The winter winds have just begun to blow, yet spring has arrived at the City Center on West 55th Street, where The Band Wagon is making a lot of people happy. Unfortunately, this version will only play through Sunday, with two final performances on November 16th. If you want to get a glimpse of what Broadway was in the 1950s, at the height of its Golden Age, I recommend you make the effort to catch it before it fades away.
Of course, some wise producer may follow in the path of Barry and Fran Weissler, who saw the Encores! production of Chicago and scooped up the rights so they could move it to Broadway, where it’s celebrating its 18th birthday tomorrow. The Band Wagon is the first Encores! production which I’ve seen since which I feel deserves that kind of exposure. No one is more surprised than I for it didn’t sound like a good idea.
This stage version has borrowed its title and a couple of songs from a revue that brightened Broadway in 1931 for some 260 performances. That Broadway show had a score by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, and “book by” by Howard Dietz and George S. Kaufman. Dietz was head of publicity for MGM studios, Schwartz was an attorney and they wrote songs when their day jobs permitted. As a result they weren’t glorified as were so many of their contemporaries like Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and Irving Berlin. Kaufman was a famous wag and playwright of the day.
There was no “book” per se; there were sketches that featured the two stars, Fred and Adele Astaire, as well as Helen Broderick and Frank Morgan. Movie rights for the material and its title were sold to MGM, but it took until 1953 to get it on the screen, and then only the title and a couple of songs were used. The script was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green who were hot at MGM because they’d scripted a big hit for the studio in 1952 — the classic “Singin’ in the Rain”.
They came up with a fresh tale of a Hollywood hoofer who was past his prime, and cast Fred Astaire who was still very much in his own prime. The character they fashioned for him was one Tony Hunter and they had him slipping back to Broadway in search of a stage show which could return him to prominence. One thinks of what Wonderful Town did for Rosalind Russell, and how Mame put power back into Angela Lansbury’s film career, what The Music Man did to up Robert Preston from a second tier film player to a top star on Broadway.
Comden and Green chose other colorful theatrical types including Lester and Lily Martin, very clearly based on their own lives, shifting things around just enough to avoid too much comment on that. The Martins were married, and wrote music and lyrics, Comden and Green were each married to others, and they wrote book and lyrics only; they were not composers.
There are certain basic ingredients that will probably always be needed to tell the story of the making of a musical. Audiences today expect a little more dimension in characters, even in frothy musicals, so Encores! engaged the very modern merry Douglas Carter Beane who is one of the few contemporary playwrights who is not afraid to be downright silly, who loves the laughter that comes from even the hoariest of jokes. It’s one of the best jobs ever of retaining a 60 year old story and adding all the spices needed to tune it to contemporary ears.
In 2070 perhaps The Band Wagon will have another face lift using all the new small talk, and folks will be roaring about LOLing, and OMGing and most sentences will include “totally”, “awesome” and “cool”, sometimes all three, God forbid.
Encores!, with the able assistance of director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, has cast with great abandon this very limited run of a Special presentation, currently on for just a handful of performances through November 16th. Hopefully it will be possible to spread the joy that this company brings to it so that more of you can have the rush that comes when you experience American musical theatre at its best.
We’ve had a few gems, a very few, but there’s nothing wrong with The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, Aladdin, Kinky Boots, The Producers, Phantom of the Opera and some of the best revivals like the current On the Town and the best of many Gypsy repeats. But this Band Wagon is really a new show, for in its present form it’s never been seen before, and it would be a pity to allow all the great work that’s been put into it disappear before Thanksgiving.
It offers so many surprises. Brian Stokes Mitchell has been away from Broadway for six years more or less, choosing to spend more time with his young son, limiting his appearances to cabaret and concert stages. Never known as a song and dance man, but rather as a solid actor with a glorious voice, his triumphs in Kiss Me, Kate, Man of LaMancha and Ragtime among many others did not lead us to expect him to be able to be silly, adorable, and most surprising of all, to be perfectly able to stop the show with a tap routine. Of course he’s not the dancer that Fred Astaire was in the film and revue versions, but he brings so much ability of his own that the two stars must now share ownership of this role. And there’s a basic honesty to his acting that makes the character most appealing.
We came to admire Tracey Ullman, a major comic talent, through her prime time TV series “The Tracey Ullman Show”. But who knew she had a svelte and curvy figure, gorgeous legs, and that her entire body knew exactly how to supplement brilliant line deliveries with movement to match. What she does with “The Pitch”, a long musical monologue in which she outlines the entire plot and score of the musical she and her partner are writing, is virtuoso. She plays all the parts, ably assisted by Michael McKean at the piano, and together they stop the show cold.
I kept thinking how I’d like to see her do a show like Judy Holliday’s Bells are Ringing or Rosalind Russell’s Wonderful Town or even Gertrude Lawrence’s Lady In The Dark. She can sing, she can dance, and she can make a slightly dizzy comic figure like Lil Martin real and dimensional. Most impressive, real star quality. And Tony Sheldon as the British wunderkind director, the one with all the high falutin’ and hilarious ideas about how to stage his first musical, is priceless. He was fun in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and won awards for that performance, but in The Band Wagon he’s found another juicy role into which to sink his talented teeth and if his co-stars weren’t so gifted, he’d run away with the show.
Laura Osnes is the leading lady, and manages once again even as in the shows that established her, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and Bonnie and Clyde, to sparkle and shine. Supporting players Michael Berresse, Don Stephenson and particularly Michael McKean add luster to a truly brilliant ensemble of singer-dancers who seem to be having just as much fun as the audience. They are either catching something from us, or surely we are from them.
I haven’t mentioned the score to this winner, and that’s ridiculous because it’s riddled with gems. Standards like “Dancing in the Dark”, “Something to Remember You By”, “A Shine on Your Shoes” and of course “That’s Entertainment” are there to make us smile. But lesser known songs, also by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, are amply sprinkled throughout the evening. Ms. Marshall tackles half a dozen of them with verve and imagination, and the dancers, knowing they’re in good hands, deliver in spades.
If you can get to Manhattan in one of the few days ahead to see this gem of a winner, I urge you to do so. If not, keep an eye out for it somewhere in the near future. Let’s all hope it pops up again. This crazy world needs it.
The Band Wagon is onstage at New York City Center, 131 W 55th St (btwn 6th & 7th)
New York, NY 10019.
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.