ON THE RECORD: From Off-Broadway, Ordinary Days and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: From Off-Broadway, Ordinary Days and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
We listen to two Off-Broadway musicals, Adam Gwon's Ordinary Days, from the Roundabout in 2009, and the 1964 adaptation of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.



Ordinary Days [Ghostlight 8-s4444]
For reasons forgotten, I was unavailable to review Adam Gwon's Ordinary Days when it opened on Oct, 25, 2009, at the Roundabout's Black Box Theatre deep beneath the Laura Pels on West 46th Street. Having missed the opening, I never got around to seeing the thing at all. Here it comes, from Ghostlight Records, and it turns out to be well worth catching up with.

Mr. Gwon is one of that new generation of promising young composer/lyricists which has come along since the advent of the Guettel/LaChiusa/Brown group (the members of which are all now in their forties). Gwon hails from the Tisch School of the Arts and has received the Fred Ebb Award (in 2008) and commissions from here and there (including one for Signature Theatre in Arlington).  Ordinary Days makes it pretty clear that his is an adventurous musical comedy voice.<p>

This is a chamber musical, apparently derived from the author's innocent-young-student-days-at-NYU. (Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, in their laudatory liner note, describe Kwon's songs as being "about young characters making inadvertent and unexpected connections with one another as they struggle with their unformed adult lives in New York City.") Working without source material and without collaborators — Kwon served as his own librettist — the story is, perhaps, a bit slight.

Warren (Jared Gertner) — a Gwon self-portrait? — is an aimless but likable chap working as a cat sitter; Deb (Kate Wetherhead) is a student who loses the notes for her doctoral thesis, and is pretty much lost; Claire (Lisa Brescia) and Jason (Hunter Foster) are a young couple who have just moved in together, although not without major obstacles to their romance. Major obstacles, sure; what else do you expect in a four-character, twenty-somethings-struggling-in-New-York mini-musical? With the lack of outside imperatives, this is pretty much slice-of-life stuff. But charming and involving. Gwon at present seems to be firmly in the Bill Finn school, with lyrics that spew forth in a refreshingly unexpected and unconventional manner, tethered to music that seems to race along to keep up with the words. This is not to say that his musicality is inferior; simply that on this project, Gwon — as librettist — might have forced himself to expend too much energy on the words. I don't expect Gwon has a music problem, though; he proves himself, and how, when he sits back and writes a song, such as "Favorite Places" or "I'll Be Here."

"I'll Be Here" is worth mentioning; sung by Ms. Brescia, it has immense power and I expect might be one of those songs you will not be able to forget. It reminds me, in fact, of a couple of those searing Finn songs that were included in the anthology revue Elegies (although written for earlier projects). The Finn flavor might in part be due to the presence of music director Vadim Feichtner, who is a veritable one-man-band on the piano.

Ordinary Days turns out to be not so ordinary. So we'll remember that name, Adam Gwon.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty [Masterworks Broadway/Arkivmusic]
As a child, I was a great fan of the works of James Thurber; an enthusiasm that has somewhat receded over the years. But ranked high among my favorites was the 1939 short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," in which Mitty — the quintessential Thurber man — indulges in high octane daydreaming to tune out his shrewish wife. I at some point came across Samuel Goldwyn's 1947 film version, starring Danny Kaye, which was pretty much non-Thurberesque but more or less worked on its own merits. I also came across the version recorded on the original cast album of the 1960 Broadway revue A Thurber Carnival. This was a more or less direct translation of the story, with Tom Ewell and Peggy Cass as the Mittys, and highly satisfying. There was also an Off-Broadway musical version which opened on Oct. 26, 1964, at the Players Theatre for a three-month run. I discovered the cast album about a decade letter, in a cut-out bin on West 8th Street. Eagerly took it home, put it on the turntable — we still had turntables, then — and remember being instantly appalled. This wasn't the Mitty I knew and loved, not by a Thurberish long shot. The wit, the humor, the style; all missing. I don't think I got through more than three tracks.

Now comes the first-time-on-CD release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, from Masterworks Broadway. Well, yes; being older (!) and wiser (?) and not such a literal Thurberite, I thought that maybe now I can give this original Broadway cast album a less impassioned listen. Especially in view of the fact that when I wrote a cast-albums-not-yet-on-CD column last year, several readers emailed the question: What, no Mitty?

No dice. The very first track, which takes the firing squad finale and wastes it in the opening, demonstrates a complete lack of Thurber sensibility. The second track, a bouncy song for Walter and his 11-year-old daughter (what daughter? — Mitty is well past middle-age), demonstrates a complete lack of Thurber sensibility. The next, a reduction of the surgeon sequence, makes Thurber's "ta-pocketas" pedestrian, and the fourth — a ballad for Mitty, who should probably never think of singing a ballad — runs along the lines of "once I was your prince, now I make you wince." Indeed.

For what it's worth, the score was written by Leon Carr and Earl Shuman. Marc London played Mitty, with Lorraine Serabian (later to resurface, notably, in Zorba) as Mrs. Mitty. Here called Aggie, no doubt so Walter can sing that "prince/wince" ballad (which is called "Aggie"). Livening up the proceedings, for what it's worth, is Cathryn Damon as the temptress Willa De Wisp. I kid you not.

Thurber, who personally supervised that other 1960 revue and received a special Tony Award in the process, died in 1961. The 1964 Off-Broadway Secret Life of Walter Mitty demonstrates what can happen when executors and lawyers take over Estates.  (Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)


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