Tuesday, February 16, 2021


As of the late 1990s, Gertrude Lawrence’s charming summer playhouse was suffocating from umpteen seasons of unambitious one-set plays and chamber revues catering to the tepid taste of a virtually sold-out subscription of 90-year-olds.  "One flu epidemic and the entire subscription would be wiped out," I remarked to the person in charge of audience development (an imaginary person who does not exist, but in Cape Cod you’ve got to talk to somebody).  Compare this situation to my alma mater, Tommy Brent’s Theatre-by-the-Sea, where I began my career at age 18; its audience was filled with the young, the hip and the rich from Newport and Watch Hill, the Mob dandies in their limos from Providence (including the Governor), the Providence working-class on vacation, and every imaginable constituency in between, all supporting an eclectic repertoire of Broadway fare, from the classics to peculiarities no other theatre would touch.  We did the first stock productions of  Equus, Pippin, Mack & Mabel, The Robber Bridegroom, Chicago, and Over Here, and Comden, Green & Coleman’s On The Twentieth Century – all with the original staging and choreography reproduced to the nines.

This year, the Cape Playhouse changed hands, and the Incoming Producer did exactly what I would have done – eschewed LIGHT UP THE SKY in favor of Rupert Holmes’ hilarious flop ACCOMPLICE; and bridged old and new with an ambitious full-on staging of Comden, Green, Coleman, & Stone’s THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES.  Returning to stock after 20 years to music-direct this show was a favor I did willingly for several reasons.  There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to help a new theatre or new management when they’re making all the right moves (just ask the boys in Austin, Texas); THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES is a weakness of mine, after seeing the Broadway original twelve times, playing in its pit dozens of times, and conducting a glorious 1994 production with Marla Maples Trump at Theatre-of-the-Stars in Atlanta and Dallas Music Fair; and lastly, the Incoming Producer had done a few good turns for me which I felt inclined to repay.

First, the good news.  I stepped into that rehearsal hall and instantly fell in love a glorious and hilarious collection of Rockettes and statuesque dancing girls and a stunning male quartet who could learn harmony faster than I could teach it.  I bumped into Betty Comden in the rehearsal lobby, and told her how much fun we were having with her Will Rogers show; she dropped in to say hello -- surely a sign that our production was blessed by the Gods Who Still Walk The Earth.

At Theatre-by-the-Sea, 20 years ago, I had 10-14 musicians; for the dollhouse pit of the Cape Playhouse I had 5.  I spent roughly six weeks transforming Billy Byers’ spectacular Grammy-winning orchestration into a five-man score, and I was blessed (thanks to Broadway contractor Mel Rodnon) with a few matchless New York musicians who signed on to spend a few weeks by the ocean and play their brains out (my loyalty to them will be of the lifetime variety).  I know some major show conductors who simply hand out the original books and play the orchestration full of horrifying holes, with all the loose threads hanging out; for 23 years I have always completely reorchestrated for reduced pits – and even for full ones.   (I’m always miffed when cast and producers take the improved sound for granted – but as in all aspects of musical direction, no one knows what they aren’t hearing, or how much the improvements didn’t cost).  Audience, production, and critical response to the band was largely ecstatic.  

Let’s cut to the dish.

THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES is the most heavily underscored musical in recent memory.  Since I routinely time TV music to 1/30 of a second, I was seriously annoyed that every scene in the play ran 60-90 seconds over (always over; never under!) though Cy Coleman’s underscoring was as tightly constructed as an infallible Swiss watch.  At first I faulted the actors.  It’s a topic for a separate column, the comparative lack of skills and virtuosity in musical theatre actors versus their highly-trained compatriots in "real" theatre.  One of my hobbies is to observe acting classes, including one high-level LA class where any actor present can not only deliver the goods but offer a director 27 shades to choose from on demand in 40 different tempos.  These hard-working WRF principals were strained to capacity to achieve the 1 shade they remembered from their previous productions of the show (that shade would be Slow -- as if the writers needed every imaginable longeur from the actors to make their scenes pay off).  The director was not insensitive to my plight with the underscoring; but a director who speaks at exactly 2 wpm, who makes Truman Capote sound like Rosalind Russell, is not the ideal resource in this situation, no matter how many times he urged the cast to "Keep.    The.    Pace.    Up."  The scores were nearly completed; writing pages and pages of new underscoring was out of the question on this schedule, even if I wanted to be an accessory to the bloating of the scenes out of all proportion to the numbers.  It was the Devil’s Alternative: rescore to help the scenes fail, or mangle Cy Coleman’s gorgeous underscoring beyond recognition.  I chose the latter, creeping and crawling through the underscore all night while the actors did likewise through the scenes. 

The show opened at the Ogunquit Playhouse, a grotesque parody of summer stock staffed by a Dickensian collection of sinister and incompetent characters, providing state-of-the-art squalorous living conditions and abusive performing circumstances.  An Equity representative was on the scene within 24 hours, issuing citations right and left for unacceptable rehearsal facilities and the works.  Consult your AEA newsletter for developments, but the word is that this historic playhouse is trying to ditch Equity and its minimal requirements for a cast’s safety and comfort.

It was at this critical moment that the grand old man of the Equity cast, the Character Man, weighed in.  He is what used to be known as a Bit Player, a veteran chorus performer in dozens of shows, with a particular specialty as the Constable in legions of FIDDLER tours (although he is currently moving up to the role of the Constable in the new FIDDLER tour).  After a week of performances as Will Rogers’ father, he began to chafe at the constraints of a role with only three speaking scenes; and he took to unhooking his costumes in various ways for the amusement of cast and audience, and launching into page after page of out-of-character "ad-libs," tossing page after page of Stone’s book aside, to say nothing of Coleman’s now-superfluous underscoring.  Stepping out of character is a classic burlesque device in the hands of the masters (I sat in the pit of SUGAR BABIES and hung out with the comics, and I’ve spent much time with Debbie Reynolds, so I’ve seen the masters at work).  But what are we to make of this wretch stepping down to the footlights, removing his hat, and announcing to the audience, "Yes, folks, it’s Live Theatre!  Anything Can Happen!"  This atrocious condescension to the 90-year-old lowest common denominator in the house evoked howls; but I’ve never seen an appeal to the lowest common denominator go unanswered.

Call me old-fashioned, but I couldn’t help but think:  What really happens in the "Live Theatre" is that actors go to the ends of the earth to cover mishaps, to do anything possible to prevent the audience from knowing something’s wrong, and to do everything possible to restore the drift of the play – if they acknowledge that there’s a play going on to begin with.  

It is a standard burlesque ploy, of course, to create a staged mishap and actor’s break-up, but even this is a science.  In SUGAR BABIES, Ann Miller "accidentally" knocked off Mickey Rooney’s wig and turned away, shoulders heaving, leaving the audience thinking that the great Mickey Rooney had made the great Ann Miller crack up onstage; I watched this meticulously staged moment a dozen times.  But there’s the rub – for an audience to see the great Miller and Rooney crack each other up (albeit bogusly) was a great treat for their fans.  But for two unknowns in stock to crack each other up – what does the audience get out of that, particularly if the participants have barely earned their stripes in the roles to begin with?  Furthermore, the sketch in SUGAR BABIES was a throw-away routine; even Mickey Rooney ran afoul of good judgment when he toured in FUNNY THING/FORUM, and went off-script, condescending to the audience with the remark, "I’m just trying to make this turkey work!"  He clearly didn’t know that Gelbart & Shevelove’s Forum script is another Swiss watch, the Cartier of burlesque musicals, and has been hailed as such for forty years.

So our Character Man routinely turned a sixty-second cross-over scene before the Act I Finale into a five-minute fun-fest; but beware, itinerant self-aggrandizers, the Hidden Consequences:  suddenly the glorious Wedding Finale seemed like an overlong addendum, an entire production number thrown off its game by one irresponsible cut-up’s presumptuous unprofessionalism.  

Hidden Consequence #2:  Comden & Green have already established a convention that each character refers to himself both as actor and character; the Character Man has an Act One crossover in which he sings:

This part of Clem is all frustration mixed with rage

Unsympathetic roles can sink you on the stage

But just stick with me ‘til my warmth comes shining through

I don’t get lovable ‘til somewhere in Act Two!

Of course, if the Character Man has devoted himself to being "lovable" throughout Act One, and has neglected the "unsympathetic role" and "frustration mixed with rage," he’s a triple-threat:  he’s ruined the crossover, ruined the writers’ convention, and ruined the Act Two pay-off  (I always make a point of reading both acts of a play closely before presuming to rewrite them).

Hidden Consequence #3:  The Character Man and Will Rogers had already staged a previous crack-up routine in their first scene; and there is already the original Broadway staged crack-up involving the leading lady and an errant dog, built into the play a la Sugar Babies; so now we had three separate "spontaneous" crack-up scenes in Act One alone.  The superannuated subscribers behind me commented to each other in bemusement on this peculiar phenomenon.

This brings us to the crux of the matter.  I bitterly complained to the Incoming Producer about the insatiable, self-aggrandizing, audience-condescending ad-libbing that was taking over the hard-won, handsome production.  Incoming Producer fairly screamed back over the phone, dancing with rage that I was "threatening the production" with my complaints (see Message vs. Messenger, Ancient History Division):  "How dare you defend Peter Stone?  He’s a hack and you know it."  Well, I admit I know just about everything; but one thing I don’t know is Peter Stone’s qualifications as a hack (although I’m sure he’d be good at it, if he wanted to).  I am unashamedly a great admirer of his; 1776 is the only book musical in history whose songs are a dreadful interruption of the main event; KEAN was a philosophical musical years ahead of its time (I did the recent reading and will do its imminent off-Broadway revival, as well as that of Stone & Rodgers’ TWO BY TWO); readers of my column know how strongly I feel about TITANIC (one of several historical musicals Stone has written in which the entire play takes place with the outcome known to the audience all along).  And this brings me to that most underestimated piece, the little trifle known as THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES.

Musical theatre critics always assume that fluff is a no-brainer to write, that MARIE CHRISTINE and FLOYD COLLINS are hard.  The exact opposite is the case.  Nothing could be easier to write (or more unnecessary) than a dreary evening of portentous, crashingly symbolic tragedy.  Was “Singin’ In The Rain” a piece of cake for Comden & Green?  I doubt it.  Part of fluffy comedy’s genius is its illusion of effortlessness.  Comden & Green, Coleman & Stone spent upwards of eight years creating their Will Rogers show.  Is it just arbitrary fun and games to showcase Tommy Tune numbers?  Some think so; but what did it take for its fabled authors to make it seem that way?  And what really makes it tick?

In rehearsal of the Cape production, I pointed out that every character, from curtain up to curtain call, is dead – Ziegfeld is dead, Rogers is dead, Betty’s dead, the chorus girls are dead (even Will Rogers Jr. died recently).  It’s a musical ghost story, and one of the charms of the original was that it actually played the Palace where the ghost "play" takes place, simultaneously on today’s date and in history’s shadows.  It’s a metaphysical musical, full of New Age references to the ghosts coming over the legendary stairs to dramatize Will Rogers’ life -- which his opening number "Give A Man Enough Rope" specifically states was entirely devoid of high drama.  (All of this was news to director and cast alike).

Only at the end of the play does the Ghost Father return from Heaven, and exactly then occurs the single dramatic moment in the entire play:  the dead father gives Will Rogers a sense of his accomplishment, and says the words the average person never hears from a father, alive or dead:  "I’m proud of you, son."  At this instant the spectacular opening number begins all over, and the ghostly celebration of Will Rogers and his millions of fans coming over the staircase begins anew; and at this moment of triumph, the bell chimes and it’s time for the fatal plane crash, announced in advance four or five times throughout the evening.  Maybe the audience doesn’t give a hoot about the plane crash, since it doesn’t give rise to a swell dance number; but I’ll bet a certain percentage of the audience, like myself, found it vaguely haunting, even though Peter Stone, Hack, had elaborately established it as the final destination from the beginning.

Now you can see the final problem with a summer stock Character Man trashing his early book scenes with upside-down costumes, with confidences to the audience about how hard it is to take his part seriously, establishing himself as a Capon Andy cut-up who doesn’t think much of the play.  The short-sighted actor never sees beyond the scene he’s playing at the moment.  What becomes of him, late in Act Two, when he has to reemerge and deliver a long, heartfelt speech to his supposed son?  His previous antics with the hapless fellow actor have destroyed (or failed to establish) the father/son relationship (albeit comic) that the writers had written; and the audience is positively bewildered at his long-winded seriousness, after being led to expect nothing but condescending out-of-character asides trashing the show’s script.  The fact that our Character Man droned his final speech at half the original tempo, throwing the ever-present underscore into uselessness, was merely the coup de grace.

There is a situation in which an intelligent ad lib can virtually save a performance: when something genuinely goes wrong.  In THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, various cast members have conversations with "Mr. Ziegfeld," whose lines are prerecorded and played on cue.  And equally on cue came the inevitable night when eighteen people were trapped onstage with terrifying silence greeting their appeals to "Mr. Ziegfeld."  Where were our slap-happy ad-libbers then?  Ad-libbers are like lovers; you ain’t got one when you need one, and when you got one you want to shoot him.  The sole purpose of the gorgeous Jewel song and the scene that follows is to dramatize the onslaught of the Depression amidst a last burst of opulence.  Eighteen actors stood paralyzed by a bum sound cue, and not one them had a clue to the single reason the authors had placed them there in the first place: to announce the Depression.  This is again typical of the short-sighted revue-style acting that characterizes the average musical comedy mind – when do I come on, what do I say, what are my steps, where do I go off; they don’t ask "What is the purpose of this scene, and how does my presence serve this purpose?"  Will Rogers was the sole person who even tried to save the situation:  "I guess Mr. Ziegfeld has left!"  Total silence.  Of course, Mr. Ziegfeld’s presence or absence was completely incidental to the one piece of information needed to move the play back to script.  I almost stood up myself to say, "There’s a Depression on, all of us musicians are out of work and so are all of you!" (since there are stagehands and a stage manager present onstage, why not the conductor?)  But since my previous salvage operations had mitigated so harshly against me, described below, I stayed put, hissing to the actor nearest downstage "Tell them about THE DEPRESSION and get on with it!"  Someone eventually staggered back to the script, that much-taken-for-granted-and-maligned item, after the longest stage-wait of total silence I can ever recall.  I hark back to the acting classes I’ve seen where actors are routinely thrown random doorbells and phone rings and forced to improvise around them – but those fine trained actors don’t often end up doing musical comedy in stock.  

Did I mention that the numbers were largely terrif?  One of the most capable and pleasant dance directors I’ve ever met restaged them, largely based on the Tommy Tune originals.  The sole exception was an exceptionally hoary gang tap dance in the opening number, untypical of the Follies, and of Tune, who knows you have to earn a gang tap dance – and no amount of desperately shouted "Yee-hahs!" could compensate for the witty Doagie tail-dance it replaced, or redeem the dance music that no longer made sense.  Another topic for another column:  what is SSDC doing to protect its choreographers’ work, which for decades has been routinely cribbed all over the country by former dance captains, without attribution?  And wouldn’t a producer rejoice to be able to advertise "as choreographed by Tommy Tune" rather than "choreographed by Ethel Shufflemeyer?"

"Move it along, Mr. Rogers."  Nothing pains me (or infuriates me) more, as a musical director or audience member, than an actor working below his own ability.  Here was a very amiable fellow who could do the role well; and he did; exactly 40% of the time.  I suppose one could miss a rope trick rather often (although I personally would kill myself not to); but the fellow regularly went up on his lyrics – not just a word here and there, but on whole choruses, which he spent shuffling about the stage in complete silence (while the male quartet sang their echoes, rendered nonsensical for lack of a solo).  When a beautiful girl appears in a green dress, and the quartet sings "Emeralds!" and the leading man sings "Pearls!" you have a serious situation bringing down the most beautiful number in the show.  When a leading man drops an entire chorus of the inspiration closing anthem, throwing off fly cues, light cues, the choral backup, and forcing the band to drop out while the musical director transposes into Gb from memory and finishes a huge Broadway show on a wretched upright piano – it’s time for a fax to the Incoming Producer (who was infinitely more hysterical that I had committed my complaints to fax than about any of the show-threatening events related therein).  Sorry, Mr. Producer.  Just doing my job, and I never allow an employer to stand in my way.  The cast was likewise more offended by my fury (shaking Comden, Green & Coleman’s score in the principals’ direction during the curtain call) than by the incompetent stagework and theatrical catastrophe that inspired it; but that’s the price of my enthusiasm, kids; if the show isn’t any good, I’m just no fun at all.

Another peculiar moment from Mr. Rogers concerned his routine of ad libs delivered from each day’s actual paper, early in the show.  Sometimes I’d confer with the actor before the show about possible headline quips. One day I said, “Whatever you do, don’t mention today’s plane crash.” Twenty minutes later: “Concorde Crash Kills 113," he briskly read to the horrified audience, while we continued our humorous swingy underscoring in the pit.  "Well, now, gee, they still say you’re much more likely to be hit by lightning than die in a plane crash."  Oh.  My.  God.  (I wonder what Peter Stone would have written in place of that, to achieve the same effect of silencing the audience for a solid half hour).

In both Will Rogers’ and the Incoming Producer’s defense, I will point out that after my infamous Fax, Will Rogers missed not a single lyric for the rest of the run (and trimmed tragic headlines from his newspaper routine).  God grant me the courage to change the things I can, serenity, courage, wisdom, etc. etc. etc.

I almost forgot – I promised you a dog act.  (I’ll have to save for another day the drug-addicted cast member’s AWOL binge during run-throughs, the calls to police, hospitals, family, the replacement located and flown in from LA – and who ended up on the stage?  The original performer – because.  the.  director.  felt.  a.  replacement.  would.  take.  too.  much.  time).

The dog act:  three Austrian women (two sisters and a cousin), age 65, flaming red hair, wearing skin-tight sequined miniskirts tailored fashionably to the labia; a collection of poodles; and a 75-year-old Joe Pesci look-alike with pitch-black "hair," stumping on and off stage delivering dogs.  The dogs themselves knew fewer tricks than my Shetland Sheepdog; what they did is wear women’s clothing and stagger about for a few steps on their hind legs (but only once on matinĂ©e days, when the overfed darlings simply sat without budging for the evening show).  At each trick, our superannuated Amazons would turn to the audience and go, "Awww!"  And our superannuated 90-year-old subscribers would repeat, "Awww!"  My own "Awww" in the pit was more vomit-related than otherwise.

Thank God Cy Coleman wrote some dandy dog-act music to get us through this nightmare (actually I think the tune was Eric Stern’s, the original conductor’s).  But wait – on opening night I was handed the Dog Act’s "charts" – consisting of the following:

1.  Rio (Peter Allen’s rock pop tune)

2.  Alley Cat

3.  Miss America Pageant Theme

4.  Yankee Doodle Dandy

5.  Lady Of Spain

6.  Irish Reel

7.  Cole Porter’s "I Love Paris" and "Can Can"

8.  Pizzicato

9.  Theme to the 1966 TV show "Batman"

Incoming Producer smiled pleasantly and was clearly delighted with this addition to his production (no wonder he regarded me as an hysteric with my complaints about the ad-libbing).  I could see there was no point arguing about these interpolations, their anachronisms, their inappropriateness, and their illegalities on two fronts (imposing on Cy Coleman’s score and using copyrighted material without permission).  Instead, I dedicated myself to my ultimate secret vengeance – doing exactly what I was told.

After one night I cut the horn parts, which didn’t match the others, and for the two-week run, this appalling 7-minute set (an eternity in musical-theatre time) was performed by solo piano and drums.  The only good news is that I lost ten pounds (and I mean ten pounds) – partly due to the atrocious standard of food on Cape Cod, but mainly due to the oceans of sweat I shed while accompanying the Dog Act every night.  Even in my misery, I just howled with delight whenever one of the red-headed hags leaned over the pit, stage center in full view of the audience, and barked at me, "SLOWER!  SLOWER!  NOT NOW!  WAIT!  WAIT!  PLAY BATMAN!!" etc., as I blithely and obliviously played on, emulating the miserable hack they saw in me.  I’d be the first to admit, I’m a vengeful S.O.B. and I’m damn good at it.

And why, you ask, is there a dog act in THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES to begin with? Will Rogers proposes to his wife Betty when she comes to see him in Texas Jack’s Wild West show; and both to provide a Broadway-sized suggestion of an animal show, and to acknowledge the real Ziegfeld Follies’ inevitable dog act, the Broadway show (and tour) featured the Madcap Mutts, a top-flight mayhem of canine impresarios, surrounded by a beautiful drop through which the rest of the cast could be seen applauding the "Wild West Show."

So here is another case of a half-intellect (the hallmark of so much musical theatre production) at work.  There was originally a dog show, never mind why or to what effect; so here’s our dog show, never mind why, or what effect three crazed harridans chasing poodles dressed as Batman might have on an audience watching THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES.  

The audience response?  They howled and loved it.  But those are just the people we heard from.  As our Incoming Producer (and our ad-libbing Character Man) know, aim for the lowest common denominator and you will never fail to hit pay dirt.  A single critic questioned "why we had to have the Dog Act; perhaps the cast was changing costumes."  One night, this scripted dialogue was delivered directly after the Dog Act:

WILL:  What did you think of the show?

BETTY:  It was positively the most disgusting spectacle I’ve ever seen.

A single member of the audience suddenly began a slow, loud, rhythmic clapping, stunning the actors.  Thank you, oh, thank you, you mystery person in the dark, you saved the life of the Mad Musical Director of Chaillot, trapped in a nightmare that everyone else thought was hilarious.

Dear Gertrude Lawrence, I know you would have laughed harder than anyone to watch me play that Dog Act on your stage.  I played it, but I totally lost my sense of humor.

I promise it will never happen again.

Nor will I lose my sense of humor again.

The last line of the Will Rogers script is as follows:  "Go out and have a great life, and the best way to do that is to lead it in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to have Mr. Ziegfeld do a show about you."

Itinerant musical theatre producers, stock and otherwise, I’ll paraphrase my incomparable buddy Peter Stone:  "Go out and run a great theatre, and the best way to do that is to run it in such a way that you wouldn’t be ashamed to have your musical director write up the production on his website."

Fred Barton © 2000

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

T-H-E Peggy Hewitt

In 1991, I played an actress friend’s audition for the role of Mme. Armfeldt in an LA revival of “A Little Night Music.” The waiting room was full of divas of a certain age, all dressed to the nines in period clothes, as is the hilariously excessive LA habit. These actresses were all reeling off their credits to each other and name-dropping and out-granding each other full-tilt. I noticed a professionally-dressed actress sitting quietly in the corner, seemingly a little overwhelmed by the hubbub.

The audition monitor emerged and took attendance, as each lady grandly adjusted feathers and furs and called out “Yes!” and “Here!” Then the monitor called the last name: “Peggy Hewett.” And the quiet lady in the corner replied, “Yes.”

After a pause, I said, in very large and dramatic tones: “T-H-E Peggy Hewitt???”  All the ladies stopped dead and turned to examine this previously unassuming actress in the corner. I continued, in full fan-gush: “You were SO GREAT in ‘Day In Hollywood!” And congrats on that super-well-deserved Drama Desk nomination!”

The suddenly-silenced ladies all lost an inch of height en masse as Peggy Hewett smiled, drew herself up a bit, and she and I sat in our new Cool Kids' Corner and just dived into Broadway shop talk and mutual enthusiasm.

We were both a little down-and-out, our New York triumphs behind us and forgotten all too quickly, as we tried to hack the LA scene.

She began to come over regularly for some coaching in my cute little Beachwood Drive house, with the aim of putting together a new one-woman show. She had a flair for the bon mots of Noel Coward and bittersweet light-operetta and fey Bea Lillie songs. We had a grand old time. Her rendition of “World Weary” was for the ages.

She noticed something off with me, and I confided in her about the nervous breakdown and the multiple misdiagnoses. She immediately proposed I see her psychologist friend Beverly Piontak. I did, and Beverly was magnificent, in her office next door to the Beverly Hills Playhouse (where my brother studied, and I audited constantly.) Beverly’s ministrations and Peggy’s friendship saw me through my drama and the “City Of Angels” experience.

Beverly’s and Peggy’s powerful words of wisdom are with me to this day. I moved back to New York after "City Of Angels" played LA and toured, and never saw Peggy again. I did hear that she moved back to the New York area not too long later as well with her life partner. I was stunned when Peggy died a few years later at the age of 56. She saved my life and I wish I could have saved hers. “T-H-E Peggy Hewitt.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Thoroughly Modern Millie – Then and Now

Loving the original Broadway Thoroughly Modern Millie as much as I did in 2002, I expected to have a great time at its 15.5-year Reunion Concert tonight for the Actors Fund, at the Minskoff Theatre.

Nothing could have prepared me for one of the greatest nights in Broadway history.

Affection and outright love for the show has accumulated over the years, as some of its original participants have gone on to become Broadway legends of our day, as performers, personalities, composers, directors, and choreographers. The show's ubiquity in stock and regional theatre has spread its charms among a whole new generation of young performers and audiences coming up in the biz. The years of accumulated fondness for the show was fully reflected in the historically explosive, shattering response at the Minskoff tonight.

Almost every performer of the original cast appeared in tonight's Reunion Concert, with 14 of the original pit musicians recreating their unparalleled work playing one of the last great orchestrations ever heard on the Great White Way (begun by the late Ralph Burns, and finished in beyond-brilliant fashion by Doug Besterman.) Terrific original conductor Michael Rafter returned to the podium, after overcoming major life challenges (maybe many have – he's just the one I know about.) Jeanine Tesori, Rob Ashford, and Dick Scanlan were present, and how great that they were there to witness the event and the audience reaction.

You'll read elsewhere about the audience's electrified and electrifying response to each of the evening's triumphs, which occurred regularly every 30 seconds. Suffice it to say that Sutton Foster's first entrance, alone on stage, inspired the entire sold-out Minkoff theatre audience to stand up and cheer and scream for over five solid minutes without stopping – as they recalled Sutton's life story, from unknown second replacement in this unlikely Millie Broadway hybrid, to star of Broadway, television and concert halls, and the sheer fun and originality of her original Millie characterization and performance – which she recreated accurately and expertly, along with all her outstanding original cast, that exceptionally rare blend of first-rate talents across the board, then and now.

I thought I'd republish my editorial from my original website, representing my very first impressions of the show shortly after it opened in 2002.  My admiration and love for the show only increased when I subsequently conducted the Gateway Playhouse production in 2006 (cast members of which appeared in tonight's large dance ensemble); and as Broadway has drifted further and irrevocably away from anything I'd be likely to find companionable in 2018, my love for Millie has become a treasured memory of my youth and my Broadway illusions – and seeing this sensational reunion performance was like seeing an old friend I never thought I'd see again. I just wept, and I'm glad I lived long enough.

 -- Fred Barton, February 12, 2018



Ever introduced your latest paramour to your friends and seen the unmistakable frozen smile that says, "You've got to be kidding?"

So shortly before the Tony Awards, I was dragged to see Thoroughly Modern Millie, with the pans of the Times, the New Yorker, and several unenthusiastic individuals ringing in my ears. What can I say? Less than half way through Act One, I was humiliated to find myself thinking, "I'm liking this." At intermission, I turned red and thought, "I'm loving this." And during the curtain calls I found myself standing up and cheering, with 1500 other people, and I had no choice but to publicly admit I really loved it.

Now my friends are looking at me funny. Have I lost my curmudgeonly edge? Or just my mind? I feel almost as self-conscious as the aged artist in Thomas Mann's Death In Venice, falling for jailbait.

Check your personality. For a Broadway romantic, falling for a show can be just as unpredictable and mysterious as falling for a person -- and in either case, all the intellectual cynics in the world, including yourself, might not be able to change your mind. 

According to Lorenz Hart, after all: "It seems that we have met before, and laughed before, and loved before, but who knows where or when?" -- i.e. these unaccountable fascinations at first sight are actually a sudden connection of dots from your past. I might add, "Who cares where or when?" -- but I have a few ruminations on the subject, and it all depends on your personal Broadway history. Whether you find Millie a finely crafted ice-cream sundae or a vat of Cool Whip is partly a matter of taste, but more a matter of your past ice-cream-sundae experience.

I think those poor Times critics and their ilk have spent too much time dining in esoteric downtown restaurants to appreciate this particular confection, if I may drag this metaphor out for another paragraph. I have long suspected Ben Brantley of not "getting" the Broadway musical as an entertainment form, either historically or sociologically; I wish the Times would let him yap about Topdog/Underdog and give the musicals to Ken Mandelbaum or someone with a Broadway musical clue.

But back to Millie. Or rather, back to No, No, Nanette, the 1971 smash revival that inaugurated a huge anti-Hair nostalgia boom that swept the country the following year in the form of MGM's compilation That's Entertainment. I didn't see Nanette, but I heard it, and learned a priceless lesson: there can be something for everyone in the pantheon of Broadway entertainment. What a relief -- not every show had to break the mold and change the world, as Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim were capably and thrillingly doing in their corner.

Nanette producer Harry Rigby reportedly said that Oklahoma! set the cause of escapist Broadway entertainment back thirty years. He put his money where his escapist mouth was in 1980 with Sugar Babies -- movie stars, shtick, great old Jimmy McHugh songs exquisitely orchestrated by Dick Hyman et al., baggy-pants-comics, girls, girls, girls, and a beautiful production design. It ran for about a hundred years at the late, great Mark Hellinger Theatre, although I only saw about ten of those performances. This particular ice-cream sundae was definitely not for the hip experimental downtown theatre crowd -- but it played around the corner from Sweeney Todd, proving again that there was room on Broadway for, to quote the Hal Prince movie, "Something For Everyone."  

You get the picture. I had a great time at Lorelei when I was 15: a big Broadway star (two if you count Li'l Abner legend Peter Palmer), a stage full of color and tap dancing and Charlestons, Jule Styne songs played by a raucous orchestra, and twinkling lights a-go-go. Of course it was a ridiculous star vehicle revival. That's why you went. Hellzapoppin' was another one (now you know I grew up in Boston) with all of the above, including the Jule Styne songs (it was basically Sugar Babies in the wrong hands, but Hellzapoppin' had a million more twinkling lights, so I loved it too).

Nanette spawned a million period revivals. Irene was a killer -- I wouldn't have missed it for the world; I saw the tour with Jane Powell as the enterprising ingenue who heads out of her little neighborhood to take on New York (see Millie, below). Whoopee! had one of the greatest tap dances in Broadway history, choreographed by Dan Siretta ("My Baby Just Cares For Me" at the end of Act One -- what a short memory Broadway has). And on and on, right up to 42nd Street, with an enterprising ingenue who heads out of her little neighborhood to take on New York. C'mon, people, it's a Broadway tradition -- for people who remember those days, or for us misfits who grew up in a rock-and-roll world, watching old musicals late at night on black-and-white televisions instead of doing homework. 

So what is it about Millie? Maybe it helped that I'm no fan of that dumb lox of a movie, so I had the pleasant surprise of finding the musical's book actually funny -- with just enough romance to make me 14 again, and just enough self-parody (unlike Urinetown, which I also found very funny, but with way more than enough self-parody). 

You've heard about Sutton Foster; but have you heard about Gavin Creel, her leading man? Playing the rakish juvenile opposite a powerhouse is not the easiest assignment in the world, but Mr. Creel aces the assignment in spades (I was never good at cards). He sings like a dream, acts wittily with perfect pitch for the style, alternately conjures Robert Taylor and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, and is charming and amusing and handsome and I'm gaga for him. There, I said it. And happily, the Tony nominating committee agreed with me.

I dreaded the prospect of a Beatrice Lillie replacement all evening, and I wasn't reassured by Harriet Harris's first scene, with her diction hard to decipher (even factoring in the required accent). But she becomes amusing almost immediately, and ends up being hilarious, nailing one particular line in her scene with Sheryl Lee Ralph with a brilliant stroke of timing that brings down the house.

I could go on and on. Mark Kudisch is first-rate, Anne Nathan is a real find (where was she when they did How To Succeed a few years ago?), the two Chinese boys are only perfect. Sheryl Lee Ralph may not be a world-class voice, and may not be the world's most expertly-timed comedienne, but she delivers the songs in high style, and totally won me over with her merry sense of sheer Broadway fun.

Broadway fun? Well, that's the speech, to quote Norman Maine. 

The choreography is far more than appropriate, and far more than just lively steps, which any number of people might have provided -- it's unpredictable and inventive and fun to watch, and the wild office sequence alone would give Susan Stroman a run for her money, and evidently did. Now our lofty downtown critics have all expressed contempt for those energetic smiles in the chorus; but what would you have in a breezy period show, Fosse-style deadpan ominous glares? Or the poorly-dressed, oddball crowd doing their relentless sinister shuffle over at Sweet Smell Of Success? Get a clue, critics -- it's that type of show, and this is a massively attractive and talented bunch of dancers. 

The orchestrations range from the appropriate to the out-of-this-world: "Only In New York" is the most ravishing Broadway orchestration to hit the airwaves in some time.

As for the songs, they range from the appropriate to the memorably tuneful, with a little Clever thrown in there. My only quibbles (and they are merely that, only quibbles): I would have shortened "I Turned The Corner" by one chorus; and I would have given Harriet Harris a stronger hook. Her song of villainy is not unlike "Revenge" from It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman, and it has a few great laugh lines, but its hook is "They Don't Know" -- which we hold to be self-evident. I would have given it some kind of twist; "What They Don't Know -- Will Hurt Them." Or something. I also would have given Harris a musical exit at the end of the show, to guarantee applause, in place of the one-liner that doesn't. But on the whole, Jeanine Tesori's tunes are fun to hear and Dick Scanlan's lyrics likewise, as are the welcome retention of two of the movie songs and some witty interpolations from -- well, you'll see.

Finally, the show is a gorgeous thing to behold. The clothes are ravishing, the sets are ravishing, the lighting is way above Broadway standards. Our carping critics have complained that the set is lit in "garish" colors. Bravo! It's an Emerald City fantasia version of New York as seen through the eyes of a small-towner. Since my first visit to see Mack & Mabel in 1974, I've always thought of New York as my personal Emerald City with Art Deco towers lit up all night, where someday I would move, embark on a bohemian struggle to the Big Time, immediately bump into the love of my life, do a soft shoe on an 80th floor ledge somewhere, and have my Broadway Ice Cream Sundae and eat it too.

So I'm a sucker for Thoroughly Modern Millie -- sue me.

-- Fred Barton, June 9, 2002