Wednesday, October 27, 2010


NY Theater Flashbacks: 95-96 Season

By Edward Copeland
As I mentioned in the second installment of this series, while the previous installments covered years, the future ones would cover seasons as my obsession grew and I saw more shows. While my last installment wrapped up in the summer of 1995, this one picks up in October of the same year but in a few months, I'd move from Oklahoma to Florida, making travel to New York easier and more frequent. On the plus side, while what I'd seen in 1995 so far had been a disappointment, the rest of the season turned out to have some of the best productions I would ever see on Broadway, though some dogs remained as well. One unusual thing though: The further ahead in time I go, the harder I'm finding it to locate art or clips to go with my words.


As I wrote in my piece earlier this year marking the 40th anniversary of Stephen Sondheim's landmark show, as with many of his works, the score always proves stronger than the book.

Still, the talented cast of Roundabout Theatre's revival of the show (the first since its original production) gave it their all. Led by Boyd Gaines in the lead role of Bobby, the cast included Debra Monk, La Chanze, Jane Krakowski and, exciting for a Soap fanatic such as myself, Diana Canova — Corinne Tate Flotsky herself.

Veanne Cox got the assignment of doing the frenzied mouthful of "Getting Married Today" and earned a Tony nomination for it, one of the few the revival received. Even as much of a Sondheim worshipper as I am, I found that understandable. Something seemed stillborn about the show. For every great moment — as when La Chanze belted "Another Hundred People" — the musical seemed to stop in its tracks in the silly skits, even when songs surrounded them. Still, it's hard to call it a loss of an afternoon when you get well-sung renditions of "Being Alive," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "The Little Things You Do" and "You Could Drive a Person Crazy."


Much as Sondheim's score propped up the weak book beneath Company, the performances, particularly the powerhouse lead, saved Terrence's McNally's lackluster Master Class. Zoe Caldwell won a well-deserved fourth Tony for her starring role as Maria Callas in McNally's play which showed the grand dame of opera running roughshod over three students who had earned the chance to be taught by the great one, one of whom was played by an equally good Audra McDonald who picked up her second Tony on her way to four total (so far). Interspersed with the class sequences are Callas' recollections of various events and loves throughout her life which might play as nothing more than filler in the rather short play if they were placed in hands less capable than Caldwell's, but she makes them work and helped McNally win his 2nd consecutive Tony for best play following the previous season's Love! Valour! Compassion!, even though Master Class was far from the best in its category but we'll get to my choice later.


After enduring what had been done when Andrew Lloyd Webber musicalized one of my favorite films of all time, Sunset Blvd., I started to question whether it was a good idea to turn any movies into musicals since more times than not the results turn out badly. You would think though that taking Victor/Victoria to the stage, which was essentially a movie musical to begin with, with the same star, albeit 14 years older than when she originally played the part, and the film's director guiding the production, despite the fact he'd never directed a musical for the stage before, what could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, pretty much everything. First of all, the film's composer, Henry Mancini, died early in the process, so the new songs needed to flesh out the show were composed by theatrical wunderhack Frank Wildhorn, a man I'm thoroughly convinced was invented for the sole purpose of improving Lloyd Webber's own reputation. The YouTube clip above of "Louie Says" is an example of one of Wildhorn's contributions with terrible reaches for rhymes by Leslie Bricusse to the show. I won't feel bad if you don't make it through the whole clip. On top of that, those 14 years did make a bit of a difference for Julie Andrews, who tried her best. The comic timing was terrible. As luck would have it during the show, a man came out of the side exit near my seat in the Marquis Theatre. It was Blake Edwards. It was all I could do to keep myself from getting out of my chair and taking Edwards aside and trying to advise him on some ways to improve the show. The cast tried their best but I didn't even get to see the performer who got the best reviews, Rachel York: She was out the day I went. It remains the worst musical I ever sat through on Broadway.


Now, a much better revival of a classic Sondheim, his first (staged on Broadway anyway) for which he composed both the music and the lyrics. Furthermore, it was a great comic farce with a book by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove. Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus, it has proved a Tony success for every actor who took on its lead role as the scheming slave Pseudolus, first for Zero Mostel in the original, then for Phil Silvers in a revival in the 1972 and this time out for Nathan Lane.

Directed by the old pro Jerry Zaks, it's a joy from start to finish with a cast of top-notch musical comedy talents such as Mark Linn-Baker, Mary Testa, Ernie Sabella, Lewis J. Stadlen, William Duell and Cris Groenedall. Unfortunately, the night I saw it, Stadlen, who received a Tony nomination as Senex, wss out but MacIntyre Dixon did a more than adequate job. When I was in grade school, we often visited my grandma during summer and would attend Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis, an outdoor summer stock, and it was there that I first saw Forum and fell in love with it. Being a young autograph hound, I got autographs of the entire cast afterward which included Arte Johnson, Avery Schreiber, Hans Conried and John Carradine. Sadly, Johnson is the only one of the four who still is with us. One word of warning: The clip of "Comedy Tonight" above was filmed very poorly, but the infectious spirit of the song and the production remains.


As I mentioned when I marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kramer's film version of Inherit the Wind earlier this year, I'm just a sucker for this play in whatever form it takes. So, when Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre announced it would be staging a revival of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's fictionalized take on the Scopes monkey trial with George C. Scott as Henry Drummond and Charles Durning as Matthew Brady, I was as good as there. Needless to say, I was not disappointed as its lines and messages got to me as they always do. If it had a problem, it was Scott. Not because his acting was weak: He was phenomenal. This was toward the end of his life and his ailing nature showed. In fact, he had to leave the play in the middle of one performance because he felt faint. As my dear and much missed friend Jennifer said at the time, Brady is supposed to be the one who seems to be in frail health.

As I mentioned in the introduction to this installment, I had great difficulty find photos of any of the productions from this season, but I did luck out on this one and by this one I realized for the first time that I had seen Garret Dillahunt on Broadway playing Bertram Cates. Dillahunt was fine, but he didn't make much of an impression on me, but it's funny how much of one he would make many years down the road in not just one but two roles on Deadwood and he now pops up quite frequently in movies such as No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Road as well as on many TV series. He currently is a regular on the new TV comedy Raising Hope.


Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't hear me expressing relief that a new Sondheim show for which I held a ticket closed before I could see it, but boy am I glad that is what happened to Getting Away With Murder. You see Getting Away With Murder wasn't a Sondheim musical, it was a mystery play that went along with the composer's obsession with puzzles, along the lines of the 1973 screenplay he co-wrote with Anthony Perkins, The Last of Sheila. Anyway, having come all the way to New York with a ticket to a show now closed, I had to exchange and I made one of the greatest decisions of my life by choosing to cash it in for the revival of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance starring George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris and the incomparable Elaine Stritch. I got to see one of the best afternoons of Broadway theater I ever have. As much as I love Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this may have become my favorite Albee that day with its tale of would-be empty nesters facing suburban angst and a fuller nest than ever with an alcoholic sister, a grown daughter returning home after the breakup of a fourth marriage and a similarly married couple who just suddenly found themselves "scared." The entire cast was brilliant, with Grizzard winning a much deserved Tony. Harris and Stritch unfortunately not only had to compete against each other, they also had to contend with Zoe Caldwell in Master Class, so they couldn't make it to the podium. I didn't even mention the great work of the other three cast members: Mary Beth Hurt, Elizabeth Wilson and John Carter. The show won best revival of the play and its director, the late great Gerald Gutierrez, won director of a play for the second consecutive year after giving The Heiress new life the year before. If not for Angels in America, A Delicate Balance would be the best thing I ever saw on Broadway.


Here's one of the plays that was more deserving of the best play Tony than Master Class: Seven Guitars, another of the plays in August Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle which depicts the African-American experience in the U.S. in the 20th century in each decade. This play, set in 1948, takes its title from its seven characters, the six we see and the seventh whose funeral begins and ends the action of the play. Keith David starred as a blues guitarist who squandered an advance from a record label while juggling women and making his way to his mother's funeral.

The excellent cast received Tony nominations for four members of its six-member ensemble: Viola Davis, Michele Shay, Roger Robinson and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, with Santiago-Hudson winning the prize. While Seven Guitars wasn't as solid as other works in Wilson's cycle such as The Piano Lesson and Fences, it still was quite good and provided a great mix of harrowing drama and boisterous comedy.

Its atmospheric scenic design by Scott Bradley also earned a nomination, though it lost to the colorful spectacle of The King and I since this was back in the days before there were separate technical categories for plays and musicals.


I love Shakespeare and while it's a pleasure to read The Bard's plays, I've found it's always much better to see his works performed, either on stage or film. Given that, you would think that no one would prove better at interpreting and staging Shakespeare's plays that a company such as The Royal Shakespeare Company. Then why on earth did their production of one of his most delightful works, A Midsummer Night's Dream, almost bore me to tears?

I seldom laughed as the natural comedy came off to me as the clumsiest of slapstick and many of the performers treated the language the way I hate: so carefully that it seemed as if they feared the iambic pentameter might break if they weren't careful. Looking back at my Playbill to see if any of the company included anyone I came to know better but the only name that leaped out at me was Lindsay Duncan who played Titania and Hippolyta here but would go on to give a wonderful turn as the vengeful Servilia on HBO's Rome.

Apparently, I wasn't alone in having lukewarm memories of this production. While, as I have mentioned, art of these various productions were difficult if not impossible to come by, I could usually guarantee I could find art of the corresponding Playbill. In the case of A Midsummer Night's Dream, even that could not be found. Thankfully, my wireless printer I was given a while back also scans and I used it for the first time to scan my own Playbill because that's the only way I could get art of it.


If Sunset Boulevard didn't make it a concrete decision and Victor/Victoria didn't cinch it as a rule, the musical version of Big made it a personal principle of mine not to go see a Broadway musical based on a movie. Now I know this means I would have missed, if I'd still been able to go to New York at the time, well-reviewed examples of movies-to-musicals such as The Producers, Billy Elliot, Hairspray and The Full Monty (another acclaimed musical, Grey Gardens, even came from a documentary), but look at some of what I would have avoided: Urban Cowboy, Footloose, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, High Fidelity, High Society, Saturday Night Fever, Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, 9 to 5, Mary Poppins, Young Frankenstein, Shrek, The Addams Family (I know, based on the cartoons, not the TV show or movie. Uh-huh). Thoroughly Modern Millie, Sweet Smell of Success, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Color Purple, The Wedding Singer and Cry-Baby to name a few too many. I gave a break to a few others that got some passable reviews such as Legally Blonde, Xanadu and A Catered Affair. Before my obsession ended and my ability to go to New York went away I would still see a couple, with qualifications, but enough was becoming enough.

The saddest part about Big is that I saw it on its very first night of previews and I heard it improved slightly later but it was a sign of my mental illness that I went in the first place because I wasn't that crazy about the movie in the first place. I always thought Tom Hanks played the character as far too young for what age Josh was when he grew and the musical didn't fix that. Even worse, they took the sweet simplicity of the moment from the movie when the big Josh and his boss at the toy company played "Chopsticks" on the giant keyboards at F.A.O. Schwarz and transformed it into an overblown production number, sapping it of all its charm.


What luck did I have getting to see Rent when I did. First, I ordered my ticket the day before it received the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a rare feat for a musical. Secondly, on the day I was to see it, flying in from Florida, I thought I had plenty of time. I'd get to New York, check into the hotel and get to the theater. Unfortunately, flight delays started to push it and when we got to New York, for some reason we were sitting on the tarmac, not allowed to get to the gate, for an interminable amount of time. The clock ticked. It got past 7 p.m. Finally, a flight attendant got on the intercom and asked the passengers to sit down and we could finally go to the gate. Some idiot businessman was still rifling through his overhead. I shouted, "Sit the hell down! We have places to be." Thankfully, I only had a carryon. I grabbed the first cab I could and told the driver I would make it worth his while if he got me to the Nederlander Theatre before 8 p.m. I love N.Y. cabbies: I got there at 7:45 p.m. I had to sit through the show with my carryon bag at my feet, but the show, which also happened to have recently received all its Tony nominations, was well worth it. Quite simply, I was enthralled. It's still the best new musical I saw on Broadway and the only one I paid to see twice. It still was as great the second time. I did see a few problems: I knew it would be almost immediately dated, but it was a show I couldn't stop talking about, wanting to spread the word and share it to everyone I knew. Of course, it became a phenomenon and I can always say I saw it with the original cast. It was magical. It also played to my age at the time: It seemed to speak to it and my generation. Who knows? While I still love the music, today as I become an old fogey, I might relate more to Benny the landlord than the squatters. For the record, I never saw the movie version and I never will because it was obvious how they were ruining it. Usually I support using the original cast members, but they were all more than a decade too old for their parts by then. Having Chris Columbus direct? Ugh. Again, with the clip above, the filming isn't the best, but the song, "What You Own," one of my favorites, still comes through fairly well.


The above clip is not from the actual revival of The King and I that starred Lou Diamond Phillips and won Donna Murphy her second Tony but of a brief rendition of "Shall We Dance?" the pair performed on the 1996 Tony Awards broadcast. I thought I'd begin with it because the thing I took away most prominently from seeing this show which I'd never noticed before but which I wanted everyone to listen to is how closely the refrain of "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast resembles "Shall We Dance?" Now, I don't want to accuse Alan Menken of plagiarism, but let your ears decide. As for the production of The King and I itself, it was fine. Murphy was great and Phillips put any skepticism I might have had about his casting to rest. It was a gorgeous production. It also finally made clear to me the lyric about "Eliza on the ice" in "Getting Married Today" in Company. It's a reference to Uncle Tom's Cabin, but I bet Sondheim would have never referenced it if they didn't enact the scene in The King and I by his mentor Oscar Hammerstein II first.


May 22, 1996 marks the date of the best night in terms of entertainment I ever had in Manhattan. On my way to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre to see the Broadway premiere (even though it was really a New York revival) of the Steppenwolf Theatre production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, I passed The Supper Club and noticed that at the same time, Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve would be performing. I went on in and saw Buried Child, which was absolutely superb. Directed by Gary Sinise, it starred Terry Kinney, Jim True (of Wire fame, before he added the Frost to his last name), and, in their Tony-nominated roles, the great Lois Smith and the late James Gammon. Darkly funny and just as disturbing, Shepard's play remained riveting. Thanks to the ever-changing Tony rules, since it had never played Broadway before, it was eligible and was nominated for best play. It would have been my choice. Both it and Seven Guitars were leaps and bounds better than Master Class. I did not see the fourth nominee, David Hare's Racing Demon. Floating on air after such a stupendous night of theater, I exited the Brooks Atkinson and began the walk back toward my hotel. There were still lines outside The Supper Club. It seems Costello and Nieve were giving two performances that night and someone was selling tickets outside the club: at the ticket price no less. I bought one immediately and went straight from Buried Child to Elvis Costello, who gave a great performance, including many songs off his most recent album at the time that I still adore, All This Useless Beauty such as "The Other End of the Telescope": Shall we agree that just this once/I'm gonna change my life/Until it's just as tiny or important as you like?/And in time we won't even recall that we spoke/Words that turned out to be as big as smoke/As smoke that disappears in the air/There's always something that's smoldering somewhere/I know it don't make a difference to you/But oh! It sure made a difference to me/You'll see me off in the distance, I hope/At the other end/At the other end of the telescope. The next morning, I boarded a plane and went back to Florida after my greatest two-day N.Y. jaunt ever: Rent, The King and I, Buried Child and Elvis Costello — all in two days time. Those were the days.

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