PAUL FORD TELLS ALL By Peter Filichia
The first song he ever learned to play on the piano was “A Hundred Million Miracles” from FLOWER DRUM SONG.
Well, here’s Paul Ford now, telling, if not a hundred million stories, plenty that have impact. They’re the result of his career as a rehearsal pianist (THE SECRET GARDEN, et al.) and a pianist in the pit (INTO THE WOODS, eve more et al.).
At times, both jobs made him feel that Broadway was the pits.
So if you like dish, Ford’s memoir LORD KNOWS, AT LEAST I WAS THERE has enough to serve every guest at Madame Armfeldt’s long dinner table. There’s more dirt here than the amount that’s ever covered an actress in Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS. Ford has burned bridges like a pyromaniac and many Broadway powers will be snarling at him “You’ll never work on this EARTH again.”
(He doesn’t care, for he officially retired years ago.)
Ford starts off by telling of his first national tour that was “full of hangovers, sex in every port, trips to local health clinics for social diseases, and pot brownies.”
The show, by the way, was ANNIE.
Stories about celebrities dot every page. He reveals how musically illiterate Madonna is and expresses contempt for Susan Anton and Suzanne Somers, both of whom he found woefully lacking when they auditioned for INTO THE WOODS.
(He wasn’t the only one. No one from the staff at either audition jumped out of his seat and screamed “That’s our Witch!”)
And what about the Tony-winner who wouldn’t audition before the Stage Manager agreed to walk her dog?
Ford tells why Teresa Stratas isn’t on the otherwise original cast album of RAGS. When its composer Charles Strouse heard that she wouldn’t be, he may have put on a happy face, considering that during rehearsals, she threw a chair at him.
There was that performance of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE where Mandy Patinkin decided to singing softer – so much so that an audience member yelled out “Louder!” Anyone with a working knowledge of Patinkin’s reputation might be able to guess what the performer did next.
To what collaborator did Stephen Schwartz snap “Shut up!” in front of too many people? Why did the famously cantankerous Arthur Laurents scream at one of his ANYONE CAN WHISTLE Carnegie Hall concert cast members? What was Lauren Bacall’s profane reaction after she learned she was awarded the Best Actress in a Musical Tony for WOMAN OF THE YEAR? (Yes, even after she had WON.)
Anyone who ever worked with Elaine Stritch is going to have stories. Ford witnessed her more than once walk up to a box office, state who she was and fully expect to be handed a free ticket just because she was Elaine Stritch. More often than not, she got one, for every box office staff knew that all nine circles of Dante’s hell hath no fury like a Stritch denied.
Then comes a hilarious story about Stritch having murderously hard trouble with “Hoo-ooo-ooo-ver” when doing “I’m Still Here.” Just as funny is what happened at the rehearsal after she’d stripped down to her bra.
Other stories are more benign, but nonetheless intriguing. As we all know, one of Sondheim’s punch-line lyrics in “The Little Things You Do Together” is “And Jesus Christ, is it fun.” Jane Russell, a one-time Hollywood sexpot – she made a movie that was literally advertised “Jane Russell in 3-D. Need we say more?” – went into the Broadway production of COMPANY but refused to take the name of the Lord in vain. She instead sang “And my, oh, my, is it fun.”
Like all of us, Ford has staunch opinions. See how he reacted when Bernadette Peters suggested that the newly-written “Children and Art” simply be done with piano. He describes late twentieth-century British Invasion musicals as “Every day a little death.” You’ll understand why he insists that in any production of FOLLIES, Phyllis should not be lifted during “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.” As for those rumors that ran rampart during the early run of INTO THE WOODS that The Giant was a metaphor for AIDS, Ford gives a definitive NO.
The 243-page book that comes to us courtesy of Moreclake Publishing is subtitled “Working with Stephen Sondheim,” for Ford was employed on four of the master’s musicals. This allowed him to note that “the first two or three numbers he writes are always very complicated, but as we get closer to the opening, the new material becomes sparser and simpler.”
We find that Sondheim was happy to work with him, for in his Best Score acceptance speech for INTO THE WOODS, he included “Thanks to Paul Ford, tireless, indefatigable rehearsal pianist who knows every song from every show ever written.”
Stockard Channing can attest to that. When Ford was working on the 2008 revival of PAL JOEY, which wasn’t going well, he admits to “sarcastically playing ‘Gee, but It’s Good to Be Here’ from HAPPY HUNTING” as a comment on the incompetence surrounding him. Channing kvelled “I saw that show when I was a little girl!” She then segued into a Dubey-Karr medley before asking if Ford knew GOLDILOCKS; she then started singing selections from that one, too. (Well, it IS a memorable score …)
So even though this warts-and-all book reveals warts as big as balloons – meaning the balloons that fly over Albuquerque – the book isn’t non-stop criticism. Ford deems “April in Fairbanks” from NEW FACES OF 1956 “a perfect song” and admires “Penny a Tune” from RAGS because it “showed the entire evolution of how Klezmer became jazz.” He explains why Jonathan Tunick is the best orchestrator in the business and then speaks very well of John Weidman and Joanna Merlin. (Who knew that she, the original Tzeitel in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, was a dancer in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS?)
And give Patti LuPone credit. She was offered The Witch, and while she did want to join INTO THE WOODS, her role of choice was Cinderella. This does give credence to the cliché that “There are no small parts – just small actors,” for you might expect this Tony-winner would demand the biggest role available, which Cinderella certainly is not.
Ford also makes room for plenty of lovely nostalgia. FOLLIES’ star Dorothy Collins told him that after she and all the other former Weismann Girls did ”Who’s That Woman?” that they often all repaired to the ladies room where they shed tears of joy at what they’d accomplished. From his working the PBS special MY FAVORITE BROADWAY: THE LEADING LADIES, he has fond memories of Debra Monk doing “Everybody’s Girl” (STEEL PIER), Nell Carter essaying “Mean to Me” (AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’) and especially Dorothy Loudon’s conquering “Fifty Percent” (BALLROOM).
Some stories are just plain fun, such as the one about Maryann Plunkett and Betsy Joslyn when they attended a party at Sondheim’s townhouse. (It may bring to mind a song in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING.) You may smile, too, when reading that Dana Ivey, auditioning for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, choose to sing “I Can Cook, Too,” that barnburner from ON THE TOWN. It doesn’t sound right for this erudite musical, but Ivey couldn’t have made too bad a decision, for she was soon cast both as the show’s caustic appraiser of art and avant-garde composer.
Ford ultimately describes himself not merely “the lowest man on the totem pole” but also “in fact, I didn’t even make it ON the totem pole.” Yes, he did, or else he wouldn’t have been able to call his memoir LORD KNOWS, AT LEAST I WAS THERE. You’ll be glad he was, too.
Peter Filichia is a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly, a columnist at www.broadwayselect.com and a commentator on www.broadwayradio.com.