Albums

Closer Than Ever – 1989

Closer Than Ever – 1989

Listen

Synopsis

Closer Than Ever is the wonderful new musical from the team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. In a collaboration that has thrived for over thirty years, they have been able to deliver a body of work that is a powerful and witty reflection of the times we live in. In 1977, Maltby and Shire established themselves as one of the theatre’s leading songwriting teams with Starting Here, Starting Now. That revue was about youth, first love and the promise that life holds for everyone. With Closer Than Ever, their view of the world is now older and wiser. Choices aren’t so simple. Emotions are full of ambiguities and contradictions. People who have experienced a bit of life find themselves thinking and feeling things they never could have predicted. In these songs, Maltby and Shire take us on an emotional journey through the anguish, amazement and human comedy of contemporary living. As Stephen Holden said in the New York Times: “The songs of Maltby and Shire communicate something rarely found in theatre music nowadays: a rich sweeping sense of lives being lived and people changing over time.” The Show: In 1982, in workshop performances of their musical Baby, Maltby and Shire discovered that one of their favorite songs didn’t fit. The song sung by a female biology teacher wrestling with the idea of having a baby without getting married was called “The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster and The Mole.” So complete was the woman’s self-discovery in the song that the character had no place to go and, not surprisingly, both the song and the character had to be cut. But the writers felt certain that the song deserved to live. Baby opened on Broadway in December 1983, and about a year later Maltby began to collect ideas for songs that he thought might become companion pieces to “The Bear, The Tiger . . .” in an evening of musical short stories. He labeled it the “Urban File,” and slowly began to fill it with lyric fragments, ideas, observations, and biographies of friends and acquaintances. David Shire began to collect musical ideas as well, song fragments, contemporary rhythms, etc. that he gathered on a tape. There was no sense of urgency; it bubbled on the back burner while the songwriters pursued other projects. (Shire continued his prolific film and television career with scores for such films as Return To Oz, Short Circuit and 2010; Maltby directed and co-wrote with Don Black the Broadway version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song And Dance.) In 1987, Lynne Meadow, artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club, asked Maltby and Shire to contribute a song to a topical revue that director John Tillinger was assembling. It was to have sketches on urban themes by many of the best playwrights in New York, among them Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein and Terence McNally. Maltby told Meadow that not only did he have a song to contribute, he had a file of them. After hearing a few pieces, Meadow and Tillinger altered their original concept, and Maltby and Shire contributed six out of the seven songs that accompanied the sketches. Urban Blight opened in May 1987, was well received and played out its scheduled six-week run. The following fall (while Maltby was bringing to Broadway the acclaimed 10th Anniversary revival of his Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’), Maltby’s assistant, playwright and director Steven Scott Smith, was looking for something to direct. Knowing the contents of the “File,” he asked the writers if he could put some of the songs together in a cabaret evening and suggested filling it out with other unknown Maltby/Shire songs. Not being able to think of a reason to say no, the songwriters gave their permission. Smith assembled a talented cast of three and found a brilliant young musical director, Patrick Scott Brady, and with some advice from Maltby and choreographer Arthur Faria, the one-hour show began performances in January 1989 at Eighty-Eights, a small nightclub in Greenwich Village. Word spread. Within a few weeks it was impossible to get a reservation. Stephen Holden in the New York Times called it “the year’s best new score.” Maltby and Shire found themselves with a new show in the works. With the support of three producers, Janet Brenner, Michael Gill and Daryl Roth, plans were made to expand the show into a full evening. There were more songs waiting in the “Urban File,” and of course some new songs would have to be written. It was decided to try out the new show during the summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, where Maltby and Shire had first worked together in 1958. At Williamstown the show found its current shape: two acts, and the cast expanded to four. Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge joined the show there, opening and closing songs were written (the latter of which gave the show its title), and Maltby and Smith became co-directors. Although the tryout was not open to critics, the audience response was reassuring and plans were made to move the show directly to New York. Maltby had to make a small detour to London for production of Miss Saigon, for which he was co-lyricist. Four days after that musical had its London premiere, Maltby was back in New York and in rehearsal for Closer Than Ever. The producers booked the Cherry Lane Theatre, where the show added its scenery, lights and costumes. Opening night was November 6th and the reviews were ecstatic. Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News led the raves: “Probably the best musical we’ll see this season. There is more genuine drama in each Maltby and Shire song than in the entirety of most of the bloated spectacles that now pass for Broadway musicals. The cast overflows with talent.” Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press hailed: “One of the finest scores of the year. Closer Than Ever is an exhilarating musical revue that reaffirms one’s belief that the American musical theatre isn’t dead yet.” Edith Oliver in The New Yorker said simply: “Nothing but praise for Closer Than Ever.” And David Patrick Stearns of USA Today cheered: “Maltby and Shire are one of the great song-writing teams, and possibly the funniest. Closer Than Ever is the most satisfying and humanizing new musical this season.” The “Urban File” had found its life. The Cast: The four performers who make up the cast – Brent Barrett, Sally Mayes, Richard Muenz and Lynne Wintersteller are, as the Associated Press said, “The kind of singers who should be in Broadway shows every season if Broadway were still producing musicals like this.” The Daily News continued the praise: “The cast overflows with the kind of talent that used to be standard in New York but now seems rare.” And Variety said it best: “When they cut loose in company on such rousers as “Next Time,” “I Wouldn’t Go Back” and the title song, they stir the blood.” The Songs: While it is irrelevant to the enjoyment of Closer Than Ever to know the origin of each of the songs, some of the individual stories behind them are of interest. Doors – In expanding the show to a full evening, Maltby began to imagine the set. He saw a piano, a bass – and doors. “The show is about people moving on, doors opening before you, doors closing behind you.” Steven Smith said that description sounded like a song. Maltby remembered a melody from Shire’s tape, and the opening number was on its way. She Loves Me Not is from Maltby and Shire’s 1961 musical The Sap Of Life, but a gender shift in the third chorus has transformed it into a very modern triangle. You Want To Be My Friend? found its way into the “Urban File” when an actress in Baby described to Maltby her recent break-up with a lover. Her rage, pain and comic awareness suggested much of the hilarious content of this lethal diatribe. What Am I Doin’? was originally written for a projected musical with a book by Bill C. Davis. With a new ending it has become a perfect depiction of the self-contradictions inherent in going “out of your mind with love.” The Bear, The Tiger, The Hamster And The Mole, cut after the workshop of Baby, was the song that inspired Closer Than Ever. All the biological references are accurate. Like A Baby was written for the second act of Baby, but was replaced on Broadway by “With You.” Miss Byrd began life as a musical riff on Shire’s “Urban File” tape, to which Maltby added a character that had long been in his head. “People we write off as nondescript are often amazing.” Reviewing Urban Blight in the New York Times, Frank Rich called this song (which is staged as a sexy dance by a secretary who never leaves her swivel chair) an “old-time showstopper.” The Sound Of Muzak began its life in Ronny Graham’s 1965 musical revue Graham Crackers. Thanks to advances in audio technology (and some new lyrics), it is even more relevant today. One Of The Good Guys, completed for Urban Blight, is about one of Maltby and Shire’s college classmates: “a man who lived by the rules, had a moderately successful career, and raised a good family, but who found himself, as his children grew up, haunted by the feeling that he’d missed something.” This song, more than any other in Closer Than Ever, shows Maltby and Shire delving into emotions many people feel but few songwriters explore. There’s Nothing Like It, from Urban Blight, utilizes a classical musical structure. Other than saying that the authors did a good deal of inadvertent research for this number, the source of these responses is too personal and humiliating to be revealed here. Life Story was the first song after “The Bear, The Tiger . . .” to go into the “Urban File.” A college friend of the authors visited Maltby, and in response to a casual “So how have things been?” delivered much of the story of the song, including the lines “I’m not complaining” and “They should all stay home and have babies.” Next Time was written out-of-town for an ill-fated musical about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert called Love Match. I Wouldn’t Go Back was written for Baby and actually heard on Broadway during the first few previews; it was replaced when the show’s ending was reconceived. With revised lyrics the song has been combined by Patrick Brady with “Next Time” to provide the stirring first-act finale. Three Friends, the story of three women friends over ten years, was written for Urban Blight but not used. Since Closer Than Ever has a cast of two women and two men, the third woman is sung by a man. Not as a woman, or in drag, just sung by a man. And audiences accept the convention. Fandango was added to the show in Williamstown. At the time Maltby’s son Jordan was one year old and Maltby was working simultaneously on Miss Saigon and Closer Than Ever, and his wife Janet Brenner was producing Closer Than Ever – the listener can be left to imagine what inspired this song. There – In the humorous guise of a piano bar torch song, a marriage is delineated, along with the participants’ sudden realization of how they caused its derailment. Patterns, though cut from Baby a few days before it opened, was included on the show’s cast album, and has been restored in the published script of the show. Yet since it was not performed during the Broadway run, this musical monologue still finds a natural home among the “short stories” of Closer Than Ever. Another Wedding Song was written by David Shire and his wife, actress Didi Conn, to sing to each other at their wedding. It was put into the show in Williamstown. If I Sing – Maltby and Shire are both sons of orchestra leaders: bandleader and recording artist Richard Maltby, Sr. and Irving Shire, for fifty years a leading society bandleader in Buffalo, New York. When, after Williamstown, there was a need for a dramatic turn for the baritone role, Maltby suggested it was time they wrote about their fathers. He already had a title in mind. Shire wrote the melody and sent it to Maltby in London. While waiting for a reply, Shire visited his father in Buffalo, and the events described in the song occurred. When the authors started work on the lyric, Shire described his trip, and Maltby realized that was the story of the song. In a way the song is about itself, for the melody referred to in the lyric is the very melody that Shire played for his father that day in Buffalo. Back On Base was written by Shire while Maltby was in London, in order to give the sixth person on stage, the bass player Robert Renino, his moment in the spotlight. The March Of Time was written during the run in Williamstown. Fathers Of Fathers was written for Baby. The lyric has been rewritten for Closer Than Ever. It’s Never That Easy is from an unproduced musical version of Rumer Godden’s The River, written in 1961, and I’ve Been Here Before is from the unproduced Bill C. Davis musical. The two songs, written twenty-seven years apart, were combined by Patrick Brady to make an eloquent statement of female bonding. Closer Than Ever – As the show was expanded to full length, it lacked a finale and a title. It occurred to the authors that the themes of time passing and relationships altering are depicted as things “lost,” but they are also gains. Adversity can cement a relationship as well as destroy it, and the closeness that follows is often the most startling emotion that life can produce. Soon the finale had its title, and so did the show. – Bill Rosenfield

Credits

Brent Barrett Scott Hayward Eck Sally Mayes Richard Muenz Lynn Wintersteller Musicians: Patrick Scott Brady, piano Robert D. Renino, bass