Off-Off-Broadway Rhythm: The Passion Behind the Musicals Tonight! Series

Special Features   Off-Off-Broadway Rhythm: The Passion Behind the Musicals Tonight! Series
 
We catch up with Mel Miller, indefatigable producer whose Musicals Tonight! showcase series revives vintage (and recent) musicals, including this month's Theodore & Co. and Up in Central Park.

Mel Miller
Mel Miller Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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"I can't sing," Mel Miller says. "I can't dance. I can't act. So I do this."

What Miller does — and has been doing for 13 years — is run the not-for-profit Musicals Tonight!, the Off-Off-Broadway theatre company that specializes in semi-staged, script-in-hand showcase revivals — 63 of them so far.

"I love the giggle of musicals," Miller says. "I love the songs. There's a certain joy. When that overture starts, it gets into your blood. When you're happy watching a musical, your feet don't touch the ground. And because it's theatre, you're floating up there with the people around you, even though they're strangers. You're all part of this magic."

The impressive list of Musicals Tonight! revivals includes The Boy Friend, Cabin in the Sky, Drat the Cat!, Ernest in Love, Foxy, Goldilocks, Half a Sixpence, I Married an Angel, Irma la Douce, Let It Ride (the very first), Meet Me in St. Louis, Me and My Girl, My Favorite Year, Naughty Marietta, Paint Your Wagon, The Rink and Silk Stockings. All shows are presented as piano-and-voice affairs. No. 64 is an American premiere, Theodore & Co. It's a comedy about London society in the second decade of the 20th century, and it was Jerome Kern's first London musical; it opened in 1916 and lasted for more than 500 performances but never made it across the Atlantic. The show runs March 15-27 at the McGinn/Cazale Theater at Broadway and 76th Street. No. 65, the final show of this season, is Up in Central Park (March 29-April 10), a 1945 tuner with music by Sigmund Romberg, the king of the operetta, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields (Sweet Charity, among many others). The score includes two semi-standards, "April Snow" and "Close as Pages in a Book."

Miller, 68, grew up in the Bronx and has loved musicals since childhood. "When I was a kid I listened to a CBS radio drama, 'Grand Central Station,' around noon on Saturdays. And right after was a show that played Broadway original cast recordings. I didn't know anything about theatre. I probably wouldn't have chosen to listen to that show except it was on right after 'Grand Central Station.' My parents didn't have the money to go to Broadway musicals. I didn't see a Broadway show until I was out of college. But there was something in the air and on the air that grabbed me. The first LP I ever owned was Oklahoma! My mother let the moths out of the wallet and we saw the movie version at the old Rivoli Theatre in Times Square, in Cinemascope. We sat way in front, and the corn was higher than an elephant's eye."

Paige Simunovich and Mary Jo Mecca in The Rink.

The first Musicals Tonight! production was Let It Ride, a 1961 show adapted from a 1935 comedy, Three Men on a Horse, with music and lyrics by Jay Livingstone and Ray Evans; the Broadway version starred George Gobel and Sam Levene, and lasted all of 68 performances.

How did the first production happen? "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this nice Jewish boy with bachelor's and master's degrees in chemical engineering and an M.B.A. would produce theatre. But then, about 15 years ago, I was at the gym and I struck up a conversation with this guy who was involved in Internet projects. He had been investing in theatre and I decided to become his acolyte. I was going to watch him."

It didn't work out, but Miller opted anyway to begin a later-in-life show business career. "I thought, anyone can produce. You just have to write checks.'' He laughs. "So with that brilliant deduction I decided to produce the show that he was going to produce. I was clueless. All I had was the LP. I was reading all the fine print trying to figure out who I call to get the rights. How do I do this? And I figured it out. I sort of invented it from dirt. I knew so little about it.

"And both the process and the end result were so overwhelming that I said, 'Let's do another one. And another one.' All within six months. And then I said, 'Well, you want to be an adult about this. You have to have subscribers. You have to book in advance.' So that's how we started." Miller had gotten together with a director, Thomas Sabella-Mills, who has directed all but one of the productions. (As you might expect, Miller has the highest praise for his director, who is helming both Theodore & Co. and Up in Central Park.)

Ivor Novello

For Miller, perhaps the most fascinating original participant in Theodore & Co. was composer Ivor Novello, who is little known these days and who, while in the British Royal Navy, co-wrote the music with Kern. "Novello was a very big British star," Miller says. "At the age of 21, he had written the song 'Keep the Home Fires Burning,' which galvanized Britain as it went to World War I. Two years later, when he was the ripe old age of 23, someone patted him on the back and said, 'We'd like you to write a musical.' One of his co-writers was George Grossmith Jr.," whose father starred in Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operas. Miller discovered the show on a trip to London, while doing research. "I thought it was charming," he says. "I thought an American audience should see it. So this will be the American premiere of a 95-year-old musical co-written by someone most Americans don't know." Novello was also a silent movie actor who was in a couple of Alfred Hitchcock's silent films — "The Lodger" and "Downhill." "He was a big West End star but he never cultivated an American audience. If Americans know him its because he was a character in 'Gosford Park' — he was the one at the piano."

Miller smiles. "And if Theodore & Co. is a big hit, maybe we'll do another one of his shows."

Up in Central Park, he says, is a "traditional operetta" written by Romberg (The Student Prince, The Desert Song), long after the prime years of the Broadway operetta, the teens and the 1920s. "It's about the Boss Tweed ring, the corrupt Democratic political machine, in New York City in 1870. It's about what Tweed was trying to do to New York, and how the media finally gave him his comeuppance." But because it's a musical, there are also girls and boys and romance — "some of Tweed's lowly henchmen have daughters who have musical aspirations. It's very rich musically, and, above all, it's fun." The original ran 504 performances, a good number in those days. A dancer who was in the show's international U.S.O. touring company, Anneliese Widman, lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

"Opening night is two days after her 90th birthday, and we're planning to have a party for her," Miller says. How does he decide which musicals he will revive?

"I read a lot of scripts," he says. "I listen to a lot of music. I listen to a lot of people. Some people steer me away from things. Some people steer me to things. It's very unscientific. I guess the bottom line, since I don't get paid, is that I have to feel proud that I have marshaled all these resources to put this baby on its feet — that the digging and rehearsing and everything else one has to do has been worth doing." The bottom line, he says, "is that it has to be something I fall in love with."

Milk and Honey composer Jerry Herman
photo by Aubrey Reuben

In the fall, Musicals Tonight! is moving from the Upper West Side to Theatre Row, on West 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The first show will be Jerry Herman's 1960 Milk and Honey, about the founding of Israel, and the second will be All-American, a 1962 musical about football at the "Southern Baptist Institute of Technology" that starred Ray Bolger and had music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams and a book by Mel Brooks — yes, that Mel Brooks. (Strouse and Adams' "Once Upon a Time" is a standout from the score.)

"We decided on the move because we wanted to both treat ourselves, because the backstage amenities are first class, and treat our patrons, because the front of the house and lobby amenities are first class," Miller says of the midtown move. The troupe will play the smallest theatre in complex, the Lion, which has 88 seats, 11 fewer than his current venue, and he knows that there's "a risk involved, because geographic desirability is always a factor" — there's a chance his Upper West Side subscribers may not follow him.

But, he says, it is worth the risk. "We've done all these shows, with so many actors. Some have gone on to Broadway. Some are still in the trenches. One reason I do what I do is for actors like Steve Brady. He was our lead in our last show," George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's I'd Rather Be Right, from 1937. "He played Franklin Delano Roosevelt," the role George M. Cohan had in the original.

"Steve did a brilliant job. He's in his '50s. He's a working actor. He has one Broadway credit. Anne Kaufman, George S. Kaufman's daughter, saw him in the lead role. She loved what he did and she called the casting director Jay Binder. She said, 'He's wonderful. Maybe you have something for him.' Steve is auditioning with Jay. I'm not sure what will materialize. But he's having that audition."

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Tickets for Musicals Tonight! shows are $25. For more information, call (212) 579-4230 or visit www.iseats.net. or musicalstonight.org.

Mel Miller (center) and the cast of <i>I'd Rather Be Right.</i>
Mel Miller (center) and the cast of I'd Rather Be Right. Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
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