STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW: THE REVUE THAT COULD By Peter Filichia
Can’t get to the York Theatre Company between March 12-20 to see Starting Here, Starting Now?
That’s a shame – but there’s always the original cast album of the show originally known as The Theatre Songs of Maltby & Shire.
That’s Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire.
In the late ‘50s they met at Yale, started collaborating and are still working together. Their new musical Waterfall premiered in Pasadena, CA last June.
And yet, there’s an irony about these two men who have been teamed longer than even Kander and Ebb were.
They’ve had their greatest successes independent of each other.
Maltby was the brains and director behind Ain’t Misbehavin’ — the first revue to win a Best Musical Tony (in 1978) and Fosse — the third revue to win a Best Musical Tony (in 1999). He was also the wordsmith who spruced up and anglicized Alain Boublil’s lyrics for Miss Saigon.
Shire won the 1979 Oscar for providing the melody to Norman Gimbel’s lyric “It Goes Like It Goes” for the film Norma Rae.
In a kinder, gentler world, Maltby and Shire’s musicals would have been smash hits. But life is unpredictable and unfair, as the woman who sings Starting Here’s “Crossword Puzzle” can tell you.
The poor soul had so much in common with her beau Heckie, with whom she’d spend every Sunday morning working out that behemoth in the back pages of the New York Times Magazine. But life isn’t as black-and-white as a crossword puzzle; Heckie has left her for another woman and now she must spend Sunday mornings – and every other minute of the week – without her man. (This description may make the song sound sad, but it’s actually pretty hilarious.)
This was just one of the more than two dozen songs that wound up in Starting Here, the 1977 revue that was commissioned by Lynne Meadow, the artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club. It played in their then-cabaret space on East 73rd Street before segueing to a now-long-gone 46th Street boîte called Barbarann. Not many nightclub shows get Grammy nominations in the cast album category, but Starting Here can claim to be one of the comparative few.
One of the first songs that Maltby and Shire ever wrote is in the show. “Autumn” actually comes from their musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac which they created in 1958 while they were students at Yale. The show was so well received that an Original University Cast Album was made.
Looking at the cast list today shows a plethora of names that would go on to fame and fortune — well, as much fame and fortune as anyone gets working in the theater.
John Cunningham, who’s since originated roles in Broadway musicals from A(mour) to Z(orba), portrayed Cyrano. Bill Hinnant – later the original Snoopy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown – was a Porter. Austin Pendleton – six years before he became The Tailor Motel Kamzoil in the original Fiddler on the Roof – played Ragueneau’s Assistant.
Ragueneau, not so incidentally, was portrayed by one Richard (sic) Cavett while Carrie Nye McGeoy played Lise. No, she wasn’t already married, but was given those three names at birth. Once she married Dick Cavett in 1964, she reverted to Carrie Nye; they stayed a couple until her death in 2006.
And who was cast as Roxane (and sang “Autumn”)? One Toni Smith, who today is better known as the mother of Paul Giamatti – because also in the Cyrano cast, doubling as Bellerose and “A Spaniard,” was one Bartlett Giamatti. He eventually returned to Yale some years later, but not to take brush-up courses; he would be installed as the university’s president. If that weren’t enough of an achievement, he followed that up by becoming the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. (Nice, isn’t it, that the leading lady didn’t think herself too big to date a glorified ensemble member?)
“So I,” says Maltby grandly and mock-heroically, “am responsible for Paul Giamatti’s very existence. Not just his career, mind you, but his very existence.”
Nine years later came How Do You Do, I Love You which dealt with computer dating. “Actually, that show happened because we went to meet with Michael Stewart,” says Maltby, citing the man who’d had an excellent ‘60s up to that point: Bye Bye Birdie, Carnival and Hello, Dolly! “We had an idea for a musical we’d hoped he’d write, but he didn’t really like the idea, but offered us this one and we went along with him.”
The idea: A woman from Jersey decides to go “Just across the River” to a Manhattan firm in order to use their computer to find romance. After she does, she feels very “Pleased with Myself.”
They’re both terrific songs, but Maltby says that during the three-city tryout, the one that scored the most was “One Step.” But the song we hear on Starting Here’s album is not what 1967 audiences heard. It was originally a straightforward melody until Maltby, ten years later, noticed that it had potential to be a quodlibet – or as his lyric goes, “one of those songs in two parts where both of them go together.” So he added not just the additional lyric but also the new music.
“Well,” Maltby demurs, “to the extent that there’s music at all; it’s really just all rhythm.”
Turnabout is fair play: Shire had already done some lyric-writing for another song that wound up in Starting Here. Back in the late ‘60s – the 20th century’s most turbulent decade — Shire had penned both music and lyrics for “What About Today?” It urges us all to stop sitting still for political and societal outrages and make changes instead. Barbra Streisand not only recorded it but made it the title song of her 12th album. And even the most casual Streisand fan can tell you she recorded the revue’s title song on her Color Me Barbra album and TV special.
A year later came Love Match, about the long-aborning relationship and marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. A less-than-honorable press agent might say that this musical ran two years, given that it opened in 1968 and closed in 1969 – but, truth to tell, it opened on November 3rd in Phoenix and shuttered for good on January 4th in Los Angeles.
One problem was that director Noel Willman wasn’t around from Day One. Maltby isn’t sure but thinks he remembers that that Patricia Routledge, their Victoria, wanted Willman because he’d been her director (at least for a while) on Darling of the Day, for which she had won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical (in a tie with Leslie Uggams of Hallelujah, Baby!).
So while everyone waited for Willman, choreographer Danny Daniels took over. “He did three brilliant production numbers, all stunning,” says Maltby.
But he got used to directing by the time Willman finally arrived. “Danny said he’d leave and take all his dances with him. So a new choreographer came in and restaged the numbers in ways that weren’t so good.”
Three songs from Love Match are in Starting Here: “I Hear Bells,” which features of one Shire’s most glorious melodies; “I Think I May Want to Remember Today” (now do you see why the singer mentions Albert?) and “Today Is the First Day of the Rest of My Life.” Yes, it was a ‘60s catchphrase far too late for Victoria’s reign, but the song works splendidly on its own terms.
Once Meadow set the wheels in motion for Starting Here to start, Maltby and Shire took the opportunity to write a few new songs. “I Don’t Remember Christmas” is the bitter anthem of survival from a divorced man. He’s almost over the experience of having his wife leave him and now realizes that all the “good times” they had weren’t so good.
“I Don’t Believe It” was adapted from a song from Love Match. It takes place at a party where couples are bragging left and right (and center) about their solid marriages. In one instance, the women have their doubts about the husband of one couple: “Why is he eyeing that boy?”
Despite all the songs that deal with hard-hitting subjects, Maltby points out that “many of the songs have a sunniness, even an innocence. Some are bouncy and happy — with something else going on underneath. The show isn’t any way dated, for the issues it deals with are still with us today: ‘Who am I going to fall in love with? What kind of life would I have with that person? How am I going to connect to someone else?’ None of that has changed.”
As for the three performers on this recording: Margery Cohen in the ‘70s became known as The Queen of the off-Broadway Songwriters’ Anthology Shows. Before she tackled Starting Here, she’d appeared in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill and By Bernstein; later she co-starred in Unsung Cole (as in Porter).
George Lee Andrews would find very steady employment as Monsieur André in The Phantom of the Opera, from its first Broadway preview on Jan. 9, 1988 until Sept. 3, 2011: 9,382 performances in all. (And he’d still be there if he had his druthers – but that’s another story.)
Loni Zoe Ackerman would later spend years playing Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Cats. So to all those who already know Starting Here, Starting Now, Ackerman might advise “Let the memory live again.”
Since its 1977 debut, Starting Here has played from sea to shining sea and beyond – probably because directors and producers heard this disc. Maltby recalls getting in his mail one day out of the blue a long-playing record of a Danish Starter Her, Starter Nu.
And while many of us enjoy hearing cast albums in different languages (the Spanish My Fair Lady, the Hebrew Irma La Douce, the Icelandic Little Shop, the Peruvian Big), you really will prefer the English version of Starting Here, Starting Now (unless you speak fluent Danish). No one should miss even one of Richard Maltby, Jr.’s savory lyrics.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.