March Madness: Week Four
While basketball fans of Kentucky, Virginia and Maryland are moaning and mourning that their team didn’t make the 68-team NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament – and adherents of the chosen Boise State, LaSalle and Oklahoma couldn’t be more pleased – we’re concentrating on a different kind of March Madness: one in which musical theater fans spend the month of March commemorating a musical’s opening or a star’s birthday on each day of the month.
Although college basketball is what’s on a sports fan’s mind, college football will be in our consciousness come March 19, the fifty-first anniversary of the opening of All American, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ second musical (this time with Mel Brooks!). We’re at the Southern Baptist Institute of Technology, where the football team has been grim on the gridiron. Then Professor Fodorski (Ray Bolger) joins the engineering department – and engineers a way to apply his mathematical principles into a winning football formula.
Fodorski is an immigrant who is glad to be here. Along with other about-to-be-Americans, he sings “Melt Us,” a marvelous rag with an intoxicating melody. “What a Country!” Fodorski joyously proclaims as he sees the lovely scenery en route to the school. (He’s traveling by train, which is ironic, because “What a Country!” was later adapted into an Amtrak commercial.) Finally, don’t forget that that lovely ballad “Once upon a Time” comes from this show, too.
The next day, do another Strouse and Adams musical. Reserve March 20 to play “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman.”
Those who know their musical theater history will carp, “Wait a minute! Superman didn’t open on March 20, 1966, but March 29, 1966!” ‘Tis true, ‘tis true. But on this March 20 — and through this weekend — New York will see a professional airing of Superman for the first time since it closed forty-seven years ago. (It’s at Encores! at City Center.)
Can’t make it? Then enjoy the original cast album. The overture gets us off to a dynamic start (so dynamic, in fact, that a Washington, DC TV station in the ‘70s used it to introduce its nightly news broadcast).
Strouse’s music has his trademark bounce, and Adams’ lyrics are particularly witty. Metropolis appreciates The Man of Steel: “He saved my baby from a fire,” says one citizen; “He caught the thug who was mugging Uncle Meyer,” proclaims another. But Superman’s constant flying around to help others means he doesn’t pay much attention to Lois Lane. Now she considers finding someone else: “a homey type who’ll stay around — a man with both feet on the ground.”
That doesn’t mean she’ll settle for colleague Clark Kent. However, Sydney – that’s a woman – believes of Clark “You’ve Got Possibilities.” Granted, she does have issues with what he’s wearing: “Collar? Pure Peoria. That hat? Oh, no! I’m not Queen Victoria. That suit has to go!” But as Clark told us in his opening number, he likes what he wears: “This disguise is really wonderful, for who would guess that underneath this white shirt is a great big red ‘S’”?
Who’s the villain? Mr. Mxyzptlk? Lex Luthor? No, it’s mad scientist Dr. Abner Sedgwick who’s gone crazy from being passed over for the Nobel Prize ten times in a row. As he sings, “The thing that really drove me to a fury? They gave the prize to Harold Urey. The shocking thing about the matter is: my heavy hydrogen was heavier than his.”
(Here’s a story involving that last lyric. Richard Ouzounian, now the critic for the Toronto Star, recalls when he was one of the four students representing his university on General Electric College Bowl, a TV quiz show for students. He was chosen for his knowledge of the arts, but when the question came up “Who won the Nobel Prize for heavy hydrogen?” he immediately hit the button and exclaimed “Harold Urey!” His teammates were flabbergasted that he knew such an arcane scientific fact – but that’s what happens when you know the cast album of “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman.” )
March 21 gets us to another fifty-first birthday: Matthew Broderick’s. My, tempus does fugit. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he was a teenager in those Neil Simon plays? In fact, no. Next week will mark the thirtieth anniversary of his breakthrough role in Brighton Beach Memoirs.
You could play the 1995 cast album of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying that garnered Broderick a Tony, but save that for March 23, which is the eighteenth anniversary of that revival’s opening. On this day, instead play The Producers, in which Broderick sings “I Want to Be a Producer.” Given that he probably first heard the song in 2000 – the same year that his wife Sarah Jessica Parker became a producer of Sex and the City – one wonders how much his warbling “I Want to Be a Producer” day-in and day-out influenced his wife into taking the reins of the series.
March 22 gets us to yet other fifty-first birthday, so to speak, of the opening of I Can Get It for You Wholesale, the musical about the highs and lows of working in the garment trade.
You’re expecting the words “Barbra” and “Streisand” to soon appear, and, of course, they already have. She gets the very first words of the album: “He’s not a well man,” she sings of her boss, establishing his hypochondriasis. But it was her turn as “Miss (Yetta Tessye) Marmelstein” that put her on the road to stardom.
So much has been written about Streisand’s first Broadway role that the rest of the superb Harold Rome score has been short-changed. Writing about such a hateful shyster as Harry Bogen (Elliott Gould) couldn’t have been easy, although we do like his warm feelings for his “Momma, Momma, Momma.” And yet, Momma knows that Harry is using his childhood sweetheart Ruthie Rivkin to finance his business; Momma tells her “Too Soon (don’t give your heart away),” for as much as she loves her son, she cares for Ruthie, too, and doesn’t want to see her hurt.
Seventh Avenue in the ‘30s was a haven for Jews, so the score is wonderfully Semitic-tinged. Among the most representative cuts are “A Gift Today,” which takes place at a bar-mitzvah, and “The Family Way” which has Momma, Harry, his business partners and their wives celebrate by using Jewish endearments.
(Goy that I am, when I first heard Wholesale as a teen, I assumed that when Harry’s partner and his wife Blanche sang “Have I Told You Lately?” that they finished the sentiment with “how much your stroolie loves you.” “Stroolie,” I thought, was a lovely little Jewish version of “honey” or “baby.” Years would pass before I would realize that they were singing “yours truly.”)
After you spend March 23 with that How to Succeed revival (play “Brotherhood of Man,” one of the greatest eleven o’clock numbers), while away March 24 by marking the eighth anniversary of the opening of All Shook Up. Joe DiPietro took songs that Elvis Presley made popular and fashioned a book around them. Of course, the lyrics were written for the pop market and not us more rarefied theater types, so they are more low-brow than to what we’ve been accustomed. Take the title song: “She touch-a my hand, and what a chill I got. Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot. I’m proud to say that she’s my buttercup?”
“Buttercup?” That’s what you call a girl who has lips like “a hot volcano?” You know, when I was growing up, in my neighborhood we had a completely different name for such a girl. Never mind: hear Stephen Oremus’ glorious arrangement for “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” arguably the most beautiful song that Presley ever recorded.
Last week, if you took my March 15 advice, you would have played the famous and illustrious original cast album of My Fair Lady on its fifty-seventh anniversary. Now, ten days later on March 25, play the 1976 cast album with Ian Richardson as Henry Higgins, Christine Andreas as Eliza Doolittle and George Rose as her father Alfred P. Doolittle.
Those who collect Tony-winning performances will have to own this disc. Here is 1975-1976’s Best Leading Actor in a Musical – no, not Richardson, but Rose. That’s pretty impressive, given that he only had two songs. Of course, they’re great ones: “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” which he delivers with enough brio to fill Covent Garden.
Until this disc, the only English-language recordings of My Fair Lady had all starred Rex Harrison, in his triple crown of a Tony-winning original Broadway cast run; a London Critics Award-winning original West End run; and an Oscar-winning stint in the film. Now the time had come to give someone else a chance.
Right from “Why Can’t the English?” Richardson offers more umbrage and outrage than Harrison exhibited. He enjoys rolling his “r’s” – to the point that he influences his employee Mrs. Pearce (Sylvia O’Brien) to roll hers, too. Listen for it.
Richardson knows when to roll and when not to. In “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” when he talks of “breathing out and breathing in,” he drops the verbal affectation. When he returns to ranting and raving, he begins re-rolling, too.
Andreas probably has the most difficult female role in musical theater. Eliza Doolittle must play guttersnipe, upward climber, frustrated student, accomplished pupil, a revealed parvenu and eventually a fair lady. She captures every stage of the six stages of Eliza, while revealing a glorious voice.
The CD of the original Fair Lady does offer “The Embassy Waltz,” a charmer in three-quarter time, as a bonus track. But it’s a recording made by once-popular orchestra leader Percy Faith. The one on the revival album is better, because the same orchestra that’s been accompanying the singers does it, making it cohesive with the rest of the disc.
And considering that March Madness offers invitations to a tournament chummily known as “The Big Dance,” how fitting for you to have a big dance in your own living room when hearing “The Embassy Waltz.”
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com.and www.mtishows.com. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.