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What Does It All Mean?

Filichia's here to help you get the references in the hilarious [title of show].

By New York City
Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen(Photo © Michael Berresse)
Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen
(Photo © Michael Berresse)
When Tom Stoppard's trenchant, highly intellectual The Invention of Love opened, many theatergoers were flummoxed by the playwright's classical references and $10 words. As a result, the University of Chicago compiled a glossary as an aid. I was fortunate enough to get the 28-page printout the afternoon before I saw the play, and it was an immense help. Just having read the unfamiliar words made me recognize them when they were said from the stage; otherwise, I would have spent a lot of time muttering, "Huh? What did he just say?"

I won't compare the work of Stoppard with the work of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, but those who are lucky enough to see their musical [title of show] at its last performance on Tuesday, September 27 might want to read this glossary beforehand. [title of show] is about Jeff and Hunter trying to write a musical for the New York Musical Theatre Festival -- which they indeed entered last year, to good advantage. They play themselves in the show, and are great in it. I enjoyed meeting these passionate musical theater fans, who dutifully study previous Broadway flops to make sure that they don't make the same mistakes their predecessors did; but I suspect that some of the references in [title of show] will not be readily recognizable to everyone, so allow me to help with a few:

The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public: The most interesting thing about this 1994 flop is that the producers had an infomercial for it playing on TV, expecting it would sell tickets. That didn't work any better than the 16-performance musical did. What I remember most about the infomercial was what the show's director-choreographer, Tommy Tune, said: "I have never yet had a Broadway flop, and I don't intend to start now." Alas, he did. Tune hasn't had a hit since, but I suspect we'd all welcome him back to try again.

Golden Rainbow: When this show opened in 1968, many questioned how a single woman (Eydie Gorme) could possibly threaten to take away a child from a single father (Steve Lawrence) when she has to go to work each day. Of course, the dad has to work too, so how much difference would it make to the lad's home life? "Back then, the idea of a single woman managing a household was unknown," says my buddy Joe Marchese. "Since then, we've become used to it, so the idea of Eydie's character wanting to take the boy wouldn't seem as strange." Time for a revival?

Hot September: As Hunter says in [title of show], this is a musical version of Picnic. What he doesn't add is that the 1965 flop was directed by Joshua Logan, who staged the original Picnic. Composer Kenneth Jacobson once told me about the time Logan summoned him and lyricist Rhoda Roberts to his Boston hotel room. They knocked on his door at the appointed time, and he answered -- totally nude. Neither they nor he mentioned anything about it. He told them what was wrong with the show, made some good (and bad) suggestions, and then sent them on their merry way. They never questioned him on his nakedness for the rest of the run, which ended in Boston.

Kwamina: A 1961 musical set in Africa, with remarkable Bantu-flavored songs by Richard Adler. The 32-performance failure tells the story of Kwamina, a young African who goes to London to become a doctor. I've always had a soft spot for the show because the Anglicized name that the fellow chooses for himself is Peter. My buddy David Wolf has said that if I ever institute my own theater awards, they should be called the Kwaminas.

Censored Scenes from King Kong: Three years after her Star Wars triumph, Carrie Fisher -- along with Stephen Collins, Chris Sarandon, and Peter Riegert -- suffered through this five-performance disaster. I would like to see the show's pricing system revived: The first preview was $1, the second was $2, and so on. Wouldn't that hit the spot?

A Change in the Heir: In [title of show], audiences hear this as "a change in the air." But heirs were changed in this minor 1990 musical that played the Edison Theatre, where The Supper Club now resides. The show is set in medieval times: A boy baby and a girl baby were switched at birth, and for some reason -- damned if I can remember why -- he was brought up as a girl, she as a boy. When they meet, many moons later, they fall in love at first sight. I still remember the intrigued look that Judy Blazer, playing the manly woman, gave when she took a gander at the girlie man. Mary (Jane Eyre) Stout was in the show, too; she's mentioned in a completely different context in [title of show], and it's nice that she's now well-known enough to warrant a quip.

Oh, Brother: A musical version of The Comedy of Errors that's certainly not be confused with The Boys from Syracuse, a far superior show. At David Carroll's memorial service in 1992, his castmate Judy Kaye admitted that, when they were in the show, they always referred to it as "the stupidest show on Broadway." But it does have good music by Michael Valenti.

Something More: The third Jule Styne musical from 1964, though he wrote the first two (Funny Girl, Fade Out-Fade In) and "only" produced this one, with music by Sammy Fain. Last year, when cast member Neva Small included one of the show's songs on her album, I thought it sounded very much like a Styne number -- and when I checked Ken Bloom's book American Song, I saw that he credited Styne with it. I printed that information, and Fain's son Frank was furious with me; he subsequently sent me many sheets of evidence that his dad wrote it, but it still sounds more like Styne to me. In one way or another, all of these musicals indicate what a difficult business it is to write a great show. So how do Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell make it look so easy?

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


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