The Saturday List: The Marvin Hamlisch Musicals Countdown

Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Jonathan Roxmouth in I'M PLAYING YOUR SONG

Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Jonathan Roxmouth

The Marvin Hamlisch story is the subject of a brand new show, I’m Playing Your Song, which will be performed during the festive season and through the new year at Montecasino and Theatre on the Bay in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa, respectively. Written by Jonathan Roxmouth and directed by Alan Swerdlow, the production stars Roxmouth alongside Sharon Spiegel-Wagner. Hamlisch is lauded as being one of the greatest songwriters of his time, an EGOT winner who has written tunes that have delighted theatre audiences, moviegoers and radio listeners for the past fifty years. In today’s “Saturday List”, Musical Cyberspace takes celebrates the first performances of I’m Playing Your Song with a look at Hamlisch’s five greatest musicals, with a brief look at their best songs, major productions and some suggestions for South African revivals of each of them. So without further ado, let the countdown begin!

5. The Goodbye Girl

When Hamlisch joined forces with Neil Simon and David Zippel to adapt Simon’s film The Goodbye Girl into a stage musical, expectations of what they would deliver must have been pretty high. With Bernadette Peters and Martin Short leading the cast, as incompatible roommates that fall in love over the course of the show, in a staging by Michael Kidd’s, the pedigree of the show was second to none. Imagine everyone’s disappointment when the show shuttered on Broadway after five months in 1993. A revised version of the show opened in Illinois the following year and a production with even further revisions – including new lyrics by Don Black – opened in 1997. With Black’s lyrics – perhaps typically – landing with a dull thud, the licensed version of the show remains the 1994 iteration of the material. Listening to the original cast album of the Hamlisch-Zippel version of the score offers some insight to the mixed reception the show had in its first run. The score is overwhelmingly bombastic at times, particularly in its ballads, but there’s some fun to be had in numbers like “Elliot Garfield Grant,” “Good News, Bad News” and “Don’t Follow in my Footsteps”. In fact, trimmed of its fat, The Goodbye Girl could probably make a snappy one-act musical comedy. Although a major South African production of the show seems unlikely, although it could be a great vehicle to pair up Bianca le Grange and Sne Dladla, who could certainly sell audiences on the material. Maybe their Blood Brothers and Orpheus in Africa director, David Kramer, could head up the show.

4. Smile

A 48-performance flop, Smile was the result of Hamlisch’s collaboration with Howard Ashman, who had had great success with Little Shop of Horrors. Chronicling the search for the ideal Young American Miss, the only record of Smile was a demo recording made for Samuel French to use in promoting the show to potential producers. This recording reflected some changes that had been made to the Broadway version of the show, some of which were reinstatements of earlier drafts of the material. Some of the songs – “Disneyland,” “Smile,” “In Our Hands,” and “Maria’s Song” surfaced in the Unsung Musicals recordings, with the first of those songs finding particular favour in the hands of original cast member, Jodi Benson. Songs from the musical also appear on the recording Howard Sings Ashman, where the composer and lyricist perform their own material. Although Smile has developed something of a minor cult following since its premiere, no major South African production of the musical has been produced. Perhaps Mixing Bowl Productions, who have been working hard to market the “new musical theatre” brand in their revues and concerts, could tackle this one. While Smile is certainly not recent enough to typically be considered “new musical theatre”, the approach is there in the material, and it is time for this fledgling company to start dealing with the complexities of narrative in musical theatre storytelling.

3. Sweet Smell of Success

Although Sweet Smell of Success only ran for 109 performances on Broadway in 2002, the show still represents Hamlisch’s best work for the stage since A Chorus Line in 1976. While critics at the time were less than complimentary about the Bob Crowley’s design, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography and Nicholas Hytner’s direction, Hamlish and the lyricist who crafted a literate set of lyrics for the show, Craig Carnelia, were nominated for a Tony Award and separate Drama Desk Awards for their score. John Guare also received a nomination for his book, which told the tale of 1950s Broadway gossip columnist, J. J. Hunsecker, who uses his influence, with the help of a struggling press agent, to interfere with his sister’s relationship with a hot young piano player. The cast recording is a testament to a score that is by turns jazzy, witty and touching, including the expository “The Column”, the soul-searching “At The Fountain”, the tender “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off” and the sharp-as-nails “One Track Mind”. There are plenty of other rewards to be had to upon listening to this recording. In fact, with another round of revisions and a different production team, I am convinced that Sweet Smell of Success could truly hit its stride as a first class musical comedy. With no South African production having taken place, the man to head up the job would have to be Steven Stead, whose KickstArt Theatre Company has seen him helm productions like Sweeney Todd, Shrek and Cabaret. Add the unstoppable Roxmouth himself into the mix as the struggling press agent, put him alongside his Sunset Boulevard co-star Bethany Dickson as the woman around whom the entire plot revolves, cast her Singin’ in the Rain leading man, Grant Almirall, as her lover and put his fellow Chicago cast member, Craig Urbani, in the role of J. J. Hunsecker, and you’d be all set for a killer night’s entertainment.

2. They’re Playing Our Song

Hamlisch collaborated with legendary pop lyricist Carole Bayer Sager to create They’re Playing Our Song, which was based on their own romantic relationship, bringing to life at the same time the dynamics in the relationship between a composer and lyricist. Although the score failed to nab a Tony Award nomination, Hamlisch was nominated for the Outstanding Music Drama Desk Award. Highlights of the score includes a couple of toe-tapping numbers in the title song and “Working It Out”, but also more tender pieces for each of the lead characters, namely “Fallin’” (for him) and “I Still Believe in Love” (for her). Following a 1978 world premiere in Los Angeles, They’re Playing Our Song opened on Broadway the following year and transferred to London in 1980, with a UK revival being staged in 2008. Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke produced the South African premiere of the show in 1980, with Mike Huff and Marloe Scott-Wilson playing the two leads. I wonder what Janice Honeyman could do with a revival of this show. How about putting her at the helm of a revival with Toni Jean Erasmus, who was a wonderful Sister Mary Robert in Honeyman’s production of Sister Act this year, and Dean Balie, who is currently one of the featured actors in Orpheus in Africa? It could be a fantastic prospect for Honeyman and her often-time Joburg Theatre producer, Bernard Jay.

1. A Chorus Line

Hamlisch’s most enduring stage work is the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, A Chorus Line. Following a stint of 101 performances Off-Broadway in 1975, the show transferred to Broadway where it ran for a record-breaking 6,137 performances. Marvin Hamlisch won (along with the show’s lyricist, Edward Kleban) the Tony Award for Best Original Score as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music for the show. The score features several unforgettable numbers, including the haunting “At the Ballet”, which Hamlisch described as the song that set the shape and color of the entire musical. There’s also the catchy “I Can Do That”, the hilarious “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” and the thrilling “The Music and the Mirror; each is a number that brilliantly delineates the character that sings the song. The masterful “Montage” juxtaposes the teenage experiences of all 17 dancers on the line. And that’s not even mentioning the show’s two biggest takeaway numbers, “One” and “What I Did for Love”, or the extensive underscoring that pulsates throughout the show. At present, the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever, A Chorus Line opened in the West End in 1976 and was adapted into an almost universally disliked film in 1985 before being revived in New York in 2006 (the casting for the revival being the subject of a documentary, Every Little Step) and in London in 2013. In between, A Chorus Line had its South African premiere in Cape Town in 1992, with Troy Garza restaging the original direction and choreography. Maybe when Pieter Toerien Productions is done with Singin’ in the Rain, the theatre mogul can cast a thought towards reviving this classic piece of musical theatre with our current generation of musical theatre performers – but only if it means we get to see Michael Bennett’s unbeatable original staging of the work.

Besides these five musicals, Hamlisch has also composed scores for the musicals Jean Seberg (1983, featuring the beautiful song, “Dreamers”) and The Nutty Professor (2012), as well as the many hit songs he wrote for films like The Way We Were (1973), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). If you’d like to hear which of Hamlisch’s songs Roxmouth and Spiegel-Wagner sing in I’m Playing Your Song, book your tickets for the show at Montecasino (where it runs until 10 January) or Theatre on the Bay (where it runs from 13 January – 6 February). Bookings are through Computicket.

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