AISLE VIEW by Ken Mandelbaum: A 'Night' for Musicals

News   AISLE VIEW by Ken Mandelbaum: A 'Night' for Musicals
This week, the first new Broadway musical of the season, Play On!, begins performances. The show comes to New York from a well-received run at the Old Globe in San Diego. Play On! take its title from the first line of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and in fact recycles that play's plot, resetting it in Harlem in the '40s amidst the songs of Duke Ellington.

Iain Glen and Juliette Caton
Iain Glen and Juliette Caton Photo by Photo credit: Michael Le Poer Trench

This week, the first new Broadway musical of the season, Play On!, begins performances. The show comes to New York from a well-received run at the Old Globe in San Diego. Play On! take its title from the first line of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and in fact recycles that play's plot, resetting it in Harlem in the '40s amidst the songs of Duke Ellington.

But this is hardly the first New York musical taken from Twelfth Night. In January 1968, two off Broadway musicals opened ten days apart, both based on the play. The successful one was, of course, Your Own Thing, which ran for over two years and even took the New York Drama Critics Circle prize for Best Musical away from all of that season's Broadway entries. Your Own Thing was delightful at the time but perhaps difficult to revive, as the show's clever notion was making use of late '60s unisex styles and a new awareness of sexual identity and the possible confusions thereof to tell the story of a female twin who disguises herself as a man, only to find members of both sexes attracted to her. The energetic score is also very much of its period (and the show was a lot more fun in performance than it sounds on the RCA cast recording, still awaiting CD transfer).

The other January '68 Twelfth Night musical was Love and Let Love, a straightforward, mediocre retelling of the play with good performers like John Cunningham and Virginia Vestoff. Marcia Rodd had the leading role of Viola in Love and Let Love, and when it closed after two weeks, she moved over to replace the early-departing Marian Mercer in the role of Olivia in Your Own Thing. An unreleased, privately pressed cast LP of Love and Let Love exists.

But the musical Twelfth Night saga does not end there. In 1976, George Abbott, who in 1938 had had great success adapting Shakespeare to the Broadway musical stage with The Boys From Syracuse, wrote and directed Music Is, with music by Richard Adler, who in happier days had done The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees with Abbott. With no very clear take on the source material, Music Is was a pointless show that shuttered after eight performances. It played the St. James, three blocks away from Play On!

It's hardly a secret that the big West End musical Martin Guerre has not had an easy time of it. A product of the composer-lyricist-producer team that gave the world Les Miz and Miss Saigon, Guerre's opening last summer was eagerly anticipated, with the show clearly poised to be the new international blockbuster pop opera hit.

But things did not proceed smoothly. With two or three exceptions, the initial London reviews were discouraging, and matters were not helped when Vincent Canby in the New York Times and Clive Barnes in the New York Post also filed negative verdicts. Around the same time, another musical based on the same material, The House of Martin Guerre, opened at Chicago's Goodman Theatre (by way of Canada) to generally good reviews, and there were rumors that it might beat the London Guerre to Broadway (although nothing has been heard of it since).

In the face of disappointing business, producer Cameron Mackintosh decided to have his Guerre extensively revised, bringing in an additional lyricist (Stephen Clark) for rewrites, then relaunching the show in the fall. While the London production of Sunset Boulevard had also been shut down and reopened, the revised London Sunset was modeled on the acclaimed Los Angeles version that had opened five months after the London world premiere; the new Guerre was untested, and thus riskier. The revised Guerre was indisputably cleaner and clearer, and virtually every critic felt the show was improved. But the new reviews, while much better and including a few raves, were still somewhat muted, and less than what the creative team had hoped for after considerable work on the show.

In early 1997, rumors appeared in the London press that Guerre might soon be throwing in the towel, and the show's chances of traveling to Broadway and having an international life began to seem remote. But on February 16, Guerre won the Olivier Award for Best Musical, triumphing over Passion (the winner of the 1996 Evening Standard Best Musical prize) and Nine, two Tony-winning musicals (albeit in West End stagings that were not their original Broadway versions). Interestingly enough, it was the first Boublil-Schonberg Mackintosh show to take the prize: Les Miz had lost the Best Musical Olivier Award to Me and My Girl (at the time, new shows and revivals were pitted against each other), and Miss Saigon lost to Return to the Forbidden Planet, the ensuing scandal resulting in a revision in the Olivier voting procedures.

Will the Olivier Award turn things around for Guerre? Will it pump up the box office at the Prince Edward, and eventually inspire Mackintosh to transfer the show to Broadway? Will Mackintosh take a slightly different route, making the show's next stop one of the current musical theatre capitals (Canada, Germany, Australia, even Japan) beyond the U.S.? Time will tell, but for now the award gives the management something to promote.


Speaking of the Olivier Awards, I'm happy to say that, like clockwork, my annual tape of the telecast arrived so that I was able to watch it exactly one week after those in England had seen it. In place of the live telecast and mostly live musical performances of our Tony Awards, the Oliviers do things differently. Held on Sunday the 16th, they did not air until Monday the 17, allowing the ceremony to be edited for telecast, with several awards mentioned and glimpsed on tape but not fully aired, and the last part of the final musical number seen underneath the closing credits.

While most of the Olivier presentations of the last decade have been staged at a West End theatre, the show has reverted to the ballroom setting of years ago, so the numbers that were performed live suffered from a lack of full stage scenery, even if there was a stage to play on. Done live were a medley from Smokey Joe's Cafe (with the London replacements rather than the original, imported American cast), the Gethsemane number from the current Jesus Christ Superstar revival (Steve Balsamo was excellent, but who wanted to see him do it in a dinner jacket?), and supporting actor winner Clive Rowe and company in "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat" from the current revival of the 1982 National Theatre Guys and Dolls revival (which, with the exception of its reduced orchestration, I still consider superior to the smash hit Broadway revival of the '90s). Taped right off the stage were a wonderfully shot "Pinball Wizard" from the recently shuttered Tommy, and scenes from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Tackiest of all was the absence of a fresh performance from Martin Guerre in favor of showing three minutes from the sequence of Guerre numbers that was seen on last fall's Royal Variety Performance; happily, the entire ten-minute Royal Variety Guerre sequence was also included on the tape, as was last fall's Evening Standard Awards presentation, which included brief clips of the London Passion.

In terms of musical theatre sequences, this was not one of the more exciting Olivier programs, but I'm always happy to receive them, and am now really looking forward to the arrival on video of the March 1 British telecast of last season's Donmar Warehouse production of Company.


With its parade of divas that has already included Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone, Faye Dunaway and now Dixie Carter, Terrence McNally's Master Class has become the Sunset Boulevard of straight plays, offering fans the chance to catch a series of distinctive ladies in a drop-dead star part and debate their individual merits. (Note that that list of Master Class ladies includes two with extremely well known Sunset connections.) I actually find Master Class not only a superb piece of theatre but as much fun as the finest musicals, and always look forward to returning to it.

When I heard that Carter was to be the third Broadway Maria Callas, I recalled her best-known work--the TV series "Designing Women"--and felt that her ability to harangue people in classy, elegant fashion on that show would stand her in good stead for her new assignment. Every time I mentioned this to friends, however, I found that they were, to put it mildly, dubious about Carter's qualifications, when they didn't actually laugh in my face.

I am happy to report that I was quite right--Carter is sensational in the role. Her command of the play and the stage is amazing in light of the fact that she's never played a leading role on Broadway. With Carter, the play is restored to what it was originally, a devastating portrait of the care, feeding, and ultimate tragedy of a monstrous ego. Well as I know the play, I was surprised at her ability to put a spin on some of the lines so as to make them sound newly minted. Carter's comic timing is superb, and she equals Caldwell in her ability to garner huge laughs while acting as if nothing she's saying is remotely funny (never underestimate the usefulness of a weekly sit-com taped in front of a live audience for honing comic timing). And she rises to the role's dramatic and emotional peaks in grand fashion. In fact, I found Carter's work pretty much flawless, and that was after just a couple of weeks of previews.

I saw Carter on her official opening night; in attendance was her husband, Hal Holbrook, now rehearsing Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter, accompanied by Elaine Stritch, with whom Carter appeared in Long Beach Civic Light Opera's revival of Pal Joey. (Stritch's brilliant turn in last season's revival of A Delicate Balance was vanquished at the Tony Awards by Caldwell's Callas.) Up the street, Carter's ex-husband George Hearn was playing Max in Sunset Boulevard.


Although earlier musical versions of the Joan of Arc story haven't worked well in New York (Goodtime Charley) and London (Jeanne), there's a new one at the Place des Arts in Montreal called Jeanne La Pucelle. The work of Vincent de Tourdonnet and Peter Sipos, the show is directed by Broadway's own Martin Charnin. The company, headed by Judith Berard as Joan, is bilingual and performs the show alternately in English and French.

In addition to its recent BBC Radio 2 airing, the recent Drury Lane Theatre, London concert version of Follies, with Donna McKechnie, Julia McKenzie, Denis Quilley, and Ron Moody in the leading roles, will also be released as a double-CD set by Virgin Records. This will be the fourth cast album of Follies, the second concert cast recording, and the third double-CD version.

Could the Broadway cast of the London-by way-of-Paris hit comedy Art consist of Kevin Spacey, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino?

A new national tour of Dreamgirls heads out in September. While it will recreate the original Michael Bennett staging, I hear that it will not feature any of the original leads.

Last Sunday, my scoop on potential casting for Encores! Promises, Promises included Christine Baranski as Marge MacDougall; the New York Times had Baranski for the role five days later. Stay tuned to see if my other Promises names also come true.

Blind item: What current national tour is on its third company manager and its umpteenth dresser, hair person, etc., all thanks to its difficult leading lady?


Bruce Yeko's Original Cast Records, the label without which such musicals as The Baker's Wife, Oh, Brother!, A Doll's Life, and Prettybelle would never have been preserved with their original casts, continues its regular releases of theatre titles. While we still await Original Cast's forthcoming Breakfast at Tiffany's and Mata Hari recordings, O.C. has in recent months issued several noteworthy show CDs. Of particular interest is In Trousers, the cast recording of the first, 1979 Playwrights Horizons version of what would become Part One of William Finn's trilogy of Marvin musicals (March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland are the other installments). Although what's heard on the In Trousers CD is no longer the official version of the piece--it was supplanted by another one performed off-Broadway in 1985--this is still very much worth hearing, particularly as Trousers has become the stepchild of the trilogy ever since the second and third parts were combined into Falsettos. The performers on the disc include future Broadwayites Chip Zien, Alison Fraser, and Mary Testa. Included on the CD reissue is "I'm Breaking Down," taken from Fraser's excellent solo Original Cast disc; while this song is best known as part of Falsettos, it was originally heard in the Los Angeles March of the Falsettos then used in the '85 off Broadway In Trousers.

Two years ago, O.C. released a disc devoted to the work of composer-lyricist Robert Lindsey Nassif (who has a disconcerting habit of rearranging his name--he was billed as Robert Nassif Lindsey on that occasion, and has gone by other variations elsewhere). That CD included four songs from Opal, produced at the Lamb's Theatre in 1992. Now O.C. has done a full CD of Opal. Based on the diary of a seven-year-old aristocratic French girl shipwrecked off the coast of Oregon in 1904, Opal sounds like a pleasing family musical, and the singers on the recording include Rachel York, Marni Nixon, and Julie Johnson.

O.C's Incurably Romantic offers 17 songs with lyrics by Martin Charnin, a few also featuring his music; shows represented include Hot Spot, La Strada, The First, Annie Warbucks, The No-Frills Revue, and several unproduced ones, such as Winchell (with music by this CD's arranger orchestrator Keith Levenson), Softly (with music by Harold Arlen), and Back on the Town, a revue conceived for Nancy Walker.

The singers include Barbara Walsh, Laurie Beechman, Margaret Whiting, Andrea Marcovicci, Kathryn Zaremba, Andrea McArdle, and Marla Maples Trump. The majority of the songs on this CD have not been previously recorded, so the disc will be of interest to collectors, particularly to buyers of similar Varese Sarabande compilation discs. The material is a mixed bag, with the familiar numbers superior to the previously unrecorded ones. And I take exception to Charnin's statement in the notes that the Hot Spot song Hey, Love was "demolished" by the show's "impossible" star, Judy Holliday. Hot Spot was a very poor show, and Holliday, who may very well have been impossible, was all it really had going for it; while Whiting sings Hey, Love well on the CD, Holliday's rendition was delectable, bursting with warmth and very well sung, as a live recording attests.

In 1995, a spoof of tacky '50s sci-fi flicks called Zombies From The Beyond opened at off-Broadway's Players Theatre to a number of very strong reviews from major critics. I sat through it stone faced, but while the O.C. cast recording doesn't reveal the score to be distinguished, it does have one virtue: Zombies recalls a virtually dead genre, the cute, tiny off-Broadway musical send-up that was a staple of the '60s. So Zombies can at least be said to qualify as a throwback.


As of 1984, The Olivier Awards became the new name of London's major theatre awards ceremony (although many would argue that the Evening Standard Awards are of equal importance). What were the Olivier Awards called through 1983?

Answer to last week's quiz: Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke were announced to co-star in a film version of She Loves Me that was never made. Andrews was also the potential leading lady of the original stage version of She Loves Me, but producer-director Hal Prince chose not to wait until she became available.


Thomas Scahill asks:
Will Alexander Cohen ever release a Tony Awards "Greatest Hits" video? I have a vague recollection of the 1970 broadcast with classic performances that would end up on every collector's shelf, let alone picking great moments from all the musical nominees that have been performed over the years. Couldn't you and Equity Fights AIDS tackle him on this? My TV Tony collection only goes back to 1984, plus one clip of Dreamgirls from 1981. Cohen is sitting on a gold mine--I can't be the only one who has ever thought of this! I'm not that creative!
KM: A couple of years ago, just such a videotape of musical numbers performed on the Tony Awards program was announced for release. Since then, I've heard nothing about it, but I can imagine that there may have been problems involving the release of such material. Performers who appeared in these numbers were paid for that performance, but I believe that they would all have to be reimbursed again for the commercial release of such material, as would the writers of the material. So the costs of releasing such a tape could be a major stumbling block. By the way, the program to which you refer was the 1971 25th anniversary show, on which many stars recreated their classic numbers.

Anne in NY asks: Can you tell me about Muscle? Who was in the workshop production and when was it? I remember hearing about it, but I never really knew much. Thanks a lot!
KM: With book (based on Sam Fussell's personal memoir) and direction by James Lapine, music by William Finn, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, and musical staging by Joey McKneely, the Shubert Organization presented the Muscle workshop at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in December, 1995. Jarrod Emick had the central role of Max Riddle, Jessica Walter and Dennis Parlato played his parents, and other performers included Karen Ziemba, Stacey Logan, Sarah Uriarte, Darcie Roberts, Stephen Lee Anderson, Chuck Cooper, William Parry, Brenda Braxton, Denise Faye, John Christopher Jones, Christopher Sieber, and Brooks Ashmanskas.

Eduard Castro asks: I was surprised to see that Sunset Blvd. was closing. But I was most surprised to find out that after playing on Broadway for a couple of years with stars like Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, and Elaine Paige, the show would not recoup its $10 million investment. How can this be? If the average weekly gross of the show is $500,000, how could it not make its investment back? What is the weekly cost to stage the show? Thank you for your time. And keep up the great work!
KM: The Broadway production of Sunset operated profitably for almost its entire run, but not quite profitably enough. Because of the elaborate physical production, it was an extremely expensive show to run, and really needed to play at sell-out or near-sell out for a couple of years just to recoup and begin to show a profit. It cost at least $500,000 a week to run, and while it almost always did better than that, its grosses after the first year or so were not consistently high enough to allow the show to return more than the 80% or so that it will have returned by the time it closes. The example of Sunset--a show that played to strong business for over two years but still could not return its investment--could make producers think twice about putting on future shows with unusually high operating costs. It also raises the question: Could Sunset have been as effective if it hadn't been conceived quite so elaborately (i.e. if Norma Desmond's mansion had not risen and hovered over another set)?

Send your questions

Today’s Most Popular News: