Ran into Evans Haile, the erudite executive director of The York Theatre Company. It’s now in Theatre at St. Jean’s, after a terrible flood had forced the plucky troupe out of its Citicorp Building home.
It’s a cruel irony that York should be plagued by a calamity that occurred in one of their “Musicals in Mufti” presentations: TWO BY TWO, with Jason Alexander playing Noah, the Biblical character who was certainly no stranger to flooding. That brought to mind my asking Haile about the “Musicals in Mufti” series, which has also endured the additional plague of the pandemic.
In case you’re unfamiliar with “Musicals in Mufti,” York has produced 112 bare-bones readings since 1994. They’ve included obscure Tony-winners (HALLELUJAH, BABY!), humble Tony-losers (HOW NOW, DOW JONES), underappreciated fine musicals (I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE) and stupidly neglected excellent musicals (DARLING OF THE DAY, which was named by Time magazine as one of the ten-best theatrical attractions of 2005).
For a quarter-century, musical theatre enthusiasts would enter the slowest and most unreliable elevator east of the Mississippi and north of The Mason-Dixon line. We all feared that we’d become SWEET CHARITY’s Oscar Lindquist and Charity Hope Valentine by getting stuck in it, but we risked all to see THE GIRL WHO CAME TO SUPPER, KEAN and OH CAPTAIN!
So what that the cast was on book. Never mind that we could describe the costumes as “what the actors had in their closets.” We were warned that one of mufti’s meanings is “plain clothes.”
But who cared when in 2000 we saw no less than Jane Powell, Charlotte Rae, Jane Connell, George S. Irving, Helen Gallagher, Mimi Hines and Marilyn Cooper in Kander and Ebb’s 70, GIRLS, 70. Encores! produced it six years later, but just try to find anyone who thought that organization did a better job of it.
“Musicals in Mufti” originated with Janet Hayes Walker, York’s founder and producing director (and the original “He’s not worth it!” wife in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE). After Walker’s death in 1997, Jim Morgan, her second-in-command, took the reins. There’s absolutely no truth to the long-held supposition that in 2007 he chose IT’S A BIRD … IT’S A PLANE … IT’S SUPERMAN because it has a character named Jim Morgan. The strong Charles Strouse-Lee Adams score did the trick.
Haile told me that despite the waterlogged setback, he’s cautiously optimistic that the series will return, ideally before the end of the year. Lord knows that he, Morgan and literary manager Seth Christenfeld (who’s been there since he was a wunderkind), don’t need me to make suggestions on what shows should inaugurate the renaissance.
But you know that’s not going to stop me, don’t you?
First up should be FIRST IMPRESSIONS. Frankly, I’m amazed that someone in town hasn’t seized the opportunity to mount this 1959 show, given that it’s a musical version of the uber-famous PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Haven’t we been living in an era when author Jane Austen has found new appreciation – down to a film called THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB? Thus, there’d be great interest in a musical of her most famous property.
It has a classic musical theater sound (as do most Muftis), and an equally classic situation about two oh-so-proud people who are mutually attracted but each doesn’t want to give into the other. So, at first the strongest way they’ll put their situation is “I Suddenly Find It Agreeable.” Talk about damning with faint praise!
Hermione Gingold, whom we all know as Madame Leonora Armfeldt in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, plays Mrs. Bennet, whose first song, “Five Daughters,” shows how much she worries about their marital possibilities. (And you thought that Tevye was the first musical theater character to deal with a quintet of eligible lasses.) Mrs. Bennet shows us that she would have preferred sons when she sings that she and her husband made “five tries” only to be rewarded with “five misses.”
On the classy original cast album, one co-composer/lyricist is identified as Robert Goldman; when he moved to Hollywood, he became Bo Goldman. Thus, the York could even advertise FIRST IMPRESSIONS as, “From one of the Oscar-winning screenwriter of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.”
(Or maybe not.)
A good second Mufti would be ERNEST IN LOVE, for it, too. has the pedigree of another well-known classic: Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. The score sounds right for Victorian England, which may surprise many who only know its composer Lee Pockriss from his bubble-gum song that reached Number One during ERNEST’S 1960 run: “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
If you don’t know, that classic ONE, TWO, THREE, the 1961 film version of Ferenc Molnar’s 1929 play, had West German police play the song twenty-four-seven in the cell of a suspected spy. They figured that this variation on the Chinese water torture would get him to confess his nefarious intentions.
And it did.
ERNEST IN LOVE, however, is substantially loftier in both music and lyrics (courtesy of Anne Croswell, who had nothing to do with “Itsy Bitsy,” which must have made her sorry/grateful). The musical wouldn’t break the York’s budget, for a dozen actors could swing it.
That, however, brings us to a fun fact: The Takarazuka Revue, Japan’s all-female troupe that loves to do great big Broadway shows (and has been mounting them for more than 100 years), was interested in ERNEST IN LOVE. But it knew that its audiences wouldn’t accept a musical with such a small cast. So Takarazuka added dozens upon dozens of maids and butlers.
(No wonder that Jack Worthing is always strapped for money.).
Some revues have been Muftied, including THE MAD SHOW and STARTING HERE, STARTING NOW, the 1977 nightclub entertainment that finally revealed the brilliance of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire that had escaped even ardent musical theater mavens. So, the third Mufti should be CLOSER THAN EVER, another revue of the longtime partners’ equally excellent songs.
True, the York gave this a full production in 2012, but they say that every seven years there’s a new generation. So, let’s have a whole new group see what they missed:
“One of the Good Guys” has a husband in a decades-long marriage tell us of his chance to have an affair only to turn it down, lest he risk irreparable harm.
Having a song live up to the extensive title “Life Story” can’t be easy. Yet Maltby was up to the challenge in taking us through a woman’s marriage, motherhood, divorce, career and ebbing career, as the years pass by. It’s so terrific that Jeffrey Sweet printed the entire Maltby lyric in his essay in THE BEST PLAYS OF 1989-1990. If any other edition of the century-long series of books replicated an entire lyric, I’ve yet to see it.
Playwrights know that having a character hold a secret is a good dramatic move. Maltby divulges one in “Miss Byrd,” about a receptionist who has a life that people showing up at her place of business would never suspect.
“Another Wedding Song” introduces us to a couple on the day of their nuptials. This is neither his nor her first wedding, and each acknowledges this with glass-half-full optimism that “You are the first to be second.”
As delightfully insouciant as that is, imagine how hard a job Maltby had in finding enough rhymes for “second.” He’s a purist who wouldn’t cheat by offering such imperfect rhymes as “deadened,” “threatened” or “Armageddon” (not that they’d be right for an optimistic wedding song, anyway). However, leave it to Maltby: he found enough perfect rhymes that were apt for the situation.
When I attended a wedding of Scott Cain, Cincinnati’s Talkin’ Broadway reviewer, and his beloved Janet, they sang “Another Wedding Song” at their reception. Could this be one reason why in June they’ll celebrate their twentieth anniversary?
Perhaps a few more couples who are about to be second-timers will have the same pleasant marriage if they had the chance to hear and sing the song. For that matter, both FIRST IMPRESSIONS and ERNEST IN LOVE might get more people in the marital mood, too. When it comes to “Musicals in Mufti,” to paraphrase a famous Kander and Ebb song, it’s up to you, York, York; York, York.