Forgotten Musicals Friday: ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

It’s not often that you look back at a forgotten musical, even when it comes to many of the most notorious flops, and can see very clearly why it is has been forgotten, why it flopped – or both. All American is precisely such a musical. Although the original cast recording of the show has been in my CD collection for the better part of two decades, I’d only really listened to it once before hauling it out so that All American could be this Friday’s Forgotten Musical – and now that it’s had a couple of spins, it probably won’t come off the shelf for another listen anytime soon.

My memory from listening to All American all those years ago is that it had great music, but that pretty much everything else was dispensable. Returning to it now, the music by Charles Strouse still seems to be the strongest ingredient of the piece. The lyrics, by Lee Adams, also seem to contribute a great deal to the mix, but there was something about them that made me hesitant. By the time I hit “It’s Fun to Think”, I was convinced that the lyrics weren’t well matched to the narrative. Two tracks later, “Nightlife” left me without the shadow of a doubt that this was the case. The song is sung by Susan, a character that recalls Kim in the Strouse and Adams’s earlier collaboration, Bye Bye Birdie. Both characters want more than the limitations her mundane confinement allows; in Susan’s case, it is because she has been gated for trying to sneaking into the men’s dormitories. Fine. But when Susan starts singing about Cole Porter and wanting the beguine to begin to a tune that might have represented hip theatre music a decade earlier, the piece starts to damn itself as a piece of storytelling within the context of the musical as a whole. A pity, because taken on its own terms, it’s a fine song.

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

This kind of rift intensifies when the score is paired with what’s going on in the plot. Fashioned by Mel Brooks from Robert Lewis Taylor’s novel Professor Fodorski, the narratives seems to grate up against the score, and everything seems to take a turn for the worse in the second act, for which director Joshua Logan crafted the book. Everyone on the creative team seems to lose track completely of what they are trying to say and the way in which they are trying to say it. What is most peculiar about this inconsistency is that Strouse and Adams were so in step with the milieu in which they were writing just a couple of years earlier that they were able not only to dramatise situations and attitudes contemporary to the time in Bye Bye Birdie, but also to satirise them. In All American, they are are so out of touch that the generation gap between the professors and their college students barely exists. It’s ironic then, that the it was in fact the generation gap between the writers and the director, Josh Logan, that seems to be most commonly attributed to the failure of the show. Strouse comments:

Josh was from a different generation, he looked at America, college, the youth culture in ways that were different from ours. Many times, later on, he told me he felt he had put his finger into the show the wrong way. He had seen it in more of the flesh and blood realities of the characters than we had, and, because of that, their physicality became more important than the satirical point of view we had initially envisioned.

Anita Gillette, Ron Husmann, Eileen Hurlie and Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Anita Gillette, Ron Husmann, Eileen Hurlie and Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

To backtrack a little, maybe it is worth mentioning the plot of All American at this point. Professor Stanislaus Fodorski is a Hungarian immigrant, recently arrived in the United States to teach in the science faculty at the Southern Baptist Institute of Technology. Fodorski soon marks his mark, teaching engineering by comparing it to football, which in turn benefits from being approached scientifically. Fodorski finds himself attracted to the Dean of the college, Elizabeth Hawkes-Bullock, while the show’s secondary romance follows two of the students, Susan Thompson and Ed Bricker.

The similarities to Bye Bye Birdie are obvious, with two romances – an older couple  and a younger one – built around popular obsessions of the time in both shows. But here, Strouse and Adams found themselves with Brooks and Logan instead of their Bye Bye Birdie collaborators, Michael Stewart and Gower Champion, whose path had diverged from that of their colleagues when they had decided to work with Bob Merrill in Carnival! the previous season. It’s an object lesson if ever there were one about how important it is to find the right collaborators and to do whatever it takes to make sure that everyone is working on the same musical.

Youthful antics in ALL AMERICAN

Youthful antics in ALL AMERICAN

What All American is able to offer, if a cohesive musical is nowhere to be found, is a couple of great songs, notably “We Speak the Same Language”, “Once Upon a Time”, the abovementioned “Nightlife” and “I’ve Just Seen Her”. “What a Country!” uses a distractingly similar hook to “It’s a Scandal! It’s a Outrage!” from Oklahoma!, but the lyrics are still fun. These are all preserved on the cast recording featuring a strained performance by Ray Bolger and the intolerable vocals of Eileen Hurlie om the one hand, and the very agreeable delivery of the Ed and Susan’s songs by Ron Husmann and Anita Gillette on the other. In fact, if nothing else, the cast recording reveals how skewed the balance is between the two plots: Ed and Susan should be more prominent in the score. Consequently, the cast recording is not one that prompts the thought, “What went wrong?” The flaws of All American make themselves felt very clearly on disc. Other thoughts? “Physical Fitness” sounds a bit like something Leonard Bernstein might have chucked out of Wonderful Town and “It’s Fun to Think” seems like something that could slot into a Rodgers and Hart musical from the 1930s. But what can you do?

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

Ray Bolger in ALL AMERICAN

So the big question: is All American fixable? Well, I think it offers as good a case for a ‘revisal’ as any, and at least the three writers are still with us, even if the youngest of them is 86 years old. If all three were robust enough to take on the task, I don’t see why they shouldn’t. Except, of course, the men who saw youth culture for what it was in the 1960s will see things through different eyes, which might leave us back at square one. Maybe the easiest fix would be to shift the 1960s setting to post-World War II and to tweak things from there. Could All American be reinvented a glorious 1940s-styled period piece? Who knows? I guess only a full production would reveal the answer, and I’d be willing to give it a shot.

To close off, here’s a recording of what most people consider to be the hit song of the show – but which of course was a trunk song from ten years earlier that eventually found its home in All American. On the cast recording, you have to suffer through Bolger and Herlie’s vocals and be able to look past them to find any beauty in the song, so here’s Frank Sinatra crooning “Once Upon a Time” in a way that lets the song speak for itself.

While you’re listening, why not share some of your own thoughts about All American in the comment box below. I’d love to hear your opinions!

Posted in Forgotten Musicals Friday | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE SATURDAY LIST: Ten Love Songs by Lerner and Loewe

Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

This Saturday has caught me in a romantic mood once again, and it has been a while since I compiled a list that focuses on a specific musical theatre writing team. I thought perhaps a list of ten of my favourite love songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe might be in order. Lerner is by no means by favourite lyricist – as regular readers of my blog will know – but he has earned his place in the musical theatre canon, although I don’t think he can ever match up to the likes of Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim. I even called Lerner the Tim Rice of his day once, which still holds true to a large extent for me. Perhaps Lerner would have had a better time in the heyday of musical comedy, when he would have not been required to craft his lyrics so specifically to character and situation, because it’s almost always in those aspects that his lyrics fall short. I guess my point is that I don’t believe he was always as meticulous as he should have been given the era in which he was writing. But that’s opening up a whole can of worms into which I don’t really want to delve today, so let’s just jump into the love songs of Lerner and Loewe. Oh – and by the way, this is a countdown list, so I’ll be working towards my favourite as the list continues.

10. “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady

The bottom spot on this list was either going to belong to this song, or to “I Talk to the Trees” from Paint Your Wagon. But even though the lyric of “On the Street Where You Live” is flawed, it at least has a a winning accompaniment that doesn’t push into ideologically shaky territory by using generic rhythms to indicate cultural heritage, as Loewe does in “I Talk to the Trees” by associating generic Latin American rhythms as a character marker for Julio. (“I Talk to the Trees” has its own fair share of lyrical transgressions too, making ample use of purple imagery.) As for “On the Street Where You Live”, Lerner would have been better off if he had he written something like:

People stop and stare; I don’t care at all –
For there’s nowhere else in town that could compare at all

– and thought up something different for the ending. At least that way, we wouldn’t have to suffer through that truly awful ‘bother me’/’rather be’ rhyme that is second only to the suggestion that Eliza should be taken out and hung, like a drape, for her transgressions against the English language.

9. “How Can I Wait?” from Paint Your Wagon

Numbers when people dance with other people’s clothes make for good romance it seems. It worked here in it would work when Disney staged “Once Upon a Dream” in Sleeping Beauty. There’s a kind of uninhibitedness about this kind of expression through imaginative and transgressive role play that makes the emotions felt, in this case by Jennifer, feel completely convincing in the world of Paint Your Wagon.

8. “I Loved You Once In Silence” – Camelot

This song comes late in Camelot and the tendency is to take the tempo a little more “up” than it should be. Although this perhaps makes sense towards the end of a long show, it’s a song that needs space to land dramatically. It’s a key moment for Guenevere, balancing her first number, “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and needs to reflect the development of her character since the top of the show. Bouncing the number along doesn’t help that cause. But Camelot is that most frustrating kind of musical, the flawed masterpiece, a show with a huge emotional impact that seems never quite to have found its best form.

7. “The Heather On The Hill” from Brigadoon

There’s something so seductive about this song, sung in Brigadoon by Tommy and Fiona as they gather heather for Charlie and Jean’s wedding. We all know that Fiona’s been ‘waiting for [her] dearlie’ and here, it seems, he is. I’ve loved this song since the first moment I heard it in a revue in which I performed in 1997. That led me to seek out Brigadoon, a show which has always appealed to me more in idea than in execution, although I’ve come to like it more as they years have passed. But however I feel about the show, I’ll always adore this song.

6. “If Ever I Would Leave You” from Camelot

If love is timeless, then this is a song that does its best to capture that sentiment. Lancelot’s thoughts on how he could never leave Guenevere at any time of the year are accompanied by a seductive melody. With a set of lush orchestrations, it’s time to swoon. Yet there’s a curious shallowness that keeps this song from creeping up higher on my list. The song always makes love feel so full of promise and possibility, but there’s an emptiness that remains once it’s gone. Perhaps the kind of love here is a romantic ideal of courtly romance, an idea of love rather than love itself. I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. Any ideas?

5. There But For You Go I – Brigadoon

Sometimes the biggest battle of being in love is admitting that you are. This song is one of the big moments in Brigadoon, but it so often turns out being a big blustery ballad and I think that is why it passed me by for a long time. Enter Robert Goulet and his understated and beautifully acted interpretation of the song – and now the song is something that is haunting, compelling and something that you want to admit someday, no matter how difficult it might be.

4. “Gigi” from Gigi

I discovered this song long before I discovered the film, as a youngster playing songs that I found in the seat of our piano stool. Besides its simply enchanting melody, I think something in this song immediately connected with me. I often feel quite funny and awkward, as Gigi is described as having been, and I think that I also wanted – and still want – someone to see past that and love me the way that Gaston realises he loves Gigi in this song.

3. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from My Fair Lady

Some people will argue that My Fair Lady is not a love story, but they’re most likely confusing it with its source material. Pygmalion is not a love story; My Fair Lady is. The ending has something to do with it, so do other key moments in the score and certainly this song does too. Sometimes love is hard to express. Sometimes the expression is restrained. That’s what makes “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” so moving. It holds back what is there. But those who deny that it’s there would have a difficult time convincing me that it’s not.

2. “How To Handle a Woman” – Camelot

“How To Handle a Woman” is a song that is, in fact, about how to handle anyone you love. Love them. That also means putting aside things like your job, so that you can have the time to love them. It means being passionate about them. It means engaging with them, and loving them actively. Arthur doesn’t quite get it right in the end, but hopefully we aren’t all destined for a tragedy of classical proportions. And hopefully, we know that trying to get it right means getting it wrong sometimes. We’re all flawed, and getting that across is a huge part of what makes Lerner and Loewe’s take on Camelot so effective.

1. “I Could Have Danced All Night” – My Fair Lady

The My Fair Lady naysayers may come after me with fire and pitchforks now, but that’s probably not going to change my mind that this is my number one love song by Lerner and Loewe. In Shaw’s Pygmalion, Eliza would be buoyed by her mastery of the English language. Here it is the moment, she says, ‘when he began to dance with me’. Capturing Ebiza’s ebullience in the moment of the recognition that it is the connection made between herself and Higgins as a result of her mastery of the English language is what shifts “I Could Have Danced All Night” into love song territory. And no matter where it ends, that first moment of joy is unique.

So that’s my list for today. Which Lerner and Loewe love songs you would choose for yours? Any that you’re passionate about that didn’t make my list? I’d love hear about them via the comment box below.

Posted in The Saturday List | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE YEARLING


Artwork for THE YEARLING

My choice for today’s “Forgotten Musicals Friday” is a musical that, for no obvious reason, captured my imagination: The Yearling. It has no commercial recording and even though Barbra Streisand was a champion of the score in the early years of her career, one doesn’t really read much about the show in general. Nonetheless, The Yearling is a musical that pops into my head every now and then, so I thought it was time to dedicate a column to it.

Based on The Yearling by Marjorie Kennan Rawlings, the show had a book and lyrics by Herbert Martin and music by Michael Leonard. Martin shared credit for the book with show’s producer, Lore Noto. The original Broadway production of The Yearling opened on 10 December 1965, with the show’s closing for it’s 3-performance run already having been announced. It was directed by Lloyd Richards, with choreography by Ralph Beaumont. Some think that perhaps with a better director, the show itself will have been better; others tell tales of how the show ran out of money and couldn’t afford to run long enough to catch on with audiences. Both stories seem like reasonably valid options.

At the heart of The Yearling is a a twelve-year old boy named Jody, who lives with his struggling family. His parents, Penny and Ora, face their hardships as best they can, even though at the top of the show things are looking particularly difficult for them with a a bear having killed their sow. Jody longs for a pet deer and circumstances eventually line up so that he is able to raise a motherless fawn. A year later, when the fawn eats the family’s new crops, Jody is fold to kill the yearling, an order that brings about the climax of the show.

The original Broadway cast of THE YEARLING

The original Broadway cast of THE YEARLING

When asked, people who saw the show will tell you they liked the score, which I’ve heard described as both lovely, pleasant and even well-crafted. Some complain that the score doesn’t reflect its rural 1870s setting well, but many musicals evoking milieu by filtering songs in popular contemporary forms through arrangements and orchestrations. Maybe, if The Yearling were ever staged in a high profile production again, that might be a fixable problem. A score that features a song that Stephen Sondheim listed as a song he wishes he had written can’t be all bad. If you’re keen to have a listen to that little gem from this score, scroll down to the YouTube playlist at the end of this post, where you can hear it performed in versions by Streisand and, in an even jazzier version, by Greta Matassa. Neither arrangement really reflects the setting of the show, but as neither is being presented in the context of the show itself, I suppose we can’t be too concerned by that here.

My favourite song from the score is one that has become something of a standard, “Why Did I Choose You?”. Although some might try and direct you to Barbara Cook’s performance of the song in concert, for me it doesn’t get better than Streisand singing the song in her first television special. (Both, as well as several other versions of the song are featured in the YouTube playlist below.)

Although there have been rumours flying around the Internet for some time about a full recording of the show being made, the only easy way to hear these songs is in versions recorded by artists who were moved enough by the material to interpret them on their own recordings. Every now and then, a song also turns up on a compilation album like Unsung Musicals II (which includes “Everything in the World I Love”). While there is a live recording done by the producers for a private LP pressing as well as a recording of several songs from the show done for a radio show, these aren’t readily available for ordinary folk like me to hear.

Getting back to the show, those same people who praise the score will also tell you that the book was flawed, even dull, and that, perhaps, the material was not suitable for (what they think should be a good premise for) a musical. I’m more likely to give credence to that former point than to the latter; the musical is such a versatile medium, even more so these days than in the past. Maybe in a post-War Horse world, there’s merit in seeing if the show can be done without a live deer, as in the original production. It might be the key to telling the story in an evocative, contemporary manner that makes the piece compelling in a way that perhaps it wasn’t in 1965.

Keen to share any thoughts or memories about The Yearling? Head to the comment box below. I’d love to hear them!

Posted in Forgotten Musicals Friday | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Monday Meditation: I’m Over Being Concerned About What Musicals I Should Like

Ruthie Henshall as Marian Halcombe, Alexandra Silber as Laura Fairlie and Damian Humbley as Walter Hartright in THE WOMAN IN WHITE

Ruthie Henshall as Marian Halcombe, Alexandra Silber as Laura Fairlie and Damian Humbley as Walter Hartright in THE WOMAN IN WHITE

Have you ever read one of those polls on a musical theatre forum asking what your guilty pleasures are? I always struggle to participate in threads like those because I really do find worth in even the worst musicals. It’s possible to learn just as much – and sometimes even more – about musicals from a bad musical as from a great one. If I don’t like a particular musical, I simply don’t engage it with as often. And if I like a musical, I don’t really feel the need to apologise for my feelings. After all, liking a musical is a very different thing from commenting on its artistic success: the former is simply linked to one’s opinion; the latter has a foundation in technique, which makes the discussion far more complicated. As Stephen Sondheim wrote, in a lyric that I’m particularly fond of quoting in this regard: ‘Nice is different than good.’

So. Some confessions then.

Although I’m not supposed to like The Woman in White, I think it has a great deal more to offer than meets the eye, particularly when you come at it from the angle that what Andrew Lloyd Webber is doing is creating an atmospheric piece in the style of Benjamin Britten and that musically, the show largely achieves this. (That doesn’t make the lyrics any better, but it does keep drawing me back to the musical to see what it has to offer.)

Laura Bell Bundy in LEGALLY BLONDE

Laura Bell Bundy in LEGALLY BLONDE

Although many musical buffs lament the adaptations of movies into musicals, I just can’t get enough of Legally Blonde. It’s pretty much a 21st-century take on Jerry Herman musicals like Hello, Dolly! and Mame and offers, I think, equal pleasure.

And although it’s verboten to show any love whatsoever for jukebox musicals, I really enjoyed Mamma Mia! and think it is more intelligent theatrically than most people expect and it’s certainly a cut above the more dreckish attempts and crafting a show around a particular artist’s songbook. We Will Rock You, anyone?

Those are only three of many shows that convention says I shouldn’t like. But so what? Convention can’t dictate what I like or not, nor can it for you, dear reader. Perhaps you can use today to celebrate the musicals that others might force you to call guilty pleasures. I know I’m going to!

This post is inspired by and a response to “I’m Over Being Concerned About What I Shouldn’t Do” in Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That and Other Confessions.

Posted in Monday Meditation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musical Theatre Sunday School: Comfort in Times of Trouble

Julie Andrews sings the title song in THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Julie Andrews sings the title song in THE SOUND OF MUSIC

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve looked at some of the fundamentals of musical theatre, and of course we’ll return to those and to others in due course. This week, I thought our reflection could focus on how musicals can bring us comfort in times of trouble. Whether we’re fans of new or old musicals, one thing we’re always faced with is someone who is ready to lash out at a musical that has sentimental value to us – especially as we make our way around the Internet – who seek to diminish our connection with that musical.

Arguments on message boards tend to become heated around musicals like that hold this kind of place in people’s hearts. In the heat of the moment, people tend to forget that a musical being well written is not always the same thing as a musical being one you like. Keeping the two separate and remembering from which side you’re approaching the discussion makes for first prize discussions. But as we all know, it’s not always that simple. And that’s just representative of the discussions we have with people who think musicals have any worth whatsoever! So I’d like to start off by offering this reflection in grace and peace and hopefully it won’t lead to any arguments later down the line. Let’s be compassionate towards each other and acknowledge, when we can, that there’s a difference between – as Stephen Sondheim put it – what is “nice” and what is “good” and that the overlap may or may not be all that great between the two.

The Reality of Comfort Music(als)

I think that we would all accept that music is a huge source of comfort. If theatre is a mirror to reality, then I think it is a fair assumption that we might easily struggle characters in musicals who are sorrowing and troubled who find in music. The comfort of music helps them to face their difficulties. Some examples might include:

  • the title song in The Sound of Music, which brings Maria peace as she wanders in the mountains singing her song and which brings the family together after she has taught the song to the children and “My Favourite Things”, which is used both by the Mother Abbess and the children when trying to find a way through seemingly impossible circumstances;
  • “Moonshine Lullaby” in Annie Get Your Gun, which Annie sings as a lullaby to the children, but also to soothe the wonderful, bittersweet ache she feels having fallen in love with Frank, knowing that she is not the kind of woman he is aiming to marry;
  • “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”, which the orphans in Annie sing to lift their spirits and, possibly, “Maybe” if we consider at least part of it to be some kind of lullaby;
  • “Married”, which settles the jitters that September romances bring to Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz in Cabaret; and
  • “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, a hymn known by Nettie and the community in Carousel, the words of which Julie has used in a sampler, that is used twice in the show to give peace to one of the characters.

Some of those songs are ones that I find very comforting and cathartic myself. There are others of course, and we all have songs like those to which we return from time to time. I would so like for you to share some of yours with me in the comment box. Sharing our love for musical theatre is one way of helping the art form we know to grow and develop and to advance our understanding and appreciation of the genre we all love so dearly – at least as much as our heated debates can do! Sometimes its great to take a moment to share the things we like, because perhaps we might see something we never saw before in a show we disregarded or a score we thought we disliked.

Posted in Musical Theatre Sunday School | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE SATURDAY LIST: Ten Great Musical Theatre Dates

Nathan Gunn and Kelli O' Hara in CAROUSEL

Nathan Gunn and Kelli O’ Hara in CAROUSEL

Nobody I know enjoys dating. In fact, everyone I know who is married or in a stable relationship reminds me constantly about how glad they are that they don’t have to date anymore. Of course, that seems to indicate that bad dates come around more often than good dates. But experience tells us that there are good dates to be had. And so do musicals. So let’s take a look at ten great musical theatre dates.

1. Carousel

The bench scene in Carousel is a landmark scene in musical theatre history, owing to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s seamless integration of scene and song. But it’s also a great date, and probably the high point of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan’s relationship. While blossoms are fall and stars twinkle, Billy and Julie can’t help but wondering what would happen if they loved one another, having already lost their hearts to one another.

2. South Pacific

South Pacific starts off with a great date. Nellie Forbush is visiting Emile de Becque. She is a naive US Navy nurse and he is a worldly French plantation owner. Having met on the island in the South Pacific where Nellie is stationed, Emile wines and dines the young nurse and in the blink of an eye, she’s gone from being “A Cockeyed Optimist” to understanding just about everything “Some Enchanted Evening” can provide. Of course, they have a whole lot of Nellie’s ingrained racism to work through, but if anything can shift your beliefs that the world isn’t what you thought it was, it’s a war.

3. Guys and Dolls

Sarah Brown doesn’t know what’s waiting in store for her in Havana. On the arm of Sky Masterson, she falls in love for the first time to the sound of some pulsating Latin American rhythms. Loosened up after knocking back a few Dulce de Leches, she even survives a bar brawl and comes up singing about what she would do if she were a bell. The film version jettisons the subsequent lush and heady “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” in favour of a new song by Frank Loesser, “A Woman in Love”, which has its own merits, but would never work in the stage show. This has to be one of the greatest nights out for a couple in the musical theatre canon.

4. The King and I

Rodgers and Hammerstein were great at date nights, it seems. In The King and I, things get going at a ball hosted by the King of Siam for some British visitors who are in dire need of being convinced that the his country is not not a barbaric one. Mrs Anna Leonowens dances with Sir Edward Ramsay at the ball, which puts the King’s nose out of joint – but only long enough for him to convince her that he needs to learn the polka. Before you can say count to “and”, the ballroom is brimming with sexual tension as Mrs Anna confronts her desire for what post-colonialists would term the “erotic exotic”. What a pity it is when the King’s guards arrive with Tuptim just as things are about to get interesting.

5. West Side Story

He’s just met a girl named “Maria”, but that doesn’t stop Tony from calling at her home and climbing up her fire escape for a late-night rendezvous. Maria doesn’t mind, of course, because she’s the Juliet to his Romeo and they don’t know what lies in store for them yet. For now, the giddiness of “Tonight” will suffice. Admit it, you’d also be seduced if there were are ‘suns and moons all over the place’. Like Stephen Sondheim himself, you might not admit that ‘the world is just an address’ (cringe) that was ‘no better than all right’ (cringe) – but at least Leonard Bernstein’s soaring music might distract you from that rather awkward analogy.

6. Gypsy

Sometimes you have to wait for the kids to disappear so that you can get some quality time in with your lover. So when June and Louise run upstairs to put on their night cream, Rose and Herbie are left behind. First, they fight a little, then they dance a little, music courtesy of Jule Styne. But they happy to accept – as Rose dictates to Herbie – that “You’ll Never Get Away From Me”, lyrics courtesy of Sondheim. And then they take home all of the silverware.

7. The Fantasticks

“Try to Remember” a time when you didn’t know what love was yet, and you’ll remember a time when you went on a date that your parents expressly forbade you to go on. You probably didn’t sing out a “Metaphor” that was a fantastic parody of operetta and musical theatre love scenes, but you probably do remember how you felt on that night, filled with the anticipation of true love’s kiss and the thrill of forbidden love. That’s what Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones capture in this classic scene from The Fantasticks, which despite being a tiny show manages to give you two dates for the price of one! I’d tell you more about the second, but I have to run to a hideway with my secret love, because “Soon It’s Gonna Rain”.

8. Beauty and the Beast

Love at first sight was not to be for Belle and the Beast. In fact, it takes quite a bit of manoeuvring for them to get to the night of their big date, when Belle dons her iconic golden dress and the Beast dresses up and the two dance to the sound of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s title song. The journey to that moment takes much longer in the shamelessly padded stage version of the almost perfect film, but when Mrs Potts toots a ‘tale as old as time’ through her spout, it’s time for some first class romance.


There’s only one couple really worth rooting for in RENT, and that’s Angel and Collins. Roger and Mimi have to bear the brunt of being the hetero-normative, show thesis crushing centre of Jonathan Larson’s musical and Maureen and Joanne’s on-again off-again dynamic gets a bit tiresome, even if they do get a fabulous break-up song. There’s nothing quite as moving as Angel’s funeral in the second act and as Collins sings his eulogy, a ballad version of their date song, “I’ll Cover You”, you realise just how profound their love was. And it’s all because of that first, joyful, effervescent version of the song. That’s all a date has to be: coat-shopping and one helluva tune.

10. Dogfight

Here’s an example of a first date that goes really, really badly. What at first seems ‘nothing short of wonderful’ soon turns out to be anything but, when Rose realises that Eddie has brought her to a dogfight, where the marine with the ugliest date wins the pot. But, this being drama – and one with a fantastic score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, that sets things up for reconciliation and redemption, and so we get “First Date/Last Night”, which is self-conscious and endearing and everything else you’d expect a real first date to be.

So there are ten of my picks for great musical theatre dates. How about you head down to the comments box and share some of yours?

Posted in The Saturday List | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musical Theatre Sunday School: Divine Integration

Boq and Nessa in WICKED

WICKED’s Boq and Nessa proving it is possible to woo successfully with clunky lyrics

There are three separate elements of divine integration in musical theatre: the book, the music and the lyrics. For most people, understanding technique when it comes to book and lyrics is more concrete, while the understanding of musical techniques tends to be more abstract and grounded in an emotional or spiritual response. It’s easy to spot bum rhyme in a lyric (‘Listen – Nessa / Yes? / Uh – Nessa / I’ve got something to confess, a / reason why, well – / why I asked you here tonight’), but just what is wrong with “Defying Gravity” when it makes teenage girls the world over feel so good about themselves?

For many followers of musical theatre, this opens up an all too easy gap whereby all responses to musicals are deemed subjective. It is in the understanding of musical theatre technique and in the construction of a critical framework based on that understanding that objectivity in evaluating a musical’s success or failure can arise. As conventions shift over time, what was good once might appear less so now, and what was once considered repellent might today be viewed as ahead of its time. In the 1920s, for example, a great score was what was primarily needed for a musical to be considered great, so while lyrics received considerable attention, the books did not. So while we might not be seeing full scale, unrevised productions of Lady Be Good or Oh, Kay! today, “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” still pop up in concert repertoires and jukebox musicals based on the Gershwin songbook. Conversely, a show like Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Pal Joey earned mixed reviews for its initial production in 1940, but really started getting street cred in the following decade when audiences could accept an anti-hero as the protagonist in a musical.

Richard Rodgers

Richard Rodgers – undoubtedly a great composer, but what is it that makes his music better than Burton Lane’s?

So maybe the challenge for the week is to go and learn about one technical aspect related to the craft of writing the book, music or lyrics of a musical and to think about it in relation to your favourite musicals. Try to get objective about your subjectivity, and then see what comes of that.

Although the three parts aiming for divine integration in musical theatre are distinct art forms with distinct roles, they are one in purpose. They are perfectly united in bringing to pass the possibility of a great musical. And there are many: South Pacific, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Follies, The Wild Party and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder are just some of the great musicals we’ll all be watching and listening to for years to come.

Posted in Musical Theatre Sunday School, Theatremaking, Theory and Practice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment