All posts by Greg Christo

The Bloody Irish!

In honor of St Patrick’s Day, I was wondering what kind of stage shows featured an Irish theme or were set in Ireland.  Here’s a quick look at a few of these.  No!  Brigadoon is not one of these.  That was a Scottish village.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a 1996 black comedy by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh which was premiered by the Druid Theatre Company in Galway, Ireland. It also enjoyed successful runs at London’s West End, Broadway and Off-Broadway.

It was nominated for an Olivier Award as Best Play for the London production, and the 1998 Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning four, for Best Leading Actress in a Play, Best Featured Actor in a Play, Best Featured Actress in a Play and Best Direction of a Play.

The play centers around Maureen Folan, a plain and lonely woman in her forties, who lives with and cares for her elderly mother Mag in the small village of Leenane, Connemara.  With possibly her first and last chance at love, Maureen must deal with her manipulative mother who is trying to derail it.

John Bull’s Other Island

John Bull’s Other Island is a comedy about Ireland, written by George Bernard Shaw in 1904. Shaw himself was born in Dublin, yet this is one of only two plays of his where he thematically returned to his homeland, the other being O’Flaherty V.C.. The play was highly successful in its day, but is rarely revived, probably because of so much of the dialogue is specific to the politics of the day.

The play deals with Larry Doyle, originally from Ireland, but who has turned his back on his heritage to fit in with the English and Tom Broadbent, his English (and very Machiavellian) business partner. They are civil engineers who run a firm in London. They go to Roscullen, where Doyle was born, to develop some land.

Doyle has no illusions about Ireland while Broadbent is taken with the romance of the place. Broadbent, a lively man who seemingly is not always aware of the impression he makes, becomes a favourite of the people. Before the play is over, it is clear he will marry Nora Reilly, the woman waiting for Doyle (who is more than happy to let her go) and become the area’s candidate for Parliament after Doyle refuses to stand, but has also ‘called in’ all his loans given “so easily” to the locals against their homes and intends (as he had planned all along) to make the village into an amusement park.

Another major character is the defrocked priest Peter (Father) Keegan, the political and temperamental opposite of Broadbent, who sees through him from the beginning and warns the locals against him.

Dancing at Lughnasa

Dancing at Lughnasa is a 1990 play by dramatist Brian Friel set in Ireland’s County Donegal in August 1936 in the fictional town of Ballybeg. It is a Memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old.

It’s August, 1936 in rural Ireland.  Step into the kitchen of the five proud Mundy sisters, a place for talking, laughing, and lively dancing—moments that defy the hardships of their daily life. Their brother, a missionary, has just returned from Uganda, and the sisters find themselves each on the brink of momentous change. Friel’s Tony-Award-winning play captures a beautiful and exuberant sliver of these women’s lives, a summer where love—and everything else—seemed possible.


Once is a musical stage adaptation based on the 2007 film of the same name by John Carney. Like the film, music and lyrics were by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, including the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly”. The book for the musical was written by Enda Walsh. The musical premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2011, before transferring to Broadway in 2012. The production received eleven 2012 Tony Award nominations, and won eight including Best Musical, Best Actor and Best Book. The musical also won the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical and the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. It has since spawned a London production, with a North American Tour which started on 1 October 2013.

In the musical, the cast also serves as the orchestra. A minimalist set is used, including a bar in center stage with chairs lining stage left and right. Exiting cast members simply step to the side of the stage and sit down. They serve as the orchestra from these chairs. The bar is used before the show and at intermission as a working bar for theater patrons.

Guy is an Irish singer and songwriter who spends his days fixing vacuums in the Dublin shop he runs with his father, and his nights playing his music in local pubs. He is on the verge of giving up music altogether when a Czech immigrant, “Girl,” walks into the bar, hears him play and refuses to let him abandon his guitar. As it turns out, she has a broken vacuum cleaner, Guy repairs it, and she pays him in music on a piano she plays in a record shop. Over the course of a week, Girl convinces Guy to believe in the power of his music and his love for the woman who inspired his songs. They scrape together money to record a demo album with a motley crew of bar friends, and their unexpected friendship and collaboration evolves into a powerful—but very complicated—love story.

The Bloody Irish

Written by Barry Devlin, directed for the stage by Michael Barker-Caven, music composed and arranged by David Downes, this 80 minute musical drama based on the events of the 1916 Rising had its premier broadcast in October 2015 on the prestigious Public Broadcast Service (PBS), the most watched public service station in the USA.

General Sir John Grenfell Maxwell – the man who signed the death warrants of the 1916 leaders – narrates this dramatic retelling of the events of Easter Week. Starting out with a belief that the rising is a foul act of treachery, Maxwell has a change of heart, asking in the end whether he has made a grievous mistake in sending Pearse, Connolly and the rest to their death.

Theater and Martin Luther King

Now that it’s January 2017, I was wondering what kind of stage shows featured Martin Luther King.  There are a few ranging from full scale theatrical productions to informational kids plays.  Here’s a quick look at a few of these.

mountaintop-poster-651x1024The Mountaintop

The Mountaintop is a play by American playwright Katori Hall. It is a fictional depiction of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth set entirely in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the eve of his assassination in 1968.  The play initially failed to find a venue in the US but premiered in London at the 65-seat Theatre503. After critical acclaim and a sell-out run the play transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End. The production was directed by James Dacre and featured British actors David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs. Harewood was nominated for Best Actor in the Evening Standard and Whatsonstage Awards and Burroughs for Best Actress in the Olivier Awards. The production won the Olivier Best New Play Award and was nominated for Whatsonstage Awards and Most Promising Playwright in the Evening Standard Awards.

The Independent wrote that the production at Theatre 503 was “an imaginative portrayal” and shows “a relationship that is breathtaking, hilarious and heart-stopping in its exchanges and in its speedy ability to reveal character and pull the audience into the ring.”  Theater critic Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph wrote of the production at Trafalgar Studios “It is a beautiful and startling piece, beginning naturalistically before shifting gear into something magical, spiritual and touching.”

Moments With Dr. King

Per Playbill, this play, press notes state, “provides factually-based slices of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from December 1955 until April 1968.  Written by Eric Falkenstein and produced by close confidants Ambassador Andrew Young and Congressmen John Lewis, it depicts widely-known historic events as well as more private behind-the-scenes moments.” A cast of more than 20 will offer “close-up examinations of Dr. King’s interactions and relationships with Coretta Scott King, other family members, associates, officials and adversaries.”  The production secured permission from the King estate to make use of portions of speeches, writings, recordings and other property of the King family.

mlk-small-e1407234412939Life & Death of MLK—America: Dreams & Nightmares

In the years following his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King saw his liberal allies in government desert him, his own staff question him, and more radical activists berate him over his beliefs and principles.

Written and directed by Paul Stebbings, produced by Grantly Marshal, and music by John Kenny, this play explores how this came about, following the spiritual and political journey of this once humble preacher to the status of icon and, tragically, martyr. And this is the stuff of tragedy because Martin Luther King was man torn by inner demons and wracked with guilt; a man who lived by the creed of non-violence and saw his supporters savagely beaten, wrongfully imprisoned, humiliated and all too often murdered.

Skin Deep:  Story of Martin Luther King

This is a short, simple, easy to produce, yet electrifying dramatization of the main events in Martin Luther King’s life as leader of the American Civil Rights movement. Skin Deep illumines the attitudes of white racists without mocking them, and highlights the challenge of black activists to remain non-violent.  SKIN DEEP was originally produced in a church in Kitchener, Ontario in 1985. Martin Luther King’s eldest daughter, Yolanda, was present for the occasion and later addressed a city-wide ecumenical gathering.

We Are the Dream

This is a play about Martin Luther King’s life specifically written for schools and churches.  It uses easy language for young students to learn.  It’s about 45 minutes long.  You can use a cast of all children.  You can mix generations.  You can add or subtract lines and music as you see fit.  It was meant to be an easy production to promote confidence and team spirit while keeping the action moving and everyone involved throughout the play.

HOLIDAY SHOWS…Thanksgiving Edition

With Halloween over, it’s time to look at the next holiday on deck…Thanksgiving.  Now, when you think of holiday shows, Thanksgiving themed ones don’t usually come to mind.  I know there are mentions of Thanksgiving in some Broadway shows such as the Thanksgiving revue performed within South Pacific.  But there are some others as well.  Some are full productions.  Some are short plays or skits meant to be performed by elementary schools.  We’ll take a look at a few here.

The Humans

The 2016 Tony Award winner for Best Play by Stephen Karam, The Humans revolves around the Blake family gathering at Thanksgiving at the run-down Manhattan apartment in Chinatown of Brigid Blake and her boyfriend Richard. Brigid’s parents, Erik Blake and Deirdre Blake, arrive from their home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to have dinner with Brigid, Richard and Aimee, their other adult daughter. Brigid is a musician and Aimee is a lawyer, living in Philadelphia. Aimee has recently broken up with her girlfriend and has developed an intestinal ailment. Also present is Erik’s mother Fiona “Momo”, who has Alzheimer’s Disease. The parents are unhappy that their daughters have left home and have abandoned their religion. The family members must deal with “aging, illness, and a changing economy”. (A CurtainUp Review, March 2, 2016)


John takes place in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania bed and breakfast the week after Thanksgiving. It follows a cheerful innkeeper, a young couple struggling to stay together and the thousands of inanimate objects watching.  Annie Baker’s new play is all dolled up for a ghost story. A young couple arrives at a bed & breakfast in Gettysburg, Penn., run by an eccentric old dear with a creepy doll collection. Her spooky house could be haunted by Civil War dead and the dolls might be possessed by spirits — or not. In any event, it’s a great setting for the scary story that the Pulitzer-winning writer promises to tell and we long to hear. But as one would-be storyteller sheepishly admits, “I can only do build-up to scary, not scary itself.”  Sadly, that’s the problem here. (Variety Magazine, Aug 2015)

First Thanksgiving

This is a short 15 minute play written by Robert Reed typically performed by children in second and third grade.  The play begins with the journey of the Pilgrims to the New World in their cramped vessel: The Mayflower. When the Pilgrims arrive in America they establish the Plymouth Colony. By the spring, the survivors are shown by friendly local Wamponoag Indians how best to plant crops. When the harvest is gathered, the grateful Pilgrims decide to give thanks for their bounty and invite King Massasoit, who arrives with vension as a gift and 90 of his tribe. The feast lasts for 3 days and the celebrations include: displays of musketry and archery, dancing and games. However, who has to do all the cooking? Moreover, who’s going to do the washing-up?

Terri and the Turkey

Written by Wade Bradford, the play is set on Thanksgiving Day. The play presents Thanksgiving from Tom´s standpoint. Tom is the family´s turkey. Nobody really wants to kill him when it comes to it. The responsibility to chop the turkey´s head off passes from Grandpa to Dad, from Dad to Son and from Son to Daughter. When, finally, the son´s sister decides to do it. Tom, stressed because of his impending death, faints and need medical service. In the end, they agree on sparing his life and they go for pork chops, which scares the family´s pig….

The Turkeys Go on Strike

Bad Wolf Press with Ron Fink and John Heath bring you this short play meant to be performed by 2nd to 6th graders as a compliment to any school’s Thanksgiving celebrations.  Thanksgiving is in danger of being cancelled because of some extremely dissatisfied poultry. While negotiations go on around the clock—an event covered by TV reporters and influenced by ambitious members of the Squash family—students learn about the historical origins and the real meaning of the holiday.

Free Birds

Here’s a bonus for entertainment purposes only since this is a movie from 2013 and not a stage production.  But, it has to do with Thanksgiving, so I thought it tied in nicely to the theme here.  Free Birds is an animated film where a lucky turkey named Reggie gets pardoned by the President to live a carefree lifestyle, until fellow fowl Jake recruits him for a history-changing mission. Jake and Reggie travel back in time to the year 1621, just before the first Thanksgiving. The plan: Prevent all turkeys from ever becoming holiday dinners. Unfortunately, the two birds encounter colonist Myles Standish, out to capture feathered friends for all the hungry Pilgrims.  Maybe it could be turned into a stage production.  Maybe.

There are many more short plays and skits for kids and a number of more religious themed skits about life for adults.  This was just a sample of a few current Broadway productions and popular children plays/skits.

UDMA Worcester Trade Show Recap

Our booth at UDMA Worcester 10/1-2/16
Our booth at UDMA Worcester

We exhibited at our first trade show this past weekend at the UDMA, United Dance Merchants of America, show in Worcester MA at the DCU Center.  And, I mean our first trade show ever!  We had no idea what to really expect, but we had a great time.  We met new people and caught up with old friends.  For the past three years or so, I was told by a good friend of ours, Jane O’Donnell, owner of the Center for Performing Arts right here in North Andover, that we should attend this show.  It had always been in New York (New Jersey), and we balked at the idea.  But, this was the first year that UDMA had the show in Worcester, and there was no way that I was going to let the opportunity pass since it was going to be right in our back yard.

I had a special banner made that was going to be used on the front of our exhibit table, and I was going to hang one of our smaller backdrops behind us.  Unfortunately, the backdrop didn’t work (it was too tall), so I had to use the table banner behind us as you can see in the photos.  It looked great, but I’m going to have to have a special backdrop made just for the trade shows, which we will probably continue to attend.  I was really disappointed the backdrop didn’t work, but you live and learn.  Like I said, we had no idea what to expect.

The set up.
The set up.

On our table we had a sign-up sheet for potential customers to give us their information in order to send them a coupon for use on their next order.  Now, you have to have attended the show and sign our sheet to get this special coupon!  If you have that coupon, don’t forget to call and order your backdrops!  We also had some gifts for the attendees as did most of the exhibitors at the show.  We had candy and mints, emery boards with our logo on them, and stress balls with our logo on them as well.  I gotta tell you!  I was surprised at how popular the stress balls were!  I’m gonna have to get more of those, I think.

I brought my tablet and files with me too.  I was able to show new customers our website and how easy it is to maneuver around the site.  I took a couple of orders from some long-time customers.  They figured they were there.  Why not take care of it face to face!  I thought I would get more orders, but again, I didn’t quite know what to expect.  Most were there to get information and ideas.   We were both amazed at the costume companies.  They took up entire rows and had hundreds of costumes on hand for people to try on and order on the spot, which is what most of the studio owners did.  What a business!

Some of the other exhibitors.
Some of the other exhibitors.

In addition to the costume companies and backdrop rental companies, there were videographers, dance competition companies, dance magazines, dance accessory and supply companies, and software companies offering dance specific programs to name a few.  It was literally what the title says—dance merchants of all kinds.

As I mentioned, we saw long time customers at the show.  And I have to thank them for the kind words about me.  My mom helped me out over the weekend, and needless to say, she was very proud when she heard the comments.  We also made new friends that had never

From l-r: Nancy Stone, Pam Christo (mom), and Art Stone
From l-r: Nancy Stone, Pam Christo (mom), and Art Stone

rented backdrops before and who, I hope, will give backdrop rentals a try.  You’ll see how very easy they are to use.  And, hopefully, we can start a new relationship.

We had some old friends stop by too.  Rhee Gold took some time out of his hectic schedule to come say hello as did Nancy and Art Stone.  They were very pleased that we were there contributing to the scene and also had very nice things to say.  My mom goes way back with all three of them. It was a chance for mom to help me out, have fun, and reacquaint with old friends.  My mom is a retired dance teacher and knows all of these people through her years in the business.  She wishes that some of the companies in attendance were around when she taught such as the on-line recital ticket ordering programs.  But, alas, the technology did not exist. She said it would have made her life so much easier.

All in all, we are so glad that we attended this show.   It was a wonderful experience.  We hope to see you all at some of these shows in the future.  And remember, “We’ve Got Your Backdrop!”


Rhee Gold and mom
Rhee Gold and mom





Political Parody (Why Do We Live This Crazy Life? Part 4)

CMMCall Me Madam is based on the life of Washington DC hostess and Democratic fundraiser Perle Mesta, who was named Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1949.  Once President Harry S. Truman appointed Mesta, the foundation was laid for a musical comedy that would kid politics-foreign and domestic alike.  It is a musical with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Call Me Madam is a satire on politics and foreign policy that spoofs America’s penchant for lending billions of dollars to needy countries.  It centers on Sally Adams, a well-meaning but ill-informed socialite widow who is appointed United States Ambassador to the fictional European country of Lichtenburg. It’s not long before her down-to-earth, undiplomatic manner surprises and charms the local gentry, especially the handsome Prime Minister. A second romance is blossoming between her young Ivy League aid and Lichtenburg’s enchanting young Princess. The course of love is threatened by the stuffy opposition, who eventually succeed in wrangling Sally’s recall, but not before all has resolved happily for both pairs of lovers.

Directed by George Abbott and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the musical premiered at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut on September 11, 1950. Reviews were mixed – Variety said it “inspires warm applause rather than cheer”—and Berlin wrote two new songs to bolster the sagging second act. It opened in Boston on September 19, and while The Boston Record thought it offered “only an occasional flash of inspirational fire”, it played to standing-room-only audiences throughout the run.

With a record advance sale of $2 million, the Broadway production opened on October 12 at the Imperial Theatre, where it ran for 644 performances and grossed more than $4 million. In addition to Ethel Merman and Russell Nype, the cast included Paul Lukas, Pat Harrington, Sr., Galina Talva, Lilia Skala, and Richard Eastham. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times thought it offered one of Berlin’s “most enchanting scores: fresh, light, and beguiling, and fitted to lyrics that fall out of it with grace and humor”, and the New York Post called Merman “indescribably soul-satisfying”, “a comedienne of rare skill”, and “one of the joys of the world.” She remained with the show for the entire run and appeared in the limited four-week engagement staged to celebrate the reopening of the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., but her understudy Elaine Stritch starred in the national tour.

The musical opened in the West End at the London Coliseum on March 15, 1952 where it ran for 486 performances and starred Billie Worth.

The New York City Center Encores! semi-staged concert version starring Tyne Daly, Walter Charles, and Melissa Errico was presented in February 1995. A regional production ran at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, New Jersey, in April–May 1996 and starred Leslie Uggams. Other major productions have starred Constance Bennett, Joanne Worley and Karen Morrow.

The Union Theatre in London produced Call Me Madam in the fall of 2012. It was staged and directed by Michael Strassen and starred Lucy Williamson, Gavin Kerr, Leo Miles and Natalie Lipin. It received five nominations at the Off West End Awards and was named as one of the productions when the Union won Best Fringe at The Stage Awards in 2013 alongside The Globe (Best Theatre).

While this series of blog posts is focused on “lost” musicals, Call Me Madam has had some very successful runs recently, but it is not a show that has people calling me for backdrops (unfortunately).  Unlike some of the other shows, it’s not because the plot is irrelevant or can’t be adjusted to today’s topics.  It’s probably because politics is too much of a hot button topic right now for high schools and colleges to want to undertake.  Politics is of course a subject with diverse ideas and ideologies where opinions are adamantly argued.  But, I think everyone can agree that it can also be the subject of great humor especially of the “shake your head” variety (I don’t know if that’s good or bad) like appointing an unqualified socialite to represent US interests in a foreign country.  That idea seems absurd! (sarcasm intended).  But looking at today’s political landscape, Call Me Madam may have been ahead of its time (well, maybe Harry Truman was anyway).  But I think it’s a story line that’s light-hearted and neutral enough where high schools and colleges could perform it without stirring the political pot.  It’s a comedy and a love story.  Who doesn’t love those?

Fighting Corruption (Why Do We Live This Crazy Life?—Part 3)

FiorelloFiorello LaGuardia.  Mayor of New York City 1934-1945.  Took on corruption at Tammany Hall. Had a Broadway musical made about his life.  The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Fiorello, originally opened in 1959 at the Broadhurst Theater and closed in 1961 finishing up at The Broadway Theater.  It reopened in June 1962 at the New York City Center for a two week run.  There were revivals with some production changes in 1994 at the first Encores! series at the New York City Center and again in 2003 at the 20th anniversary of the same series.

As Jonathan Mandell of New York Theater explains, “Even with the changes, Fiorello, a musical about the beloved LaGuardia’s pre-mayoral  career and love life, might be close to the perfect musical for the Encores! series, although it is far from the perfect musical. The good match is not just because Fiorello launched the series or because Mayor LaGuardia is the reason why City Center still survives – he saved it from the wrecking ball by turning it into the city’s first performing arts center. (As the Fiorello program explains, with unintentional irony: “The goal was to bring the performing arts to all New Yorkers – at a fraction of Broadway ticket prices.”). Actually, Fiorello is close to the perfect musical for Encores! in part because it is far from the perfect musical — something that wouldn’t really work as a long run on Broadway anymore.”

The original production was directed by George Abbott with choreography by Peter Gennaro.  Tom Bosley, of Happy Days fame, originated the title role opposite Howard DaSilva as the Republican machine boss, Ben Marino. The cast featured Ellen Hanley as Thea, Pat Stanley as Dora, Patricia Wilson as Marie, Nathaniel Frey as Morris, and Broadway’s future Superman, Bob Holiday, as Neil.

The story follows the life of Fiorello H. La Guardia during World War I and ten years later. As Mayor of New York City, La Guardia reforms city politics by helping end Tammany Hall’s vaunted political machine.

The musical contains several songs built around a group of machine politicians. In “Politics and Poker”, Republican machine politicians try to pick a congressional candidate in a district they consider hopeless while playing a game of poker and compare politics to poker. The lyric is set to waltz tempo “to underscore the frivolity of their cynicism.” In “The Bum Won”, these same politicians commiserate with one another after LaGuardia has won the election without their support. In “Little Tin Box”, they imagine a series of Tammany politicians attempting to explain to a judge that their wealth came from their scrupulous habits of saving (“I can see Your Honor doesn’t pull his punches/ And it looks a trifle fishy, I’ll admit/ But for one whole week I went without my lunches/ And it mounted up, Your Honor, bit by bit/ Up Your Honor, bit by bit.”)

In “I Love a Cop”, woman factory worker describes her hapless situation of having fallen in love with a policeman who was called out against a strike by her union; “The Name’s La Guardia” has LaGuardia campaigning in English, Italian and Yiddish. There is also a ragtime number, “Gentleman Jimmy” about bon vivant mayor James J. “Jimmy” Walker, and the comic “Marie’s Law”, in which Marie proposes a “law” about how husbands should treat their wives. (“Every girl shall have a honeymoon, which will last at least a year/ During which aforesaid honeymoon, every care shall disappear…”.)

Besides the inevitable invention of some peripheral characters, the musical plays a bit fast and loose with some basic facts of LaGuardia’s life. In fact, LaGuardia’s first wife, Thea, died after only three years of marriage, but the fictional Thea lives another eight years, so that her death can be one more calamity during LaGuardia’s unsuccessful 1929 mayoral campaign; also, the script downplays LaGuardia’s generally successful congressional career to make him seem more of an outsider and increase the triumph of his eventual mayoral victory in 1933.

Even though Fiorello may be a little outdated in terms of the types of characters and issues of that time, the issue of corruption in government and politics is still a relevant topic today especially under the microscope of an election year like this year.  It would be quite interesting to see if someone could put a current spin on Fiorello.  Maybe–I said MAYBE–if Donald Trump wins the Presidency as an “outsider” and he surprises the masses and cleans up Washington, a musical could be made about his time in office.  (Remember that Fiorello opened a short 12 years after he left office, so something like this could be done relatively quickly.)  It would be an interesting spin for sure.  And if not, it would at least be fun to compare the issues of Fiorello against the current climate of the political landscape albeit at a national level as opposed to the city level.  I bet the same underlying circumstances still hold true.

The Perfect Relationship (Why Do We Live This Crazy Life? Part 2)


bells-are-ringing-judy-hollidayThe second show we will look at in our series of “lost” musicals is Bells Are Ringing.  Bells Are Ringing is a musical with a book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Jule Styne.  The story revolves around Ella, who works at an answering service and the characters that she meets there. The main character was based on the life of Mary Printz, who worked as an answering service operator who catered to many of the New York theater and business A-listers in the 1950s.  Three of the show’s tunes – “Long Before I Knew You,” “Just in Time,” and “The Party’s Over” – became popular standards.

The original Broadway production, directed by Jerome Robbins and choreographed by Robbins and Bob Fosse, opened on November 29, 1956 at the Shubert Theatre, where it ran for slightly more than two years before transferring to the Alvin Theatre, for a total run of 924 performances. It starred Judy Holliday as Ella and Sydney Chaplin as Jeff Moss, Jean Stapleton as Sue Summers, Eddie Lawrence as Sandor, as well as George S. Irving, Jack Weston, and Peter Gennaro.  It was also adapted into a movie in 1960 starring Judy Holliday reprising her role as Ella and Dean Martin as Jeff Moss.

In Bells Are Ringing, Ella Peterson works in the basement office of her boss, Sue, of “Susanswerphone”, a telephone answering service. She listens in on others’ lives and adds some interest to her own humdrum existence by adopting different identities – and voices – for her clients. They include Blake Barton, an out-of-work Method actor, Dr. Kitchell, a dentist with musical yearnings but lacking talent, and playwright Jeff Moss, who is suffering from writer’s block and desperately needs a muse. As suggested by the song title, Ella considers the relationships with these clients “perfect” because she can’t see them and they can’t see her, yet she derives great pleasure from meddling in their lives.

I always thought the plot of this show seemed dated considering it is nearly impossible to get an actual person to answer a phone when you call a business and, of course, the internet has rendered answering services somewhat obsolete.  You can Google any problem you might have!  Apparently, I was not the only one.  The show was staged in 2010 by New York City Center’s Encore! with mixed reviews.  Positive reviews for the lead Kelli O’Hara, but tepid reviews for the show itself.  Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote: “Ms. O’Hara is the possessor of a liquid soprano that was made for the shimmering romantic confessions so essential to classic American musicals. Offering sincerity without saccharine, her voice seems to emerge almost involuntarily, as if she just couldn’t help acting on an irresistible urge. Though obviously highly trained, that voice brims with a conversational ease that makes you forget that singing is not usually the form we choose for confiding in others, even in this age of ‘Glee’…This 1956 musical … was revived on Broadway only nine years ago (with Faith Prince), and it seemed irretrievably dated then.”

While I think musicals such as Bells Are Ringing would be fun, it would probably be tough to convince a younger audience that strangers would listen to other strangers’ problems on the phone.  Although, I guess it’s not too hard to imagine considering how people meet and interact on the internet today.  Maybe it could be adapted and updated somehow.  But don’t ask me.  I’m not a playwright!  But it sure would be an interesting take on a Tony Award winning musical.

Why Do We Live This Crazy Life?–The Applause

laurenbacall-applause(originalbroadwaycast)I thought it would be fun to pick out a few Broadway musicals that have somewhat ‘disappeared’ over the years.  Over the next few months, we’ll take a historical look at some fun shows whose themes may be era specific and maybe a little ‘old fashioned’.   Now, when I say ‘disappeared’, I don’t mean that nobody performs these shows at all.  I know that professional companies have performed these shows.  I simply mean that they are not performed as often as they once used to even, say, 15 years ago, by high school or college drama clubs.  But if you read the plot to some of these vintage musicals, they are funny, have social implications, and deep themes that are still relevant today.

The first show we will look at is Applause.  Applause is a musical with a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, lyrics by Lee Adams, and music by Charles Strouse.  It won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and Lauren Bacall won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.  Based on the screenplay of the classic Bette Davis film, All About Eve, and the original story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr upon which the movie was based, Applause was updated to be set in 1970 and not in 1950 like the movie.  Also, some of the characters specific to the movie were replaced in the stage production by the producers.

The Broadway production opened on March 30, 1970 at the Palace Theatre, and closed on July 27, 1972, after 896 performances and 4 previews.  Directed and choreographed by Ron Field with the orchestrations of Philip J. Lang, the original cast included Lauren Bacall as Margo Channing, Len Cariou as Bill Sampson, Penny Fuller as Eve Harrington, Bonnie Franklin, Lee Roy Reams, Robert Mandan, Brandon Maggart, Ann Williams, and Nicholas Dante.  Anne Baxter, who had portrayed Eve in the original film, replaced Bacall as Margo Channing when she departed the cast later in the run.

The musical was later adapted for television, starring Bacall and Larry Hagman replacing Len Cariou, who now stars in the hit TV series Blue Bloods, in the role of Bill Sampson. It aired in the United States on CBS on March 19, 1973.  The show was revived—sorry, retooled–by Paper Mill Playhouse in 1996 starring Stefani Powers as Margo.  New York City Center’s Encores! presented a new production of Applause February 7 to 10, 2008. It was directed by Kathleen Marshall and starred Christine Ebersole, Michael Park, Erin Davie, Megan Sikora, Mario Cantone, Tom Hewitt, Chip Zien, and Kate Burton.

The story goes like this.  Middle-aged actress Margo Channing presents the Tony Award to rising star Eve Harrington, who graciously thanks “my producer, my director, my writer and above all, Margo Channing”.  In flashback, Margo recalls the opening night for one of her plays a year-and a-half before, when Eve entered her life.  Margo’s admirers crowd her dressing room and fill the air with “Backstage Babble”. Among the admirers is Eve, a young woman who says that she, alone and friendless in New York, has found solace in watching her hero, Margo, perform. As soon as Margo can be alone with Bill Sampson, her director and fiancé, she tries to convince him to stay with her and not go to Rome to direct a movie.  Bill firmly but lovingly tells her goodbye (“Think How It’s Gonna Be”).  Margo dreads facing the opening night party alone, and wanting to have a good time, she persuades, Duane, her gay hairdresser, to take her and Eve to a gay nightclub in Greenwich Village (“But Alive”).  The lively evening ends back at Margo’s apartment.  Eve declares that it has been the best time she’s ever had (“The Best Night of My Life”).  Margo, seeing her 19-year-old self in one of her old movies on TV, senses the impact her increasing age will have on her career and sarcastically asks “Who’s That Girl?”.

Four months later, Eve has become Margo’s indispensable assistant, impressing Margo’s close friends, including her producer, Howard Benedict.  Howard takes Eve to a “gypsy” hangout. “Gypsy,” Howard explains, “is the name dancers affectionately give themselves as they go camping from show to show.”  The “gypsies”, led by one of their own, Bonnie, celebrate “the sound that says love” – “Applause”.  That night, at three a.m. after a phone call from Bill in Rome, Margo longingly wishes he would “Hurry Back”. Bill arranges to hurry back two weeks later, but at Margo’s welcome home party for him, a misunderstanding leads to a disastrous evening (“Fasten Your Seat Belts”).  Eve, as Margo’s ever-present assistant, knows Margo’s part in the play completely, and Eve contrives to get herself hired as Margo’s understudy.  Margo, feeling betrayed and threatened, faces Eve with an ironic “Welcome to the Theatre”.  Bill accuses her of being paranoid about Eve, and after a bitter fight, he says goodbye to Margo, ending his relationship with her. Margo is left alone on an empty stage.

In Act 2, Margo is visiting her friends, playwright Buzz Richards and his wife Karen, in their Connecticut home.  Karen, thinking Margo behaved unfairly to Eve, arranges for Margo to miss a performance by draining the car’s gas tank so they cannot return to New York in time for the evening’s performance.  Stuck in the country for the night, they express their warm feelings as “Good Friends”.  Back in New York, Eve gives a triumphant performance in Margo’s role. Howard again takes Eve to the “gypsy” hangout where she snubs Bonnie and her friends, who do a scathing parody of a girl who becomes an overnight star (“She’s No Longer a Gypsy”).

Margo is devastated when she reads a nasty interview that Eve has given in which she refers to “aging stars.”  Bill now realizes what Eve’s true intentions are and rushes back full of love for Margo, telling her she’s “One of a Kind”.  Margo, though, is too focused on her career to want to return to Bill.  Eve, who has made an unsuccessful pass at Bill, ensnares the playwright, Buzz, and she rejoices that she now has a man who can help her career (“One Hallowe’en”).  Her plans with Buzz are crushed by Howard who claims her for himself, telling her “We both know what you want and you know I’m the one who can get it for you” – Eve needs Howard’s influence as a producer as well as his silence concerning her devious rise to stardom.

Margo seems to have lost everything because of Eve, but suddenly she realizes she could be the winner because she now has a chance at “Something Greater” – a life with Bill.  In the finale, she and Bill join with everybody answering the question “why do we live this crazy life?” – “Applause”.

Sounds like a musical that could be revamped even further to be set in the 2000s.  With today’s celebrity culture, a look at the behind the scenes dynamic between two stars fighting for the spotlight and the people in charge would still be a fascinating and funny storyline.

Tell me what you think?