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Harvey Schmidt of the composing team Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt died Wednesday at his longtime home in Tomball, TX. He was 88. The duo created the longest-running musical in history, The Fantasticks, which ran 42 years Off Broadway and was revived Off Broadway in July 2006 – June 2017; the Broadway musicals 110 in the Shade, I Do, I Do, and Celebration, and Off Broadway’s Road Side.
Jones and Schmidt were inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1998. The composers have stars in the Lortel Theatre Off-Broadway Walk of Fame.
A memorial in New York is being planned.Remembering Harvey Schmidt – and Tom Jones, who recently turned 90:
The Fantasticks, the world's longest-running musical, is a show that all but the most hardened soul love. The story is schmaltzy - the ageless one about boy and girl fall in love/boy and girl fall out of love/boy and girl fall back in love. For over six decades Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's musical enthralled millions across the U.S. and in over 80 countries. It is also one of the world's most-honored musicals, with awards upon awards including, on home turf, the Obie and, in a rare recognition of an Off Broadway show, a 1992 Special Tony Award.In its initial Off Broadway run, "the little musical that endured," as it came to be called, racked up a record-shattering 17,162 performances [May 1960 - January, 2002].Songs "Soon It's Gonna Rain," "They Were You," "I Can See It," and especially "Try to Remember" have become theater and pop standards now known to generations. All these years later, as Jones once put it: “They still have the magical ability to soar.”
Their cleverly-rhyming opening number sung by Jerry Orbach in The Fantasticks, “Try to Remember,” has been recorded by hundreds, including by Ed Ames, Harry Belafonte, Perry Como, Placido Domingo, Eddie Fisher, Kingston Trio, Gladys Knight, Liza Minnelli, Roy Orbinson, Patti Page, and Barbra Streisand, and, among many others, Andy Williams. Ironically, considering the legend that's grown up around the show, it almost didn't happen.
Flashback to August, 1959: Tom Jones, Harvey Schmidt and Charles Word Baker [1923 – 1995; who went on to become a Broadway stage manager, do some “doctoring” on 1982’s cult hit Pump Boys and Dinettes, and a veteran stage/TV director] met as students at the University of Texas, where Jones and Schmidt were at work on a "unique new entertainment" for its time.A professor introduced Jones to Edmond Rostand's 1890 play Les Romaneques, a story of two fathers - next door neighbors - who concoct a feud to fool their romance-obsessed son and daughter into falling in love. "It had a profound effect on me," he says, "but I didn't think of it as a source of a musical. In fact, I'd never seen a musical, except in the movies. We did hundreds of plays in college, but not one musical. It was later, in graduate school, when I met Harvey and Word, that I began to discover musical theater."On their move to New York, while writing special material for revues, the duo decided to write a "fun musical." "I don't remember who suggested the Rostand piece," says Jones, "but we all agreed. Then Harvey and I got drafted."When they returned to civilian life, the duo continued working on their show, which championed such new ideas as an open stage. After another three years, they were about to throw in the towel when Baker suggested trying it out in summer stock.The Fantasticks, as they titled it, a one-act blithe spirit of a musical about love in all its gorgeous simplicity and heartbreaking complexities, would be on a triple bill in New York in Barnard College's summer festival. Taking the plot a bit further, Jones added the fathers arranging a fake abduction of the girl, Luisa, so that the boy, Matt, can gallop heroically to her rescue. “Regarding the title, Jones notes, “The fathers refer to Luisa and Matt as being ‘fantastic.’ I added the ‘k' to make it sound more mysterious."Its early inception was written in verse. At Bernard, they operated “on a less-than-shoestring budget. Schmidt, an accomplished illustrator, designed and executed the costumes in bare bones fashion. “Still they had color and sparkle,” he boasted. The "orchestra" was Schmidt playing piano. In a stroke of later genius, he added a harpist to accompany the songs [for most later productions, that was the instrumentation]. It was Jones' job to get producers uptown to see the show. Rehearsals ran smoothly until the dress. Susan Watson, playing Luisa, was recovering from a fall from the ladder that was the show's only scenery – except for the strolling players’ trunk, and strained her vocal chords. She could hardly manage a whisper. The choreographer stepped in to Watson's dances, and Schmidt sang her songs. It was some performance."We didn't know what else could go wrong," exclaims Jones.In one of those rare show business stories that change lives forever, a fledging producer, Lore Noto, accepted the invite. “Afterward,” said Schmidt, “he told us that he thought the show would be perfect for the booming world of off-beat Off-Broadway.”"Like all producers," recalled Schmidt, "he had some suggestions. They were minor. One was that the show be expanded to two acts. We couldn't help but love Lore when he told us that he'd produce the show only if we had total creative control."Jones and Schmidt were so broke, they held auditions in their Upper West Side apartment. "We couldn't afford a casting director," remembers Jones. "Hopefuls were lined up out the door and down four flights of stairs. I don't remember how Jerry [Orbach] heard about the show, but he came and sang and read. He was sensational."Then and there, the composers and Baker decided he'd be the perfect El Gallo and they went to tell him; but Orbach, late for another audition, had left to grab the subway. Related Schmidt, "We ran down the stairs, past the other waiting actors and caught him at the corner." As fate would have it, Orbach scored at the next audition and was offered a role in a new Broadway show. "At five times the salary Lore could pay!" said Schmidt.But, later stating he just had “this gut feeling about the musical,” Orbach chose The Fantasticks. The show he was up for closed out of town. The other members of the original cast were: Thomas Bruce, actually, Jones, as Henry and George Curley as Mortimer – the “strolling players”; Rita Gardner [the short-lived 1963 Pal Joey revival, and a noted Broadway stand-by; later, The Wedding Singer] as Luisa; William Larsen as Hucklebee [the girl's father]; Kenneth Nelson [later of Boys in the Band fame] as Matt; Richard Stauffer as the Mute; and Hugh Thomas as Bellomy. Jay Hampton had the role of the Handyman, which was eventually dispensed with.The performance space at the 150-seat Sullivan Street Playhouse in Greenwich was
only a little larger than a throw rug. The bare-bones set consisted of a piano at center, multi-colored streamers, a wooden “wall,” a bench, the strolling players’ trunk, and a cardboard moon hung on a pole. From inception, Jones and Schmidt thought their creation would be the perfect show for what was shaping up to be a unique decade. Maybe they were a bit ahead of their time. “Way ahead of our time,” laughed Jones. “Our opening was punctuated not only by the snores of sleeping audience members, but also by such comments as “I don't understand it!' and ‘What the hell was that?' And then came the reviews!""They weren't money notices," exclaimed Schmidt.Jones says they weren't that bad. For the most part, they were. So much so, that he spent the better part of the wee hours with an escape to Central Park, drinking heavily and throwing up. Then, as now, hopes were high for an excellent notice from the all- important Times reviewer; then the much-respected Brooks Atkinson, known to love innovative theater. He wrote: "Two acts are one too many to sustain the delightful tone of the first. [It's] the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures."The days after the opening were rocky. The Fantasticks appeared doomed.However, even critics puzzled by the musical praised the cast and Baker's staging. “We were up and running,” tendered Schmidt, “but it was far from ‘Hurrah.’ We couldn’t even fill 150 seats. We bled for nine weeks. It was a miracle Lore didn’t close the show." Claims Jones, "It was amazing that we had a second night, much less that we were able to run that first week with hardly any audience. What had we done wrong? What had we done right? Of the handful of people involved, no two of us remember it quite the same. That goes for Harvey and I, and we were there; and have been answering questions about it for over fifty years."Even at then-Off Broadway prices of $2.95, $3.95 and $4.95, Gardner says, "audiences were sparse. Sometimes we played to ten and twenty people. It got so bad that Lore suspended performances and took the show to East Hampton. We generated enough word of mouth there to assure some kind of life back on Sullivan Street."Thanks to excellent outer critics' reviews and word-of-mouth from the hipsters who
loved the show and, most importantly, the gradual exposure songs from the show received on TV, The Fantasticks went on to have quite a life. Indeed, by its third year it was an established hit, with avid fans returning again and again. It remained a must-see for years, was declared “a sleeper success” by Time, and proved very popular during the height of the Asian tourist invasion. Noto's 50 original investors received a 35% return on their $16,500 total investment. One investor only put in cash because he was guilt-ridden for sleeping through the dress rehearsal. A profitable snooze. Schmidt was later to say part of the show’s success was due to "the story being universal. It radiates a timeless sweetness and sunniness."As a result of his fantastic reviews, Orbach was Broadway-bound in 1961 as the lead in David Merrick's production of Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart’s Carnival, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion.
In 1986, The Fantasticks almost closed when Noto became ill. "When the closing notice was placed in the Times," reported Schmidt, "there were protests. Calls and letters poured in from around the world. We were saved when Lore's friend Don Thompson stepped in to take over until he recovered. Within a week, performances were sold out.”In addition to setting a world record in New York, The Fantasticks gave performances at the White House. According to Jones, the show was been seen by ten presidents. It also established record runs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and many other cities. It played London and was translated into over 20 languages. Four years after closing, Jones directed the 2006 revival [and often stepped into the cast, again, as Henry]. It starred Santino Fontana, Sara Jean Ford, and, as El Gallo, Burke Moses. “Except for a bit of political correctness to address some controversy over the usage of the word ‘rape,’” states Jones, “not much attempt was made to change the show. It was pretty much as it was when running Off Broadway for 42 years. The songs still had the magical ability to soar.”
Photos by Lapacazo Sandoval
The Oscars® are marking their 90th celebration which will air live on Sunday, March 4, on ABC. Producers Michael De Luca and Jennifer Todd return along with 10 key members of the production team.
“This team brings more than 90 years of combined Oscars telecast experience,” said De Luca and Todd. “Collaborating with them as we celebrate the 90th year of the Oscars is both fitting and thrilling.”
Academy governor Jeffrey Kurland, event producer Cheryl Cecchetto and master chef Wolfgang Puck return to create the Governors Ball, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ official post-Oscar celebration which immediately follows.
On March 1st the annual Governors Ball’s preview gives the media an opportunity to taste the food, wine, and spirits that will be served to the ball’s 1,500 invited guests which includes Oscar winners and nominees, show presenters and other telecast participants.
A showman himself, Puck will set the stage with a Governors Ball menu pairing Hollywood glamour with culinary whimsy. There are always new menu items but Puck’s signature dishes such as smoked salmon Oscars, chicken pot pie with shaved black truffles, and baked macaroni and cheese, will return, and having tasted them all, it’s a winning combination for the palette.
The pastry team offers innovative and playful desserts served at multiple dessert stations including the ultimate dessert buffet featuring Puck’s sought-after 24-karat-gold chocolate Oscars. Wolfgang Puck Catering team will direct more than 900 event staff through the evening’s intricately detailed logistics to deliver guests a true restaurant-style hospitality experience.
The Governors Ball will take place in the Ray Dolby Ballroom on the top level of the Hollywood & Highland Center immediately following the Oscar telecast.
This year’s best-original-song Academy Award category is absolutely packed with haunting melodies and invigorating performers making this section one the highlights of the live Academy Awards telecast. Nominated this year is Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez’s sweet lullaby Remember Me from “Coco”; Sufjan Stevens’s indie-folk song Mystery of Love from “Call Me by Your Name”; Mary J. Blige’s powerful R&B ballad Mighty River from “Mudbound;” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s uplifting pop song This Is Me from “The Greatest Showman”; and Diane Warren and Common’s soul anthem Stand Up for Something from “Marshall.”
According to several articles and social media, the paring of Diane Warren with Common began by chance on an airplane, where the iconic Warren sang the chorus of Stand Up for Something in Common. As reported the direct-to-the-point songstress said, “I never want to waste an opportunity,” and the 61-year-young Warren didn’t miss this opportunity to pair with 45-year-old Common.
Common credits his mother for planting the Oscar seed idea inside his creative and fertile mind. It’s an endearing quote and one that touched me deeply because my very own dear and departed mothers’ dream was that I cover the Oscars an event we both cherished during my childhood. The Oscars in a word was our “Superbowl” and a mother-and-daughter bonding event which formed some of my very best childhood memories.
Says Oscar winner Common: “My mother said to me, ‘You, a little black kid from the South Side of Chicago, you’re going to the Oscars . . . Think about that.’ I would never have thought.”
The year that he and John Legend took home an Oscar I was there front-and-center inside the winner's room where I asked both of them just what they loved about being storytellers. To listen to their answers you can go to YoutTube link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0e9QAtlLVE and fast forward to @5:41/10.13.
Please follow me @lapacazo and on Instagram.
The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre® at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and will be broadcast live on the ABC Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT and will be televised in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.
Olivier and Tony Award winner, “Disney princess,” recording artist, and international concert star Lea Salonga has returned to Broadway in the breathtakingly imaginative revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Once On This Island, set on a Caribbean island “at the mercy of the wind and sea” with the lure of tropical and voodoo rhythms..
Lea’s birthday on February 22 will mark 40 years in show business. In her return to Broadway in the one-act musical, based on a novel by Rosa Guy, which tells of the unbridled joy of first romance, hope and faith, and the inevitable broken heart. In addition to and myths, there’s a telling sub-plot on class bias. And there are gods: God of Water, Mother of the Earth, Demon of Death. Salonga makes an enviable transition from a poor villager named Erzulie to becoming the Goddess of Love.
Lead producer Ken Davenport notes, “Lea is a Disney princess and Tony and Olivier actress, not to mention an inspiration to people, especially young girls, around the world. Her voice is what love sounds like, so when [director] Michael [Arden] and I were looking for a Goddess of Love, we didn’t have to think too long. She is the perfect choice!” Arden first bonded with Salonga when they were cast in a concert of Ahrens/Flaherty’s Ragtime in 2013 at Alice Tully Hall.
Salonga has high praise for her co-stars, which include golden-voiced Tony-nominee Philip Boykin (Crown in 2012’s Porgy and Bess revival) and marvelous Kenita R. Miller [who become Ti Moune’s guardians]; and megabelter Alex Newell [Mother of the Earth].
In a casting coup, similar to Salonga’s, Hailey Kilgore, 18, as Ti Moune, the show’s lead, segues from a mere orphaned human [involved in a bittersweet love triangle] to a goddess. She was cast at the last minute right out of acting school after months of talent searching. “It’s a real Cinderella story,” states Lea. “She’s from Oregon, where Hailey did her first equity role at 12. It’s a thrill to watch her. She’s a raw talent with a terrific learning curve.”
Salonga says the composers’ musical deserves an intimate setting, “so Circle in the Square is ideal.” But don’t come expecting a copycat of the original. Except for new arrangements, there’s nothing that’ll remind you of it. “When you enter, you feel you’ve left New York City for the tropics. The design is a great way to tell this enchanting story. There’s a different rhythm with movement and dance from beginning to end and a beautiful visual language.” [The 1990 premiere Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizon moved to the Booth Theatre, where it ran 469 performances.]
Dane Laffrey’s set design is at once idyllic and stark. Audiences meet the cast as they recover from a hurricane. Tropical breeze sift across a lagoon. On the sandy beach, as tropical breezes drift across a lagoon, the islanders go about picking up their lives again. There’s a huge, defunct truck, fallen utility pole, an overturned boat, a hungry goat, storm debris of all kind.
Though you’d never know it from their sound, the show only has five band members. However, much of the music is provided by the cast, who pick up broken glass and items displaced by the storm and create instruments. You might also catch Salonga on percussion.
Lea explains that performing in the round delivers a new dimension to the story as the cast, often going into the audience, draw members into the story. But there are challenges: “You have to favor everybody 360 degrees. You can’t be still for too long or three-fourths of the audience won’t see you.”
Lighting for a show in the round can also be a challenge. To avoid light glaring into cast members faces as well as the audience, multiple award-winning lighting pros Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer have lighted with banks of overhead light grids.
Lea particularly enjoys the pre-show routine of the company onstage to clean up their ravaged town. “We’re all over passing the baton from one to the other. It’s serious, but we have fun -- especially when I spot people I know out there and get to play a little. It’s a great way to get rid of pre-show jitters.”
Stardom: From Manila to the West End and Broadway
At 17, Lea Salonga was plucked from hundreds of talented hopefuls auditioning for Cameron Mackintosh and director Nicholas Hytner for the coveted role of Vietnamese war orphan Kim in Claude-Michel Schónberg, Alain Boublil, and Richard Maltby Jr.’s Miss Saigon.
Lea could never forget her last call back in Manila when she sang again for Mackintosh, Hytner, Schónberg, and Boublil. How could she perceive what was about to transpire – and change her life forever? Arriving beautiful and calm, she casually asked Schónberg for his autograph on a promotion sheet from Les Misèrables. In a sheer moment of inevitability, no mere pianist accompanied her. As Schónberg played, the team hung over the piano on every word as if history was in the making. Salonga came prepared. She sang the poignant “Sun and Moon,” with the composer singing the role of Chris. It was magic. When she finished, they’d found their Kim.
She may have arrived an unknown to London but, “I was far from a greenhorn.” Lea had been performing since age seven, and had her first album at 10. "We peddled my music, going from music store to music store. It didn’t happen overnight. What does? Then, the orders were coming in – more than we ever imagined."
With best-selling records, she had the name recognition to host her own TV variety show, Love, Lea. She played concerts to Filipino fans on the West Coast. On home stages, she was cast in The King and I, the lead in Annie, and one of the tots in The Sound of Music. The shows were presented in English which, because of the World War II American occupation, has become the country’s second language [the first in urban areas, such as Manila].
In Miss Saigon, Salonga received her first kisses. “One of my Chrises said he had to have his lips replaced every week after I was done with him, but that’s not true. He exaggerates, but I admit that all my Chrises were good kissers.”
The show brought critical acclaim. Suddenly, she was “The Pride of the Philippines” and a national treasure. However, “nothing prepared me for overnight stardom. There was a lot of hard work, and pressure. What could compare to opening a major musical on London’s West End; then, performing before the Queen of England? But I was disciplined, thanks to the theater back home. The culture shock was the big thing. I had my Mom with me. Still, homesickness set in.”
Lea and co-star Jonathan Pryce captured Oliver Awards, “I never thought I’d win,” she states. “The competition was tough: Elaine Page and Judy Kuhn. I was a fan of both. It was a nail-biter. I was flabbergasted. It took days before it all set in. Heading to New York and Broadway, there was some fear. I’d heard stories of how fast-faced and notorious it could be. But the minute I stepped off the plane I knew it was where I belonged. I didn’t have a life, however. I did the show, took my bows, and went home to bed." More acclaim, and a Tony for her and Pryce followed.
Lea credits her mother Ligaya [Joy] for guiding her down the right career and life paths. "Mother never heard the word ‘impossible.’ She shaped my determination to succeed at what I wanted to do, and helped turn me into a strong-willed person. I believed I had talent, and was ready to go for it, but Mom kept telling me, ‘You’ve got to make sure you really have it.’"
Her parents, long separated, stressed the importance of education. "Mom told me it was something no one could take away, that it would shape the way I look at things. I also learned that intelligence wasn’t everything. If you want to succeed, preparation and perseverance are important."
After high school, she briefly attended college, studying pre-med. Before music became her main goal, Salonga wanted to be a dermatologist, which might account for her ageless beauty and flawless complexion. In 1991, People chose her as one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. In the Philippines, she was bestowed the rank of Commander, their highest civilian honor.
"I’m blessed," she said. "I’m Asian, but the youth gene runs in my family. I’m in a great business, doing what I love to do. It doesn’t feel like work, so there’s little stress. Travel can be drudgery, but that’s a fact of life in today’s world." She adds that she’s very faithful to a daily workout regime.
Following Broadway roles in Miss Saigon and Les Misèrables, Disney came calling. She did the vocals for Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and Mulan’s title character.
In addition to Lea and husband Robert Charles Chien’s magnificent home in Manila, the couple maintain a residence in New York.
Remembering her mother’s dictate, she took time off to continue her studies, tackling philosophy and European history at Fordham. However, she never stopped singing. She starred in the Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. She somehow found time to star in an Asian tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
In 2012, she co-starred at San Diego’s Old Globe in Allegiance, about the internment of Japanese Americans in 1941 following Pearl Harbor. It won local Best Musical honors, and broke box office records. She had a four-and-a-half month Broadway run. Lea returned to Manila to play Grizabella in Cats. Here, she’s done two sell-out engagements at posh Café Carlyle, sold out Town Hall, and had two engagements at 54 Below. More recently, back home, she did Fun Home.
Daughter Nicole, 11, may follow in Mama’s footsteps. Performing in school plays since age five, she’s a violinist in the school orchestra and under scholarship at Kids Act Philippines. She’s also appeared solo at some concerts. Recently, she wrapped playing Alice in the Manila production of Matilda. Lea not only took off six performances [announced well in advance] to be there but took to Twitter to congratulate her.
With her mentoring spot in the Philippines on The Voice, writing a newspaper column, concert schedule, and being a mom, how did she find time to return to Broadway in Once On This Island, where she’s set to play into June. “You carve out the time, especially when it’s something you want to do,” explains Salonga. “The show is a longtime favorite. When asked, I couldn’t see any way of passing the opportunity by.”
Here, with the weather changing from day to day, how does she stay healthy?
“You can try, but if there’re people in the cast or audience who’re sick, and there always are, with the all of us in close proximity, you’re bound to catch something. No matter how many multi-vitamins and Vitamin C I take, you’ll get sick. It happens when you’re fatigued and lack sleep. But she show must go on. I arrive at the theatre early, vocalize an hour, do make-up, and go out. When the adrenaline hits, you forget almost everything.”
Lea travels much of the year, and, when possible, has Nic along. “My goal is to be the best representative of my country as I can be. I stay out of trouble! Don’t think I don’t have fun, but I keep my nose clean.”
With all that travel, is it difficult to keep a marriage together? “It’s only difficult if the two of you have no idea what you’re in for. From the beginning, I’ve had nothing but Rob’s blessing and encouragement. He told me, ‘You’re in a position to inspire people. I’d never take that away from you.’ I married the right guy!”
Visit www.onceonthisisland.com for tickets and more information.
Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), one half of the Tony-winning Broadway composing team with Stephen Flaherty (music), who are celebrating their 35th
year of collaboration, delights in reminiscing about the origin of their 1990 musical Once On This Island, now back on Broadway at Circle in the Square in a jaw droppingly sumptuous staging that pumps new life – and magic – into an already exhilarating work. “It was May 1988 and Stephen and I had just completed the run of our first Off Broadway show at Playwrights Horizon, Lucky Stiff. It was an incredible experience, and we wanted to start another project right away. I went hunting for ideas in a Barnes & Noble. Back then, they had a used section. “My hand and eyes went right to a shelf with a thin volume with a colorful beach scene cover,” she continues. “It was titled My Love, My Love or the Peasant Girl [a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid] by Trinidadian 'writer of young adult fiction, Rosa Guy [pronounced “gee”]. I opened the book and started reading. It began ‘There is an island where rivers run deep, with the sea sparkling in the sun.’ I thought, ‘This sounds so musical.’” She bought the book for $1.50, went home, and read it “in one big gulp.” I quickly fell in love not only with the story, but also the novel’s language in the novel. It was so evocative and beautiful.” She hailed a cab to Flaherty’s apartment. When he opened the door, Ahrens said, “I’ve found our next musical.” “The music scene was jumping and there was a lot of music experimenting going on,” notes Flaherty. “I was inspired by Brazilian music, Paul Simon’s Graceland with its motifs of South African music, Caribbean beats. All sorts of music ran through my head. Our process was quite different from Lucky Stiff. It became a musical adventure. By using an array of world music elements, I embarked on creating a theater score unlike any I’d heard.”Once On This Island premiered in May 1990 at Playwrights and in October transferred to the intimate Booth on Broadway, one of the earliest shows to be performed without an intermission. It ran 13 months and just shy of 470 performances, starring LaChanze [in her third show and first lead role] and garnering her a Tony nod. Next, she had the lead in Ahrens and Flaherty’s Dessa Rose, co-starred with Once On This Island revival co-star Kenita R. Miller, at LCT’s Mitzi Newhouse.
When there was interest in reviving Once On This Island by lead producers Ken Davenport and Hunter Arnold, Ahrens and Flaherty met with director Michael Arden (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening). His idea was to do the show in the round.
“We thought, with storytelling often happening around a camp fire or with people gathered in rapt attention, that was an exciting idea,” explains Ahrens. “The show’s concept is telling stories to a little girl of how she came to be and how she evolves into a goddess.” Flaherty was poised to start all over with new orchestrations. AnnMarie Milazzo (Spring Awakening, Finding Neverland, If/Then) collaborated with original orchestrator, two-time Tony winner, Michael Starobin (If/Then, Next to Normal, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, My Favorite Year, Falsettos), age 90. In the original, Flaherty used “a lot of highly polished and glossy keyboards and synth. We wanted a grittier sound in line with Michael’s vision.” Milazzo and Starobin came up with the idea that much of the keyboard music could be done by the human voice. “That really upped the ante in terms of the actors’ participation.”
“Being in the round adds a fresh dimension,” explains Ahrens, “as audiences are drawn into the poignant story of first love and heartbreak and the importance of family amid voodoo, class bigotry, and the trees and wind creating the music of the competing powerful entities: Goddess of Love, Mother of the Earth, God of Water, and Demon of Death.”“Michael (Starobin),” recalls Flaherty, “had an offbeat idea. Much of the castoff debris could be made into musical instruments. There was something quite profound about creating something of beauty from trash (such as percussion instruments, a wind machine crafted from a trashed bicycle, a xylophone made from shards of glass, and an ocarina made from a bottle).” Music supervisor Chris Fenwich made good use of everything. In addition, he gets an amazingly full sound from his five-member band.The composers haven’t tampered with the musical’s themes, but that Ahrens tweaked her script. “In the original,” Flaherty notes, “the setting wasn’t a particular place, just a fictitious magical place. Michael wanted to bring in the roots of Haiti, especially in light of recent, destructive events.”
The composers consider Arden’s concept, the design by Dane Laffrey (Deaf West’s Spring Awakening; MTC’s Fool for Love revival; Drama Desk winner, Lighting Design, 2010 Off Broadway revival, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band), and the lighting by multiple Tony winners Julies Fisher [whose wife Graciela Daniele choreographed/directed the original Once On This Island] and Peggy Eisenhauer brilliant. The lighting becomes an effective co-star, creating different environments in nanoseconds – most stunningly, with the fade from the island’s sandy devastation to a stunning lit-by-candles palace ball with the island’s “grand homes” [aristocrats and landowners.] The Circle is a challenging venue to light. Standard grids would blind audiences on the four sides. Fisher and Eisenhauer installed overhead lighting, which solves that problem, and some non-intrusive side lighting.
The cast have bonded. Merle Dandridge, Quentin Earl Darrington, Alex Newell, and Tony and Olivier winner Lea Salonga are multi-talented performers declares Ahresn. “From our young Hailey Kilgore (Ti Moune, or little orphan) down to the swings, everyone’s wonderful and have some of the most amazing voices we’ve heard. The chemistry between Philip Boykin (Tony nominee, Porgy and Bess), who plays Tonton Julian, and Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie) is amazing.”
“Lynn’s mad about Philip,” kids Flaherty. However, it turns out to be true. Ahrens pushes back, “He’s magic, sunshine, hilarious, and so sweet and giving. And that voice! I’m in love with him. Don’t tell my husband, but if Philip wasn’t married, I’d get a divorce and marry him!”Flaherty says that finding Kilgore, all of 18 and a native of Happy Valley, Oregon, was a miracle. “Michael and Telsey + Company literally scoured the nation looking for our Ti Moune, who segues from a mere human and orphan to a goddess and gets involves in a bittersweet love triangle. Hundreds around the country audition, and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.”
“Hailey was recommended by a call from her music teacher,” states Ahrens. “She’s a beautiful, raw talent with a terrific learning curve. You’d think she’s been around for years, instead of just walking onto the theater scene.” “She’s an absolute natural,” Flaherty assures. “She was coming to go to school here. Telsey + Company reminded Michael if he wanted her, he had to let her know as she was about to the deposit down on her dorm.”“We wanted her!” the duo exclaim. “It was a wise decision,” stresses Flaherty. “She’s a trouper. She rehearsed like she was prepping for the Olympics. It’s quite an experience to see a young amateur balloon into a star right before your eyes.”During previews and going forward, Ahrens and Flaherty have seen something they’ve never seen before – “At least at any of our shows,” says Flaherty. “Audiences standing up after numbers in the middle of the show.”
Flaherty finds exciting “having the audience in the round to interface with the performers. The staging is immersive. It’s different every performance. It keeps the cast on their toes. There’re no wings. Once you’re out there, you’re out there.”
As the audience enters, they see water lapping onto a Caribbean island village shattered by the type of tempest wreaked by recent Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Peasants “with their brown skins,” amid displaced chickens and a goat, wade through sand and debris gathering what they can. Cast members do clean-up tasks and interact with audience members.
Ahrens: “That makes them part of the story. It’s important for them to get an understanding of who these characters are and what their arc is going to be.” Flaherty: “Michael didn’t want audiences to think they were entering a theatre. He wanted to feel they were entering the story, the island, its worldCamille A. Brown, making her Broadway debut, has created energetic choreographic movement throughout [often to the point of audiences being unaware] and African dance traditions that are true to time and place.
In these frigid temps, the one tropical place to be is at Once On This Island.
The only persons not thrilled with the show are those on the clean-up crew. There’s a ton of sand from the Jersey Shore, hauled in daily, with cast members traipsing through it and water, it creates muck that is spread everywhere. Then, audience members track it on the stairs.Was the original production ahead of its time? Is the message of race and tackling bigotry stronger now? “There’s never a bad time for good messages,” states Flaherty. “With what we’re experiencing today, it would seem to be a perfect time for Once On This Island to return.”“The message,” adds Ahrens, “is one of the reasons Michael [Arden] got interested. “America is divided right down the middle in terms of politics, beliefs, and what we hope for. Fortunately, for Stephen and I, Ken [Davenport] wanted to do another show with him. They’re a close-knit producer/director team.”
Kismet brought Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty together in 1982. He arrived from the Midwest and was accepted into BMI’s prestigious Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. She was an ad agency copywriter, jingle writer/singer and wrote for Disney’s TV series Schoolhouse Rock! She’s been nominated for four Emmys – winning the Outstanding Children's Informational/Instructional Programming Award for H.E.L.P – Dr. Henry’s Emergency Lessons for People (1979). Soon, she thought of writing for theater and was accepted into the BMI workshop.“My first session was like the song from South Pacific," she laughs, "‘You may see a stranger, across a crowded room and somehow you know.’ I liked what Stephen was presenting."Flaherty admired how quickly she got into the game. "Lynn was a very clever wordsmith," he recalls. "It really was like some enchanted evening. We became friends, seeing each other again and again and working together."Soon they were writing a musical. “One,” says Flaherty, “we thought had infinite possibilities,” adapted from the Peter Cook, Dudley Moore film Bedazzled (1967) [about a man who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for seven wishes, but still has trouble winning the girl of his dreams], However, notes Ahrens, "There were rights issues. We learned a good lesson.”
The score hasn’t been lost. In several club engagements, they’ve done tunes from the musical; and from their 2014 Kennedy Center production of Little Dancer, set against the harsh backstage world of the Paris Opera Ballet, where the ballerina posing for Edgar Degas’s sculpture suddenly becomes the world’s most famous dancer.Though Ahrens is happily married and Flaherty happily partnered, both agree that their long collaboration relationship has been nothing short of a mutual love affair. Collaborating for 35 years leads to more than just a working friendship. "We’re like brother and sister," states Ahrens. “And we’ve been known to fight like brothers and sisters! There’ve been times we wanted to throw objects at each other! Actually, we’re more than that, we love each other. We have separate lives, but we socialize, have taken trips together, and included each other in family events."He recounts Ahrens’ best and worst traits: "She’s tireless, always focused, always honing, polishing to make things better. She’s like a dog with a bone. Betty Comden said, ‘She takes her work seriously, but she doesn’t take herself as seriously.’ Lynn will be the first to have a good laugh. Her worst quality? Let me think on that. Maybe it’s when we hit a snag on a lyric and she won’t budge. Finally, I’ll say,. ‘We need to let go of that and move on.’"Ahrens hesitates to mention Flaherty’s best and worst traits. "He’s a wonderful person. As a composer, he has great flexibility of style and sensitivity to lyrics.” Then, she ribs him. “If there is a worst trait it’s how he falls madly in love with everything he writes, whether it works or not. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t." He attempts a weak smile.First and foremost, Ahrens says they always begin by talking. "We talk and talk – about what the characters are feeling, what the drama is, what the emotions are. Stephen’ll play a few notes. I’ll scribble something. Before you know it, something starts to gel. He’ll send a melody or I’ll send a lyric. I love it when he sends the music, because that’s where the emotion dwells and I can hear the characters singing."They’ve won eight Tony nominations and an Olivier for Best Musical for the original Once On This Island; Tony and Drama Desk Awards and received two Grammy nominations for Ragtime; Drama Desk and Grammy nominations for Seussical; and five Drama Desk nominations, including Best Musical, for LCT Off Broadway production of The Glorious Ones. They also received two Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and Gold Record status for their songs and score of the animated feature Anastasia, now expanded and a Broadway hit. And a not- so-good-time: the sadly short-lived musical adaptation of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, which has a book by the late Tony-winning Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Annie) [which was challengingly translated into German for its premiere].The duo’s Broadway and Off-Broadway credits include Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, A Man of No Importance; Dessa Rose (Drama Desk nomination); My Favorite Year; and Lucky Stiff (Washington area’s Helen Hayes Award, Best Musical).The composers are 2015 inductees into the Theater Hall of Fame. They’ve also co-chaired the Dramatists Guild Fellows program for emerging writers.Individually, Ahrens’ credits include co-book writer and lyrics for A Christmas Carol (10 years at Theater at Madison Square Garden) and the NBC Hallmark Hall of Fame TV adaptation. Flaherty has composed for symphonies and wrote the score for Loving Repeating: A Musical Of Gertrude Stein (Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical)Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty are still at it, with a long list of dream projects, "But,” says Flaherty, “Everything takes time, and there’s never enough of it.”
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