Forget about the two Wild Party musicals. What about those dueling Ugly Ducks? Or, better yet, the double Lindbergh baby shows?
Hollywood routinely finds itself with two films about the same subject matter on its hands. Usually the theme is natural disaster: two volcano movies, say, or, most recently, two meteor-hurtling-toward-Earth flicks. But, in the world of theatre, where new musicals are few and developed over a long period of time, such logjams are usually avoided. Indeed, no one can remember a time when two tuners using the same source material where forced to compete with one another, as are the separate Manhattan Theatre Club and Public Theater productions of The Wild Party.
However, in recent weeks, there is further proof that theatrical minds think alike. The most surprising coincidence certainly involves the Lindbergh shows. Even more remarkable than the fact that someone would try to base a musical on the infamous kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant -- surely one of the darkest ideas for a musical, yet -- is that two people would hatch the idea. Playbill On-Line first learned of Baby Case by New York-based composer-lyricist librettist Michael Ogborn. The work will receive a workshop at Philly's Arden Theatre Company in March. Just days later, word came on Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped!, also about the Lindbergh child, also by a New York-based composer-lyricist-librettist, this time Kenneth Vega. His composition -- a finalist for the Richard Rodgers Award in 1997 -- will be staged in February 2001, at Baltimore Theatre Project.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Henry Krieger-Bill Russell-Jeffrey Hatcher musical, Everything's Ducky is doing well. The musical version of Hans Christian Andersen's tale of the Ugly Ducking sold out at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA, adding a couple extra performances and becoming the company's biggest success ever. Now, there is talk of a summer production in San Francisco. "It's about acquiring self-esteem, taking each day with a plucky attitude, and not letting anyone make you feel like you aren't good enough," Krieger said.
Everything's Ducky's success hasn't stopped the good folks at Nyack's Helen Hayes Center from going forward with Honk!, another go-around with the Anderson's fabled fowl which begins its run Feb. 12. The original English production of this Anthony Drewe-George Stiles show is up for a London Olivier Award for Best Musical this year. Alison Fraser and Stephen DeRosa star in the Stateside rendition. Very likely, theatregoers may see these musicals duking it out in New York theatre seasons to come -- though the outcome of the Wild Party stand-off is likely to influence producers' willingness to test audiences' fondest for theatrical déjà vu.
Speaking of Honk!, shouldn't someone have a word with the Helen Hayes people about the shows currently inhabiting the fame actresses' namesake theatres? As mentioned above, the marquee of Nyack's Helen Hayes Center currently declaims, Honk!. Meanwhile, at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, a slightly ruder, though rhyming, monosyllable prevails. This is Squonk, the Pittsburgh-based performance group which, since beginning previews on Feb. 9, surely reigns as the most unusual thing currently playing the Great White Way. What's it about? Well, I wouldn't want to spoil it, but at various times you'll be reminded of Riverdance, Julie Taymor, "Alien" and "The Fantastic Journey." And the show has much to do with eating, digestion and all thing gastronomic; dine beforehand.
George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber are hot properties of late, but only, it seems, when teamed. Musicals based on both the duo's The Royal Family and Dinner at Eight are currently in the works. The former 1927 comedy has been percolating the longest. William Finn has written tunes to Richard Greenberg's book, with Jerry Zaks directing. A workshop was held in December 1998; now, a new workshop is underway. Playing the members of the play's theatrical family -- obviously based on the Barrymores and Drews, though Kaufman and Ferber denied it -- are Laura Benanti, Carolee Carmello, Tovah Feldshuh, Bryan Batt and Elaine Stritch. Barry and Fran Weissler are the producers.
Feldshuh, as chance would have it, was also in readings this week of composer Ben Schaechter, lyricist Frank Evans and librettist (and Ferber's great niece) Julie Gilbert's, musicalization of 1932's Dinner at Eight. For composers searching for subject matter, Kaufman and Ferber collaborated on one other play, Stage Door.
Finally, the theatre community lost an invaluable man this week. Arthur Seelen, the longtime owner of New York City's Drama Book Shop, died on Feb. 7 at 76. It is no stretch to say that the Drama Book Shop is the preeminent theatre-related book store in the U.S. Every actor, playwright, director, producer, critic and fan who lives in New York, or has merely visited the city, has browsed its quirky second floor digs at Seventh Avenue near 48th Street. (Though many have gotten lost when first trying to locate it.) Many an hour can be lost searching through the tall shelves, which radiate to the left and right from the store's center, and are packed plays, anthologies and biographies, as well as volumes on acting technique, theory and criticism.
Brooklyn-born Seelen began as an actor (he understudied George C. Scott in Broadway's The Wall in 1960). He bought the store in 1958 and, along with his wife Rozanne, has been running it ever since. No plans for a memorial have been announced, but a more fitting tribute might simply be to pay a visit to the store that was the greatest expression of his passion for the theatre.
--By Robert Simonson