Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: To Preview or Not To Preview

News   Ken Mandelbaum's AISLE VIEW: To Preview or Not To Preview
This week I deal with a moderately controversial issue, at least among theatre press agents and the creative teams of Broadway productions previewing in New York, and it's one that requires some background and explanation.

This week I deal with a moderately controversial issue, at least among theatre press agents and the creative teams of Broadway productions previewing in New York, and it's one that requires some background and explanation.

Few musicals on their New York opening night offer exactly the same text as they featured at their world premiere performance, let alone at their earlier workshops and readings. If one wants to see a new musical in its earliest fully-staged state, one may, of course, need to go out of town. In recent seasons, one could have seen Julie Andrews, at Victor/Victoria's first stop in Minneapolis, performing a hopeless, eight-minute opening solo called "The Victoria Variations/I've No Idea Where I'm Going" in the square outside of Chez Lui, and "Attitude," the catchy Henry Mancini number that accompanied those Marie Antoinette/Louis XVI costumes and sets until it was replaced by "Louis Says." One could have journeyed to Detroit to see Daniel Jenkins and Crista Moore struggle with an inflatable "Magic Castle" while singing the soon-to-be-replaced song "Isn't This Magic?" during Big's shakedown, or to Toronto to see Chita Rivera singing an indifferent Kiss of the Spider Woman number called "Don't Even Think About It," to be replaced by the brilliant "Where You Are." And one could have heard the entire score of Busker Alley that never made it to New York.

But even if one doesn't care to do so much traveling, there are similar pleasures to be had at musicals previewing in New York. True, some of them have had such long road trips that changes during the New York preview period will be minimal. But many other musicals, from such Sondheim pieces as Sweeney Todd, Merrily We Roll Along, and Passion, to City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies , have played their world premiere performances right here on Broadway, and the now-previewing Titanic and Steel Pier and the soon-to-begin The Life are following in that tradition.

Shows that play a month of previews on Broadway without benefit of previous tryout are bound to undergo a certain amount of revision, so fans enjoy attending early previews in order to study the changes such shows may undergo in subsequent weeks. A less happy reality is that many of these fans rush to previews of musicals that don't try out prior to Broadway in order to be able to spread the word as quickly as possible that a genuine bomb is in our midst (Legs Diamond, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, Nick and Nora,and The Red Shoes, none of which had a road tryout, come readily to mind).

While I like to think that I have attended early previews not only to chart development but also because I simply cannot wait a month until the show opens (what if the world ended two weeks into previews of a new musical and I never got to see it?), I also would have to admit to being guilty of spreading some less-than-favorable word about certain previewing shows, even if, in my own defense, those shows needed no help from me to go on to become bombs. But when I became a professional, as opposed to a casual, critic, as well as a Tony voter, a member of the New York Drama Critics Circle, etc., the issue got sticky. Press agents don't like critics to attend musicals in rough form and in a state of flux, and creative people don't want them to see scenes and songs that are already on their way out by the first preview.

If a show has had a lengthy tryout, I try my best to wait until press night to see it, figuring that what starts previews on Broadway won't be that different from what opens. But how is one to resist attending a new Sondheim musical like Passion that begins performances on Broadway without ever having been seen elsewhere? The answer is, one can't, and I attended the first preview of that musical as well as another midway during previews before seeing the finished show on press night. I did likewise with Legs Diamond, Nick and Nora, Sweeney Todd, Merrily, Will Rogers, and many others, and I feel no guilt about having done so. First of all, seeing shows like Merrily and Passion in their initial, very troubled states allowed me to appreciate the tremendous amount of fine work that was done during previews to improve them; I doubt if I would have admired Passion as much as I did when it opened had I not seen it twice before. There's also no question in my mind that hearing complex scores like those of Sweeney Todd and Passion a couple of times before reviewing them is invaluable (and the same applies to far less complex scores, like that of Big). Musicals are a combination of so many elements that I have always maintained that, unless a musical is an open-and-shut horror not worth a second look, critics would benefit from seeing a musical more than once before reviewing it (and that goes double for Sondheim shows). For that matter, I think it would be beneficial if critics could be sent some kind of demo tape of a score's principal songs prior to attending, so that they could familiarize themselves with the score; can anyone doubt Garth Drabinsky's wisdom in getting Ragtime's songs recorded prior to the show's Toronto debut, thus allowing the show to open to critics already impressed by the score (an effect that will be even stronger by the time the show gets to Broadway)?

Then too, think of all the wonderful, irretrievable moments I would have missed had I waited for certain musicals to open and not witnessed them in early previews. Off the top of my head, here are just a few of those precious moments:

* David Rounds as shyster agent Henry Glassman, performing a wicked tap while singing Kander and Ebb's astringent "Ten Percent" in the original production of Chicago. The song and the role of Henry survived the show's out-of-town tryout and several weeks of New York previews; almost at the last minute, Rounds and his role were eliminated, with the decision made to beef up the role of Mama Morton and add "When You're Good To Mama." While Rounds' role worked, the show had too many supporting characters, and the elimination of Glassman tightened things up and was a definite improvement.

* Katharine Hepburn taking stage and delivering a rousing solo opener called "Turn on The Lights" during early previews of Coco. The replacement number, "The World Belongs To The Young," brought in the whole company, set up the story, and was more effective. Early previewers at Coco also saw the original ingenue lead Udana Campbell, soon to be fired and replaced by Gale Dixon, as well as Campbell's song "Someone On Your Side" (miraculously salvaged by Julie Andrews on her recent Philips Lerner disc).

* Ruby Keeler and Jack Gilford warbling the sweetly sentimental "Only A Moment Ago" at the first New York preview of the smashing 1971 revival of No, No Nanette. This song, an interpolation by Charles Gaynor, was quickly cut because Keeler wanted less to do (probably the only star in history to ever make that request); it was recorded for the cast album, cut prior to release, but issued on a bootleg LP a few years back. "Only A Moment Ago" actually featured the most singing Keeler had in the show.

* Christine Baranski singing three other songs in the same spot in Nick and Nora in which she ultimately sang "Everybody Wants To Do A Musical"; none of the numbers really worked, although I suppose the final one was the best.

* Christine Andreas, playing Legs Diamond's wife Alice, and singing the poignant "Come Save Me"; Andreas and the song were cut from Legs Diamond about a week into previews, and Andreas hasn't been seen on Broadway since.

* Countless versions of shows like Minnie's Boys and Molly which, because of their relatively inexperienced creative teams, kept on changing everything during previews, and not necessarily getting better in the process.

* Charlotte d'Amboise in the "Dreams Come True" number from the mostly lost Morton Gould-Betty Comden-Adolph Green score of the 1945 show Billion Dollar Baby. This song and its amusing dance sequence which had d'Amboise auditioning three '20s film icons as potential dream lovers were the rarest thing in the 1989 show Jerome Robbins' Broadway, but because the show was running long, they were cut after a week or so of previews.

Living as close as I do to the theatre district, how could I have lived with myself if I had waited and thus missed such gems? So how can I wait another month to see Titanic and Steel Pier?

Please don't expect me to be objective about Promises, Promsises. A portion of my youth was spent as a concession boy at Broadway theatres, peddling candy, orange drinks, opera glasses, and souvenir programs all over such houses as the Shubert, the Hellinger, the Majestic, and the Imperial. Of the shows I worked at heavily (they included Coco, Man of La Mancha, and 1776 ), the one I was at most frequently was Promises, especially during its first summer at the Shubert. Having seen it upwards of 50 times, I can still hear the original cast's every line reading, and recall vividly the sets, staging, etc. I saw just about every New York replacement principal, and also saw the London production, where Betty Buckley was a stunning Fran Kubelik, and newcomer Julia McKenzie was an amazing Marge MacDougall.

Promises is a show I love and have a huge soft spot for, so I was a bit worried that my memories would prevent me from enjoying it in a different production, and that the show, one that, with its use of the sounds of late '60s popular music, is one of the most of-its-time of all hits, would not play as well today. But I had a great time at City Center's Encores! production, above all because Neil Simon's book (happily presented in Simon's own, almost complete concert adaptation), always the show's greatest strength, proved still hilarious and moving.

It's time to state that most of these Encores! shows are no longer concerts, and Rob Marshall's Promises was the most fully staged (and probably the most expensive) of any to date. Marshall appropriately chose to frame the show with the go-go dance styles of the period (enshrined on the TV series "Hullabaloo," on which Michael Bennett and Donna McKechnie, who would be so integral a part of the original Promises, danced). So the orchestra was this time lost amid a set of silver platforms and poles, with levels for the go-go girls to dance on from the overture through the playout, and all the original go-go crossovers retained. The ladies who were once pit singers were now elevated "orchestra voices." Peggy Eisenhauer supplied a stunning lighting plot, William Ivey Long provided the hair and clothing styles of the period, and, if there was not full scenery, all scenes had the appropriate furnishings and trappings. With just about all of the book performed (more than in the Chicago concert) and a cast that acted their heads off throughout, this Promises was as close to a revival as Broadway is ever likely to get. An impressive job from Marshall, who had to put it all together in just over a week.

In the huge central role, Martin Short demonstrated once again what a sensational stage performer he is. No, he's not actually right for Chuck Baxter; as written, the character is an average Joe, the kind people tend not to notice, and zany, one-of-a-kind Short is far too eccentric and fabulous to ever be unnoticeable. But if Short was too manic to convey the simple poignancy of "She Likes Basketball," his acting and singing were pretty terrific, and he performed the role as if he had been doing it for months (did he at any time wonder why Neil Simon did so much better work adapting the film The Apartment into Promises than he did adapting his own film The Goodbye Girl into a musical vehicle for Short four years ago?).

Relative unknown Kerry O'Malley acted sad, sweet Fran Kubelik superbly, and her singing was very big and very accurate, if not as distinctive as original Jill O'Hara's or Buckley's. Terrence Mann (whose wife Charlotte d'Amboise is now on the road in the touring version of Encores! Chicago) was an icy and extremely effective Sheldrake; Dick Latessa was a marvelous Dr. Dreyfuss; and the audience cheered the return of fabulous Christine Baranski in the second-act Marge cameo (although original Marian Mercer, better at playing dumb and trashy, was twice as funny).

Other notes: Jennifer Lewis as Sheldrake's secretary shared an unfamiliar duet called "You've Got It All Wrong" with O'Malley near the end of the first act, just before "Turkey Lurkey Time"; not a cut-out but rather a new song always envisioned but never written until now by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it was very intense, and not really necessary. The score remains a joy (and no, this was not the team's first musical--anyone remember ABC TV's Stage 67 presentation of "On The Flip Side," a fantasy book show starring Rick Nelson and Joanie Sommers?). The verse of "Our Little Secret," cut on both the Broadway and London LPs, was cut here. The "Turkey Lurkey Time" number was listed in the program as "For Micheal," although the choreography wasn't quite as dazzling as Bennett's (to be fair, Marshall didn't have McKechnie leading it). O'Malley was not asked to learn to play the guitar for five performances, so Fran did not strum one during "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" and the song was thus no longer a folk song that turns real. And the Promises concerts were presented the same weekend that saw the closing of Sunset Boulevard, another musical adapted from a Billy Wilder film in which Betty Buckley also figured heavily.

A terrific choice for the series, this Promises was one of its top entries. And before leaving the subject, may I just say a word about comments that this show is dated. I do wish people would simply acknowledge that shows that are receiving revivals were not written yesterday and reflect (some, like Promises, more than others) the styles and attitudes of their respective periods, then forget about all that and just enjoy the material.

The song "Just A Coupla Indian Boys" was cut from which Broadway musical (mentioned above) during its New York preview period?

Answer to last week's quiz: Flora, The Red Menace, The Happy Time, Zorba, The Act, and Woman of the Year are the Kander and Ebb musicals that have never received full-scale productions in London's West End.

Last week in this space I was less than enthused about Adam Guettel's music for Floyd Collins; this week, I have nothing but praise for his mother's music for Once Upon A Mattress. I found it unfortuante that so many critics, reviewing the December opening of the Mattress revival, dismissed the score--music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer--as bland or undistinguished. I find the cleverness of the lyrics on a par with Sheldon Harnick's or Stephen Sondheim's, and the tunes utterly beguiling.

Some might not have expected to see the revival still playing at the time of the release of RCA Victor's new Broadway cast recording, but survive it has. And the good news is that the recording is highly enjoyable. About 12 minutes longer than the wonderful 1959 original Broadway cast recording on MCA, the new disc has new orchestrations; a new overture; a brief new song called "Goodnight, Sweet Princess"; "Quiet" refashioned from a chant into a chorale; the first recording of "The Minstrel, The Jester, and I"; and more spoken words.

Sarah Jessica Parker may not have Carol Burnett's stentorian tones, nor is she sufficiently raucous, but she comes through appealingly on the recording, and adds nice little jazz inflections and grace notes all her own. The supporting leads are fine, especially Lewis Cleale and David Aaron Baker.

I'm happy to see that for the recording, the Wizard (dubbed Master Merton in this production) has had his lines restored in "Sensitivity" (he's mute in the theatre); strange to note that Heath Lamberts, as the mute King, has been deprived on the recording of his only words in the entire show in the finale. Nonetheless, I like all three Mattress recordings (the London cast, starring Jane Connell, is not on CD).

I witnessed Bernadette Peters' Carnegie Hall concert triumph last December, and it's now available on the new Angel CD Sondheim, Etc. Yes, one could quibble that, even at a generous 71 minutes, the single disc can't offer the complete concert. Only three non-Sondheim songs are included, although they are the well-chosen career retrospective of "Raining in My Heart" from Dames At Sea and "Time Heals Everything" from Mack and Mabel, plus the classic Saturday Night Live ditty "Making Love Alone." Among the missing on the recording are "We're in the Money"/"Pennies From Heaven," "Unexpected Song," "Faithless Love," "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," and the Sondheim songs "I Believe In You," "Later," "With So Little To Be Sure Of," and "Children Will Listen."

But why complain when Peters is brilliant throughout, belting, caressing, and seemingly incapable of doing anything false or unappealing? A fair amount of her charming patter is also included. It's not necessary to discuss separate numbers; let's just say that she's fabulous, and that you don't need me to tell you that this disc is unmissable.

And before leaving the subject of CDs this week, I've just heard Varese Sarabande will record Play On; that Elaine Stritch and Jonathan Freeman will play the heroine's parents on the Varese Drat! The Cat! recording; and that we can look forward to MCA's September reissues of the cast recordings of Coco, Applause, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Siobhan O'Donnell asks:
Do you really think Whistle Down The Wind will open in London and not on Broadway as originally planned? Will the American cast (mainly Davis and Irene) still be involved in the show?? This is horrible news. I saw it 3 times in D.C. and I really enjoyed it. I was looking forward to seeing it open on Broadway.
KM: It's impossible to know at this time exactly what will happen to Whistle, but I suspect that if it does indeed come back to life, it will be in England first. That doesn't mean that it won't eventually get to Broadway, and Davis Gaines could again be in it (Irene Molloy might be too old by then). Then too, it's unclear whether or not the musical's setting will remain in Louisiana, or if the writers will revert back to England, as in the novel and film. It's also unclear whether or not the writing team responsible for the show thus far will remain intact.

John from Washington, D.C. asks: About a month ago, Carol Channing concluded her most recent tour of Hello, Dolly! Will she be doing it again?
KM: Since Channing resumed playing Dolly in 1994, her curtain speech on tour and on Broadway has included her intention of taking the production to Asia, England, Australia, etc., but thus far it has only played in this country. My sources tell me that as of now, there are no immediate plans for resumption of the production; while it would be dangerous to ever state that Channing has played Dolly for the last time, it is just possible that she has.

And finally, a response to last week's query about the whereabout of the first Paul Rudd, as opposed to the new one. A reader informs us that he's living in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he either has an amateur theatre group or teaches acting, and also serves as judge for high school Shakespeare competitions. No confirmation on this, but I pass it along to you.

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