Some collaborations seem like Kismet. Lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr. and composer David Shire both had bandleader fathers, both went to Yale where they first collaborated on a musical Cyrano de Bergerac, both excelled at story songs. Post graduation, their work unluckily landed in shows that closed out of town or were never produced. An Off Broadway musical flopped. Shire decamped to California lending his talent to movies and television. Maltby wrote and directed in New York. They continued to co-author songs.
The partners’ first revue, a collection of unaired work called Theater Songs by Maltby and Shire, was produced at Manhattan Theatre Club in 1979. A year later, it became Grammy nominated Starting Here, Starting Now and continues to play all over the country. “Although the songs were designed specifically for different personalities, they have an identifiable melodic and lyrical line. They are romantic but not sentimental, simple but not too simple… ironic without being acerbic …Hearing these 22 songs, one necessarily concludes that Mr. Maltby and Mr. Shire should be writing book shows of their own.” (Mel Gussow, The New York Times) Baby, the artists’ initial Broadway outing, opened in 1983.
A second revue, Closer Than Ever garnered two Outer Critics Circle Awards: Best Musical, Best Score. Maltby and Shire continued with vibrant and varied careers, often together, sometimes apart. Tonight’s showcase features songs which may or may not be included in a proposed third revue. Maltby genially welcomes us. Apparently several cast members had to drop out. The lyricist steps in with heart and brio.
Always welcome Chip Zien, in warm full voice, performs “A Life in Full”- “I loved/my heart went wild/ I found that person/I held my child…” also, intermittently providing character/song introductions. Dan Jenkins’ Larry tells the story of tying helium balloons to his lawn chair, taking flight. “…on a larger ride/Six pack at my side…free as any bird…” Liberally embroidering on the true story of a Canadian who, inspired by the film Up, did just that, Maltby gives us a scene-in-one including offstage voices of Larry’s wife and a friend on CB radio = “Way Up There.” Jenkins imbues his hero with pluck, naivete and sweetness. Alas, the complexity of the song works somewhat against these lovely qualities.
Karen Ziemba and Dan Jenkins
The adult “Little Susan Lawrence” seems to be looking at photos with her mom. She’s nostalgic about meeting first love Buzz Babcock who “had a Beatles haircut and always will” and gave her “…a plastic compass ring that whistled and decoded and glowed in the dark…” Ah, first love. Kerry Butler’s wistful performance makes the lilting tune and specific lyric something with which we easily empathize.
“All I Wanna Do is Go Dancing” is given comedienne chops with Karen Ziemba’s exuberantly physical turn. The song musically evokes her feelings; lyrics not so much until Maltby reveals his character longs for the kind of resilience delivered by Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”) and to have her kids find her cool.
Maltby himself, replete with monologue, delivers “Kensington Kenny,” a jaunty music hall take-off on Harry Norris’s 1900 song “Berlington Bertie” (from Bow). Decidedly updated, extremely clever lyrics describe a performer who’s proud to be both Kenny and Gwenny. The lyricist’s near-breezy rendition of “Only When I Laugh”- “Will you catch me cryin’/Not this kid/Will I soon forget you/I just did/Does it really hurt me/Only when I laugh…” is deft and affecting. Never underestimate the power of a musical theater writer performing their own work.
Penny Fuller and Chip Zein
As sung by Richard Jenkins “Bach,” to my mind an ode to Schroeder from Charlie Brown, is to the song’s misfit character “a structure/a room I’d go inside…” The actor is palpably tremulous. In “One Day,” a convincing Penny Fuller sings“It’s been a whole year now since you lost Tom/I don’t think you ever really recover…I know what you’re feeling…meaning/ careening…” The poignant turn looks back speaking of courage and hope. “How can you know it’s not an end, it’s a start…”
The company’s “Manhattan Skyline,” in splendid vocal arrangement, paints an image of the city we love with infectious enthusiasm and perception.
Clearly Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire remain keen observers of the human condition…with more to say. I hear there might be another iteration of the terrific musical Baby. Shhhh…
Opening: Richard Maltby, Jr., David Shire Courtesy of The Bistro Awards
Richard Maltby Jr./David Shire: Untitled, Unfinished, Possible Third Revue
Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Music Director/piano/vocal – Deniz Cordell Keyboard/vocal – Annie Pasqua Bass – Danny Weller
November 21, 2022
254 West 54th Street