Michael Musto (center) with (l-r) Stephanie Kurtzuba,Todd Alan Johnson, Jamison Stern, and Trisha Rapier(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Michael Musto (center) with (l-r) Stephanie Kurtzuba,
Todd Alan Johnson, Jamison Stern, and Trisha Rapier
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
I've considered Rick Crom to be one of the unsung geniuses of musical comedy writing and performance ever since I saw him cavorting as John Cardinal O'Connor (remember him?) in a wild and wacky Crom revue titled Absolutely Rude. More recently, this super-talented individual was represented by the equally madcap topical revues Our Life and Times and What in the World! Most of the various editions of these shows played under the radar in cabarets and comedy clubs, but What in the World! eventually moved from Rose's Turn in Greenwich Village to the John Houseman Studio Theatre. Crom gained further attention for his hilarious work as an ensemble member of the original Broadway cast of Urinetown, and now his endlessly witty songs and sketches are being enjoyed by the public at large in Newsical, the side-splitting revue that's has been running Upstairs at Studio 54 since October.

Given my admiration for Crom's work, you can imagine my delight when I heard that Newsical would be featuring a new song based on gossip provided by one of my other all-time favorite writers, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. For years, Musto has been a wonderfully witty chronicler of the social and entertainment scenes in NYC, and I've always appreciated his items on matters theatrical. Here's a sample from a recent column: "At the opening night bash [for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels], Outer Critics Circle president Aubrey Reuben introduced me to guest Chris Sarandon by saying, 'He was Susan Sarandon's first husband.' 'He's famous for a lot more than that,' I remarked, and Chris touched me and whispered 'Thank you.' (I live to please.)" Musto went on to quote Joanna Gleason, Chris Sarandon's current wife; and Norbert Leo Butz, who described his Scoundrels co-star John Lithgow as "a very attentive lover."

How did the Musto number in Newsical come about? I'll let Michael tell the story himself: "The publicist, Timothy Haskell, approached me with the idea of contributing to the show, and I thought it would be fun to be immortalized on Broadway -- er, Off-Broadway. A few weeks ago, I gave Rick Crom my column before it came out and he produced 'The Michael Musto Song,' the first gossip material set to music since Sweet Smell of Success! In the show, one of the performers comes out as me -- with my tousled hairstyle, my type of eyeglasses, and a loud shirt. He sings about how someone once broke his heart and he's been determined to wreck lives ever since! After more intro stuff referencing Liz [Smith] and Cindy [Adams], he goes into reciting items from my current column as adapted by Crom, set to bright, bouncy music. The first week's edition involved tidbits about Mary-Kate Olsen's trash, RuPaul's new doll, and John Travolta in drag." (Though "The Michael Musto Song" is normally performed in Newsical by Jim Newman, it was premiered by swing Jamison Stern because it went into the show during Newman's vacation.)

The original plan was that the Musto song would be updated once a month, but it has proven to be such an audience favorite that Crom has decided to refresh it every two weeks; a new edition will premiere on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, effective immediately. "It's one of those great ideas that wasn't mine," says Crom of the number. "Somebody came up to me and said, 'Why don't we have a gossip section in the show?' and they suggested Michael Musto. Now Michael forwards his columns to me shortly before they go to press, and I write song lyrics from them. Sometimes, the audience may not understand all of the inside references, so I try to find things in the columns that most people can relate to. But if something makes me laugh, I'll usually put it in. I'm working on a new version of the number right now, but this week's column is kind of filthy, so I have to be careful. There's an item about Phyllis Diller writing in her new book that she threw out her first husband when he came home one night and she could smell semen on his breath. If I use that, I'll have to rephrase it for our audiences!"

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John Raitt at his home in Pacific Palisades, CA with(l-r) Michael Portantiere, David Zimmerman, and Steven Brinberg
John Raitt at his home in Pacific Palisades, CA with
(l-r) Michael Portantiere, David Zimmerman, and Steven Brinberg
Of all the Broadway legends that I've been lucky enough to interview over the years, John Raitt was one of the most iconic and also one of the classiest. I first got to speak with him over the phone in January 1998 for an interview that was subsequently published in InTheater magazine, of which I was the managing editor. Raitt was a subscriber to the magazine and was delighted to speak about his brilliant career.

Ever since the great Broadway baritone's death at age 88 last month, I've been spending a lot of time listening to his recordings. (My favorites are the original Broadway cast album of Carousel, of course, and a studio recording of selections from Show Boat on which Raitt is partnered by the equally legendary Barbara Cook.) I've also been thinking a lot about my interaction with him and, specifically, about my visit to his home in California seven years ago.

During my phone interview with Raitt, I had mentioned that I was planning a trip to Los Angeles the following month, and he was kind enough to invite me to his house along with my friends Steven Brinberg (well-known as a superb impersonator of Barbra Streisand) and David Zimmerman (an actor who lives in L.A.). So it happened that on February 21, 1998, David drove the three of us to Raitt's place in Pacific Palisades. The housekeeper showed us in and then the great man himself appeared, warm and friendly and casually dressed in what looked like a track suit.

"What a gracious and loving man he was," David recalled when I spoke with him recently. "It felt like walking into your own family's home. Seeing pictures of his daughter Bonnie and relaxing in his living room near his piano was a treat. Then, when we were leaving, he handed each of us a copy of his latest CD and signed them personally." During our visit, Raitt regaled us with anecdotes of a lifetime in show business. I asked Steven Brinberg what he remembered most clearly about the afternoon, and he said, "It was when he brought us into his garage, showed us his scrapbooks, and asked us, 'What should I do with these? Give 'em to the library?' "

In September 1999, I spoke with Raitt again at a party in Los Angeles to celebrate the second anniversary of InTheater. (The magazine would die a horrible death a few months later, but that's another story.) At one point during our talk, Raitt smiled a strange little smile and remarked upon the fact that I had written a negative review of a performer who, unbeknownst to me, was one of his protégées. What might have been an awkward moment was smoothed over when Raitt said that he himself felt the lady in question hadn't yet fulfilled her potential. A highly amusing incident occurred at the party when Raitt was chatting with one of the other attendees, telling stories about working with Doris Day on the film version of The Pajama Game. At one point, he broke off and said, "I'm probably boring you with all this talk of Doris Day." The fellow to whom he was speaking very quickly replied, "Not at all!!!"

I was thrilled to hear Raitt sing at the Kennedy Center in April 2002, when he appeared in a gala concert tribute to Richard Rodgers on the occasion of the composer's centennial. As I wrote at the time, he performed "a somewhat abbreviated version of the lengthy and difficult 'Soliloquy' from Carousel" 57 years after having created the role of Billy Bigelow in the original Broadway production, and "there were moments when he truly sounded more or less like he does on the show's 1945 cast album. He was especially persuasive in the 'My Little Girl' section of the song and in his duet with Shirley Jones on another Carousel classic, 'If I Loved You.' "

The last time I saw and heard Raitt was in June 2002, when he said a few words during the Carnegie Hall concert performance of Carousel that starred Hugh Jackman and Audra McDonald. But I corresponded with him last year and I was enormously gratified when he supplied me with a list of his 10 All-Time Favorite Musicals for inclusion in The TheaterMania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings, which I edited and which has been published by Back Stage Books.

It was a privilege to hear John Raitt sing live, even in his twilight years, and I will certainly never forget the hour or so that my friends and I spent at his home. John, we hardly knew ye, but Steven and David and I are glad for the brief time we had together.