Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Dance Party: One of Egypt's Millionaires

If you are in need of a bit of an ego boost (even a pretend one), get into a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and play the part of Jacob. He is the patriarch of the piece, father to 12 sons and, in our production, husband to six wives (but unlike Henry VIII's six wives, these gals all adore their husband). At various times during the play, all 18 family members, plus the mother and son who provide the structure of our story, spend a good bit of time singing Jacob's praises. And I get to stand there and listen. Twenty full-throated voices belting adulation is good for the soul.

But I wouldn't wish the scratchy beard on anybody. You really cannot play that venerable old Hebrew Jacob without one, and as I joined the cast very late, I had no opportunity to grow one (mine is not bad, as I proved a couple of years ago when playing Polonius in North Carolina). Well, our costumer would not have wanted me to attempt to grow my own beard anyway, as I was also cast in the small but pivotal role of Potiphar, a rich Egyptian who tosses Joseph into jail for philandering with his wife. It is this part which provides this week's Dance Party.

Potiphar's song is a perky little ditty with a snazzy softshoe tempo, reminiscent of a Music Hall song, and though it is quick and breezy, it has a bit of importance in the overall structure of the score. It is the second of the pastiche numbers with which Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice sprinkled their show. In the course of the piece, we get a calypso number, a French boulevard tune, a country-western song, even an homage to Elvis; Potiphar's Song is one which lets the audience know they are going to be entertained with a variety of musical styles in Joseph.

My scratchy old LP of the original cast recording of Joseph, the one starring Bill Hutton and Laurie Beechman which first reached Broadway in the early 80s, has the actor playing Potiphar sing his song as a solo. I doubt it's done that way much anymore, as it's a bit awkward for the character to be singing about himself in the third person, and anyway, the number as a whole works better, I think, when the lyrics are divided among the cast. Our director made some decisions about which lyrics should be sung by Potiphar, which by the narrator, and so on, and I think it tells the story well; you will see in the clip below the way the story is normally told in other productions these days (ours, as I said, is slightly different).

This clip comes from the official videotaped production of the show, so we can only assume this is the definitive version, according to Lloyd Webber's vision. I find it dull as toast, and thoroughly lacking in the sprightly charm which the number really ought to have. Our hero is being played by Donny Osmond, who played Joseph for several years around the country, and is probably the biggest star ever attached to this slender piece.

For the video, heavy-hitters such as Joan Collins and Sir Richard Attenborough were enlisted to fill out the cast, and the result is a laborious effort.

You would have to describe both Collins, playing Mrs. Potiphar, and Attenborough, playing Jacob, as fairly charm-free. Placing the show in the confines of a schoolhouse auditorium did the show no favors, and I personally feel the addition of so many non-musical performers sinks the video. They surely don't know how to frolic like we do, and Joseph... needs some frolicking. Perhaps you'll drop by our version at Olney Theatre in Maryland to check out our version of Potiphar's Song; until then, take a peak at this overblown production:

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Betty, It's Cold Outside

Betty Garrett

On television, she lived next door to the Bunkers for a couple of years (a gig she inherited from Sada Thompson, who quit the show after one episode), and was Laverne's stepmother in Laverne and Shirley's later years, a performance for which she won the Golden Globe. She was nominated for an Emmy for a guest spot on Becker in 2003, losing to Christina Applegate's turn on Friends.

But she considered her brief time as a player on the MGM lot to be the highlight of her long career. She had a goofy chemistry with a young Frank Sinatra in two films, one of which, On The Town, is considered a classic of the genre.

Her film career was cut short by the House Un-American Activities Committee, when her husband, Oscar nominee Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), was forced to name some names. Our Betty ducked her interrogation by being 9 months pregnant; pictures of a pregnant woman being hauled before the committee were deemed too unseemly. Nevertheless, her career was severely damaged by the experience (and her husband's was demolished); they survived the blacklist by performing a nightclub act, and by forming a construction company.

Betty's Broadway career included Call Me Mister and the 2001 revival of Follies (she sang "Broadway Baby"). She and her husband replaced the stars of the original Bells Are Ringing in 1956, and in 1989, Betty was hoofing it up in a fundraiser for AIDS when she was spotted by a producer who thought she was dead. The charity gig landed her a role in Meet Me In St. Louis, which ran for a year or so on Broadway.

That charity gig, the Southland Theatre Artists Goodwill Event (known in L.A. as S.T.A.G.E.), is an ongoing annual concert which I attended many times when I lived in California. Betty was always one of the co-chairs of the evening, which gathers dozens of Hollywood types together to sing songs in tribute to some composer or other, and Garrett always contributed a zippy comic tune to the proceedings. I know she will be sorely missed at this year's gala next month.

Betty introduced this week's Dance Party in Neptune's Daughter, opposite the excruciating Red Skelton. Frank Loesser wrote the tune for himself and his first wife, who performed the ditty at parties in New York before he sold it to the movies. His wife was furious (she considered it their song), but perhaps she calmed down a bit when it won the Oscar.

Betty Garrett, at age 91, was in good health before her sudden death last weekend (a few days earlier, she had even taught her usual musical comedy class at Theatre West, an organization she helped found). I waited on Betty several times when I worked as a waiter in Los Angeles, and she was always charming and likable. She'll be missed.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Jukebox Tap

The stars of this week's Dance Party have both appeared in these pages before, though never together. If you are interested in even more Astaire-style partnering than is illustrated below, you can see Fred with Ginger here and here, and Fred with Leslie here, and Fred with Betty here. But I think the real star below is Eleanor Powell, considered the preeminent tapper, male or female, of her generation. Her previous appearance here is stolen by her costar, a dog, but she holds her own with Astaire in this clip from Broadway Melody of 1940. Though Ginger Rogers became far more famous as Astaire's dance partner, Powell teamed with him many times, and is clearly the superior hoofer. She died 29 years ago today.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

No No No Joseph

I'd like to say I hit the ground running when I showed up for my first rehearsal of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Olney Theatre, but that would be a huge lie. Instead, I hit the ground stumbling.

When I walked into the rehearsal hall that first day, the cast was already assembled and seated around the piano for a full day of music rehearsal. (They had already spent the previous day on the music as well, but as the piece is non-stop music, it's clearly time well-spent.)

I was a last-minute replacement in this cast (as I mentioned here), so I was quickly introduced to the group at large. Once we began rehearsal, I was immediately struck by the expertise this cast has, musically. It's a big cast (more than 20 !), quite large compared to other musicals these days, and many of the actors are in the early stages of their careers. That's as it should be, I suppose, for this particular show. Joseph... was penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber when he was only 20 years old. The show has a very youthful feel, and is best served by actors who are youthful as well (just a few years ago, a national tour of the show came through DC, with Patrick Cassidy in the title role. I like that particular Cassidy, but he was solidly in his 40s at the time, and the show just did not play right).

In addition to those actors who are just starting out, our cast also includes a handful of seasoned (though still young) musical performers who work all over town. They anchor the chorus numbers with professional savvy, and I'm sure the result will be a dynamic show.

I was in that dynamic chorus for a day or too, until the union stepped in. Though I've performed in quite a few musicals over the years, I have not been in the chorus of a musical since my undergrad days. When I was brought into the current project, it was on an Equity Principle contract, which, as it turns out, has some differences from the Equity Chorus contract.

Specifically, it means I cannot be placed in the ensemble as anything other than the two roles for which I was contracted. Someone noticed this clause in the contract after I had spent many hours in dance rehearsal mode, staging one of the central numbers in the piece, provocatively called "Go Go Go Joseph." Gotta love those lyrics, but I digress.

So, I've been pulled out of any ensemble work, and will be appearing on the stage only as one of the two roles for which I was contracted. I actually prefer being busy during a show, I learned back at The Shakespeare Theatre Co. that we who were constantly carrying spears, hoisting banners, hauling thrones, and wielding broadswords, were having more fun than the principle actors, who often spent hours in the green room playing cards while waiting for their scenes to pop up.

So it is with musicals as well; the more numbers you are in, the quicker the actual show will go. (And the more fun you will have.) Judging from this week's staging rehearsals, I will have some downtime between my appearances on stage, but as the show itself is barely longer than an hour, I doubt I'll get too bored. And unless you think I'm grousing, I actually appreciate that the union is attempting to keep their actors from being taken advantage of. I chatted with our music guru Chris regarding the issue, and he succinctly made this observation: without clauses such as the one which will keep me out of our big choral numbers, certain producers are bound to insist that their leading players be required to slap on a wig and a moustache and play "Man with Suitcase" in act II. So the regulations are good ones, in my opinion, even if they will keep me from memorizing such complicated lyrics as "Go Go Go."

And on the topic of memorization, it appears that many of my castmates have done Joseph... before, I guess it's a favorite in high schools and college musical theatre programs. I have never done this piece, so I'd love to learn the trick to memorizing all the colors on the damn coat.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Born Free (My Father's a Doctor)

If this guy hadn't lived, we would never have been able to sing that little parody as kids.
John Barry


With the possible exception of John Williams, Barry was the most recognizable name in the movie composing business. His work as a bandleader in his native England brought him to the attention of the producers of Dr. No, and his scoring of that early James Bond flick was the beginning of a long association with the franchise. He provided music for 12 Bond films in all, including Goldfinger; producer Harry Saltzman called the title song the worst song he had ever heard. The soundtrack album went to #1 in 1965. Barry does not, however, receive credit for the highly recognizable guitar riff which launches every Bond film, that honor goes to composer Monty Norman.

Barry's non-Bond work included lush scores for hugely romantic, adventure-filled epics, as well as a few smaller films, and even some TV themes (his work on The Pretenders! back in the 60s is still well regarded). He won two Oscars (for Best Song and Best Score) for Born Free, and won another Oscar for his chant-ridden score for Lion in Winter.
He disagreed with Sydney Pollack regarding the music for Out of Africa; the director wanted a score based on African native music, but Barry insisted the film was instead a love story between two people. The result was another lushly romantic score and another Oscar (and a Grammy, too). John won his fifth Oscar for Dances With Wolves, again resisting the obvious. Instead of basing his music on the sounds of native Americans, he recognized that this story of a stranger encountering a new world must have music which reflected the loner's outsider impressions of that world. This soundtrack album also won the Grammy.

In addition to those mentioned above, Barry won Grammy Awards for Midnight Cowboy and The Cotton Club. His popular score for Somewhere in Time was nominated for the Golden Globe, and additional Oscar noms came with Chaplin and Mary, Queen of Scots.

It is from that last film that this week's Dance Party springs. The historical Mary Queen of Scots has always held a fascination for me. She ascended the throne of Scotland at the ripe age of 6 days, and was shipped off to marry the future king of France before she was seven years old. That marriage was endured despite the mother-in-law from hell, Catherine De'Medici, and ended with the death of her husband from an ear infection (and some nasty business with undescended testicles), so she returned to Scotland as a teenager. She married her bisexual cousin and had a son (the future James I of England - don't get me started on HIM), then her
philandering husband was murdered by her own advisors. She was deposed by her bastard half-brother and raped by her third husband, who imprisoned her until she miscarried twins. She made a daring escape to England, hoping for help from her cousin Elizabeth I, who promptly imprisoned her for 19 years before executing her. How could that story turn into such a sludge-fest of a film? Mary Queen of Scots the movie is pretty starry, with Vanessa Redgrave in the title role, and Glenda Jackson, doing her familiar Elizabeth the First bit, but the movie comes off as little more than a history lesson (and it's pretty lousy at that, too, as it takes lots of dramatic liberties).

Ah well, whatever. The clip below opens the film and was shot at the Ch√Ęteau de Chenonceau in France, with Redgrave, uncharacteristically willowy, crooning a sweet tune about joy and death, to the first of Mary's three husbands, Francis II of France. I find this an interesting song, as composer John Barry put music to a sonnet written by Mary herself in the 16th century. It would have been fun if the song had won the Oscar, with Mary Queen of Scots as lyricist. Tuesday will mark the 424th anniversary of Mary's execution at the hands of Elizabeth I, so to celebrate that fun fact, and to commemorate the death of John Barry (who died last weekend), here is Vanessa extolling the joys of death:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Dancing at the Liaison Auditions

I have been proud to have been an important part of the DC annual group auditions for Equity talent, sponsored by the AEA Liaison Committee. My own audition is usually the least important aspect of the event, as I also spend the two days of auditions funneling the attending actors through the process.

This kind of group audition, where about 200 actors appear before scores of theater companies and casting professionals, is not a favorite of the union in New York. They much prefer the hard-won requirement that theaters hold auditions independently, giving local actors the opportunity to be seen. But our Liaison Committee Auditions have been a big success in the ten years of their existence, and we have reportedly become a bit of a model for similar group auditions elsewhere.

What does all this have to do with Happy Dancing? Well, yesterday, I received concrete proof that attending our auditions yields results. We were deep into our second morning of auditions, and I was enjoying a rare few moments off my feet, seated with my dear friend and fellow committee member Barbara. Have I mentioned Barb before? I first met her years ago, when we were both appearing in the local satirical musical group, Mrs. Foggy Bottom and Friends. Over the years, she has become a great friend and fellow martini enthusiast.

Barbara and I were sitting with our friend Valerie, a striking actress who, if I played for the other team, would definitely be on my radar. As it is, it's always a pleasure running into her around town.

The three of us, then, were sitting in the hallway which acts as a sort of holding cell for the actors waiting to audition, when one of the Powers That Be at Olney Theatre hurried up the hall. Brad is a theater leader who consistently brings me in for auditions throughout his season. He stopped a few feet away from our group and said, "I've been looking for you." Frankly, I thought he was talking to Valerie, who has appeared many times on the Olney stage (while I've appeared there only once), but no, Brad was pointing straight at me.

The upshot of the encounter: Olney had just lost one of the actors slated to appear in their upcoming production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The show was already in rehearsal, and Brad had, just a few moments earlier, been interrupted during the auditions, and been told that the actor had dropped out of the show. He wanted to know if I was available to step in as a replacement.

Now this is surprising for one reason: I had auditioned for this production back in September, and David the director, whom I knew very slightly from years ago, didn't display much interest in me. We had a nice little chat at my audition, but I could tell this one was going nowhere. I did not receive a callback (nor did I deserve one; I am not the best auditioner on the planet, or even on the block). So when Brad put the wheels in motion so that an actual job offer could be generated, I asked him tentatively, "Does David know about this?" That was a stupid question, of course David knew about this, he is the director. Brad confirmed, "He was the one who mentioned you on the phone. He asked if R. Scott might be available, and I said, well, I'll walk across the hall and ask him."

And he did, and I said yes to the offer, and less than 20 minutes after being approached by Brad, I had a new gig. One that had already started. In fact, Brad wanted me at rehearsal that same day at 2. "Just be sure to get your Equity ass in my theater this afternoon," were his last words before he returned to the audition chamber to watch more actors.

I know I'll be reporting on my newest adventure in future pages, but for now, I'm still in a bit of pleasant shock that this opportunity popped up so unexpectedly. I have not had any time to get really excited about the gig, I've been playing a bit of catch-up. But I, for one, will never question the value of the group audition. Not only can you be hired from one, you can actually be hired DURING one.