Encores! Off-Broadway On the Mind
With Encores! announcing their 2015 season of Off-Broadway pieces to revisit (including the wonderful A New Brain, the bankable but unnecessary Little Shop of Horrors and the intriguing but uneven Lippa's The Wild Party), I thought it might be interesting to look at some Off-Broadway titles that are ripe for exploration through this series.
1. In Trousers
William Finn's 1979 musical that first introduced us to the world of the petulant and confused Marvin (who would eventually become the central character of the Falsettos musicals), is a perfect choice for exhumation. Thin on plot, but more of a reflection on Marvin's relationship with the women that influenced his life, the score is nevertheless delightful, insightful, and like a tap dance through psychosis. Among the frantic and funny score, the sardonic "Your Lips and Me," the blissfully erotic "Whizzer Going Down," the poignant "A Breakfast Over Sugar" and the slyly arrogant "My Chance to Survive the Night" are standouts.
2. A Man of No Importance
Rave all you want to about the gorgeous anthems of Ragtime, or the pure optimistic joy of Seussical (and you'd be right to do both), but it is Ahrens and Flaherty's score for A Man of No Importance that is their most character-driven and deeply felt. The simple story of a gay, Irish bus driver and his attempt to put on a community theatre production of Salome is a beguiling slice of small town life and a gentle exploration of the world of an aging homosexual man.. "Love Who You Love," "Art" and "Man in the Mirror" are superb examples of standout songs in a superior score that will both touch and break your heart.
3. Floyd Collins
It is awfully hard to decide which Adam Guettel score I like better, The Light in the Piazza or Floyd Collins. That is a debate I will save for another article perhaps, but I must admit that I find myself permeated and changed by the Guettel's bluegrass and country-infused, mystical score for Floyd Collins. Set in 1925 Kentucky, the title character finds himself trapped inside a sand cave and, while several rescue attempts are made (and fail), a media circus builds around the situation as the plot climbs toward his imminent death. Songs like "The Riddle" find humor in the dire situation, and the penultimate "How Glory Goes" is a stunning anthem of hope and optimism.
4. Lucky Stiff
It's a cornball farce of a musical, and the plot teeters on the edge of complete ridiculousness, but Lucky Stiff is such fantastic fun and features an unforgettably melodic score by Ahrens and Flaherty, that it is easy to dive in and embrace the lunacy. An English shoe salesman finds out he is about to inherit a fortune, but to get the cash, he needs to escort his Uncle Anthony's dead body on a trip to Monte Carlo. If he fails at meeting all of his uncle's specifications of the trip, then the money will go to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn. A comedy of errors ensues when the dog home's director makes the trip in an effort to see that her charity gets the money. Much of the music is lively "It's Good to Be Alive" and "Something Funny's Going On," but the gentle "Times Like This," perhaps Ahrens and Flaherty's best song to date, allows the musical to find its quiet, reflective moments.
Long forgotten, or at least collecting some dust, is the 1975 Jones and Schmidt musical Philemon. It's not The Fantasticks, but what was every going to top that? It does, however, have a unique story and score that deserves to be heard again. (On a side note: has the original cast recording ever been released on cd or for download?) Set in the age of the Roman Empire and during the brutal eradication of Christians, the musical follows the story of a street performer named Cocknian who is employed by a Roman commander to pretend to be the Christian priest Philemon in an attempt to draw out the leader of the Christian underground. Through his deceptions, Cocknian begins to see the light of Christianity and embraces it, resulting in his death as a martyr. The final song of the piece "I See the Light" is a standout in a very agreeable score.
6. Bat Boy
With a story ripped from a supermarket tabloid headline, embellished, and given an electric score by Laurence O'Keefe, Bat Boy the musical as first seems like Off-Broadway camp. It has its wacky, off-beat moments, but at the center of this crazy concoction is a beating heart and pointed satire. The story: a boy found living in a cave (and who resembles a bat) moves into the home of a veterinarian and his family who agree to take care of him. When a series of cow deaths occur in the town, fingers are pointed at Bat Boy, and the family gets caught in the middle. The story builds to extreme, tragic proportions, simultaneously indicting society for its lack of empathy and understanding for people who are different. Bat Boy personifies what the experimental nature of Off-Broadway is all about. It successfully goes in places where Broadway musicals rarely dare to go.
7. The Mad Show
Encores!, in its exploration of Broadway musicals, has (on occasion), ventured into the world of the musical revue. The Off-Broadway series should be twice as bold, since many of the best musical revues have been found outside the parameters of Broadway. Of particular interest to me is Mary Rodger's tuner The Mad Show, featuring lyrics by a variety of contributors (including Stephen Sondheim sporting a nom de plume). Based on the popular entertainment periodical Mad Magazine, the revue was a sketch comedy, each scene exploring a humorous scenario through music. The best is the droll "The Boy From...," a spoof of the popular song "The Girl from Ipanema," in this version told from the point of view of a young woman head-over-heels with a guy who, as the lyrics slowly reveal, is clearly gay and not an attainable prospect despite her obsessive stalking. I relish the thought of someone like Laura Benanti singing this ditty and breathing new life into it.
8. Zanna, Don't!
Imagine a world where the majority of people are gay and the straights are in the minority. Okay...now imagine it outside of the world of musical theatre. Zanna, Don't! does just this, setting the action in an average American high school and treating the heterosexuals as outcasts and abominations. Created by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris, the musical is as flavorful and fun as Grease, while making sly commentary about how ridiculous people can be about human sexuality and labels. Of particular interest is the song "I Think we Got Love," when a football player falls in love with the school's chess champion (in this topsy-turvy school, nerds are treated like gods, and athletes are the outcasts). The number captures the pangs of first-love with a refreshing truthfulness for the anxiety it brings.
We've all waited for this musical to come to Broadway; several promises made and broken about that little dream. Fortunately, we have a cast recording courtesy of PS Classics and a successful online fundraising campaign that preserved the very best of this wonderful piece. The musical, set during World War II, follows a young, gay photographer as he travels, writing for a military magazine, and who falls in love with a fellow serviceman. The score by Joseph and David Zellnick captures the 1940s sound and manages to tell a deeply personal reflection on life and love in a time where not everyone could live and love openly and honestly.
10. Upstairs at O'Neil's
Another musical revue that is gone but not forgotten is the delectably witty Upstairs at O'Neils written and directed by Martin Charnin and featuring songs from a variety of composers. Much of the humor is topical of the day (1978), reminiscent of As Thousands Cheer in this way, but just like Irving Berlin's revue, it still has much tuneful humor to enjoy. "Stools" is a score favorite, a celebration of the musical revue and its only requirement for scenery being this particular piece of furniture. If you have never listened to Upstairs at O'Neils, get your hands on a recording pronto! You will see what a wonderful case it makes for a little Encores! love.