by New York theatre pundit Richard Seff*.
A new year has begun. But theatre folk have never lived by the calendar – no, it’s The Season that counts. It begins June 1st and ends here in NY May 31st each year. So all of us theatre aficionados are right in the middle of the current season, the first half of which was full of surprises.
Musicals, which had been dominating the field on Broadway for years, were in sad supply. Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN did not cut the mustard, and though it’s doing big business from those who think they’re in for a live tune-filled version of the movie, that crowd will be used up before summer and wait and see. This one will go down in the minus column when it comes to toting up profit. Master Brooks hasn’t exactly lost his touch — his musical is filled with behind-the-barn humor, his song titles are naughty and not so nice (“Deep Love”, “A Roll In The Hay”, “The Brain”) his lyrics are once again amusing and/or adolescently smutty), his melodies remain hummable and totally forgettable – his book (with Thomas Meehan) is well constructed and plotted.
But this time he’s allowed the Sound Designer to destroy all. From the first scream of the overture through the opening number in which the Chorus sings of their “happiest town” and its most famous resident, “Dr. Fronkenshtein”, we are blasted out of our seats by unconscionable electronic sound. And that’s only the first two numbers. From then on, all the ladies in the musical, in their upper registers, sound tinny and unpleasant. The men come off somewhat better with their lower timbre. The ensemble knocks itself out singing full blast and jumping about a lot, but the over-amplification makes their lyrics totally unintelligible. To hear those Brooks lyrics, and some are good, you must go to the CD, where the engineers in charge seem better able to handle a microphone.
The show is blessed with top notch featured players, any one of which could carry an entire musical. Each gets to step up to the plate once or twice, and each takes a piece of ordinary material and bats it out of the park. The only song worth remembering is “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and we all know Mr. Brooks didn’t write that one. Susan Strohman, always adept at keeping her dancers moving, has done her best – and this one number is great fun – but it’s rough to create real excitement when what you’re singing and dancing about is pretty senseless. The bus and tunnel crowd seemed very happy at the performance I attended, and they’re keeping the grosses up in these early months of the run.
But we who love musical theatre must fight back, must let producers and composers know that theatre is live, not a rock concert, not a disco, not a cabaret. Most of the current theatres have been functioning since the 1920s, and musicals reached us from their stages year after year without amplification of any kind. All right, if small amplification makes it easier to catch everything, fine. We are told “the audience expects it.” Well, let’s give the audience a chance to thrill to the live voices that come from throats, not from speakers above the proscenium. If we don’t do something about it soon, there will be no musical theatre left, for the old folks will die off, and the teens and tweens who are screaming nightly at WICKED and LEGALLY BLONDE will have grown up and started to hate the sound too. The next generation? They will be too into their IPODs and cell phones to give a fig about musical theatre, unless we start offering them decent fare NOW.
There was a sprite of a small musical on at Lincoln center called THE GLORIOUS ONES, but it had a limited run, and will be gone by January 6th. Composed by the dependable Lynn Aarons and Stephen Flaherty, it offered a funny central role to the ubiquitous Mark Kudisch and employed a cast of only seven very talented principals, but under Graciele Daniele’s inspired staging, it zipped along nicely and proved a delightful soufflé of a musical.
The only other new musical that I saw wasn’t new at all – but was a partially staged reading of ENTER LAUGHING, a flop (under another name: SO LONG, 174TH STREET) from the seventies, remounted at “Musicals In Mufti” at the York Theatre. It served to remind us that the Joseph Stein – Stan Daniels musical based on a novel by Carl Reiner and the hit play by Joseph Stein, was unlucky in its initial production on Broadway which starred a very miscast Robert Morse. This intimate showcase (4 performances only) offered a brilliant performance by Josh Grisetti in the central role. To me, Grisetti’s star turn matched the surprise and wonder of seeing Robert Preston in THE MUSIC MAN, Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY, Tommy Steele in HALF A SIXPENCE, Bernadette Peters in LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE, Chita Rivera in SHOESTRING REVUE. It was thrilling to watch a young performer, whose credits were almost all regional, take the stage as though he owned it. Partly young Ray Bolger, partly romantic lead, very much his own persona, I predict big things for this young man.
I hope a musical writing team caught this show, and is even now starting to write something to fit young Mr. Grisetti, for he’s not the most castable actor in town, with his odd, appealing, distinctive features. I represented Chita Rivera during my twenty agency years, and she was another brilliant talent who was not easy to cast, who needed writers creating roles for her, as did Kander and Ebb and others. Jill Eikenberry’s turn as a quintessential Jewish Mother, a role less imaginative producers would not have offered her, was another delightful surprise in ENTER LAUGHING. All in all, a very appealing evening in the tradition of the musical comedies of another era.
But that’s it. Two musicals and one staged reading by year’s end. But, wait! After many barren seasons, the Play Department came through with a plethora of rich fare, enough to satisfy the most demanding. And the daunting trend of ninety minute one act plays, with three or four characters, was suddenly reversed. If you’re an old timer like me, you could almost believe you were back in the days of Kaufman & Hart, Lawrence and Lee, Thornton Wilder, Chodorov and Fields, and Kaufman & Everybody Else; you know – three act comedies and dramas that involved dozens of characters, tons of story. Here we are at mid-season and we’ve had AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION, IS HE DEAD?, CYMBELINE, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, Off Broadway’s DIVIDING THE ESTATE, HAMLET and THE CONSTANT COUPLE, all with companies of twenty or so. And smaller casts with large themes like THE SEAFARER, THE RECEPTIONIST, THE PIANO TEACHER, THE HOMECOMING, ROCK ‘N ROLL, PETER AND JERRY and NOVEMBER, some of which were actually written by Americans! – and we’re only at the half way mark. A rich cornucopia, wouldn’t you agree? Playwrights are writing Plays again, they are doing big business, and there is reason to hope that the Fabulous Invalid has found the right prescription for recovery.
In the months ahead, I hope to share with you my thoughts on the rest of the season, and to comment more fully on some of the above productions – for there were performances worth discussing, and writers worth paying attention to. I’ve only played Washington three times – once half a century ago in the road tour of Sidney Kingsley’s DARKNESS AT NOON, once in the l990s at the Kennedy Center in the tryout of Arthur Kopit’s END OF THE WORLD, and once in the late l970s, this time as librettist of an ill-fated musical called SPOTLIGHT which played briefly at the National. But I’ve seen much theatre in your area, and I’ve always found audiences there to be bright, curious, caring and responsive. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to have been invited to share my days and nights of New York theatre with you. Onward!
*Richard Seff is author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage
celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes,
available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
DCTS Podcasts featuring Richard Seff: