“I wanted to be surrounded by women I’ve known most of my life, who I’ve worked with and loved,” declares Walter Willison. This show is doubly personal for the host/writer/director. Not only does it fall on his birthday, but the performer knew and worked with Wright and Forrest over 15 years. (He peppers the concert with illuminating facts and anecdotes.) This retrospective was the single unrealized project on the collaborators’ bucket list when they passed.
Robert Wright (1914- 2005) and George Forrest (1915- 1999), musical theater composer-lyricists, worked together over 70 uninterrupted years beginning in high school. At 14 and 15 respectively, Wright had accompanied Ziegfeld’s Helen Morgan in an illegal speakeasy and Forrest had entertained aboard cruise ships. Setting their caps for film, the two played clubs from Miami to Los Angeles landing a job at MGM as songwriters. “In those days,” Willison reminds us, “You had to go to one of those beautiful, gilded movie palaces” to hear the music. He sighs.
An evocative “A Bag of Popcorn and a Dream” (also the name of a CD celebrating the partners’ oeuvre), begins a parentheses of Hollywood-era songs exuberantly performed by our host, a showman to his toes. It was “The Donkey Serenade” that cinched the writers’ status with Louis B. Mayer recognizing success when he saw it. There’s a song in the air/But the fair senorita doesn’t seem to care/For the song in the air/So I’ll sing to my mule…Go figure. With music by Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart, the partners took Mayer’s advice and adapted classical material.
George “Chet” Forrest, Walter Willison, Robert Wright, 1989 Tony Awards (Photo by Henry Grossman)
Song of Norway was based on the life of Edvard Grieg. Attractive, young vocalists Katie Dixon, John Drinkwater and Matthew Drinkwater rendered “Hill of Dreams” from the show. For most of Janet -they called her Janet, not Jeanette-MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s tunes, Wright and Forrest refashioned folk songs.
As many of their Los Angeles Civic Light Opera musicals traveled to Broadway, Wright and Forest followed. In New York, they also penned special material for The Copa- cabana, a venue one would hardly associate with the team. Nightclub selections are offered by Lee Horwin and Marcy DeGonge Manfredi whose droll “I’m Going Moroccan for Johnny” gives us a glimpse into the collaborators’ humor: I’m facing the East/And salaaming all over the place…
Kismet, adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin, was reviewed as having “not a song in the whole show.” Its score included “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “This Is My Beloved,” and “Stranger in Paradise.” Willison and Heather MacRae offer a medley from the show- the duet balances enthusiastically-while DeGonge Manfredi performs “Beloved.” Kismet was followed by Kean, Timbuktu! (another take on Kismet), and Broadway’s first Anastasia represented by Katie Dixon’s “Think Upon Something Beautiful” with the singer more conscious of notes than lyrics.
Diane J. Findley
Vocalist Diane J. Findley, whom Wright and Forrest appropriately recognized as adding class to any vehicle, sings (and acts) two numbers. “Has Madame Had It?” was written for Marlene Dietrich hoping she would star in At the Grand, the first iteration of what would later become Grand Hotel. Part monologue, part song, it arrives phrased like musing. Has Madame had it?…Is Madame slipping?…Should Madame chuck it?…Findley asks hesitating, one eyebrow aurally raised.
The unquestionable highlight of the afternoon is A Grand Hotel Suite. The musical, with the help of composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and director Tommy Tune, scored more than 1,000 performances and a Tony nomination. It was Wright and Forrest’s last collaboration. Three of the show’s original cast members successively take the stage.
Lynnette Perry, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi
Lynnette Perry appealingly resumes her role as pretty young typist, Flaemmchen, with “Flame Girl” describing film star aspirations, a song that was cut in Boston. Perry’s charming gestures and low key delivery land well. Karen Akers, who played Raffaela, confidante/secretary to the famous ballerina, performs the difficult “What You Need” with unexaggerated investment, palpably creating the character. And the great Liliane Montevecchi (as ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya) inhabits Maury Yeston’s moving “Bonjour Amour.” This artist’s signature flair and credibility are bracketed by wicked, onstage humor.
We close with a lively version of “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” the right song with which to exit in cheer and end this season’s Ziegfeld Society’s shows-which resume in September.
Unfortunately, we also leave with ringing ears. Consistent over-loudness, often inappropriately stressing lyrics and voices, may have been a boon to those hard of hearing, but the rest of us (and performance) suffered.
Finale: Back Row-MD Jose Simbulan, Stage Manager Mark Lord, John Drinkwater, Matthew Drinkwater, Executive Producer Mark York
Front Row: Katie Dixon, Heather MacRae, Diane J. Findley, Karen Akers, Liliane Montevecchi, Writer/Director Walter Willison, Lynnette Perry, Lee Horwin, Marcy DeGonge Manfredi
Photos by Steve Friedman
Opening: Walter Willison
The Ziegfeld Society presents
We’ll Take A Glass Together!: The Songs of Wright and Forrest From MGM to Grand Hotel
Hosted, Written & Directed by Walter Willison
Musical Direction/Special Arrangements/Piano – Jose Simbulan
Lang Hall Hunter College
June 24, 2017
The Ziegfeld Society