ON THE RECORD: Lysistrata Jones and the Collected Songs of Victor Herbert

By Steven Suskin
May 27, 2012

This week's column discusses last season's Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones and a four-CD set of songs by composer Victor Herbert.



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Lysistrata Jones [Broadway Records]
Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn's Lysistrata Jones opened on a Greenwich Village basketball court last June and revealed itself to be a wryly sly jolt of Aristophanes masquerading as a low-grade high school — or rather, college — musical. Capital fun, I thought, hitting enough demographics to possibly make it on a larger scale. A group of bravely hardy — or perhaps foolhardy — producers went the next step, propelling this retelling of a Lysistrata-led strike against sexual favors to Broadway.

Lysistrata Jones had just as much going for it at the Walter Kerr, but long before the opening the show revealed its Achilles' heel (if a musical can be said to have an Achilles' heel). Audiences at large did not want to see it, it seems; not at all. Long before reviews or word of mouth began to circulate, business was at starvation level. The Off-Broadway engagement enjoyed good reviews, great word-of-mouth, and sellout business. Uptown, simply put, nobody was interested in buying tickets. Lysistrata had a mixed reaction during previews; some people liked it, some not. The reviews — at least some important ones — were quite good, with critics repeating their praise from downtown.

But Lysistrata Jones was doomed. For whatever reason, Broadway was inhospitable. I suppose that "Lysistrata" — as a word — was poison. Educated audiences either didn't want a contemporary Lysistrata or didn't want any Lysistrata at all. Undereducated audiences didn't want a play whose title they didn't understand, couldn't pronounce, or both. Lizzie Jones would have worked just as well, or better; Lizzie Jones: The Hot Musical with a picture of the leading lady in an oversized basketball jersey. That might sell tickets. Certainly, nothing the uptown producers could do got them past ticketbuyer resistance.

Patti Murin
photo by Joan Marcus

Which was disheartening. Lysistrata Jones is a sweet little show, witty, clever and enjoyably unpretentious. A great musical it is not; but then, there are long-running hits presently on the boards that neither you nor I would classify as great. Lysistrata Jones did what it set out to do, and did so in an entertaining manner. I would say it is a shame that it didn't run longer, but it really couldn't run longer. It was the right show, I suppose, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The right place should prove to be the regional, stock and amateur circuit — college groups, especially. This makes the new original cast album all the more welcome. Without a CD, a flop is a flop and unlikely to amass a string of productions. Give producers and directors across the country the script and a copy of the CD, and they are likely to say — we can do well with this! And hopefully so; Lysistrata Jones is a lot better than its adventures last December indicate.

Let me add that the songs by Lewis Flinn are perky but not what I would call distinguished. Workable enough, by my standards. The CD brings us the energetic cast, and reminds me how much I liked Patti Murin and Jason Tam as the head cheerleader — AKA Lysistrata — and a blogger named Xander. There are also refreshing performances from Josh Segarra as the basketball star and Lindsay Nicole Chambers as a poetry-slamming book nerd. And lots of energy from the cast of 12.

No, we can't call Lysistrata Jones a Broadway success, but it is a musical worth knowing, and one that should please audiences across the country just like it did when it was a sold-out hit downtown last June.

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Cover art
Victor Herbert: Collected Songs [New World Records]

I pressed the play button on the first of four discs included in "Victor Herbert: Collected Songs" as I hit the Major Deegan Expressway. What I got was some German art song. Next up, a German art song and then another. Stuck on the highway without a traffic light, I kept pressing the skip button and kept getting more of the same, finally surmising that they must have sent me the wrong disc. But no; the first 19 of the 102 tracks in this set are German art songs. It turns out that Herbert — the Dublin-born composer frequently considered to be Broadway's first important composer — moved to Stuttgart at the age of seven and remained in Germany for 20 years before heading to Broadway.

These art songs illustrate the strength and weakness of this ambitious set, which comes under the umbrella of the "Foundations of the American Musical Theater" series from New World Records. Fans of Victor Herbert will no doubt be beside themselves with this carefully assembled and produced collection; this set not only rescues numerous songs from obscurity — including a good number which were thus far unrecorded — it puts them in the hands of singers who know how to sing them. (Broadwayites will be glad to find Rebecca Luker, George Dvorsky, Ron Raines and Aaron Lazar among the group. Piano accompaniment is provided by William Hicks.) Fans will further appreciate that these CDs are not crammed with Herbert's greatest hits; you can get them elsewhere, this set is reserved for songs you never hear.

Those who are unfamiliar with Herbert, though, might quickly think — well, these songs aren't very impressive. If you don't already know and appreciate Herbert's greatest hits, this collection won't take you very far. I personally would be thrilled to have an expertly made set of 102 obscure Gershwin or Rodgers or Arlen songs. But if I'd never heard the best of Gershwin, I don't imagine I'd come away a fan after hearing ten of those primitive songs from various editions of George White's Scandals.

And so it is with this Herbert set, which in addition to the German art songs includes a fair share of show tunes and a broad swath of Irish art songs. Also patriotic songs, songs written for newspaper concerts, a march for the Dodge Brothers of old Detroit, and more. Fans of Victor Herbert will be enthralled by it all, although I wonder just how many fans of Victor Herbert there are nowadays. And how do said fans — presumably all of whom were born long after his death in 1924 — become acquainted with his music?

So this is a job worth doing and well done. For those of us who don't include Herbert on our playlist, though, these "Collected Songs" are not likely to set us in search of Naughty Marietta.

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(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations" (now available in paperback), "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)