It's So Easy to Fix Someone Else's Show
A Cincinnati production of On the Town prompts the question: What shows would you like to tinker with?
This, after all, is the school that gave us such Tony winners as Faith Prince, Michele Pawk, Stephen Flaherty, and Albert Hague -- not to mention such musical theater stalwarts as Jason Graae, Jim Walton, and Sara Gettelfinger, who's now making a name for herself in Nine. Don't be surprised if their ranks are someday joined by Eric Daniel Santagata (an endearing Gabey), Matthew Risch (a delightfully goofy Ozzie), Kyle McDaniel (a blue-chip Chip), Jennifer Bowles (a bloomin' wonderful Ivy), Emily Randolph Jones (a loony Claire), Lindsay Pier (a lusty Hildy), Lindsay Juneau (who stole the show as Madame Dilly), Benjamin Magnuson (the first Pitkin I've seen who tore down the house with "I Understand"), Marla Weiner (too pretty for Lucy Schmeeler but dead-on in the part), and Aaron Albano -- the accomplished dance captain, who's already been cast in the upcoming Broadway production of Bombay Dreams.
On the plane to Cincinnati, I read On the Town and came across the part that always consternates me. There are the three sailors on the subway, where they see the poster of the alluring Miss Turnstiles. Gabey is so smitten with her that he tears down the poster -- which infuriates a Little Old Lady who's riding next to him. How upset is she? Well, she not only lectures Gabey about vandalism but also calls a policeman to arrest him! What's more, the cop takes notice and, for the rest of the show, he and the old lady unflaggingly pursue the trio of sailors to ensure that justice is done.
Really? I know the '40s were a much more law-abiding decade than the one in which we now live, but would a straphanger of yore actually take all that time and energy chasing someone for such a petty crime? And would a policeman do the same, given that he's presumably got much bigger fish to fry? This scenario has bothered me ever since I saw the 1971 revival of On the Town at the Shubert in Boston, prior to its disappointing Broadway run, but I'd never thought of a solution until now. What if the old lady said to Gabey as he tore down the poster, "Hey, leave that alone! My son designed that!" A mother's love would seem to be a better motivation for the show-long chase.
If you go to musicals long enough, you find yourself changing them in your mind. I've often wished that in The Music Man, after Harold Hill is unmasked and Marian quells the angry townspeople, she'd give out with a big smile and add, "Folks, if you really do want to learn about music, I do give lessons at my house." This throwaway line would show that Marian has acquired a sense of humor, which she desperately needs.
The Grass Harp concerns the maiden Talbo sisters -- Verena, who goes out and works and puts the bread on the table, and Dollyheart, who stays home and keeps house. Eventually, Dollyheart feels that Verena doesn't appreciate the nice home she's made for her, and leaves. Okay, but all we've seen Dollyheart do is loll around the backyard, making a medicine that she sells by mail order. The Grass Harp has a spirited overture, so why not let us see Dollyheart hard at work cleaning the house to its music? Only after the overture and the housework are done would she saunter into the backyard to make her concoction. First things first.
Verena, by the way, falls in love with Dr. Morris Ritz, who bamboozles and abandons her. This prompts Verena to sing, "What Do I Do Now (He's Gone)?" but I'd prefer to see her come to the conclusion that losing Dollyheart is an even greater misfortune. By the end of the song, I'd like to hear instead sing, "What Do I Do Now (She's Gone)?" The lyric would then accomplish what the best musical theater songs are supposed to do: It would move the action forward.
I doubt that Craig Carnelia has a bigger fan than I, for I truly believe that he's one of the best lyricists we have. Yet I'm still surprised by one of his lyric choices in "Just a Housewife" from Working. As she makes a checklist of her daily life, the housewife sings, "Try to lose weight; try again." There's something clunky-sounding about "lose weight," two words that don't sing well. I'm amazed that the more felicitous two-syllable word "diet" didn't occur to Carnelia -- same idea, only smoother sounding.
Well, you know me. Bright ideas just pop into my 'ead! At the end of Cats, I don't want Grizabella to stay up in the rafters but to confidently walk back to center stage, looking like a million dollars -- because cats have nine lives. In Gypsy, I'd like to see a new scene after Rose has resigned herself to the fact that the Toreadorables are going to have to play Wichita's one and only burlesque theater. After she goes outside, grabs the cow's head, and prepares to re-enter the theater, who does she run into but Mr. Goldstone? Wouldn't that be humiliating for her? For that matter, it would also be humiliating for him if he'd just bought a ticket to the next show.
Yes, it's easy for all of us to come into a theater, park ourselves in our seats, and see what's wrong with a show, totally confident that we have all the answers and that we could one-up the creators. But all of us who do this must remember that, if we were so smart, we'd sit down and write a musical ourselves -- which would mean that plenty of know-it-alls would then approach us and tell us where we erred. Bearing this in mind, I'll bet you all have had at least one idea in your time that you were convinced would have improved a show. I'd love to hear some of those ideas so that I can share them in a future column.