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Episode 45

PULLING IN DES DERRICK

After the Neverland Reading
Monday, December 7th
Drinks with Desmond Derrick.

"Ah, here you are. Sorry that took so long. I had to go over tomorrow's schedule with my PA."

Des, no problem. I'm just glad you could spare me a few hours tonight. Glenfiddich on the rocks, right?

"Perfect. How the devil did you know?"

I saw that Bravo documentary on you last month. How did they ever get you to agree to something like that?

"Sadly, they appealed to the old ego. I wish I hadn't done it, though."

Why?

"The camera crew seriously interfered with the work. Oh, the stuff they shot at the Met wasn't too much trouble. In fact, it actually helped a bit. When the cameras showed up, that damn Tenor actually started to remember his blocking and do a little more than walk through the rehearsal. The big problem was all those scenes and interviews they shot at the workshop rehearsals for Mack and Mabel. We only had two weeks to rehearse, and half of that was wasted in filming."

How did that workshop go?

"Surprisingly good, actually. Jerry's working on a couple of new songs, and if we can get the book in shape, it looks like a go for year after next."

I thought I heard next fall?

"I'm keeping next fall open for Wiseguys - if it materializes. Steve says it's pretty much complete. We may be doing something with it early spring, just to get a feel for all the changes. If it happens, I'll let you know and you can take a look and tell me what you think."

You doing direction and choreography again?

"Depends on the budget. I'd prefer not to. I'd like to pull in somebody like Stroman. It's that kind of show."

What will you be doing if Wiseguys isn't ready?

"Taking a well-deserved vacation. I've done nine shows in the last five years and I'm burnt."

So, you're not available for new projects?

"I take it you mean Neverland?"

Yes.

"I don't know. Are you offering it to me?"

I want to hear what you think about the material before we go there.

"Well, based on the reading I saw earlier this evening . . . "

Yes?

"You do have a show, or, at least, the bits and pieces of one."

But?

"The material is so . . . scattered. You've got a handful of good scenes and two or three good songs, but nothing ties it all together."

Remember, my partner put the reading together and he's not a director.

"Yes, yes, you told me that before. I'm talking about the material itself."

What do you think needs to be done with it?

"You've really only got two options. The first would be come up with, let's see - one, two, three, four . . . five . . . six - six killer songs to replace some of the book scenes, develop them into fairly splashy production numbers, and hope the critics and audience mistake the lack of a coherent story as some new innovation in the evolution of the American musical. That's worked at least once a season for the last several years. It's getting a bit tired, though, don't you think?"

And the other option?

"The traditional approach. Tighten up the book, tell most of the story through the songs, and hope for the best."

Which would you be most comfortable with?

"The traditional approach, of course. I don't have anything left to prove; I'm no longer willing to risk my career on material I recognize isn't as good as it can possibly be before I get involved."

Would you be willing to come in at this stage and supervise its development?

"I might be interested. But, if I did, I'd get authorship credit and extra royalty points, you know. Can you afford to do that?"

With this project that might be possible.

"If I did, would I have a clean slate or are you already contractually obligated to keep anything I saw tonight?"

Clean slate.

"What about the kid who read the lead? Billy
. . . something?"

Jonathan. Jonathan Frank. Billy Finn's the character.

"Your partner said Frank was locked in."

If at all possible, yes. But, no contract has been offered or signed yet. You don't think he's right for the part?

"Why was he smiling all the time?"

Smiling? I didn't notice.

"He was. You know, that big, wide-eyed smile you see all the time on amateurs. It's like they're standing there, begging you to like them. I find it incredibly annoying."

He's not an amateur. I can show you his resume. He does a lot of cabaret.

"That does explain a lot about his delivery. Did you tell him he was auditioning for a musical?"

Yes.

"Well, if he knew, then there's no excuse for it."

You don't think you could fix it?

"Experience tells me that any attempt to fix it in six weeks of rehearsal would be futile and doomed from the start. No good director can afford to take valuable and limited rehearsal time to teach an actor how to do his job. Even if I wanted to, there simply isn't time. That's why we hire people who already know what they're doing on stage. He's obviously spent years perfecting his light, breezy delivery. That's what he'll always fall back on. What makes you think he's right?"

In effect, Drema cast him before she died.

"Yes, I was going to tell you how sorry I was to hear of her passing. She cast him?"

Yes.

"That makes a difference."

How?

"When I was just starting out, she saved my ass more than a few times. I owed her an enormous debt. Her casting was always impeccable. Obviously, she saw something in him that I didn't see tonight."

You'd be willing to work with him?

"If he was Drema's choice . . . yes. Yes, I guess I could. Time permitting. No promises, though. He really doesn't strike me as having what it takes to carry a musical. But, first I'd need to meet with your partner to discuss the script. Nothing formal; just to see if we're on the same page about how it should be done. How about Friday?"

Could we make it next week?

"Of course. I'll have my PA call you tomorrow with my schedule and we'll set something up."

I appreciate that. I want to be present at the meeting, but I've got to run out to New Mexico for a couple of days.

"New Mexico? Got something in the works out there?"

No projects, if that's what you mean. I'm just looking for some answers.

"In New Mexico?"

It's a long story. I really don't want to go into it
. . . shit!

"What's the matter?"

Bob Fosse's heading over this way. It looks like he intends to join us.

"Bob Fosse? He's dead."

You don't know the half of it!

Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s by Ethan Mordden (the companion to Make Believe, Mordden's superior history of the Broadway musical in the 1920s) begins its survey of a seminal decade in American theater in 1950, when the Broadway musical method in which stars like Ethel Merman slogged it out show after show, formula after formula, success after success had run its course, sparking the need for innovation. It ends in 1959, after a decade of innovation had raised the musical to new heights - heights that the genre would not maintain in later decades. In between, Ethan Mordden paints a picture of the musical that is warm and sympathetic, even as it pours cold water on what the author considers the medium's excesses and failures. Mordden isn't shy about sharing his opinions. He links the legendary director George Abbott to the stagnation that set in during the early '50s: "He was a journeyman, not a visionary. He was very, very good at what he knew how to do, and, like all conservatives, never attempted to do anything else." Regarding Can Can he writes, "Clearly, what saved it at first was the score and the production; at length, its dippy book destroyed it." And, at odds with the millions who revere The Sound of Music, Mordden acknowledges its "slight but extremely tuneful score," concluding that the show has a "somewhat disappointing position in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon."

Mordden praises Guys and Dolls - "a classic" and My Fair Lady - "it's culturally imperative . . . capitalism at its best." Lenny Bernstein's Candide is the "uniquely influential title" of the 1950s, "perhaps the last crucial revolutionary development in the musical's history." All this praise is lovingly spelled out in chapters that dwell on the productions themselves in a chunky narrative cluttered with an insider's look behind the scenes.

Mordden clearly loves successes and failures alike, even such never-revived shows as the musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. His Broadway-centric perspective becomes tiresome, though, as he fails to connect Broadway with the larger social history of the time, cast more than a glance at the then-rising off-Broadway scene, or discuss at length the medium that dealt a crippling blow to Broadway - television. Indeed, Mordden leaves the theater only for quick runs to the newsstand or the record store (for the latest original cast album).

It is Mordden's analysis that the 1950s represents the fourth decade of the Broadway musical's golden age, and also the last. As Mordden ruefully notes in his concluding chapter, rock music would arrive shortly to displace Broadway as the primary source of the common coin of American popular music. But until then, the Broadway musical enjoyed a glorious ascendancy, buoyed by the freedom hurled into the form by Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose pervasive influence runs through both the book and the decade. As a result, the '50s was a period when "no one knew what the rules were any more'" and theatrical creators were able to experiment with darker materials, adapting such unlikely sources as Sean O'Casey (Juno) and Homer (The Golden Apple). The results weren't always sparkling, but Mordden grasps why the great ones worked and the lesser ones didn't. His analysis is always intelligent and well put. Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s forces readers to rethink much of what they know about the Broadway musical and to listen, and listen again, to their favorite soundtracks.

Coming Up Roses: The Broadway Musical in the 1950s
by Ethan Mordden
List Price $30.00
Oxford University Press
ISBN 0195117107


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