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So Long, Dearie!

Josh Prince says hello to So Long, 174th Street in a benefit for the Musicals Tonight! series. logo
Josh Prince
Question: Where can you see Irving Berlin's second book musical and a Rodgers and Hart show about castration? Answer: Musicals Tonight! Mel Miller's not-for-profit company is devoted to proving the viability of neglected musicals through semi-staged, no-frills productions. Already scheduled for the fall 2002 season are Berlin's 1915 entry Stop! Look! Listen! (the score includes 'I Love a Piano') and Rodgers and Hart's 1928 Chee-Chee (a fable about a Grand Eunuch). The group's 99-seat theater is located on the second floor of Manhattan's 14th Street Y, between First and Second Avenues, and all tickets are $19.

First up, however, is a fundraiser: On February 24 and 25, So Long, 174th Street, the Stan Daniels/Joseph Stein musical based on Carl Reiner's book and Stein's play Enter Laughing, will be reprised by the company with composer-lyricist Daniels playing the role of Mr. Foreman and librettist Stein in attendance. George S. Irving is recreating his original role in the 1976 show and Josh Prince has the part originated by Robert Morse. Also in the cast: K.T. Sullivan, Julia Murney, Jana Robbins, David Sabella, Kenny Raskin, Matthew Ellison, Andrew Gitzy, Rachel Hale, Liz Muller, Ed Prostak, and Cynthia Collins. Tickets for the benefit are $75.

"We did the show three years ago," notes Miller. "Even in 1976, Bobby Morse was a little long in the tooth to play a teenage Jewish boy in the Bronx, so they wrote in a prologue and epilogue. George S. Irving's character is sort of ageless. His big number, 'The Butler's Song,' is hilarious." When Musicals Tonight! first did the show, Miller asked himself, "'How do I find a George S. Irving?' Someone said, 'Why don't you ask George?' I called him and he said, 'I'd love to do it.' We're delighted to have him back."

Thrilled to be playing "David Kolowitz, the Actor" (as the show's first song is titled) is Josh Prince, who says, "I've always been told that I'm right for this part. I'm Jewish, so it touches some funny chords. But I'm not from the Bronx; I'm from Indiana." He's also not related to Faith or Hal Prince, though "I worked with Faith in Little Me and I once auditioned for Hal's daughter, Daisy." For his So Long, 174th Street audition, he read from the script of the show with director Tom Mills and sang the comic ditty "Elizabeth Taylor" from When Pigs Fly. Also a writer and choreographer, Prince danced in two Encores! shows, Babes in Arms and Do Re Mi. He says that his favorite stage experience thus far was his stint in Forbidden Broadway. Come March, he'll be playing Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof at Fort Worth's Casa Mañana.

How did Musicals Tonight! come about? "The company was formed almost on a whim," says Miller, "and then we got serious." At one time, Miller says, he was "a real person in the real world making real money. But I always loved the theater." So he decided to do a concert version of a show he'd always loved: Let It Ride, a 1961 musical, based on Three Men On a Horse. "I knew zero about theatrical production," he admits. "I thought that all a producer had to do was write checks. I could do that...but I didn't know how to get rights, how to cast, how to find a director. I was put in touch with Tom Mills, who took pity on me. We've done 13 shows and Tom has directed 12 of them. We've presented the shows as we think they would have been presented originally; we could send up each and every one of them, but we think that would be sacrilegious. Tom's done a fabulous job. I give him no rehearsal time, no money, and he gets so much out of these people."

Mills recalls that Miller "originally intended to do just the one show, Let it Ride. It had opened on Broadway when he was in college. He had the cast album [with George Gobel, Sam Levene, and Barbara Nichols in the leads]. The score was by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who had written 'Mona Lisa' and 'Silver Bells,' and it had some beautiful songs. I said, 'There are probably a lot of obscure shows like this.' Mel said, 'I just want to do this one.' But, of course, show business bit him."

Their approach, according to Mills, is: "What do we want to see? If you put yourself as an audience member, you probably won't go wrong." Mills also doubles as choreographer. "The only thing I do not do is tap," he says. "If there's a big tap number, I'll collaborate with somebody, usually from the cast." He tells actors not to worry about the fact that they're carrying scripts in their hands. "We're doing the shows for people who are interested in musical theater history, and the audiences seem to respond to that."

Concert performances of shows with scripts in hand do present special challenges. "From a creative standpoint, you've got to find ways to be clever," says Mills. "Obviously, the actors' hands are occupied, so you have to keep in mind that there's a minimal use of props. When Mel and I started, we wanted to get the best possible people we could; to do that, we have had to make things as actor-friendly as possible. We rehearse evenings and weekends. The first night, we try to get everybody in the same room to learn the big numbers. After that, each individual gets between 15 and 20 hours of rehearsal, and that includes learning the music. It's a juggling act."

Mel Miller, Joseph Stein, and Tom Mills
at auditions for So Long, 174th Street
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Mel Miller remembers the rehearsal process of Let It Ride as "lumpy and bumpy but, in the end, it was magical! I had produced a show, and I was hooked. As naïve as I was, I knew from the get-go that the Encores! series was the 800-pound gorilla. Our shows had to be more neglected than anything that Encores! would want to do. The shows that they're putting on now were wildly successful in their time." Musicals Tonight! prefers to stick with more esoteric titles: "We did King of Hearts [from 1978], which is getting a full-scale revival by Goodspeed in the fall. I think that's thanks to us; the Goodspeed people came down and saw it, and were quite keen on it. We did Foxy [the 1964 show based on Volpone that was Bert Lahr's last musical]. But most of the stuff we've done is from the 1920s and '30s."

Miller's very grateful for the help that Musicals Tonight! receives from the estates and trusts of the great Broadway composers and lyricists. "With the assistance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization," he says, "we'll be doing what was probably Rodgers' biggest flop, Chee-Chee. It's an Asian fable that takes place in some mythical land, centuries ago. It's a ribald tale and it's goofy: The Grand Eunuch had sired two children before becoming a eunuch and decides that his son should replace him, but the son thinks the price is too much. The critics said, 'This is a castration story.' It's a silly show, but it's almost through-composed. There are six songs that are 32 bars long but about 20 that are anywhere from four to 16 bars long, to introduce characters or particular scenes.

"At Encores!, you'd have to translate the piano-vocal material into the orchestra parts," Miller continues. "That would cost a significant amount of money. In this case, the R&H organization has the parts but not the piano/vocal score, and we only use a piano. They've agreed to pay for making the piano/vocal. Jim Stenborg will do it, and he'll be music director for Chee-Chee when we put it up. If a company like ours didn't look under a particular rock, no one in their right mind would do a show like this. If I had to fill more than 2,000 seats at City Center with people paying $45 to $75, I wouldn't do it, either. All I've got to do is fill 99 seats with people paying $19. I think I can do that."

Just back from London, "where I saw 12 shows in eight days," Miller did research at the British Library and discovered a treasure-trove of musical libretti. "In London, the Lord Chamberlain's office was the official theatrical censor for centuries and kept copies of everything," he says. "In the mid '60s, all of it was sent to the British Library. I found all these books! In some cases, the estates or trusts didn't know they existed." He contacted the proper parties and hopes that, after they retrieve copies of the materials, they'll share them with him.

The archival aspect of Musicals Tonight! is very important to Miller. "We've gone as far back as 1914 for Irving Berlin's first book musical, Watch Your Step," he notes. "It's not even credited as being a book musical. Most people call it a revue, but it does have a story. And it has a Berlin score, which is what most people are interested in." (Watch Your Step is one of three Musicals Tonight! concerts that have been recorded and are available on the Original Cast label; the others are Look, Ma, I'm Dancin'! and the just-released Foxy.)

So far, Musicals Tonight! has been doing four shows a year. "This coming season, we'll start doing six," says Miller, "three in the fall [of 2002] and three in the spring [2003]." No body mikes are used, and the concerts feature modest scenery and costuming: "So many people are doubling and tripling roles, they don't have time to get in and out of costumes," Miller laughs, "and my audiences do a great job of mentally putting costumes on actors. At the end of the day, it's fun--for the cast, the creative team, and the audiences."

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