Broadway/Cabaret/Concert artist Liz Callaway opens the 19th season of Broadway Close Up’s look behind the curtain (she’s hosted 15) with a genial joke: “another year, another font size.” The gracious performer is a perfect choice, articulately interviewing writers of each show, representing the audience, expressing sincere curiosity. A sampling of four musicals aspiring to production is traditionally the first in a four evening series. Many past participants have gone on to bright futures.
Between the Lines
Based on the book by Jodi Picoult & Samantha Van Leer
Book by Timothy Allen McDonald
Music & lyrics by Elyssa Samsel & Kate Anderson
Between the Lines is based on an idea by Picoult’s then 13 year-old daughter, Sami. “What if every time you closed a book,” she’d suggested, “characters had lives and personalities that continued?” Three years later, the mother/daughter collaboration landed on The New York Times best seller list. Its outsider heroine, 17 year-old Delilah, immerses herself in fiction to escape melancholy and confusion. Two worlds cross over when she’s addressed by a handsome prince in a book she’s reading. An appealing concept.
It seems Picoult works with a children’s theater in New Hampshire and enjoys the medium. Its creative team was recommended. Receiving the author’s email Samsel and Anderson “hugged each other and cried,” one comments. The show has already had a regional premiere in Kansas City.
Arielle Jacobs, Curt Hansen; Danny Gardner
The first number introduces Delilah. “I’m weird,” she sings, “Everybody says so.” If only Prince Oliver were real. “Hello.” Suddenly, he’s on stage. The timid royal has neither ability nor ardor for anything princely. “Between the lives is where my life is real.” They have much in common. She thinks she’s going crazy – but…as long as the book is open, there’s hope. It’s Disneyesque and very cute. The second song, “Out of Character” introduces a tap dancing dog (?!) in love with an empty-headed princess. Weak lyrics are compensated for here by the terrific Danny Gardner who sings, taps and makes canine sounds with vivacity and style.
The third finds new friend Jules encouraging Delilah to stand up to the meanest mean girl in school. “When you’re the enemy of Al McAndrews/ You don’t obsess over lip gloss/ You get a piercing instead,” Jules sings. This one sounds utterly teenage. Though Picoult stresses the show is intended to appeal to adults as well – a la Evan Hanson – musical identity can’t quite make up its mind. Arielle Jacobs has a lovely voice. Curt Hanson makes an adorable prince. Morgan Siobhan Green has solid R & B pipes. Chris Gurr – piano.
Book by Rehana Lew Mirza and Mike Lew
Music & lyrics by Sam Willmott
Apparently, there’s a “high-stakes world of intercollegiate Bhangra – Punjab folk dance- competition.” (Bhangra music, we’re informed, was used in the score for the film Bend It Like Beckham.) This show’s protagonist is a biracial girl named Mary who, having been kicked off her team for not being “Indian enough,” forms a rag-tag multicultural group to go up against former peers.
Tony Sheldon, Laura Dadap, Latoya Edwards, Josh Lerner, Daniel Yearwood
Mizra and Lew first met as playwrights then introduce their idea to Willmott during a “Ten Minute Musicals” gathering wherein the three were locked in a room for 24 hours to create mini collaboration. Mirzra calls it “Initiation by fire…you have to trust your instincts.” Willmott says the piece is about American Pluralism, its music utilizing a great many different styles. He accompanies the able cast. A call out is due to last minute vocal replacement Daniel Yearwood who comes through skillfully.
“Sorry I sucked/This is new/New is good/We’re gonna be better,” Mary sings. The predominant phrase in the first song is “this, if this were a thing” which indicates its simplistic lyric. A second selection has the adolescent connecting with her romantic interest – on cell phones – illustrated by cartoons projected on a screen. The pop tune is accompanied in part by ethnic drums which seem extremely out of place. Images are unappealing. The third finds Mary researching her art in a restaurant where Lansing’s (one assumes Michigan) “best ever Indian dancer” performs. It’s sheer Bollywood. Words are unintelligible, buried by muddy instrumentation.
The Washington Square Park Project
Book, music & lyrics by Ben Wexler
Based on interview testimony and photography by Lee Wexler
Every day, on the way to his dental practice, Lee Wexler, this writer/performer’s father, would see the same regulars hanging out in Washington Square Park. Intrigued, he photographed the colorful denizens and recorded their stories from 1985-1987. Ben Wexler grew up with some of the images displayed in his home, but didn’t discover their number or ancillary tapes till much later. The Washington Square Park Project centers on 10 subjects (out of an available 50.) “It’s been really great to be on this journey with my dad.” Lee Wexler is in the audience undoubtedly beaming.
Liz Callaway and Ben Wexler
With his father’s excellent portrait photos up on the screen, Wexler plays, sings, and enacts three successive characters. Informed that lyrics were “very closely adapted from original interviews with my lens of rhyme and song writing,” I can only marvel at his craft. Not only are the songs lyrical, they’re distinctively illuminating. Both words and music reflect these individuals.
In “Lordy, Lordy,” David Lewis is seen in bathing trunks, big belly and sizable limbs unabashedly sunning. The pop song has a decidedly 70s feel simulating the last time ‘he’ was enthusiastically engaged in life. “Why’dja take away my Hendrix?/ Why’dja leave me here with Cher…” There’s even a “Li, Li, Li” bit to the chorus reminding us of Paul Simon at the time.
The photo of 3’ 7” Mike Anderson, a dwarf, palpably exudes joy. Perched on top of what looks like the park fountain, he sings “I used to be all like/Whaddaya lookin’ at buddy?!…Not anymore…” (“Top of the World.”) LSD rid the subject of aggressive bitterness. Wexler’s song is masterfully performed with his subject’s stutter. Music is a quirky, stop/start tune which partners organically with the lyric. Wow.
Wexler Pere’s image of Lui Direnzo shows a bald, doughy 55 year-old man (he looks older) lolling on a park bench in a summer dress and high heels. (No make-up, no wig.) “I’m not a homo…” Having been diagnosed with a death sentence, the otherwise lonely man has discovered his outfit is a far better way to meet people than a t-shirt and jeans. “You’re sure you don’t want to take my picture?…” he genially inquires. Utterly charming.
Ben Wexler is arguably the find of the evening. The talented young man mused about whether to make his creation a one-man show. I encourage him to do so. Historical relationship to these people fills performance with depth and intimacy. May we see the entire piece onstage before too long.
Still Getting My Act Together
Book & lyrics by Gretchen Cryer
Music by Nancy Ford
Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford met at DePaul University when they were 18 and have been writing together ever since. “We both thought we were going to marry ministers and put on shows in church basements,” Cryer quips. She recollects when their The Last Sweet Days of Isaac (1970) was produced, with a cast of 12, for $40,000.
Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford
This sequel to the collaborators’ hit musical I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road (1978 ) visits cabaret performer Heather Jones 30 years later. Having broken with her manager due to creative differences, she’s found the public as unwelcoming of what he called uncommercial material as was suggested. It’s time, she decides, to put the band back together and try again. “The show is about being older and starting over,” Cryer tells us. Callaway aptly notes there aren’t a lot of musicals written about next chapters. Ford is at the piano, Cryer sings.
“Hello World,… I still got things to do, promises to keep/Miles to go before I sleep…” 69 year-old Heather declares. The song is sympathetic, but rife with clichés. Next, we hear the singer, her daughter, and a protester – the latter two sung by a droll, deadpan Ford. This one features the ironic premise that Heather’s daughter, a summa cum laude graduate in astrophysics with a produced CD, decides to marry and be a stay-at-home mom. That today’s women should “be the best they can be” is another cliché. The third song tells us “Wisdom is so sexy/Wisdom is hot…I ain’t history/Till I’m history…It ain’t over till it’s over.” I’m afraid the admirable premise is insufficiently fresh or articulate to hit home.
Nancy Ford and Liz Callaway
Liz Callaway then closes the evening with “Old Friend,” a lovely, lilting song from I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road. The host last performed this as a 19 year-old singing waitress at the special request of Michelle Lee who was dining at her station. It garnered a $50 tip. Her rendition tonight is soulful, warm, and real.
Annually presented, Bound For Broadway is part of the series Broadway Close Up. Offered by Kaufman Music Center at Merkin Concert Hall, BCU is produced and curated by Theater@Kaufman Director Sean Hartley, an educator and musical theater writer who chooses the musicals.
Photos by David Andrako
Opening: Jodi Picoult, Samantha van Leer, Kate Anderson, Timothy Allen McDonald
Broadway Close Up: Bound for Broadway
Hosted by Liz Callaway
October 2, 2017
Kaufman Concert Hall
129 West 67th Street
NEXT: October 30, 2017
The Secret Life of the American Musical Featuring Jack Viertel and hosted by Sean Hartley. With Music Director David Loud. With Tony winner Karen Ziemba (Contact, Bullets Over Broadway) and Tony nominees Reg Rogers (Present Laughter, Boardwalk Empire) and Emily Skinner (Side Show)