HOLLYWOOD GOES TO BROADWAY
PART TWO: MARVIN HAMLISCH
Stage Musicals by Film Composers
By Scott Bettencourt
A CHORUS LINE ****
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Columbia CK 33581
11 cues, 48:34
With 6137 performances, A Chorus Line was for many years the
longest running Broadway musical of all time (until the dire Cats
topped it, ending up with a whopping 7485 performances), and a surprising
choice for that achievement as it was a far from traditional stage musical.
Along with its memorable choreography and catchy, classic score, it was
an unusually authentic behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the Broadway
theater, and for once the focus was on the rank-and-file, not on stars.
Even more shockingly, it was not about the understudy who pulls through
at the last minute to take the lead role, but about the unemployed dancers
striving just to get a slot in the chorus. None of the show's original
cast have gone on to become major stars, though a few are steadily employed
players like Donna McKechnie (whose own personal history was part of the
show's inspiration), and the terrifically reptilian character actor Robert
LuPone (brother of Patti). A handful of the 15 years worth of replacement
actors have become familiar faces, such as Broadway performers Ann Reinking,
Scott Wise and Karen Ziemba, as well as Jack Noseworthy (who later showed
up Hamlisch's Sweet Smell of Success), Lauren Tom, and the great
Bebe Neuwirth. The book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante was based
on interviews with real Broadway dancers (two books have been published
about the show's history -- On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line
by Robert Viagas, Baavork Lee and Thommie Walsh, and The Longest Line
by Gary Stevens and Alan George), and despite the Broadway gloss the show
feels unusually truthful (apart from the dramatically necessary but improbable
gimmick of the "director" having the dancers tell their personal histories).
In one especially nice touch, there are actually two gay characters among
the principals instead of the inevitable single token, with one given the
showy monologue about his troubled childhood (unlike in, say, Fame,
where we're supposed to believe that New York's High School for the Performing
Arts has only one gay student).
But even without the Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prize, A Chorus Line
must be considered the crowning achievement of Marvin Hamlisch's career,
though certainly Edward Kleban's clever and fresh lyrics are a pivotal
element of the show's success. Unlike Hamlisch, who has had an impressively
varied and successful career, Chorus Line was Kleban's only hit
(film music fans probably know him best for his lyrics to "There's a Lot
to Be Said for the Fuhrer" from The Hindenburg), though after his
death Lonny Price created a biographical musical based on Kleban's songs
entitled A Class Act which became a hit. Hamlisch has always been
hard to get a handle on as a composer, as there's very little stylistic
continuity between his works -- the Bernstein-ish warmth of The Swimmer,
the forthright zaniness of Bananas, the Golden Age gloss of The
Way We Were, the disco-tinged pastiche of The Spy Who Loved Me,
the sweeping romanticism of Sophie's Choice -- but this chameleon
quality serves him exceptionally well in A Chorus Line, where he's
able to both evoke the popular Broadway style (as in the Jerry Herman-esque,
show-within-a-show song "One," one of the score's most familiar pieces)
and write numbers that deftly delineate the personalities of the individual
dancers, such as "Nothing," in which a Hispanic female dancer reminisces
about an especially unsympathetic drama teacher. (If the show has any serious
flaw, it's the undertone of adolescent griping/whining -- many of the characters'
problems can be summed up as "My parents didn't love me enough" or "My
directors/teachers didn't respect me enough," and "Nothing" was cleverly
parodied in the terrific Off-Broadway revue Upstairs at O'Neill's,
in which the maligned drama teacher gets to tell his side of the story
in the song "Something," written by Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell,
performed by Bernstein)
While "What I Did For Love" is the show's memorable ballad, "At the
Ballet" is an especially lovely and lilting number, "The Music and the
Mirror" features a dazzling dance solo, and "Dance: Ten, Looks: Three"
(generally referred to as "Tits and Ass") is an energetic showstopper,
though it does feature perhaps the show's most nonsensical lyric: "Tits
and ass/Won't get you jobs/Unless they're yours."
A film version was planned for years and finally emerged in 1985, with
Richard Attenborough directing Michael Douglas as the show's director and
a cast of relative unknowns who have largely remained unknowns in the 19
years since, though one actor, Michael Blevins, went on to play the tiny
role of David Raksin in Attenborough's Chaplin biopic. The film
was a slick, enjoyable and faithful adaptation but ultimately uninspired,
with Attenborough's direction at times evoking a TV variety show. The film
received Oscar nominations for its editing, sound, and for one of the two
Kleban-Hamlisch songs written for the film, "Surprise, Surprise" but it
was ultimately a boxoffice flop and reinforced all the common wisdom about
musicals being boxoffice poison, a sentiment that the huge success of Chicago
may have only temporarily changed. Sadly, Kleban, Dante, Kirkwood and
director Michael Bennett all passed on many years ago.
THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG **
Lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager
Casablanca 826 240-2 M-1
13 cues, 39:30
Marvin Hamlisch's romantic and creative partnership with lyricist Carole
Bayer Sager ("Nobody Does It Better") inspired this musical romantic comedy
about a pair of songwriters, featuring a book by the most popular Broadway
playwright of the 70s (and the 60s, and the 80s), Neil Simon. The show's
success proved that Hamlisch was no Broadway flash-in-the-pan, running
two and a half years.
Unfortunately, it is also the weakest of Hamlisch's major stage scores,
and the forgettable quality of the songs is an unfortunate and clearly
unintentional analogue to the offstage Hamlisch-Sager relationship -- in
1982 she married Burt Bacharach, the pair's musical collaborations including
the songs from Night Shift and the Oscar winning "Arthur's Theme,"
and after their 1990 divorce she married Warner Bros. exec Robert Daly.
Your enjoyment of the score may depend on your appreciation of the instantly
dated disco sound (the songs were orchestrated by Ralph Burns, Richard
Hazard, and Blacula composer Gene Page) and your tolerance of Robert
Klein's singing voice. Klein was one of the funniest comedians of the early
70s and has evolved into a worthy character actor, but his songs were always
the weakest part of his comedy albums and his vocal stylings on this album
are not easy on the ear. Shockingly, he was nominated for a Tony while
his more vocally pleasing co-star Lucie Arnaz wasn't (though in all fairness,
his acting may have trumped hers). Tom Conti starred in the London production,
which also resulted in a cast album, and among the replacements in the
Broadway production were Tony Roberts, Ted Wass, Victor Garber, Stockard
Channing and Anita Gillette.
Fans of Hamlisch's film scores may appreciate that all four of his cast
CDs feature a fair amount of instrumental dance music. Some of the songs
here have a mild charm and the title tune is fairly catchy, but however
the show plays on the stage, as a cast album it comes across as neither
especially romantic nor funny, and ultimately oddly abrasive (Klein's singing
voice doesn't help).
In 1986, Hamlisch returned to the Broadway musical with an adaptation
of the Michael Ritchie film Smile, a satirical comedy about beauty
pageants. The original Hamlisch score featured lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
(How Now Dow Jones), but Hamlisch ended up writing a new score with
lyrics by Howard Ashman (of Ashman & Menken fame). The show ended up
lasting only 48 performances on Broadway, but Ken Mandelbaum writes favorably
of the musical in his invaluable book Not Since Carrie, and the
Bruce Kimmel produced CD series Unsung Musicals, released by Varese
Sarabande in the mid-1990s, featured four Smile songs -- Unsung
Musicals (1994) featured "Smile," "In Our Hands," and "Disneyland,"
and Unsung Musicals III (1997) featured "Maria's Song."
THE GOODBYE GIRL ***
Lyrics by David Zippel
Columbia CK 53761
18 cues, 63:06
The musical adaptation of Neil Simon's 1977 Oscar-winning romantic comedy
The Goodbye Girl seemed a surefire hit -- the source material was
popular, charming and weightless as well as small-scaled enough to fit
snugly on a Broadway stage, the combination of TV-and-movie comedy actor
Martin Short and Broadway darling Bernadette Peters provided unusual star
power, and Neil Simon himself wrote the book. But, surprisingly, the show
lasted for only five months and 188 performances.
The cast album, though no classic, is a big improvement on They're
Playing Our Song, helped by David Zippel(City of Angels, Mulan)'s
genuinely clever lyrics (though the line about a "Sondheimlich maneuver"
in "Paula (An Improvised Love Song)" is an inexcusable groaner). The dance
class number "A Beat Behind" charmingly evokes Hamlisch's masterpiece A
Chorus Line, and the number "Elliot Garfield Grant," where Short lays
down the law to his unwitting tenants, is cleverly conceived and an energetic
highlight. Short's unceasing energy is perfectly suited to the Broadway
stage and this show in particular, and Peters, one of the most talented
stars of the musical theater, is much more appealing than Marsha Mason,
her movie predecessor (though the role inherently borders on the grating),
and gives an especially impassioned and satisfying rendition of her emotional
climactic song, "What a Guy." As with They're Playing Our Song,
there is an unusual amount of incidental music on the CD, including the
overture, entracte and even the final bows.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS ***1/2
Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Sony Classical SK89922
18 cues, 60:28
This musical version of the classic 1957 film, which starred Burt Lancaster
as Winchell-esque gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis in his
finest performance as weaselly press agent Sidney Falco, was the most hyped
production of its Broadway season. From the advertising you might have
thought the producers had a Producers-sized hit on their hands,
but the acclaimed original film, with its dazzling script by Ernest Lehman
and Clifford Odets, sharp direction by Alexander Mackendrick and memorable
black-and-white cinematography by James Wong Howe, was a commercial failure
on its release and the kind of dark, cynical plot that can be an awkward
fit for the popular musical theater. (It was probably the success of Lloyd
Webber's Sunset Boulevard that convinced backers that Success
could live up to its title.)
The show was a big money loser, running only 108 performances and winning
just one Tony, for John Lithgow's performance as Hunsecker -- ironically,
the show lost Best Musical to Thoroughly Modern Millie, another
stage version of an Elmer Bernstein-scored film. But despite the mixed
reviews, poor boxoffice and big financial loss, the cast album is terrific,
a moody and dazzling musicalization of an unusually grim Hollywood film.
Hamlisch's music and Craig Carnelia's lyrics are frequently reminiscent
of Sondheim (and from me there's no greater compliment) but not excessively
derivative of the master, and the unsympathetic protagonists are given
numbers (Hunsecker sings "For Susan" to his beloved sister, for whom he
holds unacknowledged incestuous feelings, and Falco sings of his dreams
of glory in "At the Fountain") in which they express their deepest feelings
without overly softening their characters. This is the strongest new Broadway
score I've heard in years and one of Hamlisch's finest works, and is highly
recommended for both Broadway fans and Hamlisch devotees.
It is hard, I know, to review these musicals without actually
having seen them, but one thing you must understand is that a show like
Promises, Promises is an ADAPTATION of The Apartment, it is not The Apartment.
The book is by Neil Simon, not Billy Wilder. The score works perfectly
in the musical, whether one thinks it's a great score or not (I happen
to adore it). And there is plenty of melancholy feeling in I'll Never Fall
in Love Again and it's quite touching in the context of the show. The album
is a mixed bag for Promises fans -- it is produced (not sung) very much
like a Bacharach pop album -- song endings have been truncated, dance music
has been left off of A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing, etc. Had those things
not been changed or had a bit of dialogue here and there been used (as
on most cast albums) you would understand better how good the score works.
FROM: "John Archibald"
The most interesting thing about the show, however, is the Fran
character who, in Mr. Simon's hands and Miss O'Hara's person is not nearly
as nuanced or adorable as she was in the film. That is the show's biggest
problem -- it's ALL skewed to the Jack Lemmon character.
As an addendum to your article:
I hadn't realize Victor Young had done Seventh Heaven (I saw the
movie recently but didn't even know there was a stage musical version until
I spotted the cast CD); I'll have to pick that one up to review for a later
entry in the series.
I saw "How Now Dow Jones" three times (!), twice during its Boston
tryout, and later in New York, and enjoyed it very much. I must have, or
I wouldn't have seen it three times. I especially remember the ballads,
such as "Walk Away," or that marvelous madrigal at the beginning of Act
II, with the chorus all in white, "Rich is Better." It was a very enjoyable
show, funny, tuneful, lots of bright colors, and dance numbers. Exactly
what the term "Broadway musical comedy" refers to.
I also saw "Merlin," which seemed to be merely a string of Doug
Henning magic acts, with musical numbers as filler between them, and Chita
Rivera sweeping around, like Maleficent in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty."
Unfortunately, none of the music was particularly memorable, though I do
remember considerable use of the ondes martinot, which Bernstein seemed
to be using a lot in those days.
I went to "Promises Promises" twice as well, in both Boston and
New York. Since all we have to remember it now is the cast album, this
gives very little of what the show was like. It was bright, sassy, funny,
and even romantic, with lots bright costumes, and lots, repeat, lots of
dancing. It was one of the three musicals choreographed by Michael Bennett,
before he hit his stride in 1971, with "Follies," and it just bristled
with movement. The number, "Turkey Lurkey Time," lambasted in your review,
was a whirlwind of dancers, all moving on tables and chairs, with one soloist,
a certain Donna McKechnie, standing out. She and Bennett went on to create
the historical "A Chorus Line" only a few years later.
It's unfortunate that all we have left of these creations is their
cast albums, and sometimes we don't even have those. But, speaking as someone
who actually saw some of them, the theatrical experience was a more multi-dimensional
experience. The score is only a part, though an integral one, of the whole
presentation. There are still shows, flops when they originally opened,
whose reputation is founded on their cast albums, such as Leonard Bernstein's
"Candide," or even the aforementioned "Follies," which has taken on legendary
status since I saw its original cast, back in 1971.
What's most fascinating about the efforts of film composers to
do Broadway is to try to recognize their film style in its translation
to the medium of the Broadway score. I think the most musically recognizable
is Victor Young's score for "Seventh Heaven," recently made available on
CD, which decidedly sounds like his film music, particularly the ballets.
It's easily as enjoyable as any of his film scores in my collection. On
the other hand, I'd never have guessed that Laurence Rosenthal wrote "Sherry!"
from merely listening to the recording. (I saw that show, too, when it
tried out in Boston, with its original star, George Sanders. I've always
liked the score, but if I hadn't known it was Rosenthal, I'd never have
Thanks for the article. Very enjoyable. Looking forward to more.
FROM: "Mark R. Young"
I have heard live tapes of both THE LITTLE PRINCE AND THE
AVIATOR and MERLIN. The visual appeal of Doug Henning's illusions in MERLIN
was obviously the main attraction. Elmer Bernstein's score is just OK,
featuring one outstanding catchy song, "It's About Magic" which opens the
show and is reprised several times. Along with Chita Rivera, a young Nathan
Lane as "Prince Fergus" can be heard. He was eliciting big laughs from
the audience even then.
When I wrote the first column, I'd forgotten that Bruce Kimmel's Varese
Sarabande disc Unsung Musicals II (1995) featured Michele Nicastro
singing "Beyond My Wildest Dreams" from Merlin, which I also neglected
to include in my Bernstein film/discography.
LITTLE PRINCE/AVIATOR contains an overall excellent score. It is
best in the more meditative numbers such as "Wind, Sand and Stars" and
"Sunset Song". The convoluted book makes the plot difficult to follow on
tape, though. It would be nice if at least some of the best of Barry's
songs were formally recorded. (Maybe an enterprising singer could record
a John Barry "songbook" containing both stage and movie songs.)
FROM: "James Phillips"
I hope you can add Billy Goldenberg's Broadway musical
BALLROOM with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman based on the TV movie
QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALLROOM. Billy told me he's working on a revival
with Chita Rivera.
Thank you for reminding me of Ballroom; I'd completely forgotten
it, even though I have the cast album. And believe me, I also wish Lukas
would do Last of Sheila -- it's one of my all-time favorite movies.
Another Goldenberg Broadway/Film connection: I read a review of
the DVD release of THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973; d. Herbert Ross) in SCARLET
STREET (No. 51), the convoluted, fun mystery by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony
Perkins. There was a Sondheim song "Anyone Can Whistle" in the beginning
of the film, played by Sheila (Yvonne Romaine), and the DVD edition replaced
this with Goldenberg's original film music.
This is a Warner's Home Video release, so maybe you can speak to
Lukas Kendall about a possible FSM release since it is over 25 years old.
One of this series, covering the stage musicals of Burt Bacharach,
John Barry and Elmer Bernstein, can be accessed on the website.