May’s Leftovers and June’s Brainteaser
So we come to the end of another season, one that was supposed to create record grosses thanks to the Super Bowl’s February appearance in nearby Rutherford. But Broadway got no significant bump from the bowl. Well, considering that the lousiest Super Bowl seat went for $2,500 – yes, $2,500! – who had any money left over for a Broadway show?
Last week I saw BIG DEAL -- no, not a revival of Bob Fosse’s 1986 flop, but a musical created by “Students in the NJPAC-Mercer Musical Theater Program.”
“NJPAC” means New Jersey Performing Arts Center; “Mercer” refers to Johnny Mercer, the multi-Oscar-winning songwriter whose foundation spurs young people to write musicals. And while the kids’ lyrics made me want to buy a rhyming dictionary for each one, the book impressed.
It’s the story of Skyler, a 16-year-old dancer who lost her father in a car accident while he was driving her to a rehearsal. Not so incidentally, he wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
Skyler’s mother always claims that she’ll attend one of her daughter’s recitals, but hasn’t. This, Skyler feels, is her last chance – and the mother still doesn’t make it. So as other kids are saying “Hi, mom!” and “Hi, Dad!” Skyler is left singing an impassioned song, “I’m Done with You.”
In fact, Skyler is, but not in the way that she’d anticipated. Her mother was seriously injured in a car accident en route to the recital. Not so incidentally, she was texting at the time. (There are TWO nice messages for kids AND adults.)
Now Skyler feels terrible -- “I didn’t mean it!” – especially after she’s told that her mother has died. To God, she says “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.” She quits dancing, for she feels it indirectly killed her parents. How she gets on the right track may be a bit predictable, but it’s solidly based in honest and emotional writing.
You’ve heard of double casting? Director Janeece Freeman-Clark and choreographer Daryl Stewart quadruple-cast the show with students from four different schools: three from Newark (Link Community School, Maple Avenue School and Marion P. Thomas Charter School) and one from East Orange (The Cicely L. Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts). Each group played 15 minutes of the hour-long script. How exciting to see kids so involved in bringing their characters to life, but of course, how could they not? They wrote the show and were taking good care of their baby.
I still remember when Anita Gillette was on THE TONIGHT SHOW in April, 1965 to plug her appearance as Sarah in a City Center production of GUYS AND DOLLS. “Why” asked Johnny Carson, “would you go to all that time and trouble memorizing and rehearsing for just a two-week run?” The veteran of the one-performance KELLY who’d also been written out of THE GAY LIFE replied, “With my career, two weeks is a RUN.”
But now Gillette has had a six-decade run, and we can learn about it in RICHARD SKIPPER CELEBRATES! THE LIFE AND WORK OF MISS ANITA GILLETTE. Gillette has worked with Woody Allen, Irving Berlin, Gower Champion, Howard Dietz, Fred Ebb, Nanette Fabray, John Guare, Judd Hirsch, Burl Ives, Norman Jewison, Bruce Kimmel, Joshua Logan, Ethel Merman, Mary Ann Niles, Jerry Orbach, Stanley Prager, Michael Quinn, Herbert Ross, Neil Simon, Maggie Task, Carrie Underwood, Vivian Vance and Jack Warner. That covers every letter of the alphabet except X, Y and Z – the letters used in math to represents unknowns, many of whom she worked with, too. Recently Gillette forged an act with Penny Fuller that is nothing short of magnificent. Hear more about it at the Spiral Theater Studio at 242 W. 36th Street on Wednesday, June 11 with a wine-and-cheese at 7 p.m. and the interview at 7:30 p.m. followed by a Q-and-A and meet-and-greet. Visit www.thespiraltheatrestudio.com or call 845-365-0720.
“Nine!” I screamed, causing many patrons at the Goodspeed Opera House to turn and give me “What’s wrong with you” looks? My issue was that one of the Red Sox ballplayers populating DAMN YANKEES had the number nine on his back in a show that was set in 1952.
No, no, no, no, no. Take it from this Bostonian: from 1939 through 1960, one and only one ballplayer wore Number Nine, and that was the illustrious Ted Williams. In fact, after he was retired, so was his number. No one on the Red Sox will ever again wear “9” on his back, even if Maury Yeston buys the team.
Back in 2006, Joe DiPietro debuted his new version of DAMN YANKEES in Massachusetts – fitting, given that he replaced the hapless ‘50s Washington Senators with the almost-as-hapless ‘50s Boston Red Sox. Still, at the time I castigated him for setting the show in 1957 when Williams was having one of his best years. So much for “A great slugger, we haven’t got.”
I wrote then that “DiPietro would have been wiser to set the show in 1952 – when Williams was doing military service. His absence would automatically mean that the team would expect to do far worse than it had the year before. (That’s what happened; third place in 1951, sixth place in 1952.)” I’m happy to say that he’s now set it in 1952.
I’m not saying he saw what I wrote; I’m pretty sure that he didn’t, for he might have made other changes if he’d seen my piece at the time. DiPietro still has many characters mention “The Curse of the Bambino” – that Sox owner Harry Frazee’s selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 forever jinxed the Red Sox. Ah, but not until many moons and decades later was “The Curse of the Bambino” theory invented by ace Boston sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy. What WOULD work: DiPietro’s having Joe Boyd (and no one else) say, “You know, I have a theory – crazy as it may sound – but I believe that when Ruth was sold, a curse was placed on the Red Sox.” But to set it up as common knowledge in 1952 is premature.
As in 2006, DiPietro continues to maintain that long-held urban legend that Frazee sold Ruth because he was also a theatrical producer who needed to finance his upcoming production of NO, NO, NANETTE. No, no! Although NANETTE was a Frazee production, it wasn’t produced until 1925. While today we’d have no trouble believing that a musical would take five years and nine months to reach Broadway, back then less than a year was needed to raise money, assemble a cast and book a theater. As Mr. Applegate sings in the show, “Those were the good old days.”
I still wish that DiPietro would fix a couple of issues that the original version flubbed. I’ve never liked that when the show starts, Joe Boyd is sitting in front of the TV set already immersed in the game while his wife Meg is trying to talk to him and failing. Under these circumstances, how can Joe constantly say later in the show that he misses his wife? We never saw them have anything in common. DAMN YANKEES should start with Joe and Meg enjoying each other’s company, talking, laughing, perhaps playing gin, being a little affectionate – until the game comes on. That’s when Joe snaps on the set and can’t be bothered with the missus. Such a scene would show us that love is there, but takes a back seat to baseball.
People sing in musicals when they’re just so excited that regular speech will no longer do. So why, when Joe’s told by the manager that he’s made the team, doesn’t he sing? Here’s the realization of his life-long dream, one that seemed absolutely impossible to occur, and he’s not singing about it? The irony is that the ideal song for this moment is already in the score: “(You Gotta Have) Heart.” Why waste this song on the minor character of a manager? What should happen is that after Joe is told he’s made the team, another Red Sox player should say, “Yeah, but what difference is one player going to make? The rest of us stink.” That’s when the song should start.
Speaking of “the manager,” DiPietro still calls the leader of the team “the coach.” In football, basketball and hockey, yes, the guy in charge is the coach. In baseball, however, he’s the manager.
I still relished DiPietro’s improvements. While the original book says that Joe was batting .480, DiPietro ups it to a devilish .666. He finds a way to fit in that famous New England expression “wicked good,” too. And Daniel Goldstein’s production is terrific. Angel Reda is a magnificent Lola who can almost reach the flies with her high kicks. David Beach smartly doesn’t go overboard (or become obviously underhanded) as Applegate. Stephen Mark Lucas is wonderfully sincere and strong-voiced as Joe Hardy. Arguably best of all is Ann Arvia as Meg Boyd, making us care so much for the left-behind wife who tries to be brave. She somehow lets us see that she senses something deep inside Joe Hardy although she’s not quite sure what it is.
Baseball historians who attend may wonder why I’m not taking issue with Goldstein’s putting a black ballplayer on the team, given that the Red Sox had no African-Americans until 1959. I’ll chalk that up to non-traditional casting.
By the way, the Red Sox was the last of 16 teams in the major leagues to integrate. Some say they purposely chose a poor one in Pumpsie Green in hopes that he’d fail; indeed, Green’s lifetime batting average was a full 98 points lower than Williams’. The Rex Sox’s prejudice is the subject of the excellent JOHNNY BASEBALL, with book by Richard Dresser and a score by the Reale Brothers. May we soon see it at Goodspeed-at-Chester.
Down the road at Rob Ruggiero’s Hartford TheaterWorks I heard the greatest bursts of laughter that I’ve heard this entire season. My, did the crowd have a wonderful time at John Cariani’s LOVE/SICK.
As he did in ALMOST, MAINE, Cariani has written something between blackout sketches and one-act plays. At times, his plots are reminiscent of PLAZA SUITE (a bride who should be downstairs getting married locks herself in the bathroom), VIRGINIA WOOLF (a spouse pulls a weapon and aims at a spouse) and LUV (in which a man simply cannot get out the words “I love you” as much as he tries; it always comes out “Ahlurhveuhh.”). No matter: the average age of those plays is 49. Isn’t this the age of recycling?
But if anyone has come up with some of Cariani’s other plots – including a man’s sending a singing telegram to break up with his current romance – I’ve yet to hear of them. Good for him, too, to include one male gay couple and one female gay couple in the mix.
ALMOST, MAINE literally ran a mere month off-Broadway in 2006, but it’s been a regional theater staple since with more than 70 productions. This validation of Cariani’s writing and worth has given him the confidence to write with even greater authority. His discussion of what “destiny” is in a romance is trenchant, as are such observations as “The promise of ‘the pursuit of happiness’ only means that we get to chase it.” LOVE/SICK will do much better than ALMOST, MAINE in town– especially if director Amy Saltz is able to bring her fine production and excellent cast (Pascale Armand, Bruch Reed, Chris Thorn and Laura Woodward) with her -- and even better on the road.
Last month’s brainteaser: What do these musicals have in common? ANGEL, BABY, DAMN YANKEES, DON’T GET GOD STARTED, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, FOSSE, JAMES JOYCE’S THE DEAD, JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY, JUMBO, MISS LIBERTY and SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM.
Answer: the title character doesn’t sing in any of them. Brigadude was the first to get it, followed by Fred Abramowitz, Ingrid Gammerman, Donald Tesione and AnyaToes.
This month’s brainteaser: What do THESE musicals have in common? “Ever After”(INTO THE WOODS), “I’m Way Ahead” (SEESAW), “Jimmy” (THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE), “The Labyrinth Underground” (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), “The Letter” (MAME), “Repent” (ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY), “See What It Gets You” (ANYONE CAN WHISTLE) and “She’s No Longer a Gypsy” (APPLAUSE).
You know where to find me.
— Peter Filichia