Bits and Snatches

Most of us, upon hearing the term amuse-bouche, instantly think of food. But in some situations I often think of programs which offer a collection of short plays -- or a retrospective of a composer or lyricist's career -- as a long string of amuse-bouches. Some are tastier and have more heft than others; some have an almost ethereal appeal.

Taken together, the whole often becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Yet it is the program's individual ingredients, like spices balanced against each other, which become the evening's true gems. Two such programs recently entertained Bay area audiences.

  • For its Best of Playground 19 Festival, the folks at Playground-SF offered six short plays that stood out from the year's writing challenges for aspiring playwrights.
  • As part of its ongoing series of musical salons dedicated to the great lyricists of Broadway, 42nd Street Moon devoted an evening to exploring the work of the prolific and often-married (if not always successful) Alan Jay Lerner.

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Two of the short plays featured in the Best of Playground 19 program took a curious approach to issues affecting the lives of some San Franciscans. With George & Ira Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" as an emotional touchstone, Genne Murphy's three-character play entitled Someone looked at a recurrent fantasy affecting the lives of Max (Michael Phillis) and his husband, Andy (Michael Barrett Austin).

As directed by Jeffrey Lo, Max has been enjoying an imaginary visit with his daughter, Hannah (Melissa Ortiz), who should now be old enough to go to her school's prom. However, the sad truth is that because Hannah's mother has kept the young girl away from her biological father, Max can only dream about the kind of devoted parent he might have been. As usual, Phillis continues to impress audiences each season with the depth of his acting. Here's a teaser from the play:

Directed by Jon Tracy, Kirk Shimono's Art and Tech focuses on a source of local tension that has impacted many San Franciscans: The power struggle between a new wave of tech workers and older San Franciscans who are being evicted and displaced by them.

As they jump back and forth in time, Art (Millie DeBenedet) and Tech (Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer) explore how they initially became good friends but, before long, the inequality of their incomes and judgmental triggers transformed two casual friends into bitter enemies. With or without a fleet of Google buses, the battle is far from over.

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With artistic director Greg MacKellan acting as host and narrator, and company regulars Ryan Drummond, Darlene Popovic, Allison F. Rich, Anil Margsahayam, and Kelly Britt performing solo numbers as well as ensembles, 42nd Street Moon's tribute to Alan Jay Lerner was appropriately entitled Inventing Champagne. The evening's guest star was the venerable Nancy Dussault (whom I first saw when she was appearing as Maria late in the original Broadway run of The Sound of Music and later in Bajour).

With Dave Dobrusky acting as musical director, the evening paid tribute to Lerner's big hits (1947's Brigadoon, 1956's My Fair Lady, 1958's Gigi, 1960's Camelot, and 1965's On A Clear Day You Can See Forever). Some interesting twists of gender identity included Darlene Popovic's rendition of "Get Me to The Church on Time" (My Fair Lady) and Kelly Britt's surprisingly feminine version of "I Talk To The Trees" from 1951's Paint Your Wagon.

Lerner's on-again, off-again partnership with Frederick "Fritz" Loewe allowed him to work with such giants as Kurt Weill, Burton Lane, André Previn, Charles Strouse, Leonard Bernstein, and John Barry. Even if those efforts did not produce the most memorable hits, I was fascinated by "I've Been Married" from 1984's My Man Godfrey (with music by Gerard Kenny) and the droll "Economics" from Kurt Weill's Love Life (1948).

MacKellan also demonstrated how Lerner recycled some of the songs he wrote with Fritz Loewe after they had been cut from their original shows.

  • "What Do Other Folks Do?" (which was originally written for Paint Your Wagon) reappeared in Camelot as "What Do The Simple Folk Do?"
  • "I Remember It Well" (which had first been used in Love Life) became a cherished duet for Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in Gigi.
  • Although originally written for Eliza Doolittle to sing in My Fair Lady, "Say A Prayer for Me Tonight" was cut during that show's out-of-town tryout and later given to the young Gigi.

Not all of Lerner's shows were smash hits.

  • Had it not been for the box office draw of Katherine Hepburn in the title role, 1969's Coco would never have managed to rack up 329 performances (after Danielle Darrieux replaced Hepburn box office sales plummeted).
  • 1971's Lolita, My Love closed during its out-of-town tryout and never made it to Broadway.
  • 1976's flop (with music by Leonard Bernstein) entitled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue only lasted for seven performances.
  • 1979's Carmelina (with music by Burton Lane) only lasted for 17 performances.
  • 1983's Dance A Little Closer (with music by Charles Strouse) closed after one performance.

In the following clip, soprano Meg Bussert sings two songs from Lolita, My Love and discusses some of the problems encountered during that show's out-of-town tryout.

MacKellan's narration did not include any mention of Lerner's hospitalization during Camelot's out-of-town tryout. Although the famous lyricist died nearly 30 years ago, he still holds a cherished spot in the hearts of many who worked with him. Here's John Collum (who co-starred with Barbara Harris in the original Broadway cast of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever) recalling the impact Lerner had on his life.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape