Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Has Anybody Here Seen Starmites or Kelly?

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Has Anybody Here Seen Starmites or Kelly? STARMITES (Original Cast Records)
While the scarcity of new Broadway musicals this season has been disappointing, it's nothing compared to the situation exactly 10 years ago. 1998-'99 has at least produced Parade, a controversial show that has received sharply divided reviews but that is nonetheless a respectable contender for prizes, and Footloose, a critically dismissed production that has sufficient audience appeal to last on Broadway and to sustain a touring company. The 1988-'89 season saw only two viable contenders for Best Musical, and they were both bookless revues of old material, Jerome Robbins' Broadway and Black and Blue. That season's book shows -- Legs Diamond, Welcome To The Club, Chu Chem -- were panned by critics and closed rapidly.
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Photo by Photo by Aubrey Reuben

STARMITES (Original Cast Records)
While the scarcity of new Broadway musicals this season has been disappointing, it's nothing compared to the situation exactly 10 years ago. 1998-'99 has at least produced Parade, a controversial show that has received sharply divided reviews but that is nonetheless a respectable contender for prizes, and Footloose, a critically dismissed production that has sufficient audience appeal to last on Broadway and to sustain a touring company. The 1988-'89 season saw only two viable contenders for Best Musical, and they were both bookless revues of old material, Jerome Robbins' Broadway and Black and Blue. That season's book shows -- Legs Diamond, Welcome To The Club, Chu Chem -- were panned by critics and closed rapidly.

And then there was Starmites, which somehow found sufficient critical support to make it (after off-off-Broadway and regional mountings) to Broadway's Criterion Center in April, '89. With an inexplicably favorable New York Times review (from Mel Gussow, rather than first-stringer Frank Rich, who surely would not have approved), it garnered a Best Musical Tony nomination (the only book show in the category that season), and wound up in other categories as well (the book and score categories were eliminated). Starmites won nothing and closed shortly after the Tonys.

I've always maintained that even the worst flops have their fans, and Starmites -- something of a would-be Rocky Horror Show / Little Shop of Horrors -- had more than a few. Perhaps owing to their devotion, we now have a CD which is apparently a combination of demo tracks made at the time and others newly recorded. From the Broadway cast, it features Liz Larsen (whose name is misspelled everywhere in the booklet), Gabriel Barre, and Victor Trent Cook; leads and Tony nominees Sharon McNight and Brian Lane Green are absent, although some of their music is done by performers (Gwen Stewart, Janet Aldrich, John-Michael Flate) who had smaller roles and/or understudied leads in the production.

I found Starmites to be completely without merit, a ridiculous sci fi stew I couldn't wait to get out of, and arguably the poorest show ever nominated for the Best Musical Tony; I've never understood what anyone found in it to admire, but many apparently found something. With a sound reminiscent of off-Broadway rock/pop musicals of the early '70s, Barry Keating's score is on disc not as ghastly as I had remembered it. But it remains thoroughly undistinguished, a smooth match for the silly libretto.

The Starmites disc is a gift to the show's fans, who have patiently waited for 10 years for it to happen (although they may not be happy to find McNight -- who got a lot of attention for her role of Diva -- absent). I wasn't waiting, but the CD does fill a gap in terms of recordings of Tony nominated musicals. KELLY (Original Cast Records)
If it took Original Cast Records 10 years to get to Starmites, it took even longer for them to get to a full performance of a far more legendary, more reviled (and not Tony nominated) Broadway flop, Kelly. Actually, O.C. Records released in 1980 an LP of the score, taken from a loud, virtually unlistenable demo sung by librettist-lyricist Eddie Lawrence and composer Moose Charlap. Now the label has a lavishly cast studio set featuring in the title role Brian d'Arcy James, who took the part in York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti Kelly last September. He's joined on the recording by such distinguished performers as Sally Mayes, Marcia Lewis, George S. Irving, Jane Connell, Lawrence, and Charlap's widow, Sandy Stewart.

Dropping $650,000 in its one-night run at the Broadhurst, Kelly was a very high-profile 1965 disaster. Die-hard Lawrence has long maintained that the material was tampered with during tryout engagements, and what opened on Broadway was no longer what he and Charlap had envisioned. But the York mounting and the new CD -- both first-class efforts -- should demonstrate that Kelly is not a lost gem. The supposedly true tale of a young lad who in the late 19th century jumped off the Brooklyn bridge, this is a pretty hopeless piece, and the score, while often ambitious, is at its best mediocre, and often less than that. Charlap, the initial composer of Mary Martin's Peter Pan, wrote better scores for two other Broadway flops, the guilty pleasure Whoop-Up and the unrecorded The Conquering Hero.

The quality of the performers and the infamy of the show make this kind of fun to have, though, and I certainly enjoyed listening to it a lot more than Starmites. I particularly liked the inclusion of Stewart's 1965 single of "I'll Never Go There Anymore" (which Lawrence says in the notes became "a standard"). Collectors will probably have to have this disc, which is, I trust, the last we'll hear from Kelly.

You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com