New York's City Center Encores! begins its 23rd season of presenting rediscovered American musicals on February 10th with Cabin in the Sky, featuring a restoration of its great Vernon Duke-John LaTouche score.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Encores! presentation of Chicago, the Bob Fosse-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical. At the time, it seemed too recent for the Encores! concert treatment. After all, it had been less than twenty years since its original production closed in 1977. But Chicago caused a sensation that May weekend back in 1996 and quickly transferred to Broadway where it is now the longest running American musical in history and looks like it could run another twenty years.
It's sobering to realize that if Encores! selected a show of similar vintage today, it would have to settle for Big: The Musical or Victor/Victoria or Jekyll and Hyde. Instead of getting depressed about how they don't write 'em like they used to, here's an even dozen shows from the era of Chicago up through the '00s that Encores! might consider in the future.
1. Seesaw, 1973. I had a dream... that some brave producer mounts a revival of this Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical valentine to New York City starring newly-minted Golden Globe winner Lady Gaga as Gittel Mosca. It probably won't happen but Encores! would be a perfect venue for a score with perennial favorites like "Nobody Does It Like Me" and "It's Not Where You Start," and its "Rose's Turn" finale, "I'm Way Ahead." If Gaga's not up for it, how about recent Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford, who's got the vocal and dramatic chops?
2. Raisin, 1973. Lorraine Hansberry's classic A Raisin in the Sun wasn't crying out to be musicalized, but the Judd Woldin-Robert Brittan score is surprisingly powerful, capturing urban grit and lyrical reflection equally. It's one of the most obscure Best Musical Tony Award winners and would be a real rediscovery for Encores! Maybe Debbie Allen, Raisin's original Beneatha, could direct for old time's sake.
3. Ain't Misbehavin', 1978. Encores! has staged revues in the past (Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and their own stitched together Stairway to Paradise), so presenting the first revue to win a Best Musical Tony Award wouldn't be a stretch. Ain't Misbehavin' is the rare revue with a strong narrative drive, and its score of familiar Tin Pan Alley songs written by or associated with Fats Waller makes it a natural for a series that celebrates songwriters. A new generation of musical performers could bring it back to life thrillingly.
4. Carmelina, 1979. The single mother of an adult daughter is visited by three men, each of whom she has led to believe is the girl's father. No, this isn't Mamma Mia!, but the charming Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner musical adapted from an old Gina Lollobrigida movie.
Carmelina came and went quickly and it may not represent the very best of either man, but after 14 years of Mamma Mia!, don't we deserve to hear Lane's lilting melodies and Lerner's literate lyrics? And the title role is catnip for an actress of a certain age who can play Italian. Donna Murphy, call you agent!
5. Nine, 1982. Yes, Roundabout did it as recently as 2003, but like most of their revivals it featured a reduced cast and orchestra. Encores! could give Maury Yeston's sumptuous score its full due. And after Raul Julia, Jonathan Pryce, Antonio Banderas, and Daniel Day-Lewis, it would be great to hear a classically-trained singer do justice to the high-flying vocal demands of Guido. Paulo Szot has the charisma and the chops; couldn't he make himself available for an Encores! weekend?
6. The Rink, 1984. One of Kander and Ebb's most ambitious and underrated scores. Its story of a fraught mother-daughter reunion has built-in emotional appeal, plus the added bonus of two star diva roles (after all, Liza and Chita originated them). Let the dream casting begin! I'll start by recommending that Gypsy's recent Rose and Louise, Patti LuPone and Laura Benanti, return for a different kind of familial tale.
7. Rags, 1986. This four-performance flop about a Russian immigrant coming to America with her son at the turn of the century has an emotional sweep matched by its underrated Charles Strouse-Stephen Schwartz score. (The ravishing "Blame It On the Summer Night" is a contemporary classic.) The star role was originated by opera diva Teresa Stratas. Since she's winding down her opera career, maybe Renee Fleming would be up for the challenge (and it would erase memories of Living On Love).
8. City of Angels, 1989. Hard to believe it's been more than 25 years since this Tony Award winner for Best Musical and Best Score was on Broadway--and it hasn't been seen much since. Larry Gelbart's noirish, tough guy script is a riot, but Cy Coleman's driving 40s score and David Zippel's dazzling wordplay makes even the black-and-white sequences pop with musical color. It would be great to hear the Encores! orchestra jazz it up on this one.
9. Once On This Island, 1990. Its gentle, Caribbean-flavored score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty is way superior to The Lion King, which it resembles. Its charm quotient is through the roof, and an Encores! staging would serve as a palate cleanser after the team's Rocky: The Musical.
10. Parade, 1998. This musical about the sensational 1913 murder trial of Leo Frank was Jason Robert Brown's breakthrough and it's his most varied and powerful score. A one-night only concert at Avery Fisher Hall last year was seen by too few people. An Encores! staging would serve to remind audiences of this compelling musical.
11. The Wild Party, 2000. Last summer Encores! staged Andrew Lippa's American Idol-ish take on Joseph March's jazz age narrative poem. It was a reminder that Michael John LaChiusa's score is equally deserving of a second hearing. The original production was chaotic and unfocused, but LaChiusa's score is truer to the period and more wide-ranging, and it musicalizes a broader array of characters than that of Lippa. It would benefit from being heard in a stripped down concert performance.
12. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 2010. Encores! won't get around to this one anytime soon, but eventually it should. The frantic, overstuffed original production never caught the spirit of the film's civilized lunacy. The only element that worked was David Yazbeck's score--a rich stew of new wave, rap, 60s rock, tangos, and several varieties of Spanish pop. It was funny, heartbreaking, and way over the top -- Almodovar set to music, and one of the best musical theater scores of the new millennium. It's just waiting for someone to clear the debris and let the score sing.