You saw the original production of a show revived decades later for Encores!
You can't imagine why Encores! would be reviving such a well-known show (since it has a score you memorized when you were a kid).
You assume your readers know or care what Encores! the thrilling three-a-year concert series that has been exhuming old Broadway musicals at New York's City Center since 1994 is.
THE TONIEST SHOW
It's the best and worst of times for Broadway. This season's revenue for the 30 or so theaters lining the Great White Way was an all-time record. And this Sunday's Tony Awards show was the lowest-rated ever. At one point the host, Hugh Jackman, said hello to the "6,000 people here at Radio City Music Hall and the the other 6,000 watching at home." That was a joke, but only by three zeroes. Six million people watched; that's fewer than the number of tickets sold, at prices up to $500, for Broadway shows this season.
Still, for your hard-core Broadway devotees basically old people, Manhattanites, Jews and homosexuals (I qualify in half of these categories, won't tell you which) Tony Night possesses a cliquish glamour that the more popular TV ceremonies can't touch. It has the snazziest pace, the most articulate acceptance speeches and the most, and most tolerable, production numbers. On this year's show there were eight, one from each of the nominated new musicals and revivals, including "Wonderful Town," an Encores! concert that transferred to Broadway this season.
Part of the insider value is hearing the names of nominees that mean little to the viewers of all other awards shows (i.e., Americans). Consider, for example, the women who were nominated for Leading Actress in a Musical: Kristin Chenoweth, "Wicked"; Stephanie D'Abruzzo, "Avenue Q"; Idina Menzel, "Wicked"; Donna Murphy, "Wonderful Town"; and Tonya Pinkins, "Caroline, or Change."
Outside of Broadway, these performers aren't household names. Menzel, the winner, played a bridesmaid in the indie movie "Kissing Jessica Stein." Murphy has some minor currency for Trekkies as Captain Picard's beloved Ba'ku babe in "Star Trek: Insurrection" or, for TV cultists, as Stanley Tucci's scheming wife on the first season of "Murder One." Pinkins' only non-Tony nomination was for Best Supporting Actress in a soap opera ("All My Children" in the early 90s). Chenoweth and D'Abruzzo have been seen, fleetingly, on "Sesame Street" the first as Ms. Noodle, the second as a puppeteer. This is Broadway's idea of star quality?
Well, it should be. Most of these women are stars to me. All five nominees have appeared on the City Center stage in one or more of the "Encores!" series (which itself won a special Tony in 2000 "for excellence in theatre"). D'Abruzzo was the hardest to notice: she sang in the chorus of the Encores! "Carnival" two seasons back. Pinkins was a sensaysh as the lead in the 2001 "House of Flowers." Of the two "Wicked" witches, Chenoweth (who plays Glinda, the blond one) had two splendid Encores! turns, in "Strike Up the Band" in 1998 and in the Barbara Harris-Barbra Streisand role in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" two years later; and Menzel (Elphaba, the green one) belted out "Easy to Be Hard" in the "Hair" revival of 2001. As for Murphy, she headlined Encores!' 2000 revival of "Wonderful Town," and is repeating her role on the Hirschfeld Theatre stage.
The potential magic of theater is that, no matter how many months or years a show has run, each performance is unique, and the audience is part of it. On Encores! nights (in mid-February, late March and early May), that electricity is palpable partly because each revival is done only five or six times, partly because of the symbiosis between the dedicated professionals on stage and the knowledgeable enthusiasts in the seats. Thus every performance has the panache and portent of a classic Broadway opening night. The commercial musical theater still has its appeal, but for me Encores! is the toniest show in town.
HOW TO (RE)MAKE A MUSICAL
There's lots to love about Encores!, which has found its ideal home on 55th Street in the Moorish architecture of the City Center built by Fiorello LaGuardia to give a home to popular culture at popular prices. (Hence the aptness of the first-ever Encores! show, "Fiorello!") I admire the catholicity of the series, which has spanned six decades of shows in styles from musical comedy and drama to operetta ("New Moon") and tribal love rock ("Hair"). I applaud the whirlwind schedule of each production (first rehearsal to closing night in two weeks flat). I'm won over by the subtle elegance of its productions, with scenic consultant John Lee Beatty merely suggesting the settings in front of the stage-wide bandstand that holds Rob Fisher's Coffee Club Orchestra. I'm awed by the scholarly passion for detail Fisher, Encores!' musical director, brings to the restoring of each score.
The tradition of concert revivals in which the principals wear evening clothes and carry the script (though they have memorized their parts), while a couple dozen musicians saw away at the original orchestrations is a distinguished one. Jerome Kern's 1985 centenary cued four glittery restorations of his early Princess Theatre musicals at New York's Carnegie Hall. These were the shows (with book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse) whose Held-girl-slim plots, witty rhymes and gorgeous scores created the form of the Broadway musical comedy. John McGlinn's meticulous orchestrations, and showstopping turns by Judy Kaye, Jane Connell and Paige O'Hara, restored these wonderful old shows to life, not as quaint artifacts but as living examples of a musical theater that had never lost its ability to transport and beguile.
McGlinn's bijou triumphs cued a concerted revival of concert revivals. In London, Ian Marshall Fisher's impressive series, Discover the Lost Musicals, has flourished since 1988. In 1994, the year Encores! began, the York Theatre uptown inaugurated a Musicals in Mufti series (its motto: "Think Encores! on a budget") to spotlight "underappreciated" musicals by such highly appreciated composers as Richard Rodgers, Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington, Jule Styne, Harold Rome, Noel Coward and Alan Menken. Downtown, and way downscale, there's Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight! series, which this week finished a run of the 1926 "The Girl Friend," by Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and which last month won a Village Voice Obie grant for trying really hard on no budget at all.
A concert revival of a Broadway show sounds simple enough get the sheet music, assemble a band and a cast, and start playing. Not always. A 17th century Monteverdi opera has cleaner, fuller charts than many an old Broadway hit, whose arrangements might have ended up in the garage or the garbage. The sheet music for the Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II "Sweet Adeline," which had been performed outdoors, was festooned with mosquito carcasses. As Judith Daykin, who brought the series to City Center, told TIME's Elaine Rivera for an Encores! story we did in 1998: "The musicians didn't know if it was a note or a dead bug."
Reassembling an old musical requires a mix of showmanship and scholarship a paleontologist's digging and Poirot's powers of inference. "Did they use this harmony, or did they mean it to be that harmony?" said Rob Fisher. "I agonize over this, because I want the score to sound exactly as it did originally." No reclamation project was as daunting as that of "St. Louis Woman," the 1946 Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical revived in 1998. "There was no score," Fisher said, "just scraps of material." Ace orchestrators Ralph Burns and Luther Henderson re-created and, for the overture and dance numbers, were obliged to create the musical settings. Topflight actor-singers signed on. And then the inspired rush to turn an old classic into a new one, all in a fortnight.
AN ENCORES! HONOR ROLL
A glance at the 33 shows Encores! has produced shows that the selectors Daykin, Fisher and artistic directors Walter Bobbie, Kathleen Marshall and Jack Viertel look for semi-legendary shows that (1) were written by one of the premier composers; (2) boast a lush score, preferably with a few standards; (3) have a libretto that today is either amusingly anachronistic or lingeringly poignant; (4) offer strong roles to either contemporary musical theater stars or star-is-born kids; and (5) haven't received full-dress Broadway revivals in decades. The ideal musical, by these criteria, is Rodgers and Hart's 1937 "Babes in Arms." The show's melodic bounty still astonishes: "Where or When," "I Wish I Were in Love Again," "My Funny Valentine," "Johnny One-Note," "The Lady Is a Tramp"... Care to sing along, anyone? You can do so by buying the CD from this glorious revival.
Rodgers leads all composers with six shows: four with Hart ("Pal Joey," "The Boys from Syracuse," "Babes in Arms" and "A Connecticut Yankee"), one with Hammerstein ("Allegro") and one as his own lyricist ("No Strings"). Cole Porter ("Out of This World," "Du Barry Was a Lady," "Can-Can!") and Harold Arlen ("St. Louis Woman," "Bloomer Girl," "House of Flowers") each had three musicals revived, George Gershwin two ("Strike Up the Band," "Pardon My English"). His brother Ira did the lyrics for those and for two other Encores! specials ("Lady in the Dark," "Ziegfeld Follies of 1936"). Jerome Kern ("Sweet Adeline") and Irving Berlin ("Call Me Madam") complete the honor roll of indisputable Broadway royalty.
But for the role of Encores! godfather, I'd designate George Abbott. That legendary ringmaster whose Broadway career spanned 75 seasons and whose final job as director, of his own play "Broadway," opened on his 100th birthday either wrote the book for, or originally directed or produced (sometimes all three), eight of the shows revived at City Center: "The Boys from Syracuse," "Pal Joey," "Out of This World," "Call Me Madam," "Wonderful Town," "The Pajama Game," "Fiorello!" and "Tenderloin." He also directed the 1926 play "Chicago," whose musical version would become Encores!' biggest hit when it transferred to Broadway in 1996 (3,163 performances by this weekend). Abbott's shows were renowned for their verve, clarity and spot-on professionalism, qualities that live on brilliantly in the Encores! stagings.
Many would say (and I wouldn't disagree) that the real star on stage is Fisher, who at 51 still has the brisk, charming air of every coed's favorite professor. He gets the first applause, as he strides to the podium to lead the musicians in the show's overture, and the last cheers after the performers' curtain calls, as the orchestra plays a few final airs the capper to a beautiful evening. Fisher is the one who has worked with the arrangers to locate the score (or to reimagine what it might have been), who has rehearsed his two dozen superb musicians (a larger number than in the pit of most Broadway shows) and who later supervises the transferring of some of the Encores! revivals to CD. About a third of the shows have been commemorated on disk, their vitality miraculously intact. Good, but not good enough every Encores! show must be preserved!
And the series, which recently has concentrated on 50s and 60s musicals that are a familiar part of the Broadway repertory, must think about expanding its horizons. Of course I mean backward. Last year's revival of Sigmund Romberg's "New Moon" showed that operetta can comfortably nest in the Encores! bosom. How about a true faux operetta: "Hollywood Pinafore," George S. Kaufman's tweaking of "H.M.S. Pinafore" into a satire on the movie business? (It ran briefly on Broadway in 1946 and was not heard again until it surfaced six years ago in Discover the Lost Musicals.) Those Kern musicals that McGlinn put in Carnegie Hall nearly 20 years ago: they have beautiful scores and the sort of silly-funny libretti dear to the Encores! audience. Bring 'em back alive! And for a more modern piece, I recommend the 1961 "Kean," with a sumptuous score by Robert Wright and Chet Forrest of "Kismet"fame and a luminous title role (originally played by Alfred Drake) that would be perfect for Encores!' signature male star, Brian Stokes Mitchell.
STARS OVER BROADWAY
We live in perhaps the direst age for this grand old form since it evolved a century ago exactly a century ago, if you count George M. Cohan's "Little Johnny Jones" as the prototype Broadway musical. For 60 years the Broadway-style show tune fueled the pop charts, is by now a dead, or at least obscure, language. (The only song from a recent Broadway musical that anyone outside mid-Manhattan knows is "Karma Chameleon," the old Boy George number woven into his score for the short-lived, lamented "Taboo.") The sad fact is that most people under 60 have put the great old songs out of their head and, if they hear them, they don't like them. It's as if America took to heart a gag in this years Encores! revival of the 1932 "Pardon My English": "Go now. And sing no more."
In the 20s and 30s, as many as 50 musicals might open each year; now the typical number is five. Performers thus have few opportunities to be employed, let alone become stars. Nobody these days graduates from Broadway musicals to mainstream celebrity, as Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Julie Andrews, Streisand and dozens of others did. Why would any young person would want to be part of this antique, dead-end genre? It's like dreaming of becoming a hat blocker or a Yiddish scholar. What kid in the hinterlands would even know that a clear, crisp Broadway vocal style exists, when "American Idol" teaches that pop crooning is a demonstration of wild vibrato work and orgasmic emoting? My friend, the distinguished actor George Grizzard, watches "American Idol" and shouts with exasperation at the TV screen: "Just sing the goddamn song!"
And yet, each season, another hundred people reach New York by the train, or the bus or the plane, bringing their fresh faces, strong voices and quixotic aspirations to the Mecca of musical theater. We happen to be blessed, at the moment, with a bounty of song-show talent. It heartens me that artists like Mitchell, Debbie Gravitte, Martin Short, Faith Prince, Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, Murphy and Chenoweth (all veterans of Encores!) have devoted themselves to singing the grand old Broadway songs; and it depresses me that there's so little terrific new work they can devote themselves to.
But here they are, at Encores!, for us to follow in their ascendancy to Broadway stardom. In 1999, when Nathan Lane headlined a delicious revival of the Styne-Betty Comden-Adolph Green "Do Re Mi," the male and female second leads were Mitchell and Heather Headley; the following year those two won the Tony's top musical awards (for their work in "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Aida"). At Encores! the veterans also mix collegially with the newbies as Mitchell and Gravitte did with the beautiful 19-year-old soprano Anne Hathaway (star of "The Cinderella Diaries" and "Ella Enchanted") in a magnificent revival of "Carnival."
Here are a few more Encores! epiphanies to recall with a shivery thrill... The giddy glissandi of the "Sing for Your Supper" trio (Gravitte, Luker and Sarah Uriarte Berry) from "The Boys from Syracuse"... Kuhn, an angel lost in hell, turning a 2684-seat theater into a confessional when she performs "The Man I Love" from "Strike Up the Band"... Ruthie Henshell, beautifully torching the ballad "Words Without Music" from "Ziegfeld Follies of 1936"... The second-act overture to "Babes in Arms," when the orchestra began playing "Where or When" and the audience joined in, dreamily humming along and swaying in unison... The chorale rendition of "Stout-Hearted Men" from "New Moon," which had the crowd stomping and singing along... Another male chorale, "Some Girl Is on His Mind" from "Sweet Adeline" a rendition so pure and poignant that, for a moment before the cheers broke out, it left the City Center crowd in silent rapture....
A YEAR OF ENCORES!
This past season emphasized the familiar familiar, at least, to its core audience of Modern Maturity musical mavens. Both "Can-Can!" and "Bye Bye Birdie" had long Broadway runs and upmarket movie adaptations; in the 90s, "Birdie" was remade for TV, with Vanessa Williams in the female lead. The revivals were spiffy as always, and better than that if Patti LuPone and Karen Ziemba (the respective stars) fit your definition of Broadway mesmerizers.
But for me the excavated treasure was "Pardon My English," a George and Ira Gershwin romp that suffered a chaotic pre-opening rewrite ordeal, closed after a mere 46 performances in 1933 and had not been heard from since. In 1982, music historian Robert Kimball unearthed the score, along with lost work by Kern, Porter and Rodgers, in a warehouse in Secaucus, N.J. (I'm happy to say that TIME deemed the event newsworthy enough for us to do a story on it.) In a program note, Viertel compares the unearthing of this goofy Gershwin farce "to Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb, if you can picture that august gentleman shoving aside the stone tablet to the inner sanctum and uncovering a quite fabulous rubber chicken."
This particular pliable poultry belongs to a Broadway subgenre which includes Encores! honorees "Du Barry Was a Lady" and "A Connecticut Yankee" that Viertel describes as "the 'hero-hit-on-the-head-with-a-bottle' musical." The conked conqueror in "English" is a genteel Brit, Michael Bramleigh, who, after a head-bump, becomes Goto Schmidt, owner of Dresden's notorious night spot Klub "21." (Both roles are played, with an expert counterfeit of charm, by Brian d'Arcy James.) Goto and his girlfriend Gita Gobel (Emily Skinner) are forever threatened by the pompous Police Commissioner (Imus' man of a thousand voices Rob Bartlett), but even more by his tendency to snap from one personality to the other whenever he gets bopped on the kopf, and to forget one half of his personality when the other half is "on."
The show's script hadn't survived intact. That meant the new production required extensive revisions. Lucky for Encores!, David Ives is its script doctor in residence. Ives, whose evening of short plays known as "All in the Timing" revealed a mad-genius mastery of sketch comedy, has pruned, edited, concertized a dozen Encores! shows. Here, though, he practically had to invent a script "Pardon My English" wasn't so much revived as vived. So Ives pinwheels his ingenuity to make the audience conspirators in the play's structural silliness.
Thus he has one character describe our hero's instant amnesia as "a loss of memory, with plot complications." Skinner, before singing "The Lorelei" (she does it in Madeline Kahn's Teutonic-twat accent from "Blazing Saddles"), tells the audience, "Here's a little number that Wagner cut from 'Das Rheingold'." Bartlett, suddenly in a Russian mood, murmurs, "Dosvedanya. Dostoevsky. Vo do dee oh do." Later he storms, "You know I don't allow double entendres in my house. Single entendres are all I can afford." At the end, the plot is dutifully wrapped up, sort of. As Skinner says, "That explains everything. Well, not everything. But something."
Ives made a pretty, witty something of the script. Director Gary Griffin made it sing, sumptuously; Russell Warner touched up the orchestrations to these just-short-of-classic Gershwin songs; and Rob Ashford staged some sublimely silly choreography. (My notes read, "six dancing couples form a giant pretzel," but I may have been hallucinating.) In a nifty cast, I especially liked Felicia Finley, who played Magda the saucy parlormaid. Finley has looks, a voice and that ageless soubrette pertness the total musical comedy package. But then, that's what you almost always get at Encores!
LET'S PUT ON A WONDERFUL SHOW!
I said that "Babes in Arms" is the quintessential Encores! musical. In part that's because the show's plot a bunch of Long Island kids, the spawn of vaudevillians, decide to put on a big show in the barn serves as inspiration for the bustling, two-week schedule of an Encores! revival. The breathless rehearsal-and-production pace guarantees that performers don't have time to worry their interpretations to death; they rely on skill and intuition. And it helps create an exccitement, an urgency, in the audience. If you happen to be out of town for five days, you could miss it. (That's why my wife and I work our vacations and business trips around the Encores! show dates.)
Thus each production might be a sweet secret shared by the 12,000 or so people who see it over its long weekend. But the Encores! people are not averse to making a commercial buck by fleshing out their shows for the wider Broadway audience. Perhaps once a season, talk surfaces of a possible transfer (for "Strike Up the Band," "Hair," "Carnival," none of which occurred). "Chicago" did make that move, in just six months in1996, to the joy and profit of all involved.
As the climax to the 2000 trio of Encores! shows, "Wonderful Town" was a palpable hit: ecstasy in the audience, a rave from New York Times critic Ben Brantley for the 42-year-old Murphy and 19-year-old Laura Benanti. (Another gifted starlet coming off of a the train.) At the Saturday night performance I ran into Harvey Weinstein, the Miramax Films co-chairman who has backed such Broadway shows as "The Producers," "Sweet Smell of Success," Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme," and who would win an Oscar for Best Picture when he produced the 2002 movie version of "Chicago" (directed by Kathleen Marshall's brother Rob). Weinstein told me he might be interested in a mainstem transfer for "Wonderful Town." Three years later, it happened.
"Wonderful Town" is based on "My Sister Eileen," the 1942 hit Broadway comedy about two sisters, intellectual Ruth and blond knockout Eileen, who emigrate from Ohio to a basement flat in Greenwich Village Ruth looking to be a writer, Eileen with dreams of musical stardom. The musical version, composed by Leonard Bernstein and lyricists Comden and Green, arrived on Broadway in 1953, with Rosalind Russell as Ruth and Edith Adams (later Ernie Kovacs' Edie Adams) as Eileen. The show, which lasted a year, didn't spawn the hits that Bernstein's "On the Town" and "West Side Story" did, but it has tremendous musical wit and urban dash.
It could have been slapdash, since Bernstein, Comden and Green had only about five weeks to write the score, after one by Leroy Anderson and Arnold Horwitt was junked. They could do it because they were old pals. They composed the score for "On the Town" in 1944; and in the late 30s, when Comden and Green were starting out in a cabaret quintet called the Revuers, Bernstein occasionally accompanied them on the piano and collaborated on songs. (The troupe also included Judy Tuvim, later the Broadway and movie marvel Judy Holliday.) "Wonderful Town," set in 1935, has many echoes of the team's early days: one scene, "One Hundred Easy Ways (To Lose a Man)," is based on an old Revuers sketch; another set in a nightclub called the Village Vortex, a reference to the Village Vanguard where the Revuers first attracted notice. The score also bursts with the spirit and confidence that must have gone into its speedy creation as if the trio were saying, Okay, let's write a Village scene-setter, now we'll do a showstopper for Roz, and how about a conga for the first-act finale!
LET'S TAKE THAT WONDERFUL SHOW TO BROADWAY!
In the new Broadway version by director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who also shepherded the 2000 revival, Eileen (now played by Jennifer Westfeldt, the star and co-writer of "Kissing Jessica Stein") is still the gal who gets pawed a lot and doesn't want it, and Ruth (Murphy) is still the big sister who isn't and does. I suspect that, if the show were done 30 or 50 years later, Ruth would be hungrier for women than for men. Even in this meticulous recreation of the 1953 show, there's a slightly lesbic undertone to the crooning and caressing in Ruth and Eileen's plaintive duet "Ohio." The plaintivenss of Ruth's can't-get-a-date plight is underlined by her kid sister's attractiveness to every member of the opposite sex. (When Eileen is briefly imprisoned, she gets fawning butler and bodyguard service from the cops who have fallen for her.) It doesn't make Ruth envious, just depressed and it's her nature sarcastic. "Well, you must admit," she expectorates, when half of the Village shows up for one of Eileen's pot-luck dinners, "for bad location and no neon sign, we're doin' a hell of a business."
The show is smartly expanded for the Hirschfeld Theatre without losing its original Encores! feel. Beatty's spare but suggestive sets fly up and down cast in front of the on-stage orchestra (at 24 members, the largest on Broadway). Westfeldt has the requisite innocent allure, and Gregg Edelman, as Ruth's eventual beau, is a cutie with oodles of charm. From the rich supporting cast, I choose Ken Barnett (who plays a tour guide, a magazine staffer, a cop and several other roles) as my star of the future; he's got lots of character personality and the ingratiating comic sense of a young John Astin. The company of dancers executes Marshall's maneuvers with a vitality and precision rare on Broadway. She and they well deserved the Tony for Best Choreography she picked up the other night.
Murphy is an actress I've followed since 1984, when at 25 she played the mother in Galt MacDermot's "The Human Comedy." She was a smash as an amnesiac chanteuse in the off-Broadway "Song of Singapore," as the obsessive jilted lover in Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" and as a dark-hued Anna in the 1996 Broadway revival of "The King and I." Here she uses her kabuki face to all manner of deadpan delight, then goes into giddy spasms in the dance numbers. She's Buster Keaton in repose, Diane Keaton in motion. Her and the show's peak moment comes when she reluctantly teaches the conga to six randy sailors from the Brazilian Navy. The number, which in seven or eight minutes expands into barely controlled musical and sexual anarchy, is so irresistibly infectious, it's a wonder the audience doesn't form a conga line on 45th Street at intermission.
"Wonderful Town," which calls itself "the New York City musical," is just that. It's about New York as a magnet for ambitious young show people a tiny space that concentrates the talents of all who come there and distills from them a popular art that will entertain the rest of America.
I suppose I should have put that last bit in the past tense. Broadway these days is a no man's land for new musicals, and a museum, a mausoleum, for old ones. But three times a year, in a Moorish castle on 55th Street, you can hear its ancient heart ticking merrily, as if it were young, and the decades were the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and the theaters nearby were stocked with musicals you couldn't wait to see.
Or maybe that ancient heart is mine. If so, thanks for the transplant, Encores!