Read an Excerpt From Theatrical Memoir "The Algonquin Kid"

News   Read an Excerpt From Theatrical Memoir "The Algonquin Kid"
 
Lyricist/librettist Michael Colby (Charlotte Sweet) had an advantage that few other theatre folk can boast. His grandparents owned New York's legendary Algonquin Hotel from 1946 to 1987 — a little too late for the famed Algonquin Round Table of wits in the 1920s, but still in plenty of time for the youngster to grow up in its hallways and pick up more than a little Broadway stardust memories.

He has packaged those memories in a new book, "The Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up at New York’s Legendary Hotel" (©2015, Michael Colby. Published by BearManor Media). Here is an excerpt from Chapter 22, used here on Playbill.com by express permission from the author. Presents From the Past
It is said that musicals of the past had more “hummable” music. I’m not sure about that. Still, you didn’t have to worry about playing their original cast albums in front of the kids, as you might today with The Book of Mormon (2011) or Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998; revived 2014). Musicals of the past were a more innocent breed that nonetheless included some of the most timeless material ever created. One frequent visitor at the Algonquin specialized in musicals of the past: producer Harry Rigby.

Rigby, who looked like an aging sprite, sort of a Peter Pan back from Shangri La, produced such nostalgic shows as Sugar Babies (1979) and revivals of No, No, Nanette (1971) and Irene (1973). Often the stars of his shows would stay at the Algonquin during runs, among them Mickey Rooney, Ruby Keeler, John Payne and Alice Faye. Rigby liked my work and met with me several times about writing a show for him. In particular, he wanted to develop a musical thriller based on Fu Manchu, the evil genius created by writer Sax Rohmer (borrowing the title of a hit song from No, No, Nanette, I dubbed the show, “Tea For Fu”).

One night, Rigby invited me to join him at Joe Allen’s, a favorite theatre hangout. I arrived to discover his other guests included his stars, Debbie Reynolds and tap dancer extraordinaire Ann Miller. I felt like I’d been conveyed to an MGM commissary. While Debbie Reynolds was gracious, it was Ann Miller who monopolized the dinner conversation. I’d heard stories about Miller’s saying unintentional punchlines. For instance, when asked what she was doing for Passover, she reportedly answered, “Sorry, I don’t do game shows.” Harry wanted me to hear another of her ripostes, announcing, “Ann, tell Michael your big complaint about the show Cats.” She responded, “Oh, just that it has too many pussies.” She went on to add, “What I really want to try is a Stephen Sondheim show. Nobody would believe what I could do with Sweeney Todd.” Immediately I envisioned her as Mrs. Lovett executing shuffles and double wings to assist Sweeney slicing throats. Actually, a few years later she got her wish, praiseworthily playing Carlotta Campion in a Paper Mill Playhouse revival of Sondheim’s Follies.

Like Harry Rigby, I, too, participated in the resurrection of vintage musicals. I’d already begun through my work on the Lorenz Hart biography and revivals at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Then, from the late 1970s onward, I assisted at several non-profit organizations geared to restore past musicals. At times, this was like Don Quixote tilting against amplified windmills in an advancing age of Rock music.

The first of these organizations was the National Musical Theatre in 1978, headed by elegant actress/singer Paulette Attie, who stated, “This city has magnificent repertory companies, when it comes to ballet and opera, but there is absolutely nothing to keep alive the art of the American musical theatre.”

Paulette’s dream was to first present a revival of the Gershwins’ Strike Up the Band, till she struck out at raising money. The most successful of Paulette’s fundraisers was a party at Sardi’s, with a sale of memorabilia signed by such greats as Eartha Kitt, E. Y. Harburg, and Imogene Coca (who attended) and Ethel Merman and Fred Astaire (who were otherwise occupied). Unfortunately, Paulette’s organization never got much farther than presenting Sardi’s parties.

Next, I became a member of the Board of Directors for The Bandwagon, a similar organization spearheaded by Jerry Bell, an ebullient dancer/singer/ bartender. The company’s first planned revival was Floradora, a musical that had been the rage of London and New York back in 1899, spotlighting the beauteous Floradora Sextette of dancers.

One might question the modern appeal of such a choice. One might also wonder how to squeeze what was originally an elephantine production into a peanut-size showcase theatre. Nevertheless, topnotch rising artists were attracted to the organization and its goals. It was through the Bandwagon I met the likes of Stuart Ross (who later created Forever Plaid, 1990), Evans Haile (a musical director who became a major regional artistic director), Sam Rudy (the Broadway press agent), and Glen Kelly (the musical arranger who later helped Mel Brooks develop the score to The Producers, 2005).

Yet most of these names parted ways with the Bandwagon for various reasons. I, along with several founding members, resigned in 1980 because we felt the quality of casting and production values might be too compromised by financial issues. To his credit, artistic director Jerry Bell and the Bandwagon Company did ultimately mount Floradora and other showcase revivals. Plus, they presented first-rate fundraisers with Broadway luminaries like Helen Gallagher, Jerry Herman, Nancy Dussault, and newcomer Nell Carter (Nell arrived between rehearsals of a new musical being workshopped called Dreamgirls). Perhaps the best outcome of the Bandwagon was that it motivated musician Bill Tynes, a former member, to gather many of the same people and found his own company. This new organization, The New Amsterdam Theatre Company (NATC), would indeed achieve the goal to revitalize vintage American musicals and operettas as an ongoing series. Bill named the organization after the theatre on 42nd Street, once operated by Florenz Ziegfeld (and now owned by the Disney Theatrical Group). Bill planned to have NATC present past shows as staged readings with Broadway actors, a full ensemble, and a complete orchestra playing the original orchestrations (or reconstruction thereof ). In fact, NATC was acknowledged as a model for such companies, including Lost Musicals (London), 42nd Street Moon (San Francisco), and Encores! (New York).

Prior to the NATC, there were only semblances of this format. There were individual concerts; and there was a short-lived series at Manhattan’s Town Hall, with stars and a small band, that closed before its third scheduled show due to insufficient box office sales. Yet, NATC really set the style. As Greg MacKellan, co-founder of 42nd Street Moon has affirmed, citing NATC as his model:

“They did these concerts at Town Hall and they staged them--everyone in tuxes and evening gowns, everyone holding books, and I think of that as the first time that some of these old shows actually existed in a form that could finally be presented.... This really is a new genre.... The basic reason why we do a concert musical...is in not having to finance some enormous production.”

On May 25-26, 1981, my grandparents donated the use of the Stratford Suite (connected rooms 307 and 306) at the Algonquin for the New Amsterdam’s Theatre Company’s first major fundraiser. The SRO audience spilled into the hallways.

The Algonquin was the perfect setting, as visitors felt idyllically transported back in time via tunes from 1926’s Peggy-Ann (by Rodgers and Hart), 1927’s Show Boat (by Kern and Hammerstein), and 1943’s One Touch of Venus (Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash). The exceptional Evans Haile musical directed at the piano, with Bill Tynes on violin, accompanying a delightful small cast singing in close harmony. Narrating was Broadway veteran Paula Laurence, who’d played opposite Mary Martin in One Touch of Venus and Ethel Merman in Something For the Boys (1943, a Cole Porter show). Recreating her songs from One Touch of Venus, Paula was so spectacular that I apprised Ben Bagley the next day; he signed her to record the songs for the first time on his "Kurt Weill Revisited" album (1981). Within several months, Bill Tynes had made his dream a reality. On Monday, November 23, 1981, with a budget of $5,000, the New Amsterdam Theatre Company originated at Town Hall with a one-performance event: a concert version of the operetta, The New Moon (1928), by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II.

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