ON THE RECORD: Kander & Ebb's Curtains and the Revised Grey Gardens on Broadway

News   ON THE RECORD: Kander & Ebb's Curtains and the Revised Grey Gardens on Broadway This week's column discusses the original cast recording of Curtains starring Tony Award winner David Hyde Pierce and the new Broadway cast album of Grey Gardens starring Tony winners Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson.

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CURTAINS [Broadway Angel/Manhattan Records 0946 3 92212]
In a season that featured new-style musicals of different stripes, Curtains came in as the entry representing the good-old-fashioned kind. It received a generally friendly welcome, in good part because it was the final offering from the fabled team of Kander & Ebb. At least, the final offering to date; there remain a few other unproduced projects still on the hotplate. The show's welcome was tampered by a feeling in some quarters that Curtains was somewhat warmed over, or not thoroughly cooked, or perhaps underbaked in the middle. The show was something like a dysfunctionally-prepared Thanksgiving feast, with plenty of side dishes but a bird that didn't live up to the tasty trimmings. The critics didn't take a knife to the show, exactly, but many viewers — both professional and merely recreational — got up from their seats wanting just a little more.

There is no tune as exciting as a show tune in 2/4, to quote the bard (or J. Herman, at least), and Kander & Ebb long ago perfected the ability to write a real rouser that sets you to humming and tapping and beaming. The charms of Curtains begin with the inclusion of a few songs in that category, namely "Show People," "What Kind of Man?" and "It's a Business." Parts of this score will be familiar to K&E fans; they don't copy earlier melodies, no, but they feature the styles, the charms, and in places the vamps of any number of titles ("Roxie," "The Grass Is Always Greener," even "Bobo's"). This is all to the good, in this case; Curtains is intended to be nostalgic, and it succeeds in reminding us of the genuine amusement provided in the past by its purveyors.

But there is another hallmark of K&E musicals that is represented here. Those who sat through such offerings as The Rink, The Act, Woman of the Year and Steel Pier might well recognize the sensation of moments of high entertainment surrounded by — well, moments of restlessness, and many of them. With the exceptions of Cabaret and Chicago, Kander & Ebb's song gems have almost always been accompanied by items of a lesser nature. And this comes from someone who unblushingly admits to undiminished fondness for Flora the Red Menace; but I ask, have you listened to "Palomino Pal" lately?

And so it goes with Curtains. There are more than a few highly enjoyable songs, namely those mentioned above plus the ballad "I Miss the Music" and the charming duet "Tough Act to Follow." However, there are just as many that are the opposite; the sort of thing where the content is fully delivered in the first line of the song, followed by a lengthy series of variations on the theme, like a New Yorker cartoon with a dozen alternate captions. No matter how industrious the lyricist, he cannot be expected to top himself eight times.

Which brings us to the question of the lyricist(s). Curtains was originally devised in the early '80s by the Messrs. Kander, Ebb and Peter Stone (who first collaborated on the 1981 musical Woman of the Year). This backstage murder mystery musical was to be a contemporary piece; the obvious target was not the leading lady of a fictional musical, as in Curtains, but the bigwig producer. (The working title was Who Killed David Merrick? with whom K, E & S had all tangled.) The project languished; the authors went on to other things, yes, but I expect that the true reason was that the material simply did not work out satisfactorily. As the fiftyish authors turned seventyish, though, they seem to have dusted off the idea and gone back to work. By this point, their original protagonist, Mr. Merrick, was no longer a potential target. Stone, librettist of 1776 and other hit musicals, died in 2003. Invited into the project as replacement was Rupert Holmes, composer-lyricist-librettist of Broadway's most successful murder mystery musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985). Holmes proceeded to recast the musical as a period piece, which appears to have been a sound idea. (In the process, the only known musical comedy lyric about esoteric composer Robert Wilson was lost; in its place came one about "mounting Samuel Beckett.") Work progressed until the fall of 2004, when Fred Ebb died of a heart attack.

Ebb was one of the likeliest of all purveyors of the musical comedy trade to subscribe to the theory of "the show must go on." And so it was that Kander and Holmes pressed ahead, finishing up the lyrics as necessary. The pair share an "additional lyrics by" credit, but their contributions seem to be somewhat more substantial. At this date, nobody has stepped forward with official attributions, which to some of us is not an inconsequential question. (If they ever get around to preparing a "Complete Lyrics of Fred Ebb" tome, one prefers that it not include such clinkers as "Wide Open Spaces" and "Thataway" — unless they were, indeed, penned by Ebb.)

That being the case, a little detective work — i.e. musical comedy detective work — allows us to verify that the following songs have lyrics by Ebb (perhaps with some minor, posthumous rewrites): "What Kind of Man?," "The Woman's Dead," "The Show Must Go On/Show People," "He Did It," "It's a Business" and "Tough Act to Follow." Kander himself wrote the lyric for the beautiful and poignant ballad, "I Miss the Music." The other winning ballad, "Thinking of Him" (which brings to mind similar work in Steel Pier), could be either Ebb or Holmes; in either case, it is a worthy addition to Kander's songbook. "Coffee Shop Nights" falls in the Ebb/Holmes category as well.

The aforementioned "Wide Open Spaces" and "Thataway," along with "Kansasland" and "In the Same Boat," are tied to the lame show-within-the-show, and were thus apparently written after Holmes entered the project in the fall of 2003. They might have been written by Ebb over the next months, or after his death the following September by Holmes and Kander. (My understanding is that one of the four — "Thataway"?? — was written by Ebb.)

"In the Same Boat," it should be noted, is emblematic of the trouble with Curtains. This is a show-within-the-show tune which is clearly unsatisfactory; if only they can fix this song, the characters are sure, the turkey will turn into a — well, enough of these culinary images. But "In the Same Boat" is the key to the problem, we are told in several scenes, so they keep on plugging away at it. This is in the manner of Sondheim's "It Started out Like a Song" in Merrily We Roll Along, or Kurt Weill & Ira Gershwin's "My Ship" in Lady in the Dark, both of which are developed as part of the plot and ultimately revealed to be songs of great beauty. Not so the innocuous "In the Same Boat." The final version remains as weak as the first two; not good planning, especially when it's slotted as the so-called eleven o'clock number.

Fortunately for all, Curtains benefits from the innumerable talents in evidence nightly at the Hirschfeld. The featured players, in themselves, could carry many a show on their own; their availability and give-it-all-you've got efforts point to the dearth of traditional musical comedy currently on the boards. I refer specifically to Jason Danieley, Karen Ziemba, Noah Racey, Ed Hibbert and the heretofore lesser-known Jill Paice. Come curtain call time they are content to stand in line behind the above-title stars, but they each give especially winning contributions.

The same can be said for the music staff. David Loud does his customarily expert job as musical director; he also gets to act and even sing a little bit from his podium. (In addition to his podium skills, Loud is well-remembered for his onstage role in Terrence McNally's "Master Class"; he was also one of the youngsters in the original Merrily, understudying Lonny Price as Charley Kringas.) William David Brohn provides the 15-piece orchestrations, stringless — except for string bass and a guitar chair — and here supplemented by an additional keyboard. (Maybe it's just me, but the charts sound far better on the CD than on my two visits to the theatre.) They are joined by David Chase, who knows how to build dance arrangements that create excitement in themselves; "Tough Act to Follow" is a case in point.

This treasurable assortment of featured players should not overlook the contributions of the names above the title. Debra Monk, as the foul-mouthed producer, commands the stage in the manner she has become accustomed to; she is powerful and funny no matter what she does, with the ability to jumpstart the theatrical energy by simply lifting her eyebrow. Which comes in mighty handy, in Curtains.

The leading character, Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, is a naïve Boston detective thrown in amongst a group of "show people." Top-billed star David Hyde Pierce is, in a way, not unlike his character: An outsider thrust in amongst a band of savvy Broadwayites. The Emmy Award-winning TV star has local experience of course, capped by a starring role in Spamalot; but people like Monk, Ziemba and Hibbert are Broadway babies grown up. Hyde Pierce steps in gingerly, but by the middle of the second act is dancing around like Fred Astaire. Or rather like a 1959 Boston detective dancing around like Fred Astaire. Hyde Pierce underplays so ingratiatingly that he just about steals the show from his highpowered fellow players — which is, of course, what he must do in the context of the piece. He recently won this year's highly-contested Tony for Best Actor in a Musical; while his selection was received in some quarters as a stunning surprise, he certainly deserves an award for carrying Curtains.

GREY GARDENS [PS Classics PS-642]
Reviewing the original Off-Broadway cast recording of Grey Gardens in this column last September, I wrote:

"Grey Gardens is, simply enough, the most intriguing musical theatre score since The Light in the Piazza. Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, along with their estimable librettist Doug Wright, have taken the line of most resistance: pick the most intriguing yet impossible-sounding source material you can find, fall in love with it and figure out a solution. That is what they have done, pretty much."

That opinion remains valid; Grey Gardens has had a bit of competition in that regard from Spring Awakening, a fellow transfer from the world of Off-Broadway non-profits to the 48th St.-49th St. Broadway block, where the pair of ground-breaking musicals sit literally back to back. Spring Awakening, as you might have heard, came in and pretty much swept up the season's writing and production awards. Deservedly so; it expands the boundaries of the field and at the same time promises to develop flocks of new theatregoing fans. While I don't begrudge the Messrs. Sheik and Sater their shiny new Tony medallion, I find the Grey Gardens score more theatrical. Frankel and Korie keenly and perceptively use songs to develop plot and define characters, in a manner that is somewhat beside the point of Spring Awakening. Lest anyone ask, I have been strongly recommending both musicals to anyone interested since first viewing them Off-Broadway, and that recommendation stands. Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening work in very different ways, but they both work and are both, in the scheme of things, not to be missed.

Both musicals underwent the usual changes en route from one venue to another. While Spring Awakening incorporated most of the changes in their cast album, Grey Gardens was initially recorded before a Broadway transfer seemed imminent. Thus, you got the Playwrights Horizons version with the Playwrights Horizons cast. Much of the score remained the same, as did most of the players; but given the importance of the Broadway production, PS Classics has seen fit to bring us a second Grey Gardens cast album. Not all new, as most of the Off-Broadway album is repeated. However, the new-for-Broadway changes (including "The Girl Who Has Everything," "Goin' Places" and "Marry Well") have been added, while the corresponding old songs (including "Body Beautiful Beale," "Better Fall out of Love" and "Being Bouvier") are now deleted.

Dedicated fans of Grey Gardens will want, and really need, both CDs. PS Classics has confused us slightly, as both versions feature the precise same catalog number. The Off-Broadway album features a color photo of Ms. Ebersole, against a gray background; the Broadway album features the logo girl — with mirror, in flowered hat — against a green background.

Erin Davie, who replaced Sara Gettelfinger in the role of the younger Little Edie for the transfer, has re-recorded her major songs; so has young Kelsey Fowler, as Lee Bouvier. There are still vestigial echoes of their predecessors in certain numbers. The major performances in the show, needless to say, come from Tony Award-winners Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson; both are of a caliber you don't see often, which is reason enough for any potential customers to make the trek to the Walter Kerr. For what it's worth, let me add that on my most recent visit I was struck by the excellence of both Bob Stillman and Matt Cavanaugh. On first and perhaps second viewing, they are overpowered by the ladies, and no wonder; but the support they offer the two Edies helps make possible the astonishing central performances of Grey Gardens. (Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com)

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