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The Summer It Rained Musicals

September 01, 1985|DAN SULLIVAN

Hot September. Like anxious farmers, we scan the sky. Where are the new musicals? Is Sondheim working on anything for next season? Does Hal Prince have a project? What's with the new Cy Coleman show? How long can the drought go on?

There's no telling. It's even possible that the great days of the American musical are over. However, no American theater person (or critic) seriously believes this. Andrew Lloyd Webber be damned--we invented the musical and we are going to keep on reinventing it. A couple of bad seasons doesn't make a Dust Bowl. The rain'll come down tomorrow. It's only a day away.

Meanwhile, revivals. We had three of them at the Music Center this summer. The first, "South Pacific," didn't provide the remembered magic, and plans for a Broadway transfer were scrapped. The second, "Sweet Charity," did so well that a Broadway transfer is almost certain. The third, "My One and Only," came to us from Broadway and caught on even more quickly than it had there.

Everybody's happy that the last two shows did so well, but some may ask: Isn't it unhealthy to keep trotting out yesterday's musicals instead of creating new ones? It would be, certainly, if this were truly an either/or situation. But new musicals do keep getting produced--"Grind," "Leader of the Pack," "Big River," "Tap Dance Kid" (due here in a few weeks). Unfortunately, most of them don't catch on. When strong new shows aren't coming down the pipeline, the revival process at least keeps the pumps turning.

It also reminds us that the American musical theater is old enough to have a repertory, just as opera does. Does anyone fault the New York City Opera for keeping "Tosca" in the repertory? What's desirable, surely, is a mix of original musicals and interesting revivals, of which "South Pacific" was not one. But our other two examples proved that a really well-conceived revival is in a sense a new show, combining the pleasures of discovery and rediscovery.

In "Sweet Charity," the discovery was Debbie Allen. The rediscovery was Bob Fosse.

Allen isn't exactly an unknown, Fosse hardly a back number. But her screen work didn't guarantee that she could carry off a big Broadway musical with the glee of a kid jumping rope after school. And the dark tone of his recent work ("Star 80," for instance) had allowed us to forget his sureness of touch when it came to providing pure musical-comedy razzle-dazzle. Fosse without guilt--how many years has it been?

In fact, this was an even lighter-hearted "Sweet Charity" than the original 1966 version. Gwen Verdon's Charity was lovable and funny and truer to the woman in the original movie, "Nights of Cabiria." But it really wasn't very funny when her men kept dumping her in Central Park Lake. She wasn't getting any younger; her attraction to these creeps was beginning to look like an addiction. The pathos played uneasily in a hard-edged production that seemed to be gibing at Charity for being such a sap.

Debbie Allen's Charity (coached by the generous Verdon) is younger and more resilient. "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," and she still might get it. So we can quit worrying about this girl's future and start enjoying the way she throws herself into her zany present, as when she has to hide all night in her favorite Italian movie star's closet. Allen's so thrilled at the proximity that she goes home on a cloud. All this and an autograph, too!

Verdon got laughs here, too, but one was aware of the point being made: poor woman, to settle for so little from life. Allen almost makes you envy Charity. This kid knows the secret of life: Go with the flow and keep hoping.

Purely through Allen's agency, then--Neil Simon's witty book is much as it was--the show cuts the last cord with Fellini and becomes a Broadway fairy tale, raunchier than "Guys and Dolls" but told with much the same mixture of toughness and innocence. Has anyone ever lost any sleep wondering what really happened to poor Miss Adelaide?

If it's a less "sensitive" approach, Allen's sweetness keeps it from being a vulgar one. And it kicks in with Cy Coleman's score and Fosse's choreography, neither of which hang back waiting to be noticed. This "Sweet Charity" comes on strong in every department, and the charge is terrific.

"My One and Only" is a much subtler revival. In fact it isn't a revival at all; it just feels that way. The songs are the real thing, all having been written for various Gershwin shows in the 1920s, especially the ones that starred the Astaires. But the book (by Peter Stone and Timothy Mayer) is a modern concoction, as if all those shows had been stirred into a kind of frappe and served over crushed ice.

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