Monday, April 6, 2015

Lerner and Loewe and a Touch of Cy Coleman

Vanessa Hudgens stars in Gigi, at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Gigi, which is now being revived on Broadway, has a long lineage. Initially it was a story by Colette, written in 1945 and set around the turn of the century, about a teenage Parisienne (the title character) who comes from a family of highly respected courtesans and is being brought up by her grandmother, Mamita, and trained by her great-aunt Alicia to follow in their footsteps. (Her mother took another path: she’s a singer in the ensemble of the Opéra Comique and barely present in her daughter’s life.) When Gaston Lachaille, a millionaire playboy who, through his friendship with Mamita, has been a sort of big brother to Gigi all her life, realizes that she’s grown into a beautiful and desirable young lady, Alicia and Mamita make complicated legal arrangements with him to take over her care. But Gigi has a mind of her own and, though she has fallen in love with Gaston, she resists the life of a rich man’s mistress. The story is a delightful comedy about the tension between social and sexual mores on the one hand and emotional authenticity on the other, and about impulses that flout convention – and upset the apple cart everyone has been riding without thinking much about it.

There was an enjoyable movie version in 1949, directed by Jacqueline Audry, with Danièle Delorme as Gigi and two celebrated French actresses, Yvonne de Bray and Gaby Morlay, as the two older women. Anita Loos did a skillful stage adaptation in 1951 that brought Audrey Hepburn to the attention of Broadway audiences (two years before she became a movie star in Roman Holiday). Seven years later, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe turned it into its most famous incarnation, a movie musical directed, in a plush, luscious style, by Vincente Minnelli and featuring Leslie Caron as Gigi, Louis Joudan as Gaston, Hermione Gingold as Mamita, Isabel Jeans as Aunt Alicia, and Eva Gabor as Gaston’s fling of the moment, Liane, whom he breaks with when he finds she’s cheating on him with her skating instructor. The movie, which garnered Oscars for just about everyone involved except the actors, lifted a character invented by Audrey’s screenwriter, Pierre Laroche: Gaston’s uncle, Honoré Lachaille, still an irresistible roué in his sixties, played by Maurice Chevalier. The musical added a romantic past for Honoré and Mamita that gave Chevalier and Gingold an opportunity to perform a tongue-in-cheek nostalgic duet, “I Remember It Well,” one of several gems in the Lerner-Loewe score.

The movie musical came back to the stage in the early seventies, touring before opening, without much distinction, on Broadway. I saw it in Toronto in late 1973, with Alfred Drake as Honoré, Daniel Massey as Gaston, Agnes Moorehead as Alicia and Maria Karnilova as Mamita. Lerner adapted it himself and he and Loewe added five songs, but they weren’t at the same level as the original score, and unaccountably three from the picture were canned (including “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight”), which seemed to add insult to injury. I remember thinking the musical was underdeveloped and more or less pointless. The current version at the Neil Simon Theatre has been reworked by the English playwright and screenwriter Heidi Thomas, and, by contrast, it feels complete, thought through. The director Eric Schaeffer, the choreographer Joshua Bergasse (who staged the numbers in the current On the Town), and the three designers (Derek McLane on sets, Catherine Zuber on costumes and Natasha Katz on lighting), have given it a magnificent look, and it moves like a dream. The basic set is an iron grille echoing the Eiffel Tower, with a double-pronged staircase upstage before a cyclorama and small pieces that provide the frames for the interior scenes, with doors and silk curtains and cunning patchworks of wall hangings. Zuber’s palette is high on reds and purples, the fin-de-siècle shapes are elegant, and the hats are spectacular. And Katz’s may be the most impressive lighting design I’ve seen on Broadway this season – it has a glittering theatricality.

The strongest element of the production, as I might have suspected, is Bergasse’s high-stepping choreography, especially in the opening and the two scenes at Maxim’s, in both of which the ensemble performs “The Gossips.” Bergasse has staged the number satirically, elongating the dancers’ necks and legs; I thought of “Rich Man’s Frug” in Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, though “The Gossips” has a style all its own. Everyone – including all the principals – gets to do some dancing. Howard McGillin and Victoria Clark, two musical-theatre performers I love to watch, play Honoré and Mamita; Thomas has built up their relationship so that in addition to “I Remember It Well,” they duet on “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” which in the movie is a solo for Chevalier. Clark has also inherited “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” (retitled “Say a Prayer for Her Tonight,” so it’s still about Gigi), and her rendition is the vocal high point of the evening. Dee Hoty is proficient in the role of Mamita’s insistent sister, and she looks stunning in her gowns, but she tries too hard. Alicia is a trickier role than it may seem at first: it’s a mistake if she turns into a tyrant or a scold, and Hoty’s Alicia is a little of both.

Dee Hoty and Victoria Clark in Gigi. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Though it’s true that the musical has been thought through in this version, I wasn’t always wild about the way in which it’s been thought through. The commercial drawing point of the production is Vanessa Hudgens, star of the Disney High School Musical franchise; the audience at the matinee I attended was dotted with adolescent girls who cheered happily for her. And indeed, she’s charming – more so than her leading man, Corey Cott, a colorless heartthrob for the teen set (he followed Jeremy Jordan in the lead of Newsies on Broadway). Cott can certainly sing, and when he gets to the final verse of “Gigi,” he delivers it with brio. The weakness is in the way he embroiders the other verses, playing at the lyric instead of singing it out. But then, Cott is way too young to be singing a song from a man’s perspective about the mystery of blossoming womanhood. Of course mothers should take their high school daughters to see Gigi; the problem, though, with tailoring it to high-school girls, as Thomas has done in her adaptation, is that the material loses its high-comic bite. I understand taking “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” away from Honoré; enjoyable as it is to watch Chevalier in the movie, the song, sung by a senior citizen, wouldn’t go now and probably shouldn’t have gone even in 1958. (Unfortunately, giving it to Alicia and Mamita doesn’t make sense: why would two aging ladies be singing, “Those little eyes, so helpless and appealing / One day will flash and send you crashing to the ceiling”?) And OK, I can accept aging Gigi from sixteen to eighteen, even though you don’t get anywhere by altering the social customs of another era to conform to our own. But Louis Jourdan’s Gaston was in his thirties, which explains his checkered romantic history and his ennui; scale him down to around twenty-five (and Cott’s high, thin speaking voice makes him sound more like fifteen) and everything about him stops making sense.

Thomas wants to turn Gigi into an object lesson with an oh-so-wise eighteen-year-old who not only talks sense to the adults around her but teaches the man she loves to find his passion. It’s nonsense, partly because eighteen-year-olds don’t possess that kind of maturity except in young adult novels and partly because Gigi isn’t following a passion of her own, so what does she know? The revised script gives Gaston an interest in science (which contradicts even the revised lyric of “It’s a Bore,” his duet with his uncle), then drops it, bringing it back in the second act so that Gigi can advise him to follow through on it. And because the show is so desperate to make sure she’s not only the heroine of the piece but a role model, the sweet irony of the final movement gets wrecked. In the movie musical, Gigi turns down Gaston’s proposition because she doesn’t want to turn into an object of Paris gossip and, once the affair is over, a sexual object to be passed from one man to another. (She reads the gossip magazines and she can put two and two together.) She only changes her mind when she realizes that she loves Gaston so much that she doesn’t want to let him go: “I’d rather be miserable with you than without you,” she tells him. But when he takes her out on the town and sees her performing with practiced perfection all the feminine skills Alicia has trained her in, like choosing his cigar, he’s repelled. He drags her back to Mamita’s and asks for her hand in marriage. “Thank heaven,” Mamita murmurs – the final line of dialogue and, of course, a cue for the finale. Thomas’ version replays Gigi’s second thoughts about Gaston, but then it’s she who arrives at the conclusion that this isn’t a suitable future for their romance and convinces him of it. The result is that Gaston’s character is deprived of the opportunity to grow.

That’s not Thomas’ only mistake. Mamita is now too wholesome and protective of Gigi to really approve of Alicia’s training her for the life of a cocotte, so her going along with the contract with Gaston (and his lawyers) is a contradiction – however much sincerity Clark brings to her second-act scenes to try to bring them into some consistency. Is all this necessary? Frankly, I think it’s insulting to adolescent girls to round out the edges in the material to satisfy them, as if they couldn’t manage a complex scenario that isn’t just about a girl like them (or a flattering version of one). Still, I had a great time at the show. The effervescent movie score is back in its entirety, rendering the disappointing 1973 additions less conspicuous because they’re outnumbered. And the sumptuousness of the production comes close to compensating for the fatuous, twenty-first-century decisions made about how to adapt Lerner’s script, which is faithful to Colette’s point of view. (Of course, he was dramatizing what may be her most lighthearted work.) The faults in the musical’s new book are irritants but they’re not spoilers.

Keith Carradine (centre) and the cast of Paint Your Wagon. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

I’ve been a fan of Lerner and Loewe all my life; the first amateur musical I ever saw was Brigadoon, I grew up on the Broadway album of My Fair Lady, and I was lucky enough to see Camelot with the original cast at a formative age. So I’ve always wanted to fill in the one gap in my Lerner and Loewe education and catch Paint Your Wagon, the musical they wrote between Brigadoon and My Fair Lady. The Encores! production a couple of weeks ago at City Center marks the first time it’s been mounted in New York since the moderately successful 1951 production; most people who think they know it at all are probably only familiar with the notorious 1969 movie, which, inexplicably, starred three actors – Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg – who not only couldn’t sing at all but looked, during the numbers, as if they couldn’t fathom what they were doing up there any more than the audience could. (M-G-M had bought the rights to the show right after it opened on Broadway, but no film was made of it for nearly two decades.)

Paint Your Wagon takes place during the California gold rush, and the setting provides much of its appeal; there aren’t too many musical westerns. But Lerner’s book is thin and the characters are underwritten. In the lively Encores! production, which was directed by Marc Bruni and choreographed by Denis Jones, Keith Carradine played Ben Rumson, the grizzled prospector who finds himself the center of a community when he locates gold at the bottom of a creek; the town is sustained only until the gold runs out. Ben is a widower trying somewhat haphazardly to raise a teenage daughter, Jennifer (Alexander Socha), whom he sends east to school when he finally realizes that she’s making the otherwise all-male mining settlement crazy. (The book treats the situation comically and doesn’t hint at the dangers for a burgeoning young woman surrounded by randy miners; their behavior puzzles Jen rather than worrying her, as she makes clear in her first solo, “What’s Goin’ On Here?”) Before she leaves California, she falls in love with a handsome young Mexican prospector named Julio (Justin Guarini), but the musical never suggests that this interracial romance might be a problem for them. It’s a weird musical, really: the plot keeps crossing over into unconventional dramatic territory but Lerner shies away from exploring any of it. The only serious element that lingers is the loneliness of the life of a prospector, and that’s the subject of most of the best songs in the score: “I Still See Elisa” (Ben’s paean to his long-dead wife), “Another Autumn,” “Wand’rin’ Star,” even Julio’s first ballad, “I Talk to the Trees,” and especially – and most famously – “They Call the Wind Maria,” which at City Center was performed rousingly by Nathaniel Hackmann with the miners’ chorus.

Guarini, who was touching clownish as the nervous young lover in the musical of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, sang beautifully. Playing opposite him, Socha did whatever she could with Jennifer’s three brassy, sassy songs, but they’re tiresome and unconvincing. For a Lerner-Loewe score this one is unusually erratic, strongest in its ballads. It was Carradine, with a walrus mustache and mutton-chop whiskers, who anchored the show. I saw him in his crossover musical-comedy performance in The Will Rogers Follies, and he was so charismatic that though there wasn’t a single memorable song or scene in the play, by the end I was on my feet, grinning and applauding until my palms ached, just like everyone else. It was like watching Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. In Paint Your Wagon he got to play his guitar, and one or two of the songs not intended for Ben were intelligently rerouted his way. (The original Ben was James Barton, who had played Hickey in the Broadway production of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.) Watching Carradine was a profound pleasure, particularly when he brought his slightly plaintive tenor and affecting understatement to “I Still See Elisa” and “Wand’rin’ Star.” He’s still as irresistible with a good tune as he was when he serenaded Lily Tomlin with “I’m Easy” in Nashville forty years ago.

Ed Hoopman, Tony Castellanos, Patrick Varner, Brandon Milardo, and Andrew Tung in City of Angels.

Boston’s Lyric Stage Company is currently performing City of Angels, the ingenious film noir musical with a book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel. The production (directed by the Lyric’s artistic director, Spiro Veloudos) is up and down but it doesn’t sully the musical’s considerable charm and wit. Gelbart’s idea was to juxtapose the adventures of a hard-boiled detective writer, Stine, in Hollywood, where he’s adapting his own bestseller and critical success, City of Angels, with a playing out of the screenplay he’s writing – which is undergoing unwanted alterations at the hands of his producer-director, Buddy Fidler. So Stine and his gumshoe creation, Stone, are alter egos, and everyone who appears in the script has his or her counterpart in Stine’s real life. (Stone and Stine are played by different actors, but almost everyone else is double-cast.) The movie scenes are in black and white, the Hollywood scenes in color, which poses a challenge for the designers when Oolie, Stone’s loyal secretary (clearly patterned after Effie Perine in The Maltese Falcon), goes to bed alone and wakes up as Donna, Fidler’s secretary, with whom Stine is cheating on his wife Gabby. In the Lyric production, the effect is accomplished largely through John Malinowski’s lighting.

Veloudos has to contend with the relatively diminutive size of the Lyric stage, but the company has been successfully mounting for years musicals in which intimacy makes up for other values. The difficulty with this City of Angels is that, whatever the size of the space, the musical calls for a very sophisticated style and doesn’t get it. The staging of the numbers by Rachel Bertone is mostly uninspired and sometimes clumsy, and the production is too busy. One example is the quartet, Angel City 4, who back up the radio crooner Jimmy Powers (Davron Monroe) and double to provide jazz-infused movie-theme music (they sing the prologue in scat style). The four singers – Sarah Kornfeld, Elise Arsenault, Andrew Tung and Brandon Milardo – sound lovely, and that’s the main thing, but it was a mistake to direct them to act as characters during their numbers; it’s distracting and comes across as botched Brechtian commentary. Elisabetta Polito’s costumes are unappealing and don’t flatter the actors. And though most of the cast sings well only two of them – Meghan LaFlam as the missing stepdaughter in the movie plot and the starlet who’s playing her and the indispensable Leigh Barrett as Oolie and Donna – manage the style consistently: their signature numbers, “Lost and Found” and “You Can Always Count on Me” respectively, are the show’s highlights. Jennifer Ellis is good as Stine’s long-suffering wife Gabby (who sings “It Needs Work”) but she misses the melancholy-femme-fatale feel of “With Every Breath I Take,” sung by Stone’s ex-wife Bobbi. Monroe seems to be flailing in Jimmy’s first-act numbers but comes into his own with the second-act reprise of “Stay with Me.” Tony Castellanos overacts badly as Stone’s nemesis Lieutenant Muñoz until it comes time for him to sing his big number, “All You Have to Do Is Wait,” which he knocks out of the park. (It’s also far and away the best staged song in the production.) Samantha Richert, as the front-runner femme fatale in the movie narrative, Alaura Kingsley, discharges her duet with Stone, “The Tennis Song” – which is all double entendres – efficiently, but, both in this role and as Buddy’s straying wife, she pushes too hard. The only actor who never rises to the occasion is J.T. Turner as Buddy, who chews the scenery and has neither the vocal skill nor the acting skill to pull off his number, “The Buddy System.”

Stone is the trickiest role in the play: you need a performer who can carry off the cynical banter (Gelbart has given him many gleaming one-liners) and suggest the character’s moral exhaustion as well as his sexual charisma. The perfectly cast James Naughton accomplished all of these things in the 1989 Broadway production but even the last revival I saw, at the Goodspeed Opera House, which was ideal in most respects, fell down in that one. Lyric’s choice, Ed Hoopman, isn’t bad but he’s so understated that he comes across as a little dull. Phil Tayler is better as Stine, and he has the requisite pipes for the part, which is a real vocal workout, especially in the “Funny” number near the end of the second act. He and Hoopman sound fine together in the great “You’re Nothing Without Me” duet that finishes off act one and is reprised – as “I’m Nothing Without You” – in the finale. All in all, the Lyric production has enough pluses to recommend it, especially to those who’ve never had the pleasure of seeing what should be considered a classic of the American musical theatre.

– 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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment