Within the first 10 minutes of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the St. James Theatre, you will see the top-billed star reject a rag doll by saying, "I don't want this blonde baby!," react to the surprise appearance of wizened actor William Duell by exclaiming, "What am I gonna do with that old white man? Hell, I got one at home!," and fix a withering stare on latecomers while telling them how hard she's worked in the last month to get the opening number right. By the time these 10 minutes have elapsed, even those out of the country for the last six months will be aware that Nathan Lane is not in the show anymore.
The major difference between the revival's new star, the heavenly Whoopi Goldberg, and Lane, her predecessor, has little to do with the difference in gender and everything to do with style and personality. Lane played Pseudolus with a furious, manic energy that drove the whole show and was highly effective. But it was a performance powered by a certain sardonic, desperate anger; Lane was a comic demon but not a particularly warm one.
The new star is irresistible, adorable, and incredibly winning; where Lane only smiled when forced to pretend that things were going well, Goldberg smiles constantly, and I defy you not to smile along with her. With Whoopi, this Forum is more relaxed, less fiercely frantic, and much more appealing; she restores a good deal of the charm that the original 1962 Forum boasted, and the joy she takes in performing could not be more infectious.
The most obvious changes in the production to accommodate the new star are some new lyrics in "Free and a restaged "House of Marcus Lycus"; in the latter, Hero, for whom Pseudolus is now openly shopping for a courtesan, is drawn into the action, yet Goldberg is allowed non-verbal reactions to the courtesans that are more hilarious than the ones Lane had. But things have been tweaked all over the place to suit Goldberg's funky and very personal delivery (to the audience, she cries, "Don't just sit there, the bitch got the plague!"). Surprisingly unimportant is the gender shift, although many small things have been adjusted because of it.
I only saw Lane perform Pseudolus in previews, at which time he ad libbed not at all, adhering rigidly to the text; I've heard that later on he ad-libbed all over the place. Goldberg plays fast and loose throughout the opening, but thereafter sticks to the script, although, as stated, it has been somewhat altered for her. Other notes: Goldberg's singing is just fine. The new Hysterium, Ross Lehman, is miles better than his predecessor, Mark Linn-Baker. And director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Rob Marshall, co librettist Larry Gelbart, and Sondheim deserve praise for their success in redoing the show for their very different new lead.
And one really must admire Goldberg for taking this show on and committing herself to it so wholeheartedly. In terms of the musical theatre aspect of his career, Lane just had to play Pseudolus; it was a role he had been steadily working up to, and this revival would probably not have happened without him. Goldberg didn't really have to do this show, and it's possible that it would not still be running if she hadn't gone in; the fact that she's also doing it with such gusto and elan makes her assumption all the more admirable. She's doing absolutely lovely work here, and the production is now more endearing and more sweetly riotous than it was before.
ANOTHER FOLLIES IN CONCERT
Stephen Sondheim's score for Follies remains one of the contemporary musical theatre's richest and most endlessly fascinating, so recordings of it are always of special interest to fans. The first was, of course, the horribly truncated, single LP/CD Capitol/Angel original Broadway cast album.
In 1985, a starry concert version was staged at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall with the specific purpose of producing a complete recording, but, while RCA Victor's double LP/CD set is infinitely more comprehensive than the first recording, it does not quite preserve the complete original score: Dance music is abridged ("Bolero d'Amour," written by dance arranger John Berkman, is eliminated entirely), false endings are put on several numbers, and there are a number of other variations from the original score.
The third recording was of the 1987 London premiere, for which librettist James Goldman fashioned a new book that featured no more than 20 minutes of his original dialogue, shifting the show from surreal to literal and making things easier on audiences not eager to watch mature couples facing disillusionment and despair. To accommodate the new book, Sondheim replaced four fine songs with four fine new ones (although the elimination of "The Road You Didn't Take" was unforgivable). This version was ultimately rejected for future productions by Sondheim and will never be staged again.
On December 8, 1996 at London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, another Follies concert was staged and cheered, and the resulting tape was broadcast on Feb. 15, 1997 as part of BBC Radio 2's continuing series of musicals in concert; this Follies will soon be issued on two CDs by Virgin Records.
This was the first show in the series that was presented in a West End theatre before a paying audience, and perhaps because of that, it's the first that features a book adaptation (by Goldman, creating his third version) rather than the full original. As a result, London was once again deprived of hearing the original book, and the new version is not only heavily cut and rewritten (using none of the '87 rewrites), but also burdened with narration in the form of a radio announcer supposedly broadcasting live from a reunion of Follies girls.
Because it was announced that the London concert would return to the original Broadway text, one assumed that it would feature the complete original score, but it doesn't quite: The opening sequence is cut down, the final dance section of "The Right Girl" is dropped in favor of a false ending, and, as in the Lincoln Center concert, "Buddy's Blues" is performed as a solo. But the score is otherwise pretty much complete, with "Bolero d'Amour" played as an entr'acte (the original production had no intermission).
Repeating her '87 London role of Sally, Sondheim specialist Julia McKenzie is expectedly strong, and gets her first chance to speak at least some of Sally's original lines. London's Sweeney Todd, Denis Quilley, is an excellent Ben. As Phyllis, Donna McKechnie sings and delivers the speeches well, but while she's certainly plausible as a former chorus girl, she lacks the hauteur and sophistication brought to the role by Alexis Smith on Broadway and Diana Rigg in London. Ron Moody's singing is a major probem, and his Buddy is not in a league with those of Broadway's Gene Nelson and London's David Healy (both now deceased). And while West End veteran Angela Richards' "I'm Still Here" is okay, it doesn't come close to the work of West End Carlottas Dolores Gray and Eartha Kitt.
In the cameo roles, West End Heidi replacement Eileen Page is lovely in "One More Kiss"; Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson repeat their adorable "Rain on the Roof" from the London production; Joan Savage and Libby Morris are fine in "Who's That Woman" and "Broadway Baby" respectively; and it's fun to hear "Irma La Douce" herself, Elizabeth Seal, as Solange, even if she doesn't have a lot of voice left.
It's not yet clear how much (if any) of the dialogue heard on the broadcast will be included on the Virgin release. This is a spotty performance, but it is reasonably complete, and you'll probably wish to possess it. But you'll still need to have the other three Follies recordings: The original cast remains incomparable, the Lincoln Center cast is extremely stellar if not uniformly ideal, and the London version has fine leads and four songs found on no other Follies recording.
The radio broadcast was preceded by Playbill On-Line correspondent Sheridan Morley's interviews with Sondheim and McKenzie; McKenzie reveals that she was recently reunited with fellow Side By Side By Sondheim cast members Millicent Martin and David Kernan to make a new CD of Sondheim material.
TWO GENTS AGAIN
Speaking of Follies, fans of the show have never quite gotten over the fact that in 1972, the original Broadway production lost the Best Musical Tony Award to Two Gentlemen of Verona, the John Guare-Galt MacDermot-Mel Shapiro musical that, whatever its delights at the time (and they were considerable), has never had the life and following that Follies continues to have.
In recent months, New York has welcomed two stage productions of Shakespeare's original Two Gentlemen--Theatre For A New Audience presented the Globe Theatre of London's version, and Blue Light Theatre Company is currently offering a Westernized take on it. But from March 12 through 16, Marymount Manhattan Theatre will offer a rare local revival of the musical, performed by Marymount's best student talent and directed by Jeffrey Dunn, who a few years back staged Follies in Oklahoma City.
RECORDINGS: ENCORES! AND OTHERS
Since I began this column and its "Ask Ken" feature, not a week has gone by without at least one letter urging that all of the City Center "Encores!" concerts be recorded. The history thus far: The first season of "Encores!" (Fiorello!, Allegro, Lady in the Dark) went unrecorded, probably because a) the series was so new and its future was unclear, and b) there's a fine original Broadway cast album of Fiorello!, and the other two shows had very mixed receptions. By the second season, it was clear that the series was here to say, and DRG took up the gauntlet and recorded all three shows; the discs that resulted from the Call Me Madam, Out of This World, and Pal Joey concerts are not to be missed.
Then things clouded up for the third season, with Equity reportedly stepping in and making demands that would have made preserving DuBarry Was A Lady and One Touch of Venus prohibitively expensive. The final show of the third season, Chicago, was of course recorded when it moved to Broadway. I'm happy to conclude this brief saga with the news that it looks like the first "Encores!" presentation of the fourth season, Sweet Adeline, will be recorded; DRG and Nonesuch are apparently both vying for the rights.
The other constant theme of your very welcome e-mail concerns CD reissues of cast albums; many have asked when their favorite titles might finally become available, and in some cases the correspondent has become quite vehement in his or her demand for a particular show album. In general, I can only say that it's impossible to predict when certain titles will be released on CD, but that I suspect that eventually, just about everything (barring perhaps some very obscure off-Broadway material) will be reissued. You can try writing or calling those involved in the process, but thus far it does not appear to have helped matters much. The best advice: Be patient, and play the old LPS in the meantime.
NEW ENTRANCE FOR AN OLD LADY
In all of Hal Prince's earlier productions of Candide that featured Hugh Wheeler's book--from off-Broadway, to Broadway, to opera houses -the character of the Old Lady has always made a late entrance in the first act. But because Prince wanted to build up the role for Andrea Martin in his new Broadway production, he asked Stephen Sondheim to write a new section in the opening "Life Is Happiness Indeed" number for the Old Lady. But she won't get to finish it--Jim Dale as Voltaire/Pangloss will stop her and tell her to come back later, and before she makes her traditional entrance, she will make one additional and likewise aborted attempt to join the proceedings.
THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK
Currently at the restored Lyceum Theatre in London is the Really Useful Group's very effective new production of Jesus Christ Superstar, with starkly powerful staging by Australia's Gale Edwards, and a fine, Coliseum-like, in-the-round John Napier set. The production also boasts three superb leads in Steve Balsamo (Jesus), Zubin Varla (Judas), and Joanna Ampil (Mary), the latter Miss Saigon's Kim in London, Australia, and on the international recording. These singers are heard to fine advantage on the new, double-CD Really Useful Records/Polydor Superstar recording, which uses most of the current stage cast and has Alice Cooper guest starring as Herod.
As the original Broadway and London cast recordings of Superstar were single LPs, this is probably the best Superstar cast recording now available. And while the score is the most of-its-time of Andrew Lloyd Webber's oeuvre, it holds up well.
Before leaving the subject, has it been noted that Lloyd Webber's first stage musical success, Superstar, was a rock opera take on Jesus, while his most recent stage musical, Whistle Down The Wind, was about a thug thought to be Jesus. And Lloyd Webber's twin Jesus musicals are his only ones to have their stage premieres in America. While others have taken to giving Whistle the nickname Jesus Christ Superflop, you won't hear me referring to it that way.
QUIZ OF THE WEEK
Who replaced Diana Rigg in the London production of Follies?
Answer to last week's quiz: Until 1983, the Olivier Awards were known as the Society of West End Theatres Awards, or the S.W.E.T. Awards for short.
Eddie James of Washington, D.C. poses two questions:
1) Why has there never been a studio cast recording of Carrie, and do you think there ever will be one? Do you think it could be revived, if reworked? What ever happened to the concert version that was to be staged of Carrie? There is a lot of interest in this show.
KM: In addition to the ones mentioned above, another constant in the letters I've received has been Carrie, with people especially curious as to why the two Carrie numbers performed at Betty Buckley's Carnegie Hall concert last June were omitted on the Sterling disc of the event. I have found that whenever I've tried to look into questions about Carrie, I've gotten three or four different answers to the same query, resulting in a Rashomon-like effect that makes it difficult to discern the truth.
Proceeding with caution, however, I will say the following. For a number of years, Carrie authors Michael Gore, Dean Pitchford and Lawrence D. Cohen answered requests for recordings and revivals by saying that they intended to revise the show and did not wish it to be preserved or staged in its original form. Since then, no revisions have (to my knowledge) seen the light of day, and it now appears that the authors, who have moved on to other projects, have decided that it might be best not to allow the show to be held up to possible ridicule once again (even though much of the score is exciting and demonstrates that Gore has a genuine theatrical gift). That may be the reason why no official recording of the score has been made (although there has never been a show with as many live tapes in circulation), and why the numbers from Buckley's concert were left off the disc. I also heard that the authors were not happy with the ripple of excited laughter that inevitably greeted Buckley and Linzi Hateley as they were about to hurl themselves headlong into a recreation of one of the theatre's most famously overwrought duets, and there was a brief coordination problem between orchestra and singers.
What was to have been a Carnegie Hall Carrie concert apparently metamorphosed into that triumphant solo Carnegie evening for Buckley that paid tribute to Carrie. As for future productions, it's very possible that the authors will eventually allow the show to be done again, perhaps with their imput on revisions.
2) Why didn't the Sunset producers choose to bring in another big star to play Norma instead of closing the show at a loss? I have read that the reason was that there aren't enough "big" stars to play Norma, but I can think of several that would be great (Cher and Diana Ross to name just two). Wouldn't it have been better to pay a superstar's salary and run the show to profit than close the show at a loss?
KM: I believe the real reason for the various Sunset closings (New York, London, Vancouver, national tour) is actually disappointing or declining business rather than inability to secure new stars. If business were stronger on Broadway, for example, I have little doubt that major Normas Petula Clark or Diahann Carroll would have been brought in to follow Elaine Paige.
As for the big star names you list, both of whom were mentioned years ago for the show, I doubt if any really big name was interested in starring in the show after so many other ladies have come and gone. It's also unlikely that they would have been willing to agree to long commitments, and several of the big names suggested might have been long shots for success in the part.
Richard Simms of NYC writes: Happy to have discovered your new venue since the demise of Theater Week. One of my favorite scores (I never saw the show) is from the off-Broadway show Man With A Load of Mischief, which starred the late, great Virginia Vestoff. Do you know anything about a re-issue on CD? And I think this would make a great show for the City Center "Encores!" series. Speaking of which, if you were choosing the shows for an "Encores!" season, which shows would you most like to see "revisited"? Besides Mischief, my choices would be Hallelujah, Baby! and Dear World.
KM: I also love the score of Man With A Load of Mischief, and have from time to time suggested the show to small companies looking to stage a little-known but charming and intimate musical. No word yet on a CD reissue of the Kapp cast album. My top "Encores!" choices: The Golden Apple and Love Life.
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