Musicals in Mufti
by Nancy Rosati
Missed Billion Dollar Baby on Broadway? Ever wonder what Rodgers and Hammerstein's Me & Juliet was about? Would you have liked to have seen Jane Powell on stage? If so, then there's a theatre company in New York you might find worth checking out.
The York Theatre Company began their Musicals in Mufti series in 1994. "Mufti" means "in street clothes, without the usual trappings." Janet Hayes Walker, founder of The York, wanted to produce little known Broadway musicals as staged concert performances. They focus on obscure works, which were not successful the first time out but deserve to have a second look. Both the City Center Encores! Series, which was founded the same year, and Musicals in Mufti provide audiences with glimpses into rarely performed shows. The difference appears to be that Mufti specifically targets shows which were unsuccessful during their runs, while Encores! frequently mounts productions of shows that were hits.
Performing in a Mufti show can be quite a challenge but several well known theatre names have been willing to give it a try. BD Wong, Mary Stout, Christopher Sieber, and Carol Woods have all appeared in recent productions. The cast list of 70 Girls 70 included Jane Powell, Charlotte Rae, Mimi Hines, Helen Gallagher, and Jane Connell.
Artistic Director James Morgan (left) selects shows that he has always loved and either wants to see again, or that he was unable to see on stage but he loved the score. Occasionally directors will present shows to him and their enthusiasm wins him over. At times, he'll find an actor who is perfect for a role and he will produce the show when they're available. Sometimes he's fascinated by the background of the shows, which he describes as "heart-breaking stories of horrible things that happened to potentially wonderful shows on the way to Broadway. It could be the wrong director, or the wrong series of directors. For example, Darling of the Day, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Yip Harburg, had four directors on the way to Broadway and four or five different book writers. That show ended up being a wonderful hit in the Mufti series because, with the permission of the estate, we put two songs back in and took two songs out. It was a big flop on Broadway... er... we don't use the f word' in the Mufti series. It was underappreciated."
There have been several shows that Jim would have loved to have done in full production, but expense is always a concern. Thirteen actors on Off Broadway contracts can add up to a significant amount, which is one reason few theatre companies are willing to take risks on these projects. Sometimes a Mufti show receives such positive acclaim that it moves to the main stage, which is what happened with A Doll's Life and Mata Hari. The recent productions of The Good Companions and Cyrano are now being considered for full productions at the York.
Mufti runs two sets of three staged readings every season, one set in the fall and one in the winter. Each show has its own director and musical director. Rehearsals begin Monday morning, continue through the week, and run for five performances beginning Friday night, with two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday. Actors have the chance to pick up a script and a tape a few days in advance, but for the most part, they are seeing the material and hearing the music for the first time on Monday morning. Each director approaches this concentrated rehearsal period in his or her own way, and in some cases the Friday night performance is the first time they have a full run-through. Performances are done with scripts in hand, in street clothes except for occasional costume pieces that suggest the character, and only the most necessary of props. Jim and the actors claim that each performance improves exponentially as they receive feedback from the audience, and the nuances in the material begin to make themselves known. There really isn't time in five days to delve into the book as much as they would like but Jim calls it a "terrifying but exciting" experience for the actors.
Actor Peter Flynn, who played De Guiche in last weekend's production of Cyrano, explains that he approaches a Mufti show somewhat differently than a reading for potential backers. With a Mufti show, the piece is finished and the book is set, as opposed to a work in progress. He knows there's going to be a public performance on Friday night. For those reasons, he spends as much time as he can learning the material so he can be off book as much as possible. According to Peter, "It takes a very responsible and creative director. Michael [Montel] is very efficient with his time and he's very clear about what he wants every step of the way." For Cyrano, Montel spent all of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday having the cast learn the music. On Wednesday they started a little bit of blocking, and then Thursday was devoted entirely to the blocking. On Friday morning they did it straight through without interruption for the first time.
After every matinee performance of a Mufti show, there are question and answer periods which allow the audience to learn more about the process and about the play itself. This past weekend, actress Leigh Beery, the original Roxanna in the 1973 Broadway production of Cyrano, was present in the audience and participated in the talkback. She described the rather painful process of starting out as a "play with music" in Boston, switching directors to the much flashier Michael Kidd, and leaving town with a show that actually lost some of its audience in the process. Actor Kenneth Kantor (pictured right), who played Ragueneau in the Mufti production, told how he was a student when Cyrano played Boston and he loved the production so much that he chose it as a case study. By the time it left town, he had attended 18 performances and seen three different actors playing De Guiche. Cyrano opened on Broadway on May 13, 1973. It closed after 49 performances but earned Christopher Plummer a Tony Award for the title role. There are very detailed notes in the program describing the history of the show and its run of bad luck. With the liner notes, the performance, and the talkback, audience members come away with a concentrated and thoroughly enjoyable education on the piece.
In explaining why some productions failed on Broadway, but then were successful in the Mufti series, Jim said, "It's because it's not all spelled out for you. The original play of Cyrano is so romantic, so flowery, so rich. Then you add music, which is all of those things as well, and you put in scenery and costumes that are all of that again, it almost becomes too much. People were saying how wonderful it was to have actors in their everyday clothes doing these beautiful words and beautiful music, without the rest of it being spelled out. Your imagination can supply it and it comes out differently to everyone. But you're there with the story and the text and the music. That's what the whole thing is about - trying to get to the essence of the original intent of the authors."
The last of this season's fall Mufti productions is Regina, which is based on The Little Foxes. It was originally done on Broadway, but after that almost exclusively by opera companies. Jim calls it "a cross between opera and musical theatre," similar to Sweeney Todd, Street Scene, and Carmen Jones. He describes director Jack Lee as being "particularly passionate about rescuing things that have been lumped into the opera world and bringing them back to the musical theatre world, where there's much more emphasis on acting and a little less emphasis on having the perfect vocal sound." Jack also directed the Mufti production of Carmen Jones last winter which was extremely successful. The cast features Tracey Moore as Regina Giddens, with Anne Bobby playing the role at matinee performances. Additional cast members are Steve Bedila, Connie Coit, Keith Crowninshield, Harry Danner, Susan Derry, J. Mark McVey, Brenda Pressley, Guy Stroman, and Glenn Turner.
In January, they're producing three Richard Rodgers musicals for the worldwide Centennial Celebration. There will be one by Rodgers and Hart (By Jupiter), one by Rodgers and Hammerstein (Me & Juliet) and one in which Richard Rodgers wrote both music and lyrics (Androcles & the Lion). The latter was written for TV in 1967 so the Mufti production will be the world stage premiere. Jim was quick to point out that it's not a children's show but a family musical with a book by Peter Stone, adapted from a George Bernard Shaw play.
What productions would Jim like to see in Mufti's future? The one he really would love to do is Carrie. He admires the score tremendously but feels it was a rather misguided production. He feels Seussical has potential because so many people felt it needed a smaller production. He believes he's found a director who's passionate about doing How Now, Dow Jones, which is a show he's always loved from the recording, so he's very excited about doing that. He'll continue the Mufti's mission to "bring Broadway's underappreciated treasures to life as staged concerts that allow the shows to be seen on their own merits."
Regina will be presented Friday, October 19 at 8:00 pm, Saturday at 2:30 and 8, and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30. All performances are at the Theatre at St. Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street. Call (212) 935-5820 for tickets.
The Good Companions Music by Andre Previn, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Book by Ronald Harwood
Cyrano Music by Michael J. Lewis, Lyrics by Anthony Burgess. Based on his translation of Rostand's novel
Regina by Marc Blitzstein, based on the play by Lillian Hellman
Celebration Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Baker Street Music & Lyrics by Marian Grudeff & Raymond Jessel, Book by Jerome Coopersmith
Carmen Jones Words by Oscar Hammerstein II, Music by Georges Bizet
Rex Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, Book by Sherman Yellen
Johnny Johnson Music by Kurt Weill, Book and Lyrics by Paul Green
Hallelujah, Baby! Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Kean Lyrics & Music by Robert Wright & George Forrest, Book by Peter Stone
Wish You Were Here Book by Arthur Kober & Joshua Logan, Music & Lyrics by Harold Rome
70, Girls, 70 Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Book by David Thompson & Norman L. Martin
The Girl Who Came to Supper Music & Lyrics by Noël Coward, Book by Harry Kurnitz
Destry Rides Again Music & Lyrics by Harold Rome, Book by Leonard Gershe
Beggar's Holiday Written by Dale Wasserman, Music by Duke Ellington, Lyrics by John Latouche & Dale Wasserman
Darling of the Day Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg, Book by Nunnally Johnson, Book Revisions by Erik Haagensen
Kelly Book & Lyrics by Eddie Lawrence, Music by Moose Charlap
Billion Dollar Baby Book & Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Music by Morton Gould
Fade Out--Fade In Book & Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Music by Jule Styne
Her First Roman Ervin Drake's Musicalization of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra
The Human Comedy Music by Galt MacDermot, Libretto by William Dumaresq
Harrigan n' Hart Book by Michael Stewart, Lyrics by Peter Walker, Music by Max Showalter
Carmelina Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, Music by Burton Lane, Book by Alan Jay Lerner & Joseph Stein, Additional lyrics by Barry Harman
Oh, Captain! Book by Al Morgan & Jose Ferrer, Music & Lyrics by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans
Onward Victoria Book & Lyrics by Charlotte Anker & Irene Rosenberg, Music by Keith Herrmann
Mata Hari Music by Edward Thomas, Lyrics by Martin Charnin, Book by Jerome Coopersmith
Golden Boy Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Lee Adams, Book by Leslie Lee
The Grass Harp Music by Claibe Richardson, Book & Lyrics by Kenward Elmslie
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