Hello from NY! Monday night was the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraiser Broadway Backwards, which is always so much fun but I couldn’t go because I had my concert with Jeremy Jordan at The Town Hall.
But that concert is connected to where we’re going this week: On Wednesday, James and I leave for West Virginia to see a production of James’ play Unbroken Circle at the Old Opera House. The connection is, when Unbroken Circle first began casting for it’s Off-Broadway run, we had just seen Broadway Backwards! We thought Eve Plumb was so funny that James offered her role of June, the so-called religious aunt who’s basically an alcoholic and has no problem taking ownership of the house her sister has lived in for 50 years and kicking her out. Anyhoo, we’re very excited to see this new production and seeing if this Aunt June can match the bitchery of Eve! Get your tickets and come join us!
Back in 1987, there was a musical called Birds of Paradise with music by David Evans, who currently works as a conductor and keyboard player for Wicked, and the lyrics and book were written by Winnie Holzman, who created the TV show My So-Called Life and later wrote the book to Broadway’s Wicked. The cast was amazing and featured people like Donna Murphy, Mary Beth Peil, and Todd Graff. I’m mentioning the musical because there’s going to be a concert version at Feinstein’s/54 Below this coming Monday, March 18!
I spoke to Winnie about the show, and what I didn’t know was that she was in the first graduation class of the NYU MFA Musical Theatre Writing program. Her teachers were basically the people who created Golden Age musicals: Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Comden and Green! I asked about Arthur, her main teacher, because he had a reputation for being a cranky-ass, but she said that as a teacher he was extremely nurturing! She said that he really taught her about “judicious editing.” He worked extremely hard with his students to get dialogue down to the least amount of words possible to get across what needed to be said.
She said that Arthur would sit with you and show where you had extraneous words. He’d help you find what words can you let go of in a sentence yet not lose the meaning. P.S. I think I could do judicious cutting of the description I just gave.
The other thing she really remembers him teaching her was to go for “emotional glitz.” He told his students that the “special effect” they should have in their shows is not something with the set or with the lighting, but with emotion. I love that! And you can totally see that in all of his writing! Think of all the amazing “emotional glitz” in Gypsy and West Side Story, and his films The Turning Point and The Way We Were. All that glitz led me to using multiple tissues when Barbra runs into Robert Redford at the end of the film. So moving!
Winnie thought Arthur was a wonderful director on Birds of Paradise and the example she gave me was a song where a mother (Mary Beth Peil) and son (Todd Graff) have a huge argument. She and David wanted to show that there was love between the mother and son despite their fraught relationship. Arthur added a moment where the son spills something and the two of them clean it up during the song. Giving them the action of doing something productive together showed the audience how the two of them were connected in love. Brava simply solution! P.S. I mentioned before how great the cast was…well, Crista Moore was in the show and that’s how Arthur first met her and then cast her a few years later as Louise in the Tyne Daly revival of Gypsy!
On Monday, I did my concert series with Jeremy Jordan at The Town Hall. Man, what a voice! It just soars. I did my signature interview thing where I make a joke and it turns out to be true. For instance, I was doing my show with Adam Pascal a few years ago and he told me he did “Battle Of The Bands” when he was a teenager. Just as a quick quip, I asked him what his fake rock name was. Well, he paused and told me that he doesn’t really ever talk about it, but for a year or so he insisted that people call him…Rain Madison. Seriously. He said he’d be at a bar and one of his bandmates would be like “Hi, Adam!” and he’d immediately whisper angrily, “It’s Rain!” Not since “LadyBird.”
Anyhoo, I was talking to Jeremy onstage about meeting his wife Ashley, with whom I first became obsessed when I heard her great voice on the Grease reality TV show “You’re The One That I Want.” Here she is on the finale, facing off against Laura Osnes.
Jeremy was describing his first date with her and, as a joke, I asked how much belting there was. Well, again…he suddenly said that he never told anyone, but they both ended the night at a karaoke bar! Once there, they retreated to a “private karaoke room.” There’s such a thing? Well, once they entered, Jeremy felt he better haul out all of his best songs to impress her. He did the Michael Buble version of “Feeling Good,” she belted something by HEART and then, he was mortified to admit it, they both duetted on “You’re The One That I Want.” End of story: They were married within the year.
My concert with Jeremy happened to conflict with something I so, so, so wanted to see: the reunion of [title of show]. I saw that show ten times! From the beginning, through Off-Broadway, through backers auditions, through the first preview on Broadway…and then I got to play Jeff at the George Street Playhouse! I thought I’d post an old column that I wrote right after [title of show] opened on Broadway:
This week my Chatterbox was a joy because I interviewed the two brilliant creators of [title of show], Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen. Way back in the mid-90s, one of my best friends, Jack Plotnick, was starring in The Boys From Syracuse at the Alliance Theater down south. Jack suddenly got an offer to do a TV pilot with Janeane Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk right before The Boys From Syracuse was about to start previews. He called me and asked me what to do. He knew the show could go on because he had an understudy, but he felt that it was wrong to leave a commitment. But he also really wanted to start doing more TV, and he thought Janeane and Bob were great people to work with who could jump-start his career. I didn't know what to tell him, so he finally called Dick Scanlan, who we both met while working with him Off-Broadway in Pageant. I took over being the music director from James Raitt; Dick was hilarious as Miss Great Plains, and Jack was the swing. Most Broadway people know Dick because he wrote the book and lyrics to Thoroughly Modern Millie. Jack presented his moral dilemma to Dick, and Dick presented him with the query, "What would Madonna do?" Seriously. Dick meant that sometimes you have to go for things and deal with the repercussions. That clinched it for Jack. He quit The Boys From Syracuse and hightailed it to LA, and the Alliance had to replace Jack ASAP. There was an understudy for the role in the show, but the powers-that-be thought that one of the non-Equity men in the chorus would be great in the role and asked him to learn it in 24 hours. He learned it, nailed it, and got his Equity card. That chorus boy's name was…Hunter Bell!
Jeff Bowen grew up in Florida, and in [title of show] the Jeff character talks about being in high school and painting a glow-in-the-dark Aspects of Love mural in his bedroom. Jeff confirmed that indeed the real-life Jeff did just that. He also 'fessed up that there is a Phantom mask thrown into the mural as well. And, the delicious news is that it's still there! He also said that he went to a master class when he was a late teenager, and Terrence Mann had flown down from New York to lead it. Jeff got up to sing his song, opened his mouth, and out came all four verses of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." With no irony. He can't remember the "critique" he got from Terrence, but I'm assuming it began with "What the-?"
He and Hunter met doing a production of Good News. The non-equity chorus (Jeff) was called a week early to learn the dances and then the leads arrived (Hunter). Hunter showed up knowing every line and every song, and Jeff hated him. He found out later that Hunter had just played the role, but back then it just seemed like annoying over-confidence. Afterwards, they drove home to the cast house in the company van and hearing Jeff gabbing with some other ensemble member, Hunter remembers thinking, "Hmm…they sound a little negative. I don't need that energy around me." Around a week later, they were all rehearsing, and Jeff overheard Hunter commenting on a cast members jazz pants ("Where did you get them? How did you get them to flair out at the bottom?"), and that’s all it took for him and Jeff to become best friends. They started writing together and completed writing a musical version of 9 to 5!
They actually did a full reading of it with some great people (I think one was Alice Ripley), who they had just left the material for at the stage door with a letter (not unlike the blind phone call made to celebrities in [title of show]). However, they never got the rights, and eventually found out there was another version being written (which ended up on Braodway). But that's what led to them writing [title of show]. The whole 9 to 5 experience helped them realize that you yourself have to do something you want and not wait around.
P.S. If you don't know what I mean by the blind phone calls to celebs, I'll explain. Throughout the show, Hunter and Jeff are looking to help sell their show by having a big name attached. And throughout it, you hear phone messages from real Broadway people turning them down. They're all hilarious, and I'll tell you two that were in the Off-Broadway version, but didn't make it to Broadway. One used to be Amy Spanger saying very sweetly, "Hi, guys. It's Amy Spanger. I got your message, and I am very honored you thought of me for your show but, because of my schedule, I can't do it." Then you hear the sound of the phone starting to be hung up, and Amy's voice continues to someone in the background, "Stephen Oremus is giving out my f*cking number to anybody." Her line reading was amazing. There was another one where Sutton Foster called in all excited. "Hey, Hunter, I heard about your show. Of course, I'll do it! We Fosters need to stick together!" Then you hear someone say something to her and she says, "Huh? Hunter Bell? Who the f*ck is that?" and hangs up. Brava!
I saw Michael Berresse, the director of [title of show] at the Chatterbox, and he told me that he sat in the same row as Betty Buckley during the show on opening night. She loved it and during the curtain call, the cast was receiving thunderous applause and ovations. Betty leaned down the row and said to Michael, sweetly but sternly, "Stand up and get on that stage right now!" which, of course, he then did. Nobody turns down Grizabella!
I just re-watched the video I did for them when the show was on its way to Broadway. My first two books Q Guide To Broadway and Broadway Nights had just come out and my hair was crazy long from the The Ritz (hopefully…or else it was just a horrific hair style and/or I was trying out to play the Blair Witch). Anyhoo…all the other guest stars in this particular episodes became crazily famous!!! Holy cow! Watch and peace out!