Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Musicals We Never Got to See

News   Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: Musicals We Never Got to See
One of the things that makes us all continue to follow Broadway as closely as we do is the utter unpredictability of it all. As one who has for years composed lengthy preview pieces prior to each musical theatre season, I have found again and again that there is simply no way of knowing in July exactly what will make it to New York by May; not only do announced productions die or disappear, but, as was the case with Rent last season, productions that few have heard of at the beginning of a season can unexpectedly turn into major events.
Two shows that won't be seen on Broadway this season:L: Whistle Down the Wind; R: Randy Newman's Faust
Two shows that won't be seen on Broadway this season:
L: Whistle Down the Wind; R: Randy Newman's Faust Photo by Photo credits: Joan Marcus and Liz Lauren

One of the things that makes us all continue to follow Broadway as closely as we do is the utter unpredictability of it all. As one who has for years composed lengthy preview pieces prior to each musical theatre season, I have found again and again that there is simply no way of knowing in July exactly what will make it to New York by May; not only do announced productions die or disappear, but, as was the case with Rent last season, productions that few have heard of at the beginning of a season can unexpectedly turn into major events.

With at least eight musical productions set to open on Broadway in March and April, it might be a good time to demonstrate how unpredictable it all is by looking at certain titles that had been forecast but disappeared, and others that came to the fore that had not even been mentioned in most season previews. Keep in mind throughout that several of the titles that were announced for this season and failed to make it in are still very much in the active file and could happen next season.

Let's begin with the interesting case of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Last fall, some commentators predicted that, by the end of the '96-'97 season, Broadway could be playing host to five Lloyd Webber shows, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, Whistle Down The Wind, and By Jeeves. Instead, by the time the season ends, only the first two titles will be on Broadway: Sunset is closing on Lord Lloyd Webber (and Stephen Sondheim)'s birthday, March 22. Whistle, originally scheduled to open April 17 at the Martin Beck Theatre then postponed to June, is now not scheduled at all. By Jeeves, which is about to close in London, had its American premiere in October at Goodspeed-at-Chester's Norma Terris Theatre; that production will play next month at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and it has been reported that the show could make it to Broadway as part of Circle in-the-Square's '97-'98 season.

Then there's the Old Globe situation. Last May, the San Diego playhouse, one of the nation's foremost regional theatres, presented the new musical Time and Again, with a book by Jack Viertel based on Jack Finney's celebrated time-travel novel, and a fine score by Walter Edgar Kennon. Prior to the show's San Diego opening, Time and Again was announced for the Martin Beck Theatre, where previews were to have begun last September, with an opening scheduled for last October. During the California run, it was announced that the production, starring Howard McGillin, Rebecca Luker, Jessica Molaskey, William Parry, Danny Burstein, and KT Sullivan, would not be coming in on schedule; note that the Martin Beck has been deprived of both new musicals it booked this season, and will instead receive the Annie revival next month. No official announcement about the future of Time and Again has been made since its closing last June, but another Old Globe musical, Play On!, which opened in San Diego with less fanfare and no New York booking, will become the first new Broadway musical of the season when it opens next month.

There was a considerable amount of anticipation over The Royal Family of Broadway, based on the 1927 George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber comedy The Royal Family. With Barry and Fran Weissler producing, a score by William Finn, and a book by Richard Greenberg, the musical was to have been staged by Tommy Tune and to have had its world premiere at Seattle Rep prior to a Broadway arrival in April. But Tune withdrew (he's instead developing a stage version of the film Easter Parade that he will direct and star in), then Royal Family disappeared from the Seattle Rep schedule altogether. The Weisslers have announced that another major director is taking the project on, so Royal Family could be a part of next season. In addition to a pop-star-laden studio cast recording, Randy Newman's Faust has received two large-scale regional productions, the first at the La Jolla Playhouse, the second at Chicago's Goodman Theatre; both were staged by Rent director Michael Greif, and both featured the same leading performers. The show had been widely mentioned for Broadway this season, but its future became clouded when New York Times critic Ben Brantley reviewed the Chicago production and filed a less than enthusiastic notice.

Jane Eyre, which premiered in Toronto the same week as Ragtime, had been announced for Broadway next month; after a successful run at the Royal Alexandra, it is now scheduled for Broadway in November. Ragtime, on the other hand, was always meant to premiere in Toronto this season then open Livent's new 42nd Street playhouse at the end of '97. (Ragtime, which is now playing at Toronto's Ford Centre for the Performing Arts and will christen New York's Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, features Henry Ford himself, even singing a song named for him.)

Two revivals that commenced as pre-Broadway tours--Stefanie Powers in Applause and Debbie Gibson in Funny Girl--expired early on in their travels, and both are now officially dead. The Roundabout's Cabaret, based on Sam Mendes' Donmar Warehouse, London staging, was postponed to next season, while an announced Broadway revival of Cole Porter's Fifty Million Frenchmen, based on one from the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, appears to have fallen off the map.

And now the other side of the story, the shows that were announced in last fall's season previews and that arrived or will be arriving on schedule. By Labor Day '96, Steel Pier was fully anticipated, while Dream was already playing its regional tryout. The revivals of Chicago, Once Upon A Mattress, Annie, and Candide were all anticipated, and all now appear to be on track. Titanic and The Life, both announced for several seasons, are imminent, while Jekyll & Hyde, announced for '95-'96, is arriving one season late. That said, I've been doing this long enough to know that trying to close the book in February on what will and won't be arriving by May is unsafe, if not completely foolhardy.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, the contemporary musical theatre's most successful composer, and Harold Prince, its finest director for the last three decades, joined forces in the past to produce two of the biggest hits in contemporary musical theatre, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Joining forces again this season, they came up with Whistle Down The Wind, a show that is now "indefinitely postponed."

For the first time, a Harold Prince-directed musical has, at least for the time being, closed out of town. That statistic applies equally to Lloyd Webber but has less meaning in his case, as, with the exception of the original and revival productions of Jeeves, Lloyd Webber musicals have not played tryout engagements prior to London.

Would anyone looking last September at the list of this season's forthcoming musicals ever have picked Whistle Down The Wind as the one that would not make it in? I, for one, suspected that Whistle Down The Wind was not continuing after D.C. as of January 10, when the announcement was made delaying its Broadway opening from April to June.

When that announcement was made, it was also announced that tickets would not go on sale until Feb. 16, one week after the show's D.C. closing. There seemed to me to be no good reason not to start selling tickets for June as soon as the new dates were announced, unless there was still some uncertainty about whether or not the show was indeed continuing directly on to Broadway. For that matter, why hadn't Whistle started selling tickets for its Broadway arrival during the first month (December) of its D.C. run, or even earlier? I concluded that the show might very well come to a halt without an announcement made to that effect until after the fact, and also that, even if it did come to Broadway in June, it would be substantially revised from the show playing in Washington. Even eight weeks into the run, the show was not substantially altered from opening night. For all of these reasons, I decided to attend Whistle late in the National Theatre run, and I'm now very glad I did. And while my companion for the journey laughed as I hauled more than 25 programs out of the theatre when the curtain fell, I now believe I knew very well what I was doing.

Another telling indication that the show's future was uncertain became evident upon arrival at the theatre: When did you last attend a Really Useful production where there was not a logo cap, mug, badge, T shirt, or poster available for sale in the lobby? Whistle sold none of these items, but fortunately the program cover reproduced the handsome logo in color and also featured a full-page color ad for the show as well as a nice photo on the table-of-contents page of the end-of-show family tableau.

So how was Whistle? While it might be inappropriate to file an actual review here (even though the show was thoroughly reviewed by the Washington critics, in Variety, and even in the London Times, New York critics were never invited to attend), I will make just a few comments. First, the show boasted a lovely physical production, with Andrew Jackness' sets beautifully evoking a Norman Rockwell/Edward Hopper-like small Louisiana town in 1959 with the help of Wendall K. Harrington's projections, flashed on scrims and superbly lit by Howell Binkley. Next, Lloyd Webber contributed a good deal of lovely music, particularly the title song; the opening (and curtain call) church hymn "Vaults of Heaven"; "No Matter What" and "When Children Rule the World" for the young people who believe an escaped convict to be Jesus; an intense trio for the three leading men called "A Kiss Is A Terrible Thing to Waste"; and a dramatic second-act "Nature of the Beast" soliloquy for Davis Gaines as the convict. Irene Molloy carried an enormous role with poise, played with simplicity and honesty, and sang beautifully. Gaines sang as powerfully as expected and acted with all the required intensity, and Timothy Nolen, Steve Scott Springer, Candy Buckley and Lacey Hornkohl were all fine.

Prince's staging was spare and cinematic, and for all of the serious problems of the book and lyrics, I was never able to turn against the show, as there was something haunting at its core, even if that something was far from being clearly developed by the second-to-last week of the run. I should also note that Whistle was the most conventional, dialogue-heavy show Lloyd Webber has ever done, and that his style of writing would appear to be better suited to through-composed and/or fully underscored musicals.

No, not every production of Sunset Boulevard is closing in the next couple of months. In Australia, Debra Byrne, who was Fantine and Grizabella down under, continues to star in the Melbourne production; Maria Mercedes, who played Luisia in the Australian Nine and Svetlana in the first Australian Chess, alternates as Norma Desmond. And at the end of the month, Daniela Ziegler, one of the Evas in the Viennese Evita and Phyllis in the 1991 Theater Des Westens, Berlin production of Follies, replaces Helen Schneider as Norma in the German production, at the Rhein-Main-Theater in Niedernhausen.

Announced for the West End in June is Always, a musical about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that may star Betty Buckley. But this is not the first musical treatment of the subject: In 1993, Carol Burnett starred at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera in From The Top!, three one-act musicals, each fashioned by Mitzie and Ken Welch around the work of a top theatre composer and/or lyricist. The entire second act, featuring the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, was called That Simpson Woman, and Burnett played Wallis Simpson.

Far be it from me to give away the secrets of a forthcoming show, but Steel Pier is a musical with a secret of sorts, one indicated at the end of the first act and made fully apparent by the end. I'll just say that you should not be surprised to find out that one of the leading characters is something of a ghost.

Has a Broadway production ever begun to sell tickets--separate ones as opposed to group sales--as early as the Broadway production of Ragtime? On February 23, tickets go on sale by phone for a production that begins performances at the end of December and opens in January, 1998. So one will be able to purchase seats for performances more than a year in the future. Yes, the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera took one big ad about a year before the show arrived, but it's safe to assume that, given Livent's already famous tendency to advertise its shows to the hilt, Ragtime ads will appear steadily in the New York Times throughout the coming year.

Varese Sarabande will release a double-CD of last year's Los Angeles Stephen Sondheim S.T.A.G.E. benefit; this is the concert that was to have been issued by DRG. In addition, Varese will record next month's S.T.A.G.E. tribute to Cole Porter.

Casting news and rumors: Laurie Beechman will return to the role of Grizabella in the Broadway Cats this spring and will be there for the June performance celebrating the show's becoming the longest-running in Broadway history. Beechman replaced original Broadway Grizabella Betty Buckley and stayed for four years, then returned to the show for a few months when it was celebrating its ninth anniversary, so this will be her third engagement...Jason Graae will be Houdini in the L.A. Ragtime.

Blind item: On what new musical production have the director and star lady been at each other's throats? In recent weeks, they've had loud battles, some in front of the rest of the company.

More votes on who should take the title role in a forthcoming revival of Evita: Victor/Victoria's Rachel York; Sarah Uriarte (of Beauty and the Beast, Carousel, and the Broadway anniversary Les Miz cast); Ann Crumb (who has played the role); Ute Lemper; and another vote for Anne Runolfsson.

THEATRE CD OF THE WEEK: DRG's new recording of the current off-Broadway success Forbidden Broadway Strikes Back! features four of the five superb opening-night players--Bryan Batt, Donna English, Christine Pedi, and pianist Matthew Ward--joined by Tom Plotkin, who succeeded David Hibbard (recently notorious as the Rum Tug Tugger of the harassment law suit) when Hibbard departed to play the Jester in Once Upon A Mattress.

Even without the terrific costumes and wigs, the new Forbidden Broadway- DRG's fourth entry in the series--is great fun on disc. The recording includes just about everything from the new edition, minus a couple of holdovers from earlier ones and the too-visual Tommy Tune/Savion Glover skit, and the performers are tops. My favorite skits: the take-offs on Big, King and I, Rent, and the Weisslers, and Merman meets Alan Campbell.

It's interesting to note how quickly editions of Forbidden Broadway require updating; comprehensive as this one was when it opened last fall, one feels while listening to the disc the need for additional numbers about the Liza-Tony Roberts Victor/Victoria scandal, Whoopi in Forum, Once Upon A Mattress, and the closings of Sunset and Whistle. But perhaps some of these are already in place or in preparation?

What Broadway-bound David Merrick musical production closed at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., 30 years ago?
Answer to last week's quiz: Celeste Holm starred in the British premiere of Lady in the Dark at the Nottingham Playhouse in 1981.

Stephen of Orlando, Florida asks:
One of my favorite scores has been the Japanese show Scarlett. I know that it never made it Broadway but played in London. Was there a recording made of the show in English and will it ever be released? Thanks.
KM: The 1972 Drury Lane London production (starring Harve Presnell as Rhett Butler) of Gone With the Wind was recorded, unfortunately on a single, EMI/Columbia LP which severely truncated the score. Oddly enough, the rare, double-LP Japanese recording of Scarlett, the first production of Harold Rome's musical version of Gone With The Wind, is available on CD, but not the English-language LP. Now that the recordings of Rome's other shows- Pins and Needles, Fanny, Wish You Were Here, Destry Rides Again, I Can Get It For You Wholesale--are available on CD, perhaps the London Gone With The Wind will turn up too (although the Columbia cast album of The Zulu and the Zayda, a play with Rome songs, might be a long shot for CD).

John Sweeney of Queens writes: Do you have any ideas as to what version of Candide Hal Prince is going to be using in the upcoming revival? Will it be the same old Wheeler book or are they going to incorporate any of the changes made since 1974/1982? Thanks!
KM: Given the fact that the credits for the new Broadway Candide boast the same writers, director, choreographer, and set, costume, and lighting designers as the Candide that Prince first staged for the New York City Opera in 1982, it's safe to say that the Broadway revival will be closest to that version. But Prince staged another production about two years ago for the Lyric Opera of Chicago which was based on the City Opera version but incorporated some changes.
Here's Prince himself (as quoted in Los Angeles' Performing Arts magazine in an interview with Barbara Isenberg) on the latest version: "It's really something of a hybrid between the opera house, the proscenium, distancing production, and the environmental production. I wanted to erase some of the dialogue that was improvisational in feel, change the palette, add some acrobatic dancers and make some cuts in the text (to reflect)...the fact that the casting for this show is older. The most important thing about the casting was to make a marriage of Broadway musical talent and opera talent."

And in answer to several questions I've received, the latest word is that Harolyn Blackwell will play Cunegonde in this Candide five times a week, appearing at all evening performance but skipping the Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees (the preview schedule differs somewhat).

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