THE EVER-SO-GRAND HOTEL By Peter Filichia
“The Boston Merger” turns out to have two meanings in Grand Hotel.
In the 1989 musical that last month had a superb revival at Encores! General Director Preysing and his company are in financial crisis. If he can’t manage a merger with a Boston company, his board of directors and stockholders will remove him.
So Preysing waits for the telegram that will say “The Boston merger is on” – only to get one that instead proclaims “The Boston merger is off.”
Preysing assumes that losing his company will be the worst thing that could happen to him. Little does he know that in a matter of hours, he’ll endure far worse.
Let’s now turn to real life in autumn 1989 when Grand Hotel had a more successful Boston merger. When the reviews from the Massachusetts critics weren’t raves (although take it from me, who attended one of the first previews at the Colonial Theatre, it was already terrific), director-choreographer Tommy Tune called up Maury Yeston, with whom he’d worked on the Tony-winning Nine, to buttress the Robert Wright and George “Chet” Forrest score.
Despite having a few weeks at his disposal, Yeston came up with five full songs, spruced up two and changed a few lyrics in some others.
Yeston set “The Grand Parade” in a minor key but made it a major production number. It’s almost a title song, for the phrase “Grand Hotel” is repeated more than a dozen times as it introduces glamorous guests and wannabees. It segues into “Some Have, Some Have Not,” Wright and Forrest’s number sung by the less privileged scullery workers in the basement.
If you root for the underdog – and who doesn’t? – the character you most care about is Otto Kringelein, a career bookkeeper. In fact, he worked for Preysing who thought him so insignificant that now he doesn’t even remember the man.
Because Kringelein has been told he’s terminally ill — and because “Life went by when I wasn’t looking” — he plans to spend his meager savings on a final spree at the Grand Hotel. But he’s Jewish, and the hotel is, to use the hateful term of the time, “restricted.”
In between Yeston’s haunting “At The Grand Hotel” and Wright and Forrest’s evocative “Table With a View,”
The Baron sees Kringelein, takes pity on the doomed man and uses his influence to get him a room. It’s the first of a few times we’ll see that this noble is truly noble.
Next we meet pretty typist Frieda Flamm, for whom Wright and Forrest wrote a delightful song called “Flaemmchen” – the stage name she’d choose to launch what she hopes will be her brilliant career in film. It’s an A-A-B-A charmer, but Yeston had loftier ambitions for the spot. His “I Want to Go to Hollywood” offers such understandable goals as “I want to wear nice shoes” and the sad truth that if money isn’t plentiful, “when things get broken, they stay broken.”
Grand Hotel stresses life’s wheel of fortune. Once The Baron flirts with Flaemmchen, she thinks she has it made. Little does she know that he has less money than she does. And when he tells her that he’s fallen in love with someone else — more on that person later — Flaemmchen feels she’s lost everything when in fact we know she’s lost nothing.
For The Baron is penniless and six months in arrears. He’s been forced to break into the hotel’s guest rooms and steal. That includes the one belonging to the once-great ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya. But, as the shell-shocked, heroin-addicted Doctor Otternschlag notes, “Grushinskaya doesn’t sell out anymore – and her audience no longer pleads for encores.
“The fire has gone out and the ice is melting,” she admits to her producers before Wright and Forrest’s “Fire and Ice.” Here we see her not dancing, but repeating boring toe and foot exercises. Many writers, directors and choreographers would have taken a less inspired approach and shown her in dance; this slant reminds us of the tedious hours a dancer must spend in numbingly mindless exercises if there is to be any success at all.
Considering that Grushinskaya catches The Baron with the goods, we aren’t inclined to believe his immediate proclamations of love. But one of the impressive facets of the book by Luther Davis — who also experienced his own Boston merger with uncredited play doctor Peter Stone – is that we do come to see that he does love her and will be her next lover (to the dismay of her devoted assistant and closeted lesbian hopeful Raffaela).
Yeston knew how to write for Grushinskaya, for Liliane Montevecchi had sung his “Folies Bergere” in Nine and then came away with a Best Featured Musical Actress Tony. Here his “Bonjour, Amour” helped catapult her into the Best Musical Actress category, and although she didn’t win – nobody was going to beat Tyne Daly’s Rose in Gypsy – she did receive a nomination.
Most felt that Yeston’s masterstroke was “Love Can’t Happen,” a bolt-of-lightning ballad that David Carroll brought to glorious life.
The Baron’s nobility is shown once more. Although he’s actually in Preysing’s suite to steal, when he hears that Preysing is in the next room sexually harassing Flaemmchen, he is so concerned for her welfare that he gets into a fight with her attacker and pays the ultimate price. Our real-life so-called nobles should be so noble!
Although the Boston musical merger wound up working exceedingly well, let’s not shortchange Wright and Forrest, who wrote an extraordinarily varied score that beautifully reflected the era: Le Jazz Hot (“Maybe My Baby Loves Me”), a Charleston (“H-A-P-P-Y”), a fox trot (“Who Couldn’t Dance with You”) a waltz (“I Waltz Alone”) and a bolero — called, fittingly enough, “The Bolero.”
Truth to tell, this last-named Weillian-infused orchestral piece used the same melody as “What You Need,” sung five songs earlier by Raffaela. It’s a Wright and Forrest beauty, but Yeston provided another winner for her, too, as she ruminated on the “Twenty-Two Years” she’s spent pining for Grushinskaya.
Wright and Forrest also provided the show’s most joyous moment that comes a day after The Baron had encouraged Kringelein to invest in the market. Lo and behold, the stock he recommended zoomed as high as an elephant’s eye. “We’ll Take a Glass Together” both sing, an unabashed celebration of wealth that resulted in one of Broadway’s greatest post-war production numbers.
Although David Carroll had to settle for a Tony nomination (as did Jane Krakowski for her Flaemmchen), Michael Jeter won the Best Featured Musical Actor prize, mostly (but not exclusively) because of this number.
Impending death, bankruptcy, aging out of a career, poverty and theft all support Grand Hotel’s main theme: “Time’s running out.” And just as “the Boston merger” had both a real and fictional impact on the show, so did this theme.
David Carroll, the original Baron, only played the first six months of the two-and-a-half-year run and was forced to leave due to complications from AIDS. The musical took so long to reach the recording studio – thirty months after opening and only twenty-three days before closing – that everyone worried that Carroll might not make the scheduled recording date of April 2, 1992.
Bill Rosenfield, then RCA’s executive in charge of Broadway recordings, decided to bring Carroll into the studio three weeks earlier. How tragic that time ran out for him that very day: March 11, 1992; Carroll actually died on the premises. Brent Barrett, who’d already succeeded him in the role, did the recording in his stead.
However, thirteen months earlier, Carroll had sung “Love Can’t Happen” at a New York nightclub, where his performance was recorded. His rendition finishes the almost-original cast album as a bonus track.
Thanks to all concerned, Grand Hotel offers bonus after bonus. It turned a famous euphemism upside down, for Grand Hotel was and always will be a non-embarrassment of riches.