Theatre yesterday and today



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The theatre of yesterday (1930 to be exact) returned to Broadway for the first time in 87 years the other night, when I attended the opening night of The New Yorkers at Encores! This production was perhaps one of the truest to the original mission statement of City Center’s ongoing plan for the past twenty-four years, devoting itself to presenting three American musicals in concert every year, all dedicated to performing rarely heard shows, usually with their original orchestrations.

Kevin Chamberlin, Tam Mutu, Scarlett Strallen, Byron Jennings & Arnie Burton

in “The New Yorkers” (2017)

That last part is one of the main reasons for attending any Encores! To hear some of these forgotten shows with a full orchestra is as rare as some of the rarities they play. None more so than The New Yorkers, as a painstaking reconstruction had to be done that was not only a virtual treasure hunt, but a costly one as well. According to Encores’ Music Director Rob Berman, “it’s the biggest and most creative reconstruction job” that the organization has ever undertaken. “There were no musical materials existing, no piano vocal score, no orchestrations, no book scores … and no recording,” added Berman. Jack Viertel, the Encores! Artistic Director, explained it like this in his show notes: “All that remains of the original, after 87 years of neglect, is a couple of barely decipherable carbon copy scripts (including stage managers’ notations that say things like ‘Waring Girls do specialty’ or ‘Business with machine gun.’ We can only guess at what they are describing.) All but one of the Porter songs survive, but only one of the [Jimmy] Durante songs was known to exist until the crack research team at Encores! uncovered the ‘lost’ material at UCLA’s rarely-visited Durante archives. The orchestrations and vocal arrangements are all lost, except for a few that turned up in the Fred Waring papers at Penn State. For a show that spends a bit of time making fun of sophomoric collegiate style, the resurrection of The New Yorkers actually owes a debt to some good university research centers.”

When The New Yorkers opened on December 8, 1930 at the Broadway Theatre, America was but one year into the frightening grip of the Great Depression. What Cole Porter, its composer and lyricist, and Herbert Fields, its book writer were up to, was a diversion for those who could still afford a ticket to a Broadway show. Even though the Depression decimated what was once a Broadway with a hundred theatres, dozens managed to survive and continued on through the dozen or more years of the economic downtown which only began to lift with the thousands of jobs that resulted after the U.S. entrée into World War II. Subtitled: “A Sociological Musical Satire” might seem heady for such a frothy show, but I’m pretty sure tongues were firmly implanted in the cheeks of its creative team. Even though it’s one of the very earliest of Porter’s “book” musicals, it still has the stamp and feel of a revue. The pieces that were cobbled together by Viertel, working as the book’s adapter; Rob Berman as music director, dance and vocal arrangements and conductor; Josh Clayton and Larry Moore handling the orchestrations and Seymour Red Press its music coordinator, the devotion of this team to the excavation and reclamation (and reinvention) of these gems, is more than laudatory, it is essential. Bringing back from the dead, as it were, a show with so much life in it that it not only charmed the audience of 2,500 people I attended the show with, but the majority of critics who have been throwing bouquets at it for the past twenty-four hours since the reviews came out.

If not rose colored glasses, then amber ones. The marquee of the Broadway Theatre (1930)

For a glimpse of the glitz and the savoir faire of these wonderful performers, here are some clips from The New Yorkers:

I was taken with every one of the principles in the cast. The leading lady, Scarlett Strallen (late of A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder) is not only a comedic actress with superb timing and a fantastic singer, but can kick her leg as high as any Rockette. Tam Mutu (he of the short-lived title role in Doctor Zhivago) is a leading man with substantive charm and a superb singing voice. It’s always a pleasure to have Ruth Williamson and Byron Jennings in just about anything, as they are never less than perfect. Mylinda Hull, Eddie Korbich, Todd Buonopane, Robyn Hurder and a “Love For Sale” from the stylish chanteuse Cyrille Aimée, were all standouts. But if I had to pick favorites in this production, I have to go with the clowns. In the nearly impossible assignment of trying to do what Jimmy Durante may have done eight decades ago, Kevin Chamberlin not only finds his own accomplished path, he is also able to pay tribute to the great “Schnozzola” without resorting to an imitation. That’s not easy. He is effortless in his comedy and strikes such a singular figure that it’s impossible to consider anyone else in the role (including Durante). And Arnie Burton, in a small role made larger by the interpolating of a Porter song written especially for Danny Kaye in the 1941 musical Let’s Face It, had the audience in the palm of his hand. His rendition of the hilarious “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” made it’s encore verse not only well-deserved, but compulsory.*

Unfortunately, like all Encores! productions, this one only runs a week. But if you’re in the vicinity of City Center on West 55th Street, hustle on over before Sunday evening’s last performance and see if you can find your way in. You won’t be disappointed.

* Since I’m not a professional critic, in full disclosure Kevin Chamberlin and Arnie Burton are friends of mine. If that doesn’t sit well with anyone reading this, “So sue me,” as Nathan Detroit would say.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: