I come from a Roman Catholic background, and my mother taught me that whenever you go into a new church, you're entitled to make three wishes. Well, I've adopted that to include theaters, too. So whenever I enter one I've never before encountered, be it old or new, I make sure to make three wishes: One before the show, one at intermission, and one after the performance.
I thought about what three wishes I'd make as I headed out to see Roman Nights at the new DR2 Theater on East 15th Street near Park Avenue South -- where, suddenly, we have four theaters on one tiny block. There's the Daryl Roth, where De La Guarda continues to reign and rain; the Century, where Stephen Mo Hanan is reprising the riveting performance in Jolson & Co that he gave at the York Theatre a couple of years ago; the Vineyard, that most adventurous of Off-Broadway companies; and now the DR2, a handsome space that has almost stadium-style seating for a dozen rows of eight seats across, all accessible from one right-hand aisle.
My wish before the performance? I wish that I'll get to know Joseph C. Meagor, Jr. in another life. Joe died of cancer last Saturday and I'm so sorry that I never got to meet him, but I certainly felt that I knew him from his many correspondences with me. Every time I surveyed readers for their opinions -- The Best Opening Song, The Most Dynamic 11 O'Clock Number -- Joe was among the first to respond. He also was one of the most appreciative of my more fanciful columns, such as when I wrote what would happen if other writers followed Peter Shaffer's lead in using a famous character's middle name instead of the first or last as Shaffer did with Amadeus, eschewing the obvious titles Wolfgang or Mozart. We'd then have such shows as Side by Side by Joshua or, if Rice and Lloyd Webber used a middle initial instead of a middle name, H. Superstar. (Joe really loved that one.)
I also thought how much he would have loved my most recent column about all the performers who are dancing in heaven -- Roz Russell doing a conga, Judy Holliday doing a cha-cha, Ethel Merman doing The Washington Square Dance. Then I realized that Joe is now up there himelf, watching all of them. Bet they're glad to have him -- but I'll wager that all who knew him here will greatly miss him.
My second wish, made during intermission of Roman Nights? I wished I'd written something about Hairspray, because so many readers have written to say, in so many words: "Hey, c'mon! A major Broadway musical has opened and you don't have anything to say about it?" Well, upon seeing the new hit, I found it interesting that, 25 full years after Annie opened at the Alvin, we have another fairy tale at the same (albeit renamed) theater. It's true! Tracy Turnblad winding up with Link Larkin is as unlikely as Annie's getting the world's richest man to adopt her. And as for Edna Turnblad and her spouse: Would a mother that ample still have a husband desperately in love with her? But, hey -- if you can't have fairy tales in musical comedy, where can you have them?
So many people I know have issues with two songs, "Cooties" and "Miss Baltimore Crabs," but I think both of them are right on. Take it from one who was actually Tracy Turnblad's age back then: Songs like "Cooties" that dealt with atypical and semi-disgusting topics and were laced with dissonant accompaniments regularly showed up on the charts. ("Cooties" very much reminds me of "Peanut Butter," a song that began: "There's a food goin' 'round that's a sticky, sticky goo." In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this very song was the model for "Cooties.")
Meanwhile, "Miss Baltimore Crabs" does what it sets out to do. I feel bad for Linda Hart because she tears into the song and should receive applause at its end, but the show is directed so that Harvey Fierstein comes on just as she's finished -- and the audience immediately stops clapping, desperately afraid that they might miss one of his wickedly funny line deliveries. Lord knows that Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan know how to write them. I've been a fan of O'Donnell since he was a Harvard University Hasty Pudding writer in the '70s, when he came out with one of my favorite lines, a clever parody of Knute Rockne's admonition that "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." O'Donnell's spin on it: "When things get tough, the tough get things."
How did Hairspray get away with two references to Gypsy when Arthur Laurents prevented The Producers from even having one? It's just part of the charmed life that this smash has had. Soon after Annie opened, the blade sign outside the theater that said A-L-V-I-N was transformed into A-N-N-I-E. Now that the theater is the Neil Simon -- and now that the esteemed playwright's first name is on that same blade sign, too -- N-E-I-L-S-I-M-O-N could be replaced by H-A-I-R-S-P-R-A-Y. (The show is going to be there longer than Annie was.)
And what was my third wish, made after the performance of Roman Nights? I wished that Roman Nights could have been better. True, Franco D'Alessandro's play about Tennessee Williams' friendship with his Rose Tattoo star Anna Magnani has some good lines. Says he, for example, "Men are prisoners of their sexuality and women are persecuted for theirs." Says she, "Rome is a beautiful woman and New York is a handsome man."
But the big problem occurs earlier. Soon after Williams meets Magnani, he tells her about this Rose Tattoo play he's writing just for her, and she's thrilled. Then, after a while, Tennessee offhandedly mentions to the audience that Magnani didn't do the play -- but he doesn't explain why! Where's the scene where she says she's afraid to go on stage, which she reportedly was, because of her halting English? (In films, there's always the chance to do a retake.) Not a word! Ironically enough, many scenes later, Williams asks Magnani to do the film version of the play -- and they then have the discussion about her English. But where was it when we needed to know if Williams let her down by giving in to some producer who wanted someone else or if Magnani let him down by taking another project?
I soon lost interest in the play and found myself thinking of the song "I Fought Every Step of the Way" from Top Banana, in which Rose Marie sings about a dalliance she had with a lover: "There, where all the roses grew, did I get a rose tattoo!" If you've seen the Top Banana movie you don't know this song, because it was cut -- as was "A Word a Day," the heavenly 11 o'clock number that the lady did with Phil Silvers. Why? Well, according to Rose Marie in her just-about-to-be-published memoir Hold the Roses, it seems that the producer of the movie wanted to sleep with her, and when she wouldn't put out, he cut her numbers from the film. (She doesn't mention that one of her songs, "Sans Souci," is still in the flick -- but one assumes, nevertheless, that she's telling the truth, for "Sans Souci" is a dull song and the producer might have wanted to keep it in to make her look bad.)
Anyway: When I got the galleys of the book, I licked my lips in anticipation of reading all the wonderful things that happened behind the scenes on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Alas, Rose Marie doesn't remember the important things. I started wishing that she could have written a better book -- until I realized that I'd already used up my three wishes.