STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: I Believe in You

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: I Believe in You Did you see Ben Brantley's review in the Times of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde? He used such words as "compelling, complexity, delicious, scintillating, showmanship, skillful, stunning, triumph, absolutely gripping, classic tragedy, devastating momentum, dramatically fresh, particularly inspired, sharply intelligent, the pull of the old-fashioned courtroom drama, a terrific coup de theatre," and "the must-see sleeper of the Off-Off-Broadway season."

Did you see Ben Brantley's review in the Times of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde? He used such words as "compelling, complexity, delicious, scintillating, showmanship, skillful, stunning, triumph, absolutely gripping, classic tragedy, devastating momentum, dramatically fresh, particularly inspired, sharply intelligent, the pull of the old-fashioned courtroom drama, a terrific coup de theatre," and "the must-see sleeper of the Off-Off-Broadway season."

Now here a second question: Did you know that this was a mere showcase, designed to display talents and nothing more? But press agent Kevin McAnarney believed in his show so much that he kept trying to get first string coverage from all the critics. Of course, everyone told him he was crazy, that they just wouldn't come, but McAnarney was adamant. He sent letters. Made phone calls. Sent more letters. Made more phone calls. "This is one I really believed in," says McAnarney, "so it was easy to get behind it."

Now here's a third question, and the most intriguing one: Do you think that if more first-string critics started deigning to appear at such showcases as the Greenwich House Theatre on 27 Barrow Street, that they'd find that the results are far more satisfying than they originally expected?

Now here are questions four through 29:

* Don't you think that with Barrymore playing the Music Box, that it's only fair that a Music Box Revue be revived at the Barrymore? * Aren't you glad that Frances McDormand won the Oscar? This has particular resonance to me, because of what happened during the Wednesday matinee I attended The Sisters Rosensweig. McDormand was the first of the three sisters to enter, long before Jane Alexander and Madeline Kahn, and when she did, the matinee lady next to me loudly whispered to her companion, "That's the one we don't know." Perhaps now they do.

* With all these ten-minute musicals cropping up, how about one titled The Marriage of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine? That's not to be confused with excellent playwright Nicky Silver's upcoming new comedy, My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine, which will soon be playing the Vineyard, one of my favorite off-Broadway theaters. Go see its current production of How I Learned to Drive, and you'll see but one reason why I love the place.

* Do you remember or know the nifty Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, "This Guy's in Love with You?" from the summer of '68? With Promises, Promises back in town last week, I was once again reminded of how sad I've been for 29 years that the songwriters didn't save that summer single for their autumn score. Can't you hear Chuck Baxter singing it now to an unhearing Fran Kubelik during one of his visits to the cafeteria? With only a few different words at song's end, it would fit perfectly. And wouldn't it have been nice for the show to have had a third hit tune, along with "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and the title song?

* Do you think that if there were Broadway revivals of Irma La Douce or Fanny, some people who just knew these properties from the non-musical movies would assume, once they heard all these songs, that these were brand-new musicals? * Don't you wish that playwright Migdalia Cruz had chosen another title for her nifty adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba than Another Part of the House because it sounds far too reminiscent of Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest? Believe me, from watching this compelling evening, I can assure you that Cruz is an exciting new writer, and attention should be paid to her and this CSC production.

* Of course, it could never happen, but if she were well -- and he were alive and well -- wouldn't Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton really be something now if they brought Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf to Broadway?

* Did you know that Clive Barnes clever snap against the show The Selling of the President ultimately backfired? In reviewing the unsuccessful 1972 musical -- which opened a full three months before the Watergate break-in -- Barnes mentioned that the show was based on "a book about the marketing of Richard M. Nixon during his successful 1968 campaign to become the 37th president," before stating that this show "purports to describe the campaign in -- note this -- 1976 of a fictional Senator Mason and his efforts to be the 39th president. So it seems that the authors know the result of that year's presidential election." What Barnes meant, of course, was that the show implied that Nixon would lose in '72, thus creating a 38th president who would lose to a 39th president in 1976. And at that point, Nixon did seem unstoppable. But the irony was that the man elected in '76 -- Jimmy Carter -- indeed was the 39th president, because 38th chief executive Gerald Ford squeezed in between the two administrations.

Are you wondering how I know this Barnes quote? From reading Steven Suskin's excellent new book, More Opening Nights on Broadway, which gives excerpts from various New York critics' reviews for all the shows that opened on Broadway between '65 through '81, from Kelly to Dreamgirls -- not to mention a few notes on the 33 that closed out of town. And by the way, while it's fun to read the critics, what Suskin has to say on each show is just as incisive and entertaining.

* Have you ever heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald line, "There are no second acts in American lives?" Well, don't assume that what he meant was that our lives are over at an early age. Remember that during Fitzgerald's time, the three-act play was the norm -- so what the esteemed author really meant was that life goes by too quickly, that we're old in just no time at all.

* Does anyone else remember the TV ad campaign for Talley's Folly? There was a pretty soft-rock song of which you heard a snippet--"It's Talley's Folly, and it's love," it ended. Now this song was by no means in Lanford Wilson's play, but just made for the commercial. Anybody know who wrote it?

* Have you heard of the new mystery novel, Murder on Theatre Row by Michael Jahn? Maybe you shouldn't, for it's awfully condescending to Broadway. It tells of famed and wealthy British composer Sir John Victor Holland, who fired his female star after his new musical premiered in London, and opted for a Hollywood name with a not-so-good voice for the Broadway run. (Get it?) Now he's doing Casablanca: The Musical, from which we are thankfully only given one lyric (Rick sings, "I came for the water, but I'll find love in Casablanca.") During the first preview at the refurbished Old Knickerbocker Theatre on 42nd Street, the actor playing Sam is shot and killed. You'd assume, wouldn't you, that that would be it for that performance, but Holland insists that the show must go on, and so it does with Sam's understudy. He, of course, is later arrested for the crime, and that's about as much as I'll tell you. Except that there's a detective who HATES musicals. The barbarian!

* By the way, in case you never read the back of an original Broadway Oliver LP, did you know that back in the '60s, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz were writing their own musical version of Casablanca that David Merrick was producing?

* You think the streets of New York are noisy? Then go see Tap Dogs, the only show to ever beat the not-so-hot acoustics of the Union Square Theatre. Of course, putting microphones on the heavy-booted boys certainly adds to the din. Once you leave, you'll walk onto Park Avenue, and no matter how many cars and cabs are hurrying by and honking, you'll feel that all the sounds of the earth are like music.

* And speaking of Oklahoma: Doesn't Hammerstein's having Curly sing to Laurey, "Who cares what happens now?" for the finale indicate that he, unlike the authors of Annie, Bye Bye Birdie, and Nunsense, wasn't interested in mining the show for a sequel?

* And speaking of Rodgers and Hammerstein: When the movie of South Pacific was first broadcast on TV, how many arguments do you think there were between husbands who were trying to fix the color on the set, while their wives were insisting, "No, it's supposed to look like that!"?

* While I visited the new Frank Loesser room for new composers and lyricists in the West 50s, I couldn't help noticing the window card for Where's Charley? that's headed with the quote, "Out of this world!" -- Hawkins, World-Telegraph. Wouldn't you love to see a window card for Out of This World that's headed, "Where's Charley?" -- Hawkins, World-Telegraph?

* Did you notice that in the recent revival of Henry VI at the Papp, that during the second act, Tom Nellis, playing the monarch, sat for practically the entire second act? It reminded me of the line Judy Holliday, playing a not-often-employed actress in The Solid Gold Cadillac, said -- that she "hated playing Shakespeare because you don't get to sit down unless you're a king." (By the way, Nellis' Henry should have stayed on the throne. Moments after he came down, he was killed.)

* Did you read Bradford Dillman's new book, Are You Anybody? An Actor's Life? It's full of juicy anecdotes, including this tasty one from Ben Gazzara. When he told his agent, the famed Abe Lastfogel, that he found a play he'd like to do, Lastfogel asked which one. "Traveler without Luggage," answered Gazzara. "It's Anouilh." Lastfogel's response? "A newie, an oldie, just so it's a goodie."

* Did you hear what happened to renowned sportswriter Jerry Izenberg? He was scheduled to attend a book-signing in Milwaukee for his new tome, The Rivals, about the most legendary competitors that the games have ever known: Mantle and Maris, Army-Navy, Ohio State-Michigan, etc. So when he showed up at the bookstore, he was seated next to a big stack of books titled The Rivals -- by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. (Who was the bookstore manager? Mrs. Malaprop?) Says Izenberg, "I signed eem all, anyway."

* Have you heard 20th Century Blues, the new album by Marianne Faithfull -- whom the stagestruck never identify by her 1965 hit single "As Tears Go By," but by her 1965 non-hit musical, Passion Flower Hotel? Actually, if you know her from either, you won't recognize her voice on this collection, mostly of Kurt Weill songs. Or, to put it more bluntly, you won't recognize her lack of voice. Which brings up my final question: Does it seem that whenever a female singer finds her vocal cords have really hit bottom, she has two choices -- to retire or do Kurt Weill?

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger.