ON THE RECORD: Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

News   ON THE RECORD: Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
 
This week's column discusses Broadway's newest hit musicals, Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Monty Python's SPAMALOT [Decca Broadway B0004265]
Listening to "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" on the original cast album of Mike Nichols and Eric Idle's Spamalot, you can't help but think — well, here, finally, is as toe-tapping a good old-fashioned show tune as you could hope to find. Jaunty, ingratiating and laced with a black comedy lyric that keeps it snappily bubbling along. Never mind that it was written in the dark ages, relatively speaking [circa 1978 A.D.], without any thought given to live theatrical use. This is as Broadway a show tune as they come, and it works like so-called gangbusters.

I, for one, also can't help but think that said song doesn't appear until the opening of the second act, which is to say the sixteenth track of the new CD. Spamalot is not the first unstoppable-blockbuster-of-a musical comedy to come along recently counterbalancing an overabundance of comedy with a score of k-rations. (Spam, if you will). This has become the new formula for success, it seems, as attested by the 3,000 rollicking theatregoers who pour out of catty-corner playhouses on 44th Street every night. Still, wouldn't it be loverly to have some songs, too?

Oh, well. Spamalot does very nicely. The musical numbers, as they are, are the equivalent of sight gags. They make their point, often hitting the mark extremely well, but the music continues well past the joke's peak. (Many of the songs deliver their content in the opening line of the lyric.) This is a show that starts with the narrator announcing that the action takes place in England. England, he tells us twice; so we immediately go into an opening number about happy life in Finland, complete with choristers saluting each other with sardines in what is titled the "Fisch Schlapping Dance." Has anybody seen Mel Brooks in the neighborhood?

The joke — the narrator (and the librettist) said England, but the chorus (and the songwriters) are in Finland — registers in a matter of moments, but we get 62 seconds of song. (Sixty-two seconds on the CD; it seems longer in the theatre.) After which the narrator returns to repeat that he said England, not Finland. End of song. But why, one wonders, did we have so much of it? Why didn't the narrator come out after the first three words ("Finland, Finland, Finland") or maybe even after the ninth word ("Finland") or the sixteenth word ("Finland"), and stop this misplaced nonsense? Having spent money on the costumes, though, the show (and the song) apparently must go on. And it does, laughingly so; if you find the slip twixt England and Finland to be uproarious, here's the entertainment for you and the hordes thronging the Shubert. I guess that all's well that end's well, to quote that great Finnish playwright.

Monty Python gets top billing at Spamalot, as seems only proper. David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry and Hank Azaria score smoothly enough with their musical numbers; the formerly little-known Sara Ramirez sings up a storm (and how!), and for her efforts has been veritably pelted with fisch. I mean superlatives. Relatively hidden away, but very much present on the CD, are Michael McGrath and Christian Borle; both do yeoman work, and are worth their weight, musical comedy-wise, in coconut shells. Sitting through Spamalot, on stage or CD, one can't help feel that the musical portion of the proceedings are subsidiary to the verbal and sight and costume and prop gags. This despite the protean efforts of the music department, namely Todd Ellison, Glen Kelly and Larry Hochman. They give John Du Prez and Eric Idle's score high polish. But please, no songs about Poland!

The songs, as they are, are highly fragmented; the CD track listings indicate only five stand-alone numbers that top three minutes. (Spamalot appears to have set a new record for one-minute songs.) Orchestrator Hochman does an especially fine job with the aforementioned "Bright Side," but there's little else that catches the ear here. A phrase which, I admit, sounds like a Spamalot sight gag.

One could formulate an interesting discourse comparing the cast albums of Spamalot and Camelot, but to what end? Lerner and Loewe's olden gold record offers melody filled, high entertainment. But on stage one is leaden while the other's gold. The new King Arthur, and the old King Mike, handily take the crown. Even without tunes.

DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS [Ghostlight 84406]
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is something else again: An overflowing of melody, with papier-mache fruit pouring from a cornucopia. From the top of the overture — a Pink Panther-ish theme, brought up to date (1985?) in potted-palm manner — we are on a deliciously maliciously clever musical comedy ride.

David Yazbek is the name. This is the same Yazbek who appeared out of nowhere (Broadway-wise) in 2000 with The Full Monty. An impressive debut; I recall praising the unexpected high spots, while accepting the generic pop nature of other sections of the score. Yazbek, in his Monty best, seemed to be aspiring to Loesser, and it paid off. His second Broadway musical is not the work of a talented sophomore; this is first-rate writing, and the CD is a pleasure.

There are some who have found the score less than ambitious, which is of course their prerogative. Not enough pretty music, goes the complaint; and some of the words are inelegant. (That is, Yazbek's conmen use the sort of street language that is heard in films, TV, and the hallowed halls of our nation's Capitol.)

But Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is not a show for pretty music and pretty sentiments; the whole tone is purposely and unrepentantly smart assed. The new musical is so consistently enjoyable, perhaps, because everyone is on the same track. Not only Yazbek and librettist Jeffrey Lane, but director Jack O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell and the designers as well. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels might well be described as Pygmalion meets Some Like it Hot, with merely being the operative word.

Yazbek's lyrics offer a seemingly nonstop fount of jokes, in the tradition of Hairspray and Avenue Q. This is the sort of show where a moon-struck millionairess enthuses over her new amour with "if music be the food of love, he ate my smorgasbord"; a naive millionairess enthuses over the wonders of the Riviera with "the skies are French, the pies are French, those guys are French, these fries are French"; and a conman, with rhyme but without reason, enthuses over the Hippocratic oath with "defend the weak and mend the ill, prescribe a pill then send a bill." Yazbek is often a couple of steps ahead; if some jokes pass by, you'll get 'em the next time.

The composer might take comfort in the fact that historically, comedy heavy scores have traditionally been slighted. Even the great Loesser received short shrift for his How to Succeed. Not enough pretty songs. There was a big love ballad, yes; but it was sung by the hero to himself. No Tony, Frank; sorry (although he did take a Pulitzer for his efforts). The following year, first-time composer Stephen Sondheim earned little respect for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The longest-running musical of the season, but Sondheim received nary a nomination. Fellow first-timers Milton Schafer and Ronny Graham did, for Bravo, Giovanni. Look where it got them. The point being, a proper score for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels almost has to be anti-sweet, anti-romantic. No insipid nothings here; no ill formed stage waits, with songs that continue long enough to fill out their allotted time without adding anything to the proceedings. Yazbek is good, and perhaps a little mad, and we should be glad to have him hanging around Times Square.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and its CD are favored with a dynamite cast. Norbert Leo Butz takes top honors, and no wonder. Early in the first act, he does a move that might best be described as "flipping the flapjacks without a spatula," with Butz impersonating the flapjack. These few seconds of stage time serve as a classic case of Broadway sleight-of-hand; while Butz appears to be flobbering around, he is actually pocketing a Tony Award. I haven't double-checked the official eligibility manual, but I seem to recall a rule stating that anyone who "flips the flapjacks" automatically wins.

Yazbek and director O'Brien have given Butz one swell role. His two comedic tour de forces, "Great Big Stuff" and "Ruprecht," are the stuff of an extroverted comedian's dreams. But he also gets to play the lovestruck swain, in con-man fashion. In "Nothing Is Too Wonderful," Butz is given a romantic ballad about the moon, with lyrics about winning a set of tires. There is also one of those "You Light up My Life" rousers, maliciously peppered with lines about body parts (hands, hearts, feet, toes, socks and ankle-bones). Butz is at all times a delicious scoundrel, who even makes us believe in the power of true love. For about 18 seconds, that is.

John Lithgow is the nominal star of the show. Despite the glitter of Butz's showy antics, Lithgow carries the piece on his shoulders and delivers it on a purloined silver-plated platter. We have seen Lithgow in numerous guises over the decades; he first came to prominence with an astounding few minutes in some Australian soccer play in 1973. (That Tony rulebook also proclaims an instant winner of any actor who can convincingly enact an emotional breakdown on the stage of a Broadway theatre while wearing — if my recollection doesn't fail — nothing.) Lithgow has been very much around, yes, with a five-year sitcom run in the late nineties earning him more celebrity (and, presumably, money) than all his fine stage work. He took a second Tony in 2002 for his performance in the problematic Sweet Smell of Success. Here he is as talented as ever, bringing a new combination of qualities: smooth, sophisticated and goofy.

Butz and Lithgow are joined by Sherie Rene Scott, who arrives late in the first act and muscles in on the boys. This is a well-conceived and well executed performance, as it has to be in order to work in the context of the show. Scott quickly catches up, with her French fries song, and thereafter shares the star spotlight. Although Mr. Butz, as Freddy, might make even Carol Channing look subdued.

The trio is supplemented by another three winning performers. Two of them share over-the-title star billing with Lithgow, Butz and Scott. And let me say, it is unheard of to find five over-the-title stars in a musical who are each worthy of the billing!

Joanna Gleason, a long-time favorite, displays remarkable stage presence; when she lights up, you simply cannot look away. As Muriel of Omaha — and there's a joke there, which needless to say the Dirty Rotten writers exploit — Ms. Gleason seems to have an actual halo. A red one which, if you look closely enough, seems to have been contrived by the hair designer. (Who, like most everyone else on board, contributes his or her own little zaniness to the proceedings.) Greg Jbara — best remembered as one of the few bright spots in Victor/Victoria, where he played the gangster star's bodyguard — has reliably given a boost to every director who could figure out what to do with him. O'Brien gives Jbara a basketful of slow burns and a Clouseauian accent; Yazbek gives him a charmingly droll duet with Gleason, "Like Zis/Like Zat." If this one doesn't win you over, to quote the late Mr. Ebb, "you're in the wrong hall tonight."

And then there's Sara Gettelfinger, with but two scenes as a refugee from Oklahoma (the state, not the musical). She bolts onstage looking like she's on hiatus from a tour of The Will Rogers Follies, in which she played ALL the cowgirls and scared away the boys. Her production number, "Oklahoma?" — that "?" is not a typo — is so over the top that it might set Tommy Tune a-swooning. As it is, I am shocked that choreographer Mitchell didn't bring out the old tambourines. Or maybe he did, and Gettelfinger kicked her way through the entire supply.

Music director Ted Sperling and orchestrator Harold Wheeler — veterans of The Full Monty, like the director and choreographer — provide Yazbek with perfect support. Sperling's show sounds first rate, as is typically the case; he also provides the vocal arrangements in tandem with Yazbek, and let it be said that the one full-out choral arrangement ("Here I Am") is sparklingly retro. Wheeler's charts follow Yazbek's many musical flavors, always with style, wit and humor. Your Dirty Rotten Scoundrels CD is likely to become a quick favorite.

The producers have come up with a scheme to distribute what they say are 50,000 free copies of the CD. Their thinking, as announced in the press, is that anyone who hears the score will be impelled to buy a ticket. This sounds naively optimistic — until you listen to the CD. At which point, you might indeed be ready to plunk down your credit card. The CD that makes it into the stores will be fuller than the freebie, containing a proper booklet plus three "bonus" tracks: two demos from Yazbek, plus Scott and jazz pianist Bill Charlap making the most of the show's biggest ballad.

The free CD is being distributed at the Imperial, which betrays a slight flaw in the producerorial reasoning; the people who get the handout are already filing into the theatre with a ticket If the Dirty Rotten producers — who, according to the houseboard, include David Belasco, Flo Ziegfeld and "The Entire Prussian Army" — are really clever and devious, they might want to set up a kiosk on the 44th Street end of Shubert Alley. That would set the box office phones jangling, all right.

—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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