Monday, December 1, 2014

Schwartz and Dietz, Comden and Green

Michael McKean, Tony Sheldon, and Tracey-Ullman in The Band Wagon (All Photos by Joan Marcus)

Of the great songwriters and songwriting teams of the twenties, thirties and forties, perhaps only Arthur Schwartz (music) and Howard Dietz (lyrics) have fallen into obscurity. That’s less because Schwartz often collaborated with other lyricists (especially Dorothy Fields) than because the shows he and Dietz wrote together haven’t survived.  Some were revues, which are always too topical for revival – The Grand Street Follies of 1926 and 1929, The Little Show and The Second Little Show, Three’s a Crowd, At Home Abroad, Inside U.S.A. The others produced some lovely songs but they divided up into only moderate successes and downright failures. The musical the partners are best known for, The Band Wagon, was reportedly one of the last great revues, brittle and sophisticated – and it boasted a superb score. It was the last show to co-star Fred Astaire and his first and apparently most brilliant dancing partner, his sister Adele, who had played opposite him in the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face and whose insouciant flapper personality was iconic for the Jazz Age. After The Band Wagon closed, Adele married a lord and retired from show business, and Fred performed solo in only one more play, Cole Porter’s Gay Divorce, before he trekked west to try his hand in Hollywood.

The irresistibly companionable and hilarious movie entitled The Band Wagon has no connection to the 1931 Broadway show except for the songwriters. Arthur Freed, who ran the musicals unit at M-G-M in the forties and fifties, had the idea of devising a movie to take advantage of the George and Ira Gershwin songbook. George had been dead for nearly a decade and a half when An American in Paris was released in 1951, and it was such a huge hit, even garnering the Academy Award for Best Picture, that two years later Freed produced The Band Wagon (1953), which essentially did the same for Schwartz and Dietz. (Vincente Minnelli directed both movies.) The team wrote one new song for the picture, “That’s Entertainment,” and Schwartz supplied the music for the “Girl Hunt” ballet, a Mickey Spillane parody that comes almost at the end of the film.

Betty Comden and Adolph Green, at the height of their wit – Singin’ in the Rain, their classic send-up of the early days of talkies, had come out the previous year – penned the screenplay, which chronicles the birthing pains of a Broadway musical. It was written for Astaire, who plays Tony Hunter, a song and dance man who, his career in Hollywood faded, returns to the east to see if a Broadway show might restore his tarnished celebrity. His old friends Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray), who authored several of his stage hits, have conjured up a light-hearted musical comedy for him, but Lily is determined to up the ante by engaging director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan, a beloved English singer-dancer, in his only American picture). Cordova is an auteur of irrepressible energies and famous virtuosity with three shows on Broadway; he stars in one of them, an expressionistic mounting of Oedipus Rex that we see a riotous backstage glimpse of when the Martons bring Tony to meet him. (It seems clear that Comden and Green meant him as a parody of Orson Welles, in particular the hyperkinetic Welles of the 1930s, in his enfant terrible period.) When Lily summarizes the plot of the new musical, Jeff focuses on one incidental detail and reinvents the narrative as a modern-day Faust story, then insists they hire a high-toned ballerina named Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to play opposite Tony and her pretentious choreographer boyfriend, Paul Byrd (James Mitchell), to stage the dances. He himself steps in to play the devil. As the show rehearses with an eye to the New Haven tryout, things go from bad to worse.  Tony is uncomfortable with the dramatic demands of the role, and the two stars, both victims of their own insecurities, can’t abide one another – until, after a blow-out, they both let go of their pride and make an effort to find common ground. (When they do, in an entrancing pas de deux set to “Dancing in the Dark,” they inevitably discover a romantic  spark.) Lily’s desire to please the great director clashes with Lester’s impulse to stick to the kind of material they’re recognized masters at; they quarrel and soon they’re refusing to talk to each other except through intermediaries. Meanwhile the show has become a technical nightmare. When it opens in New Haven, it’s an unqualified fiasco.

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Osnes, Tony Sheldon singing "Triplets"
“Dancing in the Dark” is only one of the highlights of the movie. It also includes Astaire’s rendition of “By Myself” (a plaintive piece of gallantry, performed with elegant restraint); “A Shine on Your Shoes,” set at a 42nd Street arcade, wherein he executes a live-wire tap dance with a shoeshine man (played by the amazing – and uncredited – Leroy Daniels); “Triplets,” with Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan as disaffected toddlers; an unforgettable – if brief – duet by Astaire and Buchanan, “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”; and of course “That’s Entertainment” (sung by Astaire, Buchanan, Fabray and Levant) and the “Girl Hunt” ballet, with Astaire as a shamus named Rod Riley and Charisse as both the not-so-innocent blonde and the brunette siren. And there may be no better movie musical about the assembling of a stage show. So when the Encores! series decided to attempt a transfer as an early bonus entry in its season (which doesn’t officially begin until February, with Lady, Be Good!), it sounded like a great idea, especially with Kathleen Marshall as director-choreographer and a cast including Brian Stokes Mitchell (Tony), Laura Osnes (Gaby), Tracey Ullman (Lily) and Michael McKean (Lester). Unfortunately, the result, which played City Center over two November weekends, is deflating. It lacks charm; it lacks spirit; it lacks common sense – perhaps not in as elaborate a way as Jeffrey Cordova’s Faust musical, but the comparison isn’t inapt.

The insurmountable problem of this stage retread is Douglas Carter Beane’s new book – though, to be just, when you go back to the movie and take a hard look at the structure of Comden and Green’s wonderful script, you can see that Beane faced an uphill battle from the start. In the movie, the show bombs in New Haven half an hour before the end. Once Tony takes charge and convinces everyone that the only sensible thing is to go back to the original show the Martons wrote, and Paul Byrd (Michael Berresse) walks out, the one remaining conflict – not a very complicated one – is whether or not Gaby can forget him and realize that she and Tony are a match offstage as well as on. The rest is made up almost entirely of musical numbers, like the final reels of a Busby Berkeley backstage musical from the 1930s. This new Band Wagon ends the first act with the decision to revise the show, so Beane has to look around for a conflict, and the one he comes up with is stupid: it turns out that Lily has always been in love with Tony and Lester knows it, so he takes out his jealousy on Tony (who has never reciprocated Lily’s feelings) and turns into a lush while the company is on the road. This not-quite triangle subplot shows up out of nowhere, and it provokes Lester to behave so badly that you want to club him over the head. Beane isn’t by temperament a generous playwright, so it obviously didn’t occur to him that he’s already made one terrible misstep, having Tony show up at the first meeting with the production team with a brainless babe half his age on his arm, so the audience has to get over its initial impression that he’s a hedonistic slug. For a writer who clearly thinks of himself as hard-boiled, Beane does, however, have a tendency to turn soppy when it comes to gay relationships (see The Nance), so the revelation that Cordova (Tony Sheldon) is coupled with his long-time assistant (Don Stephenson) is practically accompanied by strings. Up to then you barely notice the assistant, though the show has kept sneaking him into the numbers; I assumed that the company just needed another male voice to carry the songs. Beane’s book makes so little sense that it’s as though he can’t keep his focus from one scene to the next. Lester goes nuts when he hears Byrd say, without evidence, that Tony is sleeping with Lily; a scene later Byrd gets hot under the collar because he’s sure something is going on between Tony and Gaby.

McKean isn’t bad considering his role is so badly written, and Ullman has a sprightly presence, especially in three numbers (one solo, two duets with McKean), which she performs well. Mitchell’s warm, velvety baritone is a pleasure, but he pushes when he acts, which is probably a defensive way of trying to put over an unlikable character in an unworkable script. Berresse is quite funny as the choreographer, and Osnes is delightful; she’s the best thing in the show. On the other hand, Tony Sheldon’s hambone acting as Cordova is an embarrassment.  Sheldon was the one sour note in the Goodspeed revival of Hello, Dolly! last year, but he’s much worse here. He mimics Buchanan’s vocal rhythms but cavorts manically like an amateur determined to ingratiate himself among professionals.

The indomitable Kathleen Marshall pulls off most of the dance numbers; the best ones are “I Love Louisa” and the “Shine on Your Shoes” finale. You would think, though, that an adaptation of the movie would want to preserve the “Girl Hunt” ballet and leave “Shine on Your Shoes” where it is, early in the material, and that it would begin with the ineffable “By Myself” rather than burying it in the middle of the first act. These are, after all, the three numbers in Minnelli’s movie that people usually remember most fondly. “Triplets” has survived (with Osnes’s Gaby substituting for Lily), and it’s still funny; so is the disastrous dress rehearsal number, “You and the Night and the Music,” with Tony and Gaby trying like hell to dance amid the exploding smoke pots. Some good Schwartz and Dietz tunes have been interpolated, including “Sweet Music” from the 1931 Band Wagon, and “A Brand New Suit,” and we hear more of “Something to Remember You By,” which is relegated to the background of a scene in the movie. You still walk away thinking that this songwriting team has never gotten its due. But this shabbily refurbished Band Wagon isn’t likely to change that.

Jay Armstrong Johnson, Tony Yazbeck, and Clyde Alves in the Lyric Theatre's On The Town (Photo: Joan Marcus)

I raved about John Rando’s production of the 1944 On the Town – book and lyrics by Comden and Green, music by Leonard Bernstein – when he mounted it at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires two summers ago. It’s now on Broadway, occupying the Lyric Theatre, that chilly barn where Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark played. Rando and his choreographer, Joshua Bergasse, and the wonderful cast are doing their damnedest to warm up the space. The breakthrough moment comes midway through act one, when Tony Yazbeck’s Gaby sings “Lonely Town” and members of the ensemble drift slowly down the aisles in answering chorus, and suddenly the house doesn’t seem so uncongenial and intimidating. I’m afraid that the alterations Rando has made, as a sop to the Broadway audience and the tourist trade, to the back-to-back comic numbers in the first act, “Come Up to My Place” and “Carried Away,” didn’t please me much. “Come Up to My Place” is the duet Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) performs with the aggressive female cabbie, Hildy (Alysha Umphress), who picks him up and persuades him that he’s better off going home with her than driving around New York City to check out the now out-of-date landmarks his dad enumerated for him. In its present form, the number unfolds against a series of moving projections that take us through Manhattan and chronicle Hildy’s breakneck driving. It’s clever, but the visuals upstage the two terrific performers. In “Carried Away,” Ozzie (Clyde Alves) – the third member of the trio of sailors enjoying a twenty-four-hour leave in New York before heading off to the front – finds common ground with Claire (Elizabeth Stanley), the anthropologist he meets when he mistakes the Museum of Natural History for the Museum of Modern Art. During the instrumental break, they dance with some cavemen from one of the exhibits and an expensively built set of dinosaur bones that – like the projections in “Come Up to My Place” – take over the number. Simpler would be better.

Beowulf Boritt designed the set as well as the projections and his struggles to fill that cavernous stage yield mixed results. He does best with the more specific locations, like Carnegie Hall and a series of clubs, but the blue plastic set pieces that stand in for Times Square are ugly and off-putting. Still, in the battle between the show and the Lyric, the show wins hands down. It remains the best production of this fantastic musical you’re ever likely to see, with a top-shelf cast that now includes the New York City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild as Gaby’s dream girl, Ivy Smith (a.k.a. Miss Turnstiles); Jackie Hoffman as Ivy’s voice teacher, Maude P. Dilly; and Phillip Boykin in a number of small roles. Boykin was a memorable Crown in the Porgy and Bess revival, and he should be getting better parts. But when he shows up at the start as the navy yard workman who sings “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet,” his toasted bass-baritone wraps around you like the warm blanket he says he hated to leave to come to work. Except for Fairchild, all the principals strutted their stuff at Barrington Stage, and it’s great to see and hear them again, executing Bergasse’s exuberant choreography and singing those inspiriting tunes. (Allison Guinn is on hand once more, too, as Hildy’s rheumy roomie, Lucy Schmeeler, as is Michael Rupert as Claire’s long-suffering fiancĂ©, Pitkin.) Jess Goldstein designed the nifty costumes, Jason Lyons the evocative lighting, and James Moore is the musical director. The full-blooded orchestra boasts a corps of twenty-seven musicians. In act two, the show slows down while Stanley and Umphress, Alves and Johnson sing the sublime ballad “Some Other Time,” the only time On the Town acknowledges – without actually saying it – the possibility that whether or not these young men will make it back to the women they’ve fallen hard for is a crap shoot. It’s currently the most affecting five minutes on Broadway.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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