The Broadway Musicals of 1978 by Matthew Murray

    Last-minute cast substitutions might occasionally raise eyebrows. But at last night's "The Broadway Musicals of 1978," this season's final entry in Scott Siegel's Broadway by the Year series at Town Hall, the only thing raised was the level of excitement.

    Felicia Finley (currently being underutilized eight times a week in the Broadway production of The Wedding Singer) became ill yesterday afternoon and was thus unable to perform "Honeysuckle Rose" from Ain't Misbehavin' as originally scheduled. Her replacement: Mary Bond Davis, who creator-host Siegel explained had performed in the show on four continents. After strutting to stage center, with square shoulders and towering confidence that made her dwarf both the standing bass and its player (Tom Hubbard, of the omnipresent Ross Patterson's Little Big Band) she would be "playing" opposite, she brought down the house singing the gently spicy ballad -- unamplified, yet crystal clear -- as though it had been written just for her.

    While watching this miraculous mating of singer and song, one wasn't left so much wondering why Finley hadn't shown up, but why Davis hadn't been assigned the song in the first place. Sadly, in terms of the other questions raised by the concert, that one was miniscule in its importance. Better ones:

    * Why was a full third of the evening (eight songs out of 24) devoted to songs that had neither been written for the Broadway stage, nor written in 1978?

    * Why were there two dire numbers from the one-performance flop A Broadway Musical, one from the five-performance flop Angel, and five from the 24-performance flop Working, while no potentially more interesting songs from the 33-performance flop Platinum or the 48-performance flop King of Hearts?

    * Why did "special guest star" Carolee Carmello sing Ballroom's powerful anthem about settling, "Fifty Percent," when she's too young and luminous to convince us that she'd ever have to?

    * Why was the usually side-splitting Christine Pedi denied every opportunity to be funny by being assigned "It's an Art" (the repetitive waitress's quip from Working) and "I Rise Again" (from On the Twentieth Century), two songs for which she's far from ideally suited?

    * Why was Nancy Opel so uncomfortable with the lyrics to Working's "Just a Housewife" that she apparently had to read them from crib notes, and why did she belt her way through most of Twentieth Century's pseudo-operatic "Never"?

    * Why were Seán Martin Hingston and Joyce Chittick forced by director Bryan Batt and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler into a painfully unfunny faux-disco routine of Ballroom's "More of the Same" that made Chittick's "Steam Heat" from Kathleen Marshall's pathetic Pajama Game revival look like Balanchine?

    In fairness, a few vague highlights grabbed the attention in a more positive way: Davis and Tony winner Chuck Cooper singing "Ain't Misbehavin" (again unamplified) with a gloriously saucy back-and-forth that finished the first act on a hot note; if Noah Racey, returning to the stage following a devastating injury, did far too much inexplicable tapping to "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" from Ain't Misbehavin' at least he's always fun to watch; Opel, Pedi, Lari White (late of Ring of Fire), and Julie Garnyé stunned with their revolutionary "stand-and-sing" approach to "Hard Candy Christmas" from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; and Garnyé scored the show's sole pre-planned triumph with her titanic rendition of "Lullaby From Baby to Baby" from Elizabeth Swados's Runaways. And Siegel's always-wry commentary about the year, as well as certain surprise guests in the audience (the creative team of Whorehouse, Stephen Schwartz, and even Marge Champion), helped create a comfortable, familial atmosphere that made the evening as much about celebrating our recent heritage as other Broadway by the Year entries pay tribute to our more distant past.

    But with so much filler from the likes of Ain't Misbehavin' and Eubie!, that's more or less what The Broadway Musicals of 1978 felt like anyway. It never seemed that we were experiencing a cross-section of a unique year as much as being given a demonstration of what has led so many pundits to proclaim the death of the American musical. Still, there are worse things: An evening comprised solely of songs from A Broadway Musical springs immediately to mind.

    Tuesday, June 20, 2006 at 6:21 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    09/01/2008: By the Book

    06/27/2008: An Uncomfortable Visit to the Boundaries of Show Business

    05/29/2008: Revisiting Life on that Wicked—and Wonderful—Stage

    05/10/2008: Ticky Ticky Tock... Please Make it Stop!

    05/06/2008: Welcome Playbill Radio listeners!

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.