Let's go inside first. The Musical of Musicals is a real audience-pleaser -- if, indeed the audience attending it knows the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Kander and Ebb. Those time-honored songwriters are adroitly lampooned by composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart, both of whom acquit themselves beautifully as performers, too. Not that their castmates Lovette George and Craig Fols are a whit behind. Pay attention to the dazzling moment where pianist Rockwell must get up to play a role in a spoof and Fols comes over to spell him at the ivories, literally without missing a beat of the music. No wonder that some in the audience burst into applause!
The show's conceit is that each songwriter or team of songwriters is working on the exact same property, a tale of woe in which June is trying to pay her rent under very arduous circumstances. There's a good joke using the phrase "sung-through" in the Lloyd Webber section and excellent ones in the R&H send-up involving ears, a hoe, and "Okay," not to mention a great new interpretation of "With a pound-and-a-half of cream upon my face!" from "I Enjoy Being a Girl." Bogart also lampoons the "Reeeee-member" section of "This Was a Real Nice Clambake," leading to one's questioning why someone in Carousel would make a point of saying, "Remember when we raked them red hot lobsters out of the driftwood fire?" Why would anyone think that particular moment in time was worth savoring? As for the Kander and Ebb sequence, what's interesting is that the creators and the excellent director-choreographer, Pamela Hunt, stress Bob Fosse as much as the songwriters. That indicates how completely the three have become intertwined in our collective consciousness.
Of course, a reviewer's taking issue with a few things is inevitable when it comes to a project like this. In the very first song, we're told, "In a musical, everyone sings." Oh, yeah? What about Doug Henning in The Magic Show? He didn't chirp a note but he got a Tony nomination. And what about Thomas Mitchell in Hazel Flagg and Natalia Makarova in On Your Toes? Neither of them sang in their shows yet each won a Tony! I also wonder about the heroine of a Jerry Herman musical singing, "I can't sing or dance, but I'm the star of the show." Most of Herman's musicals have starred accomplished people, so that joke didn't land with me. And while I may have missed something -- the evening does zip by -- I don't believe that I heard a single reference to Follies in the Sondheim section, which does seem a major oversight.
No matter. During the Kander and Ebb sequence, the Emcee's original words are twisted to, "So life is good? Forget it! In here, life is disappointing!" -- but you sure couldn't prove that by the crowd at the York, which had a fabulous time connecting with each deft stab. What a pleasure to be with people who get every one of the inside jokes and go "Whoo!" when Sondheim's name is projected onto the back wall. Moreover, when a Mame-like character entered at the top of a staircase in the Jerry Herman sequence, the audience applauded with recognition. The irony is that the narrator hadn't yet said, "Our heroine appears at the top of the stairs and the audience applauds wildly." Everyone proved the narrator's point before he could even make it!
Yes, those in attendance are musical theater enthusiasts par excellence -- which brings us to how much they enjoyed what's happening outside the theater. In the lobby, there's an exhibit of 86 pieces of sheet music, all contributed by (will this be any surprise to those who know from sheet music?) collector par excellence Michael Lavine. And while it's fun to see the sheets of such shows as The Gay Life (hmm, printed with a gray background instead of the lavender one with which we're familiar) and Bravo Giovanni (with the motor-scooter logo that the cast album eschewed), this is not just a mere cavalcade of musical theater history. Lavine and York artistic director James Morgan spent an afternoon linking one piece of sheet music to the next so that they could have an exhibit called "86 Degrees of Separation."
Because many pieces of musical theater sheet music have everyone's credits on the cover, some associations are easy to make. For example, the very first piece is from Redhead and the second is Plain and Fancy, with composer Albert Hague's name prominently listed on each. But other links will be substantially tougher to figure out. Bookwriter-lyricist Sammy Buck -- whose own musical, Like You Like It, will get an airing at the York on February 9 -- was pleased as Henry Higgins after the ball that he noticed the clever connection between the Passion vocal selections and "Big Mole" from Lost in the Stars. (You'll enjoy that joke when you get it...if you get it...good, you got it!) Bookwriter-lyricist Brian Vinero, whose The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen caused some commotion last summer, was equally happy that he got the connection between Dear World and The Yearling: "Lucia Victor was the original director on each." Well, I sure remember Victor being in on Dear World -- I saw the Boston tryout -- but I never recall anyone but Lloyd Richards helming The Yearling. I called over my buddy David Wolf who concurred with me (moments before he noticed that the connection between All in Love and Greenwillow is that actor Lee Cass was in each). I assumed the fanciful connection was that The Yearling told of a deer world but Morgan later volunteered that Carmen Mathews was in each show. "But," he said, "a lot of people have made valid connections that haven't occurred to us."
Maybe you can, too. Or maybe you'll know the links Morgan and Levine had in mind between The Girls Against the Boys and The Amazing Adele or between Bless You All and Beggar's Holiday. (I didn't.) You may want to stay in the lobby all night long, but do drop in on The Musical of Musicals.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]