They Wrote That, and That, and That...
Barbara & Scott on the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil songfest and yet another cabaret artist from Down Under.
More of a cabaret act than a musical theater piece, the show is a vehicle that puts a face (or rather two faces) to songs that are mostly associated with the stars who turned them into hits. This sort of thing abounds in clubs like Feinstein's at the Regency, the Oak Room, and others when composers like Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Alan Bergman, Michel Legrand, etc. put on shows that feature their work. In a way, the theater setting makes more sense for this show because of the bigger (and louder) instrumentation needed to create (or recreate) the sounds of the original hits. And what hits!
Mann and Weil wrote what they claim to be the most performed song of the 20th century, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." They also wrote our own favorite Righteous Brothers classic, "Soul & Inspiration." But then, they seem to have written for almost everyone except the Beatles, and we don't make that reference lightly. They began their career before the British Invasion but, unlike so many other American artists who were derailed by the onslaught of the Fab Four and their pop countrymen, Mann and Weil counterattacked by writing hits for distinctly American groups like Paul Revere and the Raiders. We were stunned to realize that they wrote yet another of our favorite pop hits, "Only in America" by Jay and the Americans; it wasn't the only time that the title of the show came to our minds unbidden.
The songs in They Wrote That? are not presented in chronological order; the story jumps back and forth in time in order to allow for a more dramatic arc. No quarrel there. Smarter still is the attitude of the piece, which manages to elicit a certain sympathy for two people who are obviously very rich, very powerful, and endlessly successful. Mann and Weil pull it off by establishing from the beginning that each of them has an as-yet-unfilfilled dream. Barry Mann always wanted to be a pop star in his own right and has tried and failed countless times to make his own mark; Cynthia Weil originally wanted to write for the theater but got sidetracked (however happily) into the world of pop music. These two threads pay off smartly at the end of the show.
The show's most immediate problem, however, is that it's narrated by Weil. She may be a great lyricist but she ain't no actress. Stilted and awkward, she nonetheless ultimately gets away with her performance strictly on the basis of being the real deal. Mann doesn't talk as much but he does perform -- and quite credibly. There's a wonderfully raspy growl in his voice that, at least, gives the impression that he's interpreting the lyrics he sings.
They Wrote That? follows the Mann-Weil career through Hollywood (the song they wrote for An American Tail, "Somewhere Out There," was nominated for an Oscar and won two Grammys) and their experiences writing hits for the likes of Lionel Richie and Dolly Parton. It takes us right up to the present with a stirring preview of a song from the much-anticipated musical they're writing based on the movie Mask. If you're a child of the '60s, you probably grew up (and grew old) with the songs of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil -- whether you know it or not.
The string of talented cabaret performers coming to New York from Down Under has yet to be broken: Hayden Tee (who is actually from New Zealand) joins a list that includes Judi Connelli, David Campbell, Kane Alexander, Tim Draxl, Shaun Rennie, and other Australians who have demonstrated a consistently high level of artistry. In Tee's case, this wasn't immediately apparent. He arrived here with two separate shows and the first one was a decidedly unpleasant affair based on a successful act from home that he tried to transplant to New York: In The Mufti Show, Tee played an obnoxious character who interviews celebrities. Though he managed to get an amazing number of major cabaret and theater performers to participate, it simply did not work.
Happily, when he played himself rather than this boorish Mufti character in his other show, Tee was a revelation. Possessing a strong and pleasing voice, he turned out to be sensitive, charming, and quite funny. He has a big personality and he can go over the top, particularly in comedy, but the raw talent of this 23-year-old kid is impressive. Now all he needs is a little more polish. We look forward to seeing him again when he returns to these shores.