Guilty Pleasure Thursday - Nick & Nora - The Entire Score
We all know the classic Broadway musical titles: Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Annie and the dozens of others that show up in regional theatres, high schools, community theatres and even make their way back to Broadway from time to time. However, there are easily hundereds of Broadway musicals that were deemed unsuccessful and have, for the most part, been forgotten by the theatergoing community despite the fact that they have much to recommend.
I have a deep affection for flop musicals and must share a personal story in order for you to understand my dedication to this niche of theatre history. I became a fan of Broadway musicals around the age of 13 and by the time I had graduated high school in 1991, I was pretty familiar with most of the standards. Many a summer I spent checking record albums out of the public library, learning about the treats that Finian's Rainbow, Chicago, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, Bye, Bye Birdie and Evita held in store. While at the library, I would always stop and read the New York Time's "Arts and Leisure" section to keep in sync with the Broadway theatre news. In late 1989, I happened upon some items about a new musical entitled Nick & Nora working its way to the Great White Way. The prospect sounded intriguing:
1. The piece was to have music by Charles Strouse (Annie, Bye, Bye, Birdie), lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. (MIss Saigon, Closer than Ever) and a book by A.R. Guerney (The Dining Room, The Middle Ages). This should add up to quality material.
2. The story was based on Dashiell Hammet's Thin Man stories about Nick and Nora Charles, a wealthy couple who solve crimes while mixing martinis in New York City of the 1930's. A successful film series in its own right, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, the property seemed not necessarily ideal for musicalization, but a fun idea.
3. The show was to be directed by Arthur Laurents who had directed two of Broadway's greatest musicals: Gypsy and West Side Story.
4. The show was to star Tony Award winning actress Joanna Gleason (Into the Woods) as socialite Nora Charles and Tony Award winning actor Barry Bostwick (The Robber Bridegroom) as her detective husband, Nick. Gleason was a particularly appropriate choice for Nora, as she drips with patrician glamor and has a delightful delivery of sophisticated wit.
These ingredients should have added up to something special, right? So what went wrong? Nick & Nora was the first show I followed from its announced production to its closing night after nine brief performances, and the story that unfolds yields a lot of finger pointing, but no clear answers.
Nick & Nora made its first mistake by deciding to forgo the expensive out-of-town tryout process, and instead opting for a long period of 71 previews in New York City. This can be deadly, especially if a show has a few kinks to work out. In an out-of-town preview, rumors are there, but not passing amidst the cognescenti of the New York Theatre world. Nick & Nora aired all of its dirty laundry right under the eyes of the New York Theater community and the rumor mills churned out horror stories of the impending production. Rumor had it that Nick & Nora was going to be a disaster.
Problem number one appeared to be the book. A.R. Guerney was "out" early on and replaced by director Arthur Laurents. As it stood, The Thin Man stories had a New York edge and much pleasure was found in the likes of the Charles couple making their way through the seedy, smokey New York underworld in search of clues and suspects. It was part of the charm of the original Hammet tales and a concept that was clearly defined in the movie series. Then why in the world did they decide to move the action to Hollywood? The show was soon full of showbiz types and glamorous locales, and somehow the irony was lost. The story pushed the charcaters of Nick and Nora to the background for most of the show and defined them as observers in the action rather than catalysts. A feeble attempt at conflict was suggested through a ludicrous marriage infidelity on Nora's part, something the beloved character would never have done. Most importantly, the librettist conjured up a murder mystery that had limited appeal, a convoluted premise and all the suspense of watching a Murder, She Wrote rerun. I suggest that it is a bad idea to have your director also serve as your bookwriter, as objectivity is lost as to what needs to be trimmed, refocused and rewritten. Arthur Laurents, a brilliant man of theatre writing and directing, was reft of objectivity in this situation. He was under pressure, a great deal of it, as it is evident from tales of his admonishing the cast and accusing them as being part of the rumor mill, leaking information of the show's woes. He was overworked and too close to the material to make appropriate choices on its behalf.
Nick & Nora opened on December 8th, 1991 to mostly negative reviews, although certain items were singled out as inspired, well-done or showing promise. Supporting player Faith Prince, was elevated to stardom for her brilliant comedic portrayal of murder victim Lorraine Bixby. Prince was heralded by the press for being the only lively thing in Nick & Nora despite the fact she was playing a corpse. Prince would go on to win the Tony Award later that season for her comedic turn as Miss Adelaide in the revival of the critically lauded production of Guys and Dolls directed by Jerry Zaks.The rest of the cast did not fair as well. Gleason and Bostwick were considered serviceable rather than standout leads. 'Serviceable" is a word that is never attributed to usually dynamic, spot-on, Ms. Gleason. The supporting cast of stars including the usually terrific Christine Baranski and Debra Monk were chided for sounding vocally uncomfortable and trying too hard. The set by Douglas Schmidt was cheap looking and the costumes, by the usually terrific Theoni V. Aldredge, were downright unbecoming.The show also could not escape comparison with the far superior murder musical, the Tony Award winning City of Angels that was running just a few blocks away, and suffered in the shadow of its fresh and vibrant production.
The score of Nick & Nora was not embraced either and one of the songs, "Boom-Chicka-Boom" was deemed one of the most tasteless ditties to appear on Broadway ever. Much of the score was dismissed as forgettable. This is where I take issue. A cast recording of Nick & Nora was made, despite its expedient closing and commerical failure. The score was nominated for a 1992 Tony Award, and although it lost to the far superior Falsettos, it has much to recommend. The show opens with a song that is not an attention getter, but the delightful "Is There Anything Better Than Dancing" would have made a charming second number. Faith Prince's performance of the musical diatribe "Men" is an especially, caustic and bitter character number that gives great insight into Lorraine's background. "Look Who's Alone Now" is a haunting torch song and excuted with aplomb by Mr. Bostwick. "Swell" is a joyous, building quartet designed around suspect interviews. The two best numbers in the show are "Detectiveland" a delicious, maudlin chorus number where the suspects line up to share their motives as they abusively kick the corpse down a kickline. The second is the frenetic and comical "A Busy Night at Lorraine's", a rendering of several murder scenarios as Nick and Nora sing through the possibilities. Yes, the score has a few duds. "Everybody Wants to Do a Musical" sounds painfully forced by Ms. Baranski. Ms. Monk's "People Get Hurt" should have been a comic showstopper, but dies upon arrival. "Lets Go Home" is the show's finale number, and it feels lazy and tired, not at all befitting the end to a night of musical comedy.
If you are a fan of musical theatre, go find the original cast recording of Nick & Nora. There are enough pleasant songs and witty lyrics to make it worth your time. It may not be one of your "most played" recordings, but it will be one you will take off the shelf from time to time to ruminate over why it wasn't better than it was. It was my first lesson in the heartbreak of musical theatre flops and one I hold close to my heart.