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Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and company in They Wrote That?
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Sometime around 1885, American music publishers began positioning their offices on West 28th Street in Manhattan. Before long, the sound of pianos plunked on the thoroughfare became so cacophonous that some wag remarked it was like people banging on tin pans. Presto! The street's nickname -- Tin Pan Alley -- grabbed the public ear like a catchy tune. By the '50s and '60s, for reasons that music historians are still debating, Tin Pan Alley had moved uptown to 1619 Broadway (known industry-wide as The Brill Building) and 1650 Broadway. It was in those publishing offices where the rock explosion and the singer-songwriter movement began to threaten the basic Tin Pan Alley mission: writers pounding out determinedly commercial songs for radio play and chart-topping record sales.

While Tin Pan Alley was under siege then (and today is all but defunct), there were still a number of hard-working artisans in those days. Some of the most important were signed to contracts by Don Kirshner and Al Nevins, who had formed Aldon Music. Kirshner, known eventually as "the man with the golden ear," heard ringing cash registers when three teams in particular brightened his doorway: Carole King-Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka-Howard Greenfield, and Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil.

Now, Mann and Weil -- who claim that their "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" was the most-played song of the 20th century (take that, Irving Berlin and "White Christmas") -- are fondly looking back on their startling career in They Wrote That? The Songs of Mann and Weil. They seem to have taken this tack in part because they want to explain to the public that they're every bit as important in the songwriting department as far more recognizable names like Porter, Mercer, Arlen, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim, and the Gershwin brothers; as the revue unfolds, they chat off-handedly about their anonymity but don't seem entirely pleased about it.

Whether the longtime husband-and-wife team is on a truly vaunted plane will be briefly addressed below, but not before this enterprise gets the once-over. The songs are the show's reason for being, of course, and almost every one of them is a knockout. They exhibit the sturdy, striving, insistent melodies that Mann has composed since he was in his late teens and the savvy, street-smart lyrics that Weil set to those magnetic tunes since she was about the same age.

Although Weil and Mann often wrote with collaborators like Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, Lionel Richie, Tom Snow, James Horner, David Foster, and Phil Spector, the songs they wrote on their own include "Blame It on the Bossa Nova," "Just a Little Loving," "Never Gonna Let You Go," "Soul and Inspiration," "Uptown," ""Walking in the Rain," "Just Once," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," and "Make Your Own Kind of Music." (The last-named song ends this retrospective.) These and others have translated into eye-popping BMI royalty statements: With the cash that Weil pocketed for licensing "Running With the Night" (written with Richie) alone, she bought herself a Mercedes!

It has to be kept in mind, though, that these songs were written to be recorded and not necessarily performed in a live theatrical setting -- other than, of course, on concert and arena stages. Presenting them in a revue format is a different matter. No quarrel with the five-man band under the direction of guitarist Fred Mollin; a jumping-jack of fellow, Mollin even manages a thrilling approximation of Phil Spector's famous and fabulous wall of sound on "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." His abettors are keyboardist Charlie Giordano, bassist Paul Ossola, electric guitarist Steve Tarshis and drummer Denny McDermott. (No one ever explains why the "g" is dropped from "Lovin'" but not "Feeling.")

Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Less successful are the singers, of whom Weil only adds the occasional "ooo-ooo" to those provided by backup singers Deb Lyons, Moeisha McGill and Jenelle Lynn Randall. These women get the chance to show their twittering skills in a chick-hit medley (musical staging by Kurt Stamm) during which Lyons deftly demonstrates her understanding that interpretation is a necessity when bringing songs to the stage. Randall and McGill (who has the range of a Minnie Riperton) are fine but don't seem interested in stepping beyond girl-group boundaries.

Then there are Weil and Mann as purveyors of their own goods. As mentioned above, Weil does restrict herself to those "ooo-ooos" and other backup utterances. Mann -- who, as Weil keeps informing the audience, has always longed for an elusive career as "a singer-songwriter with something to say" -- is surprisingly ineffective on many of the songs. He's got a gravelly baritone that clearly was helpful on the many demo records he cut, but it never seems to occur to him or to director Richard Maltby, Jr. that audiences like to be looked at by a singer and, furthermore, that songs express emotions which should cross a singer's face and charge his physique. Instead, Mann sits sideways at the piano and sings directly into a microphone as if he were in a recording studio.

True, Neil Patel's set is meant to look like a studio, with baffles and a "recording" sign that lights up; but Mann doesn't have to take things so damned literally. (Heather Carson supplied the dark lighting and Peter Fitzgerald the crystal-clear sound but no one is credited with the consistently black outfits). He does make a few of the intimate songs work better than others -- e.g., "Don't Know Much" (which the pair penned with Tom Snow), "Just Once" (which James Ingram belts only marginally better in a hit recording), and "Sometimes When We Touch." But Mann's general attitude, even when he steps away from the keyboard, seems to be: "Wrote 'em, no need to emote 'em."

Because Mann does most of the singing, Weil does most of the talking -- about how the two met, how they dream up a song, etc. But she never gives the impression that she's comfortable doing so, and that doesn't go a long way towards making an audience comfortable. While there's nothing wrong with continuity being scripted down to the merest aside, the notion should be to make it all sound spontaneous -- in musical terms, like a riff. Weil can't manage that; instead, her arms keep jerking up and down and she has the habit of making a curious lip-smacking sound after many remarks.

Nevertheless, the songs remain, and they're like banners held high. For a couple of decades, Weil and Mann crafted tunes and lyrics that enticed the record-buying public. It's an admirable gift but, at the same time one that has its limitations. While chasing hits, Weil and Mann never appear to have chased a joint artistic vision. That may explain why they never achieved the name recognition of Porter, Berlin, et al.

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