ON THE RECORD: Dream True and An All American Backer’s Audition

This week’s column discusses the “world premiere recording” of Ricky Ian Gordon and Tina Landau’s Dream True and an interesting backer’s audition for the Strouse and Adams musical All American.

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DREAM TRUE [PS Classics PS 9641]
Back in the mid-1990s, people started talking about Broadway’s promising new composers: Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel. Additional songwriters have come along in the interim, some of whom have achieved notable Broadway success (including David Yazbeck, Marc Shaiman, Jeanine Tesori and Lopez & Marx). But the original four, each with a very different but similarly adventurous musical theatre mind, still remain in some ways linked. They also seem to attract, and be attracted to, the same pool of excellent theatre singers.

The promising quartet quickly began appearing Off-Broadway. Brown was the first to make it to Broadway proper, with the controversial (and short-lived) musical Parade. LaChiusa next arrived with two controversial and short-lived musicals, Marie Christine and The Wild Party. (LaChiusa seems to have written more professionally produced musicals over the last decade than any writer extant, although most have been Off Broadway or regional.) Guettel was the first of the four to achieve full-scale artistic and commercial success, with The Light in the Piazza. All of which has left Mr. Gordon more or less out in the cold. His work includes the Off-Broadway musicals Dream True (produced by the Vineyard in 1999) and My Life with Albertine (produced at Playwrights Horizons in 2002), neither of which made much of a stir.

But now Dream True has lovingly and caringly been rescued from near oblivion with a studio cast recording from PS Classics. And, it’s a wonderful recording, revealing a score that obviously deserves repeated hearings. Dream True is a difficult show, admittedly; the action spans 40 years and — seemingly — almost as many different subjects and styles (which I suppose worked against the show in production). Even on the CD, it takes a bit of listening to. But the score has an impressive richness to it, which is sure to pay off for many listeners. Dream True is divided between pastoral Wyoming and the great metropolis; Gordon seems to be inspired by Copland, on the one hand, and the Bernstein of Trouble in Tahiti on the other. These are pretty good models, and Gordon comes up with some beautiful material.

Gordon shares credit with director-librettist-lyricist Tina Landau, who also provided direction, libretto and additional lyrics for Guettel’s Floyd Collins. Gordon wrote his own lyrics for two of the key songs, “Wyoming” and “We Will Always Walk Together.” Gordon and Landau are well matched, with the lyrics contributing to the aforementioned beauties of the score. Ted Sperling, whose name shows up in the credits of many a musical by Guettel, Yazbeck, Flaherty, Finn and LaChiusa, serves as musical director; Jonathan Tunick, who needs no introduction, has provided the effective orchestrations.

The score underwent various changes over the course of several versions (a developmental production at Duke University, a workshop at the Vineyard Theatre, a full production at the Vineyard and a 2004 concert). The cast has been assembled from the different incarnations, and what a cast! Brian d’Arcy James! Jason Danieley! Jessica Molaskey! Victoria Clark! Kelli O’Hara! Jeff McCarthy! They are all as good as you might expect them to be. So are the actors playing the young dreamers, Harrison Chad (from Caroline, or Change) and William Ullrich (from the revival of Nine). Molaskey’s “Finding Home,” Clark’s “He’s Gone,” O’Hara’s “God Is There,” Danieley’s “We Will Always Walk Together” and the title song are especially riveting. But try Dream True for yourself. This CD is released by the not-for-profit wing of PS Classics. The recording has been financed in great part by the Shen Family Foundation, which has recently made a major grant which will — among other things — underwrite new work by composers Gordon, LaChiusa and Joseph Thalken. (People outside the business would be utterly depressed to learn how little theatre writers earn from one of these non-commercial musicals, which makes the Shen grant a very big deal, indeed.) Prominently listed in second position among the underwriters of the CD, it seems worth mentioning, is John Kander. After listening to the Dream True CD, consider what a loss it would be to us all were it to remain on the shelf, forever unrecorded.

ALL AMERICAN Live Backers Audition [Harbinger HCD-2401]
The bright young songwriters sit before the grand in an overheated apartment and plunge through two dozen songs, plugging their wares to a well-juiced audience that is usually very social and — truth be told — not very interested. So goes the backer’s audition. You like the songs? Here’s your chance to have a piece of what might well be the next Music Man. Or maybe not. Leave your check on the table on the way out.

The 1962 musical All American is not one of Broadway’s all-time great musicals, not by a long shot. First-time songwriters Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, along with first-time librettist Mike Stewart, first-time director Gower Champion, and first-time producer Ed Padula, had stunned the Broadway establishment in 1960 by turning out the hit Bye Bye Birdie. Padula quickly tried to reassemble his team, but a tad too late; David Merrick, by this point already the behemoth of Broadway, signed up Champion and Stewart before you could say “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo.” (That is, he put them to work on the 1961 hit Carnival, which was followed by the 1964 blockbuster Hello, Dolly!)

Padula was able to replace Champion with someone even better, at least on paper. Josh Logan had directed Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, Picnic and what seemed like dozens of hits. Who knew musicals better than Josh? So went the thinking, I suppose. But Logan had an up-and-down career, battered by what we would refer to nowadays as mental illness (and which could be effectively controlled, nowadays, with a couple of pills before breakfast). Nobody knew it in 1962, but Logan’s future — beginning with All American — consisted of a string of bad musicals ( Mr. President, Hot September, Look to the Lilies, Miss Moffat).

For his librettist, Padula turned to a TV comedy writer who’d worked with Stewart on “Your Show of Shows” named Brooks, who needs no introduction in this column. He has always been a man of wild ideas, and wild ideas don’t necessarily work on stage. By the time he wrote the musical version of The Producers, he was an acknowledged genius; but Brooks knew enough to get Tom Meehan to help craft that vision into a coherent libretto. All American had an accomplished book doctor on hand in the person of Logan, but Josh was apparently in no shape to complement Mel. Worse, it turned out that their senses of humor were incompatible. A description of the book is laced between the songs of this backer’s audition, and one has to wonder how they planned to get it on stage.

The blame for the demise of All American has been roundly placed on the shoulders of Logan and star Ray Bolger, the accomplished song-and dance man best known as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.” (Said blame comes after the fact, when Logan and Bolger are long gone and unable to protect themselves; however, I imagine the assessment is pretty accurate.) Bolger wasn’t completely humorless, no; but the humor, again, was of a very different sort than what was required. All American told of a European immigrant who takes a job as engineering professor at a small American university; by applying his engineering theories to the football team, he becomes a nationwide celebrity ripe for exploitation by a Machiavellian villain from Madison Avenue. What a country, indeed.

All American was quickly forgotten, and is (deservedly) not a candidate for exhumation. Harbinger Records has come upon a tape recording of a backer’s audition performed by Strouse and Adams, though, and has seen fit to commercially release it as a CD. This is not the same as hearing Lerner and Loewe plugging My Fair Lady, say, but the All American backer’s audition makes for fascinating listening. In a way, this is more illuminating than a backer’s audition for a hit. The songs come at you in a flurry, all 22 of them. Which sound good? Which sound like they will be cut before Tuesday? Which sound like they should be cut, but won’t be? And would you, sitting in Josh Logan’s living room in the winter of 1962, have been able to identify the one song destined to become a standard? Probably, is the answer to the last question. “Once Upon a Time” sounds pretty good, even as warbled by Adams and Strouse. One wonders about the occasion of this event. Backer’s auditions are usually held early on, when money is still in short supply. From the patter Lee Adams presents between songs, though, we gather that the show is already well into rehearsals — by which point the producer, with the hit Birdie in his pocket, should already have lined up the capitalization, the theatre, the theatre parties and the cast album deal with Columbia (which did very nicely with Birdie). So, who was this backer’s audition pitched to? Did they raise any money from it? And if you were there with checkbook in hand, would you have been prescient enough to just have another canape and leave the checkbook in your pocket?

—Steven Suskin, author of “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.