Do you like to give CDs? There's the cast album to Sundown, composer Peter Link's new musical. Isn't it wonderful that more than 35 years after his Salvation debuted Off-Broadway, Link is still at it? What's more, after that early rock musical, he showed us that he's got range by writing show music in a classic vein (such as King of Hearts) and now, with librettists Joe Bravaco and Larry Rosler (who did the lyrics, too) he's written a genuine western.
My buddy Melinda Newman at Billboard tells me that the music that I came to know as "country and western" is now simply called "country" -- but what do you call this country musical in a western setting? Darned good, that's what. The three collaborators have musicalized the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral where the Earps, the Clantons, the McLaurys, and Doc Holliday shot a peck of bullets at each other. It's quite a testosterone-filled score; it takes seven tracks before you hear a woman's voice (the always welcome Judy McLane). Just as that '50s TV series sang that Wyatt Earp was "brave, courageous, and bold," so is this score.
Books? There's Writer's Block by Bruce Kimmel, whom most of us know (and cherish) for giving us so many cast albums on Bay Cities and Varèse Sarabande. He's written three prior novels, all of them charming, but now he's taken on a mystery that -- huzzah! -- deals with a 1969 musical trying out in New Haven and Boston before braving Broadway. The show is called Bus and Truck, and -- in something of an hommage to Me and Juliet -- it deals with the struggle of doing eight a week, month after month. The producer Conrad Ballinger sounds suspiciously like David Merrick to me, and given director Galen Chapman's initials, he's certainly Gower Champion. Songwriter Stanley Sherman's name might suggest Stephen Sondheim (it's a little too early for Stephen Schwartz), but given that the guy is said to have an ever-present Pall Mall cigarette in his mouth, he seems like either Frank Loesser or Bob Merrill to me. The librettist is Arthur Myerson (as opposed to Laurents?) and the stars are ol' pros Mary Masters and Robert O'Brien. (Who knows their identities? I do! I do!) And so it goes, all the way to costume designer Lottie Kunzel -- a composite of Lucinda Ballard and Florence Klotz? But enough of that. What's really important is that Writer's Block is a terrific mystery novel on every level. I sure didn't figure out whodidit, and I defy you to do so.
DVDs? Don't forget Broadway: The Golden Age. For me, the biggest surprise in Rick McKay's film was seeing one of the first people I ever saw on stage still looking and sounding fabulous: Gretchen Wyler, who dazzled me in Chita Rivera's Birdie role in 1961. When Wyler filmed her interview, she was already over 70, but she sure didn't seem it. If I were a producer of a great big Broadway show, I'd sign her up in a sec -- and I don't mean to play Jeanette in The Full Monty. She's much too svelte and bubbly for that.
As I suggested when there were 12 days to Christmas, if you're a little short of funds, you can create your own gift certificate for something that hasn't yet been released and thus buy yourself some time to save. Why not make a coupon that says, "Good for one copy of Ethan Mordden's Sing for Your Supper: The Broadway Musicals in the 1930s when it's published by Palgrave in March." Yes, once again, I hounded the people at Palgrave for an advance copy of a Mordden book -- and when it arrived, I devoured it in one night.
I will admit that, after reading Mordden's three separate chronicles of the '60s, '70s, and the rest of the century, I wasn't reacting as strongly to this one -- but that's because I lived through those theatrical times, which prompted me to say aloud while reading those, "Yup, yup, he's right," or, "Gee, I wouldn't quite put it like that," or the ever-so-rare, "Hmmm, I don't agree at all." I tend to take at face value many of his opinions of the shows of the '30s, even after reminding myself that Mordden wasn't there, either. But my eyebrows did shoot up when he described my beloved The Cradle Will Rock as "starved for melody."
Still, there are those hilarious observations that only Mordden could make, such as his expressing sympathy for Rudolf Friml because his Luana collaborator J. Keirn Brennan gave him lyrics to songs called "Hoku Loa," "By Welawela," and "Wanapoo Bay." And though a reviewer isn't supposed to quote when a book is in its uncorrected proof stage, I'll violate that rule to cite lines so delicious that I'm sure Mordden won't change them. For example: His note that, in Girl Crazy, "songs drop in like guests at an open house." That "Encores! would give a season of The Black Crook, It Happens on Ice, and Dance of the Vampires before they'd get to Virginia," the 1937 Arthur Schwartz flop. I'd also like to quote Mordden quoting Wolcott Gibbs, who made a good observation when The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado, two jazz riffs on the classic G&S show, opened within three weeks of each other in 1939: "As remarkable as if two dinosaurs suddenly turned up at the zoo."
Mordden often perceives things that never occurred to me. That Teddy Hart's big brother Lorenz wrote a song called "Big Brother" for him in The Boys From Syracuse. That no book musical of the '30s amassed a 500-performance run, though eight musicals in the '20s did so. (Of course, the '20s were a roaring good time while the '30s endured a Depression.) And I loved the facts that I didn't know. I'd never heard that Earl Carroll's Theatre on Seventh Avenue and 50th Street had a program-reading light installed at each seat. Only now do I know who was originally on the minds of Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse when they wrote "Bill." I never would have guessed that one of the two performers who introduced the jaunty standard "How High the Moon" was Alfred Drake. Lastly, Mordden instructs us not to believe that the shipwreck of the Morro Castle was the reason why the original book of Anything Goes was replaced.
The book suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Many of us thought that astonishing scenic thrills -- barricade, chandelier, helicopter, floating mansion, etc. -- were the province of the late 20th century, but The Earl Carroll Vanities of 1931 featured a 46-foot mechanical lizard (with an actress in its mouth!) that snaked out into the audience. Face the Music (1932) had a plot in which someone wanted to produce a sure-fire flop but, despite his attempts to make everything go wrong, it turned into a hit. A 1932 revival of the venerable Robin Hood was really a revisal. And in 1939, the management of Swingin' the Dream decided that the show needed amplification and put hidden microphones all over the stage.
Once again, one of the best things about reading a Mordden history is that you'll find yourself pulling out cast albums you haven't listened to in ages. I've already played Anything Goes, Johnny Johnson, As Thousands Cheer, and The Cradle Will Rock -- which I still insist is NOT "starved for melody." Excuse me now while I take on At Home Abroad...
But before I do, let me suggest that you NOT get anyone tickets to Fat Pig, the MCC production of Neil LaBute's play that's currently at the Lortel. LaBute has an excellent premise: Tom, a nice guy, is falling in love with Helen, a quite overweight woman, but is embarrassed that his friends will think of him as a loser for dating her. Unfortunately, the 90-minute script comes across as a first draft, primarily because LaBute hasn't made Helen a riveting character. Tom keeps telling her and his friends that she's terrific and fascinating, but I saw little of that in her. Secondly, LaBute doesn't deal with the ramifications of what happens in the first scene: Helen gets Tom to eat a yummy food that he's denied himself for years, so does he worry that his relationship with her will mean his gaining weight? And if he does, will or should that bother him? Finally, a number of gift recipients might think you're making a sly and unseemly comment if you say, "I got you Fat Pig!"
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at email@example.com]