Conceived and directed by Rob Ruggiero, the production began Aug. 11 and opened Aug. 18 at TheaterWorks in Hartford, where Ruggiero is associate artistic director.
The cast — New Yorkers Sandy Binion, Joe Cassidy, Adam Heller, Sally Wilfert, and a very active pianist named John DiPinto — have made their unamplified voices heard way back to Manhattan. Musical direction is by Michael Morris.
The reviews were so positive that producers pricked up their ears. One set? A cast of four? A solo piano? Songs by a Tony winner? That's the stuff that makes producers' hearts beat faster.
There is active interest in moving the intimate show Off-Broadway, Playbill.com learned. Members of New York's independent commercial and not-for-profit institutional producing communities have seen the show at the 200-seat TheaterWorks, or have booked tickets to the run (which ends there Sept. 24).
Finn, 54, is said to love the show and is actively promoting the idea of a move to Manhattan. Discussions center on preserving the "downtown" actor-driven simplicity of Ruggiero's stripped-down conceit. Don't expect to see the show in a 1,000-seat house.
Any move to New York City would have to fit in with the schedule of busy director Ruggiero, who is overseeing regional engagements of his popular Ella (as in Fitzgerald) musical. He's also booked to stage Take Me Out in Hartford and Urinetown in St. Louis in the coming months.
If Make Me a Song does move, the earliest start would be January 2007, pending investors and an available theatre.
Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn (the full title) uses well-known, lesser-known and trunk numbers by the songwriter whose musicals include Falsettos, A New Brain, Elegies: A Song Cycle and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The production has been revised, tweaked and refined since its start Aug. 11.
Ruggiero, who directed Falsettos and Elegies for Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires, went right to the source and asked permission to construct a revue. Finn, knowing Ruggiero's track record, said yes, and offered access to his catalog, including cut, trunk and obscure numbers.
"Why We Like Spelling," cut from Spelling Bee, makes an appearance at the end of Act One of Make Me a Song, with the cast in full middle-school drag. Act Two opens with a "suite" from Falsettos, including "Four Jews in Room Bitching," "A Tight-Knit Family," "Trina's Song," "March of the Falsettos," "The Games I Play," "The Baseball Game," "Something Bad," "Holding to the Ground" and "Unlikely Lovers."
Make Me a Song is not comprised of the "greatest hits" of William Finn, however. That idea didn't interest Ruggiero.
"Dear Reader (or, How Critics Kill Art)," a vocally ambitious exchange between an author and a critical consumer of her book, will be a discovery for many listeners. "How Marvin Eats His Breakfast," from In Trousers, is included, and so is I Have Found, from Finn's take on Kaufman and Ferber's The Royal Family, an unproduced musical.
"Hitchhiking Across America" (sung sweetly by Cassidy, recalling the best of the pop troubadours of the 1970s) is an orphaned song from a show that was never completed.
Make Me a Song is not a chorological look at Finn's output over the years, and doesn't address Finn's shows in sections (except for Falsettos).
Ruggiero created the revue with the strengths of his actor-singer cast in mind. Wilfert is the legit soprano with a rich mix whose actorly instinct is to find riches in lyrics and let the audience discover them ("Anytime-I'll Be There," "Holding to the Ground"), Binion has a chocolate-rich mezzo whose belt can express rage when Finn writes about emotional earthquakes ("All Fall Down," "Change"), Heller is the character man (singing "Republicans" and "Mister, Make Me a Song," he sounds like the love child of Finn and Al Jolson), and the smooth-voiced Cassidy is the rare recording-worthy performer who has an actor's warmth (he gets Finn's choice "I'd Rather Be Sailing" and "I Went Fishing With My Dad").
"I think of it as deconstructed yet whimsical," Ruggiero previously said. "It's sort of downtown, colorful, basement theatre. I want it to be a really fun evening, a little more theatrical and less cabaret…great summer fare that's also moving and irreverent."
Ruggiero said in August he expected the experience to match the "impulsive energy" of Bill Finn, whose songs are known for their quirky use of language, neurotic energy and depth of feeling.
The revue's title comes from "Mister, Make Me a Song," a song heard on the "Infinite Joy" album, representing a cabaret evening at Joe's Pub. It was written for Mandy Patinkin, according to program notes.
The creative team for Make Me a Song includes set designer Luke Cantarella, costume designer Alejo Vietti and lighting designer John Lasiter.
Massachusetts native Finn is the writer/composer of Falsettos (Tony Award winner for Best Book [with James Lapine] and Best Original Score). He has written/composed In Trousers (L.A. Drama Critics Award), March of the Falsettos (Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Musical, L.A. Drama Critics Award), Falsettoland (two Drama Desk Awards and Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical), Romance in Hard Times (Public Theater), A New Brain (Lincoln Center/Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical) and Elegies: A Song Cycle (Lincoln Center).
Finn was a 2005 Tony nominee for Best Original Score for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. He graduated from Williams College, where he was awarded the Hutchinson Fellowship in Musical Composition, and currently teaches a weekly master class at NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. Finn is artistic producer of Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab, for which he and BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd guide new works to development and production.
For more information about TheaterWorks in Hartford, call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.