With a book by Peter Stone, music by John Kander, and lyrics by Fred Ebb, Curtains is about a musical called Curtains. While Stone, Kander, and Ebb gave fictional names to Curtains' book writer, composer, and lyricist, in this article I'll just use the real authors' names to refer to the creators of the musical-within-a-musical. That'll make it easier on all of us.
But we will retain one fictional name: David Mishkin (read Merrick, of course) who's producing the fictitious musical Curtains. (We now have a real-life producer named Mishkin -- Chase -- but she began producing on Broadway in 1996, some years after Stone named the producer of Curtains.) The show-within-the-show is a commedia dell'arte set to music; so first we hear the opening number, "Harlequinade," a tarantella full of lickety-split-fast lyrics that Ebb delivered at the backers' audition without missing a beat or a breath.)
At the Colonial Theatre in Boston, Curtains opens to terrible reviews, which Stone reads to his partners. These cause them all to ruminate about the nature of critics. "What kind of man would take a job like that?" they mourn in a song, getting less lofty in their own criticisms as the number goes on: "Who could be prick enough, mentally sick enough?...What kind of putz would squeeze your nuts like that?" But when they get a rave from the Harvard Crimson critic, suddenly all of them are singing, "What kind of genius has a mind like that?"
There's a nice song that catalogues the adventure of going "Out of Town." One line goes, "Some big backer's girlfriend says, 'I was depressed' (by the show)." I suspect that this line sprang from a similar criticism that Ebb had to endure from some big backer's girlfriend in relation to one or another of his musicals. Next comes "Collaboration!", a song about the art of same. In it, Ebb talks about the process of rewriting a musical and how working with people can often be "chilly, but cordial" when "nothing's improving and people are leaving." But finally, "We made it better," Ebb decides -- at which point Kander, at the piano, suddenly stops playing. "We made it shorter," he says, with the absence of music underlining the point that the simple cutting of a show often improves it. Soon after, Ebb fantasizes that the show becomes a hit in a line that will have to be changed for any new production, unless the action of Curtains is set some time between 1980 and 1993: "The wait for critics is a bitch, but we get approval from Frank Rich." (It's followed by the line, "even though it isn't Sondheim," and two measures of "Comedy Tonight" punctuate that point.) Still, Ebb suggests that Neil Simon had better come in to show-doctor, which Stone says he won't allow "unless he gives me a couple of good jokes." (It's a reasonable request: Stone did the screenplay for Sweet Charity, based on Simon's book for the Broadway musical, so Simon should return the favor.)
As terribly as Curtains is going, something happens that makes matters much worse: David Mishkin is murdered. This spurs a song titled "The Man Is Dead." Is it a great song? Hardly, but I'll bet it would make an audience roar. It's one of those songs that repeats its title over and over again, modulates a bunch of times, and goes on for so long that it eventually wears you down; you keep expecting it to end, and then it doesn't, and then you start giggling. Plus, there is a thoroughly amazing moment in the number, when Ebb wants someone in the company to say something nice about Mishkin. "Johnny, you did five shows with him," he says to a stagehand. "What do you have to say about him?" Johnny answers, "The Shuberts are worse." Well, there go half the theaters on Broadway where this show might have been booked! (I have heard, though, that the line has since been changed to "The Weisslers are worse.")
Now that there's been a murder, Salvatore Cioppi of the Boston Police arrives. God love him, for he adores musicals, sees as many as he can, and buys all the cast albums. He's thrilled to be meeting some of his all-time heroes, but Cioppi will have to put his feelings aside to investigate. "I need everyone out here on stage," he says, as the famous vamp of "One" from of A Chorus Line is played. Cioppi's first conclusion? "Is a puzzlement!"
Meanwhile, a female backer -- I forget her name -- sings "The Show Must Go On," though her daughter Elaine (who's recently rechristened herself Bambi, to her mother's disgust) disagrees. This leads to what I swear is one of the best numbers in the entire Kander and Ebb canon: "Show People." After a glorious Kander vamp (nobody does it better), we hear "There's a special kind of people known as show people," and Ebb goes on to show how much he appreciates his being allowed to work in this field: "It's an honor and a joy to be in show business; we don't know how lucky we are." Then there are some delicious puns about other professions: "Your therapist may never couch it that way," and "though your tree surgeon now may be taking a bough." (There's also a reference to the fact that "the audience paid 50," which indicates how long this show has tried to get on.)
This is the song that should have been done at Ebb's memorial, though the female backer's song about musical theater -- "It's a Business" -- sure did the trick that afternoon, as performed by Debra Monk. "I put two million in and I expect three million back," she says. "I'd do the Kama Sutra with a Jerry Herman score." She tells of a producer who lost his shirt trying to produce something artistic: "He mounted Robert Wilson; I don't mean it like it sounds."
I remember two other songs from the score: "A Tough Act to Follow," a truly lovely number in which Sal gets to perform on stage, sort of a variation of what Helen Baldassare does in coaching amateurs for six weeks before letting them take the stage of Don't Tell Mama for two brief, shining songs. Then the female backer delivers another song in which she reminds us that if Curtains gets to New York, "It's All Because of Me." It is undoubtedly the only song in musical theater history that uses the phrase "creative scumbags." (Alas, not all of Curtains is in good taste.)
I can't tell you who committed the murder -- not because it would be a spoiler but because, at the backers' audition I attended, Stone, Kander, and Ebb wouldn't spill the beans. What I can tell you is that Curtains contains some wonderful work.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]
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