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One Night Only at the Mark Hellinger By Peter Filichia

Forty years ago this week, a revival of a smash-hit with a Tony-winning score opened.

It boasted a Tony-winning actress and an Oscar-nominated star who was repeating his role on stage.

And yet, OLIVER! closed after 17 performances.

Who would have expected that Ron Moody, the stage and film Fagin, and Patti LuPone, inheriting the role of Nancy, would be filing for unemployment after so short a time?

But the bigger ramification of the quick shuttering meant that the theater on West 51st Street would be dark for the next 11 months.

In fact, from the closing of OLIVER! on May 13, 1984, the Mark Hellinger offered no shows for more than 38 out of the 57 months that followed. So, in early February 1989, the Nederlander Organization said it would lease it to the Times Square Church for five years – but not until its current tenant closed.

That was LEGS DIAMOND. Despite the wan reviews for Peter Allen’s musical, suddenly all of Broadway wanted LEGS to have legs and run now and forever to keep the theater alive. Alas, it did not, and the church took over later in February.

Worse news would come in 22 months. In what is considered one of the most boneheaded business decisions in Broadway history, the Nederlanders sold the place outright to the lessees for $17 million.

Credit where it’s due, aside from hanging two e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s black speakers from the proscenium, the Times Square Church has taken scrupulous care of the theater. Now that 35 years long years have passed, the best that a later generation of theater lovers could do is saunter inside to see its still-impressive interior splendor while mourning its empty stage.

We can only hope that one day we’ll again see musicals and plays play the Hellinger. But at the very least, can we convince the powers-that-be to let us have the house for one night so that we can have an all-star concert that features songs that had been heard at the theater?

HAZEL FLAGG, a 1953 tenant, has a sensational eleven o’clock number that would become a great opening number. “Everybody Loves to Take a Bow” would have the cast – one-by-one – enter, sing and take a bow to tumultuous applause.

“And I have the perfect cast for it,” says longtime Broadway observer Jay S. Clark. “Jason Danieley, Raul Esparza, Santino Fontana, Sutton Foster, Alison Fraser, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Joshua Henry, Greg Hildreth, Jackie Hoffman, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Marc Kudisch, Nathan Lane, Lesli Margherita, Jefferson Mays, Andrea McArdle, Audra McDonald, Jessie Mueller, Emily Skinner, Phillipa Soo, Will Swenson, Mary Testa and Tony Yazbeck.

Clark is right. Yazbeck would be superb in “When I Get My Name in Lights,” which got LEGS DIAMOND off to a great start. Unfortunately, Peter Allen wrote it after previews had begun and after bad word-of-mouth had already spread.

LEGS was about a convicted criminal, which made him hard to like, but we wouldn’t know or be reminded of that in a concert. We’d just enjoy the toe-tapping tune and Yazbeck’s dynamic rendition of it.

Allen really wrote some marvelous songs, including “The Man Nobody Could Love,” in which a trio of women came to the conclusion (and their senses) about the character that was more cubic zirconium than diamond. Here’s where Foster, Skinner and Soo would shine – just as splendidly as original casters Brenda Braxton, Randall Edwards and (last but hardly least) Julie Wilson.

RAGS has a score by Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz – one that would have been heard much more if financial and artistic troubles (in that order) hadn’t plagued the 1986 production. “Blame It on the Summer Night” is one of the sexiest songs in the musical theater canon, so let’s have McDonald and Swenson do it, for they’ve been a couple who’ve kept their love alive lo these many years.

Many scribes have remarked how much Alison Fraser resembles Angela Lansbury. We’d all be mad for her as The Madwoman of Chaillot in DEAR WORLD. She should sing “I Don’t Want to Know,” a waltz-macabre whose subtext about keeping reality far away would be apt for the no-longer-theatrical Hellinger. So would “And I Was Beautiful,” where – on the word “was” – Fraser could glance at those monstrous speakers.

Of all the Broadway composers and/or lyricists, none is more associated with the term “show tune” than Jerry Herman. But in DEAR WORLD, he showed he could write complex compositions, too. “The Tea Party” has a bunch of enticing melodies that are first sung singly, and then magically fit together. Until we have Testa and Hoffman join Fraser as the other madwomen, listen to the cast album; you’ll hear that seven-and-and-half minutes does mean a helluva lot.

ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is another cast album that makes you believe the show must have been non-stop wonderful. Its wordsmith Alan Jay Lerner was the first to admit it wasn’t, but few would feel his lyrics weren’t sparklingly spot-on and beautifully paired with Burton Lane’s charming music. Keenan-Bolger can first do “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here,” the greatest tribute that flowers have ever had, and Danieley can do the famous title song.

And how can we discuss the Hellinger without mentioning MY FAIR LADY? It played all but seven months of its six-and-a-half-year run here, which was still enough to set the house record that was never eclipsed. Mays reiterated that Henry Higgins was hardly an ordinary man when he did the role in Ongonquit, and the always impressive Mueller would be a worthy successor to Julie Andrews and Christine Andreas, who soars on the 1976 revival cast album.

We could also include those musicals that didn’t start their runs at the Hellinger but continued them or finished them there. The legendary 1976 revival of PORGY AND BESS that yielded that glorious three-disc set spent its last month here. Henry and Goldsberry would be superb in any of the uber-superb Gershwin songs and arias – although we may assume that the church would prefer that no one do the religiously skeptical “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Transfers would also include SHENANDOAH, in which Marc Kudisch would master those meditations; MAN OF LA MANCHA, which would have Esparza and Hildreth duetting in “I, Don Quixote,” one of Broadway’s most spirited opening numbers, and Lesli Margherita doing both the song and the character named Aldonza proud. Let’s not forget OLIVER! with Lane as Fagan and McArdle as Nancy in “It’s Fine Life.”

And just as another of those transfers, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, ends with “Edelweiss,” so should this concert with Fontana soloing before the entire company joins him – all the way to a slightly changed last line: “Bless this theater forever!” – with, yes, everyone greatly emphasizing the word “theater.”

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.