STAGES: A MEMORABLE MEMOIR By Peter Filichia
There are plenty of surprises in Albert Poland’s memoir STAGES, but one stands out among all the rest.
Although Poland was a general manager for nearly five dozen off-Broadway productions, his first foray into downtown theater was as a co-producer of a 1967 musical.
You can see his name atop the original cast album of NOW IS THE TIME FOR ALL GOOD MEN.
Poland says that Lucille Lortel, The Queen of Off-Broadway, who saw the show through backers’ auditions, called it “OUR TOWN set to music.”
Well, yes and no. It was set in a rustic town — “Bloomdale, Indiana, pop. 973” — but ordinary day-to-day life wasn’t what the show wanted to stress.
This was the late sixties, when Baby Boomers were questioning if not fighting the Establishment. NOW IS THE TIME, as Poland puts it, had an “anti-war message against the backdrop of the conservative small town.”
Mike Butler is an East Coast idealist who recently graduated with a degree in education. He comes to the Midwest as a first-year teacher with big plans and dreams. As he sings, “I’d like to try to do some plays before the year is through. I’ll try a little Shakespeare and perhaps a Giraudoux.”
How sophisticated Mike seems to music teacher Sarah Larkin, who yearns to see the world. “Does London have a bridge?” she asks before adding a question that’s one of the most charmingly naïve perceptions in all of musical theater: “Does Scotland have a yard?”
The other 972 townies are threatened by this interloper – especially when they discover that he was a conscientious objector who wanted no part of the Vietnam War. Soon he’s branded as “a Communist and a queer.”
Worse, the Hoosiers run him out of town at gunpoint.
Some may be surprised that this tough little show was written by two women. The sixties were still the dark ages for female musical theater writers. But NOW IS THE TIME was the debut show for composer Nancy Ford and librettist-lyricist Gretchen Cryer.
They’ve followed it with many musicals – most notably I’M GETTING MY ACT TOGETHER AND TAKING IT ON THE ROAD — and they’re still writing together.
And yet, the fact that women penned the show still doesn’t represent Poland’s biggest surprise.
Was it that Sally Niven, who portrayed Sarah, was actually Gretchen Cryer? The original leading lady didn’t work out, so Cryer took over.
(Niven, she once told me, is a family name; there’s even some evidence that she was distantly related to Oscar-winner David Niven. What’s more, Niven is the middle name she gave her son, actor Jon Cryer.)
Why didn’t she come clean on her real name? Poland reveals that she wasn’t the only replacement in the cast.
There was a long struggle to find the right leading man. Clifford David was sought, but his agent said his client wouldn’t deign to audition; all anyone had to do was listen to him on the original cast album of the recent ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER.
Although Mr. David’s rendition of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner’s bolt-of-lightning ballad “She Wasn’t You” is magnificent, one can’t blame director Word (THE FANTASTICKS) Baker for wanting to meet the man, see if he looked right for the part, hear him try a song or two from NOW IS THE TIME and assess if he had the personality that would mesh with everyone else’s.
So that certain David wouldn’t do the show, but another David would.
Not immediately. After Baker did find who he believed to be his leading man, he and most everyone else wasn’t pleased with the actor’s performance. So David Cryer reluctantly stepped in.
Reluctantly, for he was with Poland, the show’s co-producer. Wouldn’t some musical theater wags claim that he did the money-raising just so he could star in it? That he was Gretchen Cryer’s husband would bring in cries of nepotism, too.
To ameliorate this, Sally Niven and not Gretchen Cryer made the cast list.
Poland takes us through the show’s opening night which was, he says, “as natural as appearing on THE TONIGHT SHOW and pretending that you are in your living room.” That was especially true once the staff read the review in The New York Times by Clive Barnes, who was just starting out as the paper’s theater critic.
Barnes didn’t take to the show, but was willing to give it another chance. This time, he still didn’t respond any better, yet his second coming allowed Poland to advertise with “Clive Barnes has seen NOW IS THE TIME twice! Have you seen it once?”
(As Jack Nicholson’s character says in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, “You use what you got.”)
Even that quotation manipulation isn’t the biggest surprise that Poland reveals. This is: “Through the good efforts of Martin Erlichman and Ted Brooks, Barbra Streisand committed her publishing company, Kiki Music, to produce and pay for an original cast album on Columbia Records.”
Yup! Streisand ponied up. So we have her to thank for this impressive recording. “Stuck-Up” is hilarious, and comes between Mike’s optimistic “What’s in the Air?” and his realization that he’s “All Alone.” Tens of thousands of musical songs have had their characters yearn to find people who’ll love and cherish them now and forever. “My Holiday” is refreshingly different; it offers characters who wish they had people to love.
Poland also reports, “There were strong indications that we would have our dream of a Streisand single of ‘He Could Show Me’” – one of the show’s standout songs.
And Streisand did it. Although “He Could Show Me” has never appeared on one of her albums, it made the other side of “In Our Corner of the Night.” Streisand certainly didn’t give the song short shrift; the recording rang in at three minutes and forty seconds; on the cast album, it’s two-and-half minutes long.
Streisand’s recording made it a semi-family affair, for Poland reports that as NOW IS THE TIME was being readied and a demo was needed, Roslyn Kind – Streisand’s half-sister (whose debut album can also be found here at Masterworks Broadway) — recorded the same song.
Producing the NOW IS THE TIME cast album is a name that musical theater fans of 1967 would come to know eight years later: Edward Kleban. As you may recall from his biomusical A CLASS ACT, producing recordings was Kleban’s day job. At night and on weekends he worked on his songwriting which eventually resulted in no less than the lyrics for A CHORUS LINE. Before, in between and after, Kleban wrote music and lyrics for plenty of excellent songs from shows that he never finished. (Many of these selections are shown to excellent advantage in the cast album of A CLASS ACT.)
There’s much more of interest in STAGES. Learn what happened when Poland said something to David Merrick at the opening night party of 42ND STREET.
By the way, that 42ND STREET went ahead with a party is yet another surprise revelation from Poland. Remember that less than an hour before, Merrick had announced Gower Champion’s death from the Winter Garden stage. Wouldn’t you have assumed that he would have canceled the “celebration”?
Poland’s memoir offers its share of dreams that were dashed. He once had visions of producing Judy Garland as Jenny in THE THREEPENNY OPERA. After he spent some time with the legend, he reached the same conclusion that occurred to the producers of MAME: Garland couldn’t be counted on to be up to an eight-times-a-week task.
When Poland was general managing the 2005 Broadway revival of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS that starred Liev Schreiber, he was shocked to learn what was discussed when the star was about to leave:
“There was a movement afoot among the eleven producers to replace him with Donald Trump. It took me about four days to talk them out of it.”
Maybe you’ll find that the biggest surprise of STAGES. But if you’re on the fence on whether or not you should buy the book, well, as Joel Grey sings in THE GRAND TOUR, “At least do it for Poland.”
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.