PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Curtains — All the Musical Suspects

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Curtains — All the Musical Suspects Broadway came out in force and celebrated itself March 22 when Curtains went up at the Al Hirschfield Theatre. It's your garden-variety Backstage Murder Mystery Musical, set in the olden times of 1959 when the Broadway musical shimmered like 24-karat gold.

http://images.playbill.com/photo/0/6/064E6A82EEA444ACAA241476690D1FB0.jpg

When Curtains came down two-and-a-half entertaining hours later, the cast was joined in their bows by the show's creative team, which included a happy, surviving and rather dapper composer, John Kander. The newly minted octogenarian was urged to step forth and say a few words, and he gave it a shot, but the emotion of the moment was too much for him. He wiped his eyes with the palms of his hands and stepped back in line.

His wordsmith was gone. Fred Ebb, his lyricist for 42 years, died in 2004, and this is the first new Kander & Ebb show to open on Broadway since then. You can see a shadow of that loss in the show's most moving ballad, "I Miss the Music," which Jason Danieley sings gorgeously about the loss of his songwriting partner. Kander did the words himself.

Also conspicuously missing in action was Peter Stone, who began the book and died in 2003. Rupert Holmes came in with a new book and, where needed, some extra lyrics.

Kander told me later at the Tavern on the Green afterparty, "I was very aware of the people who are missing. For Fred to be gone during this, and Peter, is really hard, but their spirits are certainly all over this."

And so, too, are their names — not only in the official credits but also, literally, on the stage. "I don't know if you can see it, but their names are up on stage left on the back wall. There are a lot of things that are scrawled up there, and their names are in that. A lot of the cast go by and just touch the names before they go on. About a week ago, we put Daniel MacDonald's name up on the back wall, too." MacDonald, who died Feb. 15 of brain cancer at the age of 46, made his Broadway debut in the last new Kander & Ebb, Steel Pier, a much-underrated musical which folded in 76 performances a decade ago. Symbolically, perhaps, or maybe just sentimentally, some strong Steel Pier bearings have been used to fortify Curtains — director Scott Ellis, producer Roger Berlind, conductor David Loud, costumer William Ivey Long, production stage manager Beverly Randolph and, of the 31-member cast, Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba and Jim Newman.

Kander owned up to the stomach-butterflies that generally accompany a Broadway first-night. "Those opening-night audiences can be awful, and I was scared about that. They're usually made up of backers who've seen the show already so many times with their friends that they have become impassive, but I must say tonight's crowd was really receptive."

Not that he should be nervous. Who else, in the same week they turn 80, has a Broadway opening and starts planning the preview of their next new Broadway show? On March 28, director Gabriel Barre will be sneaking the press a peek at All About Us, the Kander & Ebb musicalization of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth. Tony winners Shuler Hensley and Cady Huffman, along with another newly minted octogenarian (Eartha Kitt), will premiere it in April at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Holmes (Rupert, not Sherlock) solved Curtains' initial problem by essentially starting from scratch. "I retained Peter's basic premise — i.e., a detective for whom the only thing that is more rewarding than seeing justice is seeing a musical put on — and the first thing I did with that, was relocate the story to 1959, into the golden heart of American musicals."

Planted squarishly in that vintage, he gave special attention to the splashier shows like L'il Abner and Destry Rides Again. Indeed, there's a not-awfully-distant echo of the latter in the show's show-within-the-show: a westernized musical version of Robin Hood, called Robbin' Hood. The point being: They don't make 'em like that anymore — but, postscripted Holmes, "we're trying to. That was the whole idea behind Curtains."

"It's the Best Musical of 1959!" exclaimed record producer Bill Rosenfield excitedly at intermission, meaning that's a good thing. "It's not a deconstruction of a 1959 musical. It's not a tribute to a 1959 musical. It's not a sendup of a 1959 musical. It is a 1959 musical. It's what we all fell in love with." He will record the cast album on Monday.

As befitted a frankly, and happily, old-fashioned musical, the evening buzzed with old guard excitement. The weather cooperated by hiking the temperature up to a degree appropriate for the second day of spring, and there was even a little March shower for intermission.

Sarah Jessica Parker and a nicely graying Matthew Broderick arrived late like stars and sped through the press line. The show had just started, but they and Cindy Adams didn't have to wait with the late-comers. Annie's Charles Strouse and Damn Yankees' Richard Adler, veterans of the vintage Broadway scene being spoofed, were in attendance, as were Nathan Lane (sporting a new goatee — not for a role), Jane Krakowski, Ross Perot, Tyne Daly, Charles Busch ("best opening I've been to in 48 Hours" — when his Our Leading Lady bowed at Manhattan Theatre Club), Susan Stroman, Mark Consuelos with Kelly Ripa (who plugged the daylights out of the show the morning after), Victor Garber (who professed to know no one in the cast: "Where do they get these people?"), Eartha Kitt, Gabriel Barre, Elizabeth Berkley, Jeff Daniels, Marian Seldes, "Grey's Anatomy" actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan with Mary-Louise Parker ("I just had a play deal fall through, so I'm hunting for another one"), Michael Cumpsty, Andrea Martin, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey, Ted Hartley and Dina Merrill (very much on her toes, having already seen Curtains three times), Amy Fine Collins, "Men in Trees" actor Mario Cantone, Donna Murphy (with a lotta Lenya to go on LoveMusik) and Shawn Elliott (Mr. Mom for their new two-year-old), Dana Tyler, Brian Stokes Mitchell (visiting the scene of his biggest hits, Kiss Me Kate and Man of La Mancha), Alex Baldwin, composer Andrew Lippa (who expects to have the first act of his Jules Feiffer musical, The Man in the Ceiling, ready for Disney Theatricals by the end of April and the first draft read by the end of June) and Marin Mazzie and Bill Tatum (both there in support of their respective spouses, Danieley and Ziemba).

And how about that David Hyde Pierce? He sings! He dances! He acts! He does a terrific Boston accent! Who knew? Not the people who know him only as Niles Crane.

The former Sir Robin of Spamalot is just the man to address himself to the troubled Robbin' Hood — and, almost incidentally, mop up a murder case on the backstage premises. He's the show-savvy sleuth who steps from a sepia-toned police-homicide beat into a Technicolor theatrical world, and he does it with such grace and charm, we go too.

How does he come so convincingly as a singer and, especially, as a dancer? "I really worked hard," he said directly, "both with a vocal coach and a dance coach before the show, and then of course with the choreographer, Rob Ashford, and his assistants, Joanne Hunter and David Eggers."

Yes, but you but have Special Sparkle, I told him. "Do you know what else happened? I'll tell you. Every single member of the company, all of whom have been dancing since they were fetuses, at some point or other was able to come up to me and give a little piece of advice because, for me, I'm learning it backwards. I'm learning the choreography. And then, in order to execute that choreography, you have to learn a dance technique. You can't just do it. You have to know how to hold yourself and all this amazing technical stuff, and they all had the generosity to help me. Someone would say, 'You know, when I do a turn like that, all I think about is lining up my skeleton, and, when you do that, suddenly things fall into place.' And you try it and think, 'God, that really works.'"

Another thing that really works is conductor Loud, who shattered the fourth wall and the funny bone when he turns around and starts singing to the audience. And Patty Goble, who, as the detested leading lady, is snuffed out in the show's opening moments but returns as another character just in time to sing at her own funeral. Set in Boston's Colonial Theatre, a place rife with red herrings, Curtains has John Bolton drop in backstage as a saber-toothed critic to report on showfolk played by Jill Paice, Megan Sikora, Noah Racey, Michael X. Martin, Michael McCormick and Darcie Roberts.

(Thank you, Rogers Berlind and Horchow, for filling the stage with such familiar faces.)

At one point, David Hyde Pierce turns to an unholy trio and says, "You three are my first official murder suspects." Edward Hibbert, who plays the haughty director whom Holmes has handed a full quiver of zings and arrows, replies "It's an honor just to be nominated." It's a line both he and Hyde Pierce will be repeating this spring right up to the Tony podium.


 

The company of <i>Curtains</i> takes their opening night bows.
The company of Curtains takes their opening night bows. Photo by Aubrey Reuben