Project Blog: November 2, 2009

Bring Your Own Musical

Once upon a time deep in the heart of Greenwich Village, off the square but hard to miss, there was a piano bar, famed and faded. Eldorado. A perpetual green room, visited nightly by Broadway stars and showbiz wannabes. They dally and drink, chatter and sing, side by side with mere patrons that gawk and applaud, taking musical turns as secrets play out and the songs play on.

A tempting setup for Rod Serling and a weekly TZ, but it was instead the premise for an environmental musical workshop.

In 1985 I was invited by the long defunct Circle Rep Lab to collaborate on a musical, a virtual working piano bar where Eldorado came to vivid theatrical life, liquor included.

Inspired by an actual downtown bar of renown, the script asked that each song present biography, add commentary or serve up some irony to the scene. The score would also emulate a parade of recognizable Broadway songwriters. By the time we opened, Lee Goldsmith and I had sampled fictional shows by Cy Coleman, Harold Arlen, Schmidt & Jones, Gershwin, Lerner & Loewe, Charlie Strouse, Jerry Herman, Sondheim, Schwartz, Rodgers & Hart & Hammerstein, even a rousing gospel number so popular at the time (and still). It was a fruitcake of Broadway styles, packed with quotes and hints to offer the audience a kind of musical theatre scavenger hunt.

A large downtown rehearsal studio was converted into the functioning bar. I took on the role of the inevitable ever-present piano player. In the spirit of realism, the audience sat amongst the cast at tables and stools, placing drink orders, the action sometimes including them, dialogue overlapping and scenes ignoring or competing with songs in progress. Chaotic at times, but never dull.

Two songs I favored in the score were Sassafras Tea, a number suggestive of Harold Arlen, and Thou Shalt Not, a torch song sprinkled with Gershwin. Lee and I had originally written both specifically for the late Lynne Thigpen, who was to star in the play. When scheduling problems prevented Lynne from doing the show, Alison Bevan stepped in and completely reinvented these solos. At each performance she delivered a masterful performance of glamour and style.

Eldorado was a bold but unsuccessful experiment. But it wasn't often that Circle Rep was involved in musical theatre so we sold out our limited run, had a long waiting list and were seen by the crème. The mostly young cast was remarkable and reminded me as a theatre composer of the range of possibilities talented actors bring to new material. But after each show (often during), there was the inevitable audience head scratching: Can you do all that simultaneously?" "Don't you have to hear the lyrics?" "They were talking over each other!” “That girl can’t sing. Was she supposed to be good?” "It's too naturalistic; I didn't know when they were acting.” And my favorite: “You know who should write this show? Kander and Ebb!"