STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Stephen Cole: New King Cole

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Stephen Cole: New King Cole To the stagestruck, "Cole" has always meant Cole Porter, and with good reason. But in years to come, when musical theater aficionados speak of Cole, they just might mean Stephen Cole, too.

To the stagestruck, "Cole" has always meant Cole Porter, and with good reason. But in years to come, when musical theater aficionados speak of Cole, they just might mean Stephen Cole, too.

For librettist-lyricist Stephen Cole has been extraordinarily busy with his musicals. True, he took some time out to write a history of the TV series, "That Girl," which Renaissance Books will bring out next month. Still, Cole is a Broadway Baby with no fewer than four projects either on the boards or on their way.

The Brooklyn native, who'll only admit to being "40ish," recently received a commendation award from the Gilman Gonzalez-Falla Foundation. That's in part for his After the Fair, currently ensconced at the York Theatre Company.

Cole and composer Matthew Ward adapted Thomas Hardy's 1888 short story, "On the Western Circuit," about a maid who gets a day off from her kind mistress to attend the local fair. There she meets and falls in love with an up-and-coming London barrister. She desperately wants to keep in touch with him and impress him, too, but she's illiterate. She encourages her mistress to write her letters for her, not anticipating that the august woman, trapped in a loveless marriage, will fall in love with her man.

After the Fair was not the first short story that Cole and Ward set out to write. "We adapted Ray Bradbury's 'The Electric Grandmother,' but after we finished it, we learned that he wouldn't give us the rights. That made us go hunt for a story in the public domain." Cole soon happened on Hardy's. "I hadn't heard that Deborah Kerr had done a play version in the '70s," he says, "because it only toured the country and didn't come to New York. So Matthew and I went ahead. Doing that 'practice show' really helped."

Still, After the Fair had the lengthy gestation usually afforded '90s musicals. "Nine years ago, the Promenade Theatre had a contest where they'd do staged readings of the projects they liked the best. We were the only musical selected, and we gave two performances at the Lortel."

Yes, the Lortel. "Though the Promenade sponsored the series, for some reason they didn't hold the readings at their own theatre."

But it was a reading at the National Alliance that led to a production of After the Fair at Lyric Stage in Irving, Texas. The show received five Dallas Theater League Awards, tying with The King and I tour as Best Musical Production. Soon there were productions in Chicago and Issaquah, Washington -- but not New York.

"A year ago," says Cole, "I ran into York's artistic director Jim Morgan who asked, 'What's happening with After the Fair?' Jim wound up being an answer to that question."

Cole feels that York founder, the late Janet Hayes Walker, would have liked the show. (I agree. It has the style and elegance that were trademarks of her productions.) "Janet and I did meet once, when (composer) Jeffrey Saver and I played her our musical version of Dodsworth. She flipped for it, but said, 'If we could only afford it.'" Dodsworth, later produced at the Casa Manana in Fort Worth, has a cast of 28. Morgan, though, felt he could afford this four-character musical.

After the Fair just recorded its cast album for Varese Sarabande. It was not, however, Cole's first recording on that label: The Night of the Hunter was.

Cole admits that he'd heard of neither the novel nor the films of The Night of the Hunter until composer Claibe Richardson mentioned the property. "I'd called Claibe up out of the blue, because I'm such a major fan of his The Grass Harp and Lola, and wanted to do a musical of Time after Time with him. He didn't want to tackle that, but instead offered to show me the first movie of The Night of the Hunter. It took me a day or two to see what a brilliant idea it was."

A challenging one, too. It's the story of John, a young Southern boy whose father is serving a long jail sentence for robbery. The father escapes, and returns to give John the money, and to make him swear to hide it and not tell anyone about it. The boy promises, and holds fast -- not easy, given that a preacher soon arrives to befriend, then romance, John's mother, by saying that he knew her husband.

He did. In jail. John is smart enough not to trust him, but both his mother and young sister welcome the "reverend" into their lives.

Three summers ago at the Vineyard, Cole and Richardson did a reading that was so impressive I named it the Best Musical of the Summer in my annual Straw-Hat Awards. A workshop took place at the Goodman Theatre last fall under the direction of Robert Falls. Not only will Falls stage it in a full production sometime in 2000, but he has also chosen this as the attraction to open the Goodman's new space.

Cole is also working with Richardson on Grossinger's, about Jenny Grossinger, who spurred the Catskills resort to a worldwide reputation. "Some time back, I took over the lyrics from Ronny Graham," he says, citing the comedian who recently died, "and a few bookwriters. I've written a new book, but I've preserved a lot of Ronny's lyrics, because they were so good. In June, 2000, the score will be performed by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony Orchestra, with Dorothy Loudon as Jenny. I hope we'll get it recorded then, too."

And who was Cole's first inspiration? "Cole Porter," he quickly answers. "When I discovered the Cole book, I learned so much about lyric-writing." How inspired was he? Enormously, when you consider that he was Stephen Mitchell then, but soon changed his name in tribute.

Cole also credits his mother for introducing him to the theatre in the late '60s. "Mame, Cabaret, even Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen. Follies five times, and, of course, Hello, Dolly!"

He eventually even befriended Broadway's final Dolly: Ethel Merman -- "who," he informs, "I'm also happy to say showed up on 'That Girl.'"

Cole met Merman in 1982. "She'd already heard that I had copies of her early short subjects, along with the "Merman on Broadway" special that was shown in 1960, and "An Evening with Ethel Merman" that the BBC did but was never broadcast here. So when I finally met her, her first words to me were, 'I'm comin' over your house!'"

She did just that, and soon was dropping by with the likes of Benay Venuta and Maria Karnilova. Says Cole, with admiration still permeating his voice, "The Merm was just a regular gal."

The two stayed close until Merman's death in 1984, when Cole found a trove of recordings in her closet. "Ken Bloom of Harbinger Records -- with whom I'll soon be compiling "The Complete Lyrics of Jerry Herman" -- is putting them out in a three-disc set. They include two songs that were added during the run of Happy Hunting, songs that have been attributed to Kay Thompson, but actually were by Roger Edens."

The Harbinger set will also include the entire Gypsy demo that Merman made, shards of which showed up on Sony's recent cast album repackaging. "We're even including what was a 78 of 'Rose's Turn' before the big ending was added; `Ethel's Special Album,' a medley of tender songs she'd never really done, like 'I Can't Get Started' and 'Autumn Leaves'; and `Ernie's Christmas Album,' which she made for Ernest Borgnine before their very brief marriage."

Would that he and Bloom could release what was also found in Merman's closet: "Rosalind Russell's actual recordings of 'Some People,' 'Everything's Coming up Roses,' and 'Small World' that she made for the Gypsy movie, but were never used. Let me tell you, Roz is better than Lisa Kirk, who dubbed her. But of course neither was as good as Ethel, who really wanted to do the movie."

And what were those acetates doing in her closet? "I have a feeling," says Cole, "that she used to play them at her parties, so that everyone could have a good laugh."

With all this, no wonder that Cole was recently crowned "Mr. Broadway" by the Broadway Theater Archive Collection (www.broadwayarchive.com). "I'm their resident expert to field questions," he explains. "People ask the most interesting things. Like someone had a relative in the original production of The Man Who Came to Dinner, and wanted to know what else he'd done on stage." Mr. Broadway, with a little help from his books, provided the answers. But the question he most likes is "When can we see The Night of the Hunter?"

Not bad for a guy who didn't plan to be a writer. Cole started out as an actor, and did all the great roles -- of children's theater. "Mr. Toad and Simple Simon," he says, with a laugh. "Then a lot of extra work in film. I'm in the opening number of All That Jazz. Just being there two weeks with Bob Fosse was great -- even though I had to play one of the rotten people who got cut."

Cole says he's "perfectly happy" not performing anymore. "Except I do love to play Jenny Grossinger when we do auditions for the show. Dorothy Loudon," he says in a mock-threatening voice, "had better watch out."

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