Broadway Musical Fans, Here’s a Book Recommendation for You!

SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman: one singular sensation of a Broadway book!

If you love musicals – and I’ve loved them my whole life – then have I got a book for you!  Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore, or better yet log onto your Amazon account, and check out SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing about the back story of how theatrical works are put together.  In this book, Gerald Nachman presents a fascinating, detailed, beautifully researched account of Broadway hit songs and the legions of people who made them happen.

For example, have you ever heard of a 1964 Broadway show called A Damned Exasperating Woman?  Of course not.  That’s because, after Jerry Herman wrote a song that Louis Armstrong liked so much he recorded and released it before the show in question opened.  The song became such a hit it was decided that the show should be named for the song.  Its title?  Hello, Dolly!    The new revival that just opened, starring Bette Midler,  is breaking box office records right now, 53 years later, and while Louis Armstrong is long gone (and missed), we’re all still singing that song.

The back story of the music of Hello, Dolly! is just one of the dozens of fabulous behind-the-scenes-to-before-the-floodlights chapters in this book.  Ever wonder about the differences between the partnerships of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein?  Curious about the real Annie Oakley, who inspired the Irving Berlin musical Annie, Get Your Gun, which was written with Ethel Merman in mind?  Want to find out more about another Annie, the one who was adopted by Daddy Warbucks?  Then this is the book for you.

The chapter that I personally found the most interesting is the one about the song “Wilkommen” in Cabaret.  But let me back up here.  I found the record one day when I was home sick from school as a kid, played the songs and adored them from that point on.  I’ve always particularly loved “Wilkommen,” where the Emcee of a Weimar Berlin cabaret, played by Joel Grey, welcomes the guests in German, English and French.  The song is at once a great show tune and a miniature language lesson in the bargain.  But keep in mind, the first time I played the song, I heard it.  I did not see it acted on a stage.  I didn’t know Joel Grey came out on the stage wearing bizarre make-up.  Until reading SHOWSTOPPERS!, I did not realize that the number, the first in the show, was staged to deliberately set a creepy tone for the audience and let them know what kind of theatrical evening they were in for.  Those who missed seeing many of these classics performed live  the first time around will surely welcome the chance to hear these stories.  They’re certainly giving me a new appreciation of many of my old cast albums.

This book is a treat.  Love Broadway?  Go for it!

 

Imelda’s Turn

Imelda Staunton in the acclaimed London production of GYPSY.  It's bound for Broadway!

Imelda Staunton in the acclaimed London production of GYPSY. It’s bound for Broadway!

Imelda Staunton of Harry Potter fame did a spectacular job in the London production of GYPSY, and guess what?  She’s going to be bringing it to Broadway in 2017!  I always think the lights of Broadway never shine as brightly as they do whenever a production of GYPSY is on the boards, so I’m looking forward to this show already.  Take a look at the London trailer here, and know that a new Rose will be blooming on Broadway soon!

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at the Broadway Theater

I had just finished reading a terrific Broadway history book about FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, called TRADITION! by Barbara Isenberg, when I went to see the latest incarnation of the show on Broadway.

The book covers the behind-the-scenes story of the show from the time the creators, Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, thought of the idea of musicalizing Sholom Aleichem’s stories of life on the shtetls of Russia to the phenomenon that FIDDLER became.  I always love stories of “the making of” various hits and this one was particularly fascinating to me.  Part of the original staging and choreography was inspired, for example, by the fact that the creator of the role of Tevye, the incredible Zero Mostel, had a bad leg.  Volatile Jerome Robbins was the director and choreographer, and his antics are always fun to read about, but hey, I think so because I never had to suffer the pain of working with the likes of him myself.   (I found when I was researching the background of the show GYPSY that one of the people involved with it had wanted to flat-out kill him…)

In any event, this new version of FIDDLER stars Danny Burstein as Tevye the dairyman with five daughters to marry off and Jessica Hecht as the bride he was matched up with twenty-five years earlier, Golde.  I can’t say enough good things about this production!  The dancing, in particular, was fantastic, and the singing, particularly during the ensemble numbers, was out of this world.

If there was anything I found about this production that might have been done differently it was the new beginning and ending of the show.  (Spoiler alert!)

A modern man comes onto the stage in a red parka.

He’s reading something.  A guidebook?  Sholom Alecheim stories?   A recounting of his own family’s history?  It isn’t clear exactly what, or why.  My one critique is that more of an explanatory scene, or at least a few lines, could have been added here, i.e., have him ask someone, “Is this Anatevka?  My great-great grandfather came from here.”

In any event, whatever the man is reading, or doing in Anatevka, he begins to “see” the people of the village of Anatevka as they arrive on the stage, seemingly rising out of the mist, which is beautifully effective.  Then the modern man takes off the red parka and morphs into Tevye, and then the musical begins as it always has, with the production number “Tradition.”

He’s in the parka again at the end, Tevye, and it’s implied that the whole village now living within the modern man.

Well, as anyone who’s ever seen FIDDLER can tell you, that whole mythical village, once you’ve seen it on a stage, starts to reside within all of us.  A cast recording is, I’m told, in negotiation at the moment, and news of when it will be available should be announced fairly soon.

I highly recommend this production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and the book, TRADITION!, too!

 

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Tom Brundage: The Artist Behind the Reconstruction of Gypsy Rose Lee’s Witchwood Manor

"Miracle worker" Tom Brundage, of TB Construction, seated in Gypsy Rose Lee's kitchen between James Nelson and Leslie Rose of the Monroe Historical Society.

“Miracle worker” Tom Brundage, of TB Construction, seated in Gypsy Rose Lee’s kitchen between James Nelson and Leslie Rose of the Monroe Historical Society.

Tom Brundage is a miracle worker.

That may not be the way the owner of TB Construction LLC might describe himself, but I saw his incredible work on Saturday, and that’s the way I describe him.  Tom has restored Gypsy Rose Lee’s beautiful former estate, Witchwood Manor, after it was all but destroyed by fire.  Let me tell you, after seeing the photo album of fire damage that Tom showed me, I could not get over what an amazing job he does!

Gypsy Rose Lee lived in Witchwood Manor during the 1930’s and early 1940’s.  It was there that she had installed her mother, Rose Hovick, supporting her in style: the house had fourteen rooms, acres and acres of property, buildings out back and extra bedrooms that Rose promptly rented out for a profit, and even a theater in the basement.

Gypsy Rose Lee married William Alexander Kirkland at Witchwood Manor on her mother Rose's birthday, August 31, 1942.

Gypsy Rose Lee married William Alexander Kirkland at Witchwood Manor on her mother Rose’s birthday, August 31, 1942.

Tom was already working on creating several enhancements at Witchwood Manor, which had just been bought by new owners, in October of 2009 when he received a distubring message involving a fire alarm.  Most of it was destroyed.  The culprit was bad electrical wiring, some of which probably hadn’t been updated since the 1930’s.

The fire.

The fire.  Front view of the house.  If the outside looks horrific, the inside was even more out of control, after this.  Everything caved in.

The wiring, and everything else, is certainly updated now!  I was astounded at how beautiful the property looked when the James Nelson and Leslie Rose of the Monroe, NY Historical Society arranged with the owners for me to see it on Saturday.  So much of Gypsy Rose Lee and Rose Hovick’s story had happened right there…way back in that innocent-seeming other world of the late 1930’s, before the savagery of the Second World War.

Innocent-seeming?  This house was also the site of the mysterious death of Rose’s chauffeur, Genevieve, who was being harrassed by a stalker…but that’s another story.

“How,” I asked Tom, when I saw the collection of hideous fire-damage photos, with piles of ash and mountains soot, destroyed beams and burned-through roofs, annihilated walls and collapsed ceilings, “did you even begin to bring the place back from this catastrophe?  I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Tom said that he started by cleaning up.  Then a temporary roof had to be installed, first with tarps, later with more traditional shingles, since so much of the damage to the building came from the roof on down.  It looked like a Herculean job, and that was only the start of it.

Tom tried to stay true to the original structure.  Having seen so many photos of Witchwood Manor while I was researching Rose Hovick, if I had not known there had been a fire, I would never have thought the updates Tom made were anything but the original house.  The place was notable for curved woodworkings around the doors, arched ones rather than rectangular, and those were kept wherever possible, or else recreated.  Tom was able to salvage many items from the original house, such as the criss-crossed leaded glass on the cabinetry, which were reincorporated into the new designs.  The one detail he has yet to find is a butler’s buzzer, a device on the floor that people would hit with their foot to call the butler.  They don’t make those any longer, or at least, they don’t over here.  Ah, who knows?  Maybe the set designer for Downton Abbey might know where to get one.

Tom Brundage’s website is: http://www.tbconstructionllc.com/about-1.html

If you need a stellar restoration job, by all means, contact Tom!  You won’t ever regret it.

Here are but a few examples of his work on Witchwood Manor.  Wow, what a house!  They ought to rename it The Phoenix Manor since it literally has arisen from the ashes, thanks to Tom Brundage.

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View of the property from the back.

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Leaded doorway and curving woodwork.

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The porch.

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The staircase Gypsy Rose Lee descended on her wedding day in 1942.

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One of the rooms that didn’t need restoration.

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Check out the detailed work on this beautiful mantle!

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Curved woodwork, an oval window overlooking the acres of the property, and leaded glass windows. BEAUTIFUL!

 

Wedding Day at Witchwood Manor, 1942: Rose Hovick, Gypsy Rose Lee, William Alexander Kirkland, and his mother.

Wedding Day at Witchwood Manor, 1942: Rose Hovick, Gypsy Rose Lee, William Alexander Kirkland, and his mother.

BRAVA, Patti LuPone, for Confiscating a Cell Phone at Your Show

Patti LuPone is starring in SHOW OF DAYS at Lincoln Center, and did the right thing - again - re: a rude audience member. BRAVO!

Patti LuPone is starring in SHOWS FOR DAYS at Lincoln Center, and did the right thing – again – re: a rude audience member. BRAVO!

I think Patti LuPone is fantastic!  She’s one of my favorite actresses, but it goes beyond that.  She’s also a rare and honest person who doesn’t sit down and take any guff from anybody, including rude and obnoxious members of theatrical audiences.

Miss LuPone is currently starring in SHOWS FOR DAYS at  Lincoln Center Theater.  She went ballistic at an audience member at GYPSY a few years ago for taking photographs.  LuPone is not known for her tolerance of those pesky audience members who ruin the ambience of live theater by texting on their telephones, checking their status updates, or taking photographs of the performance – and nor should she have to be.  Those who behave like that in the theater are nothing less than a flat-out pestilence to the rest of us!

I am often floored, when I go to a Broadway show, at how many telephones in the audience are lit before the curtain rises.  Just floored.  Once, from the vantage point of a balcony, I counted over fifty lit phones, pre-overture.  When the announcement is made for people to turn those phones off and retain from taking pictures, since that’s a copyright violation and illegal, most do, but not all.  At a show in the famous Palace Theater a few years ago, I sat in a box behind some people who were illegally, and brazenly, filming the entire first act.  Texting goes on throughout, evidenced by annoying little patches of light glowing in the audience darkness.

Intermission at these theaters is an unbelievable sight to see.  The lights go up, and the phones come out – all over the theater!  The Ladies Room lines, which are usually over fifty women strong, are a study in willful isolation, where the majority of the gals await their moment on the porcelain thrones while texting, status updating, and making or answering “traditional” telephone calls.

Obviously there are times when a call or text must be made, but it always strikes me as very strange that so many of these people can not even, literally, go to the bathroom without whipping their phones out and sending little messages.  What kind of “business” can be so pressing that the phones have to be activated during the too-few minutes between acts?  Is it not even possible for these phone-atics to refrain from using the things long enough to go to the can?

So it is with great pride and pleasure that I share the news of Patti LuPone’s latest response to an annoying telephone nut: at her show the other night, Patti strode over to the offender in question, snatched the bloomin’ phone right out of her over-active hand, and walked away with it.  Yes!

Hallelujah, and BRAVA, Patti!   Well done!  I’m so with you on this!

May this be the start of a trend.  If every actor and actress in the professional theater would vow to stand up and do something about these pain-in-the-butt audience members it would make for a much more enjoyable experience for all those of us – and we’re legion – who go to these shows to see the performances and watch the stars who stand before us, onstage, in the glow of spotlights…not the phone lights.

The phone Patti so beautifully confiscated was returned to the offender at the end of the show, unfortunately.  Patti didn’t steal it, she just got rid of it for awhile.  Good!  No doubt the Texting Wonder will be using it again, to disrupt some other performance soon, maybe even one at a theater near you.

Patti LuPone should get an award for her stance, and her fearlessness in taking action.  Bravissimo!  You go, girl!

On with the show!

Here’s some more on the subject from Broadwayworld.com and The New York Times:

http://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Audience-Rudeness-Continues-Patti-LuPone-Snatches-Cell-Phone-During-SHOWS-FOR-DAYS-Performance-20150709#

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/theater/hold-the-phone-its-patti-lupone.html?_r=0

 

Is This the Sign that Inspired The Book?

This may be the very sign that inspired my book, MAMA ROSE'S TURN.

This may be the very sign that inspired my book, MAMA ROSE’S TURN.

I was very happy to find this photo of the Winter Garden Theater in 1974 today online.

It’s not the clearest of photos in terms of the lettering on the sign, so I can’t be sure if it’s the one I saw, outside of the theater, the day I first saw the musical GYPSY.  I seem to recall it was up on a billboard, higher above the street.  This one is on the theater itself.

But if one of the things written on that sign is the words “A Musical Fable,” well, that was the line that put me on the road to writing MAMA ROSE’S TURN later.  I wanted to find out what the difference was between the real story of Gypsy Rose Lee’s family and the fable I’d just seen on the stage.

It must be on there somewhere because GYPSY couldn’t be advertised without it.

If anyone out there in cyberspace has photos of this show’s time at the Winter Garden, I’d so love to see them!

Florine Stettheimer: Cathedrals of Broadway

"Cathedrals of Broadway" by artist Florine Stettheimer.  Wow!

“Cathedrals of Broadway” by artist Florine Stettheimer. Wow!

It drew my eye from clear across the room.

The room in question happened to be one of the exhibit halls at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I visited on Sunday to take a friend’s lecture tour.  As it was nearing an end, I saw this painting and had to take a closer look.

What caught my attention was the word ROXY.  The Roxy was a New York City theater.  It was owned by a man named Roxy Rothafel.  He was involved in the story of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc as having been the impresario who, allegedly, offered to send Dainty June for acting lessons, which could only have happened over her mother Rose Hovick’s dead body.   In the musical GYPSY, he was called “Mr. T. T. Grantziger.”

So I couldn’t resist checking out the painting to see it up close, and to see if the image of the man in the middle was Roxy himself.

It wasn’t.  It was Jimmy Walker, the dapper Mayor of New York back in the 1920’s.  A member of my family, Ruth Knight, used to tell me stories of having grown up next door to him.  She would watch him leave the house every evening, dressed for a night on the town.  There’s movement all over the canvas.

The painting is fabulous.  It’s the whole shebang of Broadway in a nutshell.  Look at it and you can see the music, the dances, the lights, the stars, the audience members…and the mayor who loved it all, too.

Rothafel also built Radio City Music Hall.  He’s said to haunt it on opening nights.  Members of audiences with the “second sight” have even reported “sightings” of him, accompanied by a starlet.  Truth being stranger than fiction, I couldn’t make anything like this up if I tried!

Artist Florine Stettheimer

Artist Florine Stettheimer

Another cool NYC painting by the same artist, SPRING SALE AT BENDEL'S.  That was a department store.

Another cool and energetic NYC painting by the same artist, SPRING SALE AT BENDEL’S. That was a department store.