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."

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Opposite Sex

By most accounts the 2008 remake of The Women was bad. The sexual politics of 1939 did not sit well in the 21st century. The sharp banter was replaced with flat sitcom humor.

The 1956 remake of The Women isn't bad per se... merely unnecessary. The mediocre songs don't comment on the plot or characters. Adding a male cast removes a gimmick and leaves the actors nothing to do. They are just sort of there. The female cast holds there own. Joan Collins is an ideal Crystal, setting a template for future roles. Dolores Gray provides a fresh take on Sylvia, standing apart from Rosalind Russell. June Allyson gives the leading lady some spine, improving in some ways on Norma Shearer's dewy performance.

Crystal is upgraded from shop clerk to fashion model allowing for some gorgeous gowns and catwalk strutting. Allyson gets a sexy nightclub number to establish that she's no naive ingenue. Gray throws herself gamely into every scene including a brawl with Ann Miller! Sadly the film lost money, providing Gray with yet another flop.

Edit: And here's Jeanette Winterson's marvelous analysis of the 1939 film

Thursday, September 22, 2016

It's Always Fair Weather

Why hello pen and ink! It's been a while. Yes I still love you. No you aren't as easy to correct as digital art.

Betty Comden described this cynical follow up to On The Town as a study of "the corrosive nature of time on friendship." This forgotten musical flopped in 1955 but fascinates in 2016. Several of the creatives hate each other off screen as well as on and the tension is palpable.

Dolores Gray plays Madeline Bradville, the self-absorbed host of a reality television show. She's introduced with a bland ballad titled "Music is Better than Words," than vanishes. The story isn't about her. It's about the three unhappy soldiers and Gene Kelly's romance with Cyd Charisse. Then, at the last minute Dolores Gray re-appears to sing the bizarre and fascinating 11 o'clock number "Thanks a Lot but No Thanks." Any fan of musical theatre and/or camp should click the link and watch it right now. Gray complained that the role was "an ageless, sexless caricature" but she scorches the screen in this song.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Carnival in Flanders

I'm a big fan of Dolores Gray. She had the voice, the looks, and the talent to become a star. She had delightful comic timing which she could dial up to camp when required. Sadly she also had a penchant for flops. She's the highlight of several dull films and energized several flop musicals.

Dolores claims the choice to retire from show biz was hers. She left  to start a family. In an interview she said "I'd been working since I was a youngster,.. I loved show business, but it became everything to me. I wanted to have a normal life, to get married, and I waited a long time to choose the man."

Not much remains of Carnival in Flanders. Do a search on YouTube and you get a dance clip from the Ed Sullivan show and renditions of the breakout ballad "Here's That Rainy Day." There was no cast recording and there have been no Encores revivals. The show has a footnote in musical theatre books for Dolores Gray's Tony. As of 2016 she sets the record for the shortest lived show (6 performances) to win a Tony Award. It was her first leading role on Broadway.

In Kevin Madelbaum's book, Not Since Carrie, he writes "(The film) La kermesse heroique had musical possibilities, but Carnival in Flanders' flat plodding book, full of lame jokes, destroyed them. The score was considerably better, with a lot of opportunities for Gray to unfurl one of the theatre's best voices."

In 2005 Peter Filichia reported some backstage gossip from John Raitt and understudy Susan Johnson.

EDIT: Thank you to the gentlemen who pointed me towards two more songs from the score.
Lena Horne singing the opening number, Ring the Bell.
Bobby Short singing I'm One Of Your Admirers.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Gershwin series part three

Girl Crazy. Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan. 1930 Broadway

Includes the songs Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and But Not for Me.

A typical Ginger Rogers role does not believe in love at first sight. Whether you're Allen Kearns or Fred Astaire you have to earn her affection. Girl Crazy would launch the careers of Rogers and a brassy young singer named Ethel Merman. It also proved a delightful movie for a young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

I have to make a confession. I'm not a fan of the song "I Got Rhythm." I was in a highschool production of Crazy for You. "I Got Rhythm" is the act one finale and the dancey arrangement lasts about 9 minutes. It felt like 90. It's a different experience with Ethel Merman singing it. She made headlines for effortlessly sustaining the big note as the crowds went wild.

Merman's role had two other songs that I find more interesting. The menacing "Sam and Delilah" and the snarky torch song "Boy! What Love Has Done To Me!" Both were sadly cut from Crazy for You though the supporting woman in that show gets the delightful "Naughty Baby."

Pardon My English. Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Herbert Fields and Morrie Ryskind. 1933 Broadway

Pardon My English is less fondly remembered. It provided a showcase for vaudeville comic Jack Buchanan in dual roles. The songs "Isn't It a Pity?" and "The Lorelei" have had some legs and the rest of the score was heard again in a 2004 Encores Concert starring Brian d'Arcy James.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Gershwin series part two

Oh, Kay! Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. 1926 Broadway. 1927 West End.

The musical starred Gertrude Lawrence, the "first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway." The score introduced Clap 'Yo Hands, Fidgety Feet and the evergreen Someone to Watch Over Me. The bootlegger-in-disguise premise was used in the 2012 Gershwin jukebox musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Funny Face. Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Book by Paul Gerard Smith and Fred Thompson. 1927. Broadway.

The Gershwin's would feature the Astaire's again in Funny Face. Adele Astaire and her love interest introduced the song S'Wonderful. The title song would be re-purposed for Fred Astaire to sing in the unrelated 1957 film Funny Face. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Gershwin series part one

Lady be Good, Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson. 1924 Broadway. 1926 West End.

Tip Toes, Music by George Gershwin. Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson. 1925 Broadway.

George Gershwin passed away at the age of 38 from a malignant brain tumor. By that point he had composed an incredible body of music that survives till this day. His brother Ira found new collaborators but devoted his late life to compiling George's music and correspondence for the Library of Congress. He lived to the age of 86.

I was introduced to the Gershwin's through a high school production of Crazy for You (1992). The show took the premise of Girl Crazy (1930) and cherry picked from their song catalog for the score. Tommy Tune and Twiggy had starred in 1983's My One and Only which was a similar hybrid of old and new. Nice Work If You Can Get It (2012) and the stage adaptation of American in Paris (2014) would follow suit. I lined up the song list for these shows and saw they share many of the same songs. "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "But Not For Me," and "S'Wonderful," appear in three out of four.

There's a reason new books are written for the Gershwin catalog. The brother's original shows have extremely creaky librettos relying on thin romantic farces to showcase the stars. When their first shared Broadway show, Lady Be Good, was revived at Encores in 2015 the New York Times called it "a featherweight farrago of romantic contrivances that wears out its daffy appeal long before the curtain falls."

But oh those songs.

Lady Be Good included "Fascinating Rhythm" and "'The Half of It, Dearie' Blues." The song "The Man I Love" was cut. It would be cut from two more shows before becoming a standard on its own.

Tip Toes introduced "Looking for a Boy" and "Sweet and Low Down."

Thursday, September 8, 2016


"Whatever it was that hurt (Roald) Dahl so deeply, he never forgave it, and his children's stories... are driven by it." ~ Roger Ebert

Here's another tale that could have ended very differently. Matilda could have gone the way of Carrie, using her powers to destroy others and herself. Instead she makes the choice to use her powers for good.

Matilda and her mentor, Miss Honey, are both victims of abuse. They handle their situations very differently. Miss Honey has stayed with her abuser and become a self loathing neurotic. Matilda fights her fate and saves Miss Honey from hers. Deep topics for a so called "children's musical."

"Just because you find that life's not fair it
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change." 

Tim Minchin's lyrics are dense and clever. They were also left at the mercy of child actors and theatersound systems. A common complaint, particularly on the American tour, was that audiences couldn't understand the words. I've yet to hear the score of his new show, Groundhog Day. I'll be curious to learn if he slows the rhythm of his lyrics a bit so that more can be taken in on a first listen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Spring Awakening

Last month I covered several musicals that centered on youthful rebellions. This week I'll add two more to that list starting with the teen angst rock musical Spring Awakening.

Frank Wedekind's groundbreaking 1906 play follows three teens who suffer the consequences of abstinence only education. Steven Sater's 2006 libretto is faithful to the plot but not the tone. Melchior and Wendla's relationship becomes kinder while Hänschen and Ernt's relationship becomes crueler. Wedekind provides Moritz with a deus ex machina at the end. Sater's Moritz must cope with his grief alone.

Deaf West Theatre's 2014-15 revival cast the show with a mix of deaf and hearing actors. They expanded the adult cast from two to four and emphasized the communication gap between the parents and children.

Composer Duncan Sheik's score is angry and exciting in the first act. Things turn ballad heavy, with one exception, in the gloomier act two. Sheik would return to Broadway that same season with the less successful American Psycho. As a fan of the score I'm hoping another company revives it some day to a more receptive audience.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


Amour triumphed in Paris, flopped on Broadway, then vanished. The New York Times dismissed it as “ a wispy… twinkling trinket” but the cast album developed a passionate fan base.  In 2016 the rights to the English translation were finally secured by Tams Witmark for licensing.

There is a core of melancholy beneath the whimsy. Dusoleil has effaced himself to the point where he’s literally disappearing. His Doctor calls his wall walking power a disease. Isabelle is kept prisoner in her home. Her husband treats her like Rapunzel. When they find freedom they seek vengeance on their tormentors. The story could have easily flipped from superhero to supervillain narrative.

The townsfolk have survived WW2 and the memories haunt them. Dusoleil’s acts inspire his allies to break free from routine and pursue their dreams. The antagonists fear change and seek to control those around them. The libretto favors the former but reminds us that dreams have a cost.