Jim Morgan, artistic director of Manhattan’s York Theatre Company, says he’s relieved that he’s not called on to explain the term “mufti” too often these days.
Six years ago, when Morgan and his mentor, the late Janet Hayes Walker, launched the York’s series Musicals in Mufti, playgoers complained that they didn’t know that word. Morgan spent much of the 1990s telling people that “mufti” is an Eastern Indian noun of Arabic origin, conscripted long ago by the British army to refer to civilian attire worn by persons who generally dress in a uniform.
On Friday, January 12, the York unveils the Winter 2001 edition of Musicals in Mufti. This three-week season of concert performances will be the ninth set of underappreciated musicals performed by York since spring 1994–that’s 24 shows so far, with five performances each. If this edition of Mufti follows the pattern of the recent past, tickets are likely to be much in demand and empty seats unusual.
From 1994 to 1998, Musicals in Mufti came but once a year. By the end of the 1990s, however, Walker and Morgan had made rescuing neglected musicals an essential part of the York’s mission, and Mufti had become an established feature of each New York theater season. With audience enthusiasm soaring, the York’s board of directors decided to add concert presentations of three more underappreciated musicals to the company’s agenda in 2000. That experiment succeeded, so audiences may count on
enjoying Mufti in both autumn and winter from here on out.
This winter’s Mufti offerings may be seen between January 12 and 28. First up is Celebration by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, directed by Drew Scott Harris, with musical direction by John Mulcahy. Next comes Baker Street by Jerome Coopersmith, Marian Grudeff, and Raymond Jessel, directed by Richard Sabellico (musical director to be announced). The mini-season ends with Carmen Jones, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II with music from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, directed by Harold Scott and with musical direction by Jack Lee.
The York, which advertises itself as “One of a Kind for Over 30 Years,” was founded by Walker, a classically-trained soprano who appeared on Broadway in the original companies of The Music Man, Camelot, Plain and Fancy, and Anyone Can Whistle. (She understudied Barbara Cook in The Music Man and Julie Andrews in Camelot.) The company’s first and longtime home was the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue at East 90th Street; the York’s “mainstage” productions moved to The Theater at Saint Peter’s in 1992, though the first Mufti presentations were uptown at Heavenly Rest.
Morgan has been working at York since 1974, when he graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in theater and specialization in scenic design. “The York was my graduate school,” he recalls. “I designed posters, ran lights, helped build and paint scenery.” Most of all, he designed sets–beginning with Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall, which Walker directed in the spring of 1975. Eventually, Morgan became the company’s resident designer.
For many years, he and Walker worked hand-in-glove to build the York into the artistically adventuresome organization it is today. “Janet and I found that, from an artistic point of view, we were very much in sync,” he recalls. “Just starting out in this industry, I was delighted to find a mentor who shared my taste in musical theater. I worked with her as much as possible, and I was incredibly lucky to be able to do so.” Morgan officially became the York’s associate artistic director in 1993, though he had been acting in that capacity for a number of years. When Walker died in 1997, Morgan became artistic director.
During the Walker years, the York was known for full-scale revivals of such outstanding but infrequently produced Broadway musicals as The Golden Apple, The Grass Harp, Merrily We Roll Along, The Baker’s Wife, and Pacific Overtures. Under Morgan’s administration, the company presents fully staged productions of new musicals, with worthy shows from the past offered in concert form in the Mufti series. Panel discussions following matinee performances allow Mufti audiences to learn more about these neglected shows from the York casts and production staff–and, often, from the musicals’ original creators. According to Morgan, “What makes us unique in this city, and almost anywhere in the country, is our dual emphasis on new and old musicals. There are theater companies that do only old musicals, and there are a few places that do only new musicals. The York is committed to both.
“Musicals in Mufti was Janet’s idea,” Morgan continues. “Her purpose was to showcase interesting works that hadn’t been seen in a while. Our first Mufti was The Grass Harp by Kenward Elmslie and Claibe Richardson; York had done the first New York revival of that show some years before, and we wanted to give it another shot. The Mufti format–concerts of the entire work with top-notch performers and just a few design elements–was the perfect way to do so.”
Musicals in Mufti predated the premiere of City Center Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert. Morgan is quick to point out that Mufti and Encores! complement each other rather than being in competition: Encores! concentrates on the music of its shows, richly performed by the Coffee Club Orchestra. Scripts, on the other hand, have generally been streamlined for Encores! presentation by high-profile playwrights such as David Ives and Nicky Silver. By contrast, Mufti preserves the entire original text of its musicals, unless the authors undertake revisions themselves (or unless an author’s estate indicates that something ought to be removed or reassembled). At Mufti, the musical accompaniment is generally a single piano played by the music director, and the ensemble is small compared to the large choruses employed by Encores!.
Casting a backward glance over the 24 works presented in Mufti thus far, Morgan remarks, “These are shows that have been underappreciated. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were flops; and, by the way, we don’t ever use the ‘f’ word. Some Mufti shows were very successful in their first incarnations–for instance, Carmen Jones and Wish You Were Here [by Harold Rome, Arthur Kober and Joshua Logan]. These are shows that audiences loved but that just don’t get produced very often any more. They’re in danger of never being done again if people like us don’t do them.”
Asked to list high points in Mufti history, Morgan mentions Carmelina by Alan Jay Lerner, Burton Lane, Joseph Stein, and Barry Harman. “I loved that production,” he says. “It came together so beautifully, with Debbie Gravitte and P.J. Benjamin. I’m also very proud of The Human Comedy [by Galt MacDermot and William Dumaresq], Beggar’s Holiday [by Duke Ellington, John LaTouche, and Dale Wasserman], and the four shows we’ve done by Betty Comden and Adolph Green [Billion Dollar Baby, A Doll’s Life, Fade Out-Fade In, and Hallelujah, Baby!]. Then there was The Girl Who Came to Supper [by Noël Coward and Harry Kurnitz]. We put that score back together; it simply didn’t exist anymore, and we re-constructed it.” (Note: The Mufti version of Billion Dollar Baby has just been issued on compact disc.)
Last January, Mufti created a sensation with 70, Girls, 70 by John Kander, Fred Ebb, David Thompson, and Norman L. Martin. Featuring an all-star cast headed by Charlotte Rae, Jane Powell, George S. Irving, Mimi Hines, and Jane Connell, not to mention a first-rate score by two of Broadway’s leading lights, the show became New York’s hottest ticket for January 2000 and enhanced exponentially the visibility of Musicals in Mufti.
In September 2000, Mufti presented its first Richard Rodgers musical: Rex, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and book by Sherman Yellen. This month, the series offers its first Hammerstein show. “We’re privileged and incredibly excited to be doing Carmen Jones,” says Morgan. “It’s a legendary classic of American musical theater, and a landmark in Mr. Hammerstein’s career. Having a Hammerstein musical at York is especially gratifying in light of the fact that, each spring, our company presents the Oscar Hammerstein Award for outstanding lifetime achievement in musical theater.” (Recent recipients of the Hammerstein Award include Comden and Green, Jerry Herman, Arthur Laurents, David Merrick, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, and Peter Stone.)
Thanks to Morgan and the York, New Yorkers now know what “mufti” means. As the concert series goes into its seventh year, most of the New York theater community knows the significance of Musicals in Mufti as well. For anyone who doesn’t, Morgan puts it succinctly: “We revive these shows very simply, with a bare stage, a few chairs, a couple of props, maybe even a hat or two, a wonderful music director at the piano, and a fine stage director to pull it all together. To cap it off, we give the cast five glorious, fun-filled days of rehearsal.”
Looking at things from the other side of the footlights, Musicals in Mufti offers theatergoers a chance to enjoy seldom-seen treasures of the American theater brought to life by some of the country’s most talented performers, at ticket prices substantially below the Broadway rate. The success of the past seven years indicates that, where musicals are
concerned, “mufti” is dressy enough.