By Robert Heide
Two shows which recently opened on Broadway, Bandstand at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre at 242 West 45th Street and Anastasia at the Broadhurst Theatre at 235 West 44th Street, are just so-so. Both are around the corner from Hello Dolly! at 225 West 44th Street on Shubert Alley at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, where the incomparable Bette Midler as Dolly Gallagher Levi is drawing Broadway crowds like no show since Hamilton. With great songs by Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart, advance sales have exceeded $40 million; some say that the show might simply be called Hello Bette.
Bette lived for many years in the Village on Barrow Street where she still owns property; I remember her sweeping the sidewalk in leopard leotards and high-heeled shoes in the 1970s. That was around the time she performed her one-woman shows at the Palace Theatre and later starred in Clams on the Half Shell Revue. Those who saw these shows will never forget them. New Yorker critic Hilton Als cited the film The Rose—made shortly after her Broadway successes, where she played a singer modeled after Janis Joplin, opposite Fred Forrest as the love interest who couldn’t save her from self destruction—as one of the best movie moments of her career.
If I seem to be side-tracking, I am doing so only to describe the two so-so shows, Bandstand and Anastasia, around the corner from Dolly, both costing millions of dollars to put on. I wonder why or how such money was spent and why or how these shows ever made it to Broadway.
Recently, I saw an interview with composer Richard Rodgers from 1974 re-broadcasted on CUNY TV. He complained that nobody writes Broadway musical songs that audience members can hum or sing as they leave the theater anymore. Songwriters like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Arthur Schwartz, and others fostered by Tin Pan Alley, are largely responsible for what’s called the ‘American Songbook.’ For this, tune into Jonathan Schwartz’s (son of Arthur) music program on 93.9 FM Saturday nights from 8 p.m. to midnight or Sundays from noon to 4:00 p.m. Every Sunday you can also catch the Big Broadcast from 8:00 p.m. to midnight where host Rich Conaty plays 78 rpms of the 1920s and 1930s.
The sad news is that, when you buy tickets to Broadway musicals these days, there are few memorable songs. I would include the hit, super loud, and aggressive shows Kinky Boots and The Book of Mormon in this category.
This is also true of Anastasia, which is partly based on the film of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, and Helen Hayes. (Bergman won a Best Actress Oscar for the role.) The film also featured a beautiful popular song entitled Anastasia, which was recorded by several top artists. The problem with the story is that the film opens with the Princess, supposedly murdered in the Russian Revolution with the rest of her family, wandering the streets of Paris 20 years later in a state of amnesia. The entire first act is given to the Revolution and just getting the Princess to Paris with a pompous parade of the Czar’s family (mostly as ghosts) juxtaposed with dour scenes of Communist Russia. Act Two picks up with Anastasia finally in fashionable 1920s Paris. However, the hoards of unruly and very young people, apparently huge fans of the animated 1997 film, screamed and laughed throughout the show when I attended, completely shattering the writers’ good intentions of this latest and unnecessary incarnation of the mythological story (music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally).
Bandstand fares a little better. The singers and dancers are good looking and do well with their vocalizing, but to little avail; the music and songs often fall flat. The direction and dance routines by Andy Blankenbuehler, who choreographed for Hamilton, have main actors singing, dancing, and playing several instruments on stage, which ultimately wears them out, along with the audience. I kept thinking of a long-ago Broadway show called The 1940s Radio Hour incorporating actual hit songs of the 1940s era, the great Big Band music, some of it upbeat, some positively sentimental, all of it swell. It gave the bandleaders Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Sammy Kaye, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and vocalists Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Doris Day, and Peggy Lee their due. Everyone was, if not dancing, at least humming and singing the music as they left.
The Broadway Musical Trail—So-So Shows with One Exception
By Robert Heide