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July 3, 2015

The Return of RUTHLESS!

September 16, 1991. Studio B in the John Houseman Theatre on 42nd Street. I’m seeing a staged reading of a new musical called RUTHLESS!

It begins with the extraordinarily talented Donna English playing Judy Denmark – or, more accurately, “Tina’s Mother.” That’s how Judy thinks of herself, because her lovely little eight-year-old girl takes up her morning, noon, afternoon and night and leaves her with little else.

Soon I put two and two together. The name Tina Denmark is not far from Rhoda Penmark, the titular character of THE BAD SEED who was introduced to us in 1954 through William March’s novel and Maxwell Anderson’s play. I note too that Tina’s teacher is Miss Thorn, not far from March and Anderson’s Miss Fern.

THE BAD SEED had Rhoda killing a schoolmate because he won a spelling medal that she staunchly believed she should have been awarded. But here in RUTHLESS! bookwriter-lyricist Joel Paley and composer Marvin Laird have decided that Tina’s ambition should be made of sterner stuff. She wants to play Pippi Longstocking in the third-grade musical but is instead cast as Pippi’s dog. Louise Lerman got the part, but Tina smells a rat when she learns that Lerman’s Hardware is donating the paint and wood for the sets and Betty’s Needle Nook, headed by Betty Lerman, will be building the costumes.

So Tina will simply kill to play the lead.

It was a smart, witty and heavenly intermissionless 90-minute show with many sparkling lyrics, perky melodies and outrageous jokes (Tina: “That Lerman girl is too Jewish-looking to play Pippi.”). Getting a terrific Tina in ten-year-old Laura Bundy – she hadn’t yet divided her name with a “Bell” – helped, too. So when the announcement was made that the show would be further developed by Musical Theatre Works, I shouted hooray.

My shouts were of a decidedly different kind the next time I saw RUTHLESS! Now it was a two-act affair that showed us what had happened to Tina after she’d served her prison sentence and Judy had come into her own. Why had Paley and Laird messed with a sure thing and extended the joke?

Still, RUTHLESS! impressed enough money people to move it to a commercial off-Broadway run at the Players Theatre in 1992 where it stayed for a solid ten months. But I believe it would have done better if it had stayed the way it had been.

“I came up with what I believe was a lot of clever stuff for a show that was supposed be in-and-out in 90 minutes, ba-da-boom,” says Paley. “What we did, on the advice of producers and other well-wishers, was to expand it. But we wound up padding a lot of it. It also evolved away from strictly a parody of THE BAD SEED to a meditation on narcissism. We had Judy become a star in the second act.”

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, this new version at St. Luke’s Theatre is now a combination of the original I’d seen and a bit of Act Two as well. “The idea of the mother becoming a star we believe is essential, but the problem was how to make that happen without an intermission to indicate that time has passed. We think we’ve been able to do that satisfactorily and make it the peak of a 90-minute roller coaster. We’ve added lots of new lyrics but have also dropped characters and songs.”

“I’ll Be an Unkie’s Muncle” -- the parody of a ‘50s novelty hit – is one of the casualties, but audiences who tarry while leaving St. Luke’s will hear it, courtesy of Bernadette Peters.

“I’ve worked extensively with Bernadette,” says Laird, who met the future legend in 1961 when he was an assistant conductor for a GYPSY tour in which the teenage Peters was performing. Laird did plenty of TV shows with her in the ‘70s and was later musical director for her GYPSY and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN revivals.

“It was actually a TV special that I was doing with Shirley MacLaine that led to my collaboration with Joel,” says Laird. “This was in the ‘70s, not long after Shirley did THE TURNING POINT, so she was interested in the world of ballet. She and Marvin came to see Les Ballets Trockadero De Monte Carlo, of which Joel was a member. Soon he and I were talking about SEEDY! his planned musical version of THE BAD SEED.”

Getting the rights turned out to be problematic. “We approached William March’s estate,” says Paley, “only to learn that he had sold his entire rights to Maxwell Anderson. His widow feared that we’d be making too much fun of the property, so she denied us.”

This rankled Paley, who had a bit of an autobiographical story to tell, too. “There are times I felt as if I would have killed for the lead in the school play,” he says with a smile that isn’t quite wide or diabolical enough to let us see whether or not he’s kidding. “I had a mother who felt she gave up her career for me. She was a choreographer and comedian in synagogue shows in Philadelphia. She later moved to Florida and was the hit of all the old-age homes. In fact, when we did the workshop, the minute it was over, she stood up and said ‘It’s all me!’”

Mrs. Paley might not have ever had the opportunity had it not been for Bernadette Peters’ manager Tom Hammond. “He told us that legally we didn’t need the rights if we parodied other properties, too,” says Paley. “‘Keep the theme, but change the story,’ he said. ‘What other stories do you like that could be rich for parody?’ And I thought, well, THE WOMEN, ALL ABOUT EVE, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and of course GYPSY.”

And so RUTHLESS! was born. Since the off-Broadway run, there’s rarely been a month when it hasn’t been performed somewhere. This very weekend, New Hampshire is seeing a production and Georgia will soon see two.

But it was a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at the Triad the jumpstarted this off-Broadway revival. Evan Sacks and Ken Schur were enthusiastic enough to consider production, and Maxine Paul invited the authors to work on the show at her Theater Barn in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Paley and Laird believe that Tori Murray, their new Tina, is every bit as proficient as Bundy or the two young misses who had understudied her in that original production: Britney Spears and Natalie Portman. (And while we’re dropping names, I remember being invited to a RUTHLESS! party at the Minetta Tavern which Bundy attended with her then-boyfriend Macaulay Culkin.)

Samuel French has agreed to license the new version. There’s been talk of a film, too. Whatever the case, whatever the fate, RUTHLESS! is getting a second life -- and Louise Lerman is getting a second death.

         — Peter Filichia



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