Channel-surfing brought me to a program that started me thinking and made me disagree with what it had to say.
It was a first-season episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE called “A Nice Place to Visit.”
Small-time crook Rocky is shot while attempting a robbery. When he awakens, he’s surprised that he’s alive.
A genial gentleman named Pip comes by and offers him whatever he wants.
The key word is anything – literally anything. Rocky can have, as Max Bialystock would say, “Wine, women and song – and women.”
Our anti-hero gets all this and more, including never-ending luck in a casino. He now realizes that he died and went to heaven (although he doesn’t understand how, given his background and rap-sheet). But he’s not complaining.
Not at first, anyway. Rocky is soon bored with non-stop success and comforts to the point where he asks to be taken from heaven and brought to “the other place.”
(Don’t you love the use of the phrase “the other place”? Wouldn’t a street-rat use the word “hell”? Not in a 1960 network episode, he wouldn’t.)
Pip tells him, “This IS the other place.” Moral of the story: endlessly getting what you want can be hell.
Oh, really? If that’s what hell is, sign me up. I wouldn’t be bored. And I bet that you, dear reader, who’s equally interested in musical theater wouldn’t be, either.
There’d be so many benefits. You wouldn’t need to arise in the wee small hours of the morning to get in a line for rush tickets or rush to get to the theater on time. The show wouldn’t start until you were good and ready.
How many times have you wavered about seeing a show, wondering if it’d be worth the money, deciding against it, and then, after it had closed, sure you’d made the wrong decision? In “the other place,” to get a good seat to a Broadway musical, you wouldn’t have to count your pennies – 20,000 of them or more – because you’d get in free. (Oh, what a word!)
Best of all, you’d thrill to the performances and shows that were produced before you were born or when you were too young to see them. Whenever I ask musical theater fans what they’d attend if a time machine were invented, the number one answer is Ethel Merman in GYPSY. And who says that they’d want to see her and that original ornate production only once?
Haven’t you seen your favorite shows numerous times? Wouldn’t you have attended even more if you’d had the money or time? Unlike The Madam in the 1976 film THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, who insists “I Never Do Anything Twice,” I do — and that includes listening to that brilliant song that Sondheim wrote for that movie.
(Thank you, SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM.)
So, catch a performance of PURLIE early in the week of March 8, 1970, and then one later in the week to see how the new song for Melba Moore – “I Got Love” – changed the show’s fortunes.
Don’t you listen to certain scores or songs over and over again? In the days of vinyl, people would say “I played that record so much that I wore it out.” Well, if vinyl fans were in “the other place” now, they could listen to albums ranging from AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ to THE ZULU AND THE ZAYDA whenever the hell they pleased, and the vinyl would never wear out.
Try the recordings you’ve never heard. Did THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY deserve to run more than just 12 weeks? Did CHRISTINE deserve to run more than just 12 performances? Now you could offer an informed opinion.
But seeing the performances would really be the big thrill day after day after day after day. Judge for yourself if MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG deserved to fail the first time around. See HAIR and A CHORUS LINE on their opening nights off-Broadway; then you could compare and contrast the differences when each musical moved to Broadway.
Barbara Harris won the Tony for THE APPLE TREE in her final Broadway appearance. Wouldn’t you like to see her as well as Alan Alda in this penultimate Bock and Harnick musical? Sondheim said that he considered Alda’s performance as one of the greatest he’d ever seen a musical actor give. And while we’re at it, let’s see Sondheim’s other choice for Best Actor in a Musical: Alfred Drake in KISMET.
So how bad was Julie Andrews in MY FAIR LADY before Moss Hart stopped rehearsing the rest of the company, took her aside, and worked with her much of the day and night to get her where she needed to be? Let’s see those rehearsals, those early New Haven and Philadelphia performances, and watch her grow.
Let’s go to 1945 and witness when 15-year-old Stevie Sondheim arrives at Oscar Hammerstein’s summer house, anxious to hear what his mentor will think of the musical he’s just completed. Sondheim often said that, although Hammerstein judged his first-ever attempt as utterly terrible, “I really learned more about musical theater in one afternoon than most people learn in a lifetime.”
Such resulting Sondheim shows as COMPANY and SWEENEY TODD will last many lifetimes. You could revisit them and others as often as you’d like in your endless lifetimes. FOLLIES IN CONCERT only played two nights, but now you could see it every night. And considering what that album reveals, you’d want to.
Who’d be your favorite Dolly? Carol Channing? Mary Martin? Pearl Bailey? Bette Midler? See them all in a row, or pace yourself over four nights. After all, you have all the time in the world.
That brings us to another Dolly. Lehman Engel, the conductor of I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, often told a story about Barbra Streisand. She wanted to rework the staging on her big song “Miss Marmelstein” because she thought she could get even more out of the showstopper. When she told Engel her plans, he discouraged her. Even that early in her career, though, getting Streisand to take advice wasn’t easy. So, Engel finally consented and, he reported, she didn’t get a single laugh.
True? False? Whatever the case, let’s see that performance (and any of her others) to see what she did and didn’t do.
How about taking in two consecutive San Francisco tryout performances of THE GRAND TOUR? Jerry Herman’s much underrated score would be only one reason. One night there was a scene in a brothel with Travis Hudson as its Madam, and the next night the scenery had been changed, as had Hudson’s outfit; now she was the Mother Superior of a convent.
Attend the workshops of all those Edward Kleban musicals to see how all those marvelous songs we hear in A CLASS ACT fit into the shows for which they were intended. See FOREVER PLAID before it had music. Seriously: Stuart Ross, the show’s auteur, admits that there was a time when he considered doing it without a single song. The excellent cast album shows that he was wise to change his mind.
How about that performance of HAPPY HUNTING when Fernando Lamas, who disliked co-star Ethel Merman, in full view of the audience wiped off the kiss she’d just given him? Did it happen after she sang “This Is What I Call Love?” (If so, love apparently wasn’t what Lamas called it.)
The Marvin Hamlisch-David Zippel score for THE GOODBYE GIRL and the performances by Bernadette Peters and Martin Short were first-rate. I swear it was sunk by a horrible set. If you agree, bring in your favorite set designer to do it over, and if he or she doesn’t work out, bring in someone else. You’ve got all the time in the world.
Can’t get to London these days to see OPERATION MINCEMEAT? Now you could with a snap of a finger to see it as well as London musicals as vintage as SALAD DAYS. That one has a nice ballad “We Said We Wouldn’t Look Back.” You can.
See how the London production of INTO THE WOODS didn’t remotely resemble the Broadway version. And unlike the original cast album of KINKY BOOTS, the London cast recorded it live. The audience certainly sounds as if it’s having a grand time. Go be a part of it without enduring hours-long flights.
“A Nice Place to Visit” took its title from the well-worn expression “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” It’s mostly been said about New York. (To all those who have uttered this line, I say, “Friends, you don’t know what you’re missing.”)
This cliché is the title of a song in JIMMY. Mayor James J. Walker’s crooked cronies sang it as they were beating it out of town to avoid prosecution for their misdeeds. And sure, with all the time in the world, I’d give JIMMY a few spins. The song I’d play most, though, would be “Riverside Drive.” Although it’s not to die for (what is?), it’s a nice song to visit.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.