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November 7, 2014

A Busy Time for Musicals

As any NICK & NORA fan can tell you, Christine Baranski sang (albeit for a very short time), “Everybody Wants to Do a Musical.” And because everyone does, The National Alliance for Musical Theatre, courtesy of executive director Betsy King Militello and festival director Branden Huldeen, is here to help.

Although the 2014 festival concluded two weeks ago, preparation for the 2015 festival will start in – yes – two weeks.

“We had 234 submissions this year, which are judged blindly and whittled down to about twenty and then eight,” says King Militello. “It’s exciting to see that volume of activity and that the writers explore every kind of topic.”

Some writers obviously become discouraged when they’re not part of the elite eight. “Well,” she says, “if you submit and aren’t accepted, submit again. A different committee may feel differently. We’re here to support the writers.”

Is she ever. “We pay for everything,” King Militello says, stressing the last word to ensure there’s no misunderstanding. “We have a $150,000 budget which averages out to be about $20,000 for each show.” And while NAMT’s footing the bills hits the spot, writers may profit just from networking with 650 industry attendees who travel from England to Hawaii.

Yes, NAMT is very proud that it helped THE DROWSY CHAPERONE and THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE to achieve, but as Huldeen says, “Eighty-five percent of the shows we’ve done have led to other productions, or got the writers noticed enough to get a different show of theirs produced, OR got them a commission to write a new musical.”

This was NAMT’s eleventh year at New World Stages. “I love that we’re way down below street level,” says Huldeen. “It can rain or even snow, but we don’t know about it in our own little world. For that matter, you once couldn’t get cell service down there. Now you can, but if any cell phone has ever gone off during a performance, I’ve yet to hear it or hear about it.”

Writers, if you have a completed script and a demo CD with at least most of the score, apply at

I’m guessing that Sting didn’t submit THE LAST SHIP to NAMT, but if he had, he wouldn’t have been selected simply because he’s Sting. NAMT’s judges receive scripts and scores with no names attached, all in the cause of fairness.

Had the NAMT judges listened to THE LAST SHIP, they probably would have been mighty impressed with the evocative score; both musically and lyrically it convincingly suggests working-class England.

The NAMT committee might have assumed that the lyricist was a tried-and-true Broadway baby, for most of the lyrics rhyme perfectly. Sting has therefore done better than virtually every other pop songwriter that’s come to Broadway. Oh, he falters now and again, but he still gives the impression that he bought a rhyming dictionary and used it early and often.

Unfortunately, the NAMT judges might have started dozing when reading bookwriters John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s romantic triangle. Although Gideon (the fine Michael Esper) was born in Wallsend where ship-building is the main industry, he had other dreams and left town – as well as his girlfriend Meg (the earthy Rachel Tucker), who preferred to stay put.

Now 15 years have passed; Gideon’s returned and sees that Meg has a lover, yes, but one she doesn’t quite love. How can she when Arthur (the always reliable Aaron Lazar) is on the side of the management that will soon close the shipyard and offer the men lower-paying jobs?

That isn’t all that angers the workers. Without ship-building, they’ll have no purpose in life. For decades upon decades, they’ve taken pride in what they’ve built; without work to ennoble them, they’ll feel shamed by their uselessness.

So Father O’Brien (the nicely unmannered Fred Applegate), who utters a few profanities so that the men will like him, offers to fund their building a ship. A few scenes pass before we’re told that he took the money from a fund that had been earmarked to build a new church.

Now wouldn’t a better scenario have him hire the men to build that church instead of a ship? True, the skills aren’t identical, but the men could re-invent themselves enough to create a cathedral. What’s more, this plot has the parishioners cheated of the money they’d donated in good faith.

And where do the men get the materials needed to build a seaworthy vessel? And once they build it, what are they going to do with it? All they can do is set sail with no destination.

Well, there ARE “Cruises to Nowhere,” but they don’t last long. THE LAST SHIP probably won’t, either.

Given that THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE included some recycled music and still passed muster with the NAMT judges, Irving Berlin’s HOLIDAY INN, now at Goodspeed, might well have, too. Certainly if the Goodspeed audience were judging, HOLIDAY INN would dance into the festival – partly because of its dancing. Denis Jones’ energetic choreography uses most of the principals and the dozen ensemble members in no fewer than 10 numbers.

Not many places would have an audience giving knowing and affectionate laughs to a Bing Crosby ba-ba-ba-boo imitation. And when the suave Noah Racey held a note for an inordinate length of time, no one gave the knee-jerk response of “Whooo!” (for which I’m quite grateful).

At the top, new bookwriters Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge (the former directed, too) immediately made a profound change from the 1942 Crosby-Astaire film. Originally the nightclub act that Ted Hanover (Astaire), Jim Hardy (Crosby) and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale) have was to close up shop so that Jim and Lila could marry and retire to a quiet life on a Connecticut farm.

For once, The Nutmeg State and not New Jersey is the butt of jokes. But how clever are they? After Jim’s pal Danny (the efficient Danny Rutigliano) asked “You know what happens in Connecticut?” the woman behind me said “Nothing” before Danny could answer his own question.

In the film, Lila suddenly announces that she’s in love with Ted and that they’d continue performing. Here, Lila (Hayley Podschun) simply said that she wanted to keep dancing with Ted (Racey) but she’d soon return to Jim (Tally Sessions) and the farm.

Wasn’t it naïve of Jim to buy it? This wouldn’t be the last time Lila duped him, which brings to mind the ol’ “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” clause. Jim has been written as too passive and clueless for us to care about him. Sad to say, Sessions makes him even more colorless. Poor Podschun has been directed to make Lila a silly empty-head, so we lose respect for both men for wanting her.

However, Greenberg and Hodge have improved how Jim and Linda Mason meet. No longer do they first encounter each other in a club where each self-aggrandizes to impress the other. Now we find that Linda’s family once owned the farm but lost it in foreclosure. So while Linda’s attracted to Jim and is ostensibly gracious in defeat, she does have an underbelly of resentment that she’d have for anyone who bought the place.

Alas, the writers could find no way around the film’s hard-to-swallow premise: Jim turns the farm into an inn that will only be open on holidays.

That’s all of 15 days a year.

Is any business going to succeed with 350 closed days? And take it from a former desk clerk who worked his way through college at (yes!) an actual Holiday Inn, holidays are the LEAST busy times of year at hotels. (You wouldn’t think so, would you? Sisters, cousins and aunts apparently stay with the folks they’re visiting.)

But to Jim, his new enterprise is all “Blue Skies,” one of the 13 additional Berlin songs lifted from his pop catalogue, MISS LIBERTY, LOUISIANA PURCHASE and EASTER PARADE. They buttress 12 of the film’s 13 songs, with “Abraham,” which celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday, dropped. Of course it had to be; Crosby did it in blackface and the music followed suit.

Greenberg and Hodge similarly dispensed with the Jemima-ish character of Mamie the maid and replaced her with Louise (the game Susan Mosher), a white handywoman who would make Alison in FUN HOME immediately lose interest in that delivery woman with the short hair, dungarees, lace-up boots and the ring of keys. The affable Louise always smiles and does her best to match Jim and Linda while apparently not needing any romance in her own life.

But wait! Near the end, when the plot takes everyone from the inn to Hollywood, Louise does shyly ask if someone could bring her back an autographed picture of Veronica Lake. At the final curtain, as Jim and Linda are arm-and-arm and Ted and Lila are hugging, too, I would have l-o-v-e-d to have seen a sultry woman in a peek-a-boo hairdo come out and caress Louise.

If the NAMT readers were thinking the show too journeyman, they might well have changed their minds if they’d had that stage direction end their scripts.

         — Peter Filichia



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