ON THE RECORD: Off-Broadway's Seussical and Enter Laughing

News   ON THE RECORD: Off-Broadway's Seussical and Enter Laughing
 
We listen to the recent Off-Broadway revival cast albums of Seussical and Enter Laughing.

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Seussical [Jay CDJay 1420]
The monumental Seussical, borrowing characters and plot elements from the books of Dr. Seuss, was a failure of mammoth proportions when it came to the Richard Rodgers on the final day of November 2000, done in by any number of oversized ailments of Drabinskyesque proportions. (Garth Drabinsky's production company Livent imploded before the show reached the stage, but the elephantine grandiosity of scale survived.) What we got was an excess of top-of-the-line $tagecraft matched by a lack of imaginative "thinks," to borrow a word from the good doctor. Seussical lumbered through almost six months, with a few spells of stunt casting prolonging the experiment without much effect. And then it was gone, to the land from which few failed shows return. What Seussical had, though, was a better score (by Stephen Flaherty & Lynn Ahrens) than immediately apparent, plus the sort of title that was sure to stand out in any stock and amateur catalogue. Seussical has thus had an active afterlife, with many pleased customers.

Among the numerous productions was one presented for touring by the New York non-profit group TheatreworksUSA, producer of quality children's theatre (including the very first produced work of Flaherty & Ahrens, a 1985 one-act version of "The Emperor's New Clothes"). A Manhattan engagement of the Theatreworks Seussical opened on July 17, 2007, at the Lortel on Christopher Street, as that year's installment in the Theatreworks free summer theatre series. And it was exceptional fun, proving that even in the heart of little old New York you can once in a very long while get something good for nothing.

Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge used only 12 actors — which I suppose is a substantial number of salaries when you are giving away tickets for free — and a physical production consisting of five beach umbrellas, a trunk, and an assortment of odds and ends (egg beaters, colanders, and such). The whole thing was an unmitigated delight, demonstrating that Seussical really was, at heart, magical. (Ms. Dodge's reward, I suppose, was the opportunity to stage the Kennedy Center's Ragtime — which wound up on Broadway! Oh, the thinks you can think. . . .)

Jay Records, the U.K. outfit which has conscientiously given us the recent work of Flaherty & Ahrens (including Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, and The Glorious Ones — each of which has been recommended in this column) has now brought us the Theatreworks production of Seussical. All 75 minutes, from overture to exit music. The recording, like the production, is a delight. Brian Michael Hoffman plays Horton, Michael Wartella is Jojo, and Shorey Walker is that rascally Cat. Bryan Louiselle adapted the orchestrations from Doug Besterman's originals, and conducts as well. Prime among the CDs attributes is the chance to see how well-crafted and highly imaginative these songs — which kind of got lost in 2000 amidst all that production — really are. "Oh, The Thinks You Can Think," "It's Possible," "Alone in the Universe," "How Lucky You Are," "Solla Sollew," "Green Eggs & Ham": that's winner after winner, from Flaherty & Ahrens.

Enter Laughing [Jay CDJay 1417]
If Seussical was a failure of front-page proportions, So Long 174th Street was virtually overlooked in the Broadway showshop. Enter Laughing — Joseph Stein's 1963 dramatization of Carl Reiner's memoir — was a moderate success, buoyed by the young actor who played the fictionalized Reiner. Although in retrospect, it was unclear whether Enter Laughing made a star of Alan Arkin, or Alan Arkin made a hit out of Enter Laughing.

By 1976, though, the play (and its 1967 Reiner-directed film version) was already pretty much forgotten. And then a musical version surfaced. The presence of a first-time songwriter from sitcomland lent a whiff of vanity production, and the star casting of 45-year-old Robert Morse as the teenaged hero sounded so strange that prospective ticket-buyers knew to wait for the reviews on this one. Good thing, too, as the enterprise was roundly slammed. ("A traditional theatrical disaster, such stage misery that it is the week's best argument for euthanasia," said the New York Post, "junk from top to bottom." And that was the general consensus.) Two weeks, and out.

The York Theatre, preparing a mini-season of concert readings of musicals with librettos by Joe Stein — Musicals in Mufti, they call them — decided to include the unlamented So Long 174th Street, canning the less-than-mellifluous title in favor of the simpler and clearer Enter Laughing. The reading, directed by Stuart Ross, turned out to be exceedingly funny. Which led the York to come back with a full mainstage production, which opened on Sept. 3, 2008.

The full-scale production — if you can term anything at the tiny York "full-scale," with minimal stage space and a three-piece band — was well received, in great part due to the presence of a fresh new comedian named Josh Grisetti. Mr. Grisetti seems to be a clown of the first order, and he certainly made Enter Laughing generate laughing. Also on hand was veteran scene-stealer George S. Irving, recreating his role from the 1976 production. But the hidden asset of the York production was the script. Durable, old-fashioned comedy scenes might not seem like much, but they turn up so infrequently on New York stages that they — and Mr. Grisetti — provided entertainment.

Josh Grisetti and Allison Spratt in Enter Laughing
photo by Carol Rosegg

But oh, those songs. They were lethal in 1976, and they have not improved with age. Stan Daniels, an Emmy-Award winning writer from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," wrote 'em, and they follow a very clear pattern. Many are pastiche, but pastiche without much imagination; quite a few are list songs, taken from shopworn lists. There's a telephone duet in which humor is supposed come from the operator continually disconnecting the singers. There's a song in which two teenaged boys sing about "Undressing Girls," with Mr. Daniels going on about "whats-its" and "thing-a-ma-bobs." There's a song made up of famous phrases from old ballads — "You were meant for me, just tea for two and two for tea." There's a song in which Mr. Irving's character compliments everyone's acting ability while simultaneously calling them "ignorant asinine stupid illiterate schmucks." (Now, that's funny, isn't it???) A one-note song for a nymphomaniac: "The man I can love must have a nose," the refrain starts, going on to say he needs eyes and ears and skin. A list song in which the boy tells how he touched the girl's breast, "bazoom," "knocker," "booby," "bong-bong." And there are plenty more that follow the pattern. Special mention should be made of something called "The Butler's Song," which starts with "He's screwing Dolores Del Rio" and goes on from there. Mr. Daniels thus memorializes 23 Hollywood leading ladies, really working his imagination to come up with enough classy little euphemisms to stretch across three refrains. ("He shtups Sylvia Sidney at four.") Now, this was delivered with elan by Mr. Irving, and let me say that it was greeted with a cascade of laughter at the York. (Not at the Harkness, back in 1976, at least the night I was there; by the second act of So Long 174th Street, nobody was laughing.) If you find this sort of notion blissfully hysterical, you might appreciate the rest of Mr. Daniels' score. I say, pastiche is fine in a musical; off-color humor is fine; wildly zany rudeness is fine. But if it's not witty, clever or funny, the songs will sound not like pastiche; just lousy.

The new CD — which features an expanded orchestra of seven playing arrangements and orchestrations by Matt Castle, based on the original arrangements and orchestrations by Luther Henderson — preserves it all, and most thankfully includes Mr. Grisetti. But what worked in Enter Laughing at the York, and made it a palatable and amusing way of spending a couple of hours, were the book scenes. Which are not on the CD.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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