Old Musicals Like New

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They were, the showman in 42nd Street proclaimed, "the most glorious words in the English language: musical comedy!" But for a couple of decades, the people who made Broadway-style musicals forgot about the comedy and went super-serious, telling song-stories about the murderous (Sweeney Todd), the morose (The Phantom of the Opera) and the miserable (Les Miz and dozens more). The Great White Way never sounded so gloomy.

We can thank Mel Brooks, of all unlikely souls — thank you, Mel Brooks — for prodding Broadway back to life in 2001 with The Producers. That staging of his 1968 movie was full-throttle farce with generically catchy songs, and it presaged the next generation of smart-silly musical comedies. Among its spawn were Hairspray and Spamalot, shows that put a post-modern twist on the antique shows of the '20s and '30s. Back then, plots were dental-floss clotheslines on which to hang a dozen chipper songs, and the audiences were meant to go out humming and smiling.

So everything old is new again. And some of the new is old. The surprise hit of the current season, which ended Wednesday, is The Drowsy Chaperone, in which a friendly hermit known only as Man in Chair (co-author Bob Martin) slips a 33-1/3 rpm record out of its sleeve and tells us we are about to hear A 1928 musical called guess what. In a trice, the gent's apartment is converted into a Broadway stage and the musical is performed, with Man in Chair's frequent interpolations on the biographies of the stars. It's all faux, you know, and as directed by Casey Nicolaw (who choreographed Spamalot) the evening has an airy confidence worthy of the old shows.

I'll say little more about it, partly because friend Zoglin, the magazine's theater critic, will weigh in with his words in the issue out Monday; partly because I can't find my notes and the Chaperone publicists said they don't have a script for me to consult. Just one thing: it's odd to evoke the memory of old musicals whose books were inane but whose songs were classics in a new musical whose book is stuffy but whose songs are ordinary. They're knowing pastiche, like the ones in The Producers and its progeny, but not, it's fair to say, up there with the stuff churned out by George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II and Cole Porter all by himself. Or with the fabulous songs written in the '30s and '40s by such Hollywood tunesmiths as Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer.

For those songs, and the bliss they induce, you must stray off Broadway. Walk a half block down 55th Street to the invaluable City Centers Encores! series, which last night premiered its concert version of the Gershwins' 1931 hit Of Thee I Sing. Or go further northeast to one of the city's magnificent cultural resources, the 92nd Street Y, which last weekend presented "Hooray for Hollywood: Johnny Mercer at the Movies." Those are the places I was this week, in heaven. Read on, and sing along.

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