Tuesday, August 9, 2011

1956 Was A Vintage Year

Dedicated oenologists take great pride in identifying a vintage year. Fans of the American musical theatre often look to Ethan Mordden for a detailed history of Broadway musicals. Among Mordden's best-selling books is Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s.

Most people know that the 1950s was a key and highly innovative chapter in Broadway's Golden Age. What many forget is that 1956, in particular, was a vintage year. As of January 1, 1956, the following shows were already playing to adoring audiences:

During the 1956 calendar year, the following new musicals would make their debuts in Broadway theatres:
Last weekend I had the rare opportunity to attend the opening nights of revivals of two of the best musicals of 1956. The first is familiar to people around the world from its countless staged productions, 1964 film (starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison), and is slated to receive a second film adaptation in 2012 starring Carey Mulligan. The second, though hardly as well-known, has a cult following in both the opera and music theatre worlds.

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It goes without saying that My Fair Lady is one of the most beloved musicals of the 20th century. But what I love about a website like the Internet Broadway Database is the kind of trivia that can be found by poking around the list of replacement casts during a show's run.  Who knew that on December 23, 1957, the Queen of Transylvania was played by Kay Kendall (Rex Harrison's new wife)? Or that her escort at that performance was played by none other than the show's director, Moss Hart?

Woodminster Summer Musicals is currently presenting a revival of My Fair Lady at the Woodminster Amphitheatre in Oakland's Joaquin Miller Park.  Directed by Joel Schlader and choreographed by Peggy Nixon, this is a sturdy staging that makes excellent use of the ramp that encircles the outdoor theatre's orchestra pit.

Although the sound engineering is usually excellent at Woodminster's shows, this was one time that the musicians (conducted by Brandon Adams) seemed a bit muted. The cast, however, could be heard quite clearly, thanks to the work of Carole Davis, the company's sound technician.

Having attended a performance of Billy Elliot the Musical two nights prior in which the amplification was so loud that I thought my head might explode, it was especially gratifying to listen to Frederick Loewe's gracefully melodic score and Alan Jay Lerner's exquisitely-crafted lyrics again.  Based on George Bernard Shaw's 1923 comedy, Pygmalion, My Fair Lady has lost none of its bite in the 55 years since it premiered on Broadway.

Mrs. Eynsford Hill (Theresa DeLargy), Eliza Doolittle (Susan Himes Powers)
and Mrs. Higgins (Lucinda Hitchcok Cone) enjoy a cup of tea
at the Ascot Racetrack in My Fair Lady (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Robert Moorhead was perfectly cast as Professor Henry Higgins, with Gene Brundage providing a strong counterpart as Colonel Pickering. Lucinda Hitchcock Cone scored as Mrs. Higgins while Avi Jacobson was an unctuous Zoltan Karpathy.

Greg Carlson's boisterous portrayal of Alfred P. Doolittle was a delight, offering a stern reminder of Shaw's dry wit in depicting the challenges faced by a man who can't afford modern morality. Jarrett Battenburg's lean and lanky Freddy Eynsford-Hill displayed some strange vocal phrasing (as if he were almost afraid to relax and indulge the music's lyrical line).

Jarrett Battenburg as Freddy Eynsford-Hill sings  "On The Street
Where You Live" in My Fair Lady (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

The evening's greatest delight was Susan Himes Powers, who was making her debut in the role of Eliza Doolittle. An artist who possesses an exceptionally well-placed lyric soprano, Ms. Himes Powers is also a deft comedienne with superb diction who is fully capable of handling Eliza's Cockney accent with clarity and pathos, while imbuing her subsequent dramatic moments with a great sense of dignity.

Susan Himes Powers as Eliza Doolittle
in My Fair Lady (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

The bittersweet joy that accompanies any revival of My Fair Lady is the realization that, back in 1956, it was fairly common for a Broadway musical to introduce a handful of songs that became popular standards.  Think, for a minute, of shows like:
The 1950s was a decade in which Broadway musicals were filled with a spirit of innovation and great new songs. If one looks at Act I of My Fair Lady, one finds five songs that instantly became popular hits ("Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" "With A Little Bit of Luck," "The Rain in Spain," "I Could Have Danced All Night," and "On the Street Where You Live").  Act II contains "Get Me To The Church On Time" and "I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face."

Colonel Pickering (Gene Brundage), Eliza Doolittle (Susan Himes Powers)
and Professor Henry Higgins (Robert Moorhead) sing
"The Rain in Spain" in My Fair Lady (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Talk about craft! They just don't make'em like that anymore.

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In his book, Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s, Ethan Mordden writes:
"The Most Happy Fella enjoys a great diversity in the structure of its music. Loesser mixes pop and legit, arioso and recit, underscored dialogue: this is a demonstration piece of how many different techniques Broadway had developed for music theatre by 1956. If My Fair Lady hadn't opened six weeks before, The Most Happy Fella would have been the official glory of the mid-1950s. There is only one greater score in this decade, that of Candide -- and even Candide is not as emotionally elaborated as The Most Happy Fella."

Shawnette Sulker and Ted Weis in Festival Opera's
2011 production of The Most Happy Fella
(Photo by: Robert Shomler)

Since its original Broadway production (which was partially funded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), Frank Loesser's musical has been widely hailed for its musicianship as well as the fact that the original cast album required three LPs to accommodate the show's 40+ musical numbers. The Most Happy Fella (along with 1964's Anyone Can Whistle) is one of the few Broadway musicals to be broken into three acts. It is also a show that easily straddles any perceived boundaries between opera and musical theater.

José Hernandez (Ciccio), Michael Mendelsohn (Giuseppe), and
Nicholas Aliaga (Pasquale) in Festival Opera's 2011 production
of  The Most Happy Fella (Photo by: Robert Shomler)

Revivals, however, have been far less frequent than those of My Fair Lady. I first saw The Most Happy Fella at a New York City Center revival that featured Karen Morrow as Cleo and Art Lund repeating his portrayal of Joe.  In September 1979, Michigan Opera Theatre's production traveled to Broadway's Majestic Theatre for a limited run. That production was recorded by PBS and aired nationally in 1980 as part of its Great Performances series.  In the following video clip, Giorgio Tozzi and Sharon Daniels sing "My Heart Is So Full of You."

In 1991, the New York City Opera presented The Most Happy Fella with a cast headed by Louis Quilico with Karen Ziemba appearing as Cleo. That same year, the Goodspeed Opera House staged a production accompanied on two pianos (using a score that Loesser had once commissioned) with such success that the production moved to Broadway's Booth Theatre the following year with Spiro Malas as Tony (it ran for 229 performances).  In 2006, the New York City Opera revived The Most Happy Fella with Paul Sorvino in the title role.

The source material for The Most Happy Fella was Sidney Howard's play, They Knew What They Wanted, which won the 1925 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1940, Garson Kanin directed a film version of Howard's play that starred Charles Laughton as Tony, Carole Lombard as Amy, Lee Tung Foo as a Chinese cook named "Ah Gee" and marked the screen debut of a young Karl Malden. In the following clip, Brian Staufenbiel (the artistic director of the opera program at UC-Santa Cruz who staged Festival Opera's 2011 revival of The Most Happy Fella) discusses what made the show so innovative half a century ago:

Peter Crompton's sets for The Most Happy Fella used a style of art found on old-fashioned postcards of California to invoke a nostalgic sense of San Francisco and the Napa Valley. With Bryan Nies on the podium, the production was solidly cast from the minor roles (the three singing Italian waiters) through to Krista Wigle's lively Cleo and Pierce Brandt's delightful Herman.

Cleo (Krista Wigle) and Herman (Pierce Brandt) in a scene from
Festival Opera's 2011 production of The Most Happy Fella
(Photo by: Robert Shomler)

Although outfitted with body mikes, the three romantic leads delivered convincing portrayals of their complex characters. As Tony, Ted Weis sang with a remarkably healthy voice for a man of his age. Joshua Hollister's Joe seemed younger and less jaded than most (the appealing young baritone's singing was much  stronger than his acting). Shawnette Sulker's Rosabella was extremely moving, her voice soaring in key moments of passion.

The musical riches in Loesser's score never fail to amaze audiences. From big production numbers like the title song and "Big D" to tender ballads like "Somebody, Somewhere," "Joey, Joey, Joey," and "Don't Cry" -- from comedy numbers like "Ooh, My Feet," "Abbondanza," "Good-bye, Darlin'" and "I Like Everybody," to songs of remarkable intimacy ("How Beautiful The Days" and "Warm All Over"), The Most Happy Fella overflows with a wealth of creativity.

I can think of no better example to demonstrate how well this show's songs stand the test of time than this clever musical trailer (that was shot locally) featuring the show's biggest hit: "Standing on the Corner."

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