Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Welcome Back, You've Been Gone Far Too Long!

It might seem like culture shock to some but to those of us who actually remember big, brassy, boffo, bona fide Broadway musicals, the triumphant return of Hello, Dolly! has brought certain elements back to the musical stage -- elements that Broadway hasn't seen in quite awhile. Let's go over some of them:

1) The tableau.
When the curtain goes up on Dolly we are immediately struck by a huge, colorful, scenic, multi-character tableau. Like a fixed image in grand opera or a freeze frame in a movie, the tableau does more than set the scene. It seals an image in our minds. And while Dolly's appeal is timeless, the tableau fixes the time and place for the audience. Most often used to open or close a scene or act, the tableau is a highly theatrical device that reminds us that we're watching a story come to life -- live, on stage. In Dolly, the tableaus are nothing less than thrilling.

2) Choral singing.
Once upon a time, every great musical had a significant cast of singers. Choral singing was important. Sometimes the group of singers helped to back up the lead actors and actresses. Sometimes they filled in portions of the song. And sometimes they simply sang together as a group. This was particularly important before shows were miked. Strong, robust, up-to-the-balcony group singing was a staple of all the great Rodgers & Hammerstein shows and now, with Dolly, it's back in a big way!

3) Curtain down numbers.
In the early days of musicals some numbers were typically played on the lip of the stage with the curtain down. Before mechanized (and later, computerized) scenery, this allowed for continuous entertainment and advancement of the story even while scenery was being changed. Though Dolly's scenery turns on a turntable and glides forward and backward effortlessly, a few numbers are played in front of the curtain. You've got to be really good to pull off a number like this, without a set. Fortunately, this isn't even a challenge for the great Bette Midler and the versatile David Hyde Pierce.

4) Actual choreography.
Where are today's Michael Bennetts or Tommy Tunes or Bob Fosses? Why and when did choreography seem to disappear from Broadway? Now, we seem to have "movement directors" or people who are responsible for shifting actors around like members of an athletic troupe. Dolly has vivid, joyous, heartfelt dancing -- real dancing, thanks to Gower Champion's splendid choreography and Warren Carlyle's reinterpretation of same. Not only is there a whole number called Dancing but Elegance and The Waiters' Gallop are nothing short of miraculous.

5) The overture and entr'acte.
When the 28-piece orchestra strikes up the first notes of Dolly's overture, the audience at Broadway's storied Shubert Theater literally roars its approval. And, with good reason. Not only does it showcase a classically great score but musical overtures have been missing for far too long. The audience is not only welcoming Dolly back, it's also heralding the return of the overture back to its right place at the top of the show. Again, at the beginning of Act Two, the audience greets the entr'acte with the same approval.

There are other elements of Dolly (a synopsis of scenes, parallel love stories, distinct comic bits, vivid secondary characters) that have been missing from modern musicals for far too long. Now, on Broadway, it's great to have them back where they belong. Bravo!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Gleeful, Glorious, Giddy, Unforgettable Romp!

The story of Dolly Gallagher Levi takes place at the turn of the turn of the century in 1890s New York. But its origins date all the way back to an Austrian play written in 1835 which eventually morphed into the 1938 Thornton Wilder play, The Matchmaker and then later the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!
The emergence of Dolly is a story in itself inasmuch as Dolly was only a minor character in the 1835 play. It was Thornton Wilder who moved the story to New York and eventually built the whole play around Dolly.
And therein lies the magic of this perennial favorite.
Because Dolly herself is timeless. The heart and soul of this inimitable character is also ageless and universal.
When she accepted the 2017 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, Bette Midler reminded her colleagues that Broadway's current production of Hello, Dolly! is most assuredly not a revival. "A revival is for someone who is dead or dying," Midler said. "But Dolly never died. She's always been here. She's always been with us and her story is for everyone."
Nobody understands this better than Midler herself and her astounding turn as Dolly at Broadway's Shubert Theater is not only the singular most joyous, most irresistible, most incandescent performance on the Great White Way right now, it's also the best performance we've ever seen, period.
The secret here (if there is one) is that Midler doesn't give us a campy Dolly or a caricatured Dolly or a smirk-and-chuckle Dolly but a real, honest-to-goodness, fully-formed, three dimensional Dolly who laps up life like a rich turkey dinner and inspires others to do the same.
Dolly understands the human condition and that understanding helps her turn events her way. But when she "puts her hand in" matters (as she explains in) she does it not as a cynical manipulator but as a self-appointed benefactor who wants to see people get as much enjoyment as they can out of every moment. And thanks to Bette Midler and the wonderful cast of this new Dolly, all this is accomplished without a single ounce of sugary sentimentality.
Of course, this musical is richly blessed with good bones.
The book by Michael Stewart moves along solidly with all the right turns and trappings at all the right moments. The music and lyrics by Jerry Herman give us a bounty of show stoppers, ballads and even newly-inserted numbers (like Penny in My Pocket) that demonstrate time and again why this is Broadway gold. The direction by Jerry Zaks manages to be both faithful and inventive and snappy, no small feat when you consider the nature of the project. The choreography by Warren Carlyle pays homage to Gower Champion but is so fresh and alive, it makes you yearn for more and more dancing on Broadway right now. And the scenic and costume design by Santo Loquasto evokes a glorious American era in hues and flourishes that you will never forget.
Dolly has a cast of 37 with a 28-piece orchestra and the grandest, most spectacular numbers you'll see anywhere on Broadway. From the rousing Put on You Sunday Clothes to the breathless Before The Parade Passes By to the catchy Dancing, to the comic Elegance and the lushly romantic Ribbons Down My Back, Dolly never fails to deliver.
But of course, it's the near manic title number that brings down the house. Yes, when Bette Midler begins to walk down those steps into the Harmonia Gardens, she demonstrates once again that you don't need pyrotechnics or special effects to electrify an audience, even in 2017. She gleefully maximizes every moment of this infectious anthem but never, ever hams it up. Coming on the heels of the ingenious Waiters' Gallop (a classic of choreography) the Hello, Dolly! number lasts nearly seven minutes, with Midler joking at one point, "Oh, I think I got it on tonight!" But when it's over the audience is still literally screaming and crying for more.
Tony winner Gavin Creel is sheer perfection as Cornelius Hackl, David Hyde Pierce is marvelous as Horace Vandergelder and Kate Baldwin, Taylor Trensch, Will Burton and Beanie Feldstein are all perfectly cast as well.
It's hard to believe Dolly hasn't been on Broadway for more than two decades. While there have been revivals, there's been nothing like this since the original production closed in 1970 after 2,844 performances, holding Broadway's "longest running" record for 37 years.
But now Dolly is, indeed, back where she belongs and night after night audiences are in a state of near giddy ecstasy that begins with roars of approval as the first notes of the overture are played and doesn't end until well after the finale when big crowds gather outside the stage door on Shubert Alley to offer Benediction to Bette.
We've seen nearly 250 Broadway shows but we've never seen anything like this.
The star, the cast and the audience are joined in syncopated glee. It's something you'll never, ever forget.
Do whatever you have to do -- save your pennies, take out a second mortgage, bribe somebody, rearrange your schedule, hop a plane, bus, train, ride a bike, run, jog, walk -- but get to the Shubert Theater and see Hello, Dolly!
This is why Broadway was born!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Here's Ten I Wish I'd Seen . . .

In one form or another, I've seen more than 200 Broadway musicals. Yes, I've seen some of them in previews or on the road or in summer stock. But I've seen most of them on the Great White Way itself, the way they were meant to be seen.
Of course, it's near impossible to see every show, every season.
But there are some that I missed that I've never gotten over. Even now, years later, they gnaw at me.
In no particular order, here are ten that got away -- ten musicals I still long to see:

1) Mack & Mabel
Yeah, I know they say this Jerry Herman musical romance set in the early days of Hollywood was a flop. But the cast recording (with Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters) is brilliant and I wouldn't mind making up my own mind about the show, thank you.

2) Allegro
It's said that Stephen Sondheim has been working on this failed Rodgers and Hammerstein show (a rarity, indeed) for years in an effort to fix it. But even the great Sondheim (who was mentored by Hammerstein) hasn't yet come up with the solution. I'd love to see what the puzzlement is really all about.

3) Sail Away
Did the great Noel Coward write many other musicals? I plead guilty; I don't know. But I do know that he wrote this one for the great Elaine Stritch and that's certainly reason enough to want to see it. Plus, book, music and lyrics by Coward. How bad could it be?

4) Aspects of Love
Even a "flop" by Andrew Llyod Webber is better than most, right? It ran for 399 performances on Broadway and more than 1,300 in London. They say Lord Andrew is still tinkering with this one and may yet revive it. I can only hope!

5) Ballroom
Michael Bennett, Michael Bennett, Michael Bennett. He's the one who dreamed it all up, choreographed it and directed it. And it had lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman -- one of only two musicals they ever did. Plus, that great song Fifty Percent. Wish I'd been there for the full 100% of this one.

6) Anyone Can Whistle
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and starring Lee Remick, Angela Lansbury and Harry Guardino with a book by Authur Laurents. Includes the title song as well as With So Little To Be Sure Of, There's A Parade In Town and Everybody Says Don't. We say, do, do do try it again!

7) No Strings
The first post Rodgers and Hammerstein show for which Richard Rodgers wrote both the music and lyrics. Not only was it the first modern musical to deal with an interracial love affair but it also introduced Diahann Carroll to the world, along with the haunting The Sweetest Sound and the beautiful title song. Wrap it in a brown paper package tied up in strings and send it back to Broadway!

8) Oh, Kay!
We're talking the 1990 version of the Gershwin musical produced by David Merrick which was technically Merrick's last solo production on Broadway. This version was set in Harlem and featured an all black cast. We were intrigued. But somehow, we never got to one of the 112 performances. Oh, damn!

9) Two By Two
The story of Noah and his arc set to music with Danny Kaye hamming it up as Noah. We would have loved to have seen the arc and, by the way, what about all those animals? Another post R&H show with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Martin Charnin. Noteworthy: The catchy title song and the ballad I Did Not Know A Day I Did Not Love You which was recorded by Tony Bennett.

10) The Pajama Game
The 2006 Roundabout revival of this classic Abe Burrows, Jerome Robbins musical starring Kelli O'Hara and Harry Connick, Jr. with three songs added by the original composer-lyricist Richard Adler and directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall was at the top of my list. But it was a limited run and I never got to make any of the 170 performances.