ON THE RECORD: [title of show] and "Falling in Love Is Wonderful"

News   ON THE RECORD: [title of show] and "Falling in Love Is Wonderful"
 
This week's column discusses the Off-Broadway hit [title of show] and a love-duet anthology from the combined Columbia/RCA catalogues, "Falling in Love Is Wonderful."

[title of show] [Ghostlight 7915584414]
I'm going to write a musical and produce it on Broadway, even if I have to pay for the whole thing myself. That's the way it is with vanity productions, although those that actually reach the professional stage usually shutter during tryouts.

On with the Show was one of the few to reach town, the brainchild of someone called Elizabeth Miele. Miele arrived on Broadway in 1929 with a comedy that ran ten weeks. Over the next seven years, she wrote or produced eight more plays, most of which seem to have lasted less than a month. She then left the Broadway scene for pursuits unknown.

But in 1954 she came roaring back to town, as producer and lyricist of a musical comedy about a troupe of players traversing the Wild West via stagecoach. Whether Miele wore other hats is unknown; the credited composer, librettist, two directors and choreographer are suspect, with no Broadway credits for any of them before or since. During the tryout On with the Show became Hit the Trail; I suppose that at least one out-of-town critic quipped "Off with the Show" — it's almost too easy. They opened at the Mark Hellinger, a "flop house" that had seen nothing but failures since being converted to the legit. (Fifteen months later My Fair Lady took over. So much for the "flop house.")

All of this is brought to mind by [title of show]. You would think that any musical that cites Hit the Trail — as well as Happy As Larry and Beg, Borrow or Steal, for heaven's sake — is likely to be more than okay in my book. But I'll be hornswaggled (Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell see fit to cite early-50s musicals, so I might as well do it too) if I don't keep stumbling over quibbles with this likably low-key affair.

As you might have heard, [title of show] was written in three weeks, on a dare, for submission to the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival. The Messrs. Bowen and Bell determined to write a musical about writing a musical without actually writing a musical to write a musical about. [title of show] struck the fancy of the audience and the press, resulting in a full-scale production at the Vineyard last February. Full-scale meaning, in this case, four chairs and a keyboard. The Vineyard run has resulted not only in a CD but in a return engagement as well; successful, yes, though not so successful as that other Vineyard musical about puppets who don't live on easy street (or on Sesame Street, either). There is a lot – really, an awful lot – to like about [title of show]. The authors, who also comprise half of the cast, are a charming pair with a wry and clever point of view. The camaraderie onstage suggests an equal collaboration, although Bowen – as composer and lyricist – presumably contributed a larger share of the material. (There is a fair amount of Bell's dialogue on the CD as well.) Jeff (playing Jeff) and Hunter (playing Hunter) make the most ingratiating of performers, and are more than matched by Susan Blackwell (playing Susan) and Heidi Blickenstaff (playing, needless to say, Heidi). Music director/arranger Larry Pressgrove plays the keyboard.

The whole thing is written in a charmingly off-the-cuff, back-of-the-paper-placemat manner. There are quite a few sharply satirical jabs, for which I am most grateful; unfortunately, some of the jabs are either too mild or mildly too familiar. When they start making jokes of the "I hope we sell out but I hope we don't sell out" variety, or throw in laugh-lines about key changes, I can't help but think (to quote Lewis J. Stadlen, in a failed musical from 1970) "that's your idea of something new??" There are also too many arrows with inexact points. What's that joke about gay Mormons in the national company of 1776? If there's a tale to tell, tell us. It seems, though, that it's just something that the authors figured sounded good, leaving at least some listeners hanging expectantly.

There is a winning number called "An Original Musical," a duet between the composer (Bowen) and a talking piece of Blank Paper (Bell). Very funny, handily slaying any number of targets. How can you not appreciate writers who come up with the notion that "audiences want to see Paris Hilton in The Apple Tree"? But why is Blank Paper jiving in a style that Bowen identifies as somewhere between Ben Vereen and Randy Newman, with an overdose of what Bowen refers to as "foul language"? No matter how much I like this number, I can't keep from wondering — why? Is the musical style and language of Blank Paper an inside joke, a pastiche of the style of some popular Broadway songwriter?

[Note: A few readers, including a justifiably proud sibling of one of the creators, e-mailed to explain that Blank Paper is indeed an inside joke, and one that might well be caught by much of the audience. The style and language is derived from "Schoolhouse Rock," a series of rock-oriented educational programs that ran for about a dozen years beginning in 1972 and survives on CD, DVD, and the imagination of a whole generation. (Lynn Ahrens wrote about a third of the episodes.) "An Original Musical" pays homage to "I'm Just a Bill" (by Dave Frischberg), which teaches not how to write a musical but how to write a bill that will make it through Congress. So it turns out that the authors Bowen brought in a piece of pop culture that many (or most) of the audience will get, which is precisely the kind of thing that the authors of [title of show] should do! I was glad to get a more-than-satisfactory explanation, and am pleased to pass it on.]

Bowen and Bell salute On the Town as the show with which "Betty and Adolph burst upon the scene," which also doesn't sound right. I wasn't born at the time, myself, but from all reports it was not Betty and Adolph but the two 26-year olds, Lenny and Jerry, who were hailed as bright new talents. And when looking for an example of a musical that is "nine people's favorite thing" rather than "a hundred people's ninth favorite thing," Bowen and Hunter select Bock and Harnick's Tenderloin – a show that was apparently nobody's favorite thing, not even Bock or Harnick's.

[title of show] is full of little darts like this, none of them harmful in themselves. But this is specialized material, for a specialized audience; if you're not constantly on target, you wind up hitting yourself in the foot. Forbidden Broadway, while quite a different type of entertainment, is instructive. You can't really compare the two, as Gerard Alessandrini is working with existing music. But the best Forbidden Broadway sketches are mercilessly on target, which is not always the case here. Bowen and Bell launch veritable fusillades of funny lines, and many of them are just darling. (The CD doesn't include most of Bell's choicer quips, which you'll have to get at the Vineyard.) But too many are not quite so acid-tipped, lowering the on-target percentage. How does that song go? "I'd rather be nine people's favorite joke, than a hundred people's ninth favorite joke"?

Despite this, there is a lot to like in [title of show]. The score calls for music more functional than melodic, although in a perfectly enjoyable way. Even so, Bowen gives each of the girls a very special number, "A Way Back to Then" for Blickenstaff and "Die, Vampire, Die!" for Blackwell (who wrote some of her own lyrics and dialogue within the song). These songs, along with "An Original Musical" and "Nine People's Favorite Thing," indicate that Bowen is more than ready for Broadway. Bell, too.

The librettist character at one point expresses the fear that the show "is a little donuts for dinner"; as Bell explains, "it sounds like a good idea but thirty minutes later you're hungry for something a little meatier." That is perhaps a harsh description of [title of show], but there is a wee little ring of truth in those words. Hunter said it, I didn't.

FALLING IN LOVE IS WONDERFUL [RCA Red Seal 82876-75892]
Now that the old Columbia and old RCA Victor catalogues are intertwined, I suppose we can expect to see a whole bunch of Broadway song-anthologies mixing the likes of West Side Story with Fiddler on the Roof. "Falling in Love Is Wonderful" is the first of the lot, a 15-song mix of what they call, in the subtitle, "Broadway's Greatest Love Duets." The new Sony BMG label has their pick of just about any shows they want; while Decca recorded many of the earliest original cast albums (like Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls and The King and I), Sony BMG has revival cast albums of the same.

The combined catalogues let us jump from "My Heart Is So Full of You" directly to "It Only Takes a Moment," which makes a rather unlikely juxtaposition. But Sony BMG has not clung to the obvious, for which we are indeed grateful. Here we have Show Boat's "Make Believe" – entrancingly performed by Barbara Cook and Stephen Douglass – gliding into the remarkably beautiful "Sailing," from William Finn's A New Brain (sung by Norm Lewis with Malcolm Gets).

Many listeners already have most of these songs on CD, although not necessarily these performances, and I suppose that will guide your purchasing decision. "Falling in Love Is Wonderful" contains a handful of tracks from revival cast albums that I rarely listen to, making this collection more interesting than expected.

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

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