It’s one of those Tony-winning musicals that doesn’t get done very often – and certainly not enough.
But sharp director John Simpkins decided that his students at NYU Steinhardt could do City of Angels – and he was right. If you didn’t catch this production between February 7 and 11, you missed hearing Cy Coleman’s magnificent music and David Zippel’s wonderfully literate lyrics sung to perfection.
Time and opportunities always reveal what actors become stars, but Claire Bohrer, Bethany Fagan and Kenny Francoeur were among the standouts who felt every syllable of every lyric and acted as well as they sang. And while the show centers on film noir, the fifteen-piece band was white-hot.
Alas, Simpkins’ production is gone forever, leaving those who’ve never seen the 1989-1990 Best Musical victor with one fewer opportunity. The reason the show isn’t done more involves the sets. Two sets are needed, for the show switches between black-and-white and color – and that runs into money.
The black-and-white scenes, of course, deal with the film noir sequences and its seen-it-all detective Stone. The color ones detail the real life adventures of Stine, Stone’s creator and the movie’s screenwriter. So despite an amazing Tony-winning score and Larry Gelbart’s hilarious Tony-winning book, City of Angels isn’t often found on a theater’s schedule.
But there is still that terrific original cast album that showcases the score. City of Angels starts out with that woozy, boozy sound that penetrated the soundtrack for David Raksin’s Laura, Franz Waxman’s Dark Passage and Max Steiner’s The Big Sleep. It then quickly accelerates into that staccato music that was always played when the film’s plot entered dangerous waters. Three trombones, three trumpets and a French horn provide the necessary brassiness.
Can anyone name another composer besides Coleman who could have mix-and-matched noir movie music and Broadway show songs? Coleman is the only name that comes to mind. Before he provided his first full musical theater score for Wildcat in 1960 – and came to Broadway to stay — he’d been a fixture in the jazz world as both a pianist and composer. TV audiences in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s knew his mellow improvisational sounds from the sophisticated series Playboy’s Penthouse. That tenure served him well in City of Angels.
The city in the title is, of course, Los Angeles, although it’s hardly known for its angelic qualities. Stone becomes embroiled in a frame-up, and Stine is trying to get him out of it – and would do it much more easily if he weren’t getting such interference from his meddlesome and egomaniacal movie producer Buddy Fidler.
James Naughton won the Best Actor in a Musical Tony for portraying Stone. Strangely, he doesn’t get a number all to himself, but was just part of duets. “The Tennis Song” has him parry with Alaura (Dee Hoty), the bombshell who hired him. Plenty of Broadway songs have relied on a double entendre or two, but this song doubles and redoubles the number.
“You’re Nothing without Me” has him do battle with Stine. The writer finds that his creation starts arguing with him about the plot. Stine argues back, but each intractably believes he’s the more valuable of the two. Stine tells his creation, “You are some gumshoe. You just don’t think well. Get this dumb gumshoe: you come from my inkwell.” Rebuts the uber-butch Stone, “You drool at my adventures. Your broads in bed are bored. Go home and soak your dentures. Your pen is no match for my sword.” The argument escalates: “Let’s stick to the issue: you wish you were me.”
Impressive lyrics, no? Zippel, writing his first full set for Broadway, turned out to deliver phenomenal work. In the first song, “Double Talk,” Stine sings how he’s wanted “a book of my own on the screen, to look up and see Stone on the screen would be better than fine … as the credits are shown on the screen in a frame all alone on the screen it says ‘Screenplay by Stine.’” And that’s just the first song! Zippel doesn’t let up in the nineteen that follow.
Gregg Edelman’s Tony-nominated Stine has two solos that show the score’s far-reaching range. “Double Talk” is sheer jazz, with Zippel’s deft words subbing for scatting. “Funny” is a genuine coming-of-age, coming-to-conclusions eleven o’clock number in the grand Broadway tradition.
And then there’s Randy Graff, who won a Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for playing both Miss Oolie, Stone’s secretary, and Donna, Stine’s illicit lover. Both women have one thing in common: falling for the wrong man. “You Can Always Count on Me,” both moan in one of those brassy Broadway numbers that Coleman always seemed to be able to write during a rehearsal coffee break. Zippel shines here, too: “I’ve been ‘the other woman’ since my puberty began,” Donna sings. “I crashed the junior prom and met the only married man.”
The irony is that the most songs are given to four supporting characters that are known as “Angel City 4.” They start out as radio singers who comment on the action when Stone happens to be listening to his Atwater Kent. The quartet’s impeccably beautiful blend would make one believe that the four singers — Peter Davis, Gary Kahn, Amy Jane London and Jackie Presti – had known each other and been working together for years; they couldn’t possibly have reached this lofty musical plateau after just four weeks of rehearsals and three weeks of previews.
In fact, they didn’t; they’d all belonged to a 26-member singing group for some time before City of Angels was produced. More than two dozen were auditioned, but these four got the parts. You’ll hear why.
And let’s not forget the best song of all. In film noir, detectives always seem to wind up at a watering hole where a sultry singer warbles a torch song. Coleman came up with a masterpiece here, full of blue notes that offer every shade of azure, cerulean, navy and especially indigo. “With Every Breath I Take,” sung by Stone’s former girlfriend Bobbi, would be a standard if we lived in an age that appreciated genuine musical achievements. Kay McClelland does the song proud, although, as is the case throughout the album, the pin-point perfect Billy Byers orchestrations dovetail nicely with Coleman’s notable music. How grateful you’ll be, too, that the number is reprised with Naughton joining in.
Most every musical has had “out-music”— the colloquial term used to describe what the orchestra plays when the audience leaves the theater. The number of original cast albums that contain out-music can probably be counted on two hands if not one, because too often out-music is nothing but a glorified medley.
That’s not the case with City of Angels, whose out-music is on the disc because it is arguably the finest found in any Broadway musical. It provides jazz that is simultaneously (if oxymoronically) cool and hot. In fact, the musicians are so moved by the piece that at the end, they can’t help letting out with a grunt — a grunt of complete satisfaction that is the perfect punctuation mark on the heavenly City of Angels. See how many times you make similar grunts of approval when listening.