Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Getting It Off My Chest

Special Features   Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Getting It Off My Chest
With this column, I begin an occasional feature in which I allow myself to vent about current pet peeves. In no particular order, here are some of the things I lose sleep over, get angry about, am bewildered by, consider ridiculous, etc.

With this column, I begin an occasional feature in which I allow myself to vent about current pet peeves. In no particular order, here are some of the things I lose sleep over, get angry about, am bewildered by, consider ridiculous, etc.

#1: PBS' current programming policies re stage material. Am I the only one perturbed with some of the so-called theatrical programs that PBS has been airing lately? I am well aware that such recent public television fare as the London tenth-anniversary Les Miz concert, Riverdance, and Lord of the Dance have been among the top-rated programs on the network, and extremely helpful during pledge drives. But what ever happened to the days when PBS gave us original programming, filled with newly taped plays and musicals? Both Riverdance and Lord were already available for sale and rental in your local video store prior to their PBS airings, and while Les Miz was great the first time it was aired, it has since been shown to death, with most of those showings happening after that program's video release. Shouldn't PBS be giving us original programming, rather than screening available videotapes? For that matter, can't they tape some recent, noteworthy plays (how about Angels in America, the film of which is still in limbo, or some revivals like Lincoln Center Theater's The Heiress and A Delicate Balance)? Must we only have documentaries (like the Julie Andrews Victor/Victoria two-hour commercial, or the one on Jelly's Last Jam) on musicals, rather than actual musicals? Yes, we got Passion, but are Sondheim musicals the only ones allowed to be taped and telecast?

#2: Why must so many of today's authors beat a dead horse? In the '50s and '60s, when major writers suffered a big failure--say Bob Merrill with Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sondheim and Laurents with Anyone Can Whistle, or Bock-Harnick-Abbott with Tenderloin--they let it go, moving on from there to other projects. In recent years, writers have become unwilling to let their failures go, choosing instead to spend decades revising and reworking them, thereby taking up time that they could instead have been devoting to new projects. The tremendously talented team of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt spent far too much time on various versions of their Colette musical which closed on the road in 1982 with Diana Rigg as the star. Merrily We Roll Along has undergone numerous revisions, although it has been more George Furth's book than Sondheim's score that has changed.

No one seems to want to leave Mack and Mabel alone; I would submit that if the show didn't work when David Merrick, Gower Champion, Robert Preston, and Bernadette Peters were involved, it won't ever work, and several major revivals (at Paper Mill Playhouse, in the West End) have only proven my contention that, while the songs are terrific, the book's problems are insurmountable and that the show will never fully satisfy. (Yes, I'm aware that in his recent autobiography Jerry Herman claims that the London revival finally made the show a hit, but the truth is that while the London production won the Evening Standard Best Musical prize, it was a financial failure.)

Martin Charnin, Charles Strouse, and Thomas Meehan spent years revising Annie 2 into several versions of Annie Warbucks, and while there is no question that they improved their sequel, the off-Broadway AW wound up losing its entire investment, and the show has failed to have the expected subsequent stock life. And in spite of all the revision Jeeves has undergone to become By Jeeves, the West End production had a disappointing run, and there are no plans to bring the show to New York following its current Los Angeles and subsequent Washington, D.C., engagements. Why are all these talented and intelligent men so unwilling to let a show go and move on? For one thing, shows have become so expensive to produce that it's often easier to revise an already existing property than to try to get a new one on. Then too, there is the example of Kiss of the Spider Woman, a disaster in its initial, 1990 New Musicals production, and the winner of every Best Musical award going in its 1993 Broadway production (which, admittedly, was a financial failure). Whatever the reasons, I would be happy to see more new shows and fewer revisions.

#3: The continued reliance on old music in new musicals. This falls roughly into two categories, new book shows with old music (My One and Only, Crazy For You, and the current Play On!) and songbook revues (last season's Swinging on A Star, the current Dream). Already announced for next season are High Society, featuring the songs of Cole Porter, and Easter Parade with Irving Berlin songs, both projects based on old movies.

Yes, several of these, especially Crazy For You, have been sizable hits and offered a lot of pleasure to audiences. But it's not a good sign that producers continue to play it safe by creating new shows built around deceased songwriters, particularly when so many other musical productions are revivals. Is this not crowding out the work of new songwriters, many of whom can't get a hearing when they have to compete not only with revivals, but with new shows by Porter, Ellington, and Gershwin?

#4: This one will make me unpopular in certain circles, but it's directly related to #3, and is indeed one possible explanation for #3. I believe too many of today's new generation of musical theatre songwriters are writing audience-unfriendly scores. In the last 50 years, the great shows--and even the near-great or merely okay ones--had scores that audiences could embrace, whether it be the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, the more conventional Jerry Herman-Cy Coleman-Jule Styne works, or the more complex, difficult Sondheim shows, the scores of which had passionate devotees even if they did not appeal to all. It's my belief that the reason why such recent off-Broadway musicals as Floyd Collins, Bed and Sofa, Wings, and Violet have, in spite of receiving many rave reviews, failed to run beyond their initial institutional productions is because their scores are too musicianly and lack sufficient theatricality. Even in such daring, complex, landmark shows as Company, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd, Sondheim never forgot to give the audience showstoppers (Company's score is nothing if not a series of them) and thrills; the recent musicals just mentioned (and you can throw in John and Jen and Jack's Holiday too) have scores that are difficult to assimilate or that tend to leave audiences cool, and when that's the case, the show cannot hope to have wide appeal. I humbly urge today's writers to think a bit more about appealing to the audience's desire for soaring, genuinely theatrical melody. But I'll end this little tirade by stating that there are indeed some contemporary writers--Walter Edgar Kennon (Time and Again) and Doug Cohen (No Way To Treat A Lady, The Gig) come to mind--still interested in pleasing a crowd in addition to illuminating character and telling a story.

#5: Opening five musicals during the last week of the season. It's long been the case that Broadway plays and musicals choose to open as close to Tony nomination time as possible, but this season carries it to an extreme. Is it really a good thing to have Titanic, Steel Pier, The Life, Jekyll & Hyde, and Candide opening almost back-to-back in the space of a week? Might not one of these productions suffer by comparison to the others? Might not one take business away from the others? Might not critics get a little grumpy, or slap-happy, by the last one? Might it not have been wiser to open one of them during those quiet weeks in January, February, and early March?

#6: Why can't Broadway's leading ladies appear as regularly as they used to? Of current shows, Julie Andrews has missed approximately 130 performances of Victor/Victoria. In just five months on Broadway, Ann Reinking has had four periods of absence, two of them extended, and a production source has told me that there have been very few weeks when both Reinking and Bebe Neuwirth have appeared at all eight shows. (Reinking has a long history of this sort of thing, having missed many performances of such '70s shows as Over Here! and Goodtime Charley, and, in spite of denials, word around town is that Reinking may not be returning to Chicago.) Even a powerhouse like Elaine Paige missed more performances of Sunset Boulevard than she should have (I'm told that Paige just can't bear doing two shows on the same day), and Sarah Jessica Parker, Lesley Ann Warren, and Linda Eder all missed a couple of previews of their musicals this season. In a relatively brief but double Tony winning career, featured diva Audra McDonald has managed to miss many performances of Carousel and Master Class, and has been out of Ragtime in Toronto. Yes, if one is ailing or injured, one should not perform, but I can't help recalling the days when such stars as Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Lauren Bacall appeared in musicals and never missed a performance throughout a two-year run. There seems to be less commitment to audiences these days, and it is now often difficult for a theatre fan to come to town for a week of showgoing and catch the current shows with their leads intact.

#7: Blaming the show rather than the revival: When revivals open to acclaim these days, not only is the show praised, but often critics will claim that it's the new production that has finally made the show achieve its maximum effect; this was especially true with the revivals of Chicago and Carousel. I've noticed that, in general, when a revival is not well received, critics and audiences tend to point the finger at the piece itself, rather than distinguishing between the two and realizing that the piece may have been grand in its original staging and has failed to come to life this time around because of deficiencies in the current production. Such was the case with last season's Company and this season's Once Upon A Mattress and, to a lesser extent, Annie. All of these pieces can still play well; if they may disappoint now, it's not necessarily the fault of the work itself.

#8: What's the big deal about the Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard running 28 months but returning only 80 percent of its investment? This turn of events has been variously reported as indicating a) the fall of Lord Lloyd Webber's empire; b) the death of the mega-musical spectacle; and c) the end of the world as we know it.

It appears that some commentators on the subject either have a short memory or simply can't resist jumping on Lloyd Webber; in fact, there's nothing unusual about the financial fate of the Broadway Sunset. The 1973 Broadway revival of Irene starring Debbie Reynolds ran a year and a half and wound up losing $900,000 on an investment of $800,000. The 1981 Woman of the Year ran two years and returned less than 20% of its investment. Many Sondheim musicals have run a year or more and not returned as much as Sunset did. And any number of recent, acclaimed shows (The Will Rogers Follies, The Secret Garden, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Jelly's Last Jam) had long Broadway runs without returning their investment. So while it would have been nice had Sunset been produced a bit more economically so that its healthy grosses could have allowed the show to pay back, there's nothing earthshattering or particularly new about Sunset's final Broadway tally.

#9: I would attribute the previous entry to somewhat misleading reporting, but these days I find far too much inaccurate reporting as well. For example, in the Sunday Times piece on Johnny Mercer that preceded the opening of Dream, Stephen Holden wrote that "All six of Mercer's Broadway shows flopped." What about Li'l Abner, which ran close to two years, was a financial success, and was made into a film? For that matter, Mercer's 1951 show Top Banana lasted 350 performances and was filmed, while his 1949 Texas, Li'l Darlin' ran 293 performances.

In the Hal Prince piece that appeared in the previous Sunday Times, it was stated that if Whistle Down The Wind had opened on Broadway as scheduled, Prince would have been eligible for two directorial Tonys, for Whistle and for the Candide revival. I could be wrong about this, but Prince won the 1974 Tony for his direction of the first Broadway revival of Candide, so would he be eligible again? True, the current revival is a proscenium staging, quite different from the '74 production, but I doubt that Prince would be ruled eligible for directing a musical for whch he already took the prize.

In addition to My One and Only and Crazy For You, there was to be another new musical with Gershwin songs in the late '80s, one that got as far as readings. What was its title, and who wrote the book?

Answer to last week's quiz: "Just A Coupla Indian Boys" was cut from The Will Rogers Follies during previews. It was a duet for Will and his father.

I couldn't disagree more with those who maintain that Kurt Weill's Broadway scores are inferior to those he had earlier composed in Germany. But even if you choose to maintain that position, you still must hear the new Angel disc Kurt Weill on Broadway, on which John McGlinn conducts opera baritone Thomas Hampson, joined variously by Elizabeth Futral, Jeanne Lehman, Jerry Hadley and many others, in numbers and scenes from One Touch of Venus, Knickerbocker Holiday, Johnny Johnson, The Firebrand of Florence, and Love Life.

Recorded three years ago, this CD, even with McGlinn's overly polite conducting and Hampson's still not fully successful attempt at crossing over, is essential for serious musical theatre fans. The 38 minutes from the disastrous 1945 Firebrand would by itself justify a purchase (it's not up to Weill's best, but it's fascinating to hear); there's also 21 minutes of Love Life, and everything is heard in Weill's own distinctive orchestrations. It's unfortunate that none of the shows represented here has had a complete recording; Street Scene and Lost in the Stars are the only Broadway Weill with note-complete recordings, and a few years back Angel cancelled a scheduled McGlinn-Hampson-Judy Kaye triple-CD Love Life. So this disc may for some time continue to represent the most material available from these shows, at least in its original form.

And a cast album update: RCA Victor will record Steel Pier, Titanic, and Candide. Atlantic, which recorded the second, double-CD studio Jekyll & Hyde, intends to record the new Broadway production. And Varese Sarabande has dropped plans to record Annie.

Joseph Marchese asks:
Why isn't a cast album in the works for Encores!'s Promises, Promises? You've reported that even the lesser-known Sweet Adeline will receive a recording; it seems to me (a person with a huge soft spot for the score, who cried at City Center after the overture!) that a Promises recording, at least in show music circles, would be a hot seller. Bacharach's pulsating, electric score deserves to hit CD racks, and it's hard to imagine a more perfect modern-day cast than the one Rob Marshall assembled. Great work on the column.
KM: I agree that the Promises concert should be recorded. One major label attempted to get the recording rights for a couple of months prior to the concerts; all of the creative team agreed, but Neil Simon vetoed the recording (perhaps because he thought the production might transfer to Broadway and then be recorded). The same label is now trying to record the April Los Angeles Promises concert starring Jason Alexander, having also attempted for the last couple of years to get the rights to reissuing United Artists' original Broadway cast recording of Promises. In the latter situation, it appears that those who control the rights to U.A. cast recordings will not allow separate titles to be reissued; they want to sell the entire catalogue as one unit.

Steven from Philadelphia asks: Do you have any idea of future plans for the Encores! series?
KM: I've heard that Do I Hear A Waltz? is a strong possibility for next season. There was talk of Li'l Abner, but there's also talk of a Broadway revival of that one. And while articles on the series have mentioned A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I hear that holders of the rights to that show may prefer to develop a revised stage production. St. Louis Woman is also a possibility.

John Pingree asks: Although Harold Prince's 1974 reworking of Candide was a hit, I've read reports that Leonard Bernstein was not really happy with the production nor with Prince's 1982 New York City Opera version. Supposedly, Bernstein considered the 1991 concert version, recorded on Deutsche Grammophon, which grew out of the Scottish Opera production, the definitive Candide. Why then does Bernstein's estate allow Prince to again re-mount his version on Broadway?

KM: You are correct in stating that Bernstein's Scottish Opera version, which was recorded by TER and taped and televised in England, then recorded by DG (with a more stellar company) and telecast in a concert version, is now the official performance version of the piece. But the Bernstein estate allowed Hal Prince to use the version he favors for a Lyric Opera of Chicago mounting three years ago, and again for the new Broadway version, both of which feature revisions and alterations from the City Opera version. I would imagine that the Bernstein estate likes seeing Candide get its third Broadway mounting, and as Livent wanted Prince to do his version (albeit with revisions), the Bernstein estate would not have wished to stand in the way of a potentially lucrative, long-running new production (which is expected to hit Livent's Toronto and Vancouver theatres in addition to Broadway).

Finally, in answer to numerous questions, it appears that Bernadette Peters' next vehicle, hinted at on a recent Rosie O'Donnell Show, will be a revival of Annie Get Your Gun, to be produced by the Weisslers. Previously mentioned for this production were Geena Davis and Patti LuPone.

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