Smart producers with limited bankrolls and budding writers with limited credits have long latched onto the intimate off-Broadway revue as a format of choice. (So too, unfortunately, have any number of other theatre folk with limited talent.) Find an intriguing subject, give it a fresh and refreshing slant, stock it with personable performers, and keep your fingers crossed. If there is a public interested in your show, and you find a way to reach them, and you are not sidetracked by strikes, snowstorms, economic downturns or just plain bad luck, you can end up with a little old gold mine of your own. But folks, it ain't easy.
SECRETS EVERY SMART TRAVELER SHOULD KNOW (RCA)
Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know is aptly titled, although it depends on just how you define the phrase "smart traveler." This show is filled with jokes about diarrhea, cruise ship buffets, lost luggage, people who pass wind, native beggars, oversexed flight attendants, Harvey Smith from Texas who dances Giselle in a red spangled gown, and diarrhea. The authors seem to think diarrhea represents the height of hilarity; people who speak with thick Jewish accents places a close second.
If this sounds like your cup of borscht, so be it; to me, it brings to mind "If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium," a 1969 movie about typically crass American tourists in Europe. I have not seen Secrets..., but the material on the recording seems perfectly refreshing for '60s audiences, in their sixties. And there's a lot of it; your heart sinks when you see thirty-four track listings. In the very first song they rhyme bananas with piranhas, which is indicative of what follows. You know you're in for a rough crossing.
As you grow more and more bored, you can amuse yourself by musing over the vintage musical theatre material which this revue's thirteen authors have tried to copy. Like the tale of intercultural romance spun by the middle-aged matron who returned from her voyage with the tattoo saying "Made in Mexico," which pretty clearly lusts after Sheldon Harnick's incomparable "Boston Beguine." Like the lisping Castillian lover, familiar from Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim's "The Boy From..." Like any number of songs from Noel Coward's Sail Away. And on and on. I even detected a glimpse of Harold Rome's Pins and Needles (circa 1938). This extends to the sketches as well.
Monologist Shelley Berman used to do a piece in which he battled with a fast-talking answering machine, which was incorporated into the John Kander/Harold Prince musical, A Family Affair. Secrets... not only gives us a pale clone of this gag; it repeats the gag again and again, on four different tracks. The authors' leave no stone unturned in search of topicality; there's even a spoof, I'm afraid, of Coward's Private Lives (1930). When you finally stumble across a pleasing piece of melody ("What Did I Forget," by Dave Frishberg), it is accompanied by a flat lyric. All in all, Secrets... sounds like something Jules Monk might have done forty years ago, with the cast doing imitations of Orson Bean and Dody Goodman. If you don't know who Julius Monk and Orson Bean and Dody Goodman were, well, that's my point. The billing page includes the credit "Special Material Coordinated by Lesley Davison"; one wonders what material they consider "special." The liner notes helpfully tell us that this coordinator is actually the producer's mother.
LITTLE BY LITTLE (Varese Sarabande)
Unlike Secrets..., which is now in its second year, Little by Little opened in late January 1999 and was gone before March. Little by Little bills itself as "a musical about Friendship, Hormones... and Popcorn." Again, if this sounds like your cup of popcorn, so be it.
The show opens with the characters explaining that the story they are about to tell could easily be yours. You, the listener, that is. (They don't have character names, as if to protect your privacy; they are called "Man," Woman 1," and "Woman 2." Which leads to exchanges like Woman 1: "So, you didn't need me." Man: "Actually, she went as you.") This forced audience identification is a mistake; claiming universality is not the same as actually achieving it.
The romantic triangle of a plot is of the boy-gets-together-with-the wrong- girl-while-the-other-girl-looks-on variety. Sooner than you can say "hormones and popcorn," they had their handsome, thirty-something leading man singing his way through pubescence with a cracking voice. (Why do unimaginative authors and directors think this device is so very funny??) By the time they got around to something called "A Little Hustle Plus a Little Muscle" I was ready to call it quits. I nevertheless kept the disc on the changer, and immediately met with a jubilant song of proposal, "I'm Seein' Rainbows." (I'm still humming it, after a week.) From there on, Little by Little picks up, at least a little (by little).
Composer Brad Ross' style is somewhat reminiscent of that of Harvey Schmidt, but without the latter's strokes of starlight. The lyrics are by Ellen Greenfield, who is also the co-librettist, and Hal Hackady, whose career has never recovered from three ill-fated Broadway ventures in the early '70s (Minnie's Boys, Ambassador, and Goodtime Charley). The billing is unusual enough to draw attention to itself: "Lyrics by Ellen Greenfield" on a line by itself, followed by "Lyrics by Hal Hackady" on the next line by itself. The individual songs, though, are not specifically credited.
The performers, Darrin Baker, Liz Larsen, and Christiane Noll, all do well enough with their assignments. But Little by Little seems to be a case of trying to make something (i.e. a hit off-Broadway revue) out of a mere bunch of songs. The piece is in some ways not unlike Craig Lucas' Marry Me a Little (1980), which similarly examined matters of the heart by stringing together lots of songs. Except that that intimate off-Broadway musical had songs by Sondheim. This one settles for Ross, Greenfield, and Hackady.
After listening to the two above-mentioned discs two times each, I discovered to my horror that I had yet another new CD release of an off Broadway revue sitting around awaiting attention. Personals -- about the search for love through the personal ads -- was one of those shows that sounded so very intriguing and inherently interesting that I never bothered to see it during its unsuccessful run in 1985 at the Minetta Lane (with Jason Alexander and Dee Hoty among others). This disc, the score's first recording, features the cast of the 1998 London production.
With great misgivings I cracked open the cellophane. Imagine my surprise -- and relief -- to find that Personals is distinctly listenable. Now it's not one of your all time great musicals; but from the very opening number, "Nothing to Do with Love," you're hit by the fact that it is professional. Well-crafted, too. And unlike the other two revues, many of the jokes are actually funny. After a few hours with Secrets... and Little by Little -- well, let's just say I can't imagine ever listening to the first two again voluntarily. I'll surely replay Personals. (Memo to the Little by Little people: the adult actor playing a pubescent high school senior in Personals sings without making his voice crack. Much more effective.)
Sketchwriter/lyricists David Crane, Seth Friedman, and Marta Kauffman are the creators of the highly successful sitcom "Friends," although as Marian the Librarian's mother might have said, "Excuse me for living, but I never saw it." In a rather unusual move, they invited six different composers-including Friedman himself-to supply music. Stephen Schwartz, who was just then in his long hibernation, provides sturdy and tuneful opening numbers for both acts; and the pre-Disney Alan Menken does nicely by "I'd Rather Dance Alone." (Which, to continue our source detecting game from above, isn't up to Dorothy Fields and Arthur Schwartz's "I'd Rather Wake Up by Myself.") There are other impressive songs as well, including "I Think You Should Know" (music by Seth and Joel Phillip Friedman). On the downside, there's a strange song called "A Little Happiness," about a bisexual transvestite dwarf. Which might represent the height of hilarity to some...
While we're on the subject of musical revues, I'd like to point out that RCA has conscientiously recorded about a dozen assorted titles in the age of the compact disc. Sitting in their archives, though, is perhaps the best original revue of the last fifty years: New Faces of 1952. It is really about time -- don't you think -- for them to reissue it, filling in the left-over disc time with highlights from New Faces of 1956. "Boston Beguine," "Lizzie Borden," "Monotonous," "Guess Who I Saw Today?," and "Talent" are all gems of their kind. Generations of musical comedy fans see these songs continually cited in reviews and reference books but never have a chance to hear them. With Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Paul Lynde, Robert Clary, Inga Swenson, Jane Connell, Virginia Martin, and even Maggie Smith (croaking her way through her material in hilarious desperation), RCA would surely sell enough copies to make it worth their while. So do it, already!
-- Steven Suskin, author of "More Opening Nights on Broadway" (Schirmer) and "Show Tunes 1904-1998" (Oxford). You can E-mail him at Ssuskin@aol.com