael Gambon, Brenda Fricker, Tara Fitzgerald, and Rufus Sewell performed in the movie. And, as if opening another show about a love triangle on Broadway this week (Noël Coward's Design for Living) wasn't enough to keep him busy, Joe Mantello directed. The reaction to Round One is said to have been very positive.

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ROSES FOR PORTIA

Portia Nelson
Portia Nelson
Portia Nelson, the stylishly atypical chanteuse who passed away last week at the age of 80, was not a relative of mine; but she was introduced to me by my mother, a former opera singer, who gave me the great gift of Portia's first Columbia album, Love Songs for a Summer Evening (re-issued on DRG). I was an impressionable seven and hooked on voices at the time, but I venture to say that, to any kid with an open mind and heart, it was clear that Portia never lied when she sang. Her exquisitely trained, true soprano, with its rich caramel coloring and its quietly direct style of phrasing, simply would not permit it.

A song on that album, "Come Away with Me," was written by William Roy, who accompanied Portia on many distinguished occasions. Over the past weekend, as several of us were comparing notes on the lady, I phoned Billy down in Florida, and he spoke warmly of their association. Early in the '50s, when he left film-performing in Hollywood for cabaret-accompanying in New York, he happened upon Portia singing in a little bar called Celeste, with Bart Howard at the piano. "Right on the spot, I said: 'Now, that is a singer I would love to work with!"

Portia Nelson performingat The Blue Angel in the 1950s
Portia Nelson performing
at The Blue Angel in the 1950s
No sooner wished than done. Eadie and Rack, a bygone piano duo team, introduced the two of them, and that led to a booking at the stylish Blue Angel, albeit in the 2am-4am slot. No matter. According to Billy, "the world showed up to see us. You'd look down at the end of the bar and see Lena Horne and Lennie Hayton, people like that. I remember Truman Capote and Virgil Thompson and their high, chattering little voices; we could hear them up on the stage. Portia would just shoot 'em a look, and they'd stop. Her understated way with a song got them all to listen. We'd sing till 4:00, then all go for breakfast at Rueben's. Of course, I'd drop in my tracks if I tried that now. But there was a real cabaret life in New York then, and we thought it would never end."

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WHAT'S UP, SCOTT?

Fellow TheaterManiac Scott Siegel is initiating yet another series to celebrate the glories of the Broadway musical, and will be serving gamely as producer, writer, and host of the first installment on Monday, March 16 at 8 pm at Town Hall. That evening will celebrate The Broadway Musicals of 1943, leafing lightly through the songs that were introduced on The Great White Way from Something for the Boys in January 1943 to Carmen Jones in December 1943.

On April 16, Scott will follow up by presenting The Broadway Musicals of 1957 (you know, West Side Story, The Music Man, etc.). But, meanwhile back to 1943: Scott notes that "many beginnings and endings happened in that year." Most notably, Richard Rodgers changed partners. His first show with Oscar Hammerstein II--a little thing called Oklahoma!--opened on March 31, and his last with Lorenz Hart--a revisal of their 1927 A Connecticut Yankee--opened on November 3, just 19 days before Hart died of pneumonia. Hart's last beat, ironically, was "To Keep My Love Alive." That year also marked the first musical sighting (hearing?) of Lerner & Loewe. The show was called What's Up, and it flopped; two songs from it will be done at Town Hall. Oh, and One Touch of Venus also bowed on Broadway in 1943--speaking low, of course.

To dispatch ditties from these shows, Scott has hired a powerhouse cast of three: Sally Mayes, Jason Graae, and Heather McRae (whose pop, Gordon, rates "as high as a elephant's eye" in the history of Oklahoma!). Graae, who blew them away at this year's Bistro Awards, will be doubling on ballads and comedy songs; he is, in fact, preparing a comedic rendition of Carmen Jones' take on the Toreador Song from Carmen, "Stand Up and Fight."

If this goes over, The Broadway Musicals of... could become to Town Hall what Lyrics and Lyricists is to the 92nd Street "Y." Hold that thought, and get those tickets. They're on sale for $35 and $30 via TicketMaster (212-307-4100) or at the box office (212-840-2824).