What's New on the Rialto
Stephen Cole: Lyricist, Bookwriter, Juggler
Part TwoBy Rob Lester
Stephen Cole is surrounded by memories in his apartment as well, with mementoes of projects he's worked on and photos of colleagues as part of the decor. He's pleased with the new artwork for the Night of the Hunter poster that adorns a wall on the way to the living room. We agree that it captures the Gothic foreboding mood that's needed. There's a photo of Chita Rivera nearby, who starred in one of his projects, Casper, about the
There are several items around reminding us of Ethel Merman. He has helped keep her recordings and memory around via the Mermania! CDs he co-produced with Ken Bloom for Harbinger Records. Stephen's face lights up when asked to talk about the legend. "Dear Ethel!" he smiles. He tells me how he'd always loved her work and personality and had met her because word came to her that he had videos of her TV appearances that she never had and wanted to see. So she came over and that led to a friendship in the last years of her life. He looks at the street-facing window of his living room, where he's lived for years. "I remember the first time she came to visit and I looked out this window and saw her get out of a car and thought, 'It's really Ethel Merman in front of my door.'" Merman was not known for spending time chatting with her fans, but somehow the two hit it off. I notice a framed letter from her that ends 'P.S.: Sorry about the rice.'" He begins to laugh again. "We were eating and she spilled a bunch of rice on the floor and I came in the room and she was crawling around on her hands and knees, picking it up. I told her, 'You can't do that - you're Ethel Merman!!'"
Suddenly, he's quiet and takes a breath. "You know, there'll never be anyone like her. She was something." The only performer he ever thought might have been in her mold was the young Bette Midler. He remembers seeing her in an early TV appearance and thinking, "here's someone who could do all the early Merman roles. And she could have!" (Finally, in recent years, Midler did take on the Merman character in Gypsy for the TV version, but Stephen was thinking more along the lines of the more carefree breezy "dames" his friend played in shows like Red, Hot and Blue or Call Me Madam.
We chat for a while about her impact on musical theater and I wondered if he sometimes hears her voice when he's writing for female characters. "Well, maybe not for the elegant British lady in After the Fair!" he laughs heartily. "You know, Ethel was always just that gal from Astoria [Queens]. But, sure, I hear her. I mean, she is the quintessential Broadway voice. You know, the character of Jenny Grossinger I'm writing now has some Merman in her. "
Saturday Night at Grossinger's came back to the "front burner" of Stephen's projects when a production was mounted in January in Florida. One newspaper reviewer wrote of the "often witty and acrobatic lyrics." Stephen says, "It's the most 'musical comedy' show I have. It just came my way, and I happen to know the world of the Catskills" (having been to the hotels with music and "borscht belt" comedy while growing up). "I knew the world. I knew what [the show] needed to be. But my taste runs towards the more serious pieces. I find it astounding that, as a lyricist and bookwriter, my voice keeps changing. But it's so obvious to me: it's the characters!"
After Richardson passed away (the week The York Theatre did its "Musicals in Mufti" presentation of the Richardson/Kenward Elmslie work The Grass Harp), Stephen knew there were unused melodies around. "I just wrote a new song with Claibe after he'd been gone for two years. I went into the trunk." The Grossinger's musical was "around for twenty years. I've only been involved with it for ten." (Ronny Graham was the original lyricist, and some of his lyrics have been retained.) The long-incubating project is full of great old-fashioned humor and warmth in both book and lyrics. Here are some excerpts:
The pillows have mints
It's where the ladies wear mink
Stephen is open to all kinds of projects. Once upon a time he had a fully written musical adaptation of Ray Bradbury's The Electric Grandmother. Unfortunately, The Electric Grandmother lost power when Bradbury didn't agree to let them go ahead. But that's ancient history. He'd rather look ahead; when he looks back at the past it's more likely to be just to tweak some writing for a show's next mounting. To end with another lyric, one of Stephen's own favorites from After the Fair:
Letters to you
The guy has a way with words.
The musical thriller The Night of the Hunter with lyrics and book by Stephen Cole and music by Claibe Richardson returns to the stage as part of The New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). from September 26 through October 1 at 37 Arts, 450 West 37 Street. See www.nymf.org for details, schedule and tickets ($20). Song samples are there, too.
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