Back in the swing of things on ol’ Broadway for the first time since the advent of COVID. Not only is the theatre thing itself nostalgic, but our first group of shows were all revivals. Memory lane was very much a part of the first half of our two-week sojourn in the Big Apple.
The Music Man is not a show I would have picked. My wife has a large say in these things and her tastes not only lean very heavily toward the musical over the so-called “straight-play” but also to very middle- of-the-road material such as this Meredith Wilson offering from the past century.
One time Hollywood mogul Barry Diller, and still fairly current mogul guy David Geffen, have teamed up as producers to put forward about as glossy a product as you will find these days in New York City. Sutton Foster as the Librarian (Marian) is as close to perfect casting for this role as anyone could ask, and Hugh Jackman…. A Hollywood semi-super star…assays the title role. That said, it is Benjamin Pajak who pretty much steals the show (as nine-year-old child stars are wont to do).
Me? I have a few complaints. It is not near the top of my list of Broadway shows… even when it was brand new. That said, the whole affair was well produced, nicely directed, and well performed. There is, however, one thing I am compelled to add:
Hugh Jackman is a very versatile leading man of stage and screen. He was fabulous as Curley in a terrific revival of Oklahoma I saw in London a few years back, and he was brilliant on stage in The Boy From Oz. His movie star credentials are substantive, and he can sing and dance about as well as anyone could ask for from a leading man. Why this buildup? He ain’t Robert Preston… which means, The Music Man he really ain’t either.
The part calls for a super charismatic figure. A traveling salesman who can convince a bunch of Iowans to lay out a small fortune for uniforms, band instruments, and instruction manuals for the entire town’s population of pre and post adolescents. The role requires more than “just” acting, singing, and dancing. It requires a star quality that mesmerizes not only the citizens of River City, Iowa but everyone in the theatre as well.
Hugh Jackman has it all…but somehow he failed to bring that one critical thing to this particular stage. That kind of a super star he is not, and, in my view, the show suffers for it.
A natural segue from the minimal charisma exhibited by the title character in The Music Man to this revival is not only easy but all too obvious. This is Barbra Streisand’s signature piece and the proof of it (beyond the vivid memories of some of us, the awards, the history books, and the movie) is that no one has seriously tried to bring this musical back for the past six decades.
My late pal Ed Feldman was then working with Funny Girl producer, Ray Stark. It was years before Ed would put up the “seed money” for a project of mine called Cagney & Lacey. My well-connected pal got me an aisle seat in the fourth row opening week on Broadway. Barbra was 21 when this very decent show premiered. I was then 24 and was pretty much standing on that aisle seat from the time Ms. Streisand was mid-way through “I’m the greatest star (but no one knows it)” until the very end of the show.
What a night that was. Arguably the best night I have ever spent in the theatre, barely challenged by Hamilton, Mary Martin doing South Pacific, or Lena Horne’s one woman show. On arriving home to Los Angeles all those years ago, I composed the only fan letter I believe I have ever written. Ever since that evening, I have had more than a life-time crush on Ms. Streisand.
Enter Ms. Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice.
I am not going to write about it. It isn’t fair and I have no appetite for nasty. There is an urban myth that Ms. Feldstein’s understudy is terrific. I don’t believe that either.
Funny Girl is a good show. But it is a show about a star and, like any show about someone like that (Music Man, Hello, Dolly!) casting is key. I don’t believe Barbra Streisand is the only super star in the universe who can play this role… but you do need someone who is just naturally lit from within: a Barbra, a Bette, a Mary Martin. They do exist, but they are not “just casting.”
When she is at her best, Ms. Feldstein is close to credible as the stupendous Ms. Brice. I give her an A+ for effort. The rest of the company is decent… Ramin Karimloo is even a lot better than the original Sydney Chaplin (a low bar, by the way).
Beanie aside, my biggest disappointment was the pit band. These days it seems if you want to hear a Broadway score played anything like a Broadway score was meant to be played you either have to go to Lincoln Center, or to Phantom of the Opera (more on that later). The new union rules allow producers to get by with something like a dozen musicians in the pit, instead of a number at least double that amount, which many of these scores deserve…. “People” needs more than people. It needs violins.
The movie was never as good as the Broadway show, but the movie does have Barbra Streisand. ‘Nuff said.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Unlike The Music Man and Funny Girl, Phantom of the Opera is not a revival because, outside of COVID, Phantom never went away… not for over three decades. That fact, alone, makes the show remarkable, but that is only the beginning of the story.
I was a married man, falling in love with the star of my TV series, when I sat next to Ms. Gless in Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, England only a week or so after the premiere of Phantom of the Opera. (You can read all about this in my book, Cagney & Lacey… and Me or in Sharon’s, Apparently There Were Complaints. I think mine is the sexier version, but I have been known to have some biases, and this could well be one of them.)
But I digress. Since that night in London, Sharon and I have seen this piece by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, directed by the great Hal Prince, at least three other times: once in LA, and now (for the second time) in New York City.
This time, as maybe once before, it was done to coordinate with the anniversary of our getting married, but this review is not meant to be simply sloppy sentimentality. Still, what else need be said? At this point…a good 36 years since it made its debut… Phantom should need no review or commentary from me (or anyone else for that matter)…except to say this:
It is phenomenal that after all these years, the attention to detail is as exact as it ever was. The props, the costumes, the scenery, the casting, the staging, the timing… all the same as it was when originally produced by Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber’s company on that fabulous London stage in the mid-1980s. And then there is the orchestra in the pit. No squeezing that extra buck by these producers. There are more than two dozen musicians there, playing beautifully. Nothing on Broadway, of which I’m aware, is even trying to rival that.
This is old fashioned showmanship at its best. Hooray for Misters Mackintosh and Webber. They are truly giving the public value for money, and they haven’t lost a step in all those years since their premiere in London in 1986. Phantom of the Opera is now the longest running show in Broadway history, and it has yet to show a wrinkle. Long may it wave.
FOUR STRAIGHT PLAYS, TWO NEW MUSICALS
Two of these “straight plays” are revivals: David Mamet’s American Buffalo, and Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite. Both are beautifully acted, and both are as distant from one another as Mamet and Simon could possibly make them.
The third in this quartet is Hangmen. “A rollicking comedy” according to the reviewer at the NYTimes. Wow. I sure missed that. I was in the middle of row H. Close enough to hear every line yet didn’t even smile once. Honest, I am not that tough a nut to crack. I concede the thick dialects of the all-British cast could well have thrown my sense of funny off track, but still…. Not even a smile? In a “rollicking comedy” where two men get hanged to death on stage? What’s not funny about that?
Back to Neil Simon. He was never a hit in London. Maybe, having now seen Hangmen, I have a little more insight as to why that is. No one gets strangled to death…on stage…in a Neil Simon comedy. Besides all that, Mr., and Mrs. Matthew Broderick (Sarah Jessica Parker to you) are delightful in this comedy in three acts. Probably no one has more experience playing Simon’s stuff on Broadway than Matthew Broderick and it shows to good advantage here. His Mrs. does a nice job of keeping up.
On the subject of acting, you will have to go some distance to find better performances than those of Laurence Fishburne, Sam Rockwell, or Darren Criss in American Buffalo. They are simply superb, and they serve Mr. Mamet very well, indeed. That is really all I have to say about this show…Mamet often leaves me cold or feeling as if I have just seen either a work in progress, or an exercise for actors rather than a real play.
The Minutes is the last of these plays, and frankly, the one I looked forward to the most. Not only is it a political play, from the venerable Chicago company Steppenwolf, it has been the recipient of generally excellent reviews.
True enough, the actors were all top drawer in this 90-minute presentation sans intermission, and the dialogue had a Mamet quality to it, only a bit funnier (thank you, author/actor Tracy Letts for that). The politics served my left-wing sensibilities well enough, but to be frank, I have been more stunned by reveals on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show than by anything that was said this night at The Roundabout’s Studio 54 in Manhattan.
Wherever you live there is bound to be a theatre company, and this is the kind of ensemble piece that community theatre thrives on. See this then/there. I’m not saying you won’t be disappointed then, but you will sure save a bundle on New York theatre ticket prices and a follow-up dinner at Gallagher’s.
Harmony is a new musical by Barry Manilow and his long-time writing partner, Bruce Sussman. It stars a fine ensemble of actors and singers led by Chip Zien who (if there is justice in the world and this show makes it to Broadway) will surely be a front runner for the Tony Award for a lead in a musical. My understanding is that the authors of this piece (dealing with a German singing group coming together and achieving great success just before, during, and after the advent of Adolph Hitler) have been working on this show, off and on, for over thirty years. It is based on a true story and was most age appropriate for this 84-year-old Jewish musical aficionado. The parallels between the latter days of the Weimar Republic in Germany and today’s political climate in America are chilling.
It didn’t work the same way for me with A Strange Loop. This is a modern-day piece about an overweight, black homosexual who is struggling to write his first musical. As a member of the audience, I was struggling too… but not for very long. Loop is not just strange… it is powerful, and witty. It is not really my thing, but Michael R. Jackson, who authored the book, music, and lyrics, doesn’t need a lot of straight, Jewish 84-year-old white guys in his corner. He has an important show and message for the folks for whom he is writing, and I suspect you are going to hear a lot more from him at this year’s Tony Awards.
MR. SATURDAY NIGHT
All right!!!!! This is what I’m talking about: a true star, doing what he/she likes doing best. Whether it is Tyne Daly in Gypsy, Robert Preston in The Music Man, Mary Martin in Peter Pan (or South Pacific), Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, the all too obvious choice of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, or Reba McEntire in Annie, Get Your Gun.
and now…add to that, Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night.
To be in the theatre with these folks while they are performing, in just the right vehicle, is something special. It transcends what most of us think of as “acting.” Their performance is not an “act,” it is the very essence of who they are, and while they are sharing with us their moments of elation at being able to do just what it is they were born to do, you… as a member of that audience…can sit back, smile, relax and enjoy the very fact of being somewhere very special, and in the very capable hands of a super star.
It has nothing to do with professionalism. It is all about having fun. And believe me, as much as you might be enjoying yourself in that theatre, that super luminary up there on stage that is Billy Crystal is having an even better time than you. In fact, Billy Crystal has such a good time in this role that when the play is over, he hangs around to answer questions from the audience from upon the very stage that he has been treading for well over two hours.
The ”play” is a new musical, based on the dramatic film Mr. Crystal made over thirty years ago. It was one of his few commercial failures. Believe me, this version will not share that fate. Personally, I loved the original movie. It is one of my favorites, and one that I often drag out of my video library for visiting guests who, invariably, reject the suggestion of this screening, selecting instead one of the more popular classic DVDs I have on hand.
Admittedly, the film version is much darker than the happy musical comedy that now brightens the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway’s 41st street… but there is still plenty of substance there, and… well, the fact is, none of it matters very much when compared to Mr. Billy Crystal, doing his “thing,” and having a great time in the process. That is what does matter, and what this night is all about.
I always get a small degree of pleasure thumbing through my PLAYBILL as I sit in the theatre awaiting the curtain going up. Most times there is an article titled AT THIS THEATRE… it is always the thing I read first, producing on its one page a “who’s who” and a “which was” of nearly everything that had gone down in that theatrical house over its often over 100-year history. Mostly I enjoy reminiscing over the shows I had seen at that theatre—from my first trip to Manhattan in the 1950s to the shows that played in the 1920s and 30s, starring the icons of my youth, in plays that became the classic movies I had come to love.
My next PLAYBILL move is usually to the so-called alphabet list of Broadway and Off-Broadway presentations under the general heading HOW MANY HAVE YOU SEEN? It is a sorry year when I have not personally witnessed most of the offerings.
I check out the long list of producers to see if there are any former associates. There are less and less of those these days, and even fewer actors who list having worked on one of my shows in the minimal space allotted their biographies. Sometimes there is a moment of melancholy as I fondly recall the days when there was scarcely ever a PLAYBILL that didn’t reference Cagney & Lacey several times among its actors’ credits.
All the above brings me to following historical note:
Harmony stars Chip Zion and Mr. Saturday Night features David Paymer, playing Billy Crystal’s long-suffering brother, just as he did in the original motion picture of the same name. Both guys had prominent recurring roles in Cagney & Lacey. Their PLAYBILL bios reflected more recent credits, excluding our association together, and bringing an end to this trip down memory lane with a wan smile as ah, yes… I remember them well.
To purchase “Cagney & Lacey and Me” click or go to:
Thank you, Barney, for your reviews. Stewart and I now look forward to our trip to NYC. We will check out the scene. Dena