A show tune maven might ask whether, in the last 40 years, anyone -- Sondheim included -- has written a song that's had the masses singing along more than Herman's "Hello, Dolly!" (It would be interesting to know how ASCAP royalties for that ditty stack up against those for Sondheim's best known items.) Awed by musical comedy tradition since he was a kid, Herman grew up to write music and lyrics squarely in that tradition, and he has added significantly to it. No more sophisticated a torch song has been belted from a stage during the previous four decades than "If He Walked Into My Life." As for deconstructing a song's architecture and putting it back together, Herman has done that imaginatively with, for example, "Time Heals Everything."
Perhaps Herman's insistence -- more implied than stated -- that he could go far, thanks, by writing songs and scores like they used to has backfired. Aside from earning him a reputation for lifting melodies from other songbags (there was the settled-out-of-court "Hello, Dolly"/"Sunflower" incident), he has almost seemed to ask for the appellation "old-fashioned." When he accepted a 1984 Tony for his La Cage aux Folles score, he pointedly spoke about people still preferring an old-fangled tune. (Many in the audience heard the remark as a slap at Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George score, which was also nominated that year.) Moreover, Herman has possibly been viewed as the last-in-a-line type rather than as seminal because his shows have often been period pieces. For these, he has more or less supplied skillful pastiches.
Amazingly, Herman -- whose smile has always been as wide as a keyboard -- is keeping up the good work. The ditties for his latest musical, Miss Spectacular, which Tommy Tune will direct in Las Vegas, are easily up to his highest standards: melodious, well-crafted, amusing, lilting. This is a show that New York City show-biz crowds will likely be boarding planes to catch.
So it's sad to report that Showtune is a bland entertainment. Pretty and fast-paced and stocked with by-the-numbers numbers, it has the look of something devised for cruise ships and assisted living facilities. Perhaps the easiest way to convey its predictability is to report that, looking through Herman's catalogue for something with which to start, the creators have hit on (you guessed it) "It's Today." And the show ends with (you guessed it again) "Hello, Dolly!" Well, okay, that's fair enough; but to do it in Chorus Line top hats and vests?
Showtune is a reworking of a revue conceived by Paul Gilger and previously called Tune the Grand Up. Having played in San Francisco a short while back, it's evidently been trimmed and restaged by director/choreographer Joey McKneely, who keeps his performers on the move for no more apparent reason than that he doesn't think they should stand still for too long. He hands the cast members parasols and boas (or costume designer Tracy Christensen does) and other props and sends them around the stage in patterns familiar from every revue since the year Q. Gathering the songs into segments meant to reflect on the battle of the sexes, the movies, and gender-bending may have seemed an original approach to Gilder, McKneely, and possibly even Herman. But it's not original; it's hackneyed.
Still, Herman's songs don't go down without a fight; they're too solid for that, written with too much joie de vivre. While the group numbers tend to be homogenized, hollowly peppy run-throughs, there are commendable treatments of Dear World's "Kiss Her Now" and Mame's "What Do I Do Now?" (a.k.a. "Gooch's Song") and "If He Walked Into My Life." These are among the few numbers where McKneely pats one or another of the performers on the back and says "Just get out there, kid, and show 'em whatcha got."
The cast, wearing unprepossessing street garb in pastel shades during the first act and more attractive black, red, and purple costumes in the second, includes (alphabetically) Sandy Binion, Paul Harman, Russell Arden Koplin (a woman), Tom Korbee, Karen Murphy, Bobby Peaco (singing his head off at the piano, just as if he were in his usual piano-bar haunts), and Martin Vidnovic. Special congrats to Vidnovic, Koplin -- in advanced-maternity get-up -- and Murphy who shine in "Kiss Her Now," "What Do I Do Now?" and "If He Walked Into My Life," respectively.
Interviewed by TheaterMania's Michael Buckley about the evolution of this tribute to him, Herman explained that the revue's name was changed from Tune the Grand Up to avoid the questionable grammar of that phrase. He went on to say, "I changed the title to Showtune because it's always been my favorite word. That's why I used it as the title of my autobiography." Herman might be interested to know that, according to the dictionary, "showtune" is not a word; it's two words. But his endearing belief only goes to prove how the very notions of "show" and "tune" are inseparable to him.