City Center’s Encores!, which annually presents three staged concert readings of rarely produced shows from the musical theater’s past, celebrated its 25th anniversary by starting its season with Hey, Look Me Over!, an evening of excerpts from somewhat-below-top-drawer musicals that Encores! is never likely to present in more complete form. Since no Broadway producer, however foolhardy, would be likely to risk a full-scale revival of any of these problematic works, the snippets Encores! provided gave the best chance to glimpse them with even a hint of the resources lavished on their original productions decades ago. (Like all Encores! productions, the show ran only a single short week, February 7–11.)
One should, I suppose, be grateful. In addition to a full-size orchestra onstage, smartly conducted by Rob Berman, Encores! provided a spiffy cast giving its all: Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Bebe Neuwirth, and Vanessa Williams were among those heading the list of excellent folk who turned in quality performances. The singing was rousing; the dancing, choreographed by Denis Jones, was fleet-footed and stylish. The largely elderly musical-theater aficionados to whose pleasure Encores! mainly seems devoted applauded mightily and went home looking happy.
I, to my regret, was among the less happy attendees. Not that I dislike any of the B-list shows Encores! chose for excerpting. I saw three of them in their original productions, and grew up familiar with the original-cast recordings of the others; several have had small-scale or concert revivals in the not-too-distant past. None of them is utterly without value and some, with extensive reworking, could probably be trained to stand on their own. And the performance, under Marc Bruni’s direction, was, as I have said, largely beyond reproach.
The problem lay in the concept, created by Encores! longtime artistic director Jack Viertel, which seemed to lack understanding of two basic points: why people can sometimes love a less-than-great old musical, and how one assembles the elements of a successful revue. The evening’s defenders might say that to create a revue wasn’t Viertel’s intention, but an entertainment that consists of discrete, mostly unrelated items can’t really be anything else. The shows Encores! selected had some factual connections — most of them dated from the early 1960s — and a few also offered hints of a thematic link with current relevance, depicting new arrivals in a foreign land, which probably prompted the choice of finale: Irving Berlin’s setting of Emma Lazarus’s “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from Miss Liberty (1949).
But flirting with a theme isn’t the same as building one, just as reciting facts about shows isn’t the same as putting them in context. The evening’s emcee was Canadian actor-writer Bob Martin, re-creating his celebrated performance as the Man in Chair who narrates the increasingly absurd plot twists of the spoof 1920s musical The Drowsy Chaperone (2006). Here, though mostly out of chair, he roused some good laughs with his drolly dry delivery but said little about the shows themselves beyond announcing who wrote and directed them, what date they opened, and, in some cases, how quickly they had closed. This bright but uninformative patter kept the event moving along its otherwise rather clunky way. With a few brief exceptions, Viertel’s method of selecting materials was unvaried: a chunk of overture or lead-in music; a chunk of opening chorus; a chunk of star’s entrance number or “I want” song; a chunk of compressed plot; and then a big number for star and/or company.
While this inside-baseball approach to musical theater may have delighted arcana collectors in the audience, it was guaranteed either to bore or to befuddle everyone else present — most of all newcomers to the art, who must have begun to suspect that all pre-1980 musicals trudged along with the same plodding earnestness, interrupted by jerky transitions and somnolent lumps of preposterous exposition. The stubborn insistence on laying out each show’s plot premises revealed, disconcertingly, what had made some of them flops. All American musicals, from The Black Crook to The Band’s Visit, spring from preposterous premises; in lower-tier specimens those premises simply aren’t any fun — or at least not as much fun as their creators had hoped.
A refugee professor of engineering ends up coaching a small-college football team. A tough gal fights for, and gets, a job on an oil rig. The scion of a rural English village family fears that he might be afflicted with a hereditary urge to wander. These notions — the starting points, respectively, of the Charles Strouse–Lee Adams All American (1962), Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s Wildcat (1960), and Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow (1960) — had at best only limited audience appeal. What tempted production teams to carpenter musicals out of them was, in the first case, Ray Bolger’s return to the stage, and, in the latter two, the Broadway musical debuts of Lucille Ball and Anthony Perkins, respectively.
Obviously, the writers and directors strove to bring these dubious notions to dramatic life, as well as to tailor them to fit their stars. (In Greenwillow’s case, Loesser, the antithesis of a rural English villager, seems to have chiefly been bewitched by the challenge of animating a world so unlike his own.) But we don’t love old musicals because their premises lacked liftoff, and the less we hear of such miscalculations, the happier we are. Unless you propose either to present the failed work complete as a historical curiosity, or to rework it in a way that you believe will set it flying, it’s best to stay away from it altogether. Or, if excerpts must be the order of the day, why not approach each show differently, highlighting the beginnings of those with strong openings and catchy premises, and later segments of shows where the best stuff comes in the middle or towards the end.
Several of the selected shows, in fact, have scores sustained enough to merit at least a full Encores! staging. Greenwillow may be afflicted with both its wince-producing premise and touches of a tea-cosy tweeness — Encores! mercifully spared us the number in which the family baptizes a newborn calf — but Loesser coaxed from this unpromising context a string of passionate, fiercely powerful songs of romantic yearning, along with two sly comedy numbers. Clifton Duncan, pouring out his big voice in “Never Will I Marry,” provided the evening’s high point. If the revue’s makers had added “Summertime Love,” “Faraway Boy,” and “Walking Away Whistling,” the choice to devote at least half the evening to Greenwillow, notwithstanding its flaws, would have been a no-brainer.
Something similar might have applied to Mack and Mabel (1974), the evening’s other most substantial score. As Martin’s narration pointed out, songwriter Jerry Herman and book writer Michael Stewart couldn’t turn the story of silent-movie mogul Mack Sennett’s stress-laden affair with his died-too-young star Mabel Normand into a happy crowd-pleaser. Nor could Encores!, with its limited rehearsal time and budget, infuse its few chosen tidbits with the vigor and imagination of the late Gower Champion’s original staging. (And the original’s star, Bernadette Peters, was busy further downtown, starring in another Champion re-creation, Hello, Dolly!) Still, Encores! did well with what it had: Douglas Sills lined out Sennett’s “Movies Were Movies” with splenetic grandeur, and Alexandra Socha scampered through the tricky lyrics of “What Happened to Mabel” with real if slightly breathless delight. (Who but Jerry Herman would have had the temerity to rhyme “bagels and knishes” with “Saint Aloysius”?) But, again, it hardly seemed like a fair representation of what gives Mack and Mabel its loyal following, lacking, among other numbers, “I Won’t Send Roses” and “Time Heals Everything.”
We have small-scale organizations that regularly present, in semi-staged concerts, the kind of shows Encores! excerpted here. On the East Side, the York Theatre’s annual “Musicals in Mufti” series, devoted this year to obscurities by composer Jule Styne, is about to give New York its first hearing since 1964 of Styne’s Subways Are for Sleeping, the overture to which gave Hey, Look Me Over!’s second act an exhilarating start. Farther west, in the Theater Row building, Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight! — which presented all of All American back in 2012 — is launching its new season this week with Rodgers and Hart’s 1938 post-Shakespearean masterwork, The Boys From Syracuse. Encores!, though itself limited budget-wise in comparison to the resources a full-scale Broadway musical production demands, towers over these small but determined groups fiscally and in the public attention it commands. Yet it looks minuscule, compared to them, in terms of the thought it expends on the specifics of its work. What Hey, Look Me Over! displayed was an organization content to follow old patterns mechanically rather than to restore old works with loving exactitude or to find a new approach to them. This short-changes everyone but the aficionados, who can fill in the blanks from their knowledge and their CD collections. The rest of the public, both those who already love musicals and those who barely know what they are, is left to play guesswork — which, even in the company of a fine orchestra and a first-rate cast, is still only guesswork.