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Rare Songbirds (and Songs) on Display

Filichia gets an earful of musical rarities at two new shows featuring several fabulous women. logo
Karen Akers
What a time it is for obscure show songs! First, there's Karen Akers's show Theatre Songs at the Algonquin's Oak Room. Yes, the elegant six-footer does songs from the two Broadway musicals in which she appeared -- Nine, in which she got the guy, and Grand Hotel, in which she got the girl. But Akers makes a definite point of including only two household-name songs in her show, and those in a closing medley. The others, I daresay, are totally unknown to most of her audience -- even the one that came from a Tony-winner (Applause) and another that came from one of Off-Broadway's longest-running shows (Jacques Brel). The terrific Akers gives us a chance to hear a song cut from Baby as well as "Smart Women" from Imaginary Friends -- which, to my knowledge, has gone unrecorded (dammit). "I gravitate to lesser-known material that I think deserves more of a hearing," she told me. "To me, the most exciting theater songs often come from shows that don't have a long life on Broadway. That's why I do two from Chess."

As well as she does with all of those, she's really insouciant on one of musical theater's best second-hand show tunes: Sondheim's "I Never Do Anything Twice," originally written for the movie of The Seven Per Cent Solution but wasted there in a terribly truncated version and later rescued for Side by Side by Sondheim. We've heard about that list Sondheim made of songs he would have loved to have written, but the super-naughty "I Never Do Anything Twice" would have to be in first place on a list of songs that Cole Porter wished he'd written.

Still, I wondered if Akers felt eerie when she sang the lyric "I think about the Baron," given that Grand Hotel had a Baron, adeptly played by David Carroll until he had to leave the show because he was ill from AIDS. Afterwards, I asked her about it. She nodded and said, "David's still with me. It was so sad to watch someone who was so angry at and frightened of dying. When I'd go to his apartment, I'd see the 18 bottles of pills in his bathroom. Thank God so many advances have been made in recent years, but I wish they could have happened in time to help David."

On a much different note, we talked about the original production of Nine. Akers had seen the revival, and when I asked her opinion, she paused for a second before saying, "Arthur Kopit gave me a way to look at it. It's apples and oranges -- which are both delicious fruits." She recalled how financing almost fell through for the original production, and that there was a rights problem, too. "One of the producers had to go to Italy with a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills to settle everything," she said.

I was surprised at how frank she was when I asked if she did Nine not only with Raul Julia but with Sergio Franchi, too. "No way!" she indignantly snorted. "You think I would have done it with Sergio?! Raul was my one and only Guido. I really felt we were a couple -- especially at one performance, during the scene where he was sitting on the floor with his head on my lap and his eyes closed. I was stroking his hair and day-dreaming, and these pictures came into my head of a boy riding a black horse on a beach. I didn't think much about it, but when we were riding home that night, I casually asked him: 'When you were a boy, did you have a horse?' When he said yes, I asked, 'Was it black?' And when he said yes to that, I asked him -- much more excitedly -- 'Did you ride it on the beach?' That freaked him out, and me, too. So, no; I could have never done Nine with Sergio Franchi."

Then it was over to Tales & Tunes, courtesy of Ian Marshall Fisher -- the British director of Lost Musicals, which, for the last 12 years, has given London 75 readings of vintage tuners. What's fascinating is that they've been American shows, for Fisher loves musicals from the U.S.A. When I first met him, I asked if he had any interest in doing some of Britain's better scores, Blitz, Good Companions, Maggie May, Sing a Rude Song, and Passion Flower Hotel among them. He shrugged apologetically for not liking them nearly as much as American shows. As for the British Invasion of the '70s, '80s, and '90s, he seemed vaguely embarrassed by it. You know how many a transsexual claims that he or she is trapped in the body of the wrong sex? Ian Marshall Fisher seems to be an American musical theater enthusiast trapped in a British body.

Anne Kaufman Schneider and
Kitty Carlisle Hart
Fisher has Anna Bergman, Toni DiBuono, and Thelma Ruby on hand to delightfully deliver songs from By Jupiter, A Day in Hollywood..., Face the Music, The Gay Divorcee, Happy Hunting, Knickerbocker Holiday, Mexican Hayride, Miss Liberty, Out of This World, Up in Central Park, Wish You Were Here, and even Texas, Li'l Darlin. Granted, six of those shows have appeared on CD (and Up in Central Park is coming soon), but what about the others that either are only on LP or went unrecorded? The promised CD transfer of the 1967 revival cast recording of By Jupiter never happened and isn't likely to, so it's great fun to hear the jaunty "Jupiter Forbid" essayed by all three ladies. And Jupiter forbid that anyone should miss this show, which has two more performances scheduled at Florence Gould Hall on Sunday, May 4. I mean, you just have to love a song whose refrain begins: "I wanted to sing a torch song, so I got a man to break my heart." As delicious as that is, you have to love even more the line: "I long to sit upon a piano -- or an organ." The number dates back to 1932 and suggests that songwriters then were naughtier than we've been led to believe.

But the show is called Tales & Tunes, and the former are provided by Kaufman and Hart -- well, Anne Kaufman Schneider, the playwright's daughter, and Kitty Carlisle Hart, the playwright's widow. When Schneider referred to "A Night at the Opera, starring Kitty Carlisle," you should have seen the astonished look on Mrs. Hart's face. This had to be the first time ever that she heard herself top-billed in this Marx Brothers extravaganza.

To tell the truth, Kitty Carlisle is pretty amazing for someone who was born during the Taft administration, and though Schneider at 77 is 15 years younger, she's no kid, either. Did the ladies occasionally pause during their discourses to search for the right word? Sure. Was there an occasional "What's-her-name?" Of course. Still, these women are excellent raconteurs; each enjoyed telling a story about Cole Porter's Rolls-Royce, though not as much as Carlisle savored a pungent one about the first rehearsal of Miss Liberty. Oh, there was one anxious moment when Carlisle was singing at the mike and looked as if she was about to tip over; this caused Toni DiBuono to prepare to offer assistance, but DiBuono sat down again when she saw Carlisle catch herself. Listen, if that Broadway revival of Little Mary Sunshine ever gets on, Kitty Carlisle Hart is the lady to sing, "In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essenzook Zee."

After intermission, Fisher asked the ladies some questions that had been written down in advance by audience members. Both women fondly recalled "Mossie," though Schneider admitted that her daddy only "tolerated" Irving Berlin. When Carlisle was asked how she keeps young, she mentioned that she works out on a treadmill. Try to remove that image from your head -- and try not to have a happy smile on your face all through Tales & Tunes.

In addition to all of the above, we got a whole bevy of obscure show songs with the CD release of one more original cast album of yore: 1964's I Had a Ball, thanks to Decca Broadway. To quote the title song, "What a groove! What a gas!" Well, at least that's true of the title song, as brightly belted by Karen Morrow. Too bad that she's interrupted by an orchestral sequence during which a belly dancer performed. Though I will admit that this section, as orchestrated by Philip J. Lang, genuinely replicates an orgasm (I'm serious; give a listen), it's still an unwelcome divertissement. We all appreciate that CDs give us the option of editing an album so that we can hear only the cuts we like, but wouldn't you like even more refined technology that would allow you to cut out a section you don't like from an otherwise fine song? My first choice would be the belly dance sequence from I Had a Ball. My second choice would be the spoken sections of "Life Is Happiness Indeed" from Candide. (Wouldn't it be fun to hear that number straight through without any dialogue?) My third choice would be all of the talking in "Do You Want to Go Heaven?" from Big River. I'm sure there are more, but I'll leave it to Ian Marshall Fisher to list them.


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

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