How Musicals Tonight! Digs Deep Into the Archives to Produce Revivals of Lost Work

Interview   How Musicals Tonight! Digs Deep Into the Archives to Produce Revivals of Lost Work
 
Its 20th anniversary season features The Apple Tree, Bells Are Ringing, and the New York premiere of Calamity Jane.
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Mel Miller Marc J. Franklin

It’s a jolt to learn the show-savvy buff behind the Off-Broadway revival series Musicals Tonight!—the man responsible for reviving 90 musicals since 1998—is a civil engineer who’ll sheepishly admit he “always loved the theatre from the outside looking in.”

What got Mel Miller closer was a guy at the gym. “He was involved in theatre, and I was just a suit. We were going to go into an internet business together, and, just for fun, we were going to put up a show. He turned out to be totally bogus and vanished with my money, but I thought, ‘Hey, I know how to write checks. I’ll do the show.’”

That show was a modest reprise of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ musicalization of Three Men on a Horse called Let It Ride!. It rode only 68 performances on Broadway; Miller added 16 more to its New York total with his revival and the show managed to find audiences that appreciated such musical archeology.

Now, at the Lion Theatre in the Theatre Row complex on West 42nd Street, the curtain rises on the 20th season of Musicals Tonight! with Bock & Harnick’s The Apple Tree (October 3–15) and Betty Comden–Adolph Green–Jule Styne’s Bells Are Ringing (October 17–29). In 2018 will be productions of Rodgers & Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse (February 13–25), Porter’s Anything Goes (February 27–March 11), and Fain & Webster’s Calamity Jane (March 13–25).

This marks the first New York appearance for Calamity Jane, a regional perennial based on the Doris Day movie, but it’s hardly the company’s first premiere. Several London hits—Jerome Kern’s 1922 The Cabaret Girl and his 1915 Theodore & Co., Hugh Martin’s 1952 Love From Judy—made their American debuts via Musicals Tonight!. And the series has had at least one world premiere: Noël Coward’s never-produced 1949 Hoi Polloi.

Compared to other revival series uptown (Encores! and Musicals in Mufti), Musicals Tonight! digs deeper in the golden oldies minefield. Miller works out of Rick Simas’ tome, The Musicals No One Came to See, and has personally hit the Yale archives of Harold Rome to assemble a show in tatters: That’s the Ticket. The original starred Jack Carter, Leif Erickson, Kaye Ballard, and George S. Irving, but never got beyond two weeks in Philadelphia in 1948. Miller’s resurrection starred Irving in a more age-appropriate role.

“In fact,” says Miller, “we were honored that George S. Irving did six of our shows.”

The only book musicals of both Fats Waller (Early to Bed) and Vivien Leigh (Tovarich) returned as Musicals Tonight!. The Tovarich songwriters Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell turned over to Miller songs that were beyond Leigh’s musical abilities, and Early to Bed was reconstructed from the memory of a cast member, Harold “Stumpy” Cromer. “He made it happen,” says Miller, “and came to every performance, sat in the front row and got a standing O.” Twenty years and counting, Musicals Tonight!

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