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February 27, 2015

February’s Leftovers and March’s Brainteaser

Well, with one of the most frigid February on records, we certainly answered Joanne’s question in COMPANY in no uncertain terms. On Broadway, everybody this month indeed wore a hat.

February 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of KELLY, the notorious one-performance flop. KELLY’S composer was Mark Charlap, more chummily known by his nickname “Moose.” (Don’t ask me why; he didn’t particularly look like a moose.) The agonies Moose suffered from unsympathetic producers made for a fascinating twelve-page article in the SATURDAY EVENING POST a couple of months after the closing (republished nicely in Steven Suskin’s SECOND ACT TROUBLE). Charlap and his collaborator Eddie Lawrence felt their original show and concept were utterly bowdlerized, dismembered and killed. As a result, any story about Charlap’s difficulties could now have as its title the name of another one-performance disaster that would happen eighteen years later: MOOSE MURDERS.

It was also the 50th anniversary of my seeing the tryout of THE ODD COUPLE at the Colonial in Boston. As a result, I commemorated the anniversary by watching the film version. There I found a flaw that had never occurred to me before: Felix comes to Oscar’s every week to play poker – but considering that the apartment is an utterly smelly pigsty, would Felix really be able to endure sitting in the midst of this squalor for hours on end? I’d say he’d find another game in another locale.

The most endearingly amusing thing I heard in February? It came courtesy of Kurt Deutsch, the brains behind Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records. Some years back, he brought out THE DROWSY CHAPERONE original cast album both on compact disc and vinyl. The latter medium was chosen because Man in Chair, the character who loves this musical called THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, has it only on a good ol’ fashioned record. Deutsch said that people who are now producing the show write him to order the vinyl recording – because in the script, Man in Chair must hold up the actual cast album to show the audience. So although Deutsch pressed the vinyl copy so that people with turntables could listen, the record is bought primarily as the prop for that moment in the show.

(This came up, by the way, in the podcast I do most every Sunday at Do tune in. It won’t hurt you.)

The funniest story heard in all February came from James Grissom, the author of FOLLIES OF GOD, his book about Tennessee Williams, the women in his plays, and the actresses who portrayed them. At ReGroup Theatre’s kickoff for the book, Grissom spoke about the time he was out with Jo Van Fleet, who went shopping and wanted to write a check. When the clerk asked for identification, she reached into her large handbag and pulled out the Oscar she won for EAST OF EDEN. “She carried it with her everywhere,” he said. (P.S.: It was good enough for the clerk to ring up the sale.)

February also saw the beginning of previews for ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Mary Louise Wilson is playing Mrs. Primrose. Is she doing all eight performances, or is she skipping matinees? If she does avoid the daytime shows, we’ll be able to call her Evening Primrose.

AN OCTOROON reminded me of SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER – and I mean that as a compliment. Just as Mel Brooks figured the best defense against history’s most famous madman was to laugh, so too does playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins feel that’s the way to go in mocking Dion Boucicault’s 1859 hit THE OCTOROON that treated slavery as a matter-of-fact-of-life.

He’s named a character BJJ as a stand-in for him who explains what he’s up to. “Sympathy, compassion and understanding is what we learn from theater,” he says. He’s right, and he delivers on the promise. Jacob-Jenkins takes Boucicault’s plot and a good chunk of his dialogue, but has also added many contemporary references, such as two women talking of attending “a slave mixer” this weekend. But in a fanciful, mock-heroic production by Sarah Benson, AN OCTOROON turns THE OCTOROON on its ear and knocks it on its booty.

The main plot involves George’s love for Zoe hampered by her being one-eighth black – more than enough to keep them from marrying. But the mustachioed villain, the unpaid mortgage and the asides are all here, too. What wasn’t included way-back-when was an actor wearing a rabbit head. Don’t ask – just enjoy. Trix may only be for kids, but tricks are there for this rabbit to take.

And yet, after each scene that had us laughing uproariously at the excesses of nineteenth-century mellerdrama, we’re jolted into reality by seeing the lives of the indentured blacks. They discuss the differences between “field slaves” and “house slaves,” the illegality of a slave’s learning to read, their uncertain fates at being sold at a moment’s notice -- leading to the assumption that the master you know is better than the master you don’t know. That the theater goes from wild laughter to sober silence proves that Jacobs-Jenkins has succeeded.

In addition to a sterling cast of eight, the stage sports plenty of “snow,” albeit not of Bostonian proportions. What happens to that snow is a terrific coup de theatre, but it’s only one of the reasons to visit AN OCTOROON.

And HAMILTON? For decades I’ve met many young writers who’ve said, eyes glistening, “I’m going to write the world’s first rap musical!” Each time I had to restrain myself from throwing my head in my hands and moaning loudly, but I managed to keep my grief inside.

I’m not sure if HAMILTON qualifies as “the world’s first rap musical” – there may be quite a few I’ve forgotten or avoided – but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway-bound new work scored a bull’s eye with me.

This surprised me, for I hate when music sounds anachronistic. 1776, thanks to composer Sherman Edwards and orchestrator Eddie Sauter – sounds authentically 18th century to me. But HAMILTON doesn’t suffer because rap is inherently angry and agitated – an acceptable sound for the periods of intense tumult experienced by the 13 colonies (in the first act) and the new nation (in the second).

Much of the time the rap is a t-i-n-y but slower than what we hear blaring out of radios of cars with open windows, which helps us to understand what’s being said. But even when we don’t get every word (and I’ll bet precious few do), we know enough about history (I hope!) to see us through.

What’s most skillful is that just when rap seems to run the risk of running away with the show, a true song comes in, and every one of them is stunning. Prepare to hear more finger snaps than in THE ADDAMS FAMILY and WEST SIDE STORY combined; they will, however, be matched by the number of toe-taps that accompany the music.

Miranda is one of those rare musical theater writers who follows his freshman effort with a greater success – partly by never being sophomoric. Hamilton is an immigrant and they, as the show reminds us, get the hard work done in any country. Although he recognizes (quite euphonically) that “New York City is insidious,” he also insists that “In New York, you can be a new man.” Because he sees possibilities, he proclaims “I am not throwing away my shot!”

This line is repeated so much that I started wondering if during the duel Burr would sing the line. It’s probably a good idea that he didn’t.

No, Miranda has better ideas and stronger images to dispense. He quickly establishes his Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (a name that sits well on music). Burr advises, “Don’t let them know what you’re against or for,” to which Hamilton says “You can’t be serious!”

Fence-sitting, which is often profitable, isn’t here. Burr becomes increasingly frustrated that his oh-so-careful, oh-so-planned, oh-so-political, machinations don’t serve him in the way he’d expected. He’s jealous of Hamilton’s rising star. It’s conservative vs. liberal for the first time in American history.

“The Room Where It Happens” is the grandchild of “Someone in a Tree” as Burr wonders what Hamilton and Washington are up to while squirreled away. (Hamilton certainly holds his own, by the way.) “I want to be in the room where it happens,” he snarls. Beneath the red, white and blue bunting is a green-eyed monster.

That Hamilton’s wife Eliza loves him so much makes us sad, for we know how the story will end. But probably most of us don’t know the situation that will eventually make her say “I hope that you die.” She’ll find out that she really doesn’t. Before he dies, she’ll have to see him again under arduous circumstances. And after he’s killed, Burr comes to the conclusion that “The world was more than big enough for Hamilton and me.”

Miranda doesn’t forget George III, who has a terrific song that, thank the Lord, has two equally effective reprises. “You’ll Be Back,” the King predicts to a bubble-gum melody and feel that could just as easily be sung by a spurned lover who believes his girlfriend will someday be sorry. While singing, Brian d’Arcy James gives a hilariously unctuous semi-smile that sits well under his Imperial margarine crown.

If God is in the details, The Supreme Being has blessed Miranda. He notes how a comma in a letter’s salutation can mean a lot. What a powerful line is “Your perfume tells me your father has money.” Musical theater writers are urged not to write “on the nose” – meaning “to say things in the most obvious way,” and Miranda instead puts eloquence in every mouth.

HAMILTON is non-traditionally cast down to the flower girl.
Considering all the talk about how ground-breaking the show is, such a line as “A revolution is happening in New York” turns out to be an inadvertent comment. But there are enough musical theater touchstones to please the purist. Miranda is traditional enough to open the second act with A Numba. In the great musical theater tradition, after a funny and charming song, matters suddenly become deadly serious. Considering that Miranda has written book, music, lyrics and stars as Hamilton, too, this has to be the greatest coup of musical theater since the early ‘60s when Anthony Newley did almost as much with STOP THE WORLD – I WANT TO GET OFF.

Tom Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography make for a seamless, sure-handed musical replete with stunning stage pictures, all under Howell Binkley’s extraordinary lighting (whose intricate teching must have taken many days).

What may be the best byproduct of HAMILTON is that it makes you want to know even more about the man. Don’t be surprised if this musical helps Ron Chernow’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON back onto the best-seller lists.

The answer to last month’s brainteaser -- which asked why these songs were in this order – is that each mentions a month of the year: “Charity Concert” (EVITA; January); “Dear Love” (FLORA, THE RED MENACE; February), “Camelot” (CAMELOT; March), “The Butler’s Song” (SO LONG, 174TH STREET; April), “Just You Wait” (MY FAIR LADY; May), “Loveland” (FOLLIES; June), “A Summer in Ohio” (THE LAST FIVE YEARS; July), “Paris through the Window” (A CLASS ACT; August), “The March of Time” (CLOSER THAN EVER; September), “A Well-Known Fact” (I DO! I DO!; October), “It’s a Boy” (THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES; November) and “Now’s the Time” (DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS; December).

Ken Bailey was the first to get it, followed by Jack Lechner, John Bacarella, Peter Alfano, Mike Meaney, Arthur Robinson, Charlie Faul, Christopher Connelly, Brigadude, Donald Tesione, Karen Valen, Scott McClintock, Richard Sherwin, Joshua Ellis, Robert Wills, Laura Frankos, Ron Fassler, Stuart Ira Soloway, John Verderber and Deb Poppel.

This month’s brainteaser asks you to find the commonality among these seven musicals, which are in this order for a specific reason. Let’s hear that reason for that order, too: 110 IN THE SHADE; LOLA; THE GRASS HARP; THE WEDDING SINGER; HENRY, SWEET HENRY; SOPHISTICATED LADIES and SHENANDOAH.

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia



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