Friday, March 26, 2010

A Shoe Full of Champagne

Mark Nadler & KT Sullivan
“Gershwin…Here to Stay”

When the Stature of Liberty climbed out of the ocean in 1886, she found a Manhattan that already had an abundance of dames. Which explains why she wisely constrained herself to an island out in the harbor. Way back to Jenny Lind, this city loves its theatrical ladies. I just spent a week indexing a book on the Flatiron Building* which focused me on the Gay Nineties to the Grim 1930s. So Lillian Russell and Anna Held were much on my mind (and in the book) when I joined Rick Hinkson and Zachary Stains in the Oak Room of the Algonquin last Saturday night.

I vaguely remember hearing a recording of Lillian Russell and seeing a glimpse of Anna Held in an old film. I have no clear idea what either lady was like except that everywhere they went they were bombarded with orchids, drenched in Champagne, and followed by gentlemen offering them bushel baskets overflowing with diamonds. But regardless of what you may have heard to the contrary, when it comes these legendary ladies, the furthest I go back is to Sophie Tucker, Pearl Bailey, and the ever diffident Miss Merman. (I WAS NOT at Castle Clinton the night Jenny Lind made her debut.)

KT Sullivan may very well be the last of these Great Dames of the New York stage. She is by far the sultriest. She has eyes that would force Hoffmann to write a whole new tale, a complextion to shame a porcelain doll, and what a voice. If Cleopatra could sing like this, Caesar would never have gone back to Rome, Salome could gather her heads where she may without removing a stitch, and Delilah would have no need for scissors. There should be baskets and baskets and baskets of Cartier, Van Cleef, and Tiffany whatnots waiting for her nightly.

Mark Nadler has arranged and directed this George Gershwin evening. The Oak Room is long and narrow with the piano against one wall in the middle and most of the audience left and right. Not exactly audience friendly, it can have an isolating effect. The Caffe Cino, much smaller, presented the same problem. Nadler’s solution was much the same that I used downtown fifty years ago. He wisely employs the whole room from entrances at either end to the aisles, even to the tables. (Miss Sullivan occasionally prowls about, a leopard off its leash) The result was to draw the audience in to a warm and intimate embrace. We were at his private party.

Mark Nadler is the quintessential stage door Johnny (complete with spats). To be in the same room with him is to be dressed in white tie and tails out on a night-on-the-town. He managed to conjure everything but a chorus line. He did pull a second pianist (the marvelous Jon Weber) out of his top hat. And together they performed an astonishing moment of music. Perhaps the most important moment of music heard in this city on that night. Jon Weber joined Mark Nadler in his piano-four hand arrangement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. And the world stood still to listen.

A footnote: Speaking of music that stops the world in its tracks, I had been at the Algonquin a few weeks earlier for "Puttin' On the Ritz," piano man Steve Ross’s celebration of songs associated with Fred Astaire. Steve Ross is the toast of cities major to minor from here to the Antipodes. He also may be the nicest person I have ever met. He is such a perfect fit to this music, by the end of the show, it was as if his piano was dancing with Astaire.

KT Sullivan & Mark Nadler:
“Gershwin…Here to Stay”
Tue–Thu at 8:30pm , Fri, Sat at 8:30pm & 11pm
ongoing through April 10.
The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel
59 W 44th St (212-419-9331)
Tickets: $50 plus $30 minimum.

There is an earlier post on KT Sullivan in this Blog for September 30, 2008, under the title “Come to the Cabaret.”

*If you love the history of New York City as much as I do, I recommend The Flatiron by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, St. Martin’s Press, 2010.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From This Moment On

Over the years whenever I am being interviewed, someone will ask me how and when I was first aware that New York City was to be my future. Until last night, when Bernard Belasco took me to Town Hall for Broadway by the Year 1948, I did not have the vaguest idea. Hearing the songs from Kiss Me, Kate and Where’s Charley? began to stir the memory stew. The Cole Porter score and the song “Once in Love with Amy” have always been rooted deep in my consciousness. I never knew quite why.

I had a non-traditional relationship with recorded music. As I have mentioned before, on the ranch growing up our only radio was a crystal set. Thanks to the war, replacement crystals were impossible to get. Radio listening was strictly limited to Gabriel Heater and the agricultural report. Luckily for me, down in the basement was an old Victrola and a huge pile of records from the 1920s, when my mother and her brothers were kids and lived there. “How Could Riding Hood” and “She Knows Her Onions” and “Who’s Taking Care of the Caretaker’s Daughter While the Caretaker’s Taking Care?” were the songs I grew up with. The singers I knew were Ruth Etting and Rudy VallĂ©e and Libby Holman etc.. Ruth and Libby still top my list of favorites. (Another reason I was not a popular teenager in the 1950s.)

Last night when Scott Siegel (who deserves a yearly special Tony Award) was introducing the year 1948, he mentioned it was the year the long playing record was introduced, and it all came flashing back. In 1948 I was nine. For the first time I began to venture out of the kid’s section of the Kennewick public library. I discovered this whole room with current magazines and newspapers that I had never noticed before and as I walked in, there HE was, on the cover of this magazine called Theatre Arts.

OK, maybe he wasn’t on the cover but this very handsome man was smiling at me and if I remember right he was wearing an earring. The neck of his shirt scooped to the right showing a wicked wink of flesh, something I had never seen before on a man. There was a look in his eyes also not all that common among our local men folk. Reading the magazine, I discovered he was Alfred Drake and he was staring on Broadway in a show called Kiss Me, Kate.

In our town in the late forties you bought records in the same appliance store where you bought the phonograph. I knew the lady who ran it, and she would let me play the records. Imagine my joy when a few weeks later I walked in and there HE was again, on the cover of one of those new long playing records. I would come in and play it day after day. No one minded because there was almost no demand for this sort of record in a wheat ranch town. They were there primarily for display. As to when and where I heard “Once in Love with Amy” from Where’s Charley?, I still don’t know. (I don't think a cast album was recorded.)

But I started spending a lot of time in the magazine section of our library. I religiously read Theatre Arts, and religion it was and still is! The only one I ever subscribed to. I also discovered The New Yorker magazine, and my fate was sealed. 1948 was indeed a very good year, one which would forever change the direction of my life. (It was right about then that I became addicted to opera, but that is for another post.)

Broadway by the Year 1948 was wonderful. There was an amazing song that I had never heard before, “Is It Him or Is It Me,” from Alan J. Lerner and Kurt Weill’s Love Life sung by Farah Alvin. Bobby Steggert broke hearts with “Nobody’s Heart But Mine” from As the Girls Go by Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh. But the show stopper was (as it always is) Cole Porter’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” presented by Jeffry Denman and Bobby Steggert. These two stars from the current hit YANK!, had so many encores I stopped counting at about one hundred. Well, maybe not one hundred, but a lot. I take back what I said about Scott Siegel deserving a yearly special Tony Award. He deserves two yearly.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Love Among the Palms

I received an email from Arch Brown whose Thorny Theater in Palm Springs just opened a run of my play A Perfect Relationship:

“The Preview and Opening Night were huge successes. Big laughs throughout and the audiences got every nuance of your script. Jim Strait has sucked every little detail out of the actor's performances and brought them front and center. I think you would be thrilled. The Muriel (Linda McGraw) is simply hysterical and the Barry (Marc Wasmund) is a comic wonder ...and very butch. Even I was stunned by the production and its multitude of facets. This is the eleventh production Jim has directed for us and he just gets better and better, as do our actors. Bravo!”

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Drum, Drum, Drumming

Cast of Yank!

I am very proud that some songs from Yank! got their first hearing in Look Askew, a revue that Igor Goldin presented with TOSOS in 2003. There is no point in my writing anything about the show when David Cote says it all.

“They just don’t make old-fashioned musicals anymore, do they? …. Actually, they still do. Yank! is solidly in the Rodgers and Hammerstein tradition. Only difference: it’s about two male soldiers in love. Director Igor Goldin pulls it all together with a fluid staging that even includes a dream ballet. ….Most impressive is the Zellniks’ jazzy, swoony score…. And while the musical conventions are familiar, it’s new to see a retro-style tuner treat this potentially controversial topic with such humor and humanity. Now the season isn’t over yet, but I’d go so far as to say that Yank! could be the best original musical so far. If there’s any justice it will have a life beyond the run at the York Theatre. I’m not asking, I’m telling you: go see Yank!“ - David Cote, NY1

Theatre at St. Peter's Church
Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Ave (at 54th St)
212-935-5820 - Tickets: $67.50
Fri 8pm , Sat 2:30pm, 8pm , Sun 2:30pm , Tue 7pm Ongoing through Mar 21.