STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Music in a Box Opens

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Music in a Box Opens "Within this empty space," they sang, "there is nothing we cannot do." And they were so talented I immediately believed them.

"Within this empty space," they sang, "there is nothing we cannot do." And they were so talented I immediately believed them.

They were, in alphabetical order, Trent Bright, Roosevelt Andre Credit, Michael J. Farina, Laura Fois, Francine Lobis, Frank Mastrone, Selena Nelson, Florence Sturgeon, and John Wasiniak, and they're part of a new musical company called Music in a Box. As they sang, "There are worlds to be opened wide" at their April 26 launch party, I became convinced they'll have no problem finding those worlds and prying them wide.

The song comes from Jones and Schmidt's Philemon, a musical that played at their Portfolio Studios in 1975, and hasn't been seen much since. But Music in a Box plans to make this musical about Christians in ancient Rome its first production come October.

Artistic director Gregory Bossler pointed out that Jones' instructional text, "Making Musicals," inspired this company, so he asked the esteemed librettist-lyricist to emcee. Jones told us he'd never functioned as such but had seen it done a lot, mostly by Upstairs at the Downstairs producer Julius Monk, who used to tell his audience, "Surely your attention and applause." Jones used the expression all night long, and we happily complied every time.

With Harvey Schmidt on piano, Jones did a song the team wrote for Monk's Demi-Dozen in the '50s called "Mr. Off-Broadway" -- a title each of them could now rightfully claim, what with The Fantasticks now passing the 39-year mark. Jones apologized for the song's long-dated topical lyrics, but one ("I played The Iceman Cometh there for almost a year. I didn't make much money, but I drank a lot of beer") showed that something old is new again. The pair also did a song they wrote in the '50s for Lena Horne, who decided against doing it because, "it was too much like a Lena Horne song." But Karen Ziemba was on hand to make it into a Karen Ziemba song.

Ziemba later returned to do a lovely song from Douglas J. Cohen's upcoming big musical, Big Time, with the composer-lyricist accompanying. "Thank You for Tonight" has a hostage ruminating on all the good things she's experienced -- "MGM, ditto Mickey Mouse" -- before she lists the real things in life to cling to. Big Time's book is by Douglas Carter Beane, of As Bees in Honey Drown fame. And of "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" fame. And Drama Dept. fame. Let's just say there's a lot of fame there.

Cohen then gave a sneak peek of the title song from his Glimmerglass, which glides onto the Goodspeed mainstage later this year. "It's about James Fenimore Cooper," said Cohen, and in case we couldn't make association, he talked about "The Last of the Mohicans" movie, in which Daniel Day-Lewis wore a loincloth.

Cohen immediately joked that he would do the number fully clothed, but you never know what he's going to wear on stage. Some years back, when his No Way to Treat a Lady was out-of-town, he came to the theater one day and learned that the actress playing the hero's mother couldn't go on, and with no understudy, there'd be no performance. Trouper Cohen wouldn't stand for that, so he donned dress, wig, and heels and went on. I've seen a videotape, which I hope someday is donated to the Lincoln Center Library -- if not the Library of Congress.

Emcee Jones then caught our attention by telling of the time he saw Patti LuPone naked. Calm down; it what was demanded of her character in The Robber Bridegroom. But the story became more interesting when Robber's librettist-lyricist Alfred Uhry got up there. He said that the nude LuPone strategically used her hands to cover the more controversial parts of her body, but that while exiting, she seemed to enjoy an accidentally-on-purpose fall, so she could have her arms' flail out and let everyone offstage get a good look.

On a less titillating note, composer Robert Waldman then told of how he didn't immediately warm to Uhry's suggestion that he musicalize Eudora Welty's rustic-flavored novella. He feared he couldn't write "mountain music" until he realized he grew up in the mountains, albeit the Appalachians in New Hampshire. Bryan Batt then came on to sing "I Steal with Style," just one of the tuner's show-stealing moments, making us all glad Waldman found his musical voice.

The Robber Bridegroom is a terrific musical, and here's hoping Music in a Box will do it justice when company makes it the second production of its inaugural season. Isn't it wonderful that the CD has finally been released (and enhanced with other cuts)? I've already played "Two Heads (Are Better Than One)" hundreds of times. Its B-section is one of musical theater's finest.

The most recent Tony-winning lyricist was at Music in a Box, too: The charming Lynn Ahrens. Equally charming Steve Flaherty was not, but for good reason: The high school he attended in Pennsylvania was throwing a long-planned shindig in his honor.

Ahrens told of a show that she and Flaherty had written that never was produced, but might just get done soon. She didn't identify it by name, but said it centered on a troupe of 16th century actors who sing, "No family, no money -- just this desire to act." (Jason Danieley did a fine job with it.) Later came the women's sentiment that "Most men are as crazy as actors, anyway," which I hope isn't true, but probably is.

Judy Blazer came out and reprised her recording of Ahrens-Flaherty's most amusing "Times Like This" from Lucky Stiff. It's one of those songs that should have a different title, just as "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three" really should be called "Tits and Ass." But here, as there, the logical title is obfuscated to protect the song's big joke. (Don't expect me to divulge the punchline. Go get the Varese-Sarabande recording. You won't be sorry.)

What I will say, though, is that each of the three times Blazer got to the song's hook, she was able to give it an entirely new reading that coaxed a different emotion from the audience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes a great musical theater performer. (Another example soon came, as Marin Mazzie once again made "Back to Before" fresh, vital, alive. It's her now-and-forever signature song.)

A big surprise came from Richard Maltby, Jr. when he performed "Miss Byrd" to David Shire's accompaniment. No offense meant to Nancy Giles, who delightfully debuted it in Urban Blight, or to Sally Mayes, who performed it grandly in Closer Than Ever, or to or even to Loni Ackerman, who did it splendidly at the Laurie Beechman Memorial a few weeks ago. But Maltby showed us something extra. His conception of Miss Byrd has a little Miss Marmelstein in her. Maltby and Shire once again proved that there's nothing like hearing and seeing creators perform their own work.

Maltby then introduced Liz Callaway by recalling his first encounter with her. He was holding auditions for his Baby, and met this young woman in sneakers and overalls. "And then," he sighed, "she sang."

And then she sang, after she came out looking stunning in a black suit. "Though now I feel so overdressed," Callaway quipped. (My friend Jay Clark said he hopes Callaway will be cast as the jockish Pam in the upcoming Baby revival. Good idea.)

Managing director Ralph Sevush then came out to tell us what Music in a Box is: "We're dedicated to the ideas that musicals can be done without falling chandeliers." Hence, the company's platform is to create a lot out of a little. General Counsel Cheryl Davis says that the group is interested in enhancing its ranks. Call (718) 340-1694, and see if you two can help each other.

Frank Mastrone began the finale with the strains of Maltby-and-Shire's toe-tapping "One step, I took myself one step" -- a nice metaphor for what Music in a Box was accomplishing that night. Even better one was the entire company's then emerging to add, "And taking this one step, I won't stop with two."

Or, it's hoped, two productions. If the brass at a benefit is any harbinger of the group's future, Music In a Box should be around for a while. Jones mentioned that he and Schmidt have been partners for almost 50 years. Maltby and Shire have been a team for more than 40. Uhry and Waldman may not have given us a recent musical, but they're still pals after 30-plus years of collaboration. Ahrens and Flaherty? Believe it or not, they have already been together for 15 years. May Music in a Box have this kind of longevity and success, and move all their productions to the Music Box.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger. You may E-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com