on Adding Machine, No No Nanette!, and a Master Class with Harold Prince
By NY Theatre Buzz columnist Richard Seff
It’s difficult to believe that in his early twenties Elmer Rice wrote The Adding Machine, that the Theatre Guild produced it, that its cast included Dudley Digges, Helen Westley, Edward G. Robinson and a host of other Broadway favorites of the time, and that it ran for 3 ½ months. It must have struck a sour note during those roaring twenties, for it is a bleak and unrelenting look at the dark side of society in a period known more for its gentlemen and the blondes they preferred than to those poor folk stuck in loveless marriages and soul-stealing assembly line jobs. And what an unlikely source for a 21st century musical.
But miracle of miracles, Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith, writers, directors and sound designers in regional theatre, have co-authored Adding Machine, a smashing musical play that manages to fascinate at the same time it causes you to turn away in horror. From the opening prelude, called “In Numbers” in which office workers drone out numbers to be counted by hand by other office workers in grim, grimy, lightless and airless chambers (brilliantly designed and lit by Adinah Alexander and Keith Parham), you are stuck. As the “Spider Woman” once said: “You can run, you can hide, but you cannot escape.”
We move from the office to the bedroom of Mr. Zero, the central character and there, in bed, wide-eyed awake, he is harangued and harassed by his harridan of a wife, to be told again and again that he is “something to be proud of” as she rips him apart. She is the wife from hell, and yet, in the brave and daring performance of Cyrilla Baer, Mrs. Zero earns her place in the pantheon of major monsters, far more scathing than Regina Giddens, Eve Harrington or even Medea. Her Mrs. Zero could drive a person crazy.
Which is what she does. Mr. Zero finally bumps her off, and with his office co-worker, the long suffering Daisy who is secretly in love with him, he begins the long path to perdition. No, there is no escape for any of the luckless characters Mr. Rice created and the adapters have now fitted with shattering tunes and powerful lyrics. Scenically, the musical is arresting, and surprisingly complex for an Off-Broadway outing.
When it climaxes in a factory that refurbishes dead souls for re-use, well – things don’t get more bleak than that on stages anywhere else in town. I, who am always attracted to the positive, was very surprised that I was totally absorbed, involved, and ultimately moved by this masterful work. Joe Farrell, who plays Shrdlu (I don’t know why he is so oddly named), a character who is riddled with guilt because he killed his own mother, and Amy Warren, who plays Daisy, the secretary who is so in love with her boss, are both exciting, even thrilling in the force of their performances. And in the leading role, Joel Hatch, last seen Off-Broadway as the amiable Daddy Warbucks in Annie Warbucks, shows enormous range as he howls and wails of the misery of his life on this earth. Allowed to hit the Elysian Fields in Purgatory along with Daisy who killed herself, his and her private hell continues in ways I urge you to discover for yourself. Wow! This little musical with a cast of nine has all the power of grand opera at its best.
From virtually the same period, we have the opposite side of the coin, the sunny and cheerful perfect musical comedy. The pre-Broadway tryout of No, No Nanette (the original production in 1924) was plagued with problems. So many problems that it finally shut down for repairs. The book was tweaked again and again, songs were dropped and others added. It’s the only musical I know that had one composer (Vincent Youmans) and two lyricists who did not work together! One, Irving Caesar, wrote half the lyrics, and Otto Harbach, who was a very big name in those days, wrote the other half. Finally hitting the Globe Theatre on Broadway in September 1925, it had no right to survive. It opened the same week as Sunny starring Marilyn Miller for Ziegfeld, Rogers and Hart’s Dearest Enemy and Rudolf Friml’s The Vagabond King. Nanette had no stars, but it ran over 300 performances, and spawned six road companies, all playing at the same time.
This production at Encores!/City Center, is blessed with a cast that understands the silliness of musical comedy in its early days, and is not afraid to play it at full throttle. It all emanates from the brilliant Rob Fisher, who returns to the podium as Music Director. The moment he raises his baton on the Overture, he makes us happy. Just watching his back, we know he is having a marvelous time; as a result, so are we. In full control of his 35 piece orchestra, he manages to extract all the magic in Ralph Burns’ and Luther Henderson’s orchestrations. Combined with the Sound Designer, Scott Lehrer, who once again proves implemented sound can be exciting without distorting, the musical part of this staged reading, is a smash on its own.
The ever-young 62 year old Sandy Duncan returns to the stage after too many years to enliven the role inhabited by Ruby Keeler in the smash 1970s revival, and Duncan is adorable and in fine form as singer, comedienne, and certainly even as a high kickin’ dancer. This is her first Encores! and I hope it leads to her return to Broadway, for Broadway needs her. Her vis-à-vis in this one is Charles Kimbrough, who’s enlivened many a New York stage but is best known as Murphy Brown’s colleague in the TV sitcom. He goes deeply into character work in this one, inhabiting the role Charles Winninger played originally and Jack Gilford played in the revival. He’s delightful, and in his two numbers with his ‘ladies’, he sings and dances with aplomb and assurance.
Beth Leavel. who scored big in the title role in The Drowsy Chaperone, is out there in the best tradition of musical comedy with “Too Many Rings Around Rosie” and “You Can Dance With Any Girl”, both of them given an extra ounce of oomph that even the lovable Helen Gallagher didn’t quite come up with in the ‘70s revival. Rosie O’Donnell, who’s been known to misbehave onstage now and then, is contained and hilarious by keeping her deadpan comedy simple as Pauline, the overworked, conspiratorial maid. Her work is reminiscent of the great Patsy Kelly, whom everybody loved in the revival. Michael Berresse plays Billy Early as though he were auditioning for Pal Joey. And what a Joey he would make! Nanette and Tom are difficult to play – two dopey romantics, from another time, another century.
Mara Davi and Shonn Wiley manage somehow to make “Tea For Two” and “Waiting For You” and “I’ve Confessed to the Breeze” work like gangbusters. Randy Skinner has staged all of the numbers with great zest and affection, and everyone – the principals and the young and attractive ensemble – delivers like they know how much pleasure they are offering us. Walter Bobbie as director is back in the top form he brought to the Encores! revival of Chicago.. His Nanette will have you smiling when you’re not laughing out loud. And those melodies – I swear a tune can still bring a tear to these old eyes. There won’t be a recording of this wonderful cast, but try to dig up a CD or even an LP of the l970s revival to rediscover the delight in the score. It shouldn’t have worked – not with all the fooling around on the road, but there you are. Another show business story with a very happy ending.
On a wet Monday night I was happy to see a number of young people at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village to listen to a lecture by Hal Prince, dean of Broadway directors. Called “Master Class”, this program is directed at young playwrights and usually exposes them to the likes of Edward Albee, Alfred Uhry, Marsha Norman and A.R. Gurney among many others. In Prince’s case, an exception was made. He has been at it since the early 1960s as director, even earlier (the mid 1950s) as producer. At 19 he was apprentice to the venerable George Abbott, who started him out sharpening pencils and cleaning coffee mugs, then promoted him to third assistant stage manager. The Army claimed him for two years during the Korean conflict, then on his return, he went to the theatre where Abbott was about to open a play called In Any Language, landing at the Cort Theatre with his duffel bag even before returning to his parents’ apartment, and there on the spot he was offered his old job back, with a promotion to second assistant stage manager on the upcoming Wonderful Town.
That was Broadway back in its Golden Age; continuity, a sense of community, a place in which one could plant one’s feet and dream of a lifetime of activity. The tone of Prince’s 80 minute talk was hardly negative, but he had to admit he had great concern over the theatre’s current state, particularly when it comes to musicals. “He admitted he hadn’t thought much of musicals as a young theatre goer. “Too dopey for me. I’ve always been more interested in the story, in the book.” He advised the writers in attendance to observe and to remember. As example, he talked of visiting a crummy bar in Stuttgart in 1949 in which a dwarf was master of ceremonies of a show that included three very tall women. The dwarf had his hair slicked back, wore lipstick and mascara on his lashes. He never forgot the image, and 15 years later it was the key that solved the mystery of how to musicalize I Am a Camera and turn it into Cabaret.
He was concerned that the current crop of musical theatre writers wrote with “no craft, no commitment, no passion.” He was referring to the pop, rock and rap writers who drop in on Broadway as some fun thing to do between recording or concert sessions, and the audiences who sometimes welcome them, thus turning theatre into something temporarily appealing to tweens and teens. There’s not a lot of room left for innovation, wit, insight, melody, surprise, structure, craft. It’s been replaced by spectacle, crudeness, amplification to the point of distortion, actors who rarely play eight times a week, missing shows for reasons ranging from ‘outside personal obligations’ to ‘other engagements’, or total exhaustion due to livin’ it up between shows. The microphone tucked into their hair, with the batteries tucked into their underwear, with the wires trickling down their backs like some hideous skindisease, has made it possible for all sorts of ‘singers’ to appear in musicals, easily replaced by others of equally generic quality, so producers needn’t promote or even announce cast changes. Does anyone have a clue who is starring in The Phantom of the Opera or Wicked or Mamma, Mia or The Lion King? Mr. Prince lamented the loss of the days when writers were “allowed to fail” (as Bock and Harnick, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb and others did in their early outings). His own directorial career progressed from the unsuccessful A Family Affair (on which he did repair work only), to the charming but uncommercial She Loves Me to the smash Cabaret, which firmly established him.
Hal Prince has great personal charm, and has always treated his colleagues with respect and courtesy. One young woman playwright in the audience thanked him for responding to material she’d sent him, unsolicited, in record time, and told him how much that kind of consideration meant to her as she started out as a writer. At 80, he is still discovering himself and the world around him. Currently preparing a musical based on the novel Paradise Found, he is working with lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, librettist Richard Nelson and choreographer Susan Stroman, all considerably younger than he. The composer is none other than Johann Strauss II! Mr. Abbott taught him to surround himself with young talent, as he himself always did. The combination of age and experience with youth and fervor brings to the precarious art of collaboration a sense of balance. When Prince was young he produced shows created by or starring heavyweights like Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, Gwen Verdon, Hugh Wheeler, Zero Mostel, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins. As his directing prowess grew, he teamed up with young Ron Field, Michael Bennett, Joel Grey, Larry Grossman, Larry Fuller and the new crop of composer/lyricists which included Kander and Ebb.
He’s had his share of flops, but he’s managed to win 21 Tony Awards in his long career, and it was a privilege to hear him talk to us the other night. The 80 minutes flew by; we would have enjoyed an intermission and another hour. But the one act prevailed, and off we went into the damp evening, refreshed and restored. I happened to leave the theatre with the playwright who’d thanked him for his courtesy, and she went on and on about the power of that kind of professionalism, about its inspiration to a new generation. One can only hope a new crop of producer/directors is coming over the horizon in the tradition of this towering icon. But I’m not counting on it.
- 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:
- Interviews with and about John Kander, With Complete Kander
- Richard Seff: A Lifetime on Broadway Click here