Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Pros Are Back

Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: The Pros Are Back One of the more unfortunate aspects of theatre today is the enormous difficulty new writers of musicals have in establishing themselves. While there are endless readings and presentations of new work, few of them lead to full productions, and even fewer to New York mountings. When new writers ultimately find an off-Broadway production that brings them acclaim, it's no guarantee that they will go on to enjoy the kind of career that was once the rule following such a reception. Even when New York institutional productions of musicals by new talent open to considerable praise these days, it's often the case that those shows play out their limited runs but don't receive a local transfer, with hopes then pinned on subsequent regional pickups.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of theatre today is the enormous difficulty new writers of musicals have in establishing themselves. While there are endless readings and presentations of new work, few of them lead to full productions, and even fewer to New York mountings. When new writers ultimately find an off-Broadway production that brings them acclaim, it's no guarantee that they will go on to enjoy the kind of career that was once the rule following such a reception. Even when New York institutional productions of musicals by new talent open to considerable praise these days, it's often the case that those shows play out their limited runs but don't receive a local transfer, with hopes then pinned on subsequent regional pickups.

This situation is particularly disquieting to those of us who follow musicals closely and can't help noticing that we continue to depend heavily on top writers who are not young and can't be counted upon to continue to indefinitely furnish us with new product. Looking on the brighter side, though, many of these pros are still giving us great things, and as this spring returns several veteran or near-veteran songwriters to Broadway, it might be a good time to take a look at the careers of a few of them.

Beginning with the man who made the earliest Broadway debut, Cy Coleman, back in town as the composer, co-librettist, and co producer of The Life, is without question one of the most talented composers to emerge in the very fertile early '60s period that also saw the first major successes of Stephen Sondheim as composer-lyricist and the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Coleman has one of the more wide-ranging gifts, with some of his work clearly traceable to his days as a jazz pianist, and the rest reflecting a considerable diversity of styles. Jazz is absolutely there in his wonderful Sweet Charity tunes, and that influence became most overt in City of Angels, the hard-boiled detective milieu of that libretto a natural for Coleman's bluesiest, jazziest score ever. Other Coleman shows--his debut score for Wildcat in 1960, the 1973 Seesaw, the 1980 Barnum, and his most recent show, The Will Rogers Follies--have much more of the sound of traditional, conventional Broadway, although none sounds quite like the others. For On The Twentieth Century (1978), Coleman proved remarkably successful at resuscitating the comic operetta genre; for Little Me (1962), he supplied a brand of slap-dash, vaudeville-ish comic fun that transcends standard Broadway fare; and for I Love My Wife (1977), his music reflected cabaret styles and had an intimate feel unlike that of his other work.

Coleman, who co-authored the lyrics for the 1989 flop Welcome To The Club, has otherwise worked with a wide variety of lyricists, ranging from non-regulars like Barbara Fried (the out-of-town-closer Home Again, Home Again) and A.E. Hotchner (Club), to Dorothy Fields (Charity and Seesaw), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Twentieth Century and Will Rogers), and Michael Stewart (I Love My Wife and Barnum).

What has rarely if ever been remarked upon in discussions of Coleman is the degree to which he is attracted to material without strong emotional content. Surely Little Me, City of Angels, On The Twentieth Century, Welcome To The Club, I Love My Wife, and Barnum. (even with the second-act demise of Mrs. B.) are among the least moving and emotionally resonant musicals of their time. This is not to say that these shows are to be dismissed, but rather to say that they did not seek to be strongly emotional pieces or that their very conception did not allow for significant heart tugging. Charity has a lot of heart, but its original production to some extent distanced the emotion by stylizing the piece as a fable, with lit titles on the sides of the proscenium charting the heroine's progress and cinematic freeze frames at key moments. One of the reasons why the movie version of Charity is less appealing than the stage version is that the film went for real emotion throughout, and what was touchingly comic in the show became sometimes painful in the film. Seesaw ranks as Coleman's most genuinely heart-on-sleeve, emotional piece to date, but while the RCA concept album of The Life doesn't indicate it, the fully staged workshop version of The Life that I saw seven years ago made it clear that the piece was a seriously, sometimes operatically, emotional show. So it will be very interesting to hear The Life fully orchestrated and tailored to Broadway, and to see how it compares to the earlier output of a man whose Broadway career now stretches to almost 40 years.

Five years after Coleman arrived with Wildcat, the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb had their first Broadway score in the unsuccessful Liza Minnelli vehicle Flora, The Red Menace. But the show does not sound like a flop on its RCA 1965 cast recording, and that's because Kander and Ebb were as talented a team as any that emerged in the last 40 years, their only equals being Sondheim, Bock and Harnick (who parted company much too early, depriving Broadway of any number of potentially superb post-1970 shows), Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt (who should have written more musicals for Broadway), Charles Strouse (a major talent who got involved in too many flop shows), Jerry Herman (who hasn't written for Broadway in 14 years), and Coleman.

I've been somewhat resentful of all the praise heaped on Kander and Ebb of late because of the triumphant return of Chicago, and that's because, to one extent or another, I've loved every score they've ever written from the moment each show arrived. Their scores for such musicals as Flora, 70, Girls, 70, The Rink, The Happy Time, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and even Chicago were either dismissed or did not begin to receive their due at the hands of critics the first time around, and it appears to be only now that they are receiving the respect they have long deserved.

After Flora, of course, came Cabaret, perhaps the best and definitely the most important musical of the '60s, with what is still arguably Kander and Ebb's finest score, perfectly tailored to the atmosphere, characters, plot, and unconventional conception of that musical. If Charity is Coleman's most internationally performed and revived musical (with Barnum not far behind), Cabaret has by now achieved the status of contemporary classic, guaranteed to still be seen on world stages throughout the next century along with such other pieces as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Sweeney Todd.

Thereafter, the team contributed fine scores to shows that had either disappointing (Zorba) or unsuccessful (Happy Time, 70, Girls, 70) Broadway lives, then had a hit with Chicago (and no, the original production, contrary to a number of misinformed reports of late, was not an unloved flop). Their scores for The Act and Woman of the Year were pretty much dismissed, although this writer finds them both entertaining and adroitly tailored to the particular performers and subject matter involved. With The Rink, the team began to move in certain numbers ("Mrs. A") into the realm of Broadway opera, an area they jumped into headfirst with Kiss of the Spider Woman; the latter possesses my favorite K&E score, but then that show is my favorite of the last decade, devastating to me in a way it clearly isn't for all.

Now Kander and Ebb are back with Steel Pier, and from what I've heard of the score, they're trying something different again, but something brimming with skill and invention and just right for the milieu and characters of the piece. Kander and Ebb always know what they're doing and are just about incapable of writing a bad song. And I should also put in a word here for The Skin of Our Teeth, the Kander-Ebb-Joseph Stein musical which has workshopped but as yet has no full production scheduled; judging by a tape of Kander and Ebb singing it, the score is very strong.

We'll end with the baby of the group, Maury Yeston, who has had the most bizarre career of anyone to arrive and make a hit in the '80s. Yeston's first score to reach the stage was for the 1982 Tony Award-winning show Nine, and Yeston, the only solo composer-lyricist of this survey, took home his own Tony for the score, which remains one of the most voluptuously enjoyable of recent years. But instead of contributing five or six more scores in the ensuing 15 years, Yeston is with Titanic giving Broadway his first full score since Nine.

That's not to say that Yeston has been idle, but only to say that Yeston's projects have taken him everywhere else. During Nine's development, Yeston was also the songwriter (to Jay Presson Allen's book and Mike Nichols' and Tommy Tune's staging) of The Queen of Basin Street; if you've never heard of it, it's because it died when its source material became the Broadway hit La Cage aux Folles a year after Nine opened. Yeston wrote a score for Goya, a vehicle for Placido Domingo about the Spanish artist; after a concept album on Columbia and a Los Angeles concert staging, the project vanished. In 1989, the Manhattan Theatre Club offered the comic Biblical musical One Two Three Four Five, with a book by Larry Gelbart, a score by Yeston, direction by Gerald Gutierrez, and a cast that included Davis Gaines, Pamela Blair, Jonathan Hadary, Mary Testa, Lauren Mitchell, and Brenda Pressley; even though the show was advertised and open to the public, MTC chose not to invite the critics, and when the piece was revised and played under the title History Loves Company, Gelbart withdrew and Yeston became the sole author. The same year, Yeston was brought in by Tune to create new songs and revise some of the original ones for the stunning Grand Hotel, Yeston's only Broadway appearance between Nine and Titanic. And of course there is the Yeston-Arthur Kopit Phantom, performed all over the world, recorded by RCA, much admired, but prohibited (for obvious reasons) from Broadway.

It's high time, therefore, that Yeston, who has an enviable talent for composing the kind of rich, lush, emotional, and very theatrical music too little in evidence these days, was back on Broadway. Titanic would appear to be an excellent project for him, and what I've heard of the score is promising indeed. If you're like me, you can't wait to hear the fully orchestrated scores of Steel Pier, Titanic, and The Life, and they're all just about to become available on Broadway.

RANDOM NOTES
European correspondent Bernd E. Freimuller recently supplied us with some interesting information: The Viennese production of She Loves Me, at the Raimund Theatre and a copy of the Broadway/West End She Loves Me revivals of recent years, has, like all major productions of She Loves Me, been struggling to find an audience. In response to complaints from critics and audiences about the show's length, about 20 minutes of material was recently cut, including the song "Goodbye, George." But cuts in the new production of Fiddler on the Roof at Vienna's Theater an der Wien (where the show is called Anatevka) drew complaints from the U.S., and material was quickly reinstated.

No, we haven't quite seen the last of the Sunset Boulevard recordings; following in the tradition of Betty Buckley and Petula Clark, Daniela Ziegler, the new Norma Desmond in the German production, will get her own CD single of songs from the score.

This summer at the Chichester Festival Theatre in England, Paul Kerryson will direct a revival of Divorce Me, Darling!, Sandy Wilson's delightful '30s-style sequel to his far-more-successful '20s musical The Boy Friend. Donna McKechnie may have one of the leading roles.

There was a period of time in the mid to late '70s when one could hardly go to the theatre in New York without seeing a fine actor named Paul Rudd. A particular favorite at the New York Shakespeare Festival and Circle in the Square, Rudd was seen in leading roles on and off-Broadway in Streamers, Henry V, The Glass Menagerie, Romeo and Juliet, and many others. He also had one of the leading roles on Beacon Hill, the short-lived CBS-TV attempt at an American version of Upstairs, Downstairs that also starred George Rose and Nancy Marchand. Currently delivering a stellar performance as Joe Farkas, the gentlemen caller who wins the hand of one of Dana Ivey's daughters in Alfred Uhry's charming and very enjoyable The Last Night of Ballyhoo, is one Paul Rudd. No, not the one just described, but a talented young man also seen as Paris in the recent Romeo and Juliet film. Which leads us to the question: Does anyone know what happened to the earlier Paul Rudd? I can only assume that if the new one can use the name (without adding a middle initial or the like), the earlier Rudd must have relinquished his membership in Actors Equity.

More information about the revised revival of Greenwillow I mentioned here a month or two ago. After its initial presentation at Florida State University, the new version will receive two professional productions this summer. Walter Willison, co adapter of the book, will direct it at Robert Turoff's Golden Apple Dinner Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, where it will play from June 10 to 27. And Michael Ballam will present the show at his Utah Summer Opera Festival, where it will play from July 19 to August 9; Vince Liotta will direct, and there will be a 46-piece orchestra.

I recently answered a letter from a reader inquiring about the release of musical numbers from Tony Awards telecasts. Special mention was made of the 1971 25th anniversary program, which featured many Broadway stars (Robert Preston, Zero Mostel, Angela Lansbury, Carol Channing, Vivian Blaine, Nanette Fabray, Gwen Verdon, Yul Brynner, Patricia Morison, Tom Bosley, David Wayne, Ray Walston, Alfred Drake, Florence Henderson, etc.) recreating numbers from their Tony-winning productions. I've just been informed that you can expect a November video release of musical highlights from the '71 Tony show.

Varese Sarabande is making a studio cast recording of Drat! The Cat!, the 1965 flop with a charming score that includes "She Touched Me" and "I Like Him." In the roles created by Lesley Ann Warren and Elliott Gould will be Susan Egan and Jason Graae. The Milton Schafer-Ira Levin score was previously available on a Blue Pear LP which preserved the songs from a live tape recorded through the Martin Beck Theatre's sound system.

Latest word on Whistle Down The Wind is that it will resurface in London later this year, with Gale Edwards directing. [The report has been denied by Webber's U.S. spokesman, Peter Brown, and by his London spokeswoman Nicole Levine.] Edwards directed the Australian production of Aspects of Love that so pleased Andrew Lloyd Webber that he brought it to the West End for a limited engagement after the run of the original London Trevor Nunn production. Edwards is also the director of the current, acclaimed London revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.


THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK
I'm well aware that many important critics consider Adam Guettel's score (with some additional lyrics by librettist-director Tina Landau) for last season's Playwrights Horizons musical Floyd Collins to be a major achievement. In the notes accompanying the new Nonesuch cast recording (released a year after the show's off-Broadway run), John Guare finds Floyd to be the key musical of its era.

Mine may well be a minority opinion, but even after three hearings--once in the theatre, twice on the excellent disc--I have yet to find this score enjoyable. What Guettel does provide is an unusual, rich, lovely texture (abetted by Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations), and there are occasional attractive numbers (especially the penultimate dream sequence). But too often, this strikes me as the kind of music composed to impress other musicians, as well as critics disdainful of strongly melodious contemporary theatre music. Like much of Michael John LaChiusa's work, it is less than audience friendly and bound to be of limited appeal. In fairness, I should also state that I am not a fan of country music, and the Floyd score draws heavily on country sounds.

Broadway's current Javert, Christopher Innvar, does heroic work in the title role, and you can also hear Jason Danieley, who will have the title role in next month's new Broadway Candide, as Floyd's brother Homer.


QUIZ OF THE WEEK
Which of the following Kander and Ebb musicals have never had full-scale productions in London's West End?: Flora, The Red Menace, Cabaret, The Happy Time, Zorba, 70, Girls, 70, Chicago, The Act, Woman of the Year, The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Answer to last week's quiz: Jane Russell and Vivian Blaine were Elaine Stritch's successors in the Broadway production of Company. In the London production, Stritch was replaced by Marti Stevens.


ASK KEN
Rod Sharp of St. Louis writes:
I read an article which said that Kiss of the Spider Woman is one of only two shows to be recorded twice during its original run. Unfortunately, the article did not identify the other show. Do you know what it was?
KM: The reference is probably to the Broadway production of Hello, Dolly!, which was recorded with Carol Channing and the original cast, and later with Pearl Bailey. The difference is that the two Kiss recordings feature a few of the same performers; a completely new company took over Dolly! with Bailey, so the Bailey recording could almost be viewed as preserving a new production.

Gordon Carruthers of Canada asks: I am a fan of The Mystery of Edwin Drood through its recording, but when it toured (with Jean Stapleton, and Clive Revill subbing for the previously announced George Rose, but that's another story, never mind!), the show was a little different, with some songs not on the recording. I recently saw a student production of it at the Betty Oliphant Theatre and again, there were these discrepencies. I'm sure I am not the only one out there in the dark who's a little in the dark about this. With the joy of being able to read you every Monday, "Everything's As If We Never Said Goodbye." So Goodbye for now...
KM: Actually, I've received more than one letter about this situation. While the cast recording reflects the opening night Broadway version, Drood was revised when it was presented at the Savoy Theatre, London in 1987. Because it was felt that the intense duet "The Name of Love" did not work as an Act One finale without Howard McGillin and Patti Cohenour, that song was moved to the second act, while "Off To The Races," in the second act on Broadway, was moved up to become the first act finale. "A British Subject" replaced "Ceylon," "A Private Investigation" replaced "Settling Up The Score," and "England Reigns" was restored from pre-Broadway versions. The London production (starring Ernie Wise, Lulu, Julia Hills, Paul Bentley, David Burt, Mark Ryan, and Cohenour brought in at the last minute to replace Sarah Payne) was a flop and went unrecorded, but I gather that the changes made for it were put into the tour you saw and are now part of the standard performance version.

Send your questions to kenmanbway@aol.com