A STROLL OFF-BROADWAY By Peter Filichia
SING STREET. ONCE. DESPERATE MEASURES.
What does Dan Dietz think about these musicals?
Alas, we don’t know, for they opened too late to appear in his wondrous book OFF BROADWAY MUSICALS, 1910-2007 – a 656-page tome that details and assesses more than 1,800 shows.
No detail is too small for Dietz. He relates that DAMES AT SEA once had a subtitle: GOLD DIGGERS AFLOAT. A gold digger, in case you’ve missed the term, is a person who wants to be romantically involved with a person who has heaps of money. Back in the Depression era (when DAMES AT SEA takes place) the term was used in three popular films: GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937.
(That begs the question … weren’t there any gold diggers in 1934 or 1936? Guess in those years, people were, as the song goes in CALL ME MADAM, “Marrying for Love.”)
Dietz lauds WINGS (Jeffrey Lunden’s “alluring modernist musical shimmers”), A NEW BRAIN (“a fascinating and welcome score”), Jason Robert Brown’s SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (“a memorable and melodic song cycle”) and PROMENADE (“one of the best scores ever written for the musical theater” with its “a cornucopia of rich melodies and baroque lyrics” from Al Carmines, “the quintessential off-Broadway composer”).
When writing about GODSPELL, Dietz opines that Stephen “Schwartz has been continually underestimated by critics and theater buffs.” Many would second, third and twelfth that opinion. Schwartz would later write in PIPPIN something that he has proved time and time again: “When you’re extraordinary, you gotta do extraordinary things.”
Dietz lets you know where the good songs are. I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD’s “Old Friend” is “one of the best theater songs of the era.” ERNEST IN LOVE is “one of the best off-Broadway scores” and “‘The Muffin Song’ is one of the best theater songs ever written.”
On the other hand, Dietz doesn’t much like MARRY ME A LITTLE but only because this collection of obscure Stephen Sondheim songs was shoved into a very strange “book.” He does admit that “in a cabaret context, it would have been perfect.” Well, that standard applies to cast albums, too, so we can enjoy some Sondheim songs that were cut as his musicals wended their way to Broadway.
Speaking of Sondheim, back in 1966, word was kept from the public that he was actually “Esteban Ria Nido” who contributed “The Boy from …” to THE MAD SHOW. Once word got out, many assumed that Sondheim wrote both words and music to this hellishly clever parody of the recently popular “The Boy from Ipanema.” Dietz reminds us that Mary Rodgers actually created the equally witty music for this samba.
Dietz doesn’t just rely on his own opinions. He cites that HELLO, AGAIN spurred David Patrick Stearns of USA TODAY to state that Michael John LaChuisa’s music had “an eloquence that few shows have achieved since Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY.” But Dietz more often than not quotes critics from The New York Times. HALF-PAST WEDNESDAY inspired Louis Calta to pick out “the remarkable talent of droll Dom DeLuise,” long before the actor’s 130-credit Hollywood career. Frank Rich praised Stephen Flaherty’s “lush melodic score” to ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. WEIRD ROMANCE, a musical by Alan Menken and David Spencer, had Mel Gussow call it a “melodious musical play” and that “Stop and See Me,’ sung by Ellen Greene, had the poignancy of ‘The Party’s Over’” (meaning Tony-winner Judy Holliday’s big ballad in BELLS ARE RINGING).
Dietz even tells what songs were dropped during their off-Broadway runs. CLOSER THAN EVER’s losing “Another Wedding Song” was a pity; Richard Maltby, Jr. had a smart idea: a man and woman who have each endured divorce now dare to return to the altar. “You are the first to be second,” is the nice way they put it. The song also impresses because there are VERY few rhymes for the word “second,” and yet Maltby found enough apt ones to last the whole song.
He quotes lyrics he admires (“When the Bat Boy kills a cow, he sings a song of apology to the unfortunate animal, noting ‘I shouldn’t work out my problems with food’”) and reminds us of performers’ achievements (“With his performance in URINETOWN, John Cullum continued one of the most remarkable careers in the history of post-World War II musicals”).
Regarding FOREVER PLAID, Dietz writes “If ever a musical cried out for an LP release,” using the two-letter term for a long-playing vinyl record. Yes, the songs heard in this jukebox musical (literally a jukebox musical, for its songs were popular enough in the fifties that they WERE in jukeboxes) were all released on vinyl. Well, at least the CD cover has at its top the striking “Living Stereo” banner that plumed LPs throughout the late fifties and sixties. It was a tacit rebuke to those who still hadn’t switched from their boring old one-channel monaural phonographs.
You know 7-Eleven, but you may not be aware of SEVEN COME ELEVEN, a 1961 revue. It mostly had original material, but Dietz notes that “I Found Him” was written for ALL IN LOVE, a musical version of THE RIVALS that would debut later that year. It had book and lyrics by Bruce Geller, who became the creator of TV’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. You might find impossible to believe that the brains behind that cloak-and-dagger series would have written a musical version of an eighteenth-century British comedy of manners, but believe Dietz when he tells you this is true.
As magnificent a historian as Dietz is, he shows that he’s a funny and pithy writer: “HAIR stands for everything that loses you votes in the red states.” Of RUNAWAYS, Elizabeth Swados’ 1978 look at kids who leave home, “By giving each runaway his or her vignette in speech and song, this show could have been called A RUNAWAY LINE.”
Some may feel that HAIR, RUNAWAYS and others mentioned above shouldn’t be in the book once they moved uptown to become Broadway musicals. No, Dietz wants to give the genesis and credit such shows’ roots.
Hence, A CHORUS LINE is included. You may groan when Dietz reports that its original off-Broadway tickets ranged from three to eight dollars. Granted, this was 1975, but research shows that although inflation has gone up a whopping 376.6 per cent in those forty-five years, those three-buck ducats would now weigh in at $14.30 while the front-row seats would set you back $38.13. That’s not much more than some community theaters have been charging.
In mentioning that mammoth hit, Dietz takes the opportunity to give an extra fact. In 1970, five years before A CHORUS LINE opened, George Furth, who had just finished writing the excellent book to COMPANY, wrote a play that he just happened to call A CHORUS LINE. David Merrick, the producer who had sponsored smash musical hits – 42ND STREET and HELLO, DOLLY! – and misses — MARIA GOLOVIN and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S — had it under option but never took it to the next step.
Of course, you may find that Dietz hasn’t included anything about your favorite songs. When writing about Andrew Lippa’s terrific score for THE WILD PARTY, he didn’t mention “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” which is – to use that term he’s fond of – “one of the best theater songs ever written.”
And how about WHEN PIGS FLY’s Act One closer? It’s called “A Patriotic Finale,” a title meant to playfully obfuscate the song’s real intention; a more logical title would be “The Gay National Anthem.” The all-gay cast makes the witty (and literal) point that “You need US to make the USA.” (Indeed; try spelling the acronym without those two letters.)
Let’s hope Dietz includes these the next time around while also detailing SING STREET, ONCE and DESPERATE MEASURES in OFF BROADWAY MUSICALS, 1910-2020.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.