Monday, October 24, 2016

First Lady Suite

Michael John LaChiusa remains committed to writing challenging musicals with complex scores. Audiences may not flock to them but they gather committed fan bases. First Lady Suite and the sequel First Daughter Suite each present four vignettes about women who've lived in the White House. Some focus on the First Ladies themselves. Others view them through the eyes of their staff and admirers.

Variety writes: "What’s missing is any semblance of insight or revelation. A talented ensemble, under the capable guidance of Daniel Henning, instills as much pizzazz as possible into the proceedings but ultimately is defeated by LaChiusa’s convoluted, unfulfilling libretto."

The New York Times was kinder writing: "Weird, funny and wigged-out, "First Lady Suite" looks at history through frankly surrealistic glasses and extends its feminist sympathies even to a Presidential spouse as seemingly conventional as Mrs. Eisenhower. Yet, with the exception of "Eleanor Sleeps Here," the last and best developed of the three segments, Mr. LaChiusa's ambitions for his musical are more bracing than the musical itself."

Friday, October 21, 2016

Presidential Songs

1600 Pennsylvania Ave covers 100 years of U.S. Presidents but only a handful have songs. The best numbers go to the First Ladies. I decided to look through the list of U.S. Presidents and see how many have sung a song on stage.

Songs Sung By Presidents on Stage

1 George Washington Hamilton (2015) - various including "One Last Time". 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - On Ten Square Miles by the Potomac River
2 John Adams - 1776 (1969) - various including "Is Anybody There?"
3 Thomas Jefferson 1776 (1969) - various including "The Egg." 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - "The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March." Hamilton (2015) - various including "What did I Miss?"
4 James Madison Hamilton (2015) - various including "Washington On Your Side."
5 James Monroe        1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - The Little White Lie
6 John Quincy Adams Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010) - The Corrupt Bargain
7 Andrew Jackson Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010) - various including "I'm Not That Guy"
15 James Buchanan 1600 Pennsylvania Ave (1969) - We Must Have a Ball
16 Abraham Lincoln Our American Cousin (2008 Opera)
26 Theodore Roosevelt Teddy & Alice (1987) - various including Can I Let Her Go?
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt Annie (1977) - A New Deal for Christmas, Annie Warbucks (1993) - Somebody's Gotta Do Somethin'
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower First Lady Suite (1993) - Where's Mamie?
35 John F. Kennedy Smash S2 - 2013 - Our Little Secret
37 Richard Nixon     Nixon in China (1987 Opera)

Some Notable Songs Sung About Presidents on Stage

25 William McKinley Assassins (1990) - The Head of the Line
30 Calvin Coolidge Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) - Keeping Cool with Coolidge
31 Herbert Hoover Annie (1977) - We'd Like To Thank you Herbert Hoover
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower Call Me Madam (1950) - They Like Ike. 
36 Lyndon B. Johnson Hair (1967) - L.B.J.

Who did I miss?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Lerner and Bernstein collaborated on an ambitious piece about the history of race relations in the White House. The original libretto was a play within a play. An argument between the "actors" was the through line as they switched between numerous Presidents, First Ladies and servants. The finale suggested that American Democracy was always "in rehearsal." The show went through many rewrites during a tumultuous tryout period. When it arrived on Broadway the framing device was gone leaving a revue-like series of sketches.

Critics praised Patricia Routledge's turn as the First Ladies and panned the rest. The show closed in 7 performances. Bernstein's estate has arranged  a 1992 student production and a 2008 concert. They've restricted licencing rights beyond that and avoided a full recording.

Snippets of the original show have been found online. Abigail Adams' ballad "Take Care of This House" has received several recordings. The true show stopper of the evening was "Duet for One," a clash between outgoing First Lady Julia Grant and incoming First Lady Lucy Hayes at the 1877 inauguration. Patricia Routledge rapidly alternated between the roles with two distinct character voices. Recordings of the song capture some of the humor but the physical staging apparently lifted it to musical theater heaven.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Mr. President

This week I'll be posting on musicals that explore the office of U.S. President. We'll start with Irving Berlin's Mr. President which places a fictional President Henderson in a shallow family sitcom. The show was a flop and would prove to be Irving Berlin's last.

The synopsis on Wikipedia is a sprawling mess with no character development or stakes. The songs I've found online are bland one-joke affairs despite a fun performance from Nanette Fabray as the First Lady.

In Ethan Mordden's book, Open a New Window, he writes: "Blame unfortunately fell on Berlin... Actually, the only thing that worked in the show was Berlin's score. It is not at all impressive; but it is tuneful and it tries to create content for the silhouettes that Lindsay and Crouse gave Berlin..." 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Gershwin series part four: Political Musicals

Life has gotten busy and blog posts have fallen behind.
The election season has reminded us all that "Nobody's Got No Class."

So here is a quick sketch of the political satires of George and Ira Gershwin. I've covered politically themed musicals in the past but there are many more.

Strike Up the Band deals with a war motivated by corporate greed.

Of Thee I Sing deals with a Presidential candidate drawing international outrage when he mistreats a beauty pageant contestant.

In an earlier post I looked at the sequel, Let Them Eat Cake, in which that same candidate, now President, has his fascist proposals undermined by women voters.

Make of this what you will.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Quick Sketch: Showboat and Carousel

Show Boat. Music by Jerome Kern. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and P.G. Wodehouse. Book by Oscar Hammerstein. 1927 Broadway.

Carousel. Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics and Book by Oscar Hammerstein. 1945 Broadway.

I didn't have time to draw a full cartoon today. I tried a couple of quick sketches and looked for a theme. I realized that these two particular shows were groundbreaking classics that I don't particularly enjoy watching today.

The Lincoln Center's 2015 concert of Showboat reminded me that it can still work if it's cast and paced well. Two well received productions of Carousel reminded me that I'll never really appreciate that story.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Some musicals eclipse their source material. Others just add songs. The Man Who Came to Dinner remains a delightful comedy while Sherry! is rightfully forgotten. In 2004 an all star cast was assembled for a studio cast album of the score. The problems were laid clear. The three act play was squished awkwardly into two acts and the generic songs never quite fit the characters. The secretary got ingenue ballads (Elizabeth Allen /Bernadette Peters), the diva got the belty numbers (Dolores Gray / Carol Burnett), but poor Sheridan Whiteside (George Sanders / Clive Revill / Nathan Lane) was stuck with dull Henry Higgins patter and a bizarre dream ballet.

A fuzzy recording remains of Dolores Gray belting the title song. Critics agreed she was the best thing in the show but she wasn't onstage long enough to carry the show.

Marc Miller's review of the recording ended with: "The deluxe presentation and drop-dead cast seem a little silly under the circumstances; you can take hamburger, dress it up with spices and fancy cheeses, flip it onto a silver platter and call it steak haché au gorgonzola, but it'll still be hamburger."