Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Forecast: A Hot August

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Forecast: A Hot August [Editor's Note: Join Ken Mandelbaum live 8 to 9:30 PM (ET) Thursday May 29, as he inaugurates Playbill On-Line's website chat feature, answering your questions about June 1 Tony Awards. Playbill chat, previously available only on America Online, will launch on the internet that day.]

[Editor's Note: Join Ken Mandelbaum live 8 to 9:30 PM (ET) Thursday May 29, as he inaugurates Playbill On-Line's website chat feature, answering your questions about June 1 Tony Awards. Playbill chat, previously available only on America Online, will launch on the internet that day.]

Some of our younger readers may be surprised to find that this August will see the openings of three major New York productions; two of them are important musical revivals, one Tony-eligible, the other a strong possibility for Broadway transfer if things go well.

The surprise would be owing to the fact that recent summers have not seen the openings of any major Broadway or potential-Broadway musical productions. But in addition to the Roundabout's Misalliance (at the Laura Pels space, and thus officially Off-Broadway), the Roundabout will present 1776 (previews begin in July, with an opening in August), and the New York Shakespeare Festival will present On The Town at the Delacorte in Central Park from July 31 to August 31, with the official opening in August. Surely this On The Town, the first major local revival of the show since the 1971 Broadway production, to be directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by Eliot Feld, is a strong Broadway prospect (and rumor has it that Charles Busch has been among those auditioning to play female taxi driver Hildy).

While nothing quite as major as 1776 and On The Town has opened in any recent August, it was not so long ago--the '80s, to be exact--that several major musical productions chose mid-to-late summer openings. And unlike the August '97 shows, these were all new musicals, not revivals, and all commercial productions.

In August 1980, David Merrick opened his blockbuster 42nd Street after a bizarre series of on-again-off-again previews that had show fans buzzing and not knowing from night to night if the show would play or not. The August 25 premiere is, of course, the now legendary one that saw Merrick announce from the stage during the curtain call that the show's director-choreographer Gower Champion had died that morning. One of the biggest hit musicals of the '80s, La Cage aux Folles, opened August 21, 1983 at the Palace after a highly successful Boston tryout. It's difficult to imagine any producer today opening such a big, splashy, expensive, crowd-pleasing musical in late August, and indeed the production could easily have taken another tryout engagement and opened in New York in late September. But La Cage suffered not at all from its unusual opening date, and was able to take the Best Musical Tony the following June, almost a year after opening night.

Then there's the odd case of August, 1986, which saw three Broadway musicals open in two weeks. The first and last vanished after runs of four performances each, but there was a vast difference between the two: Honky Tonk Nights, one of the last shows to play the Biltmore Theatre, is barely remembered, while Rags received several Tony nominations (including one for Best Musical), left a much admired recording, and has had several revised revivals.

The August '86 smash was Me and My Girl, another crowd pleasing, splashy show that was in no way hurt by opening at that time and was in fact even more of a sleeper because of it. While this August's musical revivals may not indicate that shows like La Cage and Me and My Girl will ever again choose to open in August, it's at least worth noting.


MENKEN'S LATEST
Composer Alan Menken has had one of the more unusual musical theatre careers of recent times. After the interesting but not quite fulfilled off-Broadway musical God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in the late '70s, Menken, with his partner lyricist-librettist-director Howard Ashman, hit pay dirt with the superbly conceived and executed Little Shop of Horrors, one of the gems of '80s musicals, and a show that wisely never transferred to Broadway.

Thereafter, things got tougher. Several Ashman-Menken projects were begun but never completed. With Tom Eyen, Menken wrote the elaborate, operatic score for Kicks; something of a cross between Follies and Dreamgirls, the show had several admired workshops, but was never produced. Menken and David Spencer's adaptation of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was done in Philadelphia, but nowhere else (it was one of two musicals based on that material, the other presented in Canada with a Lieber-Stoller score). Much later, there was the interesting but unsatisfying Menken-Spencer Weird Romance at Off-Broadway's WPA.

But well before that, a new career had opened for Menken when he and Ashman collaborated on the Disney animated film The Little Mermaid. With Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and (following the death of Ashman) Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Menken could not stop winning Oscars for this brand of filmic family fare, even though he was still clearly composing in the traditional Broadway style and doing so with the kind of gift for melody in short supply on Broadway.

Throughout this period, I looked for Menken to return to the stage and compose a full-scale musical for adults. In terms of vocal scores, the Disney films only called for five or six songs, not half of what a stage musical requires. (Menken, with Tim Rice replacing Ashman, added to his film songs almost half again as many numbers when Beauty and the Beast took to the stage). And while the Menken-Lynn Ahrens score for A Christmas Carol was absolutely full length, that project still had Menken working in the sentimental family mode of the Disney films.

Last week, Menken, with Rice as librettist-lyricist, was back on Broadway, reopening the restored New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street for a limited, nine-performance run of King David, and this time the score was extremely full length, about 2 1/2 hours minus intermission. Billed as a concert event, King David was nicely staged by Mike Ockrent on a huge Tony Walton unit set that somewhat resembled his original Chicago design; there was a central performing space on the floor, several upper levels for the 54-piece orchestra, and side staircases and bleachers for the sizable and rather stellar (Michael DeVries, Keith Byron Kirk, Donna Lee Marshall, Karen Murphy, Laurie Williamson, Kirsti Carnahan) chorus. There were evocative costumes (William Ivey Long) and lighting (David Agress), and if there were no set changes, the evening played like more than a concert, and the principals had no books to prompt them.

King David was roundly dismissed by most critics as a grandiose yawn; yes, it was overblown, overwritten, and overlong, and certainly had its longeurs. But Menken's strongly melodic score, with its powerful recurring themes, deserves more than the short shrift it received. The form of the piece may have been off-putting to some; while it was all-sung and qualifies as a pop opera, it was oratorio-like in its use of narration and the heavy contribution from the chorus, and while there were separate numbers and songs, they tended to weave in and out of longer scenes. Rice's words contained traces of the colloquial, pop culture-referential lyrics of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, but they were generally more solemn and straightforward. Still, the Stephen Bogardus role of Joab was in Rice's Che-Judas narrator-commentator mode. But it was Menken's music, which ranged from the gospel-like and hard-to-resist "Saul Has Slain His Thousands" for the company to intense arias for the principals, that made the evening rewarding.

I was not crazy about Marcus Lovett when he took over the leads in Aspects of Love and Carousel, but in the gigantic title role here, he was impressive, and even got to perform opposite his son Dylan, who played the silent role of child Absalom. (If King David receives an open-ended production anywhere in the future, it will need to alternate its Davids, as the role is a voice killer). Judy Kuhn, who has previously sung Menken as the voice of Pocahontas and Rice in Chess, can never seem to do any wrong in my book; in the too-small role of David's wife Michal, she triumphed, delivering her big Act Two solo "Never Again" flawlessly. Martin Vidnovic sang magnificently as Saul; Bogardus was superb; and Alice Ripley, Roger Bart, Peter Samuel, and Anthony Galde (one of the young leads of 1989's immortal Prince of Central Park) all made important contributions.

Bombastic and over-the-top it was, but surely the source material dictated some of that. And if this was still not the adult musical I await from Menken, it was a serious and often powerful work, not to be quickly dismissed, and Menken remains one of our better melodists. It will be interesting to see how the score comes across on the live, double-CD recording made at last Wednesday's performances, and what King David's performance future will be. Given the local critical reception, it's unlikely that Disney will bring it back for an extended, full-scale run, but I wouldn't be surprised to find it staged in Europe, where viable new pop operas have of late been in short supply.


THEATRE CDs OF THE WEEK
Of the five book musicals that opened on Broadway this spring, Play On! was the only happy one, the only one out simply to entertain. And its concept--recycling some of the characters and plot of Twelfth Night in '40s Harlem, all set to the songs of Duke Ellington -was a reasonably bright one. But, in spite of an abundantly talented cast, the show suffered from a flat book and a staging that lacked style. When it failed to receive a Best Musical Tony nomination, Play On! promptly closed, and Varese Sarabande has just released the cast album posthumously.

On disc, Play On! is pleasant listening. True, the songs, not, of course, written for this story or these characters, can't quite function as book/character numbers or as a fully integrated score. But they're attractive songs, extremely well performed, and the recording features enough dialogue to give one an idea of how they were fit into the action. It would have been nice if Play On! had unearthed more Ellington rarities--most of these songs were heard in the '81 Ellington revue Sophisticated Ladies. Nonetheless, the performers all do well, and Play On! has been given a very nice memorial preservation.

Also from Varese is the cast recording of last fall's York Theatre revival of No Way To Treat A Lady, Douglas J. Cohen's adaptation of William Goldman's tale of a serial killer and the cop on his trail. First seen in New York a decade ago at the Hudson Guild, the show has had numerous regional productions and revisions in between its New York mountings. I admired much of No Way when I saw it at the Hudson Guild, but it seemed a less workable and interesting piece at York. The recording makes it clear that Cohen is a talent, and there are several good and clever numbers, but there's also too much that feels strained or overwritten.

Finally, another week, another exciting sampler, this one RCA's five track, 20-minute "special Tony Awards very rough mix" from the Steel Pier cast album. The included numbers are the hard-to-resist "Dance" (with the surrounding scene); "Second Chance," with a release section that is pure Rodgers and Hart; "Everybody's Girl" (one of the show's less interesting numbers, made into a showstopper by the sheer force of Debra Monk's talent); the heroine's opening "Willing To Ride"; and (perhaps the show's loveliest song) "First You Dream."

The Steel Pier score is low-key and sometimes subtle, but, as you might expect of the work of Kander and Ebb, it gets better with each hearing. I suspect that when the full recording is released in July, many who have found the score a somewhat disappointing entry in the Kander and Ebb canon will be surprised at how attractive it generally is. This "very rough" sampler already sounds quite good, and it's safe to assume that this wil be a very playable cast album.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
Who played the title role in the Menken-Spencer Duddy Kravitz musical? Who played the title role in the Lieber-Stoller Duddy Kravitz musical?
Answer to last week's quiz: In the 1993 Long Beach Civic Light Opera production of South Pacific in which Pat Suzuki played Bloody Mary, Sandy Duncan and Michael Nouri played Nellie and Emile (Nouri was a replacement for George Hearn, who dropped out when he got the role of Max in the L.A. production of Sunset Boulevard).


ASK KEN:
Robbie Wachs of Port Orchard, Washington asks:
Did Kiss of the Spider Woman ever play in London? I heard a rumor it was with Bebe Neuwirth, but that seems too good to be true!
KM: The production of Kiss of the Spider Woman that arrived on Broadway in the spring of 1993 had been seen earlier in Toronto and London with the same cast. When the original cast was transferred from London to New York, the new London company was headed by Bebe Neuwirth, Jeff Hyslop (who later took over on Broadway), and Charles Pistone. Neuwirth only played the role in London, and only for a few months.

Send your questions for this column to kenmanbway@aol.com [Remember to mark your calendar: Join Ken Mandelbaum live 8 to 9:30 PM (ET) Thursday May 29, as he inaugurates Playbill On-Line's website chat feature, answering your questions about June 1 Tony Awards.]