The Too-Royal Family of Broadway


After watching THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY at Barrington Stage in Western Massachusetts, an obscure Frank Sinatra song kept going through my head.

In Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “I Like to Lead When I Dance” — a terrific ditty that was nevertheless excised from the 1964 film ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS – Sinatra crooned “There’s only one problem – the tiniest problem.”


First, though, a little history. In 1927, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber wrote THE ROYAL FAMILY and saw it become the seventh-longest-running non-musical Broadway play out of the 226 (!) that would open that season.

Although both writers went to their graves denying it, their play certainly seems to be a not-so-thinly veiled spoof of The Barrymore Family. Fanny Cavendish is an easy stand-in for materfamilias Georgiana Drew Barrymore, who lived for theater more than anything else. Ethel Barrymore (for whom our 47th Street theater is actually named) became her daughter Julie Cavendish, who’s the current star of the family. John Barrymore was turned into bad-boy and overly flamboyant actor Tony Cavendish.

Now those 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE collaborators — composer-lyricist William Finn and bookwriter Rachel Sheinkin (who took over from Richard Greenberg) — have musicalized it.

Sheinkin didn’t just take the script and cut dialogue where songs would appear. She’s rethought it so much that one could say she’s been more inspired by the play than she’s adapted it. Some of the funniest lines (which won’t be revealed here, because you will hear them in time) are all hers. Matching Kaufman and Ferber’s superb wit isn’t easy; Sheinkin’s accomplished it.

The original play and the musical have Julie apprehensive about the impending arrival of Gilbert, the lover she left 20 years ago to concentrate on her career. Since their parting, he’s become wildly wealthy from his emerald mines in Brazil. He once implored Julie to join him there in marriage, but The Theater came first. Now she’s not so sure she should have pleased her mother to keep the Cavendish name prominent in the theater.

So Julie says to her mother “I can’t go on for you,” to which Fanny retorts “Then how about for yourself?” Answers Julie, “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

That’s a fine turn of phrase – with “go on” in the first instance meaning “perform” and in the second meaning “continue with one’s life.”

Kaufman and Ferber had Fanny still believing that after three years of absence from the stage that she’d return – and go on tour, yet – although that could kill her. Sheinkin instead has Fanny retired – until she hears that Julie and Gwen are abandoning the stage. Then she decides that she must return to keep the Cavendish name in front of the public.

The threat of death is still there. Here Sheinkin has Fanny rebut with another good line: “What’s the point of extending life, Julie, if it’s to sit in a chair and pay doctor’s bills?”

The big change that Sheinkin, Finn and Greenberg made — which would seem an obvious one for a musical version — is that the Cavendishes are now a musical comedy family. That includes their poor (in both theatrical and economic status) relations, Kitty and Bert Dean.

Thus the Cavendish manse (nicely designed by Alexander Dodge) displays framed window cards from THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. In front of them we hear the brood croon Finn’s title song that includes “We sing the songs of Berlin and Kern, Gershwin and Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart.”

The original play asked for posters celebrating Shakespeare, Ibsen and Shaw – and that brings us to the problem. Although The Theater was considered The Highest Art Form back then, the branch of it known as musical comedy didn’t get the respect that was bestowed on Serious Dramas. Musical comedy, unlike today, was then the stepchild of The Thea-tuh.

So when the Cavendishes sing “We are the family that stands for Broadway,” that’s not accurate for a 1927 musical troupe. The actual Barrymores would have regarded these musical Cavendishes as “royal” as Kitty and Bert. The family that Kaufman and Ferber created would look down on anyone who performed in revues and musicals. Even song-and-dance men of the highest caliber wouldn’t dare get on such high horses and think themselves the royalty of the theater as these Cavendishes do.

The stage directions in the original play state that the set should include “a large oil portrait of the late Aubrey Cavendish in a celebrated role, bristling mustachios, romantic cape, high stick; silk and boots and swagger.”

So do the stage directions in the musical, so there’s that portrait hanging over John Rando’s nifty production. But those details suggest A Grand Man of the Theatre, not someone who might have appeared in A TRIP TO CHINATOWN or A YANKEE CIRCUS ON MARS. Both were indeed hits, but neither would have made an actor a Respected Theatrical Luminary.

Kaufman and Ferber described Fanny as “most distinguished,” “rather magnificent,” “all dignity” and “the greatest Lady Macbeth of her day.” Here a most accomplished Harriet Harris dons a straw hat, wields a cane and rips through Finn’s barnburner “Stupid Things I Won’t Do.” It’s a helluva number, but not for the grande dame, doyenne and dowager that she is when Sheinkin has her speak.

The production really can’t have it both ways, although Sheinkin tries by making Julie off-handedly mention that she’d appeared in OTHELLO. Really? Marilyn Miller – then the reigning Queen of Musical Comedy — wouldn’t have been courted for Desdemona and we doubt that Julie would have.

Aside from that nagging flaw, this is a solid musical. It basically opens with Julie (a seemingly bored Laura Michelle Kelly) performing in TICKLED PINK while we hear her internal thoughts about Gilbert. That the number is called “Listen to the Beat of Your Heart” nicely dovetails with what Julie feels in hers – the way all of us do when a former lover for whom we still have feelings reappears in our lives.

Also on stage is Gwen, who’s to step into her mother’s shoes and costumes next week when Julie goes off to do “a new Broadway musical that will change the world.” (In fact, the description that Julie will later give lets us see that it’s SHOW BOAT.) Gwen is, however, thinking of making a different decision from the one her mother made two decades earlier: Perry is the love of her life, and with him working days and her performing at nights, it wouldn’t be much of a marriage.

“They want pizzazz and all that jazz,” mourns Gwen. “I’m sick of being a Cavendish – I want to be a human being!” Actually, the way that Hayley Podschun archly overplays Gwen makes her not come across as a human being. She mugs so much that she seems more related to Kitty and Bert than to the Cavendishes.

Such an approach, though, is apt for Tony, and Will Swenson knows it. He’s terrifically amusing as the most egomaniacal member of the family. The character is so theatrical that you’d think that the Tony Award was named after him.

Even the way Swenson raises an eyebrow or splays his fingers displays the essence of flamboyance. His performance is so strong that you know it’s only a matter of time before the crowd bestows applause on one of his exits. And indeed the audience does.

In a sharp piece of wordplay, Sheinkin has him say “Please don’t toy with my affectations” which reveals that he’s very much aware of being over-the-top. That, however, is precisely the place where he wants to be.

Kathryn Fitzgerald and Arnie Burton amuse as Kitty and Bert, who are seen more than once lustfully embracing. Seeing a long-married couple still having the hots for each other is heartwarming, but such PDAs are there to make them look ridiculous. Some might find that funny, though.

But director John Rando, who keeps the show spinning like a determined top, has added some deft touches. When Tony and Bert hold their swords high and enact a duel, the diminutive Chip Zien (beautifully playing the Cavendishes’ manager) saunters underneath the two rapiers in order to go from one side of the stage to the other.

Finn, arguably the most prominent musical theater voice of his generation, until now has written contemporary scores. Here he had to create period music and wound up stretching himself quite well. There’s a tinge of ragtime, a snazzy Charleston and a title tune worth humming for days. And yet, he shouldn’t finish that one by putting the wrong stress on the final word. It’s not Broad-WAY, Bill, but BROAD-way.

There isn’t much opportunity for dance, so choreographer Joshua Bergasse gets in what he can. At one point, he has Tony and Julie sit on a piano bench and do a mini-kickline.

Bergasse does have something to do at the start of Act Two – irrelevant though the number may be. What IS it with this new practice of second-act openings that have nothing to do with the story? MATILDA, GROUNDHOG DAY and FROZEN each follow intermission with something inorganic to the action. Here it’s a scene from THE STRIKING VIKING, the musical that Kitty and Bert are doing.

It’s supposed to be one of those awful bombs at which we laugh, but, as usual in these cases, the authors go for overkill. Their stage directions say “As the curtain does not rise all the way, Bert must make his way under it to address the audience.” It’s one thing for Bert to be incompetent, but must the stagehands be tarred by his brush? Let the curtain rise to the top of the proscenium as professionals always do.

In the big finale, crowns are pulled out for everyone to wear. That would make more sense if the Cavendishes had done season after season of Shakespeare. To be fair, though, Broadway in the early 1900s played host to such musicals as KING CASEY, KING HIGHBALL and KING DODO, so maybe these Cavendishes would have crowns hanging around.

Scuttlebutt has it that Anne Kaufman Schneider, the heir to the George S. Kaufman empire, has had issues with this musical for some time, which has impeded its progress. Really, this musical doesn’t need to have anything to do with THE ROYAL FAMILY to succeed. Whether or not Julie or Gwen will continue in musicals in a song-and-dance obsessed clan is enough of a conflict. Let them be a less royal family and more a show-biz brood — and let them sing and dance the night away.