Savvy show fans may know the title It's Better With a Band as both a song popularized by Barbara Cook and a revue, but few people caught the cabaret and Off-Broadway run of the David Zippel show back in 1983.
Beginning Sept. 18, audiences at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theatre will get a chance to hear a mostly-new version of that revue, which celebrates the lyrics of Tony Award-winner Zippel and 10 composers. Joe Leonardo directs, and producers are attached to possibly whisk it on to a commercial future.
"When Joe and I put it together the first time I was writing with eight different people and we took what we thought were the best of the songs I had written at the time," Zippel told Playbill On-Line. "This time, my catalog has grown a lot in the last almost 20 years."
In the intervening time, Zippel won a Tony Award (for Best Score, with Cy Coleman, for City Angels) and an Academy Award nomination (for "Go the Distance," with Alan Menken, for the Disney film, "Hercules") and had penned songs with Marvin Hamlisch to a musical version of The Goodbye Girl, among other film and stage projects.
"Now there are 10 composers represented and we picked some of the things that people know of my work. But this was an opportunity to put in some songs from upcoming project just to give a hint of what's to come," Zippel explained. "Seventy percent of the songs weren't in it, when we did it 1983, but there a few left, including 'It's Better With a Band.'" The title song, with music by Wally Harper, was Zippel's introduction to New York audiences. Barbara Cook sang it and the Zippel-Harper song, "Ingenue," in her 1980 Carnegie Hall concert. Zippel, a then-recent Harvard Law graduate left the legal profession behind and grabbed his lifelong dream of writing for the theatre.
"I was young, I had just graduated from law school and moved to New York," Zippel said. "If I got used to having an income it would be seriously detrimental to my career as a lyricist so I decided to put [a law career] aside. If I got into a career crisis I would think about maybe practicing law or producing or doing something with the degree."
Prince Music Theater's It's Better With a Band features John Barrowman, Judy Blazer, Marva Hicks and Sally Mayes. Official opening is Sept. 21. Performances continue to Oct. 6.
Director Leonardo works frequently in regional theatre, but is Philly-based and the director of the theatre program at Temple University. The work is sweetened by a five piece band, with musical direction by Christopher Marlowe.
Lyricist Zippel took home a Tony Award for penning the witty, sophisticated lyrics to the musical comedy, City of Angels (music by Coleman) and collaborated with Hamlisch and Neil Simon on The Goodbye Girl. He and composer Menken wrote songs for the animated Disney feature, "Hercules" (for which he was Academy Award-nominated) and he penned lyrics for Disney's "Mulan," with composer Matthew Wilder (earning him his second Oscar nom, his second Grammy nomination and his third Golden Globe nomination).
Featured in It's Better With a Band will be fresh interpretations of songs ranging from "You Can Always Count on Me" (City of Angels), "Another Mr. Right" (Going Hollywood), "It Started with a Dream" (the upcoming Pamela's First Musical), "Go the Distance" ("Hercules"), "Reflections" ("Mulan") and "It's Better with a Band."
The show is presented by arrangement with Susan Dietz and Roger Gindi, who will shepherd the show to any potential commercial future.
Zippel's playful lyrics, purposely bending the language, put him in the tradition of musical comedy masters such as Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg and Lorenz Hart, industry observers have said. His work, which earned Drama Desk and Drama Critics Circle awards and Golden Globe, Grammy and Academy Award nominations, has also been recorded by 98 Degrees, Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Jefferey Osborne and Mel Torme. Zippel contributed to such Off Broadway shows as A...My Name is Alice, Hal Prince's Diamonds, Just So and 5,6,7,8...Dance! His lyrics for "The Swan Princess," an animated feature with music by Lex De Azevedo, were nominated for a Golden Globe Award. Zippel also wrote the theme-song lyrics for the TV sitcom, "Veronica's Closet."
With David Friedman he started Midder Music, a record company created to introduce the world to the singing of Nancy LaMott.
Among his developing projects are a Napoleon and Josephine-related musical comedy with Coleman and Larry Gelbart; a stage version of the Wendy Wasserstein children's book, Pamela's First Musical, with Coleman; and the musical, Going Hollywood, a version of Kaufman and Hart's Once in a Lifetime (penned years ago and stalled due to rights issues).
Zippel wanted to write musicals from an early age. "That was my first wish and still is," he said. "We lived in Easton, PA, an hour and a half from New York and my parents would take me to Broadway shows and I was completely transfixed by the theatre."
Was he writing lyrics at 16? "I was," he explained. "I always had an eclectic set of interests — I liked jazz, I loved Laura Nyro, Billy Joel. I was writing pop songs, but first and foremost was interested in the theatre. You have to teach yourself how to write lyrics and I think the course I gave myself was listening to every cast album I could find, including a lot of flops and good, successful shows. I was trying to figure out what I liked, and what — as an audience member — what was exciting and why it worked that way."
In 1983, at Don't Tell Mama, It's Better With a Band starred Nancy LaMott, Jenifer Lewis, Catherine Cox and Patrick Quinn; Alyson Reed was a standby. It moved Off Broadway and Scott Bakula replaced Quinn. The understudy was Donna Murphy.
The new cast includes Broadway alums Marva Hicks (The Lion King; Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music), Sally Mayes (Tony nominated for She Loves Me; Welcome to the Club), John Barrowman (Bobby in Company at the Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration; Broadway's Putting It Together) and Judith Blazer (Titanic; Me and My Girl).
Designers are Mark Mariani (costumes), Michael Gilliam (lighting) and Ray Klausen (sets).
Leonardo has directed national tours of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Me and My Girl, Ziegfield: A Night at the Follies, City of Angels and Bully, and co created and directed the national tour of the theater-circus spectacular Cirque Ingenieux. This is his debut at the Prince. His production of the new musical, At Wit's End, premiered at Florida Stage in south Florida and received 11 Carbonell Award nominations, and will have its Midwest premiere at Northlight Theatre in spring 2003. He is an artistic director of NETworks, the tour producer.
"The lyricist is the unsung hero of song-writing — we recognize the composer, but rarely the artist whose words make the song memorable and theatrical," Prince Music Theater producing artistic director Marjorie Samoff said in production notes. "As part of our mission to nurture contemporary artists, we're proud to bring to the forefront a lyricist whose words can be edgy and inspiring, funny and moving, and create an entire dramatic story in a four-minute song."
Tickets are $25-$48. Prince Music Theater is Philly's resident professional theatre committed to creating musical theatre. For ticket information, call (215) 569-9700 or visit www.princemusictheater.org.
— By Kenneth Jones