The York Theatre Company, an attractive beehive producing unit, is buried two levels below the ground in the Citicorp Building on East 54th Street just off Lexington Avenue. In addition to mounting new musicals, doing readings and workshops, it sponsors a program called “Musicals In Mufti” (“mufti” is an army term which means ‘out of uniform’) each season offering four or five new looks at old favorites and on occasion, (this is one of them) it also gives space to a new musical that had somehow been overlooked, even though its pedigree was the finest.
This year, taking a page from the Signature Theatre across town, it is devoting its entire season of five shows to the work of one of Broadway’s Masters, the lyricist Sheldon Harnick, whose work in the past (mostly with composer Jerry Bock) has won him a shelf full of awards and a place in the pantheon of Golden Age musical theatre writers. With Bock composing, he wrote the lyrics to Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, Fiorello!, Tenderloin, The Apple Tree and The Rothschilds.
The collaboration began with a flop – The Body Beautiful. It’s interesting that the first crack at Broadway often serves as a musical writer’s course in what works and what doesn’t. John Kander’s first was A Family Affair, and his first with lifelong collaborator Fred Ebb was Flora, The Red Menace. Jerry Herman entered professional theatre as composer/lyricist of Parade and I Feel Wonderful, both of which showed promise, but they didn’t last long. Frank Loesser’s attempt to cross over from pop songs (good ones, too, but not useful in musicals) gave us Where’s Charley? but the great success of that one was due mainly to the appeal of its star Ray Bolger for his ability to turn the simple tune, “Once In Love With Amy” into almost the entire second act.
Stephen Sondheim’s first show (Saturday Night) foundered on its way to the stage, lumbered by the death of its producer, but years later when it was finally mounted, it proved to be little more than an interesting footnote to the major work that was to follow. And Lerner and Loewe stumbled with their first two, What’s Up? and The Day Before Spring. When the talent is there, it takes just a short kindergarten class to teach the rules, and then back they all come to make musical theatre history.
In the case of the gifted Sheldon Harnick, he is a trained musician (he holds a music degree from Northwestern University) who began his career writing words and music. His charming revue material including “The Boston Beguine’ and “Merry Little Minuet” greatly enlivened the musicals in which they lived, and his own music for the clever words was charming. But he found he was more interested in ideas than tunes and once he connected with Jerry Bock, he was happy to stick to the words that expressed his characters.
James Morgan, the jocular artistic director of the York, has built on the legacy of his mentor and friend Janet Hayes Walker, from whom he inherited the role of leader when she passed away in 1997. In giving Harnick an entire season he is giving us all an opportunity to revel in the range of a man who, at 89, is very much in command of his gifted mind. The season began with a medley of his very varied songs in a show called A World To Win. It’s Mufti policy not to permit reviews of their offerings, for they only rehearse for a week, play only five performances of each one, and are staged on a minimum budget. Actors carry scripts with them, and wear their own street clothes, with the occasional hat, scarf, glove or musical instrument to suggest period or to make a particular point. So this column will not attempt to review the various evenings. But I can assure you that if you have interest in the musical theatre, you will be in for a treat, if you take a chance on any one of them, or the three that remain to be seen.
I saw the second offering, which was a slight departure, for it was Dragons, a musical to which Mr. Harnick wrote book, music and lyrics, basing it on a Russian play by Yevgeny Schwartz. It was produced during World War II and took a thinly disguised poke at Joseph Stalin. Schwartz tried to convince everyone it was intended to satirize Hitler, but the Stalin regime didn’t buy it. As a result it played only one performance and then was shelved. It never saw a Russian stage again until 1962. But Harnick had it translated and created his own musical which seems as relevant today as it did in the early 1980s when he completed the first of about a million drafts. It’s had a number of workshops around the country, but it’s never been seen in New York. Leave it to James Morgan and the York’s Musicals in Mufti to bring it to life.
The rest of this season’s Mufti Musicals will be Tenderloin, Smiling, the Boy Fell Dead (a spoof on the Horatio Alger tales), and Malpractice Makes Perfect, (a riff on Molière’s The Doctor In Spite of Himself). Whether or not these are perfect musicals, you can count on their all having remarkably first class singers, actors and dancers to populate them. It’s always a pleasure to be introduced to gifted performers having an opportunity to stretch themselves as they entertain us, as they occupy themselves usefully between hopefully more lucrative and long running engagements. You can rely on the York, and its Musicals in Mufti to supply all that. They will be on until March 9th, and there are three of them left between February 14 and March 9, 2014.
The York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufi series, 619 Lexington Ave. (Entrance on 54th St.) New York, NY 10022
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.