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The Telephone Hours

Phone calls from Heather Mac Rae, David Lansbury, and other colorful figures interrupt Filichia's reading. logo

Heather Mac Rae
I was in heaven. Ethan Mordden's new book, Open a New Window: The Broadway Musical in the 1960s, had arrived. I'd been counting the days like a kid till Christmas for this book and almost broke its spine from opening it so fast.

I started reading about Greenwillow, that most atypical Frank Loesser musical about denizens of a rustic town, and hoped that Mordden would notice what I did several years ago: that every song except "Coulda Been a Ring" has a melisma in it. (Do you know what a melisma is? It's when a syllable or word is stretched over two or more notes. Best example: "Where-air-air-air-air is love?" from Oliver!) Now, given that using a melisma is considered a less than desirable move in songwriting--and that Loesser rarely did it in any other show--what kind of statement was he making by having the folksy inhabitants of Greenwillow using melismas? Maybe Mordden had a theory.

But before I could find it, the phone rang. It was Bill Schmalfeldt, who runs On Broadway Channel 28 for XM Satellite Radio. If you want to buy a receiver for about $250 and then are willing to pay $9.99 a month, you can hear show music 24 hours a day--which, to my mind, is the recommended daily dose. (Actually, the $9.99 entitles you to about 100 other channels of other types of music, though why you'd want to bother with them, I'll never know.)

Schmalfeldt told me that he was born in Iowa and went to school in North Dakota, but he still managed to become a theater fan through playing the Richard Burton role in a high school production of The Robe. He then joined the Navy and, while other sailors spent their nights drinking and whoring, he'd instead get cast, rehearse, and appear in community theater productions near wherever the ship was docked. He felt that he made a damn good king in Once Upon a Mattress in Hanford, California. After that, he did everything from newspaper writing to long-haul truck driving, but last year he answered an ad that XM Satellite Radio had placed for a Broadway deejay--and he got the job. He called me in the middle of a sequence of songs from Annie, Ragtime, Best Little Whorehouse (with Ann-Margret), A Chorus Line, Wonderful Town, and Jesus Christ Superstar, which sounds like a nice, eclectic lineup to me. Check out what he's doing at

Okay, back to Mordden--who, as it turns out, did not comment on all those melismas in Greenwillow. But just as I was starting his analysis of Bye Bye Birdie, wouldn't you know that the phone rang again? This time it was Lea DeLaria's publicist; she wanted to know if I had a good time listening to the lady at Joe's Pub last week. I had to admit that, while I did, I was a little chagrined that DeLaria said over and over that she really loved jazz much more than show music and that Broadway was merely her day job. What a slap in the face to all of us! And here's the thing: Almost everything DeLaria sang came from Broadway--numbers from the LaChiusa Wild Party, Chicago, City of Angels, even Sweeney Todd. Still, I said I'd give the show a mention in my column, mostly so I could get off the phone and get back to the book.

I roared when I got to Mordden's questions concerning Tommy Tune's casting as Albert Peterson, the man who holds the key to Rosie's heart, in that Birdie revival of a decade ago. Here's the way Mordden put it: "Isn't Tommy Tune a bit too...well, successful for the role?" In the middle of my titanic fit of laughter, the phone rang again; though I tried to stifle my guffaw, it still corrupted my hello. The caller was Heather Mac Rae, who's just released her new album Songs for My Father on Harbinger Records. Here, she sings songs from Oklahoma!, Carousel, Tea for Two, and other films in which her daddy Gordon Mac Rae starred. Damned good disc, by the way.

Well, you know me: I had to hear about Mac Rae's involvement with Here's Where I Belong, the 1968 one-performance flop whose two wordsmiths would go on to win six Tonys, one Pulitzer, and one Oscar between them. Yes, the book for this flop musical version of East of Eden was written by Terrence McNally (though he did take his name off of it before opening night) and the lyrics by Alfred Uhry, who later did better with Parade, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and Driving Miss Daisy. Mac Rae admitted she had a bit of an advantage in getting a part in Here's Where I Belong because her mother, entertainer Sheila Mac Rae, knew Michael Kahn, who was directing the show. He gave her the role of Abra, the part that Julie Harris played in the 1955 film: the girlfriend of no less than James Dean.

"I thought the show was really wonderful," Mac Rae said, "but I did feel as time was going on that it was getting too big. They wanted it to be a big Broadway extravaganza and it didn't lend itself to that. It was almost an operetta. From the first day of rehearsals, it lost its sensitive moments and intimacy." Still, the experience wasn't a total loss for Mac Rae. The actor playing Dean's role was Walter McGinn and, just as their characters did in the show, the two genuinely fell in love. "We moved in together and even got a dog," Mac Rae said. "We went down to Florida to watch my mother tape The Jackie Gleason Show. Sitting on the beach with Walter is one of my all-time favorite memories."

Kate Burton and David Lansbury
in Hedda Gabler
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Okay, lovely--but that book was waiting for me. I eventually did get back to it and was impressed with Mordden's observation that, in Bye Bye Birdie, Kim's father rails against Conrad Birdie and rock 'n' roll in the song "Kids" but that composer Charles Strouse shrewdly chose to set these sentiments to a Charleston--"Which," notes the ever-astute Mordden, "was the rock 'n' roll of the father's youth." And when I was reading about the artistry of Birdie's "The Telephone Hour," my telephone rang. Again! This time it was David Lansbury, who plays Eilert Lovborg in the current Hedda Gabler at the Ambassador.

Now, I know that David Lansbury is Angela Lansbury's nephew, but I sure didn't want to bring that up right away. So, instead I asked: "Um, are you, uh, related to...Edgar?" Well, of course that surprised him. But Edgar Lansbury--David's father--has been a hero to me ever since he took the chance of opening a serious play in the last week of May in 1964. The play, which had something like a $20 advance sale, was The Subject Was Roses. It went on to get great reviews and win a Tony and a Pulitzer. Later, Edgar L. co-produced Godspell.

David said he never thought of following in his father's footsteps and becoming a producer. In fact, he didn't even want to be an actor. But when his dad was producing Waiting for Godot in 1971 at Sheridan Square, an understudy was needed to play the boy who comes on at the end of each act. Ten-year-old David was elected. The kid loved the experience, so his mother made a big point of telling him that, if he wanted to pursue it, he'd have to leave school and go to another. And he'd really have to apply himself, because it was awfully tough. Today, David believes that his mother was purposely trying to talk him out of it. For all the good it did.

Eventually, I did come around to asking about Angela Lansbury--which led to David's telling me a heartbreaking story. Turns out that, when Ms. Lansbury was cast in Mame, she wanted her hair to be the exact same tow-headed color of her nephew. David got a generous piece of his hair cut so that the hair dyers could assess it and match it perfectly. "So," I said, "when you went to see Mame, you were about six. Did you say to yourself, 'I want to be up there playing Young Patrick?' " He replied: "Actually, they never took me to see the show."

"What?" I roared. "You gave them the hair off your head and they wouldn't even give you a couple of comps?!" I felt so bad for the poor soul that I almost wanted to send him my copy of Open a New Window--which, after all, takes its title from a song from the same Mame that was denied him. But, hey, charity begins at home. And besides, he told me that he did catch his aunt in the 1983 revival, so my pity abated.

Betty Buckley
Back to the book! And just as I found myself nodding at Mordden's trenchant observation that the characters in Irma La Douce "are, to an extent, the people of The Threepenny Opera" know what happened. This time it was Betty Buckley's publicist asking if all had gone well when I interviewed the lady the other day. Well, in fact, all had not gone well, for I had said something that I thought was totally innocent but she considered "inappropriate" and it was not our finest hour together. Explaining this, though, would take many lines of text.

Good Lord! This weekend, please: Nobody call me. I'm pulling the plug out of the wall anyway, so I can read Open a New Window in utter tranquillity. I hope to let you know what I think of it come Monday.


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

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