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And All That Richards

Karen Ziemba, Brian d'Arcy James, and many more paid tribute to Chicago producer Martin Richards on Monday. logo
Martin Richards, accepting the Oscar for Chicago
It's good, isn't it? Grand, isn't it? Great, isn't it? Swell, isn't it? Fun, isn't it? You can like the life you're living. You can live the life you like.

You know those lines. And now, most of the nation does, too, thanks to the success of the movie version of Chicago. But Martin Richards -- the man who got an Oscar for producing the film and was also one of the musical's sponsors on Broadway -- must have especially savored these words when Eric Comstock sang them to him on Monday night, September 15 at the Lighthouse, when and where the Friars Club sponsored a tribute to the producer. (How fitting, for Richards does bear a resemblance to the friar who's part of the club's logo.) Pianist Paul Chamlin reminded us of some of Richards's successes by playing an overture of songs from The Will Rogers Follies, La Cage aux Folles, Sweeney Todd, and, of course, Chicago.

Then out came Marvin Hamlisch as master of ceremonies. Richards produced that composer's Sweet Smell of Success, but Hamlisch said the real reason he was emceeing dates back to 1963, when he played piano at an all-girl Jewish camp. There, he met Randie Levine Miller -- "the camp's star," he said -- producer of the Richards tribute. (Hamlisch also mentioned that, when he returned to the camp in summer 1964 after he'd been a rehearsal pianist for Funny Girl, word got around that he had actually composed that hit show -- and he did nothing to dispel the rumor.)

Hamlisch told us some little-known facts about Richards. That he changed his name from Martin Klein wasn't such a surprise, but who knew that he played a newsboy in the Broadway production of Mexican Hayride? "He had to take early retirement when his voice changed," said Hamlisch, who then mentioned that Richards's first musical production -- the original Chicago -- was nominated for 11 Tonys and lost every one. Because it was Hamlisch's own show, A Chorus Line, that was responsible for most of Chicago's losses, the composer said he felt bad and plans to atone for it during Rosh Hashanah.

How nice to hear the audience buzz as Hamlisch announced that we'd now see the star of Contact and Steel Pier perform. They know who Karen Ziemba is, and they were looking forward to seeing her. Ziemba noted that Richards was a survivor without mentioning Roza, A Doll's Life, or Rockabye Hamlet. The response she received after singing "(I Am) My Own Best Friend" proved that, indeed, she isn't.

Peter Howard got up and sang "Ten Percent," the delicious song that was dropped from Chicago along with the character (talent agent Henry Glassman) and the actor (David Rounds) who sang it. We've had good recordings by Mark Sendroff and Harry Groener, but Howard's was the third jewel of the triple crown -- especially because Howard, who did dance arrangements for Chicago, remembers the dialogue that Henry said to Velma. One line of the song's lyrics goes, "I'm not the main event" -- but I have to say that, before the show started, the woman sitting next to me scanned her program, saw who was performing, and exclaimed: "Oh, Peter Howard's going to be here! He stole the show on the QE2!" For her at least, he was the main event.

Judy Kaye gratefully reminisced that "Marty saw something in me," which is why he okayed her taking over when Madeline Kahn was fired from or quit (who really knows for sure?) On the Twentieth Century. Kaye also pointed out that the beloved musical turned out to be significant for personal as well as professional reasons. Seventeen years ago to the day of this Friars' tribute, rehearsals had started for a road company of the show where Kaye would reprise her role and meet company member David Green. Five weeks later, he proposed, and they've been together ever since. He and she did "Our Private World" together -- but, paradoxically, Kaye sang "Together" alone. Ditto "Never." What's hard to believe but true is that there's no discernible wear and tear on her voice a full 25 years after she first performed these songs. Too bad that she didn't do "Babette," too, for the vocal pyrotechnics she brought to the end of that number were far more impressive than what Kahn sang in the theater and on the original cast album. You hadda be there in 1978-79.

Marvin Hamlisch was the master of
ceremonies at the Friars Club tribute
Next up was a sloppily dressed Mario Cantone, who unleashed a stream of every four-letter word except tact. His shtick included complaints that the tapping in 42nd Street was too loud and that Hurricane Isabel was getting everyone too worked up. Then he made some 9/11 observations. He was met by a nervous and stony silence from the audience. But give him credit: He didn't change course, and by the time he had skewered Hooked on Phonics and color codes for terrorist alerts, and had made a masturbatory gesture or two, the crowd began responding. Soon, he was getting torrents of laughter for his Osama bin Laden imitation and applause to punctuate his complaints about (what else?) cab drivers who don't speak English. Then he sang a song called "I'm a Laugh-Whore." Afterwards, Hamlisch came out and stood silent and still for a few seconds before droning, "Tell me what I'm doing in a tuxedo after that" and "I love to see where the youth of America is and where it's going."

Camille Saviola reprised her Mama Morton song to good advantage but saddened us when she happened to mention that she hadn't been on Broadway in 20 years. This robust talent needs to be there every night. Then Brent Barrett came on and mentioned the faith Richards had in him when David Carroll suddenly took ill as the Baron in Grand Hotel. Barrett proved Richards's acumen with his rendition of "Love Can't Happen" and received what was arguably the best response of the night. On second thought, judging who got the best response of the night would be impossible. But the impression Barrett made was strong enough for Hamlisch to say, "We actually have someone to follow that." He was speaking of Dee Hoty, who said that, because she sang "No Man Left for Me" on a piano for all those performances of The Will Rogers Follies, she'd just have to do it that way again or she wouldn't remember the lyrics. It worked; she was flawless in more ways than one.

Brian d'Arcy James was next. Hamlisch read off James's credits, and when he got to the part of the text that said "Sweet Smell of Success and Titanic," he showed some good-natured self-deprecation by ad-libbing, "Yeah, those two titles go together." Hamlisch then announced that James would soon be playing a rabbi in Barry Manilow's Harmony, even though the actor is Irish-Catholic. But James's rendition of "At the Fountain" from Sweet Smell made the crowd believe that he could do anything. How wonderful, too, to have Hamlisch at the piano; there's nothing like hearing a composer play his own song. What a crescendo there was at the end when James sang "So let my life story start," which has already happened to the guy who deserved a Tony for his work in this underrated musical.

There were tributes sent by those who couldn't be there -- such as Rob Marshall, who recalled how Richards kept telling him that he wanted Chicago to be a movie that Bob Fosse would like, and Cy Coleman, who remembered being in Boston for the first previews of On the Twentieth Century in February of 1978, when the city was hit with a horrific blizzard. As a result, the Colonial Theatre ushers couldn't get to work, so Coleman and Richards dispensed programs to the hardy patrons who did attend the show.

In introducing Stephanie Pope, Hamlisch noted that she had sung the national anthem for the Knicks; then he quipped that the team hasn't done well as of late and remarked that maybe Pope was singing for the 0-2 Jets, too. Given the way she did "All That Jazz," that's what she should sing to cure both teams' ills. Lee Roy Reams flew in from Boston, where's he's Roger de Bris, to do "I Am What I Am." By the time he got to the line "I don't want praise," it was too late -- he was going to get it anyway. But his main contribution might have been reminding us that Richards is an important board member of both the Gay Men's Health Crisis and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Finally, Richards came on stage and accepted his trophy. He said, "I think of these entertainers as my children. (How come he didn't quote Mama Morton's "I love 'em all and all of them love me?" It's true.) He went on to say that this night meant more to him than the evening he took home the Oscar. Some may raise a cynical eyebrow at that and brush the statement off as polite applesauce; but maybe it's true, given that the event was a panoply of his last 28 years in the business. Well, whatever the case, I betcha Lucky Lindy never flew so high. We all applauded wildly. If you'd have been there -- if you'd have seen it -- I bet you you would have done the same.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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