He's still got it. Irving Berlin, composer of Face the Music
He's still got it. Irving Berlin,
composer of Face the Music
Mel Miller, who produces the series of musicals-in-concert at the East 14th Street Y called Musicals Tonight!, has the faith of a child. That's a compliment: Miller's confidence in the healing, restorative powers of old-style musical comedy is absolute--and he does it all without orchestra, sets, costumes, or campy Chinese chorus boys singing "Mammy" with supertitles. With one piano, a handful of rehearsals, eager young casts, and a frankly frowzy performing space just outside Alphabet City, he revives musicals that haven't been seen in New York in decades. (The most recent offering, Harold Rome's That's the Ticket, never even made it to New York in its original incarnation). Never mind that the books are often silly and/or dated, the scores long forgotten, the original performers irreplaceable; just read the lines and sing the songs as written, Miller believes, and wonderful things will happen. And by God, he's often right.

Miller's latest selection, Face the Music, was only a mild hit in 1932, a Moss Hart-Irving Berlin satire that got its thunder stolen by that season's superior Of Thee I Sing. Hart had recently co-written Once In a Lifetime, but in this, his first big musical comedy, he hewed firmly to the double standard of the time: A straight play had to have three-dimensional characters and a plausible plot but a musical comedy libretto could squeak by on types, ludicrous situations, and gags. So we get a raft of Depression-era one-liners on the order of "My stockbroker put me on a crash diet" and "I have a cousin in the stock exchange, but we never talk about it." There's a story, too, of sorts: A down-on-his-luck Broadway producer gets the New York Police Department to back his girly revue Rhinestones of 1932, promising that it will flop (sound familiar?) and thereby offer a place where all their graft money--the same kind of dough contained in the "little tin boxes" celebrated in Fiorello!--can disappear. The show indeed flops but, when an investigation is ordered and the cops need to recover the cash, the producer turns it into a hit by smutting it up; as pointed out in one of Berlin's felicitous couplets, "having girls with no apparel / Is how Carroll gets by." (Earl Carroll's Vanities revues were noted for their female nudity.)

So, Urinetown it's not. But, Of Thee I Sing not withstanding, 1932 audiences didn't go to musicals for ingenious satire; they wanted sumptuous productions, brilliant choreography, delightful performers, and great songs. Forgetting the sumptuousness (you won't find it here) and choreography (Thomas Mills's dances are mostly limited to kicks and bead-twirling), this vest-pocket Face the Music stacks up most satisfyingly. Berlin's score, with cut songs restored, boasts two classics ("Soft Lights and Sweet Music" and "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee") and much more that's lilting, clever, or otherwise intriguing. One real discovery is "Torch Song," a wicked send-up of Helen Morgan weepers, nicely delivered here by Cynthia Collins and ripe for rediscovery by enterprising cabaret singers. "Well of All the Rotten Shows," the Act II opener, has the audience dissing Rhinestones à la the opening number in The Producers; "The Drinking Song" is a boisterous toast to the Volstead Act; "My Beautiful Rhinestone Girl" thumbs its nose at hoary, here-come-the-girls numbers like Berlin's own "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"; and "Manhattan Madness," though it has little to do with the plot, is a brilliant, Gershwinesque distillation of the clamor of the city. But Berlin saves the best for last: "Investigation," a 12-minute opera-comique finale that reprises and restates old themes, introduces new ones, wraps up the plot, and brings in a Threepenny Opera-style deus ex machina to usher in the happy ending. You didn't know he had it in him? Well, the old boy was full of surprises.

Moss Hart
Moss Hart
Musicals Tonight! always comes through in presenting new talent, and I suggest you hurry down to East 14th Street to be knocked out by a young lady named Vanessa Lemonides. Playing "Pickles," the sarcastic half of a moth-eaten song-and-dance team, this dark soubrette with a Louise Brooks bob socks across her comedy lines, dances well, and, best of all, rings out a couple of second-rate Berlin numbers in a mesmerizing and truly weird contralto. (It's a voice quality similar to Helen Gallagher's, but even Gallagher didn't have this lung power. And let it be added, to avoid misunderstanding, that second-rate Berlin is equivalent to top-drawer work from just about anyone else.)

The rest of the cast members are capable or better, though the obligatory young lovers, played by Julian Dean and Nanne Puritz, sing smoothly but never look terribly interested in each other. Virginia Seidel, in the Mary Boland/Helen Broderick/Alice Brady role of a dithering society lady, has a sweet presence and gets to warble a novelty number about a Swedish nudist colony. And Randall Frizado, the Max Bialystock of the piece, proves to have a belt as big as his considerable belt size.

That moldy Hart book does get in the way, and the vintage pop-culture references are many, so you might prepare to face Face the Music by boning up on 1930s history. The Seabury Hearings were a series of Tammany Hall trials, Jane Cowl a fabled stage actress, Julian Eltinge the grandma of all modern female impersonators, and Percy Hammond an unctuous New York theater critic. Hart has fun taking swipes at these and other personages, and 1932 audiences must have giggled along; present-day theatergoers must settle for fine songs, fresh faces, and the benevolent, cheerful, laugh-at-your-troubles attitude that once defined musical comedy. If that's not a fine recipe for a late spring evening's entertainment, I don't know what is.