Most of the time when people speak of The Golden Age of the Broadway Musical, they start with OKLAHOMA! in 1943 and stop in 1964 with FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.
In his dynamic show UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Ron Fassler proved that that end-date is a tad premature.
There were still many glorious musicals a few years after that, so Fassler emceed an evening devoted to them as well as his theatergoing childhood. From late 1967 to early 1973, he saved his pennies from his paperboy route to buy last-row balcony Broadway tickets.
Fassler wrote about them in his 2017 tome UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS: A HISTORICAL MEMOIR OF BROADWAY; then on January 5th, he enlisted a terrific cast to do some of the era’s greatest hit songs from its greatest hit shows – with one detour into flop territory. (More on that later.)
Actually, Fassler started the evening with a song that came before his theatergoing time. He completely rewrote Lee Adams’ lyrics to “Once Upon a Time” from ALL-AMERICAN; the new ones described his boyhood hobby of 200 almost-consecutive weeks of Saturday matinees.
Fassler added that, thanks to Tony Bennett’s recording, “Once Upon a Time” became a gold record. However, that wasn’t due to this song, but the one on the flip side: “(I Left My Heart) in San Francisco.”
What an irony that Fassler next introduced “Think How It’s Gonna Be” from APPLAUSE. Would he tell the story that when the show was trying out in Baltimore, Len Cariou’s first song was “It Was Always You,” an up-tempo tune that didn’t please director-choreographer Ron Field? “Write a ballad!” he told composer Charles Strouse, who replied that soft songs weren’t his strong suit and the only good one he’d ever written was “Once Upon a Time.” Said Field, “Then write that one backwards!” And Strouse pretty much complied, which resulted in this song that Kevin Chamberlin did admirably.
Herschel Bernardi originated the title character in ZORBA, and nearly 50 years later, his son Michael reprised it and did his daddy proud. Zorba is of course Greek, and in “The First Time” he tells of meeting a foreigner: “I could tell he was a Turk, but I liked him, anyway.” It’s the same message delivered eight times a week at THE BAND’S VISIT: two countries’ worth of citizens can hate each other, but when people meet on a one-on-one basis, they find they have so much in common, it’s a phenomenon.
All right, some of the shows did occur during that 1943-1964 time-frame. LOST IN THE STARS debuted in 1949, but Fassler saw the 1972 revival. It was short-lived, but attendees here will long remember Elmore James’ rendition of the title song. What a basso muy profundo!
Fassler also did catch-up with some early ‘60s holdovers. Although he did see FIDDLER late in its run and didn’t see Harry Goz sing “When Messiah Comes” – you had to see the Detroit tryout in the summer of ’64 to have witnessed it – Fassler certainly discovered it.
If you don’t know it, you probably think from the title that it was replaced by “Sabbath Prayer,” for the title sounds equally reverential. Hardly; it’s a song that is hilarious in its early sections and then becomes poignant in the final ones. Fassler maneuvered easily from one mood to the other.
I was thrilled to see Debbie Gravitte on hand to sing “If He Walked into My Life” from MAME. Although I’ve seen nearly 90% of the Broadway musicals of the last half-century and more, there has only been ONE time when I genuinely saw a performer Stop the Show: November 10, 1980 at the first preview of PERFECTLY FRANK, for after the then-Debbie-Shapiro did “Junkman” and left the stage, we applauded for s-o-o long that she had to come back about a half-minute later and take a bow while we were still wildly clapping our hands. And THAT, my friends, is what stopping the show REALLY is.
Gravitte hasn’t lost a thing and delivered a knockout rendition of the song in which a woman expresses her doubts on how she’d raised the little boy in her charge. But we’d learned three songs earlier that Gravitte must have been a wonderful mother, for son Sam Gravitte did equally superbly with another Jerry Herman hit: “Before the Parade Passes By.” Many of the women who’ve done it in HELLO, DOLLY! haven’t had the greatest voices, so hearing what Ethan Mordden calls “A Big Lady number” done by a Big Man was thrilling.
Sam Gravitte also duetted with the charming Alexander Fassler Burrus – yes, Ron’s niece – on “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” from PROMISES, PROMISES. Fassler related that this was written in Boston when producer David Merrick demanded a new song from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David team. Although Bacharach had pneumonia, the two came up with the song that became the show’s biggest hit. Fassler surmised that Bacharach’s ailment might well have been responsible for the word “pneumonia” becoming part of the lyric.
Here’s betting that when Fassler introduced Stephen Bogardus and said he’d do a song from COMPANY that most if not all of us assumed it would be “Being Alive.” Surprise: “Someone Is Waiting” was Bogardus’ choice, and a splendid one it was, fitting Bogardus and his tender-but-potent voice quite beautifully.
When you think of how many writers have penned easy-to-write, virtual stream-of-consciousness List Songs (“You’re the Top” and “Just Leave Everything to Me” come to mind), Sondheim of course had more on his mind: Sarah, Susan, Jenny, Amy and Joanne were mentioned to make a definite point: Bobby wanted an amalgam of these five women in his Dream Girl.
Then came the song from the flop: Bernardi, along with Justin Baret, Michael Caizzi and Matt Kurzyniec did “Foresight” from GANTRY. It not only had a notorious single-performance run but was also the final tenant of The George Abbott Theatre which was soon razed.
To be frank, the song was rather generic in both music and lyrics. Of the 10,000 or so songs I’ve heard from Broadway musicals, I’d rank it about 5,036th. Although Fassler obviously has a fondness for it – well, he saw the show and I didn’t — it didn’t suggest that GANTRY was a particular lost gem.
(Nothing against the foursome who did “Foresight” — a soft-shoe that allowed them to add some fun-filled musical staging.)
The evening came to a dynamic close by having Anita Gillette, Broadway’s first good Sally Bowles, do a CABARET medley of “Don’t Tell Mama” and the title tune. (The former song, which includes the word “nightclub” in its lyrics, actually inspired one eight blocks away that’s been around for the last 35 years.)
The sass, verve and voice that Gillette gave the songs belied that she first sang them nearly a half-century ago. It’s not that the years “melted away,” as the cliché goes; they simply disappeared as if they had never invaded her face, body or pipes.
Luckily, the vast majority of these songs and shows featured in UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS haven’t faded, either. How nice that Ron Fassler reminded us of them.