Shakespeare on Broadway, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Shakespeare on Broadway

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I have lost count of how many operas are based on the plays of Shakespeare. I am also losing count of the Broadway shows that try to translate the plays, mostly the comedies, into contemporary terms. One of the most successful is the one I will start with.

Back in the late 1940s, Cole Porter was in deep trouble. His last few wartime musicals did not do very well while two others were outright disasters, and he was having the devil’s own time raising money for this next show. But the money came his way, and the show opened on December 30, 1948, the first of 1,077 performances; and it went on to garnish awards for best musical, best composer, best libretto (by Bella and Samuel Spewack), best producers, best scenic and costume designs, and even best leading man (Alfred Drake). The source: “The Taming of the Shrew.” The title: “Kiss Me Kate.”

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Tamer taming the tamee by turning their honeymoon meal into a nightmare

The critics went wild. Of the 9 major papers, 8 gave it raves while the other was merely very favorable. The Times called it a miracle and compared the score surprisingly with Puccini! The Post called it “a smash hit of epic proportions.” Everything worked right. Even Patricia Morrison, whose voice was predicted not to go further than the third row, was marvelous. And this was on Broadway, where Shakespeare was considered box office poison. The Spewacks were very careful to give the audience two plots, each mirroring the other: Petrucchio:Kate = Fred:Lilly. Not all that original, but very well handled.

This is one of those musicals in which the dialogue is as good as the lyrics. However, audiences went to musicals to hear songs (not to look at computer-driven stage effects as they do today); and great songs were what they got. Those sung as part of the framing plot include  “Too Darn Hot,” “True to You in my Fashion,” “Were Thine That Special Face,” “Wunderbar,” “Another Op’nin’Another Show,” and the very Gilbertian-trick-rhyme song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,”  which have been heard so often out of context. What is really unusual is that even the  songs from the play within the play are just as good: “We Open in Venice,” “I Hate Men,” “Were Thine That Special Face.”

51icpKKNZoL._AA160_Actually, Shakespeare did very well for himself earlier, in 1938, when Larry Hart wanted to write a part for his brother Teddy who looked so much like comedian Jimmy Savo that he could never get a role. Well, since they looked so much alike, Larry went to “The Comedy of Errors,” which involves two sets of twins, one of which is a pair of comic servants. Not surprisingly, Savo was cast as one twin and Teddy fell neatly into place. The result was “The Boys from Syracuse.”

It only ran for 235 performances–remember, the Depression was still with us–and is very seldom performed. Even the 1940 film with Alan Jones seems to have disappeared; and I dearly wish some television station would restore the it and some local group revive the show. There are at least three complete CD recordings of the score, and its absence from the stage is a genuine loss for us all.

Consider the two songs that became hits, “Falling in Love With Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.” Among the less familiar numbers are “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” “Sing for Your Supper,” and “What Can You Do with a Man?” Finally, there is a comic duet titled “He and She” that should bring down the house.

Unlike “Kiss Me Kate,” the plot more or less sticks to the Shakespeare original but makes no attempt at period-sounding music. On the other hand, who knows what music sounded like in ancient Ephesus?

In 1981, something called “Oh, Brother!” also used “Comedy of Errors” as the basis for a musical, but it closed in two days. You see, the creators decided to reset the story in the Persian Gulf in modern times. Ken Mandelbaum in his fabulous history of Broadway flops, “Not Since Carrie” (St. Martin’s Press, 1991), declares it deserved better. It suffered mainly from a small cast with too many lead roles in a single set. He suggests that with singers like Judy Kaye in the cast, they should have revived “The Boys from Syracuse.” In fact, there was a revival in 1963 that ran longer than did the original.

Now these are two very successful adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. I’ll bet anyone could name the blockbuster adaptation that outran even “Kiss Me Kate,” but very few could discuss a 1938 musical based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and other flashes in the Broadway pan. Some of them will be discussed in the next issue.

Putting on a Musical, 1

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Putting on a Musical

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Choosing the Musical

There is nothing more guaranteed to cause sleepless nights and a general feeling of “Why am I doing this?” than deciding to produce a musical with local talent for a local audience. It is even worse when you have to do this every year as a function of the Lodge or Club or Whatever of which you are a member in charge of annual or twice-a-year musicals.

No matter what problems will arise later – and they will, they will! – your first task is to choose the musical. And right off the bat, no matter what you suggest, at least half of those concerned will not like it. But where does one even begin to prepare a preliminary list of possibles?

Take a charming musical like “I Do, I Do.” Well, that’s impossible for starters since there are only two characters in the cast. On the other hand, “Les Miserables” calls for a massive cast and stage technology that is most likely impossible in the high school auditorium or church basement that are the only likely venues in most small towns – or even in large ones, since larger spaces are usually too expensive to rent.

So you must find a play that can be mounted, has at least four or five lead characters, plenty of smaller roles, and those should include some non-singing roles for locals who never get into musicals because they simply cannot sing.

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Complete recording

Look at “The Boys from Syracuse” by Rodgers and Hart or “Girl Crazy” by George and Ira Gershwin. Fabulous tunes, just the right size casts. So why are they seldom done? “Name recognition”! Unless most of the potential ticket buyers immediately recognize the name and already know half of the songs, they will not line up at the box office. And that is why, alas, we have organizations doing “Oklahoma!” and “The King and I” and “Hello, Dolly” in endless cycles. That last one especially has one memorable song, the title one, but it is the title that draws them in.

“The Sound of Music” (really a poor score that sounds like a good one) and “The Music Man” (a great score that sounds like a great one) are frequent choices because they get local kids on stage. And each single kid translates into tickets for two parents, four grandparents, neighbors without kids of their own in the cast, teachers who have or have had that kid in class, and heaven knows who else that has been emotionally blackmailed into attending.

In fact, I saw a local “My Fair Lady” in which a nun kept leading the same line of youngsters up and down every time there was a street scene. (Thank goodness they did not insert a song for them!) When children were introduced into the Big Production scene in “Mame,” their presence at least made some dramatic sense. Who can argue with Cute?

I really wish Congress would pass an Audience Act to protect it from the usual musicals for (say) a decade, so they would seem a little fresh when allowed to be revived once again. Sitting through yet another “South Pacific” anticipating every word before it is sung was a recent painful experience for me – although the rest of the audience seemed to love it. One problem with this play, for example, is that the “Honey Bun” shtick is done so often at “talent shows” with some local clown dressed up in the hula outfit that it is nothing special when it shows up in the full show.  And that goes Ditto for the “Gimmick” number in “Gypsy.”

“But Frank,” I was once told by a theatre veteran one-third my age, “art has nothing to do with it.” More often than not, these musicals are mounted for a charity and as good as “Girl Crazy” might be (and it is marvelous!), it might leave 10 empty seats and therefore will not be done.

“Man of La Mancha” might be a good bet if you omit or whitewash the rape scene and if you can find a charismatic enough lead. “Of Thee I Sing,” for example, would be a welcome and timely delight – if you could convince the rest of your committee to at least hear the recordings that are readily available on CDs. And so on.

And one important consideration is the increasing cost of royalties. This alone might preclude a very popular musical from your list of choices.

But even if you find the perfect musical, you have to surmount the next problem. Can you find a director who is ready to take it on?

So in our next section, let us consider this delicate problem of Finding a Director.

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

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Two of the four twins in “The Boys from Syracuse”

A Plea to Local Theatre Groups: Take a Chance!

How many times have you sat with a fixed smile through a local production of “Oklahoma!” or “West Side Story,” all the while knowing every word of the lyrics and most of the dialogue because the high school did it just a year ago and the film version has been on AMC or TCM a dozen times in the past few years? But you have come not so much to enjoy the production as to witness the performances. After all, your daughter will show up for a second in a crowd scene or your dentist will soliloquize about “My Boy Bill” or–worse still–your wife will play the female lead’s best friend and you have been running lines with her for the past three months.

How much more, you think, you would enjoy a good production of “Pal Joey” or “Girl Crazy” or even any Cole Porter play other than “Anything Goes” or “Kiss Me Kate.” Where I live and back in 2001 when I first wrote this essay, the Lions Club is getting under weigh for the year’s Big Show: “Hello Dolly.” At the same time, a town 15 miles eastward is working on “Guys & Dolls.” Last year it was a “My Fair Lady” in which all the local talent did its best, some with “Cockney” accents that were totally unintelligible and almost none with any feeling for the Shavian dialogue.

Every year I make a pest of myself advocating a Rodgers and Hart instead of a Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Babes in Arms” is loaded with hits, “The Boys From Syracuse” has somewhat fewer “big numbers” (e.g. “This Can’t Be Love”) but a far better “book” cribbed from Shakespeare, and “Pal Joey” has several great tunes and characters who actually interest us. So why “The Sound of Music” yet again or “Fiddler on the Roof”? The answer is blatantly clear: Box Office.

A summer stock company in Vermont puts out a questionnaire each year, asking for requests for the upcoming season. Well, you should easily guess what titles show up year after year. Is it that people are just comfortable with the same old musicals? Is it that they simply do not know of the existence of other musicals–or they know them by title but know nothing about the quality of the scores or lyrics? I cannot second-guess what is in their minds. I give courses in Broadway History, so I have more of a pool from which to make my selections. And yet….

From the point of view of the group putting on the production, alas, the bottom line cannot be artistic, it must be financial. The best performed “Pardon My English” (a once recorded, never to my knowledge performed musical by the Gershwin brothers) that plays to empty houses must be considered less desirable than a very mediocre “Carousel” that packs them in. This is an unfortunate fact of theatrical life, but there we are.

Now I do not mean to imply that yet another “South Pacific” that is well done is to be despised. There are reasons for repeating the Top Ten or Twelve over and over. One of them is audience expectation. They know the music and words ahead of time. There is always that thrill of recognition when “Nothing Like a Dame” strikes up. But what about the thrill of discovery when an audience hears, possibly for the first time, the extremely clever lyrics to “Way Out West on West End Avenue” from “Babes in Arms” or the wonderful Gilbert & Sullivanish chorus of Supreme Court Judges in the second act of “Of Thee I Sing”?

My local Lions Club once had a bad box office experience with “Pippin” and has been paralyzed into a conservative mode ever since. It so happens that “Pippin” has very little music worth hearing, its chief merit lying in the choreography of Bob Fosse and the sexy costumes of the warrior-women. But what if they had chosen, say, “Babes in Arms”?

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Rodgers seated, Hart standing, both outstanding

Okay, there we have the quintessential “Let’s put on a show, gang” plot that would call for a lot of local youthful talent and songs that almost anyone who can carry a tune can put over with a bang: “Where or When,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Johnny One Note,” “The Lady is a Tramp.”  And the less-familiar numbers are almost as good as those standards.  Or try Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy,” unfortunately undermined for a long time by the adaptation called “Crazy For You.” Here we have “Bidin’ My Time,” “Could You Use Me?” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not for Me.”

Hey, these are the great bubble-headed musicals of the 20s and 30s when you went to a musical to hear music, not to see a ship hit an iceberg, a chandelier fall, or some cat apotheosized on a floating tire! I firmly believe it is the duty of these community groups to bring to their audiences the best of the old with a fresh approach–but without camping them up or otherwise patronizing the product.

One word of warning to anyone I have actually convinced. The publishers of “Babes in Arms” have had the book rewritten for some inexplicable reason. All the songs are still in place and there is still a group of youngsters who want to put on a show, but the motivations are all different. Be sure to say so in your playbills, please, lest the audience get a misconception of what Rodgers and Hart had in mind.