York Theatre Company's Jan. 14-16 staged reading of Kean, the 1961 George Forrest-Robert Wright musical about the actor Edmund Kean, will feature Christiane Noll (Jekyll & Hyde), Susan Watson (Bye Bye Birdie) and Walter Willison (Two by Two).
As part of the York's dress-casual Musicals in Mufti series, Kean will also include Jennifer Browne, Diane J. Findlay, Hans Friedrichs, Douglas Holmes, Eric Riley, Robert Sella, Trudi Wallace and Arthur Rubin (the tenor who appeared in the original 1961 staging opposite Alfred Drake).
Richard Sabellico (Home of the Brave) directs and Fred Barton musical directs, at the York at Lexington and 53rd Street in New York City.
The Mufti series explores underappreciated shows that artistic director James Morgan says deserve second looks. "Mufti" is a military term meaning "street clothes without the usual trappings."
Kean opened on Broadway in 1961 and had music and lyrics by both Wright and Forrest, who had previously borrowed themes from Borodin and other classical composers. This was their first major score not inspired by the classics. The libretto was by Peter Stone (1776, Titanic), drawing on earlier works about Kean (a 1953 Jean-Paul Sartre adaptation of an 1836 work by Alexandre Dumas). Due to Drake's poor health, the show closed prematurely, said Wright-Forrest artistic associate Willison, who will play the Drake role of Kean in the Mufti reading. This is the first revival of the show in 40 years.
Edmund Kean was the early 19th-century English actor who specialized in tragic Shakespearean roles. Known for womanizing and drinking, he collapsed during a performance in 1833 and died several weeks later.
"It's about three people incapable of loving: The Prince, Elena, and Kean himself," Willison said of the tuner. "It's also about him facing what's real: Is he most real on stage or real as a person? It goes from farce to comedy to melodrama to drama."
The 92-performance Kean got mixed reviews and begat a cast album, coveted by collectors, and Judy Garland recorded a song, "Sweet Danger," but there has never been a revival and the script was not published for stock and amateur use.
Why hasn't the show resurfaced in 40 years?
"I haven't heard anyone who could handle the score musically," Robert Wright told Playbill On-Line. "There never was a singer who could act as well as Alfred Drake. He was superb. He made the recording; it was superb. It was a glorious meeting of talented people. I hope people rediscover it and like it."
Wright saw Willison do a recent revival of Two by Two, playing Noah, and Wright suggested Willison could handle Kean.
"I'm very anxious to see what he'll do with this demanding role," Wright said.
Songs include "To Look Upon My Love," "Elena," "Civilized People," "Swept Away," "Let's Improvise" and "Apology." Willison describes "Apology" as a kind of Shakespearean "Rose's Turn."
Willison calls the script and score sophisticated, with rich book scenes, complicated musical scenes and through-composed sequences.
Susan Watson was a popular ingenue in the 1960s, playing Kim in Bye Bye Birdie and later starring in No, No, Nanette. She'll play Countess Elena.
Noll appeared in York's Little By Little, and Broadway's Jekyll & Hyde and It Aint' Nothin' But the Blues. She plays a wannabe actress named Ann Danby.
Willison was a Tony nominee for Two by Two and appeared on Broadway in Pippin and Grand Hotel.
Arthur Rubin, a tenor from the original cast of The Most Happy Fella and Lincoln Center's Follies: In Concert, was also a Broadway manager. He plays Francis, an actor, and the Danish ambassador.
Sella (Side Man, Cabaret, Home of the Brave) will play the Prince of Wales.
Willison said Stone and Wright will attend the performances and "decide what they want to do with [the property]," suggesting a possible future staging, perhaps by York. Co-songwriter George Forrest died in 1999. Wright and Forrest penned Kismet, Song of Norway and Grand Hotel (for which Maury Yeston also contributed numbers).
For information about Musical in Mufti's winter season, which includes Wish You Were Here (Jan. 21-23) and 70, Girls, 70 (Jan. 28-30), call (212) 239 6200.
-- By Kenneth Jones