Friday, February 27, 2009


Today's blog entry comes courtesy of the 2/27/09 edition of the New York Times Crossword puzzle which referenced the satire/allegory The Insect Play by Czech writers Karel and Josef Capek. Karel Capek appears fairly regularly in the Times puzzle, usually with reference to his famous 1921 expressionistic play Rossum's Universal Robots or R.U.R. as it is frequently abbreviated. His brother Josef actually coined the term robot, but ceded it to Karel for use in his play. The brothers actually collaborated on some 20 works for the stage, the most famous of which is The Insect Play.

Also known as The Insect Comedy, The World We Live In, and From Insect Life, the play was published in its original Czech in 1921 as Ze zivota hmyzu. The play received its premiere at the National Theatre in Brno, Czechoslovakia, on March 8, 1922, running for about one hundred performances. Productions in New York (1922) and London (1923) soon followed, but the play has been performed only intermittently since that time, probably because the play requires a large cast and is exceedingly difficult to stage.

All but a few of the characters are insects which have been anthropomorphized. The authors used these insects to comment in allegorical and satiric terms on the follies of human society in post-World War I Czechoslovakia. Most critics believe that the Capeks were inspired by other animal plays and short stories, citing Jean Henri Fabré’s La vie des insects and Souvenirs entomologiques, as well as a story by Russian author Vsevolod Garsin, What Never Happened as probable sources of inspiration. The stories of The Insect Play, while alternating between the humorous and the horrific, resonated with audiences at the time despite critical carping. Over the years, however, critics have eventually found much to praise, as did Lucia Mauro of the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote in a review of a 1999 production of the play, ‘‘their keen observations of the life cycle and poignant visions of war’s futility remain relevant to this day.’’

I've included a somewhat lengthy plot synopsis for those interested.

Prologue: In the Woods The Insect Play opens in the woods where a drunken tramp sleeps on the ground. Butterflies flit near him. His slumber is interrupted by a lepidopterist who is collecting butterflies for his scientific collection. The scientist is annoyed that the tramp’s movements have scared off the insects. After the scientist leaves to continue collecting, the tramp laments that all the world is paired off into couples.

Act I: The Butterflies

The tramp finds himself in a place that caters to butterflies. As the tramp makes himself comfortable on cushions and dozes, butterflies enter. Felix, a shy poet butterfly, is looking for Iris. She comes in, followed by another male butterfly, Victor. Answering her question, Felix tells Iris that he is not in love with any female butterflies, and has not been since he was a caterpillar. In fact, Felix loves Iris, but has only watched her from a distance and written poems.

Iris flirts with Felix. Victor tries to embarrass him by reciting part of a poem that Felix has recently published about sex. Iris gets rid of Victor, and continues to toy with Felix’s feelings. She accuses him of loving Clytie, another female butter- fly. Felix admits that he is in love with Iris. She asks him to quickly compose a poem for her, which he does, much to her pleasure.
The moment is interrupted by the appearance of Clytie and Otto, a male butterfly who is chasing her. Victor also returns. Iris embarrasses Felix by quoting the poem about sex for those present. Yet Iris also calls Felix ‘‘clever’’ when she reports that he has found a rhyme for her name. A few moments later, Iris is flirting with Victor and leads him on a chase.

Clytie asks Felix why he loves Iris. Felix denies that he does. Clytie insults Iris and flirts with Felix, then asks him to be friends, ‘‘like two girls.’’ Felix recites the beginning of a new poem for her, but she is unimpressed. Clytie’s attentions turn to Otto, who begs for her love. Clytie now leads Otto away on a chase. Felix leaves alone.

The tramp feels sorry for Felix. Clytie returns to primp in the mirror. Though she does not know what a man is, Clytie tries to get the tramp to chase her. The tramp will not play her game. Clytie returns to the mirror after the rejection. Iris enters, out of breath and tells Clytie a funny story about Victor being eaten by a bird. Otto nearly met the same fate. Felix comes in and tries to read his new poem to the women. They only care about their appearance. Otto enters, and both Iris and Clytie lead him on a chase. Felix tries to get them to wait, but to no avail. The tramp calls him a fool and shoos him away.

Act II: Creepers and Crawlers

This act takes place in a sandy hillock. The tramp is half-asleep nearby, but a chrysalis interrupts his repose. It is excited because it is about to be born. It expresses this sentiment regularly throughout the act.

The action shifts to a pair of beetles, Mr. and Mrs. Beetle. They are rolling a huge ball of dirt and dung, which they call their ‘‘capital.’’ They have worked very hard to collect the ball, and are immensely proud of it. Mr. Beetle wants to immediately begin work on their next pile. Mrs. Beetle is more concerned with protecting what they already have. Mr. Beetle goes to look for a hole in which to bury it.

While he is gone, Mrs. Beetle thinks she has found a hole in an ichneumon fly’s lair and enters. In the meantime, a strange beetle takes the unguarded capital. The tramp questions him, but does not prevent him from taking it. Mrs. Beetle returns and accuses the tramp of taking the pile. The tramp denies it and describes the beetle. Mrs. Beetle believes that it is her husband and goes looking for him.

The ichneumon fly returns with a dead cricket for his daughter, a larva. After feeding his daughter, the fly turns his attention to the tramp, asking if he is edible. The tramp says he is not, and the fly proceeds to regale him with the wonders of children.

Mr. Beetle returns looking for his wife. He has found a hole. The tramp tells him that his wife is looking for him and that another beetle stole their capital. Mr. Beetle is more concerned with the loss of it than his wife.

Mr. and Mrs. Cricket enter. They are moving into the home vacated by a cricket eaten by a bird. Mr. Cricket leaves to introduce himself to the neighbors. After he goes, Mrs. Cricket, who is pregnant, and the tramp talk about children. Mrs. Beetle returns and gets into an argument with Mrs. Cricket over what is more important: a dung pile or a home. Mrs. Beetle leaves again.

The fly returns, kills Mrs. Cricket, and takes her to his lair. A parasite enters, and sympathizes with the tramp’s horror over the murder. The parasite believes that the fly is bad because he just stores most of what he kills while others starve. The fly considers eating the parasite, but finds him inedible. When Mr. Cricket returns, the fly quickly kills him, then leaves to look for more food. After he exits, the parasite enters the lair and eats much of what is in there, including the larva. The tramp is disgusted by all the killing.

Act III: The Ants

The chrysalis is growing more excited about being born. The tramp realizes he has sat on an ant heap. He asks the blind ant, who is counting time for the worker ants, what he has stumbled upon. The blind ant does not answer, but the chief engineer does. He is in the Ant Realm. A second engineer enters. He has come up with a more efficient way to count and get more work done.

The engineer ants have never heard of humans and inform the tramp that ants are the masters of the world ruled by a she. These ants have defeated the black and brown ants, conquered the grey ants, and are now trying to beat the yellow ants. They are doing this to rule the world and master time. The engineers are concerned with the speed of work.

An inventor ant enters. He has come up with a new war machine that will kill quickly. A messenger comes in. The southern army has had some men captured by the yellow ants, who have declared war on the Ant Realm. The ants call for arms as the yellow ants invade. The ants become soldiers led by the chief engineer, now the commander in chief and dictator. He organizes forces and readies the battle plan.

The messenger returns regularly with progress reports. The Ant Realm is losing badly to the yellow ants. Wounded ants return. The tide of the battle turns, and the yellow retreat. The chief engineer orders their destruction, and proclaims himself emperor. The tide changes again and it is the Ant Realm who retreats. The yellows invade and are victorious. The tramp kills the yellow leader.

Epilogue: Death and Life

The tramp is sleeping in the dead of night. Voices of all the insects can be heard as morning nears. The tramp strikes stones to make a spark, which lights up the forest. Moths come into the light and die. The chrysalis breaks open to reveal a moth, who dies soon after she is born. The tramp is upset by her death, and moments later is struggling with his own death.

After dawn, a woodcutter comes upon the corpse of the tramp. A woman with a baby finds both of them. The woodcutter covers the tramp, while the woman places a flower on his makeshift grave. Children sing as they go by on their way to school.

Saturday, February 21, 2009



  • Rodgers & Hammerstein's Allegro - First Complete Recording
  • Release Date: 2/3/09
  • Label: Sony Masterworks Broadway
  • Catalog: 741738
  • Number of Discs: 2
  • Performers: Patrick Wilson, Audra McDonald, Marni Nixon, Laura Benanti, Norbert Leo Butz, Liz Callaway, Nathan Gunn, Judy Kuhn, Judith Blazer, Danny Burstein.
  • Orchestra: Istropolis Philharmonic Orchestra

Allegro is the one item in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon which today seems unimaginable: a failure. By the time this show was produced in 1947 R&H were practically deified as theatre icons. They had triumphed with Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), won an Academy Award in Hollywood with State Fair (1945), and established themselves as successful producers with I Remember Mama (1944), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and a national tour of Showboat (1947-49). Their work enjoyed such a density of popularity beyond the reach of any previous Broadway masters, that all America waited breathlessly to see what the magic team with the Midas touch would devise for their next unstoppable hit.

What they gave us was Allegro.

Hammerstein envisioned Allegro as an Everyman allegory: a piece in which he would move his protagonist, country doctor Joe Taylor, through a cradle-to-grave storyline designed to illuminate important themes, both universal and personal. The story was actually somewhat autobiographic for Hammerstein as he, like Joe Taylor, had lost his mother while young, left an adulterous wife, and found himself too often caught in an unwanted spotlight of fame which distracted him from his private life and writing pursuits. His goal, as related to director-choreographer Agnes de Mille, was to tell a story "about a man who can't fulfill his life's work because of personal and professional pressures."

The idea for the story is a sound one, although the limitations of theatrical storytelling would ultimately limit the tale to only birth through mid-life crisis. Nevertheless, such an ambitious story arc would necessarily encompass huge swaths of plot and time; clearly some new approach in script and style would be necessary to house such a panorama. And here is where R&H chose to up the stakes by once again reconceiving what a musical could be. While previous efforts by the team had woven together and unified a variety of dramatic elements which were already in use on Broadway in the 1940s, Allegro would incorporate ancient theatrical techniques including a vast, open playing area like the orchestra of ancient Greek theatre and an honest-to-goodness Greek chorus to urge on the action and explain subtext to the audience.

Unlike Greek theatre, however, Allegro tinkered with its empty stage space to produce a very fluid and cinematic kaleidoscope: moving runways, treadmills, and platforms were used to whisk set pieces and characters on and off; a serpentine traveller curtain allowed breathtaking cinematic wipes; and an enormous cyclorama acted as an imposing monolith onto which countless images were projected. The result was a kind of staging fluidity unknown to musical theatre of the 1940s. Gone were the "stage waits" between scenes and the little bits "in one" played downstage in front of a drop while the stagehands hauled in the next massive set.

The writing of Allegro was consistent with its staging concept. Not a line, not a song, not a scene was planned without the authors' having some idea how it was going to look and behave. It is at this point that R&H may have miscalculated. The writing of the entire show became subservient to its staging concepts with the Greek chorus assigned considerable duties in moving the plot along. Even the score was affected, for here one found no telling character songs, or expository love duets, much less the operatic grandeur of say Carousel. No, this score came out in little bits and pieces with only one complete musical scene, only an occasional full-out song, and four (count 'em four) ballets staged by Agnes de Mille. It's almost as if R&H were deconstructing musical writing to match the show's deconstruction of traditional theatre design.

Expectations were extremely high for Allegro and by the time of the NY opening October 10, 1947 the show had garnered the largest advance sale in Broadway history. But on opening night, the audience that mattered sat on its hands. As de Mille's husband, Walter Prude, put it, Allegro went over "like a wet firecracker."

The reviews were widely divided. Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror said, "Allegro is perfection." Wolcott Gibbs of The New Yorker called it "a shocking disappointment." In the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson thought R&H had "just missed the final splendor of a perfect work of art." Robert Garland, in the Journal-American, suggested that the authors "confused 'allegro' with, say 'lento,' which means 'slow,' 'unhurried,' and even downright 'serious'" Ward Morehouse of the Sun was probably the most accurate -- "distinguished and tumultuous," he called it. "It takes its place alongside of Oklahoma! and Carousel as a theatrical piece of taste, imagination, and showmanship...[It has] a simple story but it becomes frequently touching and occasionally exalted."

One can sense passionate disagreement from these reviews. "Nobody is neutral about Allegro," wrote Wayne Abrams in the Chicago Sun. "The Hammerstein-Rodgers-de Mille musical play is nigh unto perfect or a dismal flop. There's that much room for disagreement." This is exceedingly true. What musical before Allegro ever caused such passionate disagreement, such fervor? Controversy was the province of dramatists -- Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, William Saroyan -- not musical comedy. So what was this Allegro anyway?

Ultimately, the show was crippled by the poor reviews, but more importantly by bad word-of-mouth. The word on the street was that Allegro was a pretentious "success corrupts" morality play in which the wholesome virtues of America's heartland were set against graft and greed in the Big Bad City. "We, of course, intended no such conclusion to be drawn from our play," said Hammerstein, but to no avail. The staggering advance sale allowed the show to run for 10 months, just 315 showings, and then it vanished without paying back its enormous production costs. A national tour did lousy business and closed after visiting just 16 cities. "The fault was ours," conceded Rodgers in his autobiography, Musical Stages, "for not stating our point of view more clearly." Hammerstein added, "If the writer's aim is misread, it can only be because he hasn't written clearly enough."

So Allegro disappeared from the public consciousness, historically overwhelmed by the more successful and famous R&H titles. Even the original cast recording on RCA Victor, a meager affair which preserved only a small fraction of the score, was forgotten and only appeared episodically in print through the years. So the time seems ripe for a reappraisal of this adventurous work and we can thank Ted Chapin and the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization for this loving recreation of a long-overlooked work. Now we can finally judge for ourselves just what musical merits the show might possess.

The recording is fairly comprehensive and includes both the Overture and Entr'acte, all the songs (even in their tiniest fragments), most of the incidental music, and all 4 of the big de Mille ballets. It's a huge recording that is greater than 94 minutes in duration and covers two CDs. There is much to absorb and after listening to it for the better part of two weeks, I can certainly understand the mixed critical reception the show received.

To start with what's good, let me commend the orchestral playing. The producers procured the services of an Eastern European orchestra, for economic reasons I'm sure. The decision turned out well, however, for the 50-piece Istropolis Orchestra turns in a fine reading of this very symphonic score. At times, I do wish the playing were a touch more idiomatic, particularly in the college sequences set in the 1920s, and possessed more of a "Broadway sound," but this is mere carping. On the whole this is a rich, lush reading of the score which preserves the excellent Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations and Trude Rittmann dance arrangements -- and that alone is cause for minor celebration.

The singing on the recording is uniformly first-rate. Given that the producers recorded the orchestral tracks separately in 2006, they were free to engage individual singers as they became available to record the various roles. In this manner, they were able to assemble a dream cast which would be next to impossible to arrange in an actual staged production. The recording studio also allowed for singers to be cast exclusively for their vocal and acting abilities and not for reasons of physicality or age.

Top singing honors must be accorded to Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn as Joe's parents. Their duet, "A Fellow Needs a Girl" is one of the highlights of the score and Ms. McDonald's rendition of "Come Home" late in the second act is simply stunning. These are the tracks I return to over and over as I listen to this score. Just beautiful. Celebrity vocal double Marni Nixon provides an endearing and warm character voice for Grandma Taylor; sadly she has but one song, "I Know It Can Happen Again." She dies shortly thereafter, only to return as a ghost who pops up at intervals throughout the show, but with no new musical material.

Patrick Wilson is an engaging actor and his casting as protagonist Joe Taylor is inspired. One could easily imagine him performing this role in a staged theatrical production. His singing is warm and assured, but the authors give him precious little to do. Joe Taylor must be the first romantic lead in an American musical who has so very little to sing: just an unnamed ditty about being lonely at college, a beautiful love song "You Are Never Away" (with full Greek chorus singing backup), and a few lines of the title number. Strangely, the Greek chorus has more to do in Allegro than the protagonist. This leads us to one of the major writing flaws inherent in the piece: Joe Taylor is never really dramatized. The authors instead chose to have us learn about Joe from the testimony of others; it's an interesting approach, but ultimately a serious error of dramaturgy. In the end, Joe seems little more than an underwritten cypher whose actions appear motivated more by the needs of Hammerstein's plotting than by the intentions of the character's heart.

The lovely Laura Benanti plays Jenny, Joe's scheming, childhood sweetheart (who has no intention of being the wife of a small town doctor) and later his social-climbing, adulterous wife. Her singing chores are even skimpier than Joe's, so for the purposes of this recording, she is also something of a cypher. How I wish the producers had included a dialog scene between Jenny and Joe's mom, Marjorie, which occurs late in the first act, right before Jenny and Joe's wedding. Marjorie sees Jenny's true colors and knows she is not the right girl for her son. The two women have a devastating argument and open warfare is declared; but Marjorie succumbs to a heart-attack as a result of the argument and dies, leaving Jenny free to claim her man. During the moving wedding sequence the ghosts of both Marjorie and Grandma Taylor appear and Marjorie beseeches the faithless Jenny to respect her wedding vows and "love him, comfort him, honor, and keep him..." The curtain falls on a gala celebration with the chorus ringing out the stirring "Wish Them Well," complete with sopranos on high C, as Marjorie buries her face in her hands, weeping in open grief, at what she alone knows is to come. It is a striking moment, but I can only imagine how much better this ironic wedding scene would play on disc if we had the benefit of the chilling fight scene which precedes it in the play.

Judy Kuhn plays Beulah, a girl Joe dates briefly in college, and she is rewarded with a lovely song, "So Far," which reflects on the characters' lack of a shared history. One can only wonder why one of the best songs in the entire score is given to a secondary character who disappears immediately after singing it, never to be heard from again; but this glorification of secondary characters seems to be a recurring problem in Allegro. This tendency to musicalize minor characters while leaving the leads empty handed bothers me a great deal and must have been confusing to audiences when the show was new. "Whatever happened to that nice girl, Beulah?" the matinee ladies must have asked. "She may not have been dramatized, but at least she wasn't sleeping around." "So Far" appears to be one of the few episodes on the recording where laying down the orchestral tracks in advance seems to have been a misfire. Ms. Kuhn is a superb vocalist who seems uncharacteristically inhibited by the strict, metrical playing of the orchestra during this number. One wonders just how much more she could have done with this little gem if she were allowed to stretch her wings just a bit.

The choral singing is glorious throughout, although one does become a little tired of the endless spoken commentary from that logorrheic Greek chorus. Do we really need to be told Joe's birth weight five times in the opening scene of the show? I also question the wisdom of the extended choral sequence celebrating toddler Joe learning to walk, "One Foot, Other Foot." I realize that learning to walk is a metaphor which will return at the end of Act II when Joe abandons city life and returns to his rural roots (as the chorus reprises "One Foot, Other Foot"), but the sequence is lengthy and the metaphor is labored. I would so much rather have Joe's thoughts and feelings dramatized than explained by observers.

The chorus has their grandest moment in the extended wedding sequence which closes the first act. Music pumps continuously through this scene which encompasses no fewer than four different titles: "What A Lovely Day For A Wedding!," "It Might Be A Good Idea," "To Have And To Hold," and "Wish Them Well." The sequence is superbly crafted and extremely moving and only makes me wish the rest of the writing were of this high caliber.

There are some delightful cameo appearances on these discs. During a scene at Joe's college, his various professors are voiced by New York theatre critics Howard Kissel and John Simon; even Executive Producer of Lincoln Center Theatre, Bernard Gersten gets into the act. The voice of author Oscar Hammerstein II can also be briefly heard as a guest lecturer in, alas, a single sentence, but his voice is unmistakable and adds weight and sentiment to the proceedings.
The best surprise for me, however, was a magical appearance by Hammerstein protege Stephen Sondheim right at the climax of the piece as he assumes a solo speaking role with (yes, you guessed it) that tiresome Greek chorus that has by now worn out its welcome. His brief speech about the word "ornament" leaves one feeling that God-Almighty has just paid a visit to Act II of Allegro, and didn't you suspect a deux ex machina was going to appear anyway? Sondheim's small acting contribution plus his compelling remarks about Hammerstein's true intentions with Allegro (reproduced in the CD booklet) are a real treat and alone worth the price of the entire recording.

On the whole, I find this recording a welcome addition to my library and I'm grateful to the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization and Sony for taking the trouble to produce it. I feel confident this recording will create renewed interest in Allegro, however, my ultimate opinion of this piece is that it is one of those "important titles" which broke new ground and helped pave the way for future writers (the first concept musical really), but is not all that good when judged exclusively on its own merits. That's OK actually, there are plenty of important titles in the history of the musical which broke new and important ground, ever nudging the art form forward, but are not as entertaining as their vaulted histories might suggest. Kern and Hammerstein's Music in the Air (1932) and Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey (1940) are two titles that immediately come to mind. Music in the Air really stretched the boundaries of the musical scene as it existed in 1932 and Pal Joey, of course, introduced the anti-hero to the musical. Important history yes, but not really shows that I would be in a hurry to see revived.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


Just a quick post today. I'm busy studying the new studio recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1947 musical Allegro these days. There's a lot to absorb and I'm not ready to post a review just yet.

Instead let me say a word about one of my favorite vocalists, the amazing Barbara Cook. She is simply the finest theatre vocalist/actress I have ever come across. She has the most amazing, silvery soprano voice; but more important than her instrument, is how she uses it. Her song interpretations are peerless and infused with such incredible wit, warmth, and intelligence as to make almost everything she does definitive. Consider her remarkable "Losing My Mind" from the 1985 New York Philharmonic concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. I had long thought that original Sally Durant, Dorothy Collins, was unassailable in this role, but Cook gives her a real run for her money and even has it over her in vocal production. Take a listen, it's breathtaking. This one is for you Sarah dear...

Here's a bit of the documentary about the making of that Follies concert which caps with Cook performing a stunning "In Buddy's Eyes." I realize now that all these keys have been raised from the originals, which only adds to the dramatic tension. Watch for the late Lee Remick and a very young Mandy Patinkin on the sidelines watching Barbara rehearse.

Cook really came into her own starring as Marion the librarian in The Music Man back in 1957. She went into this show straight from her ear popping success as Cunegonde in Bernstein's Candide (1956). There she had stunned audiences with her coloratura prowess and repeated high E-flats in "Glitter and Be Gay." Alas, there is no video of her work there or in The Music Man for that matter. Where are those Ed Sullivan clips when I need them? I did manage to find this somewhat cheesy video of her singing "Til There Was You" on The Bell Television Hour. The set dressing positively reeks of the 1960s and don't get me started on her costume, but Cook is "young and beautiful" as Sally would say and in splendid voice to boot. To see the clip click here.

Another of Cook's best roles was the ingenue, pen-pal Amalia Balash in She Loves Me! in 1963. I think this may have been her greatest role ever. The story is sweet, the production was heavenly, and the score was achingly beautiful. Cook had the lion's share of the best numbers and scored heavily with "No More Candy," "Will He Like Me?" (one of my all time favorites), "I Don't Know His Name," "Dear Friend," and even "Where's My Shoe?" The show was intimate and quiet in a season dominated by musicals celebrating the loud and the brash (Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl). I think poor She Loves Me! might have gotten a little lost amidst all the hullabaloo and Cook wasn't even nominated that season! Like most aficionados, I treasure the original cast recording. I should probably mention that She Loves Me! had direction by Hal Prince and choreography by Carol Haney (see yesterday's post on The Pajama Game which celebrates their theatrical contributions).

Anyway, here's Barbara concertizing with her big second act showstopper "Vanilla Ice Cream" which has become one of her signature songs. Even this late in her career she can still thrill with that high B at the end of the song. This song gets a lot of coverage by teenage girls at my daughter's thespian competitions.

Switching back to the young Cook, here's another television clip from The Bell Telephone Hour in 1965 (she was on this show a lot). This time she's paired with Anita Gillette (remember Anita? She did a lot of theatre back in the 1960s) doing some favorite WWII songs from the 1940s.

And finally, here's Cook in revivalist mode performing that old standard "Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive" by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. What a voice! Now, if we could just get her back in a show somehow...

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I'm taking my cue once again from the NYT crossword puzzle; this time the Sunday puzzle of 2/8/09 in which Pajama Party served as a theme. This, of course, puts me in mind of The Pajama Game, the musical comedy based on Richard Bissell's novel 7-1/2 Cents. The show had the unusual hook in that it treated labor relations in a Midwestern pajama factory, where management refuses to grant the raise that has been sweeping the industry.

The show opened May 13, 1954 and played for 1063 performances, a very imposing run back in the 1950s. The book was co-written by director George Abbott along with novelist Richard Bissell. Jerome Robbins, looking to move out of choreography, co-directed the show with Abbott with the understanding he would oversee the dances being staged by newcomer Bob Fosse, who needed no help at all thank you very much. The show also marked the producing debut of former Abbott stage manager Hal Prince who, along with fellow stage manager Robert E. Griffith and money man Robert Brisson, was looking to expand his theatrical horizons. The score was by the talented team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross who had only been heard on Broadway with songs for John Murray Anderson's Almanac in 1953.

So the show is already good, literally dripping with talent in the creative department. I'm always astonished when I see the names of big Broadway theatrical legends attached to such standard commercial fare, but that's probably why these commercial confections still resonate with contemporary audiences. These creators lavished as much care and attention on their commercial trifles as they did on their greater artistic achievements.

The talent pool expanded considerably with the casting of the show. The comic factory efficiency expert (Vernon Hines) was played by former vaudeville crazy Eddie Foy, Jr. who was paired with the manager's secretary (Gladys), cast with the wonderfully daffy Carol Haney. The primary lovers were Sid Sorokin (John Raitt), the new factory superintendent, obviously on management's side, and Babe Williams (Janis Paige), on labor's: so it's a sort of a capitalistic Iowan Romeo and Juliet. There is little more to the plot than that Sid at length gets Gladys drunk, steals her key to the factory's account book, and discovers that the crooked manager has budgeted the raise without actually granting it. The union wins and both couples unite.

Oddly, with little story to work with, the book is uniformly excellent, very fast paced and amusing yet aptly sharp on character interaction. The score is likewise quite good and features an unBroadwaylike "top forty" sound in such varied numbers as "Hernando's Hideaway," "Once a Year Day," and the country-western flavored "There Once Was a Man." When had Broadway heard anything like this music? It is not widely acknowledged, but Frank Loesser actually wrote two of Pajama Game's songs: the oddly chromatic "A New Town is a Blue Town" (sounds a bit like "My Time of Day" from Guys and Dolls, no?) and yes, that hillbilly rouser "There Once Was a Man."

Leading man John Raitt later confirmed that the two songs had been written by Loesser and also, surprisingly, confessed that George Abbott had not been pleased with his own casting. After auditioning for The Pajama Game, Raitt learned "George Abbott didn't like the way I read. They tried a number of people, including Van Johnson and Darren McGavin. One Saturday, I got a call from my agent: 'They're desperate. They want to see you at the Winter Garden, following the matinee of Wonderful Town.' The first time, I'd auditioned with the third assistant stage manager; we did the kitchen scene. This time, they gave me a beautiful gal to play opposite. I was signed -- but not to a run-of-the-play contract. They still didn't have confidence in me. That worked in my favor: In New Haven, when I did get a run-of-the-play contract, I got a little more money."

There was an extremely faithful film adaption, again directed by Abbott, which was released in 1957. The film features almost all the members of the original Broadway company except replacement Doris Day, who filled in for Janice Paige, and provided some good old-fashioned Hollywood casting insurance. Day is actually quite good in the role and is a considerably better singer than Paige, so the altered casting is actually quite welcome. The film itself is lacking in any sort of cinematic sweep and often looks like a filmed play, but who really cares? This is about as close as any modern viewer is likely to get to what this show actually felt like in the theatre back in 1954. Much of the original staging is present, including some of Bob Fosse's earliest Tony winning choreography.

Just take a look at the "Steam Heat" number from the second act featuring that pixie-like gamin Carol Haney flanked by dancers Buzz Miller and Peter Gennaro. This is one of those typical Abbott we-need-to-spice-up-this-empty-second-act numbers. It is wedged into the plot on the contrivance that it is some sort of an entertainment at a union meeting. Oh, really? Of course, it doesn't matter that the number sticks out as a dramatic sore thumb; it's just superb entertainment. And who had ever seen dance moves like this before? All the signature Fosse traits are plainly evident: the knock knees, awkward posture, limp wrists, even the hat tricks. It's all there.

Or consider "I'm Not At All in Love," one of those charm songs that Broadway used to effortlessly toss off on a regular basis. It also shares some history with the "This Can't Be Love" type songs so favored by old Broadway in which protagonists come up with all sorts of ways to deny their true romantic yearnings. It's practically a genre unto itself. To see Doris Day do the number in the film version go here. Or you can watch Kelli O'Hara do the same number in the recent Broadway Revival. Me? I'll take Doris Day any day.

There have been two Broadway revivals of The Pajama Game. The first was an extremely short-lived and cheap looking affair that played the Lunt-Fontanne in 1973. This one was again directed by Abbott and featured a racially mixed cast with Hal Linden, Barbara McNair, and a very drunken Cab Calloway. Oddly, the racially mismatched Linden and McNair did not seem to acknowledge that their differing ethnicity might prove a barrier to their relationship. It was still only a management-versus-labor stumbling block in the romance, which just seems weird given the racial tensions of the 1970s.

The second revival was considerably better and put on by the Roundabout Theatre Company in February 2006. Kathleen Marshall provided the excellent direction and scintillating choreography while Harry Connick, Jr. made his Broadway debut as Sid opposite a very appealing Kelli O'Hara, fresh from The Light in the Piazza. There were some new songs for this staging by composer Richard Adler, but none that provided any significant competition to the original score. Connick and O'Hara garnered excellent reviews and everybody seemed to notice the palpable sexual energy between the two. You get a hint at it in this clip from the Tony Awards that year. There's also some characteristic piano riffs for Connick during the second half of the clip when they switch from "There Once Was a Man" to "Hernando's Hideaway."

I must admit to a certain fondness for all that hot hoofing as well as Mr. Connick's piano stylings, but they don't have much to do with the lyric do they? This "Hernando's Hideaway" seems anything but a hideaway. What happened to "...a dark, secluded place. A place where no one knows your face..."? I get the distinct impression that Kathleen Marshall's "Hernadno's Hideaway" is so lively a jive that it would come complete with brawling celebrities and the paparazzi. Contrast this with Bob Fosse's staging where everybody sneaks about and lurks in utter darkness striking matches. It's a more understated staging, but truer to the lyric. Plus, I just love Carol Haney.

The Pajama Game is well represented on disc. The original Broadway cast recording is still in print on Sony Records and is well worth owning chiefly because of the glorious singing voice of John Raitt, who remains unmatched in his role. The 1973 revival went unrecorded, but the 2006 revival with Connick and O'Hara is still available, although you have to purchase a second disc of Connick and O'Hara singing songs from his flop show Thou Shalt Not (2001) in order to get your hands on the Pajama Game tracks. Connick is in fine voice and uses his trademark Sinatra crooning to great effect. O'Hara is an excellent singer and is completely devoid of those pitch problems which mar Janice Paige's tracks on the original Broadway recording. There is also a very fine 1996 studio recording of the entire score from Overture through Exit Music which features Judy Kaye and Ron Raines. They seem heavy on voice and short on charm so the real star of the recording becomes the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Owen Edwards, which gives a flavorful and idiomatic reading of this jazzy score. You will never hear these orchestra tracks better played than on this recording.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


My daughter's high school is doing Bye Bye Birdie as their spring musical this year. Since Caitlin was fortunate enough to have been cast as Kim, we've spent a lot of time studying the script and score. You know, I really thought I knew this piece, but it turns out I didn't. Now that I've spent some time looking at it carefully, I'm beginning to realize what a finely crafted work this is.

I never had the opportunity to see the original production which opened on Broadway in the spring of 1960. The show was an absolute sleeper and a surprise hit, nabbing Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Direction and Choreography (both for Gower Champion), and Best Supporting Actor (Dick Van Dyke). It's not surprising that the show was a sleeper as none of the names attached to the piece were really known to theatregoers of the era. Oh sure, Gower Champion had a reputation for his film work at MGM and from several revues he had staged for Broadway, but he had never been given the reins on a major musical before. Chita Rivera too was known to discerning playgoers for her Anita in West Side Story (1957). But Dick Van Dyke, Kay Medford, Dick Gautier, and Susan Watson were unestablished. Paul Lynde had a solid debut in New Faces of 1952, but had not been seen in New York since. I mean who were these people? So, the smart money counted this show out and producer Ed Padula had a devil of a time raising the capitalization.

The greatest surprises in the talent stack, however, turned out to be composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams, and librettist Michael Stewart -- all first-timers with a Broadway show. One would never anticipate such expertise from newcomers but they turned in surprisingly fresh and professional work, a real course in Musical Comedy 101. The writing is by turns witty and sly as it tells its tale of generational conflict and teens writhing in angst at the prospect of losing their sacred idol; but the authors always found humor solidly grounded in character and situation. The result was a show refreshingly free of shtick and without the need to be played for camp.

I believe the work has become distorted over the years, largely because of damage from the not-so-faithful movie adaption (1963) and the more faithful, but extremely cluttered, TV version (1995). Caitlin was pretty much amused and horrified when I first showed her the film version and she saw Ann Margaret doing this:

This title song, of course, is not from the stage play and was written to order for the movie. I find it quite good in its own three-chord-pop sort of way. What is shocking, however, is the overtly provocative presentation of Ann Margaret. What high school is this character attending? Slut University? And must the camera ogle her so? Granted Ann makes for one alluring sex kitten, but Kim MacAfee? The television version got the number right, rescuing the song from the planet Tramp, and returning it to the sweet innocence one expects to see in Birdie.

Ah, that's better. These girls are adorable, if still a little long in the tooth for high schoolers. I especially love the girl in the "Birdie Sweats" who looks like she might actually be sixteen and ready to die over the loss of Conrad. The actress playing Ursula (the one in the center who starts the song) is absolutely perfect too and does a mean Conrad Birdie Scream to boot!

Perhaps one of the major reasons Birdie was such a popular success in 1960 (was there anybody who did not like this show?), was because of the memorable performers. Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke have since gone on to greater fame, but they were pretty unknown in 1960 and it must have been a real treat for audiences of the era to discover them. As I mentioned earlier, Van Dyke was honored with a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor in this role. Supporting Actor you ask? Isn't he one of the leads? Well yes, but he was billed below the title and in 1960 you had to have star billing to be considered for a Best Actor award (a situation which has happily been reversed). Chita Rivera was nominated for Best supporting Actress, but lost the award to Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Molly Brown is a supporting role? Oh, never mind. Here's Chita doing the "Shriner's Ballet" number, which was a real showstopper in the second act.

There used to be a wonderful clip of Dick Van Dyke doing the "Put On A Happy Face" on the Ed Sullivan Show posted on You Tube. I just saw it a week or two ago, alas it's gone now; probably removed because of licensing issues. It's too bad because the number was a real charmer and the young Van Dyke was a very appealing performer who scored heavily with his rubber-limbed performance. Here's Jason Alexander doing the same number in the 1995 TV movie (unfortunately minus the Gower Champion choreography). He's a little creepy, actually...but the "sad girl" is as cute as she can be.

I'm surprised this show has never been revived on Broadway, especially since many less worthy pieces have already had a second look. I remember seeing a tour starring Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking back in 1990, but it was surprisingly limp and certainly ugly to look at. Tune's part was built up and he had a new number in the second act called "I Took A Giant Step" complete with his signature taps. It didn't add much to the show. I hear the Roundabout Theatre will get to Birdie in the fall of 2009. I hope they choose to present the piece as originally written and not give it the "revisal treatment." I think it's plenty good just as it is.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


OK boys and girls, here's one I'll wager you don't know. The song is "Way Ahead of My Time" also known as "The Caveman Song." The writer is Peter Mills, who is a recent discovery for me, although I've learned Pete has been kicking around for some time. He can write wonderful, dramatic songs or straight comedy, as evidenced here.

This nutty song comes from The Taxi Cabaret which was presented by Prospect Theater Company (of which Pete is a founding member) back in 2000.

The performer is the always amusing Malcolm Gets, who is probably best known to the general public for playing Richard Karinsky, Carolyn's angst-ridden animation colorist, in Carolyn in the City. Theatre lovers will know him from his many wonderful performances, both on and off-Broadway. I caught him playing Bill Finn's alter ego, Gordon Michael Schwinn, in the daffy A New Brain back at Lincoln Center in 1998 and he was terrific. Missed him in Amour in 2002 because that show had such a short run. If you've not heard the Amour cast album by all means give it a listen; it is first rate material. Malcolm was also a very touching Franklin Shepard in the York Theatre's production of Merrily We Roll Along (1994). He'll be playing Gould in the upcoming film version of Grey Gardens (no not the musical, although it is based on the Broadway production) which should be on HBO come April.

OK, enough about Malcolm. Enjoy the song.

Monday, February 9, 2009


I have long enjoyed this great old song which originally appeared in a somewhat forgotten review called Two on the Aisle (1951) which starred the great Bert Lahr and the sultry Dolores Gray. Music is by Jule Styne and the clever lyrics are by good ol' Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

I'm not a huge fan of Kristen Chenoweth. She's got an amazing voice, but all the cutesy-poo business has grown tiresome of late. I'm posting her rendition of this wonderful song largely because the staging is just so incredibly amusing. Her victim/husband is an awesome mime.