While I was enjoying the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music's nifty production of Merrily We Roll Along, I was amused by what Franklin Shepard says in the final scene of Act I, when he's in the process of splitting from Beth. "Divorce Court!" he exclaims. "What a fascinating setting for a musical!" Oh, is it? Cy Coleman and A.E. Hotchner decided to write a musical with that setting, and look what happened! They first called it Let 'Em Rot, later retitled it Welcome to the Club, later still retitled it Exactly Like You, and later still retitled it Lawyers, Lovers, and Lunatics. All were terrible flops, and -- take it from someone who saw the last three versions -- Godawful musicals.
Went to see Address Unknown at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The play, set in the '30s, starts with a pinlight hitting a phonograph on which a scratchy 78 is revolving. We hear "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" for a few minutes, but then the record gets stuck and repeats one line over and over and over again. It reminded me of what people say when someone keeps repeating himself: "You sound like a broken record." Of course, since the advent of CDs, recordings no longer have this problem. So what do younger people who have never experienced a record say when they want to criticize someone for repeating himself?
I recently spoke with Stephen Schwartz because his 1976 musical The Baker's Wife is getting a new production at the Paper Mill Playhouse. (I'm glad of it. What a score!) But I sneaked in a question about Wicked: "When all of you were writing it and working on it, did you ever say to yourselves, 'You know, this is going to be a phenomenon among teenage girls?' " "No," Schwartz replied with astonishment in his voice. "Obviously, we thought the show could be good and that the subject matter would interest audiences. When we were in rehearsal, a lot of people in the cast had the feeling that the show would be successful. Norbert Leo Butz was constantly saying, 'This is such a big hit' -- at the end of very difficult rehearsal days, no less, when the rest of us weren't as sure. But the only person who understood its appeal to that demographic was Nancy Coyne [chief executive of Serino Coyne, the legendary advertising and marketing agency]."
Got an e-mail from Randy Ellen Lutterman, from whom I hadn't heard in a while. She explained why: "When we last spoke, I was on maternity leave from Musical Theatre Works. As you know, that maternity leave turned into eternity leave, as MTW suspended operations last June. It was always my hope that some of our best programs might find proper homes elsewhere. I'm happy to say that SpringboardNYC will enter its fourth year this summer in its new home with the American Theatre Wing."
I wrote about SpringboardNYC in a previous TheaterMania column; I think it's a most valuable resource for newbies in New York. As Lutterman describes the program, "It's a two-week, college-to-career arts boot camp that offers practical preparation and counseling for those embarking on New York City theater careers. Through workshops, classes, and mini-internships taught by working artists and professionals, SpringboardNYC students learn job-seeking skills and urban survival tools to translate their academic training into productive careers. They also gain a network of contacts that might otherwise take them years to acquire on their own." This year's program runs from June 6-17; for further information, visit www.springboardnyc.org.
May I add another note on the current revival of The Glass Menagerie? At one point, Amanda mentions that her son Tom is wasting his money on cigarettes -- "a pack a day at 15 cents a pack." I was ready for the inevitable nostalgic laugh that an audience always gives when a long-ago-obsolete price is mentioned, but it didn't happen. Can it be that nobody in the theater that night knew the current price of cigarettes because they long ago gave up buying them? Let's hope so.
Watching the 1964 movie version of Zorba the Greek, I was stunned to see the scene where Zorba goes looking for love and heads into a den of iniquity called -- yes --The Kit Kat Klub. As you know, this is the name of the place that's the setting for Cabaret by Kander and Ebb, who later musicalized Zorba the Greek. I would have loved to have seen the team's reaction when they screened the movie to decide if they wanted to adapt it. When they saw the Kit Kat Klub sign flash on their screen, they must have screamed with delight and taken it as an omen that this just had to be their next show.
For Sondheim's 75th birthday, Turner Classic Movies asked "the musical theater and Broadway's foremost composer and lyricist" (as The Sondheim Review most accurately calls him) to choose five of his favorite movies, which they'd screen that day. One was Smiles of a Summer Night, which Sondheim musicalized as A Little Night Music. (You wouldn't expect him to choose the film version of that show, would you?) Another was The Mind Reader, co-written by Wilson Mizner, about whom Sondheim wrote in Bounce. But the movie Sondheim chose that most surprised me was The Clock, easily my favorite Judy Garland movie -- next to The Wizard of Oz, of course -- even though she doesn't sing a note in it. It's a wonderfully sentimental wartime tale about a soldier who's shipping out soon but has a chance meeting with a young woman in Pennsylvania Station. In no time flat, this leads to a whirlwind courtship and marriage. Now, if Sondheim loves it so much, why hasn't he musicalized it? Did he ever try, or does he think it's perfect as it is? I swear there's a musical here, though my buddy Paul Mendenhall thinks there isn't. (We argue about it all the time.) Why not take a look, all you budding musical theater writers? Maybe you'll agree with me -- and if you do tackle the project, please invite me to the first reading.
Had a nice dinner with my buddy Ed Weissman, during which I asked him how he got interested in musicals. Seems that, when he was a young lad, his parents took him to the city and he saw the words "Rosalind Russell: Wonderful Town" on the famed Winter Garden sign. "I asked them, 'Can we go on that tour?' They said, 'Tour?' and I said, 'Yeah, isn't that woman giving tours of this wonderful town?' " Instead of taking him on a tour, they took him to the show -- which, of course, changed his life. I smiled as I remembered my youthfully naive impressions of Broadway, such as when I assumed that every Broadway theater was actually on the street called Broadway, and that there was a New Faces revue each and every year.
I was also reminded of that heavenly day in 1978 when I took my six-year old son to see On the Twentieth Century. He was at that age where kids are crazy for trains, so I thought he'd enjoy it -- and he did. But what I enjoyed most was his reaction to a bit of business in the second act. Oscar Jaffee has convinced Mrs. Primrose to give him a check for $200,000, which he'll now bring to his former star Lily Garland to show her that he does have the funds to produce a new show. However, before he can inform her of his good fortune, Lily says: "I feel I owe you a lot, so I just wanted to give you a little something to help tide you over." And she gives him a check for $35. Oscar can afford to be amused, so he says, "Lily, you always said I was a magician! Look! Look! Nothing up my sleeve! I fold this check... now blow on it!" The stage direction dictates that, when she does, "Oscar substitutes the other check" and so Lily sees a check for "Five zeroes preceded by a two." My kid turned to me in wonder and said, "He must be a good magician to be able to do that!"
Such thoughts of youthful innocence bring me back to Merrily. There's a moment when Charley Kringas mocks Mary Flynn's current profession by saying, "No kid ever says, 'When I grow up, I want to be a drama critic.' " Well, I suppose not -- but there are plenty of occupations that kids say they want to be when they're growing up that aren't the greatest, so why should those youthful and innocent opinions matter? I still remember the time my young cousin Anthony said that he'd like to be in charge of painting the white lines that divide highways. It's a story that's often told at family reunions, weddings, and wakes -- and Anthony, now 57, is damned sick of hearing about it. Anyway, I have a feeling that I don't have to convince very many of you that being a drama critic is a helluva great job, even if I didn't want to do it when I was a lad and expected to be a priest. (Those who really know me well can stop laughing now.)
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]
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