Old Musicals Like New

  • Share
  • Read Later

(5 of 5)

Just as buoyant is the score. How could it not be, with Broadway's premier songwriting siblings near the top of their form? The title tune got to #8 on the hit parade, and two others, "Who Cares?" and "Love Is Sweeping the Country," still put a 2/4 spring in the step of many a geriatric. But the score was no succession of stand-alone ballads and dance tunes. Ira referred to the show as an operetta and, in the Gilbert and Sullivan mode, each song fits into the plot, advances the improbable story and fleshes out the characters, all the while parading its jazzy insouciance. Sometimes Ira can be just on the lyric side of lewd. In "Never Was a Girl So Fair," a hymn to Miss Devereaux's allure, the pols sing: "What a charming epiglottis! / What a lovely coat of tan! / Oh, the man who isn't hot is / Not a man!" The Encores! production, staged by John Rando (who directed the wonderful 1998 revival of the Kaufman-Gershwin Strike Up the Band), makes Kaufman's old whine bubble like new wine. Pristinely faithful to the original, down to a film clip of the MGM lion, crowing instead of roaring, the show has a brisk, canny bounce matched only by ... well, by The Drowsy Chaperone. Rando festoons John Lee Beatty's balconied set with streamers, packs the stage with sight gags and sex appeal — 10 gals in bathing suits, courted by boys with press cards in their hat bands. The cast and orchestra, under the vigorous baton of Paul Gemignani, rise to the material, then skate on it. Garber does justice to one of the all-time rousing musical-comedy lines, "Did you say corn muffins?" (Mary had won his heart by revealing she makes the best corn muffins. When they reach the White House, Mary says she'll bake "corn muffins for the unemployed!" Wintergreen cries, "That's my girl! You feed 'em and I'll sing to them!")

Political parties have conventions, and concert versions of Broadway shows do too. The main requirement is that each actor-singer holds the script in a black loose-leaf binder, but after 10 days' rehearsal, most of the performers have memorized their parts and use the book as a prop. Last night, one actor, feigning tears, ripped a page from the script and wiped his pseudo-tears. Near the finale, Powers, her body frozen in a jackknife posture with her hands on the floor, adjusted her position slightly and turned a page in the script.

Broadway songs don't swing votes. Ira Gershwin discovered that when he rewrote his "Love Is Sweeping the Country" lyrics for Adlai Stevenson's noble but doomed 1952 campaign against Dwight D. Eisenhower. (A sample, from Kimball's The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin: "What a man for our future! / Equal him if you can. / Fearless attitudes / With no platitudes; / Inspirational — / He's sensational! / Adlai's sweeping the country! / America — here's your man!") But they can buoy spirits. Mel Brooks knows that, as do the Drowsy Chaperone team. All the 21st century fashioners of musical comedy are marching in the footsteps of the Gershwins and Mercer. No one yet has figured out how to fill their shoes.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. Next