A Funny Thing Happened: Songs From The Road To Broadway

The 92Y’s estimable Lyrics and Lyricists begins its 2016 series with a program helmed by Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall from whom we’ve come to expect not just entertainment but illumination. “The road (of musical theater) to Broadway can be a bumpy one…you can get the smartest people in a room and still have a flop.” What’s surprising, our host proffers, is that some songs written on the fly turn out to actually save a show, jump start a performer’s career, and/or become iconic. “Tonight we’ll explore some of the theatrical gems that were created during out of town tryouts.”

Darius De Haas, Betsy Wolfe, Elena Shaddow, Aaron C. Finley, Ann Harada, Greg Hildreth

Another op’nin’, another show/ In Philly, Boston or Baltimo’…(Cole Porter) For you youngsters, incoming musicals used to work out the kinks in Boston, Philadelphia, New Haven, or even Buffalo before launching on The Great White Way, an almost nonexistent methodology today.

“Love Is In the Air” (Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) was that show’s opening number until director Jerome Robbins pointed out the song neither adequately told the audience what they were about to experience nor stimulated anticipation. Compare it to “Comedy Tonight” (here performed by the company) and see what he meant. “Before I Gaze At You Again,” (Camelot ) which was given to Julie Andrews by its authors, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe the day of the initial preview, is rendered by soprano Elena Shaddow with grace and gravitas.

Sondheim has said that writing (out of town) in a hotel room is a little easier because by then you know who you’re writing for.

Ann Harada, Darius De Haas, Aaron C. Finley, Elena Shaddow

In 1949, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific needed “something for a young man to sing to a woman after they’d made love for the first time” (Lieutenant Cable and the Tonkinese girl, Liat.) We’re offered verses of three songs intended to fill this need, two of which bear the familiar melody of what would later become “Getting To Know You” in The King and I. Josh Logan’s “That’s awful!” goosed the writers to move on. The result was the lovely “Younger Than Springtime” rendered with warm tenor by vocalist Aaron C. Finley.

Apparently when understudy Sutton Foster stepped into Thoroughly Modern Millie (Dick Scanlan/Jeanine Tesori), she was so good, its authors decided to create an additional number helping Foster win the Tony. Betsy Wolfe (shades of Idina Menzel) performs “Gimme Gimme” with confident pipes and excellent technique but little expressive credibility. A similar boost (and Tony Award) was given Liza Minnelli with the late-in-the-day addition of “Sing Happy” to Kander & Ebb’s Flora, the Red Menace. We hear a very pretty arrangement of the utterly charming song.

The currently ubiquitous Sheldon Harnick is represented by four numbers written with Jerry Bock. “Once I see a show in front of an audience, I see where a song may be useful.” New- during try-out songs include the eloquently tender “Do You Love Me?” (Tevye’s wife Golda asking her husband) and exuberant “Miracle of Miracles” (tailor Motel Kamzoil upon learning he may marry his love) from Fiddler on the Roof . The first, as sung by Greg Hildreth with Ann Harada, must deal with the lady’s shrill presentation and the gentleman’s lack of depth. The second, as performed by Darius De Haas is buoyant and joyful.

Betsy Wolfe, Aaron C. Finley, Elena Shaddow, Darius De Haas, Ann Harada, Greg Hildreth

Also created before New York openings were “Vanilla Ice Cream” (She Loves Me) enacted by the thoroughly appealing Shaddow and “Little Tin Box” (Fiorello) wherein Finley, De Haas and Greg Hildreth play Damon Runyonesque gangsters. The men work wonderfully together both vocally and dramatically. Hildreth, it seems, does especially well with character songs.

Opportunity rises again later with several selections from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls , then in trouble in Philadelphia: “The Oldest Established” (permanent floating crap game in New York) was concocted to make the thugs appealing, “Take Back Your Mink” to rouse an audience at the top of the second act. First the men, then ladies excel, aided by very cute staging- nasal delivery of Adelaide and the Hot Box girls is spot-on.

“Many times creators have a sense where a song is needed, but can’t come up with it.” What became “Being Alive” (Sondheim’s Company) started out as “Happily Ever After,” which, even without hearing lyrics, seems to lack the show’s tone. Finley soars. The pop hit “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (Burt Bachrach/Hal David from Promises Promises) was written in a day upon Bachrach’s return from a bout with pneumonia. Shaddow and De Haas prettily sing the duet accompanied by guitar making it gentler pop than the fully produced recording to which we’re accustomed.

Darius De Haas, Aaron C. Finley, Greg Hildreth

Songs that were at first cut include “The Man I Love” (George & Ira Gershwin) jettisoned from two musicals before seeing the light. Among those that made it under the wire was “You’re Just in Love” (Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam), a duet requested by Ethel Merman when the show’s young diplomatic aid was getting a lot of attention and just before she froze the production fed up with changes. During the latter, with a fine Finley, Harada fares better emulating La Merman.

Really, I’m tempted to regale you with the whole enchilada. The show is fun, beautifully staged and informative. Again, one is reminded of the wonder of American Musical Theater whose mechanisms are as interesting as its output is often pleasing.

Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Betsy Wolfe, Aaron C. Finley, Darius De Haas, Elena Shaddow, Ann Harada, Greg Hildreth

A Funny Thing Happened: Songs From The Road To Broadway
Kathleen Marshall- Artistic Director, Stage Director, Writer, Host
David Chase-Music Director, Piano
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists
Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall
92 & Lexington Ave
January 9, 2016
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About Alix Cohen (1287 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.