Forgotten Musicals Friday: Way Back to MARIE CHRISTINE

Audra McDonald in MARIE CHRISTINE. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Audra McDonald in Marie Christine.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

For December’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we’re looking at the “Miracles and Mysteries” of Marie Christine, the second Broadway musical from one of contemporary musical theatre’s most thrilling voices, Michael John LaChiusa. As the month speeds by, we’ll explore the background of the show, its book and score, its staging and design and finally, the show’s legacy. In today’s column, we’ll shine a spotlight on how the show came to be.

The Lincoln Center Theater features strongly in the making of Marie Christine. LaChiusa’s Hello Again (1993) premiered under its banner, while the star around whom the show was crafted, Audra McDonald, won her first Tony Award for the Lincoln Theatre’s presentation of the Royal National Theatre’s stateside transfer of their production of Carousel. Marie Christine also reunited LaChiusa with the director-choreographer of Hello Again, Graciela Daniele. A blend of Euripides’ Medea and the legends surrounding Marie Laveau and her daughter, two famous so-called Voodoo queens from the nineteenth century, Marie Christine sees its eponymous character telling her story from a New Orleans prison in 1899. It is not a story that is easy to tell or hear, and LaChiusa was up to the challenge of writing a score that reflected the complexity and intensity of the tale.

Following a few workshops over more than three years, Marie Christine premiered in the final season of the twentieth century. Running for only 42 performances, the show received a mixed-negative reception from the press and its audience. Nonetheless, it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Book and Best Original Score – missing out on a nomination for Best Musical in the year that Contact, which was a dance show and decidedly not a musical, took home the big prize.

Today, on the 23rd anniversary of the show’s Broadway opening, it is clear that Marie Christine is a challenging and layered musical. It’s not perfect; how many musicals are? It’s also a difficult musical to stage. The ever-encircling darkness of the piece requires an epic romance to be established as a counterbalance to the show’s relentless pursuit tragedy. If the passion between Marie and Dante doesn’t land, neither does the show. The action develops slowly, requiring a keen sense of what’s beneath the text and an understanding of how to translate this into imagery on stage. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore the extent to which the original production met these challenges – join us for five weeks of what is sure to be a fascinating discussion!

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The Saturday List: In Good Faith

Faith Prince in A CATERED AFFAIR, ANNIE and DISASTER!
Faith Prince in A Catered Affair, Annie and Disaster!

I love Faith a bushel and a peck –
You bet your pretty neck, I do!

It’s Faith Prince’s 65th birthday today, and there’s no better time to celebrate her fabulous Broadway appearances than today. While Prince has appeared in a few films and guest starred in numerous television shows, it is on the Broadway stage that many of her fans grew to love her. A phenomenal comedienne, Prince also plays her characters with a great deal of humanity, allowing audiences to fall in love with her as Adelaide, Anna and Aggie – or any other role she plays.   

5. Bells Are Ringing (2001)

One of Prince’s most legendary roles was Ella Petersen in the ill-fated revival of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s Bells Are Ringing, a show during which all kinds of stories flew around the Internet about cheques bouncing before it shuttered after 68 performances at a loss of about $7 million. The reviews were mixed, but Prince had great reviews and earned a Tony nomination for her performance. On the telecast of that awards show, she delivered one of those performances that routinely pop up in conversations as a favourite. Her performance of “I’m Going Back” was an uninhibited smash!

4. Little Me (1998) 

I’m pretty sure the person who thought it was a good idea to cast Martin Short in a Broadway revival of Neil Simon, Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman’s Little Me imagined the show would be a hit. It wasn’t – and the reviews left nobody unscathed. The show is a bit of a bomb, albeit one with some catchy tunes. The parts of the older and younger Belle Poitrine, usually split between two performers, were combined for Prince in this revival, likely to bolster the role into a role that matched her talent. While having very little to play insofar as the character was concerned, Prince received praise for putting her numbers across with her usual style and comic timing. Watching her take on the title song, it occurs that it’s a pity that she didn’t get to lead a Broadway revival of Mame around the same time.

3. A Catered Affair (2008)

Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino’s A Catered Affair is an intimate, character-driven story that gives Prince a showcase for the kind of skill she doesn’t always get to show off. There’s no schtick, character-driven or otherwise, for her to pull off here. Instead, she plays a layered character whose experience of planning her daughter’s wedding is so human that one can’t help but empathise but her and think about the choices we’ve made and the opportunities we may have missed. Prince was nothing less than the beating heart of the show. While it drew its fair share of negative reviews, there’s more to this show than what the reviews say there was. It should appear on more musical theatre fans’ “underrated” lists without question.

2. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989) 

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway was Faith Prince’s main stem debut, and time has treated her debut kindly. Taking on a couple of numbers from High Button Shoes and Gypsy, Prince traded tunes, patter and a couple of steps with Jason Alexander in “I Still Get Jealous” and brought down the house as Tessie Tura in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick.” What an introduction!

1. Guys and Dolls (1992) 

Prince’s most memorable success was her performance as Miss Adelaide in the legendary 2993 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls. Her take on the role is second only to the original production’s Vivian Blaine – perhaps – and she is simply incredible in the role. “Adelaide’s Lament” has followed her ever since, and she has performed the song in several concerts.  A delightfully different take on the number appears on the album of Prince’s Joe’s Pub cabaret, A Leap of Faith. The marriage of this classic show and this talented-as-hell star is sheer perfection.

Prince’s other Broadway shows include the 9-performance flop Nick & Nora (her all-out performance in “Men” is a highlight of the cast recording) and Seth Rudetsky’s jukebox musical, Disaster! She has also done replacement turns in Annie, The Little Mermaid and The King and I. No matter the show, Prince brings something unforgettable to the table and whatever she does next is sure to be as memorable as everything she has done before! 

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The Saturday List: Five Bees-Knees Musicals of the 1920s

THE STUDENT PRINCE, THE THREEPENNY OPERA and SHOW BOAT are just the bee's knees!
The Student Prince, The Threepenny Opera and Show Boat are just the bee’s knees!

How’s tricks, everyone? Today’s “Saturday List” looks at my top five musicals from the 1920s. There are, of course, many nifty little shows that one might consider in compiling such a list. Honourable mentions like Strike Up the Band, Fifty Million Frenchmen or No, No, Nanette all have their delights, but these five are the cat’s meow for me!

5. Oh, Kay!

There are several shows that I could have placed into this fifth spot, none of which I prize above the other. Could it have been Dearest Enemy? Absolutely! The Desert Song? For sure! What about Funny Face? Why not? As it is, I chose George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse’s Oh, Kay! because it is the show that gave the world that most enduring of standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” There are other ebullient pleasures in the score, including the “Do, Do, Do,” “Clap Yo’ Hands” and “Fidgety Feet.” Together, the numbers encapsulate the great appeal of the Gershwins in the 1920s: catchy lyrics and heartfelt sentiments married to the kind of music for which the Germans invented the term “earworm.” It wouldn’t be hard for you to guess then, dear reader, what tune is spinning endlessly in my mind as I’m typing up this column.

4. Mr Cinders

I love a Cinderella story. I’m also a sucker for a good partworks collection. One such series was The Musicals Collection, which allowed me to add the highlights of a cast recording and a magazine to my CD rack once a fortnight. I already knew many of the shows they featured, but several were new to me, including this little gem by Vivian Ellis, Richard Myers, Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman. A reverse gendered version of this most beloved of fairy tales, Mr Cinders toys with social class by placing Jim, a servant at Merton Chase, opposite Jill, an American heiress at the neighbouring home, The Towers. The usual fizzy 1920s plot devices knit together the appealing score, which included a breakout hit in “Spread A Little Happiness.” A collection of witty numbers for the two nasty brothers, “Blue Blood”, “True To Two” and “Honeymoon For Four,” as well as a delightful pair of ensemble numbers, “On With Dance” and “18th Century Drag,” rounded out a jaunty overall set of songs. Although it enjoyed a couple of revivals towards the end of the last century, Mr Cinders has all but disappeared over the past two decades. Here’s hoping for a second rediscovery of this charming little musical!

3. The Student Prince

My way into Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly’s The Student Prince, as in so many musical theatre matters, was through my grandmother. My grandmother’s record collection was the source of the first musicals I encountered, but it wasn’t until much later that she guided me towards knowing The Student Prince. I was gathering some movie musicals for my gran to watch on her new flatscreen TV, and The Student Prince was one of the films she asked me to find. When I sat down to watch it with her, I had prepared myself for something I’d have to endure. I found myself seduced by the giddy romance of this tale, in which love and life experience transforms the staid Prince Karl into a man who has to choose between the kingdom for which he is responsible or Kathie, the woman he loves. In the interest of full disclosure, the dreamy Edmund Purdom and Mario Lanza’s heartfelt vocal for Prince Karl’s “I Walk With God” (which Nicholas Brodzsky and Paul Francis Webster wrote for the film) sealed the deal for me. As I mentioned when discussing Oh, Kay!, one song can be the gateway to the entire journey. What is particularly bittersweet about The Student Prince is that the piece gives Kathie – to some extent, given the period – agency in bringing Karl to his final decision. Her choices, thoughts and emotions matter as much as his. I don’t know where it would play, but I’d love to see a contemporary revival of this show.

2. The Threepenny Opera

I always respected Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, but I never truly loved it until I saw the National Theatre’s live broadcast of their 2016 production, a new adaptation by Simon Stephens that was directed by Rufus Norris. Watching the incredible cast bring this interpretation of the material to life, I felt within me everything that, until then, I only understood academically about this brilliant piece of theatre. Its unforgiving commentary on human vices such as corruption, exploitation and hypocrisy remains as incisive today as it must have been at its premiere in Germany in 1928. (In truth, perhaps it was watching the United States cut of the 1962 film that had disenchanted my ability to perceive its brilliance until then.) Besides its thematic heft, The Threepenny Opera also numbers in its score some jewels of songwriting, “Pirate Jenny” (which I had the privilege of seeing Bea Arthur sing live in Just Between Friends as she shared her memories of the brilliant Lotte Lenya’s performance of the same song) and the “Jealousy Duet” (which Arthur intones most memorably with Jo Sullivan on the 1954 cast recording of the show) among them. What I enjoy most about The Threepenny Opera, I think, is how layered it is. It’s serious stuff, but it’s so funny. It plays with you as you watch it.  And isn’t play one of the things we desire most when we go to the theatre?

1. Show Boat

One of the most fascinating things about Show Boat is the sheer number of iterations of the show that have played the world’s stages since Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II created this landmark musical. These are largely documented in Miles Kreuger’s Show Boat – The Story of a Classic American Musical, offering a rare and detailed tour through the production history of the show up until the time of its final revision in 1990 before going out of print. What makes Show Boat survive the ages? Certainly, its classic score has something to do with it, the grand lyrics and gorgeous melodies of songs like “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” being unforgettable, as is the wit of numbers like “Life Upon the Wicked Stage,” the radiant joy of “Why Do I Love You?” and the devastating rawness of “Bill.” That said, there are many great scores that have slipped into the recesses of time. May I submit the idea that it is Hammerstein’s integrity in handling the themes that emerged from Edna Ferber’s novel that lends the show its continued relevance? For in addition to its central love story, Show Boat tackles the shifting dynamics of race relations in the face of a society that espouses the ideal of freedom for all but still treats people unequally in reality. This idea is strongly resonant with our times and in an age where Oklahoma! can be explored with a contemporary sensibility, as was done in Daniel Fish’s recent take on the material, perhaps the time is right for Show Boat to be reinvented yet again.

Well, there you go! As I’ve written this piece, names of other great 1920s shows have popped into my mind, including Bitter Sweet, The Girl Friend and The New Moon. It was a decade of memorable songs that keep one’s foot tapping and heart singing, whether the show overall is a favourite or not!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: The Legacy of THE JUNGLE BOOK

André de Shields in THE JUNGLE BOOK
André de Shields in The Jungle Book

Our final Forgotten Musicals Friday column for July brings us full circle in our journey through The Jungle Book. As mentioned in our first column, we are looking at the show’s legacy, having already looked at its book and score, staging and design. It is impossible to look at how the show sits in today’s world without jumping into its history, starting with the approach Rudyard Kipling, the author of the original text, used in placing his worldview into his writing.

Kipling is a controversial figure today, both in India and around the world. On the one hand, his ability to distil an idea to its essence is evidence of his genius. On the other, Kipling used this genius to produce works like “The White Man’s Burden,” a poem that justifies the atrocities of imperial conquests, such as the exploitation of land and the theft of natural resources, as a means to an end, colonial civilisation – so-called civilisation, that is. One question that must have sat foremost in the minds of the team behind The Jungle Book was how to ensure that the story they were telling could exist separately from Kipling’s politics. This task was nothing less than daunting. How could it not be, given that the original material deals with the theme of civilisation at its very core, using the ideas of people as animals and animals as people as a vehicle for its exploration?

This discourse made its way into Disney’s first take on the material in the form of “I Wanna Be Like You,” a song sequence in the film in which the monkeys are racially coded as black people and viewed as sub-human animals who want to become civilised men. While this is a précis of the argument, it was something that Mary Zimmerman had to address in making the show. Her response to the idea that King Louie, the monkeys’ leader, has been identified as a signifier of racism was that ‘many people believe [the character] was voiced by Louis Armstrong, but was in fact conceived for and voiced by Louis Prima, a white Italian American.’ She continues: ‘I challenged the assumption that King Louie is a derogatory depiction of a black man given that what is on the screen is only an ape, drawn in a style consistent with all Disney animation of the period, voiced by a white musician, singing to a little Indian boy.’ 

Zimmerman argued that observers of The Jungle Book inserted the issue of race into the material. Where is the acknowledgement that such observations are grounded in a clear socio-historical context? While Louis Armstrong may not have voiced King Louie, as some have assumed, Richard M. Sherman has been open about Armstrong’s role in inspiring the song and the character’s name. The character has no equivalent in the Kipling original, in which the Bandar-Log – or monkey people – have no king. Given factors such as these, can it credibly be argued that there is no evidence of racist worldviews in the film?

A further beat that Zimmerman misses here is that the criticism levelled at the film on this issue isn’t exclusively about King Louie but also in the scenes that lead up to it. Baloo, an American-sounding bear voiced by a white actor, forges a link between stereotypical African-American physical features and the monkeys that serve King Louie. The language used in the film to construct these stereotypes was common in the lingua franca of the 1960s. Neither can we take the sinister history of comparing black people to monkeys as unread in this context. Some cultural critics felt that Zimmerman’s choice to cast André De Shields in the role of King Louie complicated things even further. De Shields has gone on record to say that he hoped to detonate and thus exorcise the stereotype through his performance. One wonders whether they were on the same page.

Creating a stage production of The Jungle Book for today’s audiences is a complicated affair; it is simply the nature of the beast. In this adaptation, Zimmerman aimed to marry a colonial literary view of India and Disney’s American sensibilities with a more modern and socially just world. Reviews of and responses to the show put forward the idea that The Jungle Book neither felt like a fully realised vision nor negotiated the politics lurking behind the facade of a narrative about a child’s imagination. Given these reactions, is it any surprise that this version of The Jungle Book did not go any further, even though there was some hope that perhaps it might? For now, the only version of The Jungle Book you might catch on stage is a local production of The Jungle Book KIDS, a much more straightforward, half-hour-long adaptation of the original film. Perhaps, someday, someone else will have a crack at a grander full-scale production and succeed.

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The Saturday List: Krysta with a “Y” on Broadway

Krysta Rodriguez in FIRST DATE, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and SPRING AWAKENING
Krysta Rodriguez in First Date, The Addams Family and Spring Awakening

I’m being pulled in Krysta’s direction –
But I think I like it!

Before she was “Liza with a Z” in television’s Halston, Krysta with a “Y” was making a name for herself on Broadway – and we’re ranking five of Krysta Rodriguez’s Broadway appearances in today’s Saturday List to celebrate her birthday. In today’s column, we’re looking at shows where Rodriguez appeared in the production on opening night, so that means her appearance as a replacement Bebe in the revival of A Chorus Line is an honourable mention. Let’s go!

5. Good Vibrations (2005)

Rodriguez made her debut on Broadway in one of the main stem’s infamous flops, the Beach Boys jukebox musical, Good Vibrations. In the workshop that preceded the show’s New York debut, Rodriguez originally played the daughter of Bobby and Caroline, two star-crossed lovers who overcame their high school differences on a road trip to California, in a flash-forward at the end of the piece. After several endings and many rewrites to Richard Dresser’s book, Rodriguez ended up as a swing for the 94-performance main stem run of the show. Wild!

4. In the Heights (2008)

Between Good Vibrations and In the Heights, Rodriguez appeared on Broadway in A Chorus Line and the original production of Spring Awakening. Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights saw her consolidate herself as a dependable Broadway performer as she took to the stage nightly in the ensemble of the show and understudied the roles of Nina, Vanessa and Carla. While there are clips of her taking to the stage in those roles floating around cyberspace, Rodriguez has also performed some of the show’s key numbers, like “Breathe” and “When You’re Home,” in concert and cabaret settings.

3. First Date (2013)

Rodriguez’s appearance in First Date shows how much good faith she had garnered when Austin Winsberg, Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner were developing this atypical Broadway show. Smaller in scale than the fare that usually hits the main stem, the producers were partly selling the show on her ability to sell it alongside her co-star, Zachary Levi, who brought with him credits in television and film. Although it only ran for 174 performances and was criticised for its reliance on stereotypical tropes and somewhat generic score, Rodriguez walked away with glowing reviews for her appealing performance. Her skill at creating sympathy for a character through song is on prime display in the cast recording, especially in her key number “Safer.” Listening to the recording almost a decade later, you finish off wanting to hear more of what Rodreguez has to offer.

4. Spring Awakening (2015)

How many performers can claim to have appeared in a Broadway production and its first revival? All right, there are a few – but how many have appeared in two such strikingly different productions as the original production of  Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening and the Deaf West Theatre interpretation of the same material almost a decade later? In 2006, Rodriguez was in the ensemble and understudied many roles. By the time 2015 rolled around, she played Ilse and was able to put her stamp on the material. Her performance of “The Dark I Know Well” alongside Treshelle Edmond and Kathryn Gallagher with the rest of the company in support was thrilling! 

1. The Addams Family (2010)

Rodriguez delivered her most remembered stage performance as Wednesday Addams in Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and Andrew Lippa’s twisted spin on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Rodriguez introduced the number “Pulled” in the Chicago tryout and Broadway transfer of The Addams Family. Load up any clip of her performing the song on YouTube, and you’ll see the sheer talent, exuberance, vocal and physical agility, range of expression, and specificity for which she has become known. Her performance launched the song as a piece that a million teenagers sing to show they can belt their faces off – but nobody has done it better than Rodriguez!

Rodriguez has spent much of her time in the recent part of her career building television and film credits. She also beat cancer after a diagnosis in the fall of 2014, which led her to blog about her experiences on a platform she called ChemoCouture, which led to some columns for Cosmopolitan’s online health and fitness platform. While Rodriguez has been in musicals like the Hollywood Bowl production of A Chorus Line and the Delacorte Theatre run of Hercules, I’m sure many would welcome her return to Broadway. Perhaps, in a couple of years, she can be the Mame everyone has been waiting for, for so long. Or maybe, it will be in something original. Either way, we’d love to see her return!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE JUNGLE BOOK Look

Akash Chopra and Kevin Carolan in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Akash Chopra and Kevin Carolan in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

We’re almost through The Jungle Book, having covered the chapters on the show’s origins, the book and the score and the staging of the 2013 production that has been the focus of this month’s Forgotten Musicals Friday. This week, we’re taking a look at The Jungle Book “look” and how the show came to life through its scenic design and costumes.

One idea that came to the foreground in last week’s column was the stylisation of the production in its combination of influences from Rudyard Kipling’s original book, through its Indian setting to Disney’s film adaptation. The stylisation required to marry these elements is also an element that Dan Ostling picked up in the production’s scenic design. Ostling’s set evoked a Victorian toy theatre, its shifting drops decorated with stylised paintings of trees, shrubbery and flowers. The colours and patterns are reminiscent of the Indian painting style the creative team must have observed on their research trip to India. As individual pieces, the set pieces were all gorgeous. 

When it came together, the scenic design missed the all-important sense of achieving a coup de théâtre. The transition from the Victorian drawing room, in which Mowgli dozes off while reading The Jungle Book as part of a framework that Zimmerman added to the material, to the jungles of India should have been breathtaking. Instead, the mechanism was apparent rather than its effect. The same is true of another crucial new moment in the show, the death of Shere Khan by fire. The aim was for the design and staging to come together with T. J. Gerckens’s lighting design to create a striking transition from the physical plane of life into the spiritual one. The idea is clear, but the execution lacks absolute clarity and a true sense of wonder in such a significant moment.

Another significant factor in creating the visual world of The Jungle Book is Mara Blumenfeld’s costume design. Blumenfeld’s designs abstract an easily identifiable visual feature of each animal, and she then builds the costume around it. Her approach reinforces Mary Zimmerman’s concept of the material as something that takes place within a child’s imagination. The audience remains aware of the actors playing animals; their imagination fills in the gaps, so they are complicit in constructing Mowgli’s world of fantasy. 

In the show’s design, it is clear that there was more The Jungle Book could have done. While one certainly wouldn’t want a duplication of the kind of theatricality that Julie Taymor infused into The Lion King, I think something that aims for the same level of mastery is what this show needed to take it to the next level. It is one thing that could have transformed the audience’s response into something that would have twisted Thomas Schumacher’s arm to make The Jungle Book another Newsies instead of another The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In the final chapter of our The Jungle Book series, we’ll consider the legacy of the show, also looking at some of the challenges of creating a show with such a complex cultural history.

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The Saturday List: The Crown Julies

Julie Andrews in THE BOY FRIEND, MY FAIR LADY and CAMELOT
Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend, My Fair Lady and Camelot

Oh baby, won’t you play me
Le Julie, maybe –
And don’t ever let it end!

In today’s Saturday List, we’re looking at “The Crown Julies,” the five Broadway and off-Broadway stage appearances of Julie Andrews. While her successes encompass far more than these five musicals, sometimes it’s delightful to celebrate ‘the simple joys of maidenhood’ and think about where it all began for Andrews: the stage! Of course, Andrews had already had a long career as a singer before touching down in New York in 1954 – but we’ll save the rest of her incomparable career for another day!

5. Putting it Together (1993)

Running for 59 performances following 37 previews, Putting it Together was Andrews’s shortest New York season. Her return to a New York stage in a musical after more than three decades caused a frenzy for tickets at the time. The show is a mixed bag no matter who is in the cast due to its flimsy retelling of the plot of the masterful Follies. On the other hand, the album captures some classic Andrews performances of Stephen Sondheim songs, including her impeccable take on “Not Getting Married Today” and a heart-rending reading of “Like It Was.” And, of course, one simply can’t pass up the opportunity of hearing the actress who brought Mary Poppins to life exclaim, “Oh, fuck it, let’s do it!” It is a real pity we never were able to see Andrews in a full-scale Sondheim production. What a memorable Desiree she would have made!

4. The Boy Friend (1954)

The Boy Friend was Andrews’s Broadway debut. A camped-up version of Sandy Wilson’s long-running West End success (in which Andrews did not appear), the show ran for 485 performances. In a story of a quintet of young women looking for love, Andrews played the central part of Polly Browne, who is that little bit more sentimental than her frantic roommates at Mme Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies. It is super to have the cast recording from this show as a snapshot of Andrews at this stage of her career. Everything we love about Andrews is in place in the sheer exuberance of the title song and the sweet romance of “I Could Be Happy with You” and “A Room in Bloomsbury.” While the piece isn’t as demanding as future projects like My Fair Lady or Camelot, the joy of The Boy Friend has always been in its simplicity, and Andrews is just pitch perfect in this valentine to the 1920s.

3. Victor/Victoria (1995)

Andrews’s third longest-running musical in New York was Victor/Victoria, an adaptation of the much better 1982 film in which she starred as a woman who takes on the persona of a man who takes Paris by storm as a virtuoso drag artist. If this list were to be ranked qualitatively, Victor/Victoria would end up last on the merits of “Paris Makes Me Horny” alone. While Blake Edwards’s adaptation fails to capture the magic of his original film, the pro-shot reveals that there were some high points, like the production numbers staged by Rob Marshall to “Le Jazz Hot” and “Louis Says.” Frank Wildhorn scored that latter song, teaming up with Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse to augment the film’s roster of musical numbers for Broadway. Musical theatre fans probably remember the show most for its Tony Awards controversy. When Andrews earned the only nomination given to the show, she declined it, saying that she preferred ‘to stand instead with the egregiously overlooked’ members of her Victor/Victoria family. What a fabulous moment of integrity for this stage and screen legend!

2. Camelot (1960)

Camelot reunited Andrews with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe to tell the story of how Queen Guenevere’s love for Lancelot, King Arthur’s most trusted knight, dismantled the fabled British kingdom and its legend of justice. Andrews was joined on stage by Richard Burton and Robert Goulet. Audiences were expecting the show to repeat the success of My Fair Lady, but the famously troubled rehearsal process saw a show open that was not as good as it could have been. Despite some fantastic writing, the book creaks along from one song to the next, almost all of which are glorious Golden Age pieces. Andrews did most of the heavy lifting when it came to the score. One hears her singing more carefully on the cast recording than after years of performing in My Fair Lady, which doesn’t make “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” “The Lusty Month of May,” “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” or “I Loved You Once in Silence.” Camelot captures Andrews’s incredible wit as a performer alongside her ability to interpret a romantic lyric in her glorious soprano most brilliantly.

1. My Fair Lady (1956)

While Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Cinderella and the miracle of television first placed Julie Andrews front and centre in American pop culture in the 1950s, another Cinderella role, Eliza Doolittle, in My Fair Lady was her most significant success on stage. While Eliza transforms from a Cockney flower girl into a lady under the tutelage of Henry Higgins, Andrews had to work backwards and learn how to speak in a Cockney accent with a real-life tutor. Two cast recordings preserve the original production show, the Broadway album and the later stereo album recorded in London. Everyone has their favourite of the two, many preferring the second album, but it is interesting to hear how Andrews grew in the role over her long run with the show. On both albums, she puts her definitive stamp on the numbers she introduced, including “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Just You Wait,” the last of which is played with abandon each twentieth of May in celebration of Andrews’s most memorable stage heroine!

Want to share your thoughts about Julie Andrews? Head on to the comment box at any time, dear reader!

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE JUNGLE BOOK’s Jungle Rhythm

Govind Kumar, Ed Kross, Nehal Joshi, Geoff Packard and Akash Chopra in THE JUNGLE BOOK. Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Govind Kumar, Ed Kross, Nehal Joshi, Geoff Packard and Akash Chopra in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

This July, the focus of our Forgotten Musicals Friday series is The Jungle Book, a 2013 adaptation of the beloved Disney film. So far, we’ve looked at the show’s origins and delved a little deeper into the book and the score. This week, we’re examining the staging of the show, with a particular focus on its choreography.

Joining the production team of the show’s director and librettist, Mary Zimmerman, and musical director, Doug Peck, was its choreographer, Christopher Gattelli. To create the show’s dances, Gatelli worked with Hema Rajagopalan, a teacher of Bharata Natyam, who the producers credited as the show’s Indian Dance Consultant. The result was a marriage between the kinds of dance styles we see in conventional Broadway musicals and Indian dance, with the musicians sometimes making a welcome appearance in the numbers too. Often, the dance styles blended seamlessly, which must have been the intention, although there are moments when one sees the baton passed as one dance style picks up where another leaves off.

All things told, The Jungle Book isn’t a musical with a wealth of dance opportunities besides those you might expect. The wild dance break in “I Wanna Be Like You” and the stylised marching of “Colonel Hathi’s March” are there, as fans of the film would expect them to be. “The Bare Necessities” was opened up well in this production with a trio of dancing butterflies that used movement to punctuate and comment on Baloo’s philosophy. Moments like these are so delightful that one wishes the show had built on them even more.

Setting the dance to one side, The Jungle Book is infused with opportunities for movement to create the illusion of a living jungle on stage. In this production, the actors used gestures derived from Indian dance to articulate their animal characters. Underneath it all, their bodies undulated with life. This approach is mesmerising to watch, while the stylisation reinforces Zimmerman’s concept that Mowgli is living in a fantastical world of play.

Next week, we’ll take a look at how Dan Ostling and Mara Blumenfeld manifested the world of The Jungle Book in their respective scenic and costume designs: it’s time to jump into The Jungle Book look!

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The Saturday List: Celebrating Ethel Merman

Ethel Merman in ANYTHING GOES, ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and GYPSY
Ethel Merman in Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy

I had a dream!
A dream about you, Ethel!
It’s gonna come true, Ethel!
They think that we’re through,
But Ethel

On this day in 1930, Variety gave Ethel Merman a breakthrough review ahead of what would become a breathtaking musical theatre career: ‘She is a good looking girl with a fair enough voice that might carry much further with special stuff. This is her first stage appearance. She’s out of cabaret so probably has plenty to learn.’ Merman learned what she needed to learn pretty quickly, making her Broadway debut in Girl Crazy just three months later, beginning a career that spanned decades and earned her the title “the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage.” Let’s take a look at her ten biggest Broadway successes.

10. Girl Crazy (1930)

Merman’s Broadway debut was in a musical that was typical of the late 1920s and early 1930s, something that allowed her to showcase her unique star quality. With music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan, Girl Crazy introduced several standards to the musical theatre canon, including “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me.” Playing a singer at the dude ranch that the show’s lead, Danny Churchill, dreams up in response to his father’s instructions to take life more seriously, Merman put her unmistakable stamp on “Sam and Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!” and – most significantly – “I Got Rhythm.” Roger Edens, who was on the piano for the show and would go on to become a major player in the music department at MGM, suggested that Merman belt out a single note for several bars during the second chorus of the song. She did, and a legend was born, prompting George Gershwin to warn her never to take a singing lesson.

9. DuBarry Was A Lady (1939)

Herbert Fields and Buddy DeSylva crafted the nonsensical romantic romp that was DuBarry Was a Lady around songs written for the show by Cole Porter, which included classics like “Well, Did You Evah!,” “Katie Went to Haiti” and “Friendship.” The latter two were performed by Merman, who introduced “Friendship” alongside Bert Lahr. Lahr played Louie, a washroom attendant who wins the lottery and hopes this will enable him to marry May, a nightclub singer, who is in love with Alex, her friend, Alice’s bother, who is unhappily married to Ann. Louie drinks a Mickey Finn and hallucinates that he is King Louis XV and that May is his mistress, Madame du Barry. The other characters all have counterparts in the dream, which eventually makes Louie realise that May and Alex are meant to be together. When he awakes, he uses his winnings to pay for Alex’s divorce and then returns to his old job. This was Merman’s third Porter show and reviews of the time said she was in top form, although the notices for the show weren’t as good as those for its stars.

8. Happy Hunting (1956)

Ethel Merman was not a fan of Happy Hunting. She was forced into the show by her third husband, an airline executive who wanted to use Merman’s fame to drum up some publicity. So while she tolerated the reunion with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, she had very little time for the unknown songwriting team of Harold Karr and Matt Dubey. Merman thought their songs were weak and even showed open disdain for her old pals’ book about a society hostess trying to one-up Grace Kelly by marrying off her daughter to a duke. In the biggest flex of her Broadway career, Merman had two of the shows’ songs replaced with new ones by Roger Edens and Kay Thompson five months into the run.

7. Anything Goes (1934)

Anything Goes was Merman’s biggest hit of the 1930s, introducing the hits “Anything Goes,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “You’re the Top,” and “Blow Gabriel Blow” into the singer’s repertoire. With a score by Cole Porter and a book that was first written by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse and then revised by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, Anything Goes is a rom-com that served The Love Boat realness before that classic series came along. Billy Crocker, Reno Sweeney, Hope Harcourt and Evelyn Oakleigh board the SS American and like dozens of musical comedy couples before them do what it takes to end up with the right person. As in many musicals of the period, madcap antics ensue, making it a perfect entertainment for Depression-era America. While three revisals of the show have followed, Merman laid the foundation for every Reno that has followed in her footsteps, including Elaine Paige, Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster.

6. Something for the Boys (1943)

Something for the Boys, which had a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, was Merman’s fifth show with Cole Porter. You really get the sense that they know each other by know, with Porter crafting a set of songs that allowed Merman to dominate the show, while Merman did what Irving Berlin said she did best: ‘Give her a bad song, and she’ll make it sound good. Give her a good song, and she’ll make it sound great.’ The musical tells the tale of three cousins who set up a boarding house for soldiers’ wives on a ranch next to a military base. It’s all perfectly serviceable, without being a definitive show in the careers of anyone involved. Perhaps a comment like this appears to be damning the show with faint praise, but is there another show in Merman’s body of work that is better at getting on with the business of simply being a musical of its time?

Ethel Merman in PANAMA HATTIE, CALL ME MADAM and HELLO DOLLY!
Ethel Merman in Panama Hattie, Call Me Madam and Hello, Dolly!

5. Panama Hattie (1940)

Merman kicked off the new decade with a show that showed just how much she could bring to even the most routine material. Panama Hattie. Merman went from being a nightclub singer in her previous show, DuBarry was a Lady, to being a nightclub owner and along with the promotion, a change of setting came along with the deal. The Panama Canal served as a suitably exotic backdrop against which Herbert Fields and Buddy DeSylva’s tale of sailors, singers and spies could play out. Lots of plotting adds up to very little, but the show did add two great Cole Porter songs to Merman’s repertoire: “I’ve Still Got My Health” and “Make It Another Old-Fashioned, Please.”

4. Call Me Madam (1950)

The role of Sally Adams aka “The Hostess With the Mostes’ on the Ball” is often cited as being one of any Mermaniac’s favourites, and it is one of only two roles that Merman originated that she would also play on film. (The other was in the 1936 film adaptation of Anything Goes.) The show reunited the star with Irving Berlin following the smash success of Annie Get Your Gun, as well as with Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who had retooled the script of one of her early hits, Anything Goes. The ebullient joy that is so often linked with Merman is on ample display here, manifesting itself in the aforementioned number as well as bops like “You’re Just In Love.” Surely nobody was surprised when Merman was awarded the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for this role, her only win in this category, although she was nominated for every role she originated during the part of her career that coincided with the Tony Awards’ existence.

3. Gypsy (1959)

Gypsy, the Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim show about Rose Hovick and her daughter, Gypsy Rose Lee, gave Merman the last role she would originate on Broadway. ‘You can’t buck a nun,’ she quipped when she lost the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her electrifying performance to Mary Martin, who had played Maria in The Sound of Music. While there is a tendency for people to be patronising about Merman’s acting in the role, all the more so given that she was followed by the likes of the incomparable Angela Lansbury as well as Tyne Daly and Patti LuPone, listening to live audio recordings of Merman performing the show, particularly her performance of “Rose’s Turn,” certainly makes one respect Merman’s Rose more. It’s a pity she wasn’t able to preserve her take on the role on film, which unfortunately went to Rosalind Russell in a turn of events that Merman called ‘the greatest professional disappointment of (her) life.’

2. Annie Get Your Gun (1946)

While Herbert and Dorothy Fields’s book falls into the trap of shuffling the plot along from one song to the next, the score of Annie Get Your Gun is jam-packed with hit songs by Irving Berlin. “I’m An Indian Too” aside, just about every other song ‘sparkle(s) like a crystal’ and Broadway was treated to two outings of the show with Merman as the titular Annie Oakley. She’s even better on the cast album from the 1960s, whether she’s tackling “You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun” or “I Got Lost in His Arms.” Is there a better Annie Oakley on record? I don’t think so. Merman is definitive here and there’s not much more to say about it.

1. Hello Dolly (1970)

Hello, Dolly! was the only show in which Ethel Merman would serve as a replacement, six years into the run of a show that was originally conceived with her in mind. To mark the occasion, two Jerry Herman songs that were cut from the show before it opened were reincorporated especially for Merman. “World, Take Me Back” outstays its welcome, perhaps, but “Love, Look in My Window” is just a fantastic piece of Herman exuberance. Merman would win a Drama Desk Award for her performance and the show would become the longest-running Broadway musical during her tenure, after which the show would close. While the show was not Merman’s greatest personal success, it was the most successful show in which she performed on Broadway and the last time she would grace the Main Stem in a role.

On Broadway, Merman also performed in Take a Chance, George White’s Scandals, Red, Hot and Blue! and Stars in Your Eyes in addition to the shows we’ve discussed here. To take stock of her legendary status, we might ask whether she was definitive in the roles she originated and whether the legacy she left behind represented everything that she was.

During the 1930s and early 1940s, there is no doubt that Merman was definitely “it.” One can see her wrestling with the shifting landscape of musical theatre changing in the late 1940s and 1950s, a time when musicals started being built more and more around the characters rather than exclusively on the merits of its stars. If nothing else did, Gypsy proved that she could make the shift successfully, even though Rose was a role that made use of her strong points – even if she did eventually sink back into old habits like moving so far upstage when she performed that the rest of the cast ended up with their backs to the audience.

There are, of course, times in the later years of her career when Merman strutted into the territory high camp. Take The Ethel Merman Disco Album, for example, which should be required listening for every serious musical theatre fan. Several of Merman’s hits are set to some fabulously tacky disco arrangements and while it’s hardly something one might expect to rack up a record number of plays on Spotify, this novelty record is worth the occasional spin.

In the final analysis, though, Merman was indisputably a legend. Even in her last appearances, like her performance of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in That’s Singing – her voice still had its power, clarity and range. Even when some might have said she was past her time, the lady still had it! Right until the end, she followed her credo, ‘I just stand up and holler and hope that my voice holds out.’

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Forgotten Musicals Friday: Adapting Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK

Thomas Derrah and Larry Yando in THE JUNGLE BOOK.  Photo credit: Liz Lauren.
Thomas Derrah and Larry Yando in The Jungle Book.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren.

For July’s Forgotten Musicals Friday series, we’re taking a look at the 2013 adaptation of Disney’s The Jungle Book. In last week’s first column, we set the scene for this Goodman Theatre-Huntington Theatre Company collaboration and this week, we’ll take a deeper dive into how the show was adapted by librettist Mary Zimmerman and the show’s musical team, which included one of the film’s songwriters, Richard M. Sherman, and the production’s musical director, Doug Peck.

In approaching the book, Zimmerman followed the process of starting her work on adapting the film’s screenplay at the first rehearsal and working on the piece through opening night. This method allowed her to investigate every moment of the piece and to consider how to restore elements of Rudyard Kipling’s original book, which served as the movie’s inspiration. While originally planning to make much greater use of Kipling’s original work, the tone of the Disney adaptation, particularly its score, made this untenable.

For Zimmerman, the key that unlocked the world of The Jungle Book was an understanding that this was a fantastical story about a boy who befriended wild animals in his imagination. Indeed, she framed the show with the image of a small boy in a Victorian sitting room. He holds a copy of The Jungle Book in his hands as he dozes off. A peafowl, one of the new female characters in the piece, guides him through a door into the story’s main setting, where the child sees himself as Mowgli, but is also privy to interactions in which he is not directly involved. In Zimmerman’s jungle, some of the characters have been fleshed out more and the currency of fire in the setting has been strengthened. The focus on fire and its potential to shift, destroy and transform leads to a key moment in the show, Shere Khan’s death, in which the audience is shown the tiger’s soul transitioning from one plane of reality into the next – probably the most significant addition to the piece. Before the final curtain falls, the young boy is returned to his chair. This strategy allows Zimmerman to blend the Indian, English and American strands of the tale into one cohesive whole, but it also makes the story a dream that has no impact on the real world.

The thing that is missing from this adaptation is the very thing that Zimmerman indicates as being at the heart of the story, which is, in her words, ‘a world of imagination – a paradise you’re going to lose.’ Just what is at stake here, in the world outside of this boy’s imagination? What threatens his world of imagination? Zimmerman’s libretto never grapples with this idea. While she finds a form that can be viewed more comfortably today than the original film, the stage musical relies on its resonance with an audience’s potential nostalgia for the film rather than engaging their minds and hearts on what this story might mean in our contemporary world.

The score of this new version of The Jungle Book included the favourites from the film like Terry Gilkyson’s “The Bare Necessities” and the Sherman Brothers’ “I Wanna Be Like You” and “Trust in Me.” It is augmented with material like the plaintive “Baloo’s Blues,” which was written for a read-along album that followed the film, More Jungle Book, as well as some of Kipling’s own lyrics in pieces like “Road Song of the Bandar-Log” and a completely new song by Richard Sherman called “An Unexpected Friend.” Even a song written for one of Disney’s regrettable direct-to-video sequels, “Jungle Rhythm” by Lorraine Feather, Paul Grabowsky and Joel McNeely, found its way into the show. Peck’s vision for the score’s sound was to marry the distinctly jazzy sound of Disney’s score with Indian musical styles. The pit included jazz musicians and classical Indian instrumentalists, juxtaposing saxophone with sitar, clarinet with Carnatic violin. Peck also incorporated a variety of authentic percussion instruments into his arrangements. While this approach could be incredibly superficial, a cosmetic and patronising reinvention of the score, Peck’s work on the songs and underscoring reduces everything to its fundamental harmonic and melodic components, after which he builds up everything the audience hears. The result is a score that sounds like something new, its diverse individual elements unified as a sum greater than its very substantial parts. It is a pity that no cast recording exists to showcase this version of the score.

That’s it for today. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the staging of the show, its design and its legacy. See you next week for Forgotten Musicals Friday!

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