IS “ROAR” READY TO RE-ROAR? By Peter Filichia
It’s the last traditional score from a Broadway musical to yield five hit songs that most everyone in the nation knew at the time.
It was the precise middle of the ‘60s, and the musical was The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd.
It had a book, music and lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse — although the former was said to have written all the music while the latter has been alleged to have penned the lyrics.
Whoever did what, five hits out of seventeen songs is a pretty good batting average.
Hit Number One: “Who Can I Turn To?” is one of those songs that uses a nifty turn of phrase at its end: “Who can I turn to when you turn away?” It was made famous by Tony Bennett, whose recording reached Number Five on the Adult Contemporary Chart.
“Who Can I Turn To?” was the song in which the creators and most believed. Exhibit A: Roar/Smell’s three-minute, twenty-two second Overture references the song three separate times adding up to one minute and thirty-one seconds. That’s a full forty-five percent of the overture.
Hit Number Two: “The Joker” is a dramatic song in which a born loser labels himself as such. What a shame that it didn’t become a hit until the year after the show closed. That’s when a group known as Sergio Mendez and Brasil ’66 did it as a bossa nova.
Hits Number Three and Four: “A Wonderful Day Like Today” and “Nothing Can Stop Me Now!” didn’t get representative recordings, a la The Fifth Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which helped great business at Hair to become even greater. But these two optimism-filled songs were sung and heard on many variety shows of the era.
Hit Number Five: “Feeling Good” was, in a way, an optimistic update of “Ol’ Man River.” What the African-American character had to say — “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me” – was in tune with the Civil Rights Act that had been passed into law a mere ten months before the Broadway opening.
Nina Simone recorded it four months before the show got to Broadway, and Lena Horne wasn’t far behind. Simone put it on an album and Horne on a 45 r.p.m. single.
(On the other side of the Horne recording was, interestingly enough, “Pleasures and Palaces.” It was the title song of the Frank Loesser musical that had planned to open six days before Roar/Smell; alas, it had detonated in Detroit some weeks earlier.)
When you have five hit songs, you should have a hit show – especially when the other dozen songs are pretty stellar, too. And yet, after Roar/Smell opened on May 16, 1965, the authors and producer David Merrick once again read what seven cities’ worth of drama critics had been telling them during the previous three months of pre-Broadway tryouts: loved the songs, didn’t love the book.
None of this surprised England’s provincial critics. Nine months earlier, they’d had the same opinions about the stirringly memorable score and the lame libretto. They panned it to the point where Roar/Smell closed on the road and didn’t dare brave London.
But that production had Willoughby Goddard and Norman Wisdom in the leads. Merrick adored the score and saw Cyril Ritchard and Newley himself in their stead. Newley still believed in the musical and wanted it to live, so he agreed to co-star.
Nevertheless, Roar /Smell eventually reiterated what Maxwell Anderson had written many years earlier in the classic “September Song” – that “it’s a long, long while from May to December.” That was the case for Merrick, who saw his show at the Shubert never do the business he’d anticipated in that seven-month stand. He wound up closing it even before the lucrative Christmas-to-New-Year’s-Eve week.
You have to expect that fate, however, when you give the audience a musicalization of Waiting for Godot — well, at least in a manner of speaking. Just as Tom Stoppard took minor Hamlet characters and made them the centerpiece of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Bricusse and Newley took Samuel Beckett’s high-and-mighty Pozzo and Lucky, his virtual slave (at least in Act One), and turned them into Sir and Cocky.
Lucky was utterly misnamed. Perhaps that same sense of irony inspired Bricusse and Newley to name their virtual slave Cocky – for Cocky was even less cocky than Lucky was lucky. (And the two names sound a bit alike, don’t they?)
Sir agrees with Aggie and Rooster Hannigan of Annie fame that when you play a game, you stack the aces; you load the dice. He’s always engaging Cocky in games that the poor soul cannot win, mostly by cheating or by demoralizing him. Cocky will even lose the “game” of Getting the Girl, for once Sir sees that she’s the one Cocky wants, he takes her away from him.
The sad thing is that when Cocky gets the chance to play a game with the aforementioned African-American, he becomes a veritable Sir to the black man’s Cocky. But he does come to his senses and realizes there should be no masters and slaves in “Sweet Beginning,” one of musical theater’s best final musical scenes. “Change is what I recommend,” Cocky says.
Taking that advice is Santino Fontana, known as a Drama Desk-winning actor for Brighton Beach Memoirs and a Tony-nominated star of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. He saw Roar/Smell as an opportunity to play Cocky – but oh-that-book!
So Fontana went to his computer and rewrote it. As I learned on July 8 when I sat in the Powerhouse Theatre in Poughkeepsie, he’s completely discarded every bit of it.
And how was it? I can’t say, because at this stage of the game (no pun intended), reviews aren’t allowed. This was a mere workshop in which actors stood before music stands that held scripts and scores. The performers did move around every now and then courtesy of director Scott Ellis.
The cast members ranged from Just-Getting-out-of-College kids to Fontana and other Broadway veterans: Tom Hewitt as his employer Sir, Anne L. Nathan and Lenny Wolpe as Sir’s employees.
Yes, employees. Now Roar/Smell is a contemporary tale in which Sir is a Bernie Madoff character who victimizes both clients and employees, including his new apprentice Cocky.
Very few of the original songs were in the positions they were in the original. If there’s ever a CD made of this version, those familiar with Roar/Smell will feel as if their disc is on Shuffle Play.
But give credit to Fontana for retaining each and every song – which in essence is giving yet a new compliment to the score. Here’s hoping that there’s a bright future for Fontana’s version, for any excuse to let people hear the five hits and the dozen other worthies from The Roar of the Greasepaint – the Smell of the Crowd would be a cause for celebration.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.