Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Sondheim, Side By Side

Stephen Sondheim may indeed be a Broadway Baby, but he is finding a high-profile second home on a couple of DC stages these days. This isn't the first time Sondheim Mania has gripped the city; back in 2002, the Kennedy Center spent the summer producing a festival of his work, including six homegrown, fully staged productions (I wrote about them here), plus an import in Japanese. Currently, KenCen is making national news with its starry revival of Follies, which I caught at a preview last week. They've spared no expense: the budget for this giant hovers around 7.3 million dollars, which places it in the local books as the most expensive show ever produced in the DC area.

Well, you can't really do Follies on a shoestring. Eric Shaeffer is at the helm; he is commonly acknowledged to be a primo director of Sondheim's work, and even founded a theatre based on the master. Eric's production of Passion, which I've heard was the first regional appearance of that problematic show after its Broadway run, was so successful that it attracted Sondheim's personal attention.

Schaeffer must have spent much of his Follies budget on the talent onstage. Bernadette Peters, who is legitimately known as a premier Sondheim interpreter, was still finding her way when I saw her last week. The reviews have pointed out that she is physically miscast as the frumpy housewife from Texas, and I won't quibble with that. But she nails her character's big aria, Losing My Mind, and from where I was sitting, she was taking that song literally. Peters was playing her role as if she were actually going nuts.

Broadway pros Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein are tearing up their roles, and I won't be surprised if they both land Helen Hayes awards for these performances. The various pastiche numbers which make Follies such fun were handled with a varying degree of success, at least during previews. I was not familiar with the French actress named Regine (who, according to her bio, invented the discotheque), but her novelty number, "Ah, Paree," was indecipherable. Linda Lavin powered through "Broadway Baby," and Terri White and the gals stopped the show with "Who's That Woman?".

I've been curious about Elaine Paige for decades. She is the British Patti Lupone, having played Evita, Reno Sweeney, and Norma Desmond, to great acclaim in London. I imagine it was a bit of a coup to get her on this side of the Atlantic to play a role which, let's face it, consists of a couple of wisecracks and one solo. But what a song: "I'm Still Here" is an anthem of show biz survival designed to bring the crowd to its feet. Ms. Paige is getting some flack from the critics for her conversational attack on this number, but I actually enjoyed that slant.

Overall, though, her interpretation did not excite me nearly as much as the rendition my friend Sherri Edelen is offering across the river at Signature Theatre. In the revue Side By Side By Sondheim, Sherri is taking the roof off the joint with her gutsy performance of "I'm Still Here," a song she is really too young to be singing. But with a musical revue, we don't care about such things, and The Sig's production is really a winner.

I have been a fan of Side By Side By Sondheim since I saw the original production on Broadway (I wrote about that here), and I was thoroughly entertained by Siggie's current offering. Director Matt Gardiner has tweaked the narration of the show quite a lot, all to the good (though that crack about Doogie Houser creaks a bit). In the original, there is a narrator with a podium, guiding the audience through this examination of Sondheim's early works. When I saw Hermione Gingold handle that chore, I was entranced. But that was a special case; usually the narrator comes off as a bit of an interruption. So, Gardiner was wise to drop that character, and give his new narration to the cast and musicians. And what a team they are. I'm not surprised that Sherri blew me away, she always does, but she is joined by a couple of out-of-towners who are also superb. Matthew Scott and Nancy Anderson round out the trio of performers who make great impressions, both singly and in groups. Oh, I might quibble with the necessity of hearing both "Marry Me A Little" and the song which replaced it in Company, "Being Alive," though Scott does a swell job with both ballads. The slot in act II in which he sings the latter is usually occupied by "Could I Leave You?", the number which Jan Maxwell is hitting out of the park over at KenCen. But everyone has their favorite Sondheim songs, and I suppose in a revue such as SxSxS, the director has some leeway with the song choices.

So, it's been a Sondheim-centric couple of weeks for me, which inspired this week's Dance Party. The late great Dorothy Loudon is our star (she appeared on a previous Dance Party here), and around the 3 minute mark, you start to realize what a terrific talent she was. I love the fact that something so simple as teaming these two songs together can bring down the house at Carnegie Hall, where this clip was filmed. Loudon, by the way, never created a Sondheim role, but she took over for Angela Lansbury in the original Sweeney Todd, and subsequently became one of the go-to stars whenever there was a tribute to the composer's work. She certainly has a handle on these two songs:

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture Day Obits

All three of these folks will be remembered for their creative contributions to various plays, musicals, and sitcoms.

Pam Gems

She was a prolific writer of original plays and adaptations of European classics, and is best remembered for her various biographical works for the stage. The RSC produced her first important work, Queen Christina, in 1977. Soon after, she penned what would become her most successful piece, Piaf. It was a play with music concerning the tortured life of Edith Piaf, the French songbird; star Jane Lapotaire had a great success in the role, playing in London before transferring to Broadway in 1981. Lapotaire won the Tony, though Gems was overlooked. Piaf has had several revivals since then, including a recent showing for which star Elena Roger won London's Olivier Award. In the original Broadway production, a young Jean Smart played Marlene Dietrich; Gems would return to Broadway more than a decade later with Marlene, which would earn her a Tony nod (as well as one for star Sian Phillips, who commissioned the piece from Gems as a vehicle for herself). Pam also received a Tony nomination for Stanley, which concerned the English painter Stanley Spencer. As happened frequently in her career, Gems's work provided greater success for the actors appearing in her plays than for herself; Antony Sher received kudos on both sides of the Atlantic playing Stanley (the show has the ignominious honor of being the final production ever produced by Circle in the Square Theatre, which folded when the show closed).

Other personalities which received the Pam Gems treatment included Mad King Ludwig II, Queen Guinevere, Admiral Lord Nelson, and actresses Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Ethel Merman. She died this week at the age of 85.

Russell Warner


He had an active career as a music director, arranger, and composer, but his lasting fame will be as an "orchestrational historian." OK, I made that term up, but it fits our gent to a tee. Musical charts for the orchestrations for many shows produced before 1940 are incomplete or have totally disappeared. Organizations such as the City Center Encores series, and recording labels such as PS Classics, recognize the importance of preserving these classic shows, but how to do so, when the original charts are incomplete or completely absent? Russell Warner to the rescue. According to everyone who knows about such things, Warner had the ability to recreate orchestrations in the style of the original artists. Civilians, and even most of us in the biz, may never have heard of Hans Spialek, Frank Saddler, or Robert Russell Bennett, but they were responsible for the orchestrations for classic early shows by the likes of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George M. Cohan, Richard Rodgers, and the Gershwins. Our hero had the ability to recreate missing passages from the shows of these greats, in the very style of the individual orchestrators attached to the projects. Lady Be Good, Very Good Eddie, Little Johnny Jones, Fine and Dandy, Sweet Adeline,and many other shows benefited from Warner's recreated orchestrations. He had a particular affinity for Jerome Kern's work, and participated in the landmark 1988 recording of Show Boat, which included, for the first time, all of the music which was played on opening night in 1927 for that groundbreaking musical; the recording, on three discs, is considered one of the finest recreations of original show music ever assembled. Russell's love of Kern resulted in his writing a piano concerto, called Kerncerto, which premiered at Carnegie Hall, played by the New York Pops. In 1998, he scored a ballet for the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company called Silver Lining, using Jerome Kern tunes, which is still in the company's repertoire. In addition to his restoration work, he worked extensively in regional theatre (for DC's Arena Stage, he orchestrated Animal Crackers and Cocoanuts) and on Broadway (Shenandoah). He also spent four years conducting the Coffee Club Orchestra for Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion. Later this year, PS Classics will release a new studio recording of the fully restored score to the Gershwins' 1930 hit Strike Up The Band, which will be dedicated to Russell Warner, who died last month at the age of 74.

Here's a lucky guy who made a fortune, literally, by writing a single episode of a single television series:

Sol Saks


The majority of this writer's career was spent in radio, penning episodes for Ozzie and Harriet and Baby Snooks. In early television, he found work with the sitcoms My Favorite Husband and I Married Joan. But it was his lifting of the scenarios of two feature films which would make his fortune.

Both I Married a Witch and Bell, Book, and Candle concerned beautiful young witches romantically involved with mortal men. Saks took this basic idea and, in 1964, wrote the pilot episode for one of the most successful sitcoms of the decade:

The series which he created ran 8 years, and was the breakout hit among several supernatural-tinged sitcoms which premiered the same season (The Addams Family and The Munsters also premiered in 1964, though each lasted only two years). Bewitched landed at #2 in the ratings for its first season, and remained in the top 20 for five years. Even as the show slipped to a dismal #72 in its final year, Saks was crying all the way to the bank. As creator of the series, he received a piece of the show's profit throughout its run and syndication (it can still be seen in reruns all over the world), but he wrote only the pilot episode. Saks's first choice for the leading role of Samantha was that quirky elf Tammy Grimes, who had impressed him in a recent film. But Grimes was committed to spend a year on Broadway playing in Noel Coward's High Spirits, so the role went to Elizabeth Montgomery, at the time known primarily as an aspiring dramatic actress and daughter of film star Robert Montgomery. After creating the pilot episode, Sol then stepped away from the series; the longevity of the show was in the hands of other writer/producers such as Danny Arnold, who created the long-term roles of Larry Tate and the Kravitz couple (none of these characters appeared in the pilot), and William Asher, who took the reigns of the series while being married to the show's star. Sol Saks died last month, a very rich man, at the age of 100.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Look Back In Angora

Due to the rapture tomorrow, this may be the final Dance Party. So, it seems odd that today's star is Elvis Presley, since I am not his biggest fan, and one would think I should go out with a bigger bang. Still, I'm determined to carry on business as usual. The clip below is inspired by one of its writers:

Dolores Fuller


She was a Hollywood bit player and extra, appearing in the background of It Happened One Night and standing in for Dinah Shore on her TV series. In her later life, she managed a few stars and booked talent for Vegas. She even co-wrote lyrics for a few, very forgettable, Elvis Presley tunes. None of this would bring her any kind of celebrity, but by chance, she wore an angora sweater to an audition in the early 50s, and attracted the attention of this guy:

Ed Wood is the "auteur" who is credited with the worst film in Hollywood history, Plan Nine From Outer Space, and several other abysmal flicks. His films are apparently a scream to sit through (I've never seen one). Camera angles, dialogue, and special effects are all handled with such ineptitude that the poor schnook never got any respect. He led an unusual private life which intersected with his film career when he wrote, directed, and starred in Glen or Glenda, about a crossdresser. Dolores Fuller, and her angora sweater, played the female lead, though she later confessed she never read the full script and had no idea it was about a transvestite until the premier of the film. By then she had moved in with Wood, and accepted his habit of wearing angora sweaters as an artistic eccentricity. Once the film came out, she realized why her underwear often disappeared and then reappeared in the wrong drawer at home: Ed Wood was wearing them.

Wood, Fuller, and his entire film oeuvre would have sunk into complete obscurity had it not been for this guy:

Tim Burton's biographical film Ed Wood revived interest in this oddball, and Johnny Depp's wide-eyed performance insured that his name is at least remembered by Hollywood historians. Sarah Jessica Parker played our gal Dolores in the film,saying at the time that Fuller was the worst actress in Hollywood history. Not a very kind thing to say, as Dolores was still very much alive. Martin Landau won an Oscar playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, which is surely the closest the real Ed ever got to an academy award.

Dolores Fuller died this week; sadly, there are no musical numbers from Glen or Glenda or her other Ed Wood starrer, Jail Bait, so in her honor, the Dance Party features a pretty silly number from Girl Happy; it contains one of several Elvis Presley songs which Fuller helped write (none of which became much of a hit). Everybody do the Clam!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Dance Party: Always Mademoiselle

This week’s Dance Party will either fascinate you or make you shudder, but it’s difficult to look away. It is another clip from the Tony Awards broadcast, and holds a bit of distinction there, more on that in a mo’. In the late 60s, somebody came up with the questionable idea that the life of French fashion maven Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel would make a good musical. The designer, primarily known as the inventor of the basic black cocktail dress and the perfume used by old ladies, was agreeable, believing it would be a celebration of her long life, from youth to old age. That idea went out the window when Rosalind Russell became attached to the project. Instead, Coco became an examination of Chanel’s big comeback in her middle age, and a nostalgic look at the choices which made her career a success but her private life a solitary one. Russell bowed out of the project early on, due to advancing arthritis, and a search was conducted to find another high-profile star. In hindsight, the choice of Katherine Hepburn, who had never done a musical film or play, seems a bizarre one. The critics were not enthusiastic, but the audiences were, and our Kate played to full houses throughout her run; when she left the show, the box office sank and the show closed within two months. To her credit, Hepburn hit the road in the National Tour. Reportedly, she felt an obligation to the producers to help repay the financing; Coco was the most expensive show to ever be produced on Broadway at the time. The regional reviewers were not any kinder to the show, but Hepburn played to packed houses throughout the tour. Coco has never received a major revival (though Ginger Rogers played it in summer stock once), and regional and community theaters shy away from the project. It requires a considerable costume budget which is simply out of range these days. Cabaret star Andrea Marcovicci has been tinkering with the piece in recent years, appearing in semi-staged versions in San Francisco and New York, and these presentations have brought at least a little appreciation for a show which is remembered as decidedly mediocre. The score, by Alan Jay Lerner and Andre Previn (in his only Broadway work) isn’t a bad one for the time, and if you can get beyond Hepburn’s croaking in this clip, you can actually detect a hummable melody. Coco has a sappy ingenue and an unlikeable leading man, and several characters , including Coco's father and various lovers, appeared only on film. The fact that Hepburn was able to interact with that should also be applauded. There is one other memorable role in this star vehicle: a swishy designer played by a young Rene Aubergonois. It is occasionally noted that this character is the first sympathetic homosexual to appear on the Broadway stage (I'm not too sure about that claim). The Tony committee took notice of Rene's flamboyant performance in this tiny role and gave him the Supporting Actor award, launching his career. The show should be remembered for the brave, eccentric work of Katherine Hepburn, whose two-note musical range did not stop her from turning in a charismatic performance. But it should also be remembered for the participation of Michael Bennett as choreographer and de facto co-director. He had, at the time, four flops and one hit (Promises, Promises) on his resume, and he was responsible for pulling this unwieldy musical together. The director of record, Michael Benthall, had directed Hepburn in The Millionairess and As You Like It, and had the star’s full backing, but he had no experience with musicals and was a raging drunk who could not handle the demands of such a large-scale show. When Bennett picked up the reigns and pulled the show together, he was set on the path to becoming one of the most creative and successful directors of musicals. The clip below holds the distinction of being, in its complete form, the longest piece of anything ever presented at the Tony Awards. It clocked in at a whopping 15 minutes and includes a full scene of dialogue before we get to the good stuff (that preceding scene includes canned laughter added after the taping, obviously misplaced). This number is the finale of the show, and was pre-recorded. Though it’s done all the time now, this was the first time a clip from a nominated musical was not performed live for the Tony audience; Hepburn’s refusal to attend awards shows (she was not present to pick up any of her four Oscars) required the producers to film the sequence in advance. This number, though not technically dance, is a good illustration of two of Michael Bennett’s signature trademarks. Even this early in his career, he was experimenting with the "cinematic bleed" he later perfected with Dreamgirls, and Coco’s revolving turntable helped with that effect. Of course, you can’t miss the mirrors here, which were to become a Bennett trademark; he later used mirrors to great effect in Follies and A Chorus Line. Cecil Beaton won a Tony for his elaborate costume designs, though he can not take credit for the red-shaded gowns used in this number. They are all Chanel originals, culled from a lifetime of her designs. Katherine Hepburn’s birthday was yesterday, so in her honor, here is her only musical theater appearance: