Hooray for Encores Great Musicals in Concert!
Musical theatre aficionados will almost certainly know about this project, but for those who don’t – Since 1994, Encores, based at New York City Center, has been devoted to restoring, with curatorial care, three musicals every year. Each one is presented for a handful of performances, usually with starry casts and always with top-tier musical support. The general idea is to revive for a brief moment works that are unfamiliar – often shows that flopped when first performed, and have had few or no revivals since.
In 21 (and counting!) seasons, Encores has breathed new life into a handful of musicals that turned out to be masterworks, including CHICAGO – it is their revival that continues on Broadway, and which made over an only moderately successful show from the 1970s into one of the biggest hits in history.
They’ve also revived a few clunkers, but almost every time, the Encores production has made the best possible case for them.
When Encores began, these were truly musicals in concert – the scores were resurrected pretty much complete, but staging was rudimentary. Performers worked with scripts in-hand, and often planted themselves in front of microphones.
Even then, it seemed little short of miraculous that Encores could do such polished work with so little rehearsal. (One reason the company can assemble the blue-chip casts they do is because the time commitment is short.) Yet each season is more ambitious, and recent Encores are pretty close to fully mounted productions, including sets, costumes, and elaborate choreography executed with a polish that seems virtually miraculous given the timeframe. But they do, and audiences are the richer for it.
If you’ve never gone to Encores, you should! (And it’s high time that PBS arranged to televise one or more of the shows in the Great Performances series, so that the rest of the world can see how amazing they are.)
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Encores 21st season opened with LITTLE ME, a 1967 musical by Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music), and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics) that is remembered now for a couple of hit songs (“I’ve Got Your Number,” “Real Live Girl”) but largely forgotten as a show. It was an evening that evoked contrary responses, which is to say that while it was pretty clear why the show wasn’t a hit (and likely never will be), most of it was good fun, and a few aspects were revelatory.
To start with the less than revelatory – there’s the book. Surprise! – The most famous of the LITTLE ME writers did the least distinguished work. Neil Simon adapted Patrick Dennis’s novella – a deliciously sly mock-memoir by a mythical actress named Belle Poitrine, who innocently sleeps her way to the top – by draining it of sophistication, and substituting a plainer narrative with a string of predictable jokes. Simon’s gift for funny lines is legendary, but here for every moment of comedy gold (and there are some), there are half a dozen that aren’t even pewter.
In contrast, Carolyn Leigh’s lyrics are absolutely sensational. Even the simplest songs are packed with funny surprises, and Leigh has an astonishing ability to build a joke and keep it going for verse after verse. (Ironically, her lyrics are so good they make Simon’s dialogue seem even lamer.) Leigh wrote a lot of hit songs but not many musicals (she died far too young in 1983) – what a shame, since the best of her work – LITTLE ME especially – is in the Lorenz Hart/Cole Porter/Ira Gershwin class.
Every Encores show I’ve seen has given me some new information, or at least the chance to revise my opinion of something or someone. In this case, I came away with new admiration for composer Cy Coleman. I certainly knew his work before, and admired it. Coleman’s characteristic sound is one of the most distinctive of the time (this was the 1960s), and combined a traditional palette of Broadway colors and musical forms with a hint of something more like jazz or contemporary pop. (It’s no wonder Frank Sinatra made a specialty of his songs). It may be that seeing too many cheesy variety show performances of Coleman material in my youth had a negative effect, but I don’t generally seek out him out – SWEET CHARITY, for example, which may be his best known musical, is a show I’ve seen a couple of times, but I never go back to any of the recordings.
So for me, this was a chance to reassess Coleman’s work, and wow – he has an amazing gift for finding the right musical idea for the right moment. LITTLE ME has pastiche songs, ensembles, solos across a wide range of styles, and pretty much all of them are terrific. Ralph Burns’ zippy orchestrations help a lot, and as for the Encores orchestra and conductor Rob Berman – well, they’re the Vienna Philharmonic and Herbert Von Karajan of musical theatre.
LITTLE ME’s supporting cast was pretty much a dream-team of theatre veterans who are also absolute masters of the Borscht Belt comic style that underlies so much of the show. If I single out Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof as a pair of shyster producers, it’s because they have the best material, but the others – including Harriet Harris, David Garrison, Robert Creighton, and especially Judy Kaye – were also terrific. In the somewhat larger role of the also-ran boyfriend, singer-dancer Tony Yazbeck was sexy and funny, and more than earned his big moment (“I’ve Got Your Number”) with a knock-it-out-of-the-park, star-turn performance. This number got the biggest hand, and deserved it!
Among the oddities of Simon’s book is a shift in emphasis away from Belle. Instead, it focuses on the men who helped make her fortune – there are seven of them, all designated to be played by a single actor. In the original production, this was the great Sid Caesar, but it’s proved nearly impossible since then to cast this role adequately (and opinions differ on just how well Caesar himself pulled it off). At Encores, these were played by Christian Borle, who has in his favor a mobile, goofy-cute face, a decent singing voice, and some lightweight comic charm, all of which he pressed into good service here. But what he doesn’t have – and the roles really demand – is star presence; also virtuoso skill at differentiating characters. By the end of Act I, with several more roles still to play, Borle has reached the limit of his comic resources.
Rachel York (Belle), on the other hand, starts at a high and only gets better. What doesn’t this actress have going for her? She’s gorgeous, funny, agile, and has a clarion voice and distinctive style that, if this were the world of 1950s pop, might have made her another Eydie Gorme. But we’re lucky she’s with us now, and Encores has twice used her gifts to great advantage (two years ago, she appeared in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES in the secondary female lead, and almost stole the show).
In the end, LITTLE ME is unlikely to get a better production than this, and it’s likely to once again recede into the annals of history. But I’m awfully glad to have seen it done (for the most part) so persuasively.