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August 2, 2013

July’s Leftovers and August’s Brainteaser

July got off to a great start at the Minskoff Theatre where 31 boys and 31 girls competed for The National High School Musical Theatre Awards – more chummily known as “The Jimmys” (for James M. Nederlander).

Hunter Schwarz, who played Princeton, reminded us that his character hasn’t yet found his purpose – but, oh, these kids certainly have! Each one was superb in doing selections from shows as venerable as Anything Goes to as au courant as 13.

The teens were divided by sex and brought on mostly in groups of 11, although five young men who had played The Baker in their schools’ productions of Into the Woods were lumped together to do a medley of Sondheim songs from the show; the five turned out to be The Fabulous Baker Boys.

The medleys are treats in themselves. For example, after Taylor Marie Sherry’s Millie Dilmount decided to “Forget about the Boy,” Sakiwaa Baah’s Miss Adelaide empathized with her own lament about the man she loved. How I loved that while 10 girls backed up Allison Anderson’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right outa My Hair,” Nicole Seefried, who’d already sung “Mix Tape,” moved Kate Monster’s mouth in time to every lyric. And after bearded Zach Mallinak finished a section of “If I Were a Rich Man,” lads who had just played Emmett, Princeton, Joseph and two who’d each portrayed Finch joined in the shoulder shaking and davening.

One of those Finches – Taylor Varga – turned out to be the male winner. The judges also called on Dolly in the guise of Sarah Lynn Marion, who did a dynamite “Before the Parade Passes By.” But she’ll always have my admiration for the song she did once she made the finals: “Raunchy” from 110 in the Shade. She’s payin’ attention to classic Broadway!

Speaking of winners, I’m so glad that Daniel Maté was one of two selectees for this year’s Kleban Prize for Musical Theatre. He was given his award at the ASCAP Building on Broadway, which is where I first encountered him some years ago. Maté was presenting his new musical at the ASCAP Workshop where the judges judged his glass as half-empty and not half-full. Yes, I saw their points, but I felt there was a lot of good in the young writer’s work – and afterward I told him just that. And now, here he was, in the same building where he’d received faint praise, now getting substantial huzzahs and, last but hardly least, $100,000. Moral of the story: young writers, don’t get overly discouraged by criticism. It may well be valid, and you may learn from it. But if someone else says you’re good, don’t dismiss that, either.

In Lincoln, Nebraska -- where 4,000 high schoolers convene each summer for the annual Thespian Festival -- the Northwest School of the Arts from Charlotte, NC brought its production of The Color Purple. Said the festival brochure: “No offensive language; could be viewed by anyone.”

Look how times have changed! Not all that long ago, a musical that showed a lesbian relationship wouldn’t have even been considered for a high school production. Now it’s not only being produced, but its subject matter is also judged to be fit for “anyone.”

Okay, but how would a high school audience react to the long and loving kiss that Shug gives Celie? I’ve been attending high school productions for decades, and I’ve seen many heterosexual kisses get inane reactions from teens, from mocking “Oooooooohs” to smacking sounds usually made by cartoon characters. Would it happen here?

Yes -- by about five students in a house that seated nearly 2,000. Aside from these jackasses, the other kids simply accepted this as a part of everyday life. I could feel the others were happy for Celie, who, after a life of misery, was finally finding some happiness. No question: tolerance, understanding, acceptance and good wishes are steadily gaining.

I also saw a new version of Peter Pan at the festival, and was once again reminded of what my friend Dick Minogue said while watching the Mary Martin rebroadcast in 1973: in the early scene in which Peter is looking for his shadow, why is it that we can actually see Mary Martin’s shadow on the floor?

All right, we’re obviously supposed to suspend our disbelief. Still, considering how imaginative James M. Barrie was – and how he’d already written a half-dozen plays before Peter Pan – one would think that he’d be quite familiar with stage lighting and its drawbacks. Why didn’t he realize that we’d see a real actor’s shadow and find a different item for which Peter had to return?

For that matter, wouldn’t Peter, who does a lot of skulking around to avoid Captain Hook, be glad that he was stripped of his shadow? It’s one fewer thing that could give him away when in a tight spot. And while we’re at it, don’t you infer that the Darling house is a large one – so why are the three kids (of two different sexes) sharing one room?

“Housekeeping.” It’s a word we often hear before a show, when someone comes out to tell us to shut off our cell phones, unwrap our candies and banish our cameras and recorders. But how did “housekeeping” come to be the catch-all word for this?

I wondered while I heard the pre-show announcement at the American Association of Community Theatre Festival in Carmel, Indiana. What I also noticed: at any festival such as this – be it high school, college or community theater – the audience will always have at least one woman who’s constantly knitting. Finally, as the stage crew from the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho swiftly removed the elaborate mountain-filled set for K2, I realized that theater has to be the only occupation where “strike” means to work very hard.

Some of us will be turned off by the title of Carolyn Quinn’s new book: Mama Rose’s Turn. After all, June and Louise’s mother is never called by that name in Gypsy. Ah, but Quinn acknowledges that, so she isn’t unaware or insensitive. In her impressive page-turner, she simply wants to stress Rose the mother – the good, the bad and the very ugly.

It’s heavily documented, with plenty of quotations from newspaper clippings and court records. (Yes, Rose was litigious.) We find out how Louise really came to be called Gypsy; that the act was actually called “Dainty June and her Pals” and that it was once quite successful, raking in $1,250 a week at a time when a Coke cost a nickel; that Herbie was really named Gordon, and that he was married when he first hooked up with Rose; that Rose actually made her kids older, not younger, on their birth certificates so that they could circumvent child labor laws; that Mr. T.T. Grantziger, who offered to take June under his wing, was actually mogul Roxy Rothafel; that “Tulsa” was really known as “Buddy”; that when June didn’t show up at the train station, Rose immediately inferred that the kid had eloped; and that Louise was recruited to do burlesque and that it wasn’t Rose’s idea at all.

Feel bilked? How much do you care? Does this make Gypsy a lesser work? I mention this because of Castle Walk, the musical that played NYMF last month. In it, former dancer Irene Castle had quite a lot to say after Hollywood purchased the rights from her to film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. She wanted everything to be accurate – and I mean everything. When she complained that the straps on her dancing shoes were actually silver and not gray as the film had it, I threw up my hands.

Yes, she makes a good case that whatever mistakes are made in the film will be “Forever” (a good song). But as Peter Stone wrote in his afterword to 1776, “God writes lousy theater” and liberties must be taken with history. The authors of Castle Walk need to see Lettice and Lovage, Peter Shaffer’s witty play that makes the point that some details must be changed to create more compelling drama.

Castle Walk could really be interesting if the Hollywood brass said to Irene, “We found out that you did a song in the musical Miss 1917 that violated copyright rules and had to be dropped. You want us to put that in?” Given that we all have a dark side, I’ll bet Irene did, too and that some dirt (if not manure) could be found about her life which she wouldn’t want on screen.

What Irene Castle wanted was a hagiography. Take a look at and check out the ratings that readers give the 10 Astaire-Rogers movie; The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is ranked second-to-last, only ahead of Flying Down to Rio (and by a mere one percentage point) when the two weren’t yet a team. Who knows what the film might have been like if Irene hadn’t driven everyone crazy?

Last month’s brainteaser asked “What do the following songs from Broadway musicals all have in common?”: “7½ Cents” (The Pajama Game), “You Did It” (My Fair Lady), “Once in a Lifetime” (Stop the World – I Want to Get Off), “Mama, a Rainbow” (Minnie’s Boys), “Movies Were Movies” (Mack & Mabel), “We’re in the Money” (42nd Street), “Muddy Water” (Big River), “I Got Rhythm” (Crazy for You), “I Want to Know” (Big), “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (Ibid.) and “Show People” (Curtains).

The answer: each of those songs was the first to be heard in each show’s overture. Jack Lechner was the first to get it, followed by Ingrid Gammerman, Fred Abramowitz, AnyaToes, Donald Tesione and Laura Frankos.

Congrats to all!

This month’s brainteaser: What do the following songs from Broadway musicals all have in common? Hint: The answers I’m looking for will all be in alphabetical order: “Mrs. Sally Adams” (Call Me Madam), “The Worst Show in Town” (The Producers), “The Man Nobody Could Love” (Legs Diamond), “How about You?” (The 1940’s Radio Hour), “Much More” (The Fantasticks), “Charlie Welch” (Mr. Wonderful), “Everyone Has Something to Hide” (Mata Hari), “Very Soft Shoes” (Once upon a Mattress), “It’s a Business” (Curtains), “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” (Kiss Me, Kate), and “Just You Wait” (My Fair Lady). There was a time when the title song from Anything Goes and “Country House” from Follies would have qualified, too, but no longer.

You know where to find me.

         — Peter Filichia

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