THE BIG BMI PARADE By Peter Filichia
An irony recently occurred when I played the original cast album of A CLASS ACT.
It’s ruled my apartment ever since Robert W. Schneider revived the Edward Kleban bio-musical in February and inspired me to return to it. “The Next Best Thing to Love” is one of the finest songs I’ve heard this new millennium.
(I wish I could play it until next millennium, but I guess that’s asking too much.)
On Friday, April 22, I had scheduled an interview for 5 p.m. It wasn’t far from where I live, but I set my alarm for a much-too-early 4 p.m. I learned long ago that if I plan to leave my apartment at what seems to be a ridiculously early hour, I somehow j-u-s-t make it on time.
So, the alarm went off that Friday at four while A CLASS ACT’s “Friday at Four” was coming out of my speakers.
(Why can’t I have this type of coincidental luck when I play the lottery?)
“Friday at Four” was Kleban’s most autobiographical song. It detailed his joy at finishing up at his day job and heading to Lehman Engel’s BMI Musical Theatre Workshop where he’d air his newest composition. They would eventually include the lyrics that he wrote with composer Marvin Hamlisch for A CHORUS LINE.
In this spirit, I’ve decided that, from now on, every time I’m home on a Friday at 4 p.m. – or even 4 a.m., night owl that I am – as a tribute to the Workshop, I’ll play a song from a musical that had its genesis there.
So, if you happen to be passing by my digs at that appointed hour, and my window is open (nicer weather is coming), here’s what you may overhear on an arbitrary Friday at four.
“Mix Tape” – AVENUE Q: Princeton brings Kate Monster a cassette of songs he’s specifically made for her. She wonders if this present means that he’s interested in her. When she reads the list of songs, she becomes hopeful, for the titles are romantic.
Then they suddenly get very generic. When Princeton says that he plans to make a similar tape for each of his new neighbors, Kate is utterly discouraged. She’s been reading too much into the meaning of the tape, and he’s not interested in her.
In fact, Princeton is, as he proves when he asks her for a date. That he’s clueless in being able to sense her interest, followed by disappointment, makes us question how incisive he is, but we still wish them both much happiness in one of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s best songs.
“A Call from the Vatican” – NINE: Well, at least that’s what Guido Contini tells his wife it is. Actually, the caller is his girlfriend – correction, one of his girlfriends – and he wants to see what she has to say (or, better, has to offer).
Maury Yeston gave a sexually sinuous melody that complemented such lines as “Who’s not wearing any clothes?” and “Who’s afraid to kiss your toes? I’m not!”
You won’t be able to tell it from the original cast album, but on stage when Raul Julia heard Anita Morris make the latter statement, his eyebrows shot right up to his hairline. Guido didn’t need a woman who’d worship the ground he walked on, but he sure loved one who worshipped the feet he walked on.
“The Human Heart” – ONCE ON THIS ISLAND: There are times when you’re at someone’s house for a meal, where one great dish after another is brought out to the point where you finally say, “Oh, please, no! I couldn’t eat another thing right now! I’ve got to rest for at least a few minutes!”
That’s how I felt when I first saw this musical at Playwrights Horizons, because composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens gave me so many wonderful songs in a row that I feared I wouldn’t be able to take another without a break. I had to savor the great ones I’d just heard.
“The Human Heart” was the first one to make me feel that way, so it’ll be my first Friday at Four selection from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND.
“Ragtime” – RAGTIME: On this doubly good double-album, I’ll take Maria von Trapp’s advice and start at the very beginning, which is indeed a very good place to start with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ masterpiece.
In the opening song, the composer was able to channel Scott Joplin in his vamp, but that was only the first of many accomplishments. We get appropriate-sounding music for the stately WASPS, the hopeful Jews and the down-home African Americans.
The upshot? “Ragtime” is good for any time – not just Friday at four.
“He Come Down This Morning” – RAISIN: This Act Two opener was set in an African American church, where you’d expect to hear a spiritual sung. However, there aren’t many such songs that are jazz waltzes, so hooray to composer Judd Woldin (and lyricist Robert Brittan) for this most inspired inspiration.
“Not for the Life of Me” – THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE: In the original 1967 film, Julie Andrews’ Millie was a nice enough young miss who let a number of adventures happen to her. She didn’t pursue her new life with the vigor that Dick Scanlan’s Millie displayed in the first song that he and composer Jeanine Tesori gave her. Here, Millie told why she moved to the Big City from “a one-light town where the light is always red.”
And wouldn’t you know that right after that she was mugged? Many young women would have taken the next bus home. Millie, however, was even more determined to conquer New York.
And that just happens to be what Sutton Foster did in her first (but hardly last) Broadway lead.
“It’s a Privilege to Pee” – URINETOWN: It’s a privilege to listen to Nancy Opel, the keeper of the keys to the various urinals in town. How well she delivers Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ oh-so-witty line “If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go through me.”
When I saw URINETOWN on September 10, 2001, I was surprised to see Opel in the cast. That previous April at a posh party thrown for MISS SAIGON’s 10th anniversary, she told me “I’ve left the business,” before putting up a hand to ward off any sympathy from me. “No, don’t feel bad for me,” she insisted. “I’ve got a job and a paycheck each Friday. It’s secure, and I love it.”
So, when I later ran into URINETOWN’s director John Rando, I said I was surprised to see Opel back on the boards, given that she loved her new life. Rando said, “She called me from that job one day and screamed, ‘Get me out of here!’”
(And aren’t we glad she did, and he did?)
“Suppertime” – YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN: Four p.m. may be a little early for suppertime, but why wait until 11 p.m. to play the great eleven o’clock number that Clark Gesner wrote for Snoopy?
The 1999 recording improves on the original cast album, not only because Kristin Chenoweth gets a dynamic new song that won her a Tony, but also because Michael Gibson’s orchestrations add substantially more instruments that make a more delicious sound.
“An Old-Fashioned Love Story” – THE WILD PARTY: Andrew Lippa delivered one of the all-time great showstoppers. Still, it needed someone great to put it over, and that’s where Alix Korey came in.
With a voice that makes Ethel Merman’s sound like Marcel Marceau’s, Korey galvanically became Madeline True, a lesbian on the make, who wishes some sweet young thing would make her way over to her for a nice make-out session.
And then some.
On subsequent Fridays at four, I’ll choose songs from such BMI graduates as Ira Gasman (THE LIFE); Michael John LaChiusa (HELLO AGAIN, MARIE CHRISTINE); and Kleban, via his own A CHORUS LINE.
I’m not worried about running out of material, for by the time I’ve played all those and more, many more current students in The Lehman Engel BMI Workshop will have reached Broadway and provided me with more great songs.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book The Book of Broadway Musical Debates, Disputes and Disagreements can now be pre-ordered at Amazon.