ZORBAS GREEK TO ME
By Peter Filichia
The recent Encores! production of Zorba reiterated what a marvelous score John Kander and Fred Ebb provided for their 1968 musical.
Their second 1968 musical, if you want to get technical. Earlier in the year, they had given us The Happy Time, another magnificent series of songs. Not many teams can boast of getting two Best Musical Tony nominations in two different seasons for shows that opened in the same calendar year, but Kander and Ebb did.
Funny; although composer Manos Hadjidakis was actually born in Xanthi, Greece, the music he provided for the 1966 musicalization of Never on Sunday — Illya, Darling — somehow managed to come across as less authentically Greek than what Kansas City native composer Kander wrote for Zorba.
When Kander and Ebb watched the 1964 Oscar-nominated film Zorba the Greek, did one specific moment make them feel they were pre-ordained to do a musical version? Did they exclaim in glee when they saw Zorba enter a den of iniquity called The Kit Kat Klub? That, of course, is the same name of the nightspot that had been the main setting for Cabaret, a show that had turned out pret-ty lucky for them.
Better still, the staff originally assembled for Zorba automatically suggested that it would be the heir apparent to the two-year-old, still-running Cabaret. Harold Prince would again produce and direct (those chores for Cabaret got him two Tonys) and Ronald Field, Cabaret’s Tony-winning choreographer, would do the dances here, too.
Having ties to Prince’s four-year old, STILL-running Fiddler would seem to have been a good omen: Joseph Stein, who wrote the Fiddler book, would pen Zorba’s libretto. Herschel Bernardi, who’d recently had great success playing Tevye, would play Zorba, the Cretan jack of all trades and master of anyone who hired him. Maria Karnilova, the original Golde, would portray Madame Hortense, the French senior citizen who was once a celebrated courtesan until time intervened. And we all lose our charms in the end, but Madame Hortense hoped that Zorba would somehow be able to see her past glory.
At first glance, one might be surprised that Prince didn’t hire Lila Kedrova, who’d created Madame Hortense in the film and had won an Oscar for it. After all, in early 1968 Kedrova had proved to Prince that she could sing when she opened the London production of Cabaret as Fraulein Schneider. (Listen to her on the original West End recording; she’s fine.) Did Prince spend a few sleepless hours wondering if he should pull Kedrova from London or leave her there and instead choose the original dressy Tessie Tura as his Hortense?
As it turned out, it was just a matter of time (fifteen years, in fact) before Kedrova would play the role in the musical – and opposite her original Oscar-nominated star Anthony Quinn. In the 1983 revival, she scored in “Happy Birthday,” a haunting fantasy sequence in which the dying woman remembers a special day in her childhood. (Credit to Zoe Wanamaker at Encores! for doing just as splendidly.)
Kedrova also made a strong impression in one of Kander and Ebb’s best character songs “No Boom Boom” (although at the 2:39 mark when she sings “oily Georgian bark” she sounds as if she’s imitating Carol Channing). Here Madame Hortense tells of her affairs with admirals from England, Russia, Italy and France. She had such sexual power over them that she demanded they not fight, and her beauty made them agree, thus short-circuiting wars. “But did your king ever say a thing or decorate me?” she rhetorically asks before answering “No!” Kedrova will convince you that she did prevent many a battle.
Yul Brynner, Rex Harrison and Joel Grey could all boast of getting Oscars after recreating their Tony-winning musical performances on film. But no one had ever first won an Oscar and then a Tony for the same role after the film was turned into a Broadway musical. Kedrova did.
Zorba the Greek seemed destined to become a musical, for a man who relishes life and seizes every second of every day is one who can sing. But in 1968, Ebb miscalculated with the first lyric of his opening song, which he gave to The Leader of the (of course!) Greek chorus: “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.”
It’s a clever line and one very much in keeping with Ebb’s famously dour and fatalistic personality. But Zorba certainly does not see life that way; it’s an experience to be exultantly appreciated at all times. He’s fully aware that one never knows when life is going to end, so he isn’t taking any chances that he’ll someday regret missing an opportunity or two. As a result, whether Zorba be young as forty-five (as Bernardi was) or as old as sixty-eight (as Quinn was), he would never lose his sense of wonder at life.
By 1983, Ebb had realized his mistake and changed the line to “Life is what you do till the moment you die.” Well, yes, but isn’t that a given? Even so, for those of you who hear a cast album as a collection of songs, this opener is hard to beat with its intoxicating melody. Add to that its galvanizing performance by Debbie Shapiro (later Debbie Gravitte, and a Jerome Robbins’ Broadway Tony-winner) as The Woman, as Stein had renamed The Leader.
At least the new lyric doesn’t conflict with Zorba’s zestful opening song when he reveals that he sees each event in his life as if he were experiencing it for “The First Time.” His dynamic closing number, “I Am Free,” reiterates this, too. Chances are Zorba never saw a production of Our Town, but he too thought of Thornton Wilder’s message that life should be constantly treasured.
Here is a mentor! When comes such another! Niko (beautifully sung by Robert Westenberg), is an uptight American who hopes to revive an abandoned Cretan mine that he’s inherited. Niko knows he’ll need help, and Zorba, whom he meets in a café, is ready to provide it.
Zorba’s also quite the matchmaker who can sense when two people are attracted – such as Niko and The Widow. (That’s it: The Widow. No name.) She’s been undauntedly pursued by Paolo, a slight local lad in whom she has no interest. Niko, however does intrigue her, which decimates Paolo. All along, he’s reasoned that with no one else competing for her favors, he might have a chance, however slight. Now with Niko on the scene, he knows there’s no hope.
This leads to a magnificent first-act closer called “Only Love,” begun by Madame Hortense and finished by The Woman. Some musicals end their first act with no particular climax: New Girl in Town; Where’s Charley? Most, of course, do make the most of a climactic situation: South Pacific, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Chicago, 42nd Street, Titanic, Hairspray and Kinky Boots, just to pick one example from each of the last eight decades. But as longtime Broadway observer Paul Roberts has pointed out, “‘Only Love’ has three remarkable things happening at the end of the first act: Zorba goes with Hortense, Niko is invited to The Widow’s chamber and Paolo leaps to his death.”
In the Encores! presentation, John Turturro was game and did a creditable job as Zorba. But he simply didn’t have the size we associate with the man. This life-embracer must look as if, to paraphrase a famous lyric, he never worried about how much he weighed when there was still one piece of cake.
Just look at the photograph of Anthony Quinn on the revival cast album. Have you ever seen a robust and lusty life better personified? It certainly captures Zorba better than the unfortunately wrong logo of the original production: Zorba does a handstand and looks downright clownish as opposed to a vibrant man who’s a life-force.
True, Quinn gets ahead of the music in the middle section of “The First Time,” but he still delivers one of those performances you cheer because you never expected him to do a musical. We’re always praising such stars as Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall for going out on a theatrical limb and doing musicals; let’s add Quinn to the roll of honor. He also does well with “Woman,” a new song that K&E penned just for him. (The team also added a new one for Niko, too: “That’s a Beginning,” one of their more forceful ballads.)
It’s a rare revival that runs longer than the original production. Such Tony-winning classics as Dolly, Fiddler, Fair Lady and The Pajama Game all saw each of their multiple revivals last only a fraction of the original runs. And to think that Kander and Ebb have had not one, not two but three revivals that have eclipsed the performance count of the originals. There’s Chicago, of course, which has been with us since the first Clinton administration en route to becoming the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history, and Cabaret, which is no less than the second longest-running musical revival in Broadway history.
No, Zorba’s performance count can’t match its two K&E brothers; the 1983 revival ran 362 to the original’s 305. Nevertheless, figures don’t lie; fifty-seven more performances still constitute a longer run. And as the continuously-available 1983 revival cast album and the Encores! airing proved, Zorba has life and is most certainly not waiting to die.
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.