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Grand Larson-y

Years after Brownstone made its New York debut, composer Peter Larson finally gets his musical recorded.

By New York City
Peter Larson
Peter Larson
"I'm going out to get the Times." It's a common expression said every day by husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends. But when Peter Larson heard his collaborator Josh Rubins say it to him midway through the opening night performance of their musical Brownstone, he knew that his career as a theater composer was about to be made or broken, for that October 8, 1986 Times would carry Frank Rich's review of his show.

Larson nodded to Rubins and went back to watching the opening night performance. It had been a long 18 years since his music had been heard in two Hasty Pudding Shows at Harvard. In 1967, he co-wrote the music for A Hit and a Myth, which had a book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, and lyrics by Stephen Kaplan. The following year, he penned all the music for All the Queen's Men, which Rubins had co-authored with George Birnbaum.

After Larson graduated, he went into the army. Though he'd sent for the papers to become a conscientious objector -- this was the Vietnam War era, remember -- he just couldn't bring himself to sign them. As a result, he found himself en route to Fort Benning, Georgia with the prospect of being part of the infantry that would head for Vietnam. Luckily for Larson, one of the Army brass heard him play piano at a pizza parlor, came to like him, and didn't assign him -- as he did 123 of the 126 men in his command -- to the infantry. Instead, he put Larson and two others into the medical corps. Rather than fighting the enemy, Lieutenant Larson spent a year putting bandages on the wounded.

By 1971, he was back in Cambridge. In 1972, he married. And in 1973 -- right around the time that former collaborator Timothy Crouse was getting much attention for his political media expose The Boys on the Bus -- Larson at least had a success at his fifth class reunion, for Stephen Kaplan encouraged him and a bunch of pals to write a revue to entertain the grads. It went over so well that they vowed to write one for every successive fifth reunion.

Soon after the 10th reunion, two years after former collaborator John Weidman had collaborated with no less than Stephen Sondheim on Pacific Overtures, Larson moved to New York. With Rubins, he started writing songs for a show called Don't Tell Me Everything, about five urbanites who go to live in a Central Park treehouse. They auditioned it for André Bishop, then associated with Playwrights Horizons, who was impressed enough to give them a $2,000 budget and a slot in his second-floor theater. The presentation interested a woman who wanted to become a producer, though she'd later gain fame as an actress: Kathleen Chalfant.

But Chalfant wasn't 100% happy with the show as it was, and asked that they change it. Larson worked on it by day, while at night he played in the orchestras of Broadway musicals ranging from a runaway hit (They're Playing Our Song) to a long-running flop (Sarava) to an outright disaster (The Little Prince and the Aviator). He also played for Dionne Warwick, who took a shine to one of his songs from Don't Tell Me Everything, "Since You Stayed Here." At his 15th reunion in 1983, he could say that she recorded it even though her heyday of hit records had long passed. He could also say that he'd written dance music for My One and Only and had also played in the show's pit.

He stayed with that hit until its closing in 1985. By then, he and Rubins had rewritten their show as Brownstone. They applied for a Richard Rodgers Production Award and got one in 1984. Soon, Maureen McGovern, Lenny Wolpe, and Loni Ackerman were performing the show at the Hudson Guild and George Birnbaum, the pair's All the Queen's Men collaborator, said he'd produce it. But so did Roger Berlind, who'd already had his name on Amadeus, Sophisticated Ladies, and Nine. Once he said he was prepared to mount a $900K production, Birnbaum graciously backed out. Though Larson and Rubins would have preferred an out-of-town tryout before a Broadway run, Berlind made arrangements for a Roundabout production in the space that's now the Union Square Theatre. The plan was that, if the reviews warranted, Brownstone would move to Broadway.

So here it was, October 7, 1986 -- four years to the day after former collaborator Stephen Kaplan, now known as Stephen Hanan, had opened as Gus in Cats. Though Larson kept his eye on the stage where Liz Callaway, Kimberly Farr, Ben Harney, Ernestine Jackson, and Rex Smith were doing his show, he couldn't help wondering about that Times review. So he turned around and saw that Rubins had returned to the theater and was standing in back. To this day, Larson can still see Rubins's "thumbs down" gesture.

The new Brownstone recording,on Original Cast Records
The new Brownstone recording,
on Original Cast Records
There would be no move to Broadway, nor even a cast album. Larson describes his feelings as "musically frustrated." So, with his wife and a five-year old daughter in tow, he decided to leave town. He nervously talked his way into a job producing TV news in Springfield, Missouri, even though he was already 42 and many applying for the job were in their 20s. He learned the trade and covered everything from local theater productions to tractor pulls. What he didn't do was touch the piano for a full year.

He got a better offer from a Columbus, Ohio TV station. This was partly because his prospective boss's wife so loved theater that, at an interview dinner, they spent almost the whole meal talking about it. Larson still wasn't writing music, but his daughter would play a major role in getting him back to composing: In 1988, his daughter's teacher had heard that Larson had had a theater composing background and asked him to write a show for the school. He wrote a Cinderella adaptation, and it went over so well that he then did a Snow White. That worked out, too, and Rumplestiltskin came next. All were published by Samuel French.

What's more, cabaret singer Laura Kenyon had discovered "Since You Stayed Here" via that Warwick album, and had her musical director learn it. He was Marc Shaiman, who showed it to his pal Bette Midler, who recorded it in 1990 for an Atlantic album produced by Arif Mardin, who showed it to Michael Crawford, who sang it and put it on not one but two of his albums. Original caster Liz Callaway recorded it, too, and this was the closest that Larson got to a Brownstone cast album at the time. But it was the Midler cut on her double-platinum "Some Peoples' Lives" album that brought some money into the kitty.

Still, Larson felt more secure in following the advice once given to Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate: He went into the plastics industry. (The fact that his father was a research chemist for Dupont helped to get him started.) That's what he was doing when his 30th class reunion rolled around in 1998. What Larson composed and arranged for that "reunion revue" so impressed Stephen Hanan that he asked him to play a backers' audition for show he was planning about Al Jolson. Larson wasn't sure where it would lead, but he left his brother-in-law in charge of his plastics business when Jolson & Co. played the Century Theatre last year.

One night, after the show, record producer Bruce Yeko stopped by and told Larson he'd like to record Brownstone for his Original Cast label. Larson was thrilled, of course, as was Callaway, who told her friends Rebecca Luker and Debbie Gravitte that they just had to be a part of the project. While many will understandably be impressed by "Since You Stayed Here," I also recommend "He Didn't Leave It Here," which I bet I've listened to 100 times since I got the recording. Those who vividly remember the original production will find two new songs that Larson and Rubins wrote for last summer's Berkshire Theatre Festival production: "Pretty City" and "If It's Time to Go." This wasn't the only regional production that Brownstone has received, and there are bound to be more now that a terrific album has finally emerged. Frank Rich gave Brownstone a thumbs down, but I give this CD a big thumbs-up.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]


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