The other day, I came across the video that floored me. It's from a British tribute to legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh called, Hey, Mr. Producer. And I've seen the special when it aired on PBS in 1998 -- but I have absolutely no recollection of this segment. Now, generally, I might say it's easy to forget a short sketch from two decades ago -- but this one would be really hard to forget.
It's introduced by Stephen Sondheim -- who is met by thunderous applause -- and I remember Sondheim on the show. In fact, at one point in the evening he introduced someone who went to summer camp with: of all people, Tom Lehrer (who was there people Mackintosh had produced a revue of Lehrer songs, called Tomfoolery). And after Sondheim left the stage, Lehrer sat at the piano and quipped, "I always wondered what happened to that guy."
But this sketch?? Absolutely no memory of it. And it would seem to be so memorable that I'm wondering if it got trimmed out of the PBS broadcast for time. Though why on earth would you trim this??? So -- it's either that, or I just don't remember it.
And "it" is a sketch with Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber sitting together at one piano and playing sort of "Dueling Pianos" with one another!
Yes, that's what I mean by, "This one would be really hard to forget."
For several reasons, none of which I want to get into so that I don't give anything away -- beyond noting that one of those few reasons is that Sondheim (who is very funny here) says "Cameron asked me to devise a little something for this evening" -- I suspect that Sondheim did, in fact, write and arrange the piece, although Lloyd Webber might have possibly tweaked his part after the fact.
It's a lot of fun. With a nice twist.
Okay, I'm about to give something away. So, if you haven't watched the video yet, hold off reading any further and come back to it after the fact.
I'll give you another moment to scroll away, so that your eyes don't drift down to the text below.
Okay, are you back? Fine.
What I want to add is this --
When Andrew Lloyd Webber does appear on stage with Sondheim after the video, I was trying to figure out why he could make it there for his comments, but not to do the musical number live. And the best I can figure is -- as he says, he's working on a show around the corner. And if he was going to perform in the tribute, he'd probably have to show up at least an hour early, and he just didn't have that kind of time, but here he could pop in at the last minute. Doing the video ahead of time, they could schedule that whenever it was convenient for him. Further, if they planned to do the number live at the tribute, and a big problem came up with his work so that he had to cancel, they'd be left without being able to do the number. If that meant he also couldn't show up live for his after-the-video comments, they could easily have just ended the segment with Sondheim, who probably would have added a word or two that Sir Andrew had wanted to say.
The other day, I wrote here about the Stephen Sondheim musical, Merrily We Roll Along, a story that runs backwards, following the disintegration of the partnership of three friends who write for the theater and go back through their lives to where they met in college, filled with enthusiasm for the future.
A reader, Ken Kahn, sent a link to an excellent production that was done in 2013 as a limited run at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End. I've embedded the full show below --
Which reminds me of something related to this that I wrote here two years ago, on September 5, 2019. Here’s that article –
Really, Truly Rolling Along
It was just announced that Richard Linklater is going to make a movie of the Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, that has a book by George Furth, who had previously collaborated on Company.. The story concerns three people who have been friends for 20 years since college -- a songwriting team of shows and a female theater critic -- whose friendship is disintegrating and looks at their story in reverse, showing us how things fell apart from just idealistic beginnings. This upcoming movie is notable for two reasons: the first is that the original musical was a big flop, running for only 16 performances (though it's had a bit of an afterlife), and the second is that Linklater is going to film it over the course of 20 years!.
Clearly, this is an utterly fascinating way to make Merrily We Roll Along, watching these three people's lives play out "almost" in real time during the 20 years of the show And oddly, it’s not totally surprising that Linklater is doing it this way – because he did a similar thing with the movie Boyhood that was released a couple years ago. He filmed that over a 12-year period.
The musical, by the way, is based on a play by the legendary Kaufman and Hart, who most famously wrote the classic You Can't Take It With You. Though the original play of Merrily We Roll Along (like the subsequent musical) was a flop, as well.
Obviously this is a massive risk -- not just to film it over 20 years, but doing not only a little-known musical, but one that was a flop. (The original London production only ran 71 performances.) But I wish it much success. I actually like the show a lot, and have seen a couple times, as well as the fairly-good 2016 documentary about the original production, The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Ever Happened . But as much as I do like the show, the hardest reality to get around is that most people don’t seem to like it. While making it with the same cast aging along properly could help how people respond, I don’t think that that’s ever been people’s biggest complaint. (Though casting has always been a slight issue.) Mainly, though, people don’t seem to like that the story is ultimately-unhappy and that it's told backwards, which doesn't make it any happier, even ending on youthful optimism as it does, which admittedly is bittersweet, since we know where it leads.
Clearly, they all know what a massive risk this is. And for all the risk went ahead because they're excited by the possibilities and feel it's all very much worth it. And I assume they have big hopes but limited, realistic expectations. But still…
I’ll add one more risk: who knows what the movie industry will be in 20 years? Will there still be theaters? Will it all be streamed? Will they even still be using film? Will it all be digital? Will some other technology have been developed? Will everything be 3-D? Will everything be interactive where you can pick-and-choose angles and scenes? Will everything be high-resolution? Will actors regularly be computer generated? Will technology move so fast (as it does nowadays) that this will look like a black-and-white, herky-jerky silent film of 1919 compared to Gone with the Wind color spectacular in 1939? Will it look like the first 8-inch screen black-and-white fuzzy TV that takes 30-seconds to warm up in the early 1950s compared to living color 30-inch TVs, remote controls, instant-on, and watching big-screen Cinerama in the early 1970s? Will it look like stop-action Godzilla in the early 1970s compared to “Jurassic Park” in 1993? Will it look like the basic movie theater and TV experience in the 2000 compared to a world where watching in the palm of your hand on a 4-inch telephone, streaming services, pausing live action on a DVR and rewinding, 72-inch home Smart TVs connected to the Internet, digital, binge-watching of today are the everyday norm?
But as I said, I do like how they tell the story – and even used a similar technique in part of a very low-budget film I co-wrote. Maybe using the same actors will make a difference to people’s reaction. And maybe they can figure out a way to do the film inexpensively, like Boyhood. But this is a musical, so that’s trickier. Also, 30 years ago, maybe this would be THE definitive way to make the movie work best, filming it over 20 years. But today with prosthetics and computer imaging, I don’t think it’s as necessary. Yes, it will certainly get HUGE attention by doing it this way when it’s finally released, and being done in “real time” will add great emotion to watching it. But today it’s still just not necessary. And doing it this way, while utterly fascinating and in many ways admirable, also has a touch of arrogance and pretentiousness. Because it's not really necessary.
They announced the three leads, and that’s another tricky matter. Not only the question of “Will they still be around in 20 years?” -- which is probable, but still a huge risk -- but will their names matter? One of the three is Ben Platt, who’s a Tony-winner for Dear Evan Hansen and excellent, and a great choice. But the movie of his Tony-winning role flopped. The other two might be excellent -- Blake Jenner and Beanie Feldstein -- but neither are yet stars. He was in Glee,” though not much of nigh note since. She recently starred in Booksmart (which got good reviews but flopped), has had some solid work, and had a role in Lady Bird (oddly, playing the same role in the production of Merrily We Roll Along they do within the film that she’ll play in this movie), and a growing career. But in 20 years…who knows?
Hopefully we’ll be around to see it. And I greatly admire the attempt. And really do like the show. Clearly, there’s a side to this that is really great and adventurous and very cool. And a side that seems arrogant and pretentious. But best wishes to it.
The show also has a very good score that got a Tony nomination. And four standout songs that have had a bit of an afterlife, something incredibly rare for a Sondheim musical. "Our Time" is used by a lot of high school graduating classes. "Good Thing Going" is another. And here are the two others --
This first is a wonderful rendition by Carly Simon of "Not a Day Goes By."
And while this is hardly the definitive version of the reasonably well-known "Old Friends," it may be one of the most fun, and is the way they ended the 1986 Emmy Awards, with a menagerie of legendary, old-time TV stars. (Not to worry, though the video goes for over six minutes, the song ends around four minutes in, following a lead-in by host David Letterman.)
Since the Kennedy Center Honors were just presented the other day, I thought that would be a good time to go back for the show honoring one of my favorite Broadway composers Jule Styne. He wrote the music to such musicals as Gypsy, Funny Girl, Bells are Ringing, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, songs from Peter Pan and many more, as well as having 10 Best Song Oscar nominations, winning for Three Coins in the Fountain, along with pop hits, like "Time After Time" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" Not to mention my fave (as readers of these pages know), Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, the first -- and I think still the best -- animated TV musical.
Not surprisingly, the 1990 presentation has an excellent entertainment section with great songs overlapping one another -- but also the film bio is filled with his songs. Jerome Robbins hosts the segment, having been involved with Styne on six shows as director or choreographer, including Peter Pan.
Yesterday, my pal Mark Evanier wrote about one of his favorite musicals, Merrily We Roll Along. I like it too, though have had debates with friends about it who find it terminally flawed because of its structure. I don’t agree – hence why I like it.
Mark posted a scene from the show, which follows three friends – a songwriting team and a script writer – backwards, from when their work relationships are breaking up to the enthusiasm when they were young, meeting and starting out. You can see his post and the scene here.
There is another scene in the show when the two songwriters are starting out, and audition their songs for a producer. He likes their work, but won’t produce it because he says that the songs are too difficult and need to be “hummable” (something Sondheim railed against his entire career.)
This is that scene and song, “Opening Doors,” which they re-created for a good documentary on Sondheim’s work, Six By Sondheim. The performers are Darren Criss, Jeremy Jordan, America Ferrera and Laura Osnes.
Oh. One other thing. The person in the scene performing the role of the producer is – Stephen Sondheim!
(Note: the scene is interrupted by a cut away to Sondheim as himself, talking to the actors – as themselves -- about the scene he wrote for the show. That’s not what I’m referring to about him playing the producer. After he finishes discussing what he was writing for Merrily We Roll Along and why, the film cuts back to the scene.)
Here's another song from a TV musical I referenced a couple times the past few weeks, The Stingiest Man in Town. It was a 1956 special on the Alcoa Hour based on Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
Many of the names involved might no longer be household ones, but for the day it was a respectable cast, with a couple of full-fledged opera stars in it (Patrice Munsel and Robert Weede, who also starred in the Frank Loesser musical, The Most Happy Fella), as well as pop stars, like Vic Damone, Johnny Desmond, and The Four Lads. Also in the cast was one of my favorite character actors, John McGiver, along with Martyn Green, a leading Gilbert & Sullivan interpreter of the time. And above all, one Hollywood legend as Scrooge. That would be none other than Basil Rathbone, famous for playing Sherlock Holmes in the movies from 1936-1946,
The score by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre isn't especially memorable, although there are some nice things in it. And I like this one, not just for the song itself, which has a sweet charm to it, but perhaps even more for it being sung by Basil Rathbone. He's no singer at all, but handles the number effectively.
I should also note that I like it when songs are written from famous lines in literature, as this is. This number comes from late in the show, after Scrooge has learned his lesson. It takes its title from a line from Dickens when Scrooge has told the Ghost of Jacob Marley that his former partner was always a good man of business, and the specter admonishes him with this line. And so, here, Scrooge has learned that lesson. "Mankind Should Be My Business."
I'll toss in a couple of other numbers. We already played the song, "A Christmas Carol" and heard snippets from the title number "The Stingiest Man in Town" done on the Julie Andrews special This first additional tune here is a low-key, sweet piece sung by Martha Cratchit -- who, no, is not Bob's wife but oldest daughter -- performed by Betty Madigan, "Yes, There Is a Santa Claus." Why this minor character got a solo number and not the Mrs., I have no idea.
And we'll end things here with a reasonably melodic ballad, "Birthday Party for the King," sung by Johnny Desmond, as Scrooge's nephew Fred. In the Dickens story, Fred is someone who does love Christmas, though tends to be much more fun-loving than the pious character here. But happily, one with a good set of pipes, which ultimately is proper for Christmas.
We have another long version of the Fest today. Bear with me a bit and let me explain. I've posted this all before and I find it a fun story of sorts to repeat.
When the movie musical Scrooge was released in 1970, I remember reading an article about the film's composer-lyricist-screenwriter (and executive producer) Leslie Briscusse saying that they'd done research and discovered that among all the Christmas carols written, there had never been one actually titled, "A Christmas Carol." So, he wrote one, which begins the film over the wonderful opening credits by the great artist, Ronald Searle (who also did the credits for, among other films, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.)
Here's that song, and those wonderful opening credits.
I mention all this, though, for another reason.
It's that as good a film as Scrooge is, Bricusse's research staff was lousy. Because 14 years before, in 1956, there was a live TV musical version of A Christmas Carol that was called The Stingiest Man in Town and starred the legendary film actor, best known as playing Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone as Scrooge. And the very first song in the show was called -- yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
The music for the show was written by Fred Spielman, with lyrics by Janice Torre. It's not remotely distinguished or memorable, but has quite a few very nice things in it. And there, right at the top, first thing, is a song, "A Christmas Carol." A live musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol on American television doesn't seem like a terribly challenging thing to track down for a research staff working on a movie musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
So, continuing our holiday theme of unknown Christmas songs from musicals, here is the earlier song, "A Christmas Carol," sung by The Four Lads -- leading into "An Old-Fashioned Christmas" (sung by Vic Damone), from The Stingiest Man in Town. That the researchers couldn't find. But we think you fine folks deserve better... Which is why this isn't the end of the post here. But here's that other song first --
And yes, there's more...
In 1959, which is only 11 years before the movie musical Scrooge was made (and three years after the TV musical above), the wonderful Tom Lehrer released his classic comedy album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer -- which included a song titled...yes, you guessed it -- "A Christmas Carol."
And again, Tom Lehrer was not remotely an unknown entertainer and songwriter. It fact, as popular as An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was when it was released, he was probably around the height of his popularity in 1970 when the film Scrooge reached the theaters. His huge hit album, That Was the Year That Was had been released in 1965, only five years before Scrooge. So, how on earth those researchers missed these two songs -- and for all I know there are more, and even high-profile ones -- I have no idea.
Happily, we have this song to enjoy, as well...
To continue the fest, this is a Christmas recording that blends two worlds -- totally unknown, yet hugely-well-known and wonderful. How can that be, you ask??! I'll explain.
The song from the musical, Here's Love, by Meredith Willson, who of course wrote The Music Man. It's based on the classic film, Miracle on 34th Street. The show wasn't terribly successful, though didn't flop and had a respectable run of 334 performances -- just under a year -- in 1964. The score is inconsistent, but half of it is quite wonderful. (I've actually tried, half-heartedly, I must admit, to get a TV production of it made for several years. I think it would be a terrific Christmas special. Hey, who knows, maybe one year NBC will do it live...
The song is called "Pine Cones and Holly Berries," sung by Laurence Naismith who plays Kris Kringle. It's very charming and a lovely Christmas holiday song, though is pretty much unknown.
Now, as you may recall, Meredith Willson likes counterpoint. He used it a great deal, to much good effect in The Music Man, most notably with "Lida Rose" sung counter to "Will I Ever Tell You?", but also famously with "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a Little," sung in counterpoint with an already-existing song, "Goodnight, Ladies."
Well, he used the technique again in Here's Love. He created "Pine Cones and Holly Berries" to be sung counter to an already-existing, very famous Christmas song -- one which (I am sure most people will be shocked to learn) he himself wrote. When I say it's very famous and completely well-known -- trust me on this. It's very famous. And yes, it's actually written by, of all people, Meredith Willson. I won't tell you want it is, but let you have the fun of discovering it when it comes in halfway through. (Though if you've read this pages during past Holiday Music Fests, you likely know it by now...)
The counterpoint, very famous song is performed here by Janis Paige and -- are you ready? -- Fred Gwynne! Though he hated being typecast in his famous TV role, since it almost ruined his career (I worked with him on the movie, Pet Sematary, and we briefly talked about), I feel compelled to identify him in this context for the sheer incongruity of it, as yes, 'Herman Munster,' whose TV series came along soon thereafter. He comes in the song here most-clearly at the 1:14 mark, singing (and really well) "Christmas, Christmas. Christmas Day. Bells ring, hearts sing, every day..."
So, here then is a lovely, sweet Christmas song you don't know, sung in counterpoint to an extremely famous one you absolutely do, both by Meredith Willson.
As a bonus, we'll throw in a couple of other good -- and lesser-known -- Christmas songs from the show. This first (with video from a community production) is during the courtroom scene and W.H. Macy is called to the stand and has to say under oath whether he believes that there is actually a Santa Claus.
And we'll conclude things with an absolutely lovely song that the lawyer (the fellow who ends up defending Kris at the end, played by Craig Stevens) sings to the daughter of his neighbor, the cynic who hired Kris but sees it all as just business (played by the aforementioned Janis Paige). The young daughter has picked up much of her mother's cynicism, but their neighbor Fred slowly starts to bring some holiday cheer into the girl's life.
Yesterday, I mentioned that I would have an addendum of sorts to the posting of the songs from Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. "Soon" turns out to be today.
For those who were skeptical of me calling this a Broadway-quality score, It turns out (aside from the reality that it is) that the show did play on Broadway -- sort of. In 2014, the Actors Fund did a benefit concert with a fairly elaborate staged reading of the TV show, with full costumes, limited sets and even some choreography. And this is a 3-1/2 minute montage. And it looks absolutely wonderful. And sounds like they used the original music arrangements.
(At the end of the video are some credits, and it notes being done with DreamWorks Animation and Margaret Styne. I'm going to guess that the former hold the rights to the TV special and the latter may hold some rights since she was the wife of composer Jule Styne.)
Since the show is only about 52 minutes, it's much too short to mount a full production, but I suspect it could be paired with another one-act show or also done in community theaters.
By the way, their adaptation of the thieves' song, "We're Despicable," is scary-good how close they came with the casting and even the animated choreography. Even down to the tiny details, at one point, of the comically-weird, twisty hand movements.
And as a bonus, we have this follow-up -- from when the Actors Fund did the show again, in 2019.
While I prefer the Scrooge in the 2014 production, I'm using this version in part so that we can get both up here, but also because it's a little bit longer, so there's more material. However, in addition, the actress who plays 'Belle' and sings "Winter is Warm' here is Sierra Boggess, a wonderful performer who was the original 'Ariel' in the Broadway production of The Little Mermaid, and who has appeared in several videos I've posted from the BBC Proms.)
Once again their adaptation of the thieves' song, "We're Despicable," is scary-good how close they came with the casting (I find it a touch better the first year) and even with the animated choreography. Even down to the tiny details, at one point, of the comically-weird, twisty hand movements. And fortunately, the best -- and closest -- of the performers is in both versions, the tall fellow with glasses.
And we have one more bonus --
Apparently, a soundtrack album was planned, but never released. And it turns out that an overture was arranged for the album -- and recorded. And it's now shown up on YouTube. I've seen the animated special many dozens of times, and not only never heard this before, but I never knew it existed. Which I assume is the case for most people who have watched the TV special regularly over the years. And like so many overtures of Jule Styne musicals, it's wonderful. So, finally -- curtain up.
Okay, it's time. The other night I popped in my DVD of the holiday gem Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol for my annual viewing, so it's only fitting that today we offer its wonderful songs. (And a joyous addendum soon to follow -- Watch This Space.) The classic show was the first-ever animated holiday special, made in 1962 and for eight years it got repeated annually through 1969. But its simplistic animation finally caught up and alas it went out of the rotation. A shame since it's such a terrific production.
For all its being Mr. Magoo and only 52 minutes long, it's a very nice adaptation of the story. And the score...well, it's Broadway quality and probably the best musical score for an animated TV special, and one of the best for TV, period. The music is by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Bells are Ringing) and the lyrics by Bob Merrill (Carnival, Take Me Along) who -- while writing this -- were, in fact, in the middle of working on Funny Girl.
Though no longer on network TV, for a long time the show could be found every year on syndication. But unfortunately even that has largely faded away, though occasionally it pops up. But on its 50th anniversary in 2012, NBC brought it back to prime time, and happily its DVD release gave the show new life.
Here are the wonderful songs.
The first, "Ringle Ringle" introduces us to Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.
When Scrooge visits the Crachit house in Christmas Present, the family sings the rousing showstopper, "The Lord's Bright Blessing."
In Christmas Past, Scrooge returns to an almost-empty schoolhouse of his youth and sings a duet of himself as a young boy, "I'm All Alone in the World."
Still in Christmas Past, Scrooge's fiance Belle breaks up with him for find a new idol to love -- gold, and she sings wistfully about their love lost, the lovely "Winter was Warm.
In Christmas Future, Scrooge visits a junk shop run by thieves who have ransacked the now-empty house of a man who was died -- which he doesn't realize yet is him -- and they explain with very amusing glee that "We're Despicable."
I've been following this since it was announced -- a re-envisioned revival of Cabaret in London with Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley, who I adore. Among other things, they completely remade the theater into a small environment so that it's like you're at the Kit Kat Club.
As for the production itself, the show opened a night or two ago, and the few reviews I've seen have been falling over themselves in raves. This Playbill article here has links to many of the reviews.
And the review from the Evening Standard – which begins with “Wow.” – seems typical. The first two paragraphs are:
"Wow. Rebecca Frecknall’s new revival of Kander and Ebb’s musical set in interwar Berlin is a stunning, breathlessly exciting theatrical happening. It feels loyal to the 1966 original yet astonishingly contemporary, and properly immersive. The Playhouse Theatre has been reconfigured by the designer Tom Scutt as the Kit Kat Club circa 1929, with pre-show performances in the bars and food and drink served at tables surrounding a circular, central stage. By the looks of it, the hugely expensive, three-course menu package isn’t worth it. The show emphatically is.
"Jessie Buckley sings her heart out as a fretful, doomed Sally Bowles: a powerhouse of emotion, she leaves everything on stage. Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee is a brilliantly twisted creation, part tribute to Joel Grey’s original performance on Broadway and in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film adaptation, part George Grosz grotesque, part baby crocodile. The louche, gender-fluid ensemble, writhing in variations of lingerie and lederhosen to Julia Cheng’s sinewy choreography, and the female-led orchestra are impeccable. Again, just wow."
(You can read the full review here.)
The “bad” news is not merely that I'm not in London. It's that ticket prices for the comparatively small room START in the $300-400 range. And yet the entire run is already sold out.
Still, I wonder if videos will appear or if they’ll make a cast albums since (at the moment) it’s a limited run production of a few months.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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