Few musicals head to Broadway with the pedigree and promise of The Bridges of Madison County: Music by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, which premiered at Lincoln Center Theatre), book by Marsha Norman (Tony winner for ‘night Mother and The Secret Garden), and directed by Bartlett Sher (South Pacific and many Metropolitan Opera productions). The show, based on a controversial best-seller of the same name by Robert James Waller, is currently having its pre-Broadway developmental performances through August 18 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It is a privilege to be in attendance at the birth of this musical. Many aspects of the show are going brilliantly. But many need further work.
For lovers of the American musical theatre there is no better reason for goose bumps than a large cast of energetic performers strutting toward the footlights singing the title song of Oklahoma!. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein set up this moment perfectly with a short, vocal solo followed by the full orchestra playing an eight note scale. Finally we hear the one-note crescendo and the familiar melody.
When a musical is given a revival it is usually because of the music, the dancing, the subject of the story or a singular character at which the most talented actor of the day can take a turn. Sometimes all four (think The King and I or Gypsy). In the case of Animal Crackers the 1928 musical, it is the three S’s: shtick, slapstick and silliness.
The “overture” to the Barrington Stage Company’s production of On the Town, the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical, wasn’t written by the composer. The honors belong to John Stafford Smith, who with later lyrics by Francis Scott Key, wrote “The Star Spangled Banner.”
It’s an unexpected way to begin this hilarious and horny show about three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City, but the anthem creates the context of the time. The show occurs during World War II and was premiered in December of 1944. The national anthem was played before every performance of On the Town’s initial Broadway run and is now a tradition with director John Rando’s productions.
The conductor’s arms froze mid-air. The musicians stopped playing. Stefan Asbury, leader of the Tanglewood Music Center conducting program, had stopped the class.
“They’re not together,” Asbury told Jonathan Berman, the student conductor. Berman gave a small nod. It wasn’t the response Asbury wanted.
“Do you want them to be together?” Asbury pressed, invoking a bit of tough love. This time a bigger nod from Berman.
In 1957 society could be cruel to those who were different. Cathy Whitaker, a young Connecticut housewife and mother of two, is different. When her friends sing of once-a-week sex with their husbands, she is silent. Her husband Frank is different; he is gay. When Cathy learns his truth, she seeks solace with her sympathetic gardener, Raymond, also different, a “Negro,” a “gardening Nat King Cole.” Her neighbors gossip with relish. When Raymond takes her to his neighborhood café where he thinks they will be safe, she is ostracized because there, as a white woman, she is different. Cathy is trapped in a conformist marriage with repression, denial and pretense her only defenses.
It felt so good to return to the tiny village of Anatevka – to be uplifted by the heart-warming, brave inhabitants of this Russian, turn-of-the century shtetl, the hometown of Fiddler on the Roof. We get to spend a few hours listening to their songs and stories, and when they are exiled, we once again weep. We miss them and their way of life even before the curtain comes down.
Thanks to the Barrington Stage of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and its wonderful, if not quite perfect, revival of Fiddler, we can revel in the glorious Bock and Harnick score, see Jerome Robbins’ imaginative staging and dances and share the lives of Tevye, the dairyman; Golde, his wife; and their five daughters, three of whom are of marriageable age. Living with the imminent threat of Russian pogroms and the coming revolution, they hang tight to their Jewish traditions.
They looked like a normal Broadway audience, these adults attending a matinee of Seminar. Then ten minutes into the play, when Alan Rickman, the star, made his entrance, they went berserk—screaming as if he were Professor Snape, his Harry Potter film character, instead of an actor on stage—and stopped the show in the middle of a tense scene.