Sheldon Harnick: Last Man Standing

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Lyricist extraordinaire, Sheldon Harnick, had his first song on Broadway in “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952,” the year Elizabeth II ascended to the throne.  His breakout hit from that production, “The Boston Beguine,” introduced a new writer of tremendous intelligence, fantastic wit and deft wordplay.  The show also introduced such future luminaries as Alice Ghostly, Ronny Graham, Carol Lawrence, Paul Lynde, and afforded Eartha Kitt her first opportunity to take center stage.  This past season New York was treated to new productions of his musicals “The Rothchilds” (retitled “Rothchild & Sons”), “She Loves Me” and “Fiddler On the Roof,” which is still running.  A new production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiorello!” just opened off-Broadway.  To say he has kept busy during the ensuing 64 years since his debut is an understatement.  

Sheldon Harnick

Sheldon Harnick

Mr. Harnick has written or contributed to a total of 14 Broadway shows.  Along the way, in addition to his aforementioned Pulitzer, he has collected three Tony Awards from eight nominations, in addition to his well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Tony awarded earlier this year.  At the ripe age of 92, and looking a good 20 years younger, he is the last man standing from what is known as The Golden Age of the American Musical.  (His longtime collaborator, composer Jerry Bock, with whom he wrote 10 musicals, passed away in 2010.)  The other composers with whom he has collaborated, each of whom he acknowledged in his humble acceptance speech for his Lifetime Tony, include David Baker, Arnold Black, Cy Coleman, Marvin Hamlisch, Michel Legrand, Joe Raposo, Mary Rodgers and Richard Rodgers.  But this column will not be a biography of the theatrical legend, who began as a violinist and was also a composer and librettist.  I’ll leave all of that to Google and Wikipedia.  Mine is a more personal story.

I first met Sheldon in 1990 when I was working for The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization.  He had written the book and lyrics for a musical based upon the classic holiday film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with music by Mr. Raposo, of “Sesame Street” fame.  (Sheldon had also written some additional music for the show following Mr. Raposo’s passing the previous year.)  He was hoping we might be interested in licensing the performance rights to the musical.  He already had a relationship with the office, having written shows with our founding father, Richard Rodgers (“Rex,” 1976), and with his daughter, one of my then-current bosses, Mary (“Pinocchio” for the Bil Baird Marionettes, the celebrated troupe featured in the film “The Sound of Music,” and a song for the seminal Marlo Thomas recording, book and television special, “Free to Be You and Me”).  

How this icon had found himself in my lowly office, I wasn’t sure.  Certainly he could have called Mary and just said, “I want the office to represent this show.”  Perhaps he did and Mary sent him to me.  Sadly, she is no longer here to jar my memory.  I won’t say that I was daunted at the thought of meeting Sheldon but I do recall taking a very deep breath when the receptionist rang to announce his arrival.  She had already proffered him a cup of coffee when I arrived to greet him.  With a smile the size of all outdoors and a handshake I can still feel the warmth of on my palm, he said how nice it was to meet me.  His utter sincerity gave me no reason to doubt him.  He treated me as a professional peer from the moment I laid eyes on him.  (All of the greats don’t, believe me.)

We sat and discussed his musical which, of course, I thought was a wonderful idea and, I felt, was a money title that theater companies and schools alike would jump at.  When we were done with business, Sheldon said, “So tell me about yourself...  Where are you from?...  How did you land at R&H?...  What are you working on?”  At the time, I was writing a stage adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s movie musical, “State Fair.”  He seemed – no, was – genuinely interested in how it was going.  How I would handle the conundrum of the hog; how did I plan to beef up the score as the film had only six songs; what were my dreams for the musical?  When he left the office I felt, not only as if I’d been in the presence of greatness, but like I’d made a new friend.  When “State Fair” opened on Broadway, I received an astounding wooden trough of glorious tulips from Sheldon and his darling wife, Margery, with a heartfelt note welcoming me to the street.  What a guy.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of directing a production of Sheldon’s musical, “A Wonderful Life” (he had dropped the “It’s” from the title to differentiate it from the film).  Of course it took me back to that day when I first met the gentle titan.  To quote one of Sheldon’s lyrics from the show:

“My dreams have been simple dreams.
I’m one of those lucky souls
Whose gifts, such as they are,
Match their goals.
Long ago I knew
You’d never find me in “Who’s Who.”
Still, I’m one of the lucky ones,
One of the favored few.”

You bet!

Is There Such a Thing as Good or Bad Idea for a Musical?

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

How many times have you heard someone say, “What a horrible idea for a show!”  I said it many times, although many years ago.  I have come to believe through the ensuing years that there is really only one distinction between a good idea for a show and a bad one.  If people like it and are willing to pay to see it, then it was a good idea.  If not, then it was a bad idea.

The notion of a pop-opera based on the last week of Jesus Christ’s life was, I thought at the time, a horrible idea.  After the concept album and subsequent musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” both became international sensations, it suddenly seemed to have been a brilliant idea.  Conversely, I considered the idea of a Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical adaptation of Kaufman and Hart’s 1934 play, “Merrily We Roll Along,” an inspired idea for a musical.  And directed by the illustrious Harold Prince, no less!  When it closed on Broadway two weeks after opening in 1981, the common wisdom was that it was a rotten idea to begin with.  But was it?

Is it possible that the success of a musical has more to do with execution than content?  (I’ll probably be asking more questions in this column than offering answers.)  Who thought, when they read Ron Chernow’s dense biography of Alexander Hamilton, “Now there’s a great idea for a multi-cultural rap musical!”  Well, we all know how that gambit worked out.  Does the premise of a depressive woman suffering from bi-polar disease and the emotional havoc it wreaks on her family really sing to you?  It sure sang to the Pulitzer committee, which awarded “Next To Normal” its prize for drama, and to Broadway audiences, which awarded it with a 733-performance run.  I doubt that when Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern decided to adapt Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel, “Show Boat,” for the stage in the mid-1920s that they got many encouraging slaps on the back as opposed to droll comments along the lines of, “Yeah, good luck with that.” 

Theater being the most collaborative of arts, there is much that accounts for success aside from the material itself.  Foremost are a producer and director who have a clear, shared vision for the show that’s in sync with that of the writer.  Then you bring in the set, costume, light, sound and props designers and hope you can get them all on the same page to tell the same story.  Hopefully the orchestrator will jibe with the composer and lyricist to fully realize their score.  And finally there is the casting, about which there are many axioms.  (“Casting is 90% of the battle.”  “Cast the right actors then get out of their way.”)  Many a show has been doomed by ill-advised casting.  (My mother raised a gentleman so I will not point out specific examples.)  But imagine if, in the season when both “Gypsy” and “The Sound of Music” opened, Mary Martin had played Momma Rose and Ethel Merman had played Maria.  Chances are that neither musical would have become a classic.

I once received permission from the always-game Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to do Rodgers and Hart’s youthful musical, “Babes in Arms,” with a cast of 50- and 60-somethings.  Although I did not intend to change one word of the text, my notion was a reunion of sorts where these folks revisited that long gone summer when they put on a show.  I would trust the audience to understand the premise without spelling it out.  The project collapsed when I couldn’t pull the right cast together.  Casting, I felt, was paramount.

Which in its way brings me back to “Merrily We Roll Along.”  The impetus for that musical came from director Prince’s wife, Judy, who suggested that he do a show about kids.  After all, he had kids, he liked kids and it was a novel idea.  Prince thought of the Kaufman and Hart play and pitched it to Sondheim and Furth, both of whom bit.  The plot follows a group of tight-knit showbiz friends whom we meet in their middle age and proceeds backward in time to their high school graduation.  The production was cast with up and coming 20-somethings (including the director’s daughter, Daisy).  From the moment the curtain went up, the audience was confused.  Who are these people?  Eventually the creative team resorted to sweatshirts identifying the characters, literally spelling it out for the audience (“Franklin Shepherd,” “Best Friend,” etc.).  It didn’t help.  

Was “Merrily We Roll Along” really ever about kids, as the creative team seemed to believe?  Or is about adults reflecting on the dreams and schemes that never came true – lives that didn’t work out as planned?  It’s my theory that casting young people, however talented, threw the show off the rails.  It’s awfully hard, when the characters are introduced, to identify with a young woman in her twenties as a middle-aged alcoholic.  Ditto the other “movers and shakers,” as we are told they are at the top of the show.  Might it have worked better if, when the curtain rose, the actors were the same ages as the characters they were playing?  

Imagine, for instance, the lights coming up on Elaine Stritch, John Collum and Jerry Orbach (circa 1981 when the production opened) as the three disillusioned, life-long pals.  The audience would know immediately who those people are.  Now imagine those actors as teenagers at the end of the story, on a rooftop awaiting Sputnik passing overhead, signifying all of their hopes for the bright promises ahead that we know won’t be realized.  “It’s our time, breath it in.  Worlds to change and worlds to win.”  Might that image have delivered the pathos and heartbreak that the musical, as presented, never quite achieved?  

So was “Merrily” a victim of its material or of its concept and execution?  (As I said earlier, more questions than answers.)  Nowadays when someone says to me, “What a horrible idea for a musical,” I hold my tongue.  The audience may be the judge of whether it’s an idea that works, but not of whether it was a good or bad idea to begin with.

Why Rodgers & Hammerstein's 'Allegro' Still Matters

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

It’s hard to believe that, on the eve of its 70th anniversary, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1947 musical “Allegro” is only now making its professional European debut.  The production from London’s Southwark Playhouse, directed by the highly regarded Thom Southerland, has received, as is typical for this musical, rave to mixed and confusing reviews.  Few, it seems, have ever been able to reconcile the show’s seemingly lofty ambitions with its homey execution.  It has been referred to as “ahead of its time,” a label often applied to works that don’t catch on by creators who cannot be dismissed.

The exalted team of Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote nine Broadway musicals, five of which are acknowledged classics and three of which were unsuccessful (while “Flower Drum Song” has not become a classic, it was a success).  They also wrote one movie musical, “State Fair,” and one for television, “Cinderella.”  Of their three shows that did not enjoy life after Broadway, Rodgers said, “Allegro” is the one most deserving of a second chance.”  Hammerstein was working on a television adaptation at the time of his death in 1960.  Stephen Sondheim, a production assistant on the original production during his summer vacation from college, has said that he’s spent his career trying to fix the second act of “Allegro.”  I feel his pain.

I produced and co-directed a production in 1984 with my frequent collaborator, Louis Mattioli.  It was one of only a handful of productions to have been staged in the 37 years since the original.  It’s exhilarating to mount a show for which there is no prototype.  (When you do “Fiddler…” or “…Dolly!” or “In the Heights” or “American Idiot,” you pretty much know where you’re headed.)  I did as much research as possible into this obscure musical.  There are photos of the original production featuring a cast of over 60.  Jo Mielziner’s scenic design employed a stage-spanning curtain on an “S” track that concealed one scene while revealing the next.  Hammerstein had envisioned a simple staging along the lines of “Our Town” and that the route we took, with a cast of 17 on a unit set.  The Original Cast Recording captured only a limited portion of the fragmented score but even that sluggish recording suggested Rodgers’ customary melodic brilliance, and Hammerstein’s unique gift for spinning homespun into gold.  There has since been produced an indispensable recording of the entire score, from Masterworks Broadway, produced by Ted Chapin, Bruce Pomahac and David Lai, starring Patrick Wilson, Audra McDonald, Nathan Gunn, Liz Calloway, Laura Benanti, and Marni Nixon.  This glorious recording supremely makes the case for “Allegro” deserving a second chance.

The musical was by no means a flop.  It ran a respectable season of 315 performances, carried somewhat by the largest advance sale in Broadway history  ̶  $750,000 at a time when the top ticket price was $6.  But unlike “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” before it, when it closed, and following a brief tour, “Allegro” essentially disappeared.

The first of only two R&H musicals not based on previous material (the other is “Me and Juliet,” 1953), “Allegro” follows Joseph Taylor, Jr. from his birth in a small, Midwestern town in 1905, through his mid-30s.  As Joe grows up, he’s determined to become a doctor, like his dad, and eventually take over his rural practice.  (Perhaps not incidentally, both Rodgers’ father and brother were doctors.)  But his childhood sweetheart, Jennie, has more ambitious plans.  Following the untimely death of his mother (Hammerstein’s mother died when he was twelve), Joe and Jennie marry.  When her father loses his dough in the crash of ’29, they move to “the big city,” never specified by Hammerstein.  While Jennie is busy climbing the social ladder, poor Joe is stuck administering unwarranted drugs to the rich and pampered.  But he, too, is moving up the ladder and is eventually offered the position of Chief Physician at the hospital.  When he learns of his wife’s affair with the Chairman of the Board, he turns down the position and returns home to help his dad, accompanied by the principled nurse who’s been crazy about him all along.  The major innovation of the musical was its use of a Greek chorus, commenting upon the action, sharing the inner-thoughts of the characters, and narrating portions of the story.  This was in addition to the customary singing and dancing ensembles, with Josephine Callan given credit as Director of Choral Speech.

It was the first show to be directed by Agnes de Mille, the legendary choreographer with whom R&H had collaborated on both “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”  It became clear during early rehearsals that she was in over her head.  Her solution for just about everything was to add more dance music.  She didn’t know how to work with actors and could provide no help in shaping the problematic script.  (Sondheim called her “a horror.”)  Eventually the producers and R&H decided to replace her with Joshua Logan, who had directed the R&H-produced smash, “Annie Get Your Gun,” the previous season.  They took de Mille to lunch to spring the bad news but before they could begin, she took both Rodgers and Hammerstein by the hand and said, “You’ve made me the happiest girl in the world!”  No, they couldn’t go through with it.  Logan went on to direct their next musical, “South Pacific.”  He is the one who told me this anecdote and I have no reason to doubt it.  

Much of the criticism leveled against “Allegro” was a perception that Hammerstein’s theme was that small town is good, big city is bad.  As Hammerstein makes clear in his preface to the published script, that was not his intent.

“We were chided for ascribing only virtues to small town folk and only wickedness and vice to the people of the great cities.  We, of course, intended no such conclusion be drawn from our play.”  He goes on to quote a bit of Joe’s dialogue from the musical to bolster his claim.

“There’s nothing wrong with people just because they have money and live in the city – nothing wrong with being a city doctor…  But this crowd we get in here!...”

Sondheim has posited that Hammerstein was exploring the trappings, not so much of success, but of losing sight of what your goal is.  While Joe is meant to be an Everyman in this allegory, he is a very particular person in a series of very specific situations.  And while some of the city slickers he encounters certainly have their issues, the “small town folk” are not especially virtuous either.  Hammerstein describes Jennie as “a crass and vicious little baggage,” her pompous father as “a smug Babbit,” and the wedding guests in the country church as “catty a crowd of gossips as can be found.”

There are milestones in the progression of musical theater, beginning in 1927 with Hammerstein and Kern’s “Show Boat.”  Never before had such serious themes as miscegenation, racism, alcoholism and single motherhood been treated on the stage, let alone by a racially integrated cast.  Following the mindless musical comedies of the late 20s and 30s (28 of which came courtesy of R&Lorenz Hart), R&-the-second-H’s “Oklahoma!” opened in 1943.  It was revolutionary in its integration of score and dance in service to the plot, giving traction to the sub-genre of the “musical play.”  After years of shows featuring acres of high-kicking chorines, the story itself finally took center stage.  

Most would agree that the next milestone was Sondheim’s “Company” in 1970, introducing what became known as “the concept musical.”  But let’s back up.  There is a direct line between “Allegro” and “Company,” the former arguably being the first concept musical.  Sondheim and others have acknowledged as much.  (We’ll leave Kurt Weill’s musicals, “Love Life” and “Lady in the Dark,” for another time.)  

Like Sondheim, I tried to fix the second act of “Allegro.”  Throughout my career I’ve been drawn to pieces that have so much to recommend them that you fall in love, but that just don’t quite work.  “I’m the one who can finally fix “Allegro,” or “Merrily We Roll Along” or “Working” or “110 in the Shade” or “The Grass Harp!”  It’s not so much arrogance as the enveloping challenge of problem solving.  I mean, with all due respect, anyone can put up a production of “Gypsy” that works, as have I, joyfully, more than once.  

Anyway, I took more liberties with our production of “Allegro” than would have been allowed under a strict reading of the License Agreement to present it.  And in NYC, no less.  So I was understandably sweating blood at the matinee attended by the widow Rodgers, Dorothy; her daughter, the composer and author, Mary Rodgers; Hammerstein’s sons and daughter, Bill, Jamie and Alice; and Ted Chapin, President of the R&H organization.  They could not have been more gracious, encouraging and candid.  Ted did wag a finger at me for my changes, but he did so with a good-natured wink.  Mary liked the way I’d juxtaposed a couple numbers in act two and thought it helped.  Bill disagreed, gently chastising me for eliminating a song.  Jamie, ever affable, seemed to have enjoyed the whole thing.  The elegant Mrs. Rodgers said, “You know it was Dick’s favorite score after ‘Carousel.’  It was lovely to hear again.”  

Without the inventions of “Allegro,” we may never have had, not only “Company,” but Michael Bennet’s “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls,” Tommy Tune’s “Nine,” many Harold Prince productions, from “Cabaret” to “Evita,” and including Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.”  I intend to get back to “Allegro” someday.  I won’t be able to “fix” it, but the journey becomes the thrill when you can’t quite see the destination.  Kind of like a concept musical.

A Period Piece or Dated: Who Decides?

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Every play and musical is informed by three time periods: the time in which it was written, the time in which the story takes place, and the time in which it is being presented.  Those time periods will ultimately interconnect in a way that will determine whether the material is a period piece or just dated.  I have been ruminating on and squabbling about this variance since my college days.  While I don’t anticipate arriving at any definitive answers, I’ll make a few observations and pose a few questions at the risk of fanning the fires of the debate.

Time Out for Ginger, a successful if middling comedy from the mid-20th Century, may, at first glance, seem to be dated.  A period piece firmly entrenched at the advent of the Eisenhower era (it premiered the month he was elected in 1953), it concerns a girl who wants to play football on her high school team, and her supportive father’s uphill battle against the community at large for her right to do so.  No need to argue that a woman’s attempt to gain a toe-hold in an area deemed the exclusive domain of men remains timely (the glass ceiling-shattering DNC, anyone?).  And a man fighting the system, standing up to the masses for what he believes in, has never gone out of fashion.  So it would seem that, while the play is a period piece, its themes are not dated.  But wait.  Capitulating to her embarrassed sisters, one of whom is dating the captain of the football team, and her disapproving boyfriend, Ginger ultimately decides that it’s better to have a date on Friday night than to play in the stupid old football game.  When a story betrays its spine to trade on superficial social mores that have passed their expiration date, to me it becomes dated.  

Another barometer I use is how well the jokes have traveled through time.  A joke written in 1937 may not land today with the thigh-slap it did then, but that’s not my measure.  Is it a smart joke?  If so, you’ll get the gist even if you’re not familiar with Henry Wallace.  Does it illuminate something about the character who’s cracking it, or the character to whom it’s being said?  Or is it a puerile, ba-dum-bump toss off?  Stupid tends to date faster than smart, and by “smart” I don’t mean intellectual.  Smart has to do with where the joke is placed, who says it and under what circumstances.  And by “joke” I mean dialogue that is designed to get a laugh.  The words can be as nebulous as, “Well, thank you very much!”  

The so-called sex comedies of the 1960’s and ‘70’s are in a category all by themselves.  Neil Simon helped kick things off in 1961 with his first play, Come Blow Your Horn.  It follows a playboy taking advantage of the new sexual liberation and his envious, can’t-score brother who idolizes him.  Five years later Simon brought us, in a similar vein, The Star-Spangled Girl.  Many sex comedies came in between including Abe Burrow’s Cactus Flower, Marc Camoletti’s Boeing-Boeing, and Terence Frisby’s There’s a Girl in My Soup.  I think it’s safe to qualify all of these as period pieces, embedded within the sensibilities of the times in which they were written and are set.  But are they dated as well?  How many boob jokes can you get away with before it becomes tedious?  Boobs just aren’t as funny as they used to be.

In the case of There’s a Girl in My Soup, the title pretty much announces “Dated!”, doesn’t it?  But wait.  The play opened in 1966 in London where it rang up an unprecedented 2,547 performances during its seven-year run.  (Its record was later broken by two additional offerings to the popular genre, No Sex Please, We’re British and Run for Your Wife.)  It went on to enjoy a successful run on Broadway followed by a warmly received film adaptation so perhaps attention must be paid, right?  

The plot of …Girl… follows a lecherous, middle-aged, self-involved celebrity chef who falls for a 19-year-old hippie.  “My God, but you're lovely.” became the catchphrase of the moment when the film opened.  The plot is a by-the-numbers rendering of that old standby: boy meets, gets and loses girl.  But wait.  The denouement finds the leading man looking adoringly into a mirror and gushing, “My God, but you’re lovely.”  This narcissistic dip into self-aware satire may suddenly inform all that has come before, but is it too little, too late to save it from being dated?  Probably.

1965’s Boeing-Boeing, which also had a seven year run in London (where they have an annoying weakness for such trifles), concerns a swinging bachelor who finds himself engaged to three stewardesses and must scramble when they all end up in town at the same time.  Can a clearly dated play be elevated by an extraordinary cast?  It would seem so, if the 2008 revival is any indication.  Starring Bradley Whitford, Christine Baranski, Gina Gershon and Mark Rylance, it ran for nearly 300 performances (the original ran a mere 23) and won the Tony for Best Revival.  It may be that the slamming doors of farce never get tired when well done, even if the story itself has become dated.  An exemplar of the genre, Noises Off, never seems to date even while landing a couple of good boob gags.

While Come Blow Your Horn is little more than a frivolous romp, it eventually finds the leading man questioning the fundamental spiritual and emotional emptiness of the playboy lifestyle.  Is that enough to save it from being dated?  Probably not, especially considering the plethora of stock yucks largely at the expense of pretty, vapid young women.  Star-Spangled Girl begins on a promising socio-political note as three pals are churning out a radical underground newspaper, sticking it to “the man.”  That backdrop may have ensured the play’s continued relevancy were it not dispatched with early in the proceeding in favor of two men fighting over who gets the girl.  Cactus Flower, from the man who gave us Guys & Dolls, exploits a suicide attempt in a stab at bringing gravity to the innocuous older man-younger woman cliché.  But simply tossing in a serious subject without elucidation does not keep it from feeling dated in its attitudes.

I cannot think of one play by the 20th Century American masters – Miller, Williams, O’Neil et al. – that is dated.  Because they deal in universal themes, often concerning the family unit, they remain relevant which is why they are still produced regularly.  For that very reason, this year’s Tony winning play, Stephen Karam’s The Humans, an investigation into one American family’s terrified psyche, will never become dated.  I’m not even sure it needs to become a period piece twenty or thirty years hence.  From the Great Depression through post war euphoria, the Camelot years and civil rights upheavals, the fears and survival mechanisms of the underclass haven’t changed much.  Perhaps tellingly, the published script denotes no time period, which leads me to wonder if the play is set on the night we’re seeing it.  

Is “dated” a dirty word, connoting “unenjoyable?”  Of course not.  Bye Bye Birdie may be dated but it’s still a lot of fun.  Conversely, O’Neill’s mask play, The Great God Brown, is not dated nor is it much fun.  So the in-conclusion I’ve come to is that “dated” is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.  I know a few guys for whom the skirt chasing antics of those old sex comedies would not seem the least bit dated.  Those same guys may well consider The Crucible irrelevant.  

Arthur Miller’s seminal play is a perfect example of how the convergence of timelines can inform a work.  His allegory of McCarthyism was written during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and first presented in 1953, hot on the heels of the blacklisting of high-profile suspected communists (and homosexuals).  The following year, Miller was denied a routine passport to attend the London opening of The Crucible, and was subsequently subpoenaed to appear before the committee himself.  Life imitating art?  Meanwhile, the play is set in 1692, during and drawing parallels to the Salem Witch Trials, the perfect metaphor for the play’s, and Miller’s, journey.  Last season’s award-winning, modern-dress Broadway revival seemed perfectly timed for this election season, as politicians traffic in fear mongering at the expense of perceived outsiders.  But when has that not been timely?  (This was its fifth Broadway revival.)  Ben Brantley, writing in The New York Times, summed it up with “…an endlessly revived historical drama from 1953 suddenly feels like the freshest, scariest play in town.”  It has received several film and television incarnations and Robert Ward’s opera won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1962.  It could never become dated., not because of the acclaim but because of its content and historical currency.

This is not to say that every play needs to invigorate the national discourse on something profound.  I happen to love Li’l Abner.  The benign, tongue-in-cheek sexism is too sweet and unknowing to be offensive (it’s set in 1956), and the political satire has stood the test of time.  The bottom line may be something as simple as, “Does it still entertain?”  I think of those old warhorses by Kaufman & Hart, which continue to delight 60, 70, 80 years later.  Sometimes a simple, overriding theme like, “To thyself be true.” is enough to keep a good play chugging through the decades.  Sure, the social mores of any bygone era may seem quaint today, but when rendered honestly, they can give us a little peek into the history of who we were.  

Photo: Paper Mill Playhouse

My 'Cinderella' : What a Ball! by Tom Briggs

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote nine Broadway musicals.  They wrote one movie musical, State Fair in 1945, which Louis Mattioli and I adapted for the stage and which opened on Broadway in 1996.  They also wrote one musical for television, Cinderella, in 1957 which was remade twice and had been adapted for the stage decades earlier in a somewhat clunky three act version, which was essentially a transcript of the original teleplay.  I was approached in 1999 about writing a new stage adaptation based on the most recent of the television remakes, a multicultural production that had starred Whitney Houston and Brandy.  The new adaptation was to be for a national tour being produced by Ken Gentry and his company, NETworks. 

I knew Ken, a true gentleman of the theater, from a post-Broadway tour of State Fair he had mounted.  I was flattered to be invited into the project and went to work.  The folk tale of Cinderella originated in China but was first brought to popularity by Charles Perrault in 1697, and later by the Brothers Grimm.  There have been many international retellings of the story and I poured over as many as I could get my hands on.  While I was tied into the dazzling R&H score, I was searching for ways in which I might reinvent the story to some extent.  I knew from the beginning that I did not want to write about a helpless girl who would have to depend upon others for her well-being and self-esteem.  She would discover that it had always been within her to divine her own course in life.

Ken brought Gabriel Barre on as the director.  I only knew Gabe from his Tony-nominated performance in Starmites ten years earlier, but it soon became clear that he was the ideal choice.  My adaptation inspired him and, in turn, he inspired me to go further.  He had also done vast research on the history of and various versions of the tale.  That’s the kind of thoughtful and thorough director he is.  

Gabe loved that idea of Cinderella taking her destiny into her own hands, a choice that had informed how I handled the character of the Fairy Godmother.  I did not want her to simply appear out of thin air, wave her magic wand and give Cinderella a free pass to the ball.  In fact she wouldn’t even have a wand and I dropped the “Fairy” bit.  She would simply be Cinderella’s Godmother.  Of course she would still help the girl but not before she’d earned it.  I came up with the notion of the Godmother being the reincarnation of Cinderella’s mother.  When she died, Cinderella’s father planted a tree in the pumpkin patch to which the child could go for solace.  Gabe had the brilliant idea that the Godmother would emerge from the tree.  Ken had the brilliant idea that she would be played by Eartha Kitt.

I was terrified.  That woman will eat me alive, I thought.  She will want every scene rewritten to play to her perceived strengths, she’ll want more songs, she’ll want approvals, she’ll want…  Boy, was I wrong.  Eartha could not have been lovelier, smarter, funnier nor a better collaborator.  She never told me that a line of dialogue wasn’t working, or that a moment didn’t land.  She trusted me to see it and fix it.  She played the script exactly as written, word for word, and was never demanding.  The only time she even came close to playing the diva card concerned a costume she wasn’t wild about.

“Tommy, honey, what do you think of that opening dress?  It’s kind of a schmatta, isn’t it?  I’d never want to hurt [costume designer’s] feelings but might you say something about it?”

Now mind you, she could have taken that schmatta, thrown it on the floor in the corner and said, “I’m not wearing it.” but that was far from Eartha’s style.  Anyway, I agreed with her, spoke with Gabe and Ken about it and a new costume would be forthcoming.  In the new dress, she looked like a million bucks, as well she may have.  At 73, she ate healthily and practiced yoga daily, which accounted for her rather astonishing figure.  Her dressing room door was always open and she became the den mother of the company.  She’d had a fascinating life and career and was delighted to talk candidly about all of it.  One of the things I was most interested in hearing about was the ill-fated luncheon at the White House during the Johnson administration.  She had spoken out against the Vietnam War, purportedly bringing Mrs. Johnson to tears.  

“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed.  No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.  The children of America are not rebelling for no reason.  They are rebelling against something.  There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers.  They feel they are going to raise sons  ̶  and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson   ̶  we raise children and send them to war.”

Publicly ostracized, she spent the following years working largely in Europe and Asia.  What many didn’t realize at the time was that Mrs. Johnson had asked her about the war and so she told her what she thought, in her customary, informed, articulate way.  She wasn’t just spouting off.  It was the tumultuous year of 1968 and Eartha felt she had been invited to the luncheon as the token black guest, which didn’t bother her, but she doubted, had a white man made the same remarks, that it would have derailed his career.

Cinderella would be played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler, the newly minted star from the television series, The Sopranos.  She proved to be a darling, and with a beautiful voice.  The problem was that she had to finish shooting her series and could not do the first several weeks of the tour.  Enter pop star Deborah Gibson.  At the age of thirty, I initially thought Debbie was a bit long of tooth for the role but, again, I was wrong.  She was tremendous, acting and singing it fantastically.  She brought a wonderful energy to the proceedings and was great fun to have around, a real team player with a terrific sense of humor.  When not on set for her series, Jamie-Lynn studiously sat through Debbie’s rehearsals, learning the blocking, music and choreography, and taking copious notes.  

Neither Gabe, Ken, I nor the casting director had ever considered casting a man as the wicked stepmother.  Then we got a call from the legendary Everett Quinton’s agent and all bets were off.  So there he was, sitting in the hallway outside the audition room amongst a line of ladies.  Everett, with his partner in life and art, Charles Ludlam, had founded the fabled Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Everett became Ludlam’s muse, starring in his plays, often in drag.  We ended up casting Everett, not for the novelty factor but because he simply gave the best reading we heard.  He was devastatingly funny, being such an accomplished comic actor, and played the role without a whiff of camp or “wink, wink” or a funny, high voice.  He was duly intimidating as that mean biddy.  

For the role of Prince Christopher (I dropped the “Charming” bit), we hit the jackpot by getting Paulo Mantalban, who had played the role opposite Brandy in the TV production.  Not only was he impossibly handsome with a gorgeous voice, he was just one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to work with.  In fact, every single person in that cast, too many to mention, was lovely and more talented than they had any right to be.  

The production was never aiming for Broadway but we did pull into NYC to play the 5,500-seat Paramount Theatre at Madison Square Garden.  On opening night, there they were, out in force to cheer on our leading lady and their precious Meadow: Big Pussy, Paulie Walnuts, Junior, Silvio, Bacala, A.J.  I’m sure I’m missing someone but during intermission, we all ended up together outside smoking cigarettes.  One of those big galoots had tears running down his face.  “Who knew Jamie-Lynn could fuckin’ sing like that?”  Says the skinny, older goombah: “Who knew Eartha Kitt still fuckin’ looked like that?”  

It was great for the cast to be back in the City for a week.  All of their friends could see them in the show, they could check in on their sublets, catch up with their pals and visit their regular haunts.  It was also a welcome reunion for those of us who were not on the road with the show.  When my adaptation went into the R&H catalogue for licensing, they dubbed it “The Enchanted Version” to differentiate it from the pre-existing adaptation.  Perfect.  Cinderella really had been an enchanted and enchanting journey.

'1776' Resonates Now, Perhaps More Than Ever

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

1968 arguably remains one of the most historic years in modern American history.  We saw the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sparking the Chicago riots, and two months later the assassination of Robert J. Kennedy.  When North Korea captured the American surveillance ship USS Pueblo, it sparked an 11-month crisis that threatened to worsen Cold War tensions in the region.  On more promising notes, the Civil Rights Act was passed and America put men on the moon.

So 1969 could hardly have been better timing for an inspirational musical about the founding of America and the writing of the document that would forever define our values.  1776 would go on to win three Tony Awards including Best Musical.  The book by Peter Stone is largely considered one of the greatest ever written for the stage.  Rather miraculously he took a story, the ending of which everyone who walks into the theater already knows, and turned it into a suspense yarn.  

I must admit to never having given a second thought to the musical.  My first visit to New York City was as a teenager in the summer of 1969.  I went as part of an all-singing, all-dancing troupe called Kids From Wisconsin and we were there to perform with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra at Jones Beach and to record an album at RCA.  We were also afforded the opportunity to see one Broadway show and could choose between 1776 and Promises, Promises.  No contest.  I was a die-hard Bacharach fan and probably the only teenage boy in Waukesha, Wisconsin to own the Original Cast Recording of Promises.  

I have never had the intellectual curiosity that would draw me to historical drama, including Shakespeare.  I like his comedies but the histories, not so much.  So when my pal, Ray Kennedy, asked if I might make an entirely uncalled for return to the live stage in his production of 1776, I was skeptical.  It was not a musical with which I was very familiar and just the title brought to mind watching paint dry, but what you won’t do for a friend.  

I was to play Caesar Rodney, the cancer stricken delegate from Delaware who collapses and is carried off on page 40, only to return at the eleventh hour, on page 107, after an 80-mile horseback ride through a thunderstorm to cast his deciding vote.  In other words, no heavy lifting and much time offstage, which suited me perfectly.  

The musical takes place over the three tumultuous months leading up to the signing of The Declaration of Independence.  As the Second Congressional Congress attempts to go about their business, the conflict between John Adams, the unpopular, loud-mouthed delegate from Massachusetts, who is dedicated to independence from England, and its impediment by blowhard John Dickinson of Pennsylvania , takes center stage.  Yeah, whatever.

Brandon Dahlquist (center) as Thomas Jefferson and fellow delegates to the Continental Congress in the musical "1776" at ACT. Photo: Kevin Berne

Brandon Dahlquist (center) as Thomas Jefferson and fellow delegates to the Continental Congress in the musical "1776" at ACT. Photo: Kevin Berne

And then something unexpected happened.  As rehearsals progressed, I found myself being sucked into the story.  The passionate animosity between Adams and Dickinson, and among the other delegates, was fascinating and compelling.  At our first run-through of the production, I found myself moved to tears when the final vote was taken.  Given, Ray had staged an elegant, well-cast and thoughtful production, as he always does, but it was the material I never thought I’d care about that moved me.  Talk about a good story well told, Stone had done it in spades.  It features the longest book scene without music in the history of Broadway musicals.  That was quite a risk but only serves to showcase Sherman Edward’s facile and varied score all the more.  And of course it elucidates our current political climate while so many are struggling with the values that define our country and hoping to land on the right side of history.

So after all these years, 1776 has become a musical I love and respect.  It just goes to the power of live theater.  When you walk into a play thinking, “This doesn’t have anything to do with me or my sensibility.” you might just be taken by surprise.  Don’t you just love it when that happens?  Thank you, Ray, for the opportunity to see it from the inside out.  It might be time to dig through my vinyl and trot out my Original Cast Recording of Ben Franklin in Paris.

"Our State Fair" by Tom Briggs

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Act One: An Unexpected Journey

The idea of adapting the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musical State Fair for the stage first came to me when I saw it on television as a teenager. It was still in the back of my mind when, in college, my best friend, Louis Mattioli, and I decided to try our hands at writing. (I’d met Louie through Kids From Wisconsin, the all-singing, all-dancing high school troupe that toured during the summer.)  Instead of tackling State Fair, we decided to write a musical based upon the Moss Hart backstage comedy Light Up the Sky. That project went the way of all good intentions when our lives took divergent paths (it’s still a good idea).

Years later we were both living in NYC. Louie, having appeared on Broadway and at numerous nightclubs, was working at the A&E Network, and I was working for The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. One afternoon in Central Park, we agreed that it might be time to revisit that idea about State Fair, given my proximity to the rights holders. I approached my boss, Ted Chapin, with the idea and he agreed that we should take it to his bosses, Mary Rodgers, and Jamie and Bill Hammerstein. Ted did remind me that, many years before, Jamie had created an adaptation of the movie that went belly-up at the St. Louis MUNY, starring Ozzie and Harriet Nelson (brilliant casting!) and choreographed by the up and coming Tommy Tune. 

In a subsequent meeting all parties explained to us why it wouldn’t work. Bill and Jamie’s observations were mostly about the hog, Blueboy, a major character in the film. It had in fact been the bane of Jamie’s experience when he staged his production. We countered with our idea of how we planned to handle that element of the production. Mary, typically, said something insightful and hilarious like, “Fuck the pig. Just make it work.” The consensus was to let us try. From the beginning the impetus was to create a musical that R&H could license to every high school and community theater in the world. The word “Broadway” never came up.

Ted and the families were generous enough to allow us access to the R&H trunk, wherein resided songs that had either been cut from or never went into the musicals they wrote. We were also allowed to consider lesser known songs from their lesser known musicals   ̶  Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream. That was a prerequisite as the movie’s score is comprised of only six songs, which does not a theatrical score make.

Much of our first draft was scribbled on cocktail napkins at the Broadway watering hole, Sam’s, where Louie and I met every day after work. On weekends we would work at my apartment on the Upper West Side or in the park. I think it was about six months later when we submitted our adaptation for consideration. Everyone agreed that we could move forward with an initial production, if we could find someone to produce it.

Enter Randy Skinner. The (now) four-time Tony nominated choreographer was branching out into directing at the time and we were meeting about an R&H project that he was doing at the Goodspeed Opera House. When he asked what I’d been up to, I mentioned State Fair he said he’d love to read it and left the office with the script. He called a couple of days later saying that he’d love the opportunity to direct and choreograph it. He suggested that we pitch it to Ron Kumin at the North Carolina School of the Arts. The venerable Broadway producer, Manny Azenburg, had established a laboratory for developing pre-Broadway productions at the school. That was the first time that the dreaded “B” word entered any conversation concerning State Fair.

Ron signed on and, because of the expenses involved, brought on Barry Brown as his co-producer. Barry, who ran the esteemed Long Beach Civic Light Opera, had produced many Broadway shows including the original production of La Cage aux Folles and revivals of Gypsy starring, respectively, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daley. Our production would play a couple of weeks in Winston-Salem, following Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women starring Alan Alda, and then move on to Long Beach for a couple of weeks. The plan was approved by the R&H interests and we went into pre-production.

It may have been the next day that Ted came into my office, shut the door and took a seat. Now what you must know is that Ted is always the smartest guy in the room. No, really. He said, “Jamie should co-direct it with Randy.” Not only was Jamie a fine director (Absence of a Cello, The Indian Wants the Bronx, Wise Child, Butley) and producer (Blue Denim; I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) but, having staged his father’s works throughout the world, he knew the territory. And Jamie’s name would bring extra credibility to the enterprise. Smart, indeed. Randy was not the least bit bent out of shape by the proposal. He was just beginning his career as a director and was enthused to be working with and learning from Jamie, as were Louie and I. Jamie proved to be an invaluable dramaturg, challenging us every inch of the way, making us stand up for what we believed in while never treating us as anything other than professional peers. 

We lined up an amazing cast. Triple threat Susan Egan, who would go on to receive a Tony nomination for Beauty and the Beast, played farm girl Margy. Michael Hayden, who would go on to star in Lincoln Center’s revered, Tony-winning revival of Carousel, played her brother, Wayne. That original production was wonderfully received and taught us what we needed to move forward. Where and what to cut (it was far too long with too many songs); whether jokes landed or didn’t; when the audience was getting restless and all of those things you learn when the final collaborator, the audience, enters the process.

We returned to NYC and Louie and I were back at Sam’s working on rewrites. He had come down with a nasty cold that he just couldn’t shake. He went into the hospital, had an open lung biopsy, after which they couldn’t get him off the respirator, and that was that. He died at 38. More importantly than having lost my collaborator, I had lost my best friend. I’m still not quite over it 24 years later and never expect to be.

I no longer did the rewrites at Sam’s, but I did them, consulting with Jamie and Randy along the way. I had hoped – maybe even presumed – that Ron and Barry would continue with the musical, assuring it some kind of an afterlife. A couple of years later it was clear that I had been wrong. So I began shopping it around to various producers and eventually found myself in the offices of the august Theatre Guild. They had produced the original productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel so there was synergy at work. Having produced the first R&H musical, it made perfect sense that they might produce what was destined to be the final R&H musical. While R&H had written a television musical, Cinderella, it had been adapted for the stage decades before. (It has since been adapted twice more, once by me and a third time by the fantastic Douglas Carter Beane).

The Theatre Guild was then being run by the elegant Philip Langner, whose father, Lawrence, was one of its founders in 1918. Day to day operations were largely handled by Robert Franz who, as providence would have it, was also from Wisconsin. They agreed to produce a national tour of our musical. This was three years following that original production and I was encouraged to strike Louie’s name from the book credit. It might be confusing, the reasoning went, since he was no longer alive. I never for one moment considered doing that. We had started it together and would end it together, if only in spirit.

I’ll never forget the day the producers took Jamie, Randy and me to the Algonquin and, over drinks, announced the cast they had assembled. Mind you, we had never been consulted on the matter. The tour was to star John Davidson, Kathryn Crosby, Donna McKechnie and Andrea McArdle. My initial reaction was to order another cocktail. While fine performers all, I couldn’t quite figure out who would be playing whom. 

The startlingly handsome John, the very definition of “Mr. Sunshine,” would play the grumpy, rural father. The elegant Kathryn, easily ten years John’s senior, would play his kindhearted farm wife. Donna, who was John’s age, would play the band singer that 21-year-old Wayne falls for at the fair. Andrea, at the age of 33, would play recent high school graduate, Margy. One more cocktail, please. 

I by no means intend to disparage these actors, who were not only accomplished, dedicated pros I admired greatly but lovely people as well. John stopped dying his hair and went grey for the role. He cherished the opportunity to play against type. Kathryn, a bit insecure, not having been onstage in some time, worked like a stevedore and brought tremendous class and warmth to the whole process. Donna hadn’t created a role on Broadway since her Tony-winning turn in A Chorus Line 20 years earlier but still had “it” in spades. Randy was understandably thrilled to build his dances on her. And Andrea was exactly what you’d expect: feisty, unpredictable, hilarious, opinionated, and with that soaring voice. She also turned out to be a much stronger dancer than I had anticipated. 

Auditions ensued and the two major roles I had a hand in casting were Wayne, who would be Donna’s young farm boy love interest, and newspaper reporter and lady’s man, Pat, who would play opposite Andrea. I had known Ben Wright when he came to NYC as a teenager from Indiana to play Jack in the original production of Into the Woods. He was a family friend of my dear friend, Bruce Pomahac, also from Wisconsin and who would write the sensational orchestrations for State Fair. Ben had retired from the business and was living in North Carolina. I called him and shamelessly begged him to consider playing Wayne. He said that he would take the role on the condition that his wife, Amy Gage, also be cast so that they could tour together. That ended up being no stretch at all. Amy was a fantastic and lovely singer and dancer and we cast her as Andrea’s understudy.

I’d had a man-crush on Scott Wise since first seeing him on Broadway in Song and Dance. He’d won a Tony for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and was, IMHO, the best male dancer on Broadway. He had charisma to let and was drop-dead handsome with a smile you could hang a dream on. We cast him as Pat.  Being pigeonholed as a dancer, Scott had seldom had the opportunity to sing and act (the ill-fated musical Carrie excepted) and was astounding in the role.  He also proved to be one of the sweetest guys you’d ever want to meet. 

With the show fully cast, we were off and running. Jamie, Randy and I all felt that the script was in fine shape when we went into rehearsals. While there were the inevitable conversations about this or that, I don’t recall any downright arguments. We were all on the same page. There was the time John pleaded to have a live hog to whom he could sing “Sweet Hog of Mine,” the one song we interpolated from the 1962 movie remake which is best left forgotten.  Louie and I had decided early on that we could never show the audience a boar of the magnificence that Blueboy was purported to be. Also, we had once worked with a pig in a production of Li’l Abner and knew they were not stage-friendly animals. And did John really want to be upstaged by an animal? That subject never came up again.

Brilliantly, the tour was scheduled to open in Des Moines during the Iowa State Fair, where the musical is set. The New York Times theater critic, Frank Rich, and his wife, columnist Alex Witchell, made the trek to see the show and enjoy the fair. They were both extremely gracious and complimentary about the production. Frank mentioned it in one of his columns. “This may be what the Golden Age of Broadway was really all about.” He graciously allowed us to use his quote in our marketing for the show.

The reviews for the tour were more than I could ever have wished for. LA Times: “I never thought I would love State Fair but now I do.”  The Hollywood Reporter: “A toe-tappable, knee-slappable package that carries a wealth of charm.”  Chicago Sun-Times: “Perfection…Just pin that blue ribbon on the theater marquis.” Variety: “What is truly remarkable is the way what could be a very trite show carefully avoids most of the traps of triviality or sentimentality, thanks mainly to a sparklingly witty book by Tom Briggs and Louis Mattioli. A delightfully retro production of a remarkably unified piece of musical theater. State Fair looks set for a highly successful national tour and fully deserves an entry into the great Broadway cook-off.”

There was that “B” word again, and it came up over and over again in favorable reviews across the country. I can’t pretend that I wasn’t beginning to get stars in my eyes. My biggest dream had been that it might, one day, be presented at my hometown community theater. Anyway, the tour continued to be well received by audiences and critics alike with everyone involved having a swell time.  Then we arrived in Philadelphia.  Enter David Merrick.

~~~~~~

Act Two: The Unlikely Destination

There was no mistaking the elderly gentleman in the wheelchair.  If the jaunty fedora and jet-black mustache didn’t give him away, certainly the white gloves did.  “Legendary” is really too pedestrian a word to apply to David Merrick, producer of 88 Broadway productions including such behemoths as Fanny; Gypsy; Promises, Promises; Hello, Dolly! and 42nd Street, as well as more high-brow fare by such esteemed playwrights as Tom Stoppard, John Osbourne, Brian Friel and Tennessee Williams.  He had also presented two landmark Royal Shakespeare Company productions directed by Peter Brook, Marat/Sade and A Midsummer Night's Dream.  What in the world was he doing in the lobby of the Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia, just before Christmas in 1995, at a performance of the national tour of State Fair?  I couldn’t imagine that Merrick and his companion, Natalie Lloyd, had randomly chosen this venue as a date night out.

It later become clear that our producers, Robert Franz and Philip Langner, had invited Merrick, hoping to interest him in bringing the show to Broadway. It worked.  He loved the show and they all returned to the City and set about securing a theater for the production.  Merrick went up to the fabled offices he’d once occupied above the St James Theatre, then the province of Rocco Landesman, head of the Jujamcyn Organization who, along with the Shuberts and Nederlanders, were and remain the three major landlords on Broadway.  Merrick wanted the St. James for State Fair but Landesman turned him down.  The theater was already booked.  Merrick returned a few days later with a blank check in his hand and again was turned away.  How it all eventually came together isn’t really important.  But during our stop in Hershey, PA, Robert, Philip and our invaluable press agent, Susan L. Schulman, arrived and announced that State Fair was headed for Broadway.  A pre-show whoop went up behind the curtain, where the company had been gathered onstage for the announcement.  It was to be Merrick’s 89th Broadway musical, and his last.

After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1983, Merrick had largely removed himself from the business.  He returned briefly in 1990 with the ill-fated, all black revival of the 1926 Gershwin musical Oh, Kay!  The production had originated at the Goodspeed Opera House and he imported it to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.  It was the first, but not the last, production for which Ms. Lloyd, who had become not only Merrick’s paramour but his spokeswoman, would receive Executive Producer credit.  They had met when she was a receptionist for his attorney.

John Davidson, Ben Wright, Kathryn Crosby and Andrea McArdle 

John Davidson, Ben Wright, Kathryn Crosby and Andrea McArdle 

Now keep in mind that all I’d ever wanted from State Fair was a title that R&H could license to schools and community groups and my biggest dream was that perhaps, one day, even my hometown community theater would present the musical.  And while I was duly thrilled to think that our little-show-that-could would end up on Broadway, my first thought was that Merrick would dump me in a heartbeat and bring in Peter Stone or some other first-class, established book writer.  But for whatever reason, David seemed to like me and my sensibility and, more importantly, he liked State Fair.  

I imagine that Philip and Robert were happy to have David throwing $1M at the production to bring it in, but they must have also realized that he would be usurping their positions as the lead producers.  Obviously it would now be a “David Merrick presents…” production.  Many, including the extremely savvy Schulman, thought it was a terrible idea but Robert’s recurring chant was, “I can handle Merrick.”  What they may not have counted on was the important role Ms. Lloyd would come to play, which would include her second Broadway credit as Executive Producer.

Because David was largely unable to speak, Natalie was his conduit.  “David thinks…,” “David wonders if…,” David wants…”  The fact is that David always made himself perfectly understood to me.  Now I am only speaking from my personal experience and it may well have been different for others.  One day Natalie approached me.  Our conductor was the wonderful Kay Cameron, who also wrote the terrific vocal arrangements.  

“Do you think Kay could cut her hair so that she’d look more like a man from the back?  David isn’t comfortable with a woman leading the orchestra.”

“No,” I said and walked away. I was running out of patience with her. I’d had other unpleasant encounters with Natalie including one concerning Andrea McArdle’s costume for the opening scene.  Natalie told me that David wanted Andrea in a dress for the opening scene instead of the overalls that our brilliant costume designers, Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, had put her in.  I then went to David and said, “Don’t you love that Andrea is in overalls for the first scene on the farm instead of an organza dress like they used in the movie?”  David smiled, winked and nodded.  I’m not sure that any of us had ever fully trusted Natalie’s motives.  She was not a person of the theater and her opinions proved largely useless. (Sidebar: Natalie, easily four decades David’s junior, would become the sixth Mrs. Merrick shortly before his death in 2001 at the age of 88.  Ain’t true love grand?)

The producers eventually secured the lovely Music Box Theatre for our production.  Lovely, yes, but far too small.  Even using a case of Crisco, I was amazed that they could squeeze James Leonard Joy’s beautiful set onto that stage.  But more importantly, this was a family show.  Given the number of seats, the tickets prices would have to be so high to make the weekly nut that they would largely preclude families from attending.  

We only had one week of previews before opening but so be it.  Audiences were eating it up with regular standing ovations.  All of the critics attended the Sunday matinee prior to our Tuesday opening.  What a disaster.  Robert Franz unwisely came backstage before curtain to let everyone know that this was the performance that counted, that every critic in the world was out front.  Of course that put the fear of God into everyone.  Most actors do not want to know when a critic is in the house, let alone when all of them are out there.

The performance got off to a great start with orchestrator Bruce Pomahac’s thrilling Overture and my heart was pounding when the curtain went up.  The always-dependable John Davidson came on and dropped the first prop he had to handle, a coiled rope.  He couldn’t quite recover and finally just threw the thing into the wings.  It went downhill from there and Jamie and I were out on the curb smoking cigarettes before Scene 2.  The tone had been set and it was an extremely nervy performance all around.

Opening night was wonderful, the nerves having been left behind and everyone shining.  As my date, I had flown in my childhood mentor, Conne Smith, from my hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin.  At the party at Tavern On the Green, she was awed to meet not only our stars but other luminaries in attendance (her favorite may have been actor Richard Widmark, who was married to Oscar Hammerstein II’s stepdaughter).  How thrilled I was to have Conne sharing my Broadway debut.  My partner and I spent the night at the Four Seasons Hotel, which he had lovingly booked as part of my opening night gift.  The following morning the newspapers arrived and the reviews were dire, even questioning the credibility of critics across the country who had given us such positive notices.  I wasn’t the least bit surprised as I ate my delicious lemon curd pancakes while overlooking Central Park, and imagining the closing notice being posted by week’s end.  

The following night we were all summoned to the stage before the performance.  Robert addressed us holding all of the reviews in his trembling hand.  Apoplectic, he tore them up, one by one, hurling them to the floor accompanied by many expletives.  There would be no closing notice!  We would prevail!  We would be a hit!  My heart went out to the actors who had to go out following that desperate display and give the audience a performance.  Not everyone knew that Robert was a raging, blackout alcoholic.  He passed away at his mother’s home in Wisconsin not long after State Fair closed.

The show went on to run for three months and received two Tony Award nominations.  Scott Wise was nominated for his dynamic performance, the other going to the score.  However, the voters were only to consider the songs that had never before been heard on Broadway, thereby precluding those from Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream.  Not only did David sue the Tonys for ruling part of the score ineligible but, in one last publicity stunt in a career that had infamously included many, had earplugs handed out to the voters when they arrived at the theater so they would not have to listen to the songs not under consideration. But we got to do a number at the Tonys, which was great.  

Not incidentally, this was the season of Rent and Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, which collectively had sucked up all of the oxygen on Broadway.  Had we come in the previous season when Sunset Boulevard was the only new musical to open…  But why go there, right?

The most important thing we got out of our Broadway run was the cast recording, which is imperative to the licensing of a musical.  I could do an entire column on this subject alone but I’m going to share only one anecdote.  I believe we arrived at the studio at 9 A.M. and we were going to stay until it was all in the can. I think we recorded mostly in show order beginning with the Overture. Andrea’s first big song, “It Might as Well Be Spring” comes early in the show but when we got to that number, she said, “No, I can wait. Let someone else go.”  I thought at the time that she may have been deferring to some of the more seasoned actors whose voices may well have waned as the hours went by, and went by they did. I think it was at about 3:30 A.M. when Andrea finally went into the booth to lay down “…Spring,” and she did it in one take, maybe with a couple of small inserts. What a pro. I remember being in tears but at that point, I would have wept at a good card trick.  Adrenaline is a strange animal.  (If I’m wrong about any of these recollections, I’ll count on someone to chime in with corrections.) When we finally left the studio, the sun had arisen and we had a sensational cast recording.

And you know what?  To this day State Fair is being produced at schools and community theatres and summer stock companies around the country, which is really all I ever wished for.  Even Waukesha Civic Theater has presented it.  The rest was always just gravy.

Shuffle Along, and All the Stuff That Followed

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

The 1921 musical Shuffle Along had been on visionary playwright-director George C. Wolfe’s radar for decades.  Last year he finally decided to tackle it, devising a musical that, while using the show’s original score, would tell the story of how the musical was born and its historical significance.  It was the first Broadway musical created entirely by African-Americans and featuring an all-black cast.  The full title would be the rather unwieldly Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.  Wolfe got uber-producer Scott Rudin on board, who had no less than six productions on Broadway last season.  He lined up a cast of theater royalty that included Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry and, most importantly it would turn out, the queen of Broadway herself, Audra McDonald.  The show went on to garner 10 Tony Award nominations.

It was announced long before the production began performances in mid-March that Ms. McDonald would be leaving the production after the Tony Awards to recreate her latest Tony-winning performance in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in London’s West End.  Presumably the search for a suitable replacement was on at that point but if so, everyone involved was tight-lipped about it.  Eventually it was announced that the fantastic, if not terrifically well known Rhiannon Giddens would be stepping in during Ms. McDonald’s summer absence from the production.

Then followed a more dramatic announcement: Ms. McDonald was pregnant.  Plans for Lady Day were scrapped but she would be leaving Shuffle Along nonetheless, although now for a different reason.  Then came the most dramatic announcement.  Mr. Rudin would be closing the production, which has regularly been grossing nearly $1M a week.  Ticket sales had dropped off precipitously for the summer following the announcement of Ms. McDonald’s maternity leave, Mr. Rudin explained.

Hey, wait a minute.  Everyone in the free world knew months ago that Ms. McDonald would be out of the show all summer.  So why was Mr. Rudin playing the maternity card?  Not only was it disingenuous, it was insulting to Ms. McDonald.  Her beloved company of players would now all be out of work because she got pregnant.  Ridiculous.  The producer knew when he hired her that he would have to replace her for the summer, her subsequent unexpected pregnancy having nothing to do with it.  Apparently he wanted her name on the marquis to sell the show and, like Scarlett O’Hara, would worry about the rest later.  Mind you, Mr. Rudin is quite a savvy producer so none of this makes much sense.  Why weren’t the replacement apparatus and attendant marketing efforts put in place the day Ms. McDonald signed her contract?

It's not the first misstep Mr. Rudin has made with Shuffle Along.  He petitioned the Tony nominators to consider the musical in the Best Revival category, in hopes of not having to go up against the juggernaut Hamilton.  Ridiculous again.  It is an entirely new musical albeit one with a pre-existing score.  Somewhat ironically, considering her rave reviews, Ms. McDonald did not receive a Tony nomination for her performance.  There was some speculation that the nominators took umbrage with her having taken the role knowing she would be leaving the production just a few months after opening.  But in all fairness, I’ll let Mr. Rudin hold the bag for that decision.  He should be grateful that Ms. McDonald and her “people” don’t seem to be the litigious types.  If they were, his ass might well be grass as the whole maternity bit might well be considered libelous.

Of course everyone is thrilled for Ms. McDonald and her husband, Broadway stalwart Will Swenson, and their expanding family.  Still, it’s unfortunate that her exit from Shuffle Along has been positioned in such an unseemly way, and that the revelatory show’s premature exit from Broadway is happening at all.

"60 seconds on the clock please" : My Foray into Capitalism by Tom Briggs

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

Like most young people who arrive in New York City to begin what they hope will qualify as a career, I struggled to make ends meet. I shared a gloomy, one bedroom, basement apartment on the Upper West Side with my three best friends from Wisconsin. Jo Ann was a fantastic singer and dancer who would eventually enjoy a wonderful career as a standup comic and television writer. Louie, also a great singer-dancer, landed his first Broadway show less than a month after arriving. Nancy, the civilian among us, got a job at a well-known law firm. And I…what? 

I’d saved a few bucks by singing and dancing my heart out across the country in industrial shows, nightclub acts, and on the ever-popular State Fair circuit. I began taking classes, which is really what I’d come to the City to do. I studied acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio with Mr. Berghof himself, where I was also able to audit classes offered by his legendary wife, Uta Hagen; I took tap with Bob Audy at Carnegie Hall and jazz dance with the incomparable Luigi. 

I landed the title role in an off-off Broadway production of the avant-garde play, The Minotaur, which played in a greasy basement playhouse on the Lower East Side. I also choreographed a musical based on Shakespeare’s Pericles at the I.R.T. Theater, directed by the well regarded Edward Berkley and lit by future Tony winner Jennifer Tipton. Of course I realized that, eventually, I’d have to get a real job but taking my cue from Scarlett, I would worry about that tomorrow. Funny how quickly tomorrow comes when you’re not paying attention. 

Through the kindness of a friend of a friend, I was taken into the employ of the trendy East Side restaurant, Serendipity. Within the first week I managed to spill our specialty, a large vessel of frozen hot chocolate, onto Stephanie Mills’ fur coat. I also chased Diana Ross across the joint to return a lovely little china receptacle I thought she’d left on the table.

“That’s the soy sauce, dear.” she sweetly informed me.

I could see that my career in the service industry would not be long lived. Wracking my brain as to what I could do to make a buck, the logical answer came to me like a light bulb glowing above my head. A game show! I was pretty fair at word games and a die-hard fan of The $20,000 Pyramid, which was shot in NYC. I secured an audition, where I played the game with other potential contestants, and before day’s end received the call saying I’d been called back. Yes, you had to go through that exercise twice to get on the show. A couple of days after the callback I was informed that they wanted me to be on the show the following week.

The show was shot in the old Ed Sullivan Theater, now home to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. As instructed, I arrived on Monday morning by 9 a.m. What I didn’t realize was that they shot the entire week of shows in one day. They announced that the celebrity contestants for the “week” were Adrienne Barbeau and Tony Randall. Well, anyone who followed the show knew that they were two of the very best players in the history of the show. It was too good to be true! The charming host, Dick Clark, came backstage to greet us and wish us luck. They selected the first two contestants – a man and a woman – who took their seats on set and we were off and running.

The first round of the “Monday” show was won by the man so they put up another woman for the second round, which the man won again. A brief break while the celebrities changed their clothes for the “Tuesday” show. Long story short: by the end of “Friday’s” show, my name had not been called and I took the subway home with my tail between my legs. I no sooner got into the apartment when the phone rang. It was the contestant coordinator, who had liked me, and told me to come back next week and he’d make certain that I got on. Huzzah! And this time I decided that I would bring a change of clothes so it wouldn’t look like I owned only one sport coat should I be lucky enough to be on for more than one “day.” 

The catastrophic “Blizzard of 1978” began forming on Sunday, February 5th and would dump record-breaking snow on the City. Yes, this was the day before I would be returning to the Ed Sullivan Theater. I awoke on Monday morning at 4 a.m.to discover that all public transportation had been suspended, that there were no cabs running nor, in fact, any autos at all on the streets, snow drifts having reached heights of 15 feet. I called the coordinator who confirmed that the show would go on and said he would understand if I couldn’t get there. Say what?! I’d get there if I had to hire a dogsled!

I packed up my snazzy Harris Tweed sport coat (I would not be hauling extensive wardrobe to the theater after all) and set off on my trek from 85th Street to Broadway and 54th. People were skiing down Broadway as the snow continued to fall. That was a blessing as I was able to walk in their tracks instead of trudging through snow up to my hips. I arrived at the theater exhausted and the producers were kind enough to have coffee, juice, donuts and so on awaiting us. They announced that the celebrities this week would be Geoff Edwards, a minor television actor and game show host, and Jo Anne Worley, a proven great player of the game. I’d been a fan of Jo Anne’s ever since seeing her star in Once Upon a Mattress at Melody Top in Milwaukee in 1974, years before she became a star on Laugh-In. Due to flights having been canceled, Geoff had taken Amtrak in from Washington, DC, barely arriving in time and terribly rattled. He also sported a cast on one leg from a recent accident of some sort.

Again Dick, as he asked to be called, came back to wish us luck, and mine was the first name they called to set. I was matched with Jo Anne for the first round, which we handily won. That meant that I would be playing with Geoff for the second round. I was doomed. Poor Geoff was a hot mess, barely able to keep his mind on the game. I couldn’t have gotten him to say “Alexander Hamilton” if I’d held up a $10 bill. Luckily the woman playing with Jo Anne got stage fright and, despite our miserable showing, Geoff and I won the round. I was on to the “Tuesday” show.

And so it went until I’d made it to the second round on “Wednesday.” The balcony was jammed with kids, schools having been closed because of the blizzard, and among them was my one pal who had made it to the theater. How they’d all gotten there was anybody’s guess. (The pal was the only person I knew who would be privy to my outcome on the show before it aired in March and he was sworn to secrecy.) The kids seemed to like me and were cheering me on. Maybe because I was the only contestant who waved to the crowd at the end of each show, as did the celebrities. I was also the only contestant to call Dick by his first name. When one of the categories was “Better Luck Next Time,” I was cheeky enough to say, when selecting the category, “Well, Dick, Geoff and I are hoping for “Better Luck Next Time.” A ham? You bet!

When I won “Wednesday’s” second round, I went to the Big Board. This was where you had the opportunity to win the big money at the end of each game and, mercifully, I’d be going with Jo Anne. During the commercial break, Dick stood behind me, massaging my shoulders.

“Tom, you’re a great player,” he said. “You can do this. Just stay calm and focused. You and Jo Anne have a great connection. Let’s go.”

When we came back on air, Dick said, “Well Tom, this is your sixth trip to the big board.” To which I replied, “Dick, does the word “spinoff” mean anything to you?” The kids roared and Dick had a good laugh as well. Yes, I was shameless, and probably just nervous enough that my habit of deflecting with humor kicked in. Dick said his customary, “60 seconds on the clock, please.” I looked into Jo Anne’s big, brown, confident eyes and she winked at me. I knew at that moment that we were home free. Not only did I win the whole enchilada, but I set a new record for having done it in 27 seconds. When the show aired, my friends and family were flabbergasted that I’d been able to keep my big yap shut about the win. Every so often my mom would call to tell me that I’d been mentioned on the show when someone got within a few seconds of my record. 

Many years later I ran into Jo Anne at the Broadway watering hole, Sam’s, reintroduced myself and thanked her. I could tell she’d had such encounters numerous times before. “So what did you do with the money?” she inquired as if by rote. “I studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.” “Oh, you’re an actor?” “Not for a long time. I’m the director of the licensing division at The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. I represent the R&H musicals and those by Irving Berlin and…” Jo Anne nearly spit her Chardonnay onto the tablecloth as she pulled out a chair. “I know who you represent, honey. Just sit down right here!”

The Launch of a Theatrical Journey by Tom Briggs

Tom Briggs

  • OnStage North Carolina Columnist

It may have been because I could perform all of the songs and choreography for every day of “The Mickey Mouse Club,.” circa 1959.  Or that I would lip sync and choreograph to Teresa Brewer records and make my two little sisters be my backups.  Having disclosed those peculiarities, it should come as no surprise when I admit to having been an awkward kid who didn’t really fit in anywhere with my peers.  Somehow my intuitive mother got wind of a children’s theater company, wisely enrolled me, and it changed my life.  I’m probably like many of you who found the right mentor at the right time.  

I appeared in my first play before I’d ever seen one.  I knew at the first rehearsal that I had found a new home although I knew not one soul in the room.  The woman who founded the company and directed the productions in my hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin was a larger than life Auntie Mame type.  Conne Smith had dropped the “i” from her first name at the suggestion of a carnival gypsy when she was a girl because the numerology wasn’t right.  Conne was a Pied Piper which, ironically, was the title of that first play in which I appeared.  Children, parents and the community followed her throughout her life.  She recognized in me a passion and, I suppose, some talent for the stage.  Not that talent is a prerequisite for children’s theater.  Curiosity and enthusiasm are enough and I had both.

Thanks to Conne, I became engaged enough to begin taking myself seriously.  I started taking dance lessons, much to the chagrin of my macho father.  His efforts to shove me into the world of sports continually backfired.  I don’t think a kid can really excel at something he’s not interested in and (spoiler!) I didn’t fit in with the jock crowd.  Only Dad could have looked at his skinny, somewhat effete son and seen a quarterback.  At one point, when I was in high school, my dad insisted that for every production I was in, I had to go out for one sport.  Of course that’s impossible as both are pretty much full time jobs.  I chose gymnastics, and swimming and diving, at both of which I was nearly proficient.  I even won a couple medals for the latter two but it didn’t really matter.  Dad meant a sport with a ball.  Anyway, he finally and mercifully gave up the ghost on the sports thing.

Meanwhile, my mother did encourage my theatrical efforts, bringing my sisters to every show I was in, which eventually encompassed community theater, church and school productions and summer stock.  I became an acceptable dancer, for a teenage boy in Wisconsin, and could sing well enough to play the leading man’s funny best friend.  I had found my niche.

In 1969, Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles established the Wisconsin Youth Power initiative.  At the height of the Vietnam War, it aimed to take the lenses off those who were burning their draft cards and bras.  Thus was created the wholesome, all-singing, all-dancing “Kids From Wisconsin,” a troupe that toured during the summer throughout Wisconsin and beyond.  The group was comprised of 60 high school students who auditioned throughout the state.  Half were singer-dancers and half were instrumentalists comprising a sensational jazz band.  A highlight of the tour was a trip to New York where we performed with Guy Lombardo and his orchestra and recorded an album at RCA.  I also saw my first Broadway show, Promises, Promises starring Jerry Orbach, and with that my fate was sealed.  I knew that one day I’d be living in that exciting city and doing what I had just witnessed onstage at the Shubert Theatre.

I was thrilled to be cast in that inaugural troupe, which is currently celebrating its 48th season.  I was also heartbroken not to be in Conne’s summer production of Brigadoon.  I only knew one other “Kid,” the accomplished flutist who was also from Waukesha and with whom I’d done theater under Conne’s tutelage.  I seldom saw her, the band and singers rehearsing separately.  But it was the first time I’d ever been with a group of peers where what I loved to do was considered cool.  

When “Kids From Wisconsin” made its debut at State Fair Park in West Allis, Wisconsin, we opened for the fantastic singer, Vikki Carr.  Within the audience of 15,000 was my father.  It was the first time he’d ever seen me on the stage, Mother having insisted that he accompany her and my sisters.  I had a little dance specialty that landed well so I was what you would have called “featured.”  It got a big hand from that massive crowd that nearly blew me off the stage.  Theretofore, the biggest audience I’d ever played to was probably a couple hundred.  After the show, Dad had tears in his eyes and didn’t have to say, “Now I get it.”  I got it.  It may have been the first time I ever saw my dad cry.  Whether they were tears of joyful pride or regret for having ignored my aspirations I’ll never know nor did I ever ask.  

The following spring he brought my sisters to see me in a production of Man of La Mancha.  Mom was in the hospital at the time (where she’d spend far too much time during the ensuing years) and, again, she had insisted that he attend in her absence.  And again, he was red-eyed following the performance.  While I never received the affirmation of hearing, “I’m proud of you, son,” the fact that he was there at all was enough.  I also believe that the pride Conne took in my burgeoning talents bridged an emotional gap for me.  

How this kid from Wisconsin eventually landed on Broadway, and in a role you may not suspect, with Conne on his arm for opening night, is another story.  Stay tuned.