Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Playing Favorites, Part I

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Playing Favorites, Part I When asked what my all-time favorite musicals are, I'm usually reluctant to answer. For one thing, there are so many I treasure for various reasons that it's probably misleading to attempt such a list at all. Then too, my favorite musicals are by no means necessarily the best ones; if they were, then surely you would find A Chorus Line, Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, and My Fair Lady prominently featured below. And any list I provide must surely be slanted to the modern, mostly post-World War II musical, as those are the ones that I either experienced first hand or feel closest to through recordings and revivals.
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When asked what my all-time favorite musicals are, I'm usually reluctant to answer. For one thing, there are so many I treasure for various reasons that it's probably misleading to attempt such a list at all. Then too, my favorite musicals are by no means necessarily the best ones; if they were, then surely you would find A Chorus Line, Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, and My Fair Lady prominently featured below. And any list I provide must surely be slanted to the modern, mostly post-World War II musical, as those are the ones that I either experienced first hand or feel closest to through recordings and revivals.

The musicals discussed below are, then, not necessarily the best, but rather the ones that have elicited from me the strongest emotional reaction; that have meant the most to me; that were the most thrilling and memorable to experience; or that, because of their stars or staging, were the most exciting to witness in their original productions. I've isolated an "A" list of nine that stand out immediately, to be followed next week by a "B" list of others that fascinate me.


"A" LIST (in no particular order)

WEST SIDE STORY: Perhaps the most perfect collaboration of the modern musical, West Side Story represents an ideal integration of music, text, and staging. As a child, the beauty of Leonard Bernstein's music as heard on the cast recording made me cry, and while the score has since become one of the most familiar, it remains as fine as anything ever composed for the stage (and that includes the most celebrated operas). As emotionally powerful as a musical will ever be, West Side Story was in 1957 the last word in musical theatre artistry. The impact of Jerome Robbins' state-of-the-art combination of ballet and theatre dance was like nothing Broadway had ever seen, and that's not to mention what Robbins achieved in terms of his fluid, choreographic overall conception. While Stephen Sondheim has often criticized some of his lyrics for being character inappropriate, most of them are just fine, and, most importantly, they sit perfectly on Bernstein's inspired music. One of Broadway's creative peaks, West Side Story has had a less glorious revival history than certain other, less glorious shows. It's hard to think of West Side Story without Robbins' staging, yet no revival has quite been able to recreate the excitement of the original; the 1968 Lincoln Center production was the best overall attempt, although the only thing that has come close to conveying the impact of the original was Robbins' own suite of West Side dances for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. While I can't imagine West Side without Robbins' dances, I suspect the only way Broadway will ever have an electrifying revival is with a new director and choreographer who can somehow reimagine the show the way Nicholas Hytner and Kenneth MacMillan reimagined Carousel.


CABARET: Cabaret always goes to the top of my list because it was the first time in my life that I experienced a classic musical without any previous knowledge of the material. While I saw the original productions of West Side Story, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Damn Yankees, etc., I knew the cast recordings by heart by the time I was taken to see them. By the time of Cabaret, I was old enough to know what I was seeing, and as the show unfolded at a preview at the Broadhurst, I was more and more overwhelmed by the brilliance of the show's conception, its score, its direction, its design, and its performances (I was even impressed by Jill Haworth). When it was over, I went to the phone in the Broadhurst lobby to call two friends to tell them I had just seen a classic, and that they must go immediately.

Cabaret also holds a special place because it's the musical that successfully straddles two very different worlds. The double love stories and book scenes honor the conventions of the traditional, '40s-'60s style show, while the use of the Emcee, comment numbers, and stage limbo are part of the conceptual, splintered style that would be further developed by director Hal Prince in subsequent shows. The most influential, original, and exciting musical of the '60s, Cabaret had a Broadway revival recreation a decade ago that was markedly inferior in most departments to the original, but at least captured some of what made the show so breathtaking the first time around. An international repertoire staple, Cabaret is bound to be very differently staged the next time it's revived in New York, and should continue to impress generations to come in a variety of productions.


THE MOST HAPPY FELLA: Serious, emotional, and operatic are plusses for me when it comes to musicals, but no other show I know manages to combine Broadway pizazz with such musical grandeur and emotional sweep. The Most Happy Fella has everything, and it also marks the greatest improvement on source material (Sidney Howard's good but much less wonderful play They Knew What They Wanted) of any musical adaptation. It almost had to be written by just one man (Frank Loesser), as the music is just about continuous, and is intricately woven in and out of speech and choreography.

New York saw a short-lived but sometimes very strong Broadway revival (later televised by PBS) of Happy Fella in 1979, then two more productions in the '90s. The New York City Opera staging had much to recommend it. Then there was the small-scale Goodspeed Opera House revival, which received such raves from New York critics that it was imported to Broadway, where it did not thrive. I still believe that the acclaim this revival won was--Gerald Gutierrez's interesting direction notwithstanding--ridiculous; if presenting Happy Fella on Broadway accompanied by two pianos and with a cast of mostly indifferent singers is (as was widely claimed) an improvement over the original 1956 Broadway version, then the Metropolitan Opera should not waste a moment before mounting La Traviata with an all-kazoo accompaniment. Still, the one thing you can say for that production (preserved by RCA Victor for posterity to hear, although posterity would be better off listening to the original, double-CD cast album) is that it allowed companies with modest resources that would never have dreamed of mounting the sizable, operatic Happy Fella to attempt it. The show will live on, but, let's face it, it's really an Italian opera with Broadway underpinnings, and needs the richness that the original had.


FOLLIES: Young people who did not see it might be pardoned if they are by now weary of us old-timers describing the wonders of the original production of Follies. But take it from one who witnessed that production more than a dozen times, it really was everything they say it was. With some of the theatre's greatest talents (Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Michael Bennett, Boris Aronson, Tharon Musser, Florence Klotz, Jonathan Tunick) operating at the peak of their creative powers, the original Follies was a production so bountiful, beautiful, and, above all, scary that no other staging will ever really come close. Yet the material is so strong--and I refer not just to Sondheim's passionate, gorgeous, double score of brilliant pastiche material and profound psychological character numbers, but also to James Goldman's stylized, pithy libretto--that Follies will continue to get produced.

The rewrite for the 1987 London premiere, in addition to replacing four songs, took a far more realistic, less surreal approach, but while the leads sparkled, the new version was not an improvement, and will never be seen again. Thank goodness that while there's not much existing footage of other shows from the early '70s, there's a good deal of footage of the original production of Follies (most of it shot in Los Angeles, where the Broadway production went to die), and it supports the legend that Follies was one of the most complex, ravishing, darkly haunting pieces to ever challenge a Broadway audience.


THE KING AND I: Perhaps the most perennially satisfying of golden age hits, The King and I has seen more New York revivals than any other famous title, and has to one degree or another worked every time. With two of the most memorable central characters a musical has ever boasted, a glorious score, model scene construction, an exotic setting, and one of the theatre's great ballets, King and I is just about foolproof; while the current Broadway production is one of the best revivals of recent years, you can bet that there'll be another one 20 years or so down the line. Watching King and I is a relaxing experience: You know from the moment it starts that all the emotion, humor, conflict, and music will work just as they always have, and that you'll be near tears by the end. It even worked in 1959 when I performed in it (as one of the Siamese children) at my summer camp.


STREET SCENE: The Kurt Weill-Elmer Rice-Langston Hughes musical adaptation of Rice's play of the same name has often been compared to Porgy and Bess; both are Broadway operas, both are highly dramatic, emotional pieces, both portray an entire, insulated community. I may be the only one, however, who considers Street Scene as good as, if not better than, Porgy. When I discovered the 1947 cast LP in the '60s, I was devastated by it, and extremely happy when I got the chance to see the show (and hear the complete score, very truncated on the first recording) when New York City Opera revived it in the '60s. City Opera has continued to champion it ever since, and Street Scene has gone on to enter the repertoire at opera houses internationally. The score and people of Street Scene continue to move me deeply; I get so into the story and characters that to this day I wonder what will become of Rose Maurant when, having lost both parents to violence and failed love, she goes off to start a new life as the curtain falls.


GYPSY: Of course, just about everyone places Gypsy somewhere at the top of the list of finest American musicals. No question, it deserves it, for the psychological acuity with which its principal characters are delineated, its character illuminating songs, its driving energy, and its fabulous star part all remain remarkable. What continues to impress me most about it is Arthur Laurents' dialogue, which somehow manages to be compact and spare while also filled with pungency, subtext, and meaning beyond what anyone is saying. My friends and I quote from this script constantly; I'm particularly fond of describing certain people as possessing "talent for the deaf, dumb, and blind," or using "Cut the ballet, it stinks anyway" when I see a weak dance sequence in a show, but there are endless fabulous lines, with something appropriate for just about any occasion.

I'm lucky enough to have seen Ethel Merman (twice), Angela Lansbury (six times), and Tyne Daly (three times) all play Rose, and they were all sensational in different ways. Other Roses I've experienced include Linda Lavin, Dora Bryan, Betty Buckley, and Karen Morrow (the latter two on video), not to mention Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler on film. Who will star in the next revival? How about Elaine Paige?


WONDERFUL TOWN: Many would not rate this show as highly as I do, but it still seems to me a perfect musical comedy, with characters you really root for, tons of funny lines, a surprising amount of effective sentiment, and music by Leonard Bernstein that is the least conventional and richest aspect of the piece. Thank goodness there's the kinescope of the 1958 TV version, allowing future generations to see that Roz Russell's Ruth Sherwood was everything the New York critics had said it was five years earlier. There were grand revivals of the show at City Center in the '50s and '60s with Nancy Walker, Kaye Ballard, and Elaine Stritch taking on Ruth; unfortunately, the most recent local revival, at City Opera three years ago, did the show a disservice, making a still strong musical look dated and past its usefulness. So until a better production comes along, catch that kinescope.


KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN: The newest show on my list, the Broadway Spider Woman simply bowled me over every time I saw it, even when the irreplaceable performances of Brent Carver and Chita Rivera gave way to lesser ones. I know people who did not enjoy this show at all, and while it took every possible Best Musical prize, it received very mixed reviews when it opened.

But it's my favorite musical of the '90s: I don't think the quality of its score has been equaled by any musical since, and the journey of those two men in that prison cell (brilliantly intersected by and reflected in fantasy/comment numbers) never failed to move me. This very challenging show was lucky to have lasted more than two years on Broadway (even if it was a financial failure) and play an extended national tour. It will be interesting to see if regional and stock producers will risk mounting it, and if their audiences will accept and enjoy it.


Next week, two more lists, two more categories of favorites.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK: Who replaced Dorothy Collins and John McMartin during the post-Broadway Shubert Theatre, Los Angeles engagement of the original production of Follies?

Answer to last week's quiz:
The Mexican productions of Grease, Carnival, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum were respectively known as Vaselina, Lili, and Amor Al Reves Es Roma. The latter--Love Spelled Backwards Is Rome- is one of my favorite title translations, but it only works in Spanish. (Amor will be revived in Mexico next season, with a female Pseudolus.) And note that in addition to the first Mexican production of Vaselina, there's a cast recording of a 1984 Mexican revival performed entirely by children.


Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com