The 100th Musical in Mufti is about to open at the York Theatre, which is a gem of a small space buried under St. Peter’s Church on 54th Street and Lexington Avenue. This very useful series, which was started in 1994 under the aegis of its genial artistic director James Morgan, has now offered us 20 years of musical gems of varying sparkle but consistent interest to all who are curious about the past, present and future of the truly American contribution to culture, the musical theatre.
That’s a sort of long winded introduction to this piece, which is all about the current season, which opened October 11th with Big, the Musical. The current offering, an adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel “How Green Was My Valley”, is A Time For Singing, a product of the 1966-67 season on Broadway. On November 8 it will be followed by Mufti Musical #100, a new look at Stephen Sondheim’s first show, Saturday Night, which almost introduced us to its author back in 1954, and would have, had its producer Lemuel Ayres not died while preparing it.
That ’54 production, for which wunderkind Sondheim wrote music and lyrics, never happened and it’s only been seen once, off Broadway in 2000, and will undoubtedly prove that the young genius Sondheim was fully formed when he first put pen to paper. The season will end December 5-7 with a return of My Favorite Year, an early effort of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty that managed only some 75 performances including previews when it premiered on Broadway in 1982. They have been tweaking the show ever since, and it should be interesting to see what they’ve come up with when it arrives on December 5 as the Mufti finale for this season.
Should you not know, “mufti” is an Indian word used by the British army that means “out of uniform”, for these York Theatre staged concert performances are staged and choreographed with simply suggested costuming and with only the barest lighting, makeup, props and scenery. They rehearse only for a week, and scripts are carried, though by the final performances they are rarely much referred to. The ’94 opening season presented The Grass Harp, A Doll’s Life and Oh, Brother! three big Broadway flops in which musical theatre aficionados were sufficiently interested to inspire twenty more years of fascinating evenings at very reasonable ticket prices. It’s always fun to attend, for everyone out front is predisposed to having a fine time; as a result just about everyone does.
While I enjoyed A Time For Singing, in which veteran Mufti director Michael Montel managed to keep the focus sharp on this tale of a large family in a Welsh coal mining town circa 1900, it does become clear why it could not attract a large audience in 1982.
Following in the footsteps of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution in the ’40s and ’50s, and the later successes of Lerner and Loewe, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and other giants, much of its ambitious score is derivative. “Come You Men”, which opens the show, is not. If anything, it’s innovative but must have been somewhat alarming as a vast chorus of Welsh miners set the scene with the sort of anthem that was later used by the wall-to-wall musical opening of Les Misérables. But much of it seems to come from elsewhere. The score is still quite an accomplishment for John Morris, who left the theatre and went off to work for Mel Brooks as composer of at least nine films as well as others and TV films as well. I can only assume that he wasn’t pleased with the reception he received from the press for this, his first and last theatre project. There is much to indicate we might well have lost an important theatre composer.
The stolid minister Mr. Griffith (the endearing Walter Pidgeon in the film, here played with unyielding fervor and a powerful baritone voice by Glen Seven Allen) has earnest soliloquies (“Someone Must Try” and “Mountains Sing Back”) and the company has “He Will Guide Us” which is a throwback to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Climb Every Mountain.” There are some lovely ballads for Angharad and Analisa Leaming knows just how to sing them. She makes her York Theatre debut in the role and she is most welcome. There is much poetry in the lyrics, trying to capture the sound of Llewelyn’s words in the novel, but as uttered by onstage characters and American actors pretty much abandoning any attempt to sound truly Welsh, “There Is Beautiful You Are” and “Far From Home” sound a bit artsy.
“A Time For Singing” (the song) tries hard to lighten things up for the first act curtain, and it does give the townspeople a reason to smile for a change (if only for a moment), but it’s just too close to “It’s a Grand Night For Singing” (Richard Rodgers) and “Can’t Help Singing” (Jerome Kern) to bring us to our feet.
Of course, from the Mufti point of view, none of this matters. The evening still provides the student of musical theatre, or the plain fan of the genre, an opportunity to spend an evening with a group of talented professionals who are giving their all to illuminate the work of a team of proven artists who may or may not have been off their mark with this particular musical.
Any writers of quality must be grateful to the York and to the Mufti project through the years that has given them a second look at one of their earlier works; or to witness the improvements they’ve made since the shows were first produced. I’ve always found the musicals and the audiences that support them to be stimulating and well worth a visit, even if I’ve seen one or more revivals of them in the past.
A Time for Singing closes Nov 2: The Musicals in Mufti season continues with their 100th show, Saturday Night, Nov 8 – 16, and closes with My Favorite Year, December 5 – 7, 2014. York Theatre, 619 Lexington Ave. (Entrance on 54th St.), NYC.
Details and tickets