When Encores announced it would open its 25th anniversary season with not a resurrected musical but a newly-created revue, many of us had questions. Would there be a theme or organizing principle? If, as was rumored, the chosen shows were on Encores! short-list, did inclusion here signal that they were now off-the-table… or make a full concert production down the road more likely? Most of all, why should a company whose stated mission was resurrecting full musicals settle for a collection of excerpts?
Many of these questions lingered after—and new ones continued to pop up—in an evening that was mostly enjoyable, terrific in some moments, but notably bumpy and inchoate.
Hey, Look Me Over!—as the show conceived by Encores! artistic director, Jack Viertel, was called—certainly began appealingly. Bob Martin of Drowsy Chaperone fame served as an emcee, again evoking his Man in Chair persona as the sniffy musical theater-loving, um, bachelor whose life is devoted to collecting and curating unusual musical theater works. The opening monologue (written by Viertel, I assume, though perhaps by Martin) slyly acknowledged that Encores fans have had their thrills as well as disappointments, and recognized that many subscribers (as Martin described himself) felt they could do a better job. (Busted!) So the performance that followed was presented as a kind of dream assemblage concocted by the Man in Chair himself.
So far, so good. And indeed, for this viewer, certainly, there were exactly the highs-and-lows that Martin alluded to. I’ll try to sum it up, show by show.
First, though, to give some context, you should know that:
- There eight musicals from which full song excerpts were presented. There was also an incidental overture (from Subways are for Sleeping), and a surprise encore (from Miss Liberty), bringing the total to ten.
- It does appear that these shows were (and perhaps still are) on the Encores! possible list, though it’s not clear what that means.
- The shows themselves covered 25 years, from 1949 (Miss Liberty) to 1974 (Mack and Mabel), though the preponderance were from late ‘50s to early ‘60s. I assume the 25 year spread was intentional; the narrower focus probably means nothing.
- There was minimal staging (by director Marc Bruni), but enough to suggest setting and a bit of storyline.
- As usual, Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra provided stellar support—they are indeed one aspect of Encores! that never disappoints.
OK, here goes…
After Martin’s intro, we were off-and-running with a bit of Wildcat, a Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh musical probably best known as Lucille Ball’s Broadway debut, and in many ways exactly the kind of thing Encores! should be doing. It was clear from even a few lines that the book is no masterpiece, but the main song here –“Hey, Look Me Over!” – was a bona fide ‘60s hit, and needs no apology. (Leigh, whose early death robbed us of a truly great lyricist, really was amazing—is there a better lyric than the oh so simple but perfect, “I figure whenever you’re down and out / the only way is up”?) It also didn’t need quite the hard-sell delivery that Carolee Carmello provided, but it was still a delightful moment. Britney Coleman was lovely in the ingenue role. Things were looking rosy.
All American (1962)
The seams started to show early on here. Despite a book by Mel Brooks and a premise that seems very resonant (immigrants arriving in the U. S.), the shards of dialogue from All American failed to present any coherent plot, and the jokes were weak. Three songs melded into a kind of suite, of which one – “Once Upon a Time” – is absolutely magical, and the other two merely space-fillers. Still, that song was certainly reason to cheer. Reed Birney isn’t much of singer (nor was the show’s creator, Ray Bolger), but he was charm itself as the shy Hungarian professor; Judy Kuhn was delightful as his American love interest, her silvery soprano largely untouched by time.
Now this is star! Vanessa Williams, smoking hot in a red evening gown and as regal and diva-ish as ever, knocked it out of the park, channeling Lena Horne as she sang “Ain’t It the Truth,” and (with four chorus dancers) “Push De Button.” Both numbers were certainly among the show’s highpoints, though oddly here there was little sense of the Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg show. This segment looked mostly like a nightclub number, and the interaction with Martin was minimal. (As the show went on, the Man in Chair concept got looser and looser.) I began to wonder if a more straightforward, simpler concert format—as we had here—wasn’t a better solution than the vignettes.
Milk and Honey (1961)
To call this early Jerry Herman show a disappointment is putting it mildly. Some shows are beyond resurrection – this clearly is one, though inexplicably three mediocre songs and a fair amount of dialogue was included. Kuhn and Coleman did what they could, as did Nancy Opel, who attempted to mine comedy gold from material that isn’t even plastic. Mark Kudisch (in iffy voice), Tam Mutu, and Clyde Alves all deserved better, as did the audience. (In case you didn’t know, “Shalom” means hello, goodbye, and—here at least—the minutes fly like hours.)
Mack and Mabel (1974)
I suppose one thing Milk and Honey provided was to throw into focus just how much Jerry Herman learned in 13 years. Mack and Mabel has a truly wonderful score—so why did we get just two songs here – “Movies were Movies” with Douglas Sills, and “Look What Happened to Mabel” with Alexandra Socha, when we got three bad ones from Milk and Honey? Mack absolutely merits a full-scale rescue—but ironically, here it was done a disservice by being shoe-horned into a brief slot, and described as “a musical tragicomedy.” (Way to bring down the room.) Perhaps that’s why both Sills and Socha, who should be nearly ideal for these roles, emerged as driven and frenetic.
Another show, another problem. Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow is schizophrenically divided between grand-vision, wide-ranging ballads of wanderlust; and twee faux-folk Irish-ish novelty songs. (The latter might have had some traction in the days of Brigadoon or Finian’s Rainbow, but by 1960 it must have felt like an exhibition in the Museum of Quaint.) I certainly didn’t need to hear the latter, nor any of the dialogue. (Once again, poor Nancy Opel!) But—the evening’s grandest moment came when Clifton Duncan sang the exceptionally difficult “Never Will I Marry,” and absolutely nailed it.
Sail Away (1961)
In theory, this was the vignette that interested me most. Coward’s musical is flawed, but has effective numbers, and the three featured here—“Come to Me,” “Sail Away,” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?—are the very best of them. Original star Elaine Stritch is, of course, sui generis—but Bebe Neuwirth seemed a clever choice, very much her own persona, but with considerable éclat and a certain appropriately brittle wit.
In the end, I think this was indeed the most interesting section, but not entirely for the reasons I expected. The book sections were tedious. (Another Purple Heart for long-suffering Nancy Opel.) The sparkling title song got a decent but too-contemporary spin from Tam Mutu.
What made this compelling was indeed primarily Neuwirth, whose voice is now a thing of threads and patches, unable to sustain a line or to hit squarely many of the upper notes. But the performance was an astonishing lesson in star acting and managing fragile resources with consummate skill. I was reminded of something I once read about Adelina Patti, who held a fan in her concerts, which she playfully opened and closed to distract listeners from missed notes. With Neuwirth, it was her still-gorgeous legs that crossed and uncrossed as a reminder of her glamorous dancing self (and a distraction from her vocal discomfort); and every phrase was built carefully but brilliantly to hit the punchline. Brava Diva!
The other takeaway for me was a negative one, long in coming, about the essence of Coward wit. “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” is a snobbish inventory of American vulgarity, exactly the kind of thing that, ironically, some Americans seemed to adore Coward for delivering. But—the jokes make hardly any sense: it’s impossible to figure out why some people are dismissed as gauche, while others admired for their taste. What’s left is a sense of Coward himself as so utterly enchanted by his own PR that he thought he could fart and audiences would love it. (Who knows—maybe he was right.)
George M! (1968)
Finally, the finale. A short scene that really served to frame a single number, “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which of course is clever cap for this event. Though it’s nominally from George M., the sequence is very close to the original scene from George M. Cohan’s Little Johnny Jones. Here the number was sung and danced with winning charm by Clyde Alves, bringing the program to a pleasant (if long delayed) end.
I gather that in some performances, Joel Grey—the original George M—participated, but not on Saturday evening. Instead, following the curtain call, we had the Encores! encore—“Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from Miss Liberty, the lyrics a setting of Emma Lazarus’s A New Colossus. The obvious dig at Trump was met with cheers, and it was a touching moment—but would have been more so had the topic of immigration already been introduced in the All American section.
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Sometime before intermission, I started to fantasize… what if the central conceit here had actually been the reality? What if the Man in Chair (or for that matter, Bob Martin) had actually created this evening, rather than Jack Viertel (along with, I’m sure, many others)?
Viertel, who assumed the Artistic Directorship of Encores! in 2000, has done yeoman service for nearly 20 years, during which some of the company’s finest work has taken place. But recent years have been rockier, and an intemperate, unprofessional letter he wrote last season to the New York Times, chastising the paper and a particular critic for the review of Big River, suggested a time-to-go level of crankiness.
More to the point, recent seasons have had some still-terrific projects (The Golden Apple an all-time musical highlight), but also some stagnation. The off-center season isn’t revitalizing things, as I thought it might. (An all-star Assassins was two bad ideas rolled into one.) Yet many excellent candidates for the full Encores treatment are still untouched. Hey, Look Me Over! Is unlikely to be Viertel’s swan-song, but I wonder if a changing of the guard is in order. I think some new vision could really help.
Why yes, that is my way of volunteering—I’ll happily serve as the next Man in Chair, officially or unofficially. Call me.