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.