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October 18, 2013

My Own American Century Cycle

What I did the last couple of weeks can’t compare to August Wilson’s American Century Cycle – in which he wrote a play for each decade of the twentieth century. But I couldn’t help noticing that I’ve recently been theatrically encountering each decade of that same 1900-1990 time span.

The ‘00s? I thought of them when I heard that DON JUAN IN HELL, from GBS’ 1903 masterpiece MAN AND SUPERMAN, would be the first attraction that the esteemed Gingold Theatrical Group would read at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre. How wonderful that after eight solid seasons, artistic director David Staller needs a bigger space than the Players Club. No one will mind getting seats with arm-rests, either. Best news of all: the reading on Oct. 28 will feature two of our greatest ol’ pros: George S. Irving and Charlotte Rae. I’m there!

The ‘10s? Stanley Kauffmann, born in 1916, died on Oct. 9. In the 1965-66 season, he proved that he wasn’t the right theater critic for the Times, but he came up with one of my all-time favorite leads when writing about POUSSE-CAFÉ, the musical version of THE BLUE ANGEL. To fully appreciate the line, you must know a title song that Burt Bacharach and Hal David had written for a recent film. Back then, audiences surely did and must have chuckled when they read Kauffmann’s “What’s new, POUSSE-CAFÉ?”

Unfortunately, his next paragraph began “Answer: nothing good.” POUSSE-CAFÉ closed on the very night Kauffmann’s review was published.

The ‘20s? Rodgers and Hart’s DEAREST ENEMY opened in 1925, long before original Broadway cast albums became realities. Now, 88 eighty-eight years later, we finally have a recording of the entire score. Marvelous as it is (especially when Kim Criswell sings), don’t miss the enthralling 11 pages of notes by Larry Moore, credited with “reconstruction and additional orchestrations,” and historian Sean O’Donoghue. They let you know what a miracle this two-disc set is.

Alas, I have a cavil. Remember in the BYE BYE BIRDIE film when Albert gave a pill to a Russian maestro to speed his conducting so that Conrad could have more time on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW? I suspect someone gave David Brophy a pill to slow him down, for his conducting is lethargic.

Still, if you’re playing DEAREST ENEMY but then must turn it off to leave the house or car, you’ll find whatever melody you were just hearing will stay in your head for the next half-hour or so. Rodgers’ music is that good.

The ‘30s? While researching my upcoming book A GREAT PARADE ON BROADWAY: THE SPECTACULAR 1963-64 SEASON, I found out that if Carol Burnett hadn’t become pregnant with Carrie Hamilton in early ’63, her musical FADE OUT—FADE IN – set in “Oh, Those Thirties” -- would have opened on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963 instead of Tuesday, May 26, 1964.

But would it have? No one knew when scheduling the date that it would be the day after the first Kennedy assassination. All shows were of course canceled on Nov. 22, but looking back on it now, that they resumed on that Saturday matinee, only 25 hours after the president had been pronounced dead, seems surprising if not insensitive.

FADE OUT, however, probably would have canceled the pageantry of an opening. It would have been just another wrinkle for this snake-bit show.

The ‘40s? MEXICAN HAYRIDE at Musicals Tonight! is a revelation. The cast album is on the dreary side, but Thomas Sabella-Mills’ production adds no fewer than seven cut Cole Porter songs, many of which are quite wonderful and most of which are great fun. Get thee to the Acorn to hear everything that Porter really had on his mind.

The ‘50s? I knew I was in them when Gillian, a genuine witch, attempted to confess her status to Shep, who assumes she’s a fine upstanding patriotic happy normal American lass. When she can’t break the news, he asks, “Are you engaged in un-American activities?” – a line very much in the consciousness in 1950 when BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE opened.

Ground UP Productions is offering a nifty revival of John Van Druten’s blithe comedy at the Frankel Theatre through Oct. 26. Kate Middleton has the right twinkle in her eye for Gillian, and Brett Bolton is appropriately strait-laced as Shep. He loosens up nicely and expresses his love to Gillian in the play’s best line: “I’ve never known what to do with Saturday afternoons in New York before, except to wait for them to be Saturday nights.”

Hate to say it, but the film version improves one scene. Because we’re dealing with one set, when Shep breaks up with his fiancée in favor of Gillian, he does it over the phone. THAT’S how you treat a woman you supposedly loved? No, you do it in person, which is what the opened-up movie allowed: he went to her apartment, where we met the character. Broadway needed to save a salary and another set.

The play calls for a cat, and Ground UP deserves credit for casting a genuine tabby. In the 2005 Paper Mill Playhouse production of THE BAKER’S WIFE -- in which a cat plays an even more prominent role than the one here – the director gave poor Lenny Wolpe a stuffed animal to speak to, confide in and caress. And while I’m not ready to give this cat actor named “Dr. Watson” a Theatre World Award, I can say that he was very comfortable on stage.

The ‘60s? Also while researching my upcoming book, I discovered a shocking fact: a 1964 play called THE DEPUTY used the C-word. Don’t believe me? Check out page 269 on THE BEST PLAYS OF 1963-1964.

Why didn’t this cause a sensation back then, when even the S-word was rarely uttered? Probably because everyone was too busy commenting on Rolf Hochhuth’s play that damned Pope Pius XII for not condemning Hitler for his Holocaust. And I almost mean “everyone.” A book called THE STORM OVER “THE DEPUTY” contained 34 articles on the play as well as a bibliography that listed – I’m serious – 524 other articles written about the play in a two-year span. And yet, aside from a sharply edited 2002 film called AMEN. (yes, the period is part of the title), THE DEPUTY has been pretty much forgotten.

The ‘70s? On June 18, 1977, Yankee Reggie Jackson didn’t go all out to catch an outfield fly hit by a Red Sox player. Manager Billy Martin furiously pulled Jackson from the game right then and there. That’s unheard of, especially for the superstar that Jackson was. You wait until the inning is over and then take him out; that way, the fans might assume that Jackson asked for the release.

Eric Simonson has wisely made this the centerpiece for his BRONX BOMBERS. Now it’s the day after, and coach Yogi Berra is trying to mend fences. Berra is known for his fractured syntax and lack of logic (“Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”), but here’s he’s shown as an excellent diplomat and peacemaker. Jackson makes a good point, too, when he points out that a man needs money, yes, but he needs respect just as much if not more. (And at that time, he bragged about making $700,000. Now that as much as Alex Rodriguez literally gets for playing five innings of a game.)

In Act Two, Simonson regrettably goes into a time travel mode, in which Berra has dinner with Yankees as far back as Babe Ruth and as far forward as Derek Jeter. Simonson’s message about the Yankees tradition is hard to follow and swallow.

Never mind Mariano Rivera; the greatest reliever of the season is Richard Topol, who had to come in and play Berra – the unquestioned lead – with little lead time. Francois Battiste, Bill Dawes and Christopher Jackson are respective dead ringers for Jackson, Mantle and Jeter, but C.J. Wilson looks as much like Babe Ruth as Ruth Buzzi does.

The ‘80s? That’s when Anthony Drewe met George Stiles and when Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman met, too. All four later collaborated on the marvelous BETTY BLUE EYES, and now they’re considering musicalizing TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT.

But in the ‘80s, Stiles was a rock aficionado and Drewe was studying to be a zoologist. Then they went to see a small production of SWEENEY TODD in Plymouth, England. “All the way home,” said Stiles, “we talked about how we had to write a show.”

But how can a rocker like Stiles write in such a traditional musical theatre style that enhanced both MARY POPPINS and HONK!? “It came from listening to FOLLIES,” he told me. “I saw that each show had to have its own musical world.” Moral of the story? Here’s something more for which we can thank Sondheim -- for starting this extraordinarily gifted twosome on the road to giving us great musicals.

The ‘90s? I listened to PARADE to prepare for the production I’ll soon see at the estimable Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. Jason Robert Brown’s work remains impressive, but I’m still wondering about the positioning of one of his best songs.

For immediately after theatergoers learn that young Mary Phagan has been murdered in the Atlanta factory where she’d worked, reporter Britt Craig sings “Big News.” The audience immediately assumes that the big news is that Mary has been murdered.

No – Craig is being ironic, even sarcastic, in saying that there’s NO big news in Atlanta. “A kitten up a tree” and “the mayor’s mother broke her toe” is as exciting as it gets.

Yes, this can be supported on the basis of dramatic irony – in which an audience knows something that the character doesn’t. But some audience members had to be confused in the way the number starts.

Benefit of the doubt time: maybe Brown simply wanted to try something different. Perhaps his decision will make sense to me when I see PARADE again. It’s one musical I’d welcome seeing in any decade of the 21st century.

         — Peter Filichia

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