Ben West Is At Home Abroad
Remember when The New York Music Theatre Festival used to take place at this time of the year? Before each production, an eager staff member would take the stage and congratulate us for opting for a “staycation” in Manhattan where we could see a musical.
This year, the festival was a summertime event. So what can musical theater fans do for a staycation this autumn?
Ben West is here to help. He’s going to take us to England, South Africa, Monte Carlo, Paris, Switzerland, the British West Indies, Spain and Japan in one 90-minute whirlwind tour.
West is producing and directing the oxymoronically named At Home Abroad, a 1935 Broadway revue, through his estimable UnsungMusicalsCo. That West doesn’t put two spaces between the three words of his troupe is fitting; he talks with such enthusiasm about everything he does that he makes no time to put spaces between his spoken words.
Most of the time he’s actually silent, because he’s in a library, be it at Lincoln Center or the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. In each venue he scours musical theater history books and any relevant scrap of paper for information on the musicals of yore.
Last year, he became intrigued by At Home Abroad, a self-described “musical holiday” in which ‘30s American tourists went globetrotting. For one thing, the revue had a score by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz of The Band Wagon fame. For another, the roster of stars included Beatrice Lillie, Ethel Waters, Eleanor Powell and Eddie Foy, Jr. For yet another, Liza May’s father Vincent(e) Minnelli directed and designed the sets and costumes. With a roster such as that, West had to know, read and hear more.
The West Quest started at the Shubert Archives. “Most any show that the Shuberts produced – even dating back to the 1910s – is there. The offices are at the top of the Lyceum Theatre and they’re headed by Maryann Chach and Sylvia Wang, two lovely ladies,” says kind gentleman West.
“But,” he cautions, “you really have to go there when the theater is dark, because everything is stored backstage. So if a show’s playing and a set’s in place, they can’t get back there to get what you want. I had to wait until Venus in Fur closed to find out what was really there.”
West found quite a bit: scripts or segments from the show’s out-of-town tryout; the script that was used on opening night at the Winter Garden; the one that was in place 198 performances later when it closed after a move to the Majestic; and the national tour, too. Add to that a few sides, piano vocals and orchestral parts, and West decided that he had enough to do the show.
He also learned that one of the sketches used in the subsequent tour had been recycled. “‘The Girl Friend’ was originally in the 1932 revue Walk a Little Faster,” he says. “Bea Lillie did it there,” he informs. “It was about a diva who’d just finished a performance and now receives a hyper-dramatic backstage visitor. I’m not sure if the sketch went into At Home Abroad because Bea Lillie liked it or because they felt no one remembered it. We’re doing it, though – with Margaret Colin and Dick Scanlan.”
They’re just two of the impressive performers that West has booked for this upcoming concert rendition. Others include Natalie Venetia Belcon, Julie Halston, Liz Larsen, Christine Pedi, KT Sullivan and Bruce Vilanch. “When you do a revue,” explains West, “you have to have big personalities.”
And apparently a big cast, too. In an age where our most recent Tony-winning musical sports a cast of 14, West is offering 30. Take the two shows now playing and the two that are about to open on the south side of 45th Street from Eighth Avenue down to Shubert Alley – The Anarchist, Once, Glengarry Glen Ross and Virginia Woolf -- and they total four fewer people that you’ll see in At Home Abroad.
As for the songs, Sullivan will do Lillie’s “Paree” (in which she has the terrific lyric, “L’amour, the merrier”). Belcon inherits Waters’ “Hottentot Potentate,” which was a bit of a hit in its day. And Vilanch? West came to know him two years ago, when he revamped the writer’s 1978 musical Platinum. After the genial performer appears in a sketch about an addled woman (Halston) who tries ordering dinner napkins and drives him crazy, Vilanch will also perform the show’s 11 o’clock number: “Get Yourself a Geisha.”
(The mind boggles on how Vilanch will be dressed for that one. Even if his upper body is covered simply by one of his famous T-shirts, we’ll all be interested in what it has to say.)
In the original production, comments made by the American tourists were projected on the back wall as contents of cablegrams. West has instead opted to have them read aloud by Pedi. “I’ve named her character ‘the tactless American tourist,’” he coos. “We met when she was doing Talk Radio on Broadway, and I was a production assistant.”
Because this is a concert presentation, West obviously cannot offer the splendors of Minnelli’s sets and costumes and has been forced to drop a ballet. He could have included a sketch called “Trains,” in which Reginald Gardiner originally made a bunch of choo-choo sounds, but he decided to drop it for reasons that would be clear to anyone who ever heard it. (It appeared on the At Home Abroad compilation recording made by the Smithsonian in 1981 – just around the time that Ben West was born.)
He’s done remarkably well for someone so young. I’ve interviewed West numerous times, and each time I ask, “What are you planning next?” he gives me a title or two: Platinum, Gatsby, Make Mine Manhattan, The Fig Leaves Are Falling – and each time he’s made the show see the light of day. All right, Fig Leaves, a 1968 quick flop, was merely a reading in a rehearsal room at Manhattan Theatre Club, but West liked it enough that he’s mounting a full production in February. He also promises that he’ll eventually give us Lend an Ear, an important building block in the careers of Carol Channing and Gower Champion.
For those of us who’d like to see every Broadway musical, Ben West is certainly doing his part. We’re lucky that he’s staying and working at home and not going abroad.
At Home Abroad plays Monday, Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m. at the Peter Norton Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway at 95th Street. Tickets are $20-$40. Visit
www.SymphonySpace.org or call 212-864-5400.
— Peter Filichia