What better way to open The Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre) than with a wild party? Michael John LaChiusa’s musical takes on Joseph Moncure March’s 1920s poem and paints an unglamorous picture of the dissolute decade with a cast of unsympathetic and pitiless characters. Guys and Dolls it ain’t!
Lush romantic stories are bread and butter to composer/lyricist Maury Yeston, and he writes scores to match. His elegiac music conjures time and place and whether the place is the doomed Titanic ocean liner or Grand Hotel Berlin 1928, the first half of the 20th century seems to be his preferred time.
With its stellar writing team – music and lyrics Burt Bacharach and Hal David, book Neil Simon (based on Billy Wilder’s screenplay for hit comedy The Apartment) – this musical set in early 60s New York is as lovable and eager to be loved as any pedigree pup. It boasts a hero of self-deprecating charm in Chuck Baxter, insurance company junior and wannabe executive dining room key holder. Happily for Chuck, he already holds the keys to a Manhattan studio apartment, discreet walking distance from the office. Jaded middle-aged senior executives aspire to these keys to happiness in their turn for the odd hour’s dalliance with their very personal assistants before they go home to their wives. Chuck seems to hold the keys to his own advancement – the promises are the promotion his superiors offer in return.
Jason Robert Brown’s poignant, semi-autobiographical journey through a relationship, from heady first meeting to marriage and then downhill to disillusion and divorce, is an intimate chamber piece with just two protagonists: Cathy and Jamie. She is a struggling actress, he is a young Jewish writer on the cusp of success.
At this time of post-Brexit xenophobia and with refugees in crisis, Ragtime’s dramatic account of the hardships and hatred faced by early 20th-century immigrants to America is all too timely.
Terrence McNally’s book works seamlessly with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics to bring EL Doctorow’s 1975 novel to the stage. The story revolves around the interaction of three families: well-established WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) Mother, Father and their Little Boy, with Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother; ragtime piano-playing African American Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, the mother of his baby son; and Tateh (Yiddish for daddy), a young Jewish widower newly-arrived from Latvia with his daughter, as well as his hopes. “A Shtetl iz Amereke,” sings Gary Tushaw’s starry-eyed, sympathetic Tateh.
What’s the difference between a musical and an opera? One definition might be that in opera the drama is largely generated by the music, in a musical it is largely defined by the text. And of course there are the honourable blends exemplified by Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, adapted from Jewish writer Elmer Rice’s play.
Seeing Street Scene prompted Jason Loewith to attempt a similar musical adaptation based on Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine. Joshua Schmidt composed the music, as well as writing the libretto and book together with Loewith for a 2007 American opening.
Allegro is a curious musical. Released between 1945’s Carousel and South Pacific (1949), it goes some way to form the missing link in the canon of work by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s ground-breaking partnership. Theatrical ideas and innovative storytelling make Allegro a teasing and engaging watch, though it was ahead of its time; employing a Greek chorus to pass comment and an unfussy set to ensure the fluidity of its scenes.
Jack Rosenthal’s television play, originally transmitted in the BBC’s Play for Today in 1976, passed into folk legend, at least in the Jewish community. It told the simple but shocking story of young Eliot Green and his apprehensions over his forthcoming Bar Mitzvah and his worry that all the grown men in his life are somewhat immature and imperfect. In the meantime, the family goes through all the stock neuroses of putting on the then almost obligatory celebratory dinner dance.
Photo © Scott Rylander
In the mid-1970s Albert and David Maysles – first-generation sons of Jewish immigrants to the US from Eastern Europe – made Grey Gardens, one of their most famous films. The documentary told the story of a mother and daughter from the highest echelons of US Society, Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, who were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The two Bouvier Beale women were discovered living as reclusive social outcasts in Grey Gardens, a dilapidated mansion overrun by cats that was so squalid the Health Department deemed it “unfit for human habitation”.