The songwriters of Dinner at Eight, a new musical based the classic play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, have won the 2001-2002 Jerry Bock Award for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Theatre.
The musical by composer Ben Schaechter, lyricist Frank Evans and librettist Julie Gilbert was developed at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. The biennial award was established by Jerry Bock, the BMI composer of such classic musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, She Loves Me, The Apple Tree and The Rothschilds. The winning musical was chosen by Bock from the collective output of musicals developed in the BMI Workshop. The prize goes to the composer and lyricist. The award is administered through the BMI Foundation.
The award comes with a $2,000 prize. A private ceremony was held Aug. 7 at the New York headquarters of BMI, the performing rights organization that protects songwriters.
Dinner at Eight was workshopped under the direction of Bick Goss at The Century Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan in 2000. Gilbert, the great niece of Ferber, is winner of the Dramaloug Award for her play, The Cottage and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her joint biography of Paulette Goddard and Erich Maria Remarque, "Opposite Attraction." Evans penned lyrics to the musical, Abie's Island Rose, seen Off-Broadway and in Florida. His musical War Brides, is scheduled for a June 2002 production in Norwich, CT. Schaechter composed music for the Outer Critics Award-nominated That's Life and the Outer Critics- and Drama Desk Award-nominated Too Jewish?, as well as the long-running hit, Naked Boys Singing.
Previous winners of the Bock award are Jay Gaither and Cheryl Hawkins for Hurricane, which was seen at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and A Trip to the Footbinder by David Dreyfus and Jeffrey Hardy, which was workshopped at Goodspeed Musicals in a cooperative venture with BMI. *
Characters in the classic American play, Dinner at Eight, sang for their supper in a reading of the new musical version of the 1932 Kaufman Ferber drama, Feb. 8-10, 2000, at the Century Center in New York City.
Three private, industry-only performances were presented, offering insiders an initial look at the new piece, penned by Gilbert, Evans and Schaechter. Per Actors' Equity it was not a "workshop" but an "Equity approved presentation," with Broadway and New York talent, including Tovah Feldshuh in the role of faded stage star Carlotta Vance.
The soapy comedy-drama (later an M-G-M picture) tells overlapping stories of guests invited to and preparing for dinner at Millicent and Oliver Jordan's. She's neurotic, he's losing his fortune, and their daughter is having an affair with a depressed, faded matinee idol who is just a trigger-pull away from oblivion.
Evans told Playbill On-Line that Millicent has been made the center of the show. "The play is darker than the film," Evans said. "Because the play is a cavalcade, we've made Millicent [played by Deborah Tranelli in 2000], the society hostess, the center of the musical. She has a little more self knowledge and a much greater journey than Kaufman and Ferber's Millicent. Part of the challenge has been finding that line."
The presentation was produced by The Century Center for the Performing Arts (J.C. Compton, artistic director, Ralph Odom, managing director), in association with Gilford-Freely Productions and Silent Partner Productions.
"We were initially attracted to the original piece because it seems to speak of the end of an era — where there was such a huge difference in class," Evans said. "But that's all we hear about today, the great divide between the moneyed and the poor. The times are not dissimilar. So much depends on the stock market, both then and now."
Another choice new to the musical is changing the time from 1931 to 1934, to avoid the issue of Prohibition. "Where would Millicent get wine and liquor for her party?" Evans mused. "The local bootlegger? In 1934, she can buy legally."
The presentation cast included Bob Ari as Dan Packard, Amanda Butterbaugh as Kitty Packard, Andy Gale as Oliver Jordan, Laura Griffith as Paula Jordan, Adam Heller as Ed Loomis, Fredric Marco as Dr. Wayne Talbot, Charles Pistone as Larry Renault, Lauren Rubem as Helen Copeland, Jane Smulyan as Mrs. Heidi Wendel, Steve Sterner as Gavin Hatfield, Mary Stout as Hattie Loomis, Deborah Tranelli as Millicent Jordan and Feldshuh as Carlotta Vance.
The original play was embraced as literate and human, but the Depression helped shorten its run to 232 performances in the 1932-33 season. Sam H. Harris produced at the Music Box Theatre.
"Some of the characters cry out for musicalization — certainly [movie star] Larry Renault," Evans said of Dinner at Eight. "Kaufman and Ferber must have loved John Barrymore — they fictionalized him in both Royal Family and to a degree in Dinner at Eight. It's hard not to write for him and at one point his songs were taking over the show. He has a spectacular number in Act 2 just before he commits suicide, 'Extravaganza of the Year,' where he envisions his funeral."
"We have also enhanced — punctuated — the romances," Evans said. "Past affairs, present affairs. But here, I don't want to give away too much. But it gives us fodder for ballads about unrequited love with exquisite melodies by Ben."
Songs in the reading included "The Night When it Might Have Been," "Ever So Young," "Do You Want to Buy a Theatre?," "My Goddess Greta" and more.
— By Kenneth Jones