September Songs, from Spies Both Real and Imagined by Matthew Murray

    Such Good Friends and Sympathy Jones

    Musical comedy is no longer making a comeback—it's returned in full force, but you don't have to go to Broadway (or spend Broadway ticket prices) to find it. The fourth-annual New YorK Musical Theatre Festival, which begins Monday and continues through October 7, is loaded with titles designed to engage your funny bone. But there are lots of different kinds of humor to be found, even with shows that are set in mid-20th-century New York. Here's a first look at two NYMF comedies that take place within the same city within about 10 years of each other, but take their entertainment in very different directions: Such Good Friends and Sympathy Jones.

    Noel Katz

    Good Night, Good Luck, Good Laughs

    In America in the 1950s, Communism and the blacklist were no laughing matters. But even during one of the most darkly serious eras in our country's history, people weren't always walking around like tear-stained zombies. Thanks to a new medium called television, and an impressive roster of writers and performers who are often revered still today, they found things to smile about.

    One suspects that audiences attending Such Good Friends will as well. This new musical by Noel Katz, brings together the classic opposing forces of theatre in telling a story about three friends—a comedienne, a director, and a writer—whose life is all comedy in front of the cameras, but skirting with tragedy off.

    But according to Katz, it all fits together. "The musicals I admire most—Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Gypsy—tell tragic tales with ample heaps of humor," he says. "Such Good Friends has the advantage of being about funny people who are in the business of making people laugh. At the first mention of the witch-hunt, their first reaction is to mock it, with a comedy song about all the behavior that can get you accused of being a red. This might be a defense mechanism, but they're still hysterical whether they're sad or happy, stressed or celebratory."

    Katz says he came up with the idea for the show because he felt that two comedy legends' fictionalized memories of the period left out some important things.

    "Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, dramatized their memories of what it was like to write for Sid Caesar in the early days of television," Katz explains. Brooks produced a film, My Favorite Year, in which a young writer's biggest problem is keeping an eye on a rum-sodden guest star. Simon's play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor has the writers dealing with the oversized ego of the show's star. And I'm thinking, 'Really? The biggest problem was some larger-than-life performer?'"

    Katz's own childhood also played into his inspiration. "Growing up, I remember my parents' friends and friends of friends referring to the same period as a time of scoundrels. When old friends are forced to rat out old friends, it's nobody's favorite year. It seemed a compelling story had been ignored, but how to tell it? For me, the key was remembering that all these characters are funny people, and they face a humorous task: putting on a live variety show in this brand-new medium of television. I pictured boom mikes accidentally knocking off people's hats; all the characters are somehow involved in putting on the television show-within-the-show, whether as performer, writer, choreographer, costumer, or the guy who keeps an eye on things for the sponsor.... Such Good Friends is a dramatic story told in classic musical comedy terms. The people are vaudevillians at heart, entertainers for a living, and so the sad stuff is interspersed with laughter at every turn."

    Katz didn't just draw from the great comedies and comics of the 1950s—masterful musical practitioners of the day were just as important. Though Katz has had 12 of his musicals produced (including Our Wedding, which was actually his wedding), and has written scores for a number of Second City (NY) improv-based reviews, his work in Such Good Friends was inspired by Broadway shows of the decade, too.

    "Such Good Friends has unfussy melodies with memorable hooks, titles that get used to good effect, and perfect rhyming," he says. "I'm somewhat of a stickler for getting the musical 'feel' right, and what you'll hear [in this show] might remind you of Broadway scores [like] Guys and Dolls, Call Me Madam, and Top Banana. I can't tell you how many times I've asked myself 'What would Jule Styne do?'"

    One imagines that Styne, whose musical comedies included titles like High Button Shoes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Bells Are Ringing, Do Re Mi, Funny Girl, and of Gypsy, would want a cast like the one that's been assembled for Such Good Friends, full of Broadway veterans who, Katz says, "always keep it real": Liz Larsen (A New Brain, The Most Happy Fella), Brad Oscar (The Producers), Jeff Talbott (Sly Fox, Lynne Wintersteller (Closer Than Ever, and Dirk Lumbard (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; Shannon O'Bryan, Joshua James Campbell, Blake Whyte (In Your Dreams), Laura Jordan, and Michael Thomas Holmes round out the company. Marc Bruni, currently the associate director of Legally Blonde on Broadway, will direct; Wendy Seyb (Walmartopia) will choreograph.

    How has Katz's work with them affected the show? Bruni, he says, has been especially helpful. "Our collaboration began the moment we met, in June. Every aspect of the script was examined, and together we came up with changes that would improve it, clarify it, keep the audience involved, and guessing. Our conversations are intricate, detailed, and long and focus on the audience experience at any given moment: What are they thinking? What are they expecting? What would strike them as obvious, funny, intriguing, surprising?"

    All of which, Katz says, has helped him maintain his vision of the show as a "serious musical comedy," with an emphasis on the latter: "The only thing that's important to me is for folks to have a good time," he says. "Such Good Friends isn't some weighty piece of political theatre; it's a musical comedy about lovable show business characters who find themselves in tough situations which lead them to do surprising things. If you love, as I do, the great shows of the '40s, '50s, and early '60s, [Such Good Friends] might get you to say 'You know, they do write 'em like they used to.'"

    Such Good Friends plays Friday, September 28, at 8:00PM; Saturday, September 29, at 1:00 PM; Sunday, September 30, at 4:30PM; Wednesday, October 3, at 4:30PM and 8:00PM; and Saturday, October 6, at 1:00PM at the Julia Miles Theatre (424 W. 55th Street in Manhattan). For more information, visit Such Good Friends on MySpace at www.myspace.com/suchgoodfriendsthemusical. To purchase tickets, click here.

    Masi Asare and Brooke Pierce

    Spy School Musical

    The action and intrigue film genres changed forever in 1962 when Dr. No introduced the quintessential secret agent to the world, a man by the name of Bond, James Bond. But while 007 could sling a firearm with the same suave manner he sucked down a martini, the women in his films weren't always so lucky—they were frequently reduced to set pieces whose curvaceousness seemed designed only to leave male moviegoers shaken and stirred.

    Not so with Sympathy Jones, the new spy musical by Masi Asare (music, lyrics, and concept) and Brooke Pierce (book) that tells an appropriately hard-boiled story in the same genre and in roughly the same early-60s period, but puts the woman in charge. Asare explains, "Sympathy is a secretary at a spy agency, and she wants to be a spy, but they won't promote her. [Even though] she's got self-designed martial-arts moves, she's turned down over and over again. [But] as chance would have it, a top secret file is left on her desk, so she borrows/steals that, and... that's the basic premise."

    Asare conceived the show during 2004–2005, her second year in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, when she needed an idea for her final project. "At the end of the year, there's sort of an audition for the advanced workshop. There's a lot of encouragement in general to adapt movies for the stage, but I've heard a lot of stories about people who worked really hard on a project and never got the rights, and I felt that if I'm going to put all this work in I want to make sure it's something that goes forward. So that's how this started, to work with a film genre that would have a commercial viability, but without having to hunt someone down and pay a lot of royalties to get rights for James Bond: The Musical, which no one wants to see anyway."

    That's where Pierce came in. A friend of hers contacted her to tell her about the show, Pierce and Asare met, and found they got along. Pierce "really, really helped," Asare says—she added a character and sharpened up some others, as well as the narrative. ("I didn't know what to do—I'm not a bookwriter," Asare admits.) The two had only worked together on the piece for about a month before it was time to present what they had of Sympathy Jones: the first 20 minutes.

    But that brief snippet was enough to convince the BMI folks that Asare should be in the advanced workshop—and to convince Asare and Pierce that they should explore the rest of the show together. "After we did the presentation, we went back to square one," Pierce says. "We worked on an outline and just kind of chugged ahead with the first act, and we did a reading of that first act [in the summer of 2006]. A version of [the second act] was finished by December."

    An application to NYMF turned out to be worthwhile; since they learned they'd been accepted, Asare and Pierce have been honing and polishing the script (which Pierce says is funny but "definitely not a spoof") and the score (which Asare describes as full of driving bass lines, and ranging in style from Shirley Bassey and Motown to jazz and contemporary musical theatre. Characters and plot twists have been added, but one major element is still the same from that summer 2006 workshop: Sympathy herself.

    She's played now, as then, by Kate Shindle, who was Miss America 1998, was seen on Broadway as replacements in Jekyll and Hyde and Cabaret, and is currently seen eight times a week at the Palace Theatre as snobbish romantic rival Vivienne Kensington in Legally Blonde. In fact, Asare and Pierce carefully planned out the Sympathy Jones performance schedule so Shindle would never have to miss Legally Blonde.

    Shindle and her castmates, who include Charlie Pollock (Urinetown), Jimmy Ray Bennett (The Nuclear Family), Thursday Farrar (Aida), and Jane Summerhays (The Wild Party) as the villainess Kitty Hawk, will have a lot to do in the production, which has been directed by Sarah Gurfield: There's dancing (courtesy of Christine O'Grady) and fight choreography by The Lady Cavaliers that result in some potentially exciting action sequences as Sympathy progresses from secretary to super spy.

    But while there's a lot of fighting, don't expect much shooting. "We've tried to keep gunplay out of the show," Pierce says. "We feel like, with a comedy, if you have guns onstage, it sort of saps the humor. And also we hope that the show has some family appeal. Like you don't have to be scared bringing a 10-year-old to it. It's more of a martial-arts style... There's nothing in this show you couldn't see on TV."

    Because there aren't many other spy musicals out there, so have a hard time comparing their show to many others. As they describe it, it's something of a cross between Hairspray, City of Angels, and Little Shop of Horrors. But in addition to being a potential first for the canon, it's also a first for both of them: Asare has collaborated on experimental and children's theatre and was involved with the nonprofit Raw Impressions, and Pierce has had a number of readings of her plays, but this is the first full-scale musical for both.

    "It's such a luxury to have this level of talent working on this first production," says Asare. "It's so overwhelming to hear these voices, this level of artistry. It's just encouraging for us, it's just a vote of confidence in the material. It sounds amazing."

    Sympathy Jonesplays Monday, September 24, at 8:00PM; Tuesday, September 25, at 1:00 PM; Thursday, September 27, at 1:00PM; Saturday, September 29, at 8:00PM; Monday, October 1, at 8:00 PM; and Thursday, October 4, at 4:30PM at the Julia Miles Theatre (424 W. 55th Street in Manhattan). For more information, visit www.sympathyjones.com. To purchase tickets, click here.

    Friday, September 14, 2007 at 7:00 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.