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 March 1, 2013

February’s Leftovers and March’s Brainteaser

It was the month that I attended The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for the seventh time – and I’ve still yet to be in the right place to catch any one of the Fritos, M&M’s, Oreos, brownies, choc’late chips or chewy Goobers that Chip Tolentino isn’t throwing my way.

It was the month that I heard from seven friends who’d seen Pippin in Boston. Seven out of seven were ecstatically unanimous about Diane Paulus’ production, but here’s the funny thing: while each of them disliked one member of the cast, none of them agreed on which was the weak link. We’ll see what you and I think when Pippin arrives at the Music Box next month.

Musical comedy, far more often than not, has good triumphing over evil. So seeing the estimable Fiorello! at Encores! reiterated the fact –for historians agree that stalwart Fiorello H. LaGuardia was a far superior New York mayor to the corrupt James J. Walker. LaGuardia outran Walker by almost a two-to-one margin in real life – 12 years to six -- but on Broadway, Fiorello! outdistanced Jimmy by more than a nine-to-one margin (795 performances to 84). Apparently, there’s a reason that the former Tony-winning musical got an exclamation point and two Encores! revivals and the latter hasn’t shown up again. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, musicals with heroes end up with happy fates, and musicals with anti-heros unhappy ones; that is what musical comedy means.

It was the month I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my seeing the Boston tryout of Tovarich, a much underrated musical with sparkling lyrics by Anne Croswell and attractive music by Lee Pockriss. (And never mind that he also composed “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”) I doubt that my golden anniversary motivated Bonnie J. Monte, the artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, to schedule a production of the original play – not the musical, mind you, but the Jacques Deval play (via a Robert E. Sherwood translation) on which it’s based. Still, I’m glad she has. Let’s all meet in Madison, NJ between August 7 and 25 to see it.

It was the month that no press release could beat this one for the amount of head-shaking a reader could give: “Wakka Productions will be presenting the World Premiere of Saga, a modern Icelandic Epic that centers on the country’s 2008 financial crisis. The show features 30 original puppets ranging from 3 inches to 10 feet, portrayed by an international cast of puppeteers from Iceland, Norway, Ireland and the USA.” If that floats your kayak, it’ll be at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Ave) from March 7–April 14. Enjoy yourself!

Every wonder what play John Wilkes Booth would have done next had he not engaged in an assassination on that unlucky Friday the 14th? In his new novel The Lincoln Letter, William Martin, the estimable writer of historical fiction, tells us: Romeo and Juliet in Boston. The letter in the title tells us about a journal that Lincoln lost; Martin’s book is so compelling that you’ll be checking every minute to make sure you don’t lose this book.

Searching for the letter and book are Peter Fallon and his on-again, off-again fiancée Evangeline Carrington. Martin alternates chapters between the 1860s and today, making everything dovetail nicely. How nice that he’s made Fallon a theaterphile; when one character tells him that “The Smithsonian is neutral territory,” he responds, “like the gym in West Side Story.”

The main event, of course, takes place in a playhouse. Tickets back then, Martin informs us, had “Ford’s Theatre” and such locations as “Dress Circle” pre-printed, but Our American Cousin and “Friday, April 14 at 8 p.m.” were written in by hand. Lieutenant Halsey Hutchinson – who found Lincoln’s journal and then had it robbed from him – was at the performance, partly in hopes of retrieving the prized possession. Aside from that, Mr. Hutchinson, how did you like the play? “Tripe,” he feels. Everybody’s a critic! Nevertheless, Our American Cousin had already been around for seven years, and was still being revived on Broadway as late as 1915. (And guess at what theater? Yup: the Booth).

What do New Jersey and Long Island not have in common? The Garden State has 33 professional theaters while “The Island” has far fewer. The most distant point of Jersey -- Cape May -- is 175 miles away from Manhattan, and yet not one but two theaters reside in that seaside town. Long Island’s most distant point is only 118 miles from Broadway, but you can’t get your professional theater fill out there.

Now Mike Canestraro is trying to change that a bit by staging two shows at SoLuna Studios at 659 Old Willets Path in Hauppauge. John Logan’s Never the Sinner, about the Leopold and Loeb case, plays March 8-17 and Cole Porter’s rarely seen You Never Know is on tap June 14-23. Tickets are $15 for the play and $20 for the musical. Call 631-708-9681 or visit www.SoLuna

It was the month that I finally got around to reading Ira Levin’s Son of Rosemary, his 1997 sequel to Rosemary’s Baby that takes place in 1999. I was a little sorry to see that his bio concluded with “he wrote the lyrics to the Barbra Streisand classic, ‘He Touched Me’” –- without mentioning that the song as “She Touched Me” comes from his unappreciated Drat! The Cat! for which he wrote the excellent book and lyrics.

Late in the book, one line jumped out at me: “Joe had managed to get house seats for the first solid hit of the Broadway season, a revival of a failed 1965 musical ... The show was a charmer.” It took me less than a second to figure out that Levin meant Drat! The Cat! And in case I had any doubt, only a few pages later Levin finally mentioned the title in no uncertain terms. Alas, we didn’t get a 1999 revival of Drat! The Cat! but I’m still hoping for one before too much more time goes on.

One Cat that hasn’t been theatrically neglected is the one on the hot tin roof. The current production – the third in fewer than 10 years – has spurred many critics to moan that it’s come around too often. Producers, however, don’t mount shows for critics, but for the public. The 2003 revival of Cat ran 145 performances; the 2008 edition amassed 125; this one will finish around 80. Considering that The Broadway League considers a heavy theatergoer as one who attends four shows a year, plenty of playgoers didn’t catch Tennessee Williams’ classic during the previous five- and four-month runs. Revivals give theatergoers another chance to see what they missed, and the new productions should be appreciated for that.

Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t save the Drat! The Cat! information for a March brainteaser: What librettist-lyricist of a failed musical mentioned it in not one, but two of his novels? (Yes, in Rosemary’s Baby, Levin wrote that Rosemary’s husband Guy was upset because “everyone else was out of town with Skyscraper or Drat! The Cat! or The Impossible Years or Hot September; only he was in New York with residuals from Anacin.”)

As for last month’s brainteaser: I listed a bunch of songs and asked what they had in common. Ira Rappaport was the first to notice that they all mentioned people who were or would become the subject of their own musicals, followed by Scott McClintock, Joseph Miller, Arthur Robinson, Laura Frankos and Joe Keenan.

They were “Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive” (Noah), “Cornet Man” (Jelly Roll Morton), “Eliot Garfield Grant” (Sweeney Todd), “Humming” (Sherlock Holmes), “Ice Cream” (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), “If Momma Was Married” (Fanny Brice), “It Takes Two” (from Hairspray, not Into the Woods: Lancelot and Guinevere), “Penniless Bums” (Charlie Chaplin), “Roxie” (Sophie Tucker), “The Truth” (Gypsy Rose Lee), “Will-a-Mania” (Aimee Semple) and most pointedly “The Little Things You Do Together” (Jesus Christ).

This month’s brainteaser: Allowing for a hyphen or three, what do the following musicals have in common? Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Little Mary Sunshine, Pal Joey, Rent, The Sound of Music, Stop the World -- I Want to Get Off, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Wonderful Town.

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia


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