After reading far too many obituaries claiming, while not exactly mourning, the death of the Broadway musical, insisting that the art form can only be revived by injections of the kind of music that appeals to today's young audiences, I decided to take a night off from cabarets and piano bars a couple of Sundays ago to see what kind of songs were going to save the hallowed grounds of Gershwin, Porter and Rodgers.
Strolling along Bleecker Street, I saw a long line of mostly twentysomethings snaking around the corner where once stood The Village Gate, the club that theatricals cherish as the home of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and where I had indulged in such oddities as The Wonder Years, Mayor and something that I believe was called Strip!, which was sort of like A Chorus Line for ecdysiasts. (As I recall, the first line of that show was, "I can't believe I'm going to take off all my clothes in front of all these people in the second act"; a speech I assume was designed to limit the number of intermission walk-outs.) Contemporary music lovers now call it Le Possion Rogue, a venue that features attractions that carry labels like "world," "indie," "garage band," "fusion," "hip-hop," "electronic" and "funk," but never "showtune."
So imagine my surprise when the lights went down and standing in front of a mic was musical theatre charmer Kate Wetherhead belting Bob Merrill's 1967 Henry, Sweet Henry, showstopper, "Nobody Steps On Kafritz"; written by a man who composed music on a toy xylophone and whose best-selling song was "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window." Next was stage and cabaret funnyman, Todd Buonopane making merry with that off-kilter tango from Subways Are For Sleeping, "I Just Can't Wait Till I See You With Clothes On." Both were enthusiastically received and before the evening was over it was clear to me that in order to bring the young, hip audiences of today to Broadway, producers need to offer more scores by Jule Styne, Comden & Green, Kander & Ebb, Galt MacDermot, Maltby & Shire Alfred Uhry and the Stephens, Schwartz and Sondheim.
Okay, so maybe I'm stretching the truth a little. The fact is that I knew darn well I'd be attending the third edition of If It Only Even Runs A Minute, the concert series created, produced and hosted by Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Kevin Michael Murphy, with music direction by Caleb Hoyer (all of them seem about an arm's length from their college commencement), that has musical theatre knowns and not-so-knowns celebrating the music and lyrics from shows that, as they say in baseball, stayed for a cup of coffee on Broadway.
To be clear, this was not one of those "Hit Songs From Flop Shows" events. Nearly all the material presented was of the character developing/plot advancing ilk - far better appreciated in their proper contexts than on the radio - such as Hot Spot's "Don't Laugh" (performed with loveable, self-effacing humor by Samantha Martin) and Working's "Millwork" (sung with lovely folky sincerity by Francesca Garrard, accompanying herself on guitar),
Proving that children sometimes do appreciate their parents' music Jacey Powers was adorably self-conscious as a grade school tyke lamenting her fate in "Little Fat Girls" from Do Black Patent Leather Shoses Really Reflect Up?; a show she literally owes her life to since her father, John R. Powers (who wrote both the musical's book and its source novel) met her mother, actress JaNelle Meyers, in the original (and very successful) pre-Broadway Chicago run. Alex Wyse was equally adorable as the little boy who helps her gain confidence simply by showing affection.
Sitting to the side throughout the evening, Tepper and Murphy provided tidbits of information about each show; like how the chorus of Subways Are For Sleeping included 20-year-old Valerie Harper and 19-year-old Michael Bennett, or how the producer of Working boasted that every member of the cast had experience in the jobs of the characters they were portraying, "except the prostitute." Seated behind a laptop, they share photos from original (actually, only) Broadway productions with an infectiously cool geekiness. This was especially apparent when chatting about the career of Russ Thacker, who appeared in six Broadway productions which totaled only 19 performances. (Will Roland offered a very amusing rendition of the adolescent fantasy, "Floozies," which Thacker introduced in his biggest hit - 7 performances! - The Grass Harp.)
Tales of their first-hand experiences appearing in troubled musicals were humorously detailed by Frank Vlastnik (who understudied the lead in Big) and Krysta Rodriguez, (who understudied both female leads, not to mention the pivotal role of "Bikini Girl," in Good Vibrations).
"There's nothing as cold as Detroit in January without a first act closer," explained Vlastnik, who sang from all four numbers that at one time or another were penned to lead to Big's intermission. With her show, Rodriguez told how they couldn't come up with an ending. Attempts included a bit where the entire company would maneuver a giant hula-hoop and a concept centered on throwing beach balls in the air in slow motion. (Gravity kinda put an end to that one.) Liz Larsen, with her usual showbiz moxie, revealed how she was involved with Starmites for ten years before its seven and a half weeks on Broadway; then regaled the crowd by socking it to the bad guys in "Superhero Girl."
Michael Rupert spoke warmly of his Broadway debut, playing the nephew of Robert Goulet and the grandson of David Wayne in The Happy Time, and of how an act of generosity on his part - offering his sheet music to an unprepared competitor - seemed so like something his character would do that it helped him win the role. The nostalgic tenderness with which he sang the show's title waltz and its most poignant ballad, "Walking Among My Yesterdays," was truly beautiful.
"There are no bad musicals," Tepper explained. "There are musicals that you love and there are musicals that other people love." As one who counts Onward, Victoria, Dance A Little Closer and Charlie and Algernon among his happier times sitting in a Broadway theatre, I can understand the sentiment. Hey, how about including numbers from those in If It Only Even Runs A Minute, editions 4 & 5?
Photos by Monica Simoes: Top: Kate Wetherhead; Center: Kevin Michael Murphy and Jennifer Ashley Tepper (background: Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline in The Robber Bridegroom); Bottom: Alex Wyse and Jacey Powers.
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