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

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Playing Favorites, Part II Last week, I isolated nine favorite musicals, not necessarily the finest ever written, but ones that have had the strongest impact on me. Of those nine, Street Scene and The Most Happy Fella are, as stated last time, operatic and require considerable musical forces, yet they can work in small productions. In fact, with the possible exception of Follies, all nine (the others were West Side Story, Cabaret, The King and I, Gypsy, Wonderful Town, and Kiss of the Spider Woman) should work in any intelligent production. The first eight titles on my "B" list are musicals that are favorites not only for their composition but also for their original staging or stars, favorites closely tied to their original productions.
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Last week, I isolated nine favorite musicals, not necessarily the finest ever written, but ones that have had the strongest impact on me. Of those nine, Street Scene and The Most Happy Fella are, as stated last time, operatic and require considerable musical forces, yet they can work in small productions. In fact, with the possible exception of Follies, all nine (the others were West Side Story, Cabaret, The King and I, Gypsy, Wonderful Town, and Kiss of the Spider Woman) should work in any intelligent production. The first eight titles on my "B" list are musicals that are favorites not only for their composition but also for their original staging or stars, favorites closely tied to their original productions.


"B" LIST (in no particular order):

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: The material of Fiddler on the Roof, one of the most revived and internationally beloved of all musicals, is very strong; it's that rare classic musical whose book (Joseph Stein) is even more impressive than its score (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick). But with a stager other than Jerome Robbins, the same material might have made for a solid hit rather than a blockbuster. Robbins' contribution embraced not only the superb dances and overall choreographic staging, but the show's very conception, unifying what might have seemed episodic around the idea of the wearing away of tradition. It's this kind of contribution that is so often lacking in today's directors of musicals, who often tend to be perfectly competent stagers crucially unable to guide the writers.

While Fiddler will continue to work in almost any production, it was a peak of musical theatre artistry in Robbins' version. Yet what I said in last week's column about another Robbins' show, West Side Story, may apply equally to Fiddler: While revivals of the original Robbins staging have satisfied, a really thrilling revival may require a visionary new staging. DREAMGIRLS: Michael Bennett's last production to be seen by the public was a humdinger that moved with the speed of lightning. It's hard to imagine the show without the original staging (or a semblance thereof), and I would imagine this season's touring revival (with original Effie, Jennifer Holliday) will, to some extent, recreate it.

I would also put in a word, though, for the material itself. Dreamgirls was mostly dismissed in its day as a brilliant staging that masked a vacuous book and score; if so, why did the show have such an emotionally powerful effect on audiences? I tended to begin tearing up when Effie was reunited with her brother about 20 minutes into the second act, and it only got worse thereafter. The book and score for Dreamgirls are a lot stronger than they were taken to be at the time, and Henry Krieger (back on Broadway this fall with Side Show)'s music wrote its own chapter in pop opera history and the use of pop music for dramatic purposes.

HELLO, DOLLY!: Inescapably tied to the original Broadway production, in particular Gower Champion's happy-go-lucky, artful staging, and the parade of stars. As a composition, Dolly is a fine piece of work, but it was Champion's enormous contribution and producer David Merrick's brilliant deployment of leading ladies that transformed it from perhaps a solid, two-year hit to a record-breaker. Will it ever have a really powerful Broadway revival now that Carol Channing appears (I use that word advisedly) to have ceased to roam her ramp?

MAME: Even if the play Auntie Mame didn't really need to be musicalized, and even if the musical didn't improve on it that much, the musical Mame was a heavenly entertainment when it opened in 1966 with Angela Lansbury, Beatrice Arthur, Jane Connell, and Gene Saks' direction that snared every laugh and sniffle. Lansbury's debut as a full-fledged musical comedy diva and glamourpuss remains one of the biggest revelations of my theatregoing youth (I saw a New York preview, and was so stunned I had to wait at the stage door to see her come out). Mame failed in a very enjoyable 1983 revival with Lansbury back and most of the original recreated, but that was of course before Lansbury became a household name on TV. Will Mame ever again play effectively on Broadway?

COMPANY: Constantly revived in recent seasons, and still an important, entertaining and exciting show with a sensational score, Company can never have quite the impact it had in its electrifying original production, largely because it was a show that reflected its moment in history in a unique manner, and because its daring, innovative structure and techniques (Prince, Bennett, and Aronson again at their best) have been appropriated by later shows.

CHICAGO: How, you may ask, can I place Chicago on my list of favorites tied to their original production when the new Broadway production is the biggest hit in years? Sure, the current revival is top-notch entertainment (although I suspect it won't be quite the same without the pairing of Reinking and Neuwirth, the former bringing with her years of Fosse training and her experience as a replacement in the original Chicago, the latter, also a Fosse trainee, finding her most perfect vehicle to date). But it cannot quiet my memories of the original, as striking a production as was its 1975 neighbor A Chorus Line. I only wish those who have claimed that the revival works better than the original could again see Verdon, Rivera, Orbach, and the original supporting company, along with that version's design and staging. But whenever I get annoyed at those who would maintain that the new production is superior to the original, I remember that the revival has at least given the piece the degree of success it always deserved and was denied the first time around.

SWEET CHARITY: Another Fosse staging masterpiece, and Verdon's greatest Broadway role. Charity is a very entertaining show and has had an enormous international life in recent decades. The 1986 Broadway revival didn't have Verdon, but it worked, largely because the book is funny, the score is terrific, and the staging of those numbers remains as good as anything since. Charity will continue to be produced--I daresay Broadway will see it again in the next decade or so--but the original represents a landmark in staging expertise.

EVITA: While Evita remains my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber score, there's no question that Hal Prince's production took material created for a recording that one couldn't imagine making sense in the theatre and fashioned from it one of the most striking stagings of the last 25 years. The question now is whether or not major revivals of the show will attempt to recreate this seemingly indispensable staging, or go another way. With Prince and Lloyd Webber having ended on less than cordial terms after the aborted Whistle Down The Wind, it's unlikely that Prince would want to work on an Evita revival. Someone else could recreate the staging--original choreographer Larry Fuller staged the most recent national tour and many other productions--but I wouldn't be surprised to find that when a major West End or Broadway revival happens, Lloyd Webber authorizes a new staging.

PROMISES, PROMISES: Not only is my fondness for Promises tied to its original production, but it's also very much a show of its time, one that may never register with today's audiences quite the way it did at the end of the '60s. Although it was in many respects one of the last top-notch conventional musical comedies, it was unconventional in its contemporary-pop score and Michael Bennett's choreography, which extended to the sets. And it was directed to a fare-thee-well by the late Robert Moore, who is not as well remembered as he deserves to be; Moore was a director capable of extracting every laugh and every moment of sentiment from a Neil Simon script, while also able to make the original The Boys in the Band into scintillating entertainment. Promises had its big revival chance as part of last season's Encores! concerts; it received a very enjoyable production, but most critics dismissed the show itself as dated, thereby scuttling chances for a transfer. But if Promises is unlikely to ever run on Broadway again, the original remains among my treasured memories.


My third list consists of shows that didn't quite make it to my "A" list but are not, like the "B" list shows, necessarily linked in my mind to their original productions and performers. All of them attract, fascinate, and affect me.

CAROUSEL: Could easily have made the "A" list, but, unlike the moving but not disturbing The King and I, Carousel is almost upsetting in its emotional impact, so cannot be experienced as often and has never been as popular in revival as King and I. But it's one of Broadway's greatest, and I still consider the Royal National Theatre/Lincoln Center production the best and most beautiful revival I've ever seen. Carousel will be back again, but it will be a challenge to any producer and director to come up with something as magnificently envisioned as the last revival.

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN: Pure musical comedy, purely delightful. Whenever I see Annie Get Your Gun, I find myself once again rooting for the heroine, one of the most winning in the annals of musical comedy, and absorbed by the simple but real and interesting conflict between her and the man she loves but is not willing to surrender to. I have yet to tire of Irving Berlin's score; not only is it one of the theatre's most hit-filled, but it is a stunning achievement for a songwriter who had never before written a full score of character material. And no, I don't find the book dated or in need of substantial alteration.

I was lucky to catch the deliriously enjoyable Lincoln Center revival starring original Ethel Merman, am fond of the 1957 Mary Martin-John Raitt TV production, and recall a strong Paper Mill Playhouse production a decade ago, starring Judy Kaye and Richard White. The show is due back on Broadway soon, and it will be interesting to see if those involved let the show be what it is, rather than try to politically correct it (don't count on hearing "I'm An Indian Too").

DAMN YANKEES: Another of those perfect musical comedies, the kind Broadway will never again produce. But while Yankees has an excellent comic libretto (even if the plot is mostly over by the end of the first act) and a wholly wonderful score, the show's real trump card--and what makes it stronger in revival than certain other standard musical comedies of the period--is the emotional impact of the Meg-Joe Hardy relationship, and the songs ("A Man Doesn't Know," "Near To You") that illuminate it.

I was not at all happy with the recent Broadway revival (now playing in London), as it saw fit to remove virtually all of the original dialogue and replace it with mostly unfunny new jokes and labored attempts at political correctness. I only hope that those planning to produce Yankees in the future will strongly consider going back to (most of) the original script.

LOVE LIFE: This 1948 show is endlessly fascinating to me. Not only do I consider the Kurt Weill-Alan Jay Lerner score to be the finest unrecorded post-war Broadway score (yes, a fair amount of it has been recorded, but it still requires a complete version), but I can think of no other show that has influenced so many later musicals, most of which have never acknowledged their debt to Love Life. It was a daring concept show that dealt with American industrial progress by alternating glimpses of 150 years of a marriage (the principals don't age) with comment numbers, all within the framework of a vaudeville show. Can there be any doubt that such shows as Cabaret (alternation of book scene with comment number), Company (splintered structure, non-linear plot, comment numbers), Chicago (vaudeville framework), Hallelujah, Baby! (action covering decades with characters not aging), and Follies (finale sequence--a Follies in Follies, a minstrel show in Love Life--of presentational numbers allowing principal characters to sing and dance out their psychological impasses) were all heavily influenced by Love Life?

Like our next title (also a Kurt Weill show), Love Life has had its reputation diminished by several misguided revivals. The first, staged seven years ago in Philadelphia with Debbie Gravitte and Richard Muenz in the leads, revised the material heavily and was ineptly directed. Last year's Opera North production in England was overly operatic--the piece requires musical comedy performers, not opera singers--and ponderously staged. Love Life needs a new recording and a better production, and the place to start just might be Encores!.

LADY IN THE DARK: An original, daring piece in 1941, the Moss Hart-Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin Lady in the Dark isn't really a musical at all, but rather a play with three lengthy, complex musical sequences, and a final flashback that features the song that has been haunting and blocking the heroine all night. Of course, the show's biggest selling point originally was its unique leading lady, Gertrude Lawrence, but I continue to believe that Lady in the Dark is highly produceable, even if its conclusion (which sees the heroine considering relinquishing editorial control of her magazine to the man she has finally learned to respect and care about) may need to be tweaked for acceptance by contemporary audiences.

Lady in the Dark is one of those legendary shows that keeps getting botched in revival. The Encores! production of 1994 was worth seeing but a disappointment, with the extremely talented Christine Ebersole not quite right for Liza Elliott. The current Royal National Theatre production, the first major, professional staging since the original, is poorly staged and acted. (The best Liza I've seen remains Ann Sothern in the severely truncated 1954 TV production.) Lady still cries out for an imaginative, exciting revival, and Glenn Close or Donna Murphy would be my choice for leading lady.

BLOOMER GIRL: Heavily influenced by the previous year's Oklahoma! (and using one of that show's leading ladies and its choreographer), Bloomer Girl was a serious, entertaining musical play that won considerable acclaim in 1944. Unlike certain (and not better) shows of the same era, Bloomer Girl never gets produced any more, probably because its physical demands are considerable. This is unfortunate, for the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg score is superb, and the book, if a bit creaky here and there, deals in entertaining fashion with such issues as slavery and women's rights. I doubt that Broadway will ever see it again (although Encores! might get around to it), so the best place to catch it is the kinescope of the 1956 TV production, with Barbara Cook in top form and choreographer Agnes de Mille recreating some of her original numbers, including the Civil War ballet.


MUSICAL THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK
There were two recordings--one studio highlights, one live and complete--of the first, '80s Japanese production of Evita. Just received is the Pony Canyon double-CD cast recording of the Shiki Theatrical Company's new Japanese production, and in two respects it may be an interesting harbinger of the future.

"The Lady's Got Potential," heard on the original, 1976 pre-production studio Evita recording, in the original Japanese production, and in the 1996 film version, is included here. Unlike the film, it does not replace "The Art of the Possible," which is also heard on the new recording. "The Lady's Got Potential" is a very catchy number, and because many will know the score from the film version, I suspect the number will come to be included in some future stage productions. Many may also expect to hear the Academy Award-winning "You Must Love Me" in future stagings; it's not to be found on this recording, but might find its way into subsequent productions.

And the photos in the booklet make it clear that this is not the Harold Prince production (neither was the first Japanese production, one of the few in the early '80s not to employ it). As indicated above, Prince's original staging could also be abandoned in a major Broadway or West End revival.


WORD AROUND TOWN: Jim Newman (who was Happy, the young contestant with whom Debra Monk flirted, in Steel Pier), Jacquelyn Piro (a Les Miz veteran, and Lily in the national tour of The Secret Garden), and Judy McLane (Paper Mill Playhouse's young diva, who has starred there in Evita, Oliver!, Nine, Man of La Mancha and others) appear to be set for the leads in the Big national tour. . . With By Jeeves winning acclaim in D.C., it's possible that Broadway could be in its future after all. . . There was a recent workshop reading of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II's adaptation of Bizet, with Gerald Gutierrez directing, and Lincoln Center and Goodspeed co-presenting . . . Triumph of Love may be switching theatres; announced for the Walter Kerr, it may now go to the Royale. . .Although only Anthony Rapp has been set, it appears that London could see as many as five of the original Rent leads when the show gets there in early '98 . . . It's possible that London may also get to see the Livent/Harold Prince Show Boat, if one of the U.S. touring companies stops there, and a Royal National Theatre production of Merrily We Roll Along . . . Li'l Abner looks like a strong possibility for Encores! next season. Do I Hear A Waltz?, which I had heard mentioned as an Encores! possibility, now looks to be in development as a GMHC benefit concert, with Placido Domingo being sought for the male lead.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK: Julie Covington sang the title role on the original studio recording of Evita, but turned down the role in the stage premiere. In 1989, Covington was hired to star in an Australian Evita revival, but quit at the last minute. Who replaced her, and who was the alternate Eva in that production?

Answer to last week's quiz: During the post-Broadway Shubert Theatre, Los Angeles, engagement of the original Follies, Dorothy Collins and John McMartin were succeeded by Janet Blair and Edward Winter.


Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com