Before the Tony race starts up in earnest for this year, lets take a look at one show from last year’s race that nearly got away.
The People In The Picture was a klezmer-infused musical of the struggle of Jews in a Yiddish theater troupe to survive in Warsaw during the holocaust. It only ran for two and a half months – and that’s including the three weeks of previews before opening night. It closed without having had an original Broadway cast album recorded.
Bruce Kimmel’s Kritzerland label came to the rescue. A week after the closing, the cast of 24 and orchestra of 12 went in to the Avatar Studios just around the block from Studio 54 where the stage hands of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local Number One were striking the set.
They recorded the 22 musical numbers in the score, most of which featured music by Mike Stoller, the surviving half of the song-writing team Broadway remembers best for the flood of hits assembled by Jerry Zaks in Smokey Joe’s Cafe. (The other half of that team, Jerry Leiber, died last August.)
Stoller composed the music for 12 of the songs in this score and collaborated with Artie Butler on two more. Butler makes his composing debut on Broadway with the four songs he wrote for this show.
The music doesn’t feel disjointed, as is so often the case for a score with different composers working different songs. Instead, there is one overall aesthetic, even though the songs cover a range of emotions from bitter sorrow to sweet affection. Part of the reason for the unified feeling is the use of klezmer styles throughout. (If you aren’t familiar with the style, just think of the bottle dance in Fiddler on the Roof‘s wedding scene and you’ll know all you need to know.)
Butler’s four songs are the most klezmerish, but with “Saying Goodbye” he shows a tender side, and the reprise of “Remember Who You Are” presents the sentimental side of a melody originally delivered in a comedy setting.
Conversely, Stoller’s dozen, not surprisingly, includes more pop-like numbers such as “Hollywood Girls” which is easy to believe comes from the pen of the man who gave Elvis “Hound Dog,” but he composed the most affecting tender musical moment in the score, “Selective Memory.”
Another reason the score has a consistency of sound is the work of orchestrator Michael Starobin who may well have had only 12 players for the orchestra in the theater, but who wrote charts that had them playing 29 different instruments. Producer Steven Epstein gave him more resources for the recording. While the orchestra in the theater had but two string players (a violin and a cello) a string section of 14 was brought in to enrich the sound at selected moments.
One of the recurring themes in the reviews of the show when it opened was the opinion that the lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart were weak. The New York Post’s blogger Elizabeth Vincentelli said “Dart’s lyrics are clumsy, at best.” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney said “The rhymes in Dart’s lyrics are often so shamelessly hoary that you laugh and wince at the same time.” Online critic Chris Caggiano liked most things about the show “except the book and the lyrics” (saying “Yeah, that’s a fairly major liability”) and Steven Suskin, about whom I have written encomiums before, finds the book and lyrics to be the show’s problem, writing in Variety that the “the die is cast in Dart’s very first lyric, which rhymes ‘skittish’ with ‘Yiddish.”
These are people whose opinions I have come to respect, but each only heard the lyrics once and then in the context of the show for which they were written. Upon repeated listening with the text before me, I found the aspects of the lyrics which seem to have annoyed critics in the theater to be a strength of the score on the recording. The booklet includes the lyrics and I found myself underlining particularly funny or clever turns of phrase or effective images again and again.
True to the traditions of Yiddish Theater with its broad brush for every stroke, you find lines like “Hollywood girls are glamorous / They’re gorgeous and very mammarous,” Jewish-specific gags like “They call us Jewish Hams / But that’s an oxymoron” and flippantries like the idea that in Hollywood not only will they change an actor’s name, they may die his hair and “re-install his foreskin.”
They aren’t all shticky comic one liners, however. There’s a lively little ditty that goes “Laughter’s exquisite / So don’t repress it / You feel a giggle bubble up / Go on, express it.” A marriage of convenience between a heterosexual and a homosexual stimulates this: “Man plans and God laughs / My mother used to say, and it’s true / When man schemes, God chuckles / He must be quite amused by me and you.” The yiddish theater troupe sings “Because we live on bread and theater / Body and spirit must be fed / Without our bread we’d just be hungry / But without theater we’d be dead.” That’s pretty heavy stuff.
The show never did find its audience, with attendance hovering below 60% most weeks. Perhaps awards would have stimulated interest, but nominations were few and there were no wins. The Tony Awards hadn’t been a great help to the show. There was only one nomination and no win. That nomination was for the show’s star, the incredibly talented Donna Murphy who has had multiple roles of a lifetime (Fosca in Passion, Miss Anna in the 1996 revival of The King and I, Ruth Sherwood in the 2003 revival of Wonderful Town, Lotte Lenya in the Kurt Weill bio-musical Lovemusik).
Murphy may not list the dual role she played in this short lived production as “roles of a lifetime” but she garnered kudos from practically every reviewer who wrote about the show and the evidence on this disc is that she succeeded in creating two separate and interesting personas. She played both the grandmotherly “Bubbie,” who acts as the narrator for the show which tells its story in flashback from New York of 1977, and her younger self in the flashbacks to Warsaw between 1935 and 1946.
The rest of the cast includes well respected Broadway vets like Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Lewis J. Stadlen, Chip Zien and Joyce Van Patten, all of whom come across on disc as distinct but fairly standard characters.
Rachel Resheff stands out as the ten year old granddaughter of Murphy’s “Bubbie” to whom the story is being told. Resheff has had a good deal of experience as a youngster on Broadway, having been “Jane Banks” in Mary Poppins and Young Fiona in Shrek.
All in all, The People in the Picture is a pleasant listen that rewards a second or third visit, but is not likely to find its way into your frequent listening list. Amazon seems not to have it in stock at the moment, but you can order it directly from the label on their website, kritzerland.com.