Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Fall Drought, Spring Flood

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Fall Drought, Spring Flood A YEAR BETWEEN MUSICALS
Many have noted that this spring will bring to Broadway an unusually large number of new musicals. Six appear to be absolutely set: In order of opening date, they are Play On!, Dream, Titanic, Steel Pier, Jekyll & Hyde, and The Life.
http://images.playbill.com/photo/n/e/ne_87897.gif

A YEAR BETWEEN MUSICALS
Many have noted that this spring will bring to Broadway an unusually large number of new musicals. Six appear to be absolutely set: In order of opening date, they are Play On!, Dream, Titanic, Steel Pier, Jekyll & Hyde, and The Life.

The last four titles (along with the revival of "Candide") will be opening in the space of a week. Titanic and Steel Pier are scheduled to begin previews on the same night across the street from each other. And at least one other musical, Triumph of Love, remains a strong possibility.

But two aspects of the situation have been less commented upon. First is the fact that an entire season of new musicals is opening in a period of less than six weeks, from March 20 (Play On!'s opening night) to April 30 (The Life); by March, the Broadway musical season will have consisted of just two revivals, Chicago and Once Upon A Mattress.

Then too, when Play On! opens, it will have been close to a year since the last new Broadway musical (Rent, which had its uptown premiere on April 29,1996) arrived. If one looks back on Broadway seasons past, it's virtually unheard of to find a gap of almost 11 months between the openings of new Broadway musicals.

Of course, the crowding of titles near the end of the season has a great deal to do with the desire for Tony Award nominations. But it's highly unusual to see a season with perhaps seven new musicals, none of which opened before the final weeks of the season. Whatever happened to those wonderful fall musicals like Legs Diamond, The Red Shoes, Nick and Nora, A Doll's Life, and Roza?


GOODBYE LIZA?
As Liza Minnelli completes her scheduled four-week engagment today (Feb. 2) as vacation sub for Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria, I'd like to make two final comments, neither one concerning the highly amusing Minnelli-Tony Roberts contretemps which saw to it that, even in a relatively brief run, Minnelli achieved front-page-scandal status.

First, I should note that, even with dozens of ads for her run in newspapers and magazines, there is no official printed record of her stay: As was the case when Minnelli stepped into the original Broadway production of Chicago in 1975, the Playbill was not altered to reflect her appearance (although it did reflect the textual changes made for that appearance).

ActorsO Equity asks that when an understudy substitutes, two out of a possible three things be done to notify the audience: a sign in the lobby, a loudspeaker announcement, or a slip in the program. For Minnelli, the sign was up (as if anyone attending needed to be told whom they would be seeing center stage), and just before the overture, an announcement was made that, "At this performance, the role of Victoria, usually played by Julie Andrews, will be played by Liza Minnelli."

For both substitute engagements, it was Minnelli's decision not to have the regular star removed from the program during Minnelli's stay. This show of modesty, while admirable, was, I feel, somewhat less appropriate this time out than it was in '75, simply because the Chicago run was a hastily announced, nearly last-minute substitution; the V/V engagement was advertised for months in print, on TV and radio, and even on taxicabs, so there was really no good reason not to alter the program as well.

The night I attended, the people to my right, who had already seen the show with Andrews, were positively grumpy that there was no Liza Playbill to take home and place next to the Julie Playbill.

My other Liza thought: Prior to this run, Minnelli had said that she doubted that she would ever again play eight shows a week in a Broadway musical. Was her final performance in V/V the last time she will ever be seen in New York in a book show? And for that matter, will she ever play V/V again, on tour or as Andrews' replacement in New York? Stay tuned for future bulletins on the ever unpredictable Liza.


PREVIEW DAY:
In one 24-hour period this week, I enjoyed an hour of musical theatre previews, breaking down into 50 minutes of the new musical Steel Pier, fully staged for an invited audience at a rehearsal hall on West 61st Street; and 10 minutes of Whoopi Goldberg in two numbers from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the St. James.

I wouldn't dare review either event on the basis of what I saw, but I can confidently state that both advance peeks were extremely auspicious. At Steel Pier, the audience was given a very generous helping--five sequences comprising seven songs--beginning with the stunning 20-minute opening sequence, with marvelously complex and intricate staging by director Scott Ellis and choreographer Susan Stroman that called to mind Grand Hotel and Ballroom. We got to hear Rita (Karen Ziemba)'s opening song, "Willing To Ride," seguing into the first marathon sequence, featuring the songs "Dance!" (Gregory Harrison as Mick, the marathan emcee) and "Second Chance" (discovery Daniel McDonald as Bill, with Ziemba); the sequence combining "Dance With Me" (Mick and Rita, who are secretly husband and wife, this information revealed to the audience early on) and "The Last Girl I'll Ever Love" (Bill); a scene on the pier for Bill and Rita ("All Wet"); Shelby (Debra Monk)'s radio specialty, "Everybody's Girl"; and Rita's dream sequence, "When You Leave The World Behind," which becomes a fantasy tap number, with the female dancers hoofing on the wing of Bill's plane. Can't wait to see the rest of the show, and all of it with the designs of Tony Walton, William Ivey Long, and Peter Kaczorowski.

As for La Goldberg, it's already clear that she's going to have a grand time in Forum, and the audience will have likewise watching her. Goldberg and company (on the set but without costumes and orchestra) performed "Comedy Tonight" and "Free"; the latter had several lyric revisions, feminizing the character and even the slave she hopes to have ("Can you see her? Well, I'll free her"), and the former gives Goldberg much new, bawdy business. Goldberg looks irresistible, and anyone worrying about her singing voice need have no fear.


RANDOM NOTES
Before it was ever staged, the musical Chess was a concept album; Elaine Paige took the female lead, and playing the wife of the Russian chess champ was Barbara Dickson, who earlier had sung "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" on the original Evita concept album and starred in the original 1983 London production of Blood Brothers. Paige and Dickson had a hit record with the "I Know Him So Well" duet from the double-LP/CD, but while Paige went on to star in the 1986 London stage version, Dickson did not. But Dickson is returning to the stage in Paige's role of Florence in the new Australian production of Chess, opening Feb. 19 at the Princess Theater in Melbourne. She will thus be singing the other half of the "I Know Him So Well" duet, and joining her in that number will be Delia Hannah, who (in the small world that is international musical theatre) played Dickson's Blood Brothers role in Australia, as well as playing Rose in the Australian "Aspects of Love."

Musical Theater Works has had a busy January, including presentations of three musical works-in-progress. Judy Blazer, Audra McDonald, and Beth Fowler did the reading of The Mistress Cycle, the work of Jenny Giering (music) and Beth Blatt (book and lyrics), directed by Ted Sperling. The Haunted Hotel, the work of Romance/Romance authors Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann, featured Alison Fraser, Jill Geddes, Danny Burstein, David McDonald, Paul Jackel, Matthew Bogart, Nick Wyman, Peter Flynn, and Debra Ostrovsky, under the direction of Steven Dexter.

And Yasmine Alers and Rodney Hicks of Rent, along with Hunter Foster, Tracey Nicole Chapman, and Stephen Bienskie, were in Dexter's staged reading of Hell Can Be Heaven, written by Hereward Kaye (Moby Dick) and Stephen Clark (Martin Guerre).

It looks like London is not destined to see a Bob Fosse Chicago, or even a semblance thereof. Perhaps because the London critics harshly dismissed Fosse's production of Pippin when it was brought to Her Majesty's Theatre in 1973, no British producer thought to import Fosse's Chicago direct from Broadway in the mid-'70s; instead, Chicago got to the West End in 1979 in a regional production from the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. That production, directed by Peter James and choreographed by Gillian Gregory, ran about a year, and had Antonia Ellis (and later Elizabeth Seal), Jenny Logan, and Ben Cross in the leads. For Christmas 1997, Chicago will return to London but will once again bypass an acclaimed New York production--one that features choreography "in the style of" Fosse--in favor of a homegrown one: Sam Mendes will stage it at the Donmar Warehouse.

To last week's list of forthcoming cast recordings, add Varese Sarabande for the new Broadway musical Play On! and TER for the London cast recording of Romance/Romance.

While I have no definite news yet on casting for the Los Angeles production of Ragtime, a clue might be provided by mentioning a few performers who appeared in Toronto readings and workshops of the show prior to the full scale production that opened there in December. Timothy Jerome has played Father (Mark Jacoby's part in the current Toronto cast), and LaChanze, who made her name in another Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical, Once On This Island, was Sarah (Audra McDonald's current role) in one of the workshops. Judy Kaye played Emma Goldman (Camille Saviola is now playing the role), and Gabriel Barre has done Harry Houdini (now Jim Corti). Perhaps most tantalizing of all, the role of Mother, in which Marin Mazzie is so superb in the current Toronto version, was taken at one of the readings by Mazzie's Passion co-star, Donna Murphy.


THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK:
RCA Victor's cast recording of the current, ragingly successful revival of Chicago is the show's third cast album. First, of course, was Arista's 1975 original Broadway cast recording, recently re reissued on CD (an earlier 1990 CD issue went out of print when the Bay Cities label folded). There's also a fine Polydor cast recording of the 1981 Australian production, with Nancye Hayes (Australia's Sweet Charity) as Roxie and Geraldine Turner as Velma.

What's great about the new Broadway recording is that it takes full advantage of CD length, offering 20 minutes more material than the '75 New York set, and much that was previously unrecorded, including the complete dance music, the song "I Know A Girl," and longer versions of many of the numbers. And, unlike many recent revivals (and perhaps because this revival began as a City Center OEncores!O concert), everything is heard in the original, masterful Ralph Burns orchestrations. Show fans and collectors will love having all the additional material, although they will note the omission of the speech that precedes "Roxie" that was included on the first recording, and that the entr'acte for this production was not heard in the original.

Although the disc cannot provide the vivid stage presences and snazzy stepping of leading ladies Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth, they come across well, as do the other potent leads, James Naughton, Joel Grey, and Marcia Lewis. And thanks to Bill Rosenfield, RCA's musical theatre A&R director, whose liner notes, unlike many reviews of this production, point out the strengths of the original Chicago and state that this revival--a bigger hit than the original ever was--does not negate that original. Now one can only wonder when RCA will get around to reissuing on CD another Reinking-Grey cast album from its vaults, Goodtime Charley.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
In 1963, Julie Harris starred on Broadway in a play with music that was set, like Steel Pier, at a 1933 marathon dance competition. Name the show and its author.

Answer to last week's question: Jerry Orbach and the ladies of the ensemble performed "All I Care About" on the 1976 Tony Awards.


ASK KEN
Caralyn in Connecticut asks: What are the future plans for Andersson and Ulvaeus' Kristina? I have the recording and there seems to be a lot of promise there. Will there be a translation and subsequent English production?
KM: Kristina Fran Duvemala is the new musical by Chess authors Benny Andersson (music) and Bjorn Ulvaeus (lyrics). It had its premiere on October 7, 1995 in Malmo, Sweden, where it continues to be a huge hit. The three-CD cast recording (in Swedish) reveals that the score is frequently exquisite; as befits the emotional story of Swedish immigrants to Minnesota, the score avoids the pop sounds so appropriate for the action of Chess and instead has a far more operatic, lyrical quality. I have heard that there are plans for a translation, a U.S. concert version (I believe there already was a prelimary one in Minnesota), and an eventual U.S. mounting. Major Broadway scenic designer Robin Wagner did the sets for the Swedish production.

Elliott Zucker of NY, NY asks: Some questions concerning upcoming (?) CD releases: 1) I seem to remember that, some years ago, you wrote in one of your Theater Week columns that TER was going to record the Vineyard Theater production of Juno. Did this ever happen? Will TER or Jay ever release it? Since Sony seems to have abandoned their reissuing duties, I figured this might be my only way to get a recording of the score. 2) Whatever happened to the Original Cast Records recording of Mata Hari?
KM: Original Cast Records did record Mata Hari, and, like the recording of Breakfast at Tiffany's that I discussed here last week, it still awaits release. Plans to record the Vineyard revival of Juno were dropped, so we will have to wait for a reissue of the glorious Columbia original Broadway cast recording. It does appear that while companies like Sony have stopped reissuing show titles from their catalogues, they are reluctant to allow other companies who wish to put such recordings out to do so.

LuvDracula asks: Song and Dance was filmed for the BBC and broadcast, starring Sarah Brightman and Wayne Sleep--the recording announced there was a video made of it for commercial sale. When I was in England a couple of years back, I was told it was out of print, and I couldn't find a used one anywhere. Do you know if, with the success of Webber and Brightman, there is a chance that Polydor might release it in the States, or if PBS has any plans to show it on US televison?
KM: While the London production of Song and Dance at the Palace Theatre starred Marti Webb, Gemma Craven, Lulu, and Liz Robertson in succession, it was taped for television shortly after its closing with Sarah Brightman in the lead, although Brightman had not played the role during the run. The tape was aired on British TV and released on a now-deleted video. I doubt that this tape will ever be aired here (and while I enjoy Brightman's work, this is not her best outing).

Michael Adams asks: In light of the record companies that pull reissued CDs (relatively) soon after their release--the Bernstein Peter Pan comes to mind--are there any that face imminent extinction from the catalogue? Similarly, are there some which have become collector's items already? Thanks.
KM: Don't know which ones are endangered, but a number of show CDs are now out of print. Mentioned above is the first CD issue of Chicago, which was a top collectors item until the second one appeared a couple of months ago. Columbia Special Products issued House of Flowers and Li'l Abner all too briefly. Woman of the Year and the London cast of Children of Eden are now also scarce CDs, and perhaps readers can mention other endangered or already deleted titles. Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com